HOUSTON—While Robert S. Sloan said same-sex marriage is certainly not a civil rights issue, the Houston Baptist University President barely batted an eye when Sen. Ted Cruz, the junior Republican from Texas, speaking at a “Faith and Freedom in the Public Square” forum at HBU May 2, said “school choice” is the civil rights issue of the 21st century.
The conservative politician and the university president met to discuss a wide range of issues including religious liberty, immigration, same-sex marriage, and the state of education in America with World News Group’s editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky, who asked an array of questions before a packed audience of nearly 1,200 in the Morris Cultural Arts Center.
Mostly directing questions to Sloan and Cruz, who is a member of Houston’s First Baptist Church, Olasky often shared his own thoughts in a 50-minute session that frequently erupted in laughter and applause.
Warren Cole Smith, vice-president of World News, shaped questions from a social media feed and directed them to the three men for a 30-minute session at the end.
Sloan rejected same-sex marriage as a civil rights issue on equal footing with the civil rights of African Americans—a question Smith posed.
“It’s simply not ethnicity (or) skin color,” Sloan said. “Same-sex behavior is different. Any sexual experience celebrated outside the confines of marriage is a ‘denigration of this great gift of God,’” Sloan said.
Olasky, in asking Cruz a question about education, asserted that Texas as a “red state” doesn’t have much by way of school choice.
“I think it is an absolute outrage,” Cruz said. “I think school choice is the civil rights issue of the 21st century and I think we need to have real passion for kids who are trapped right now in failing schools. Education is foundational to opening up opportunities to having a chance at the American dream.”
Cruz said as far as school choice, there is “political failure” on both sides of the issue, and instead there needs to be passionate people who are willing to speak for the kids.
“What choice is all about is to being willing to give low income kids the same opportunities the middle class and rich kids have always had,” Cruz said.
Answering a slightly different question, Sloan said university tuition has become inflated as a result of teacher tenure and government money. There is “increased inefficiency where government money is given,” he said.
On the challenge of HBU becoming a place of “religious faith” with some things unquestioned, but also a place of “open-ended inquiry,” Olasky noted a natural tension.
“I think it is in the nature of the Christian faith that we hold both of those in tension,” Sloan said. “In the first place we have a great confession of Jesus Christ as Lord over all things visible and invisible.”
In making a confession of faith, a person “simultaneously” asserts and confesses, he said, describing it as a confession that assumes man’s sinfulness and comes with humility. “So the very presupposition that he is Lord is that we are not. And so we humble ourselves,” he said, by listening to God.
“All truth is God’s truth. I’ve got to be open to it.”
Responding to Olasky’s query about the role of religion in college, Cruz said there is good news in looking at the American people and bad news in higher education.
“Much of the academy has been captured by the far left and there is this orthodox teaching that is secular in nature that teaches one particular worldview and that does not permit debate,” Cruz said.
Noting a commencement service in which he participated at the University of California at Berkeley a few years ago, Cruz said students tried hard to be rude, even when they were amused by his jokes. He reminded those students if they wanted to change the world it would be helpful to understand the views of those on the other side.
“So often in public debate, those on the other side are caricatured as either stupid or evil,” he said.
Olasky agreed, remembering a time a group of protesting students wore T-shirts with conflicting messages on either side.
“That sounds a bit like the U.S. Senate,” Cruz quipped.
Describing the U.S. Senate Dining Room like a “Mean Girls” movie, Olasky asked Cruz if he had made any unnecessary enemies.
Cruz said his primary focus is not on Washington, D.C., but on the job he was elected to, representing 26 million Texans. “We have got enormous challenges in this state. We are facing fiscal economic challenges; we are facing stagnant growth. We are facing an administration that is consistently infringing on the constitutional rights of Americans,” he said.
Olasky asked Sloan about decisions he made at Baylor University, where he served as president for 10 years prior to coming to HBU and if the changes made were necessary.
“I’m certain there had to be some unnecessary enemies because I am a fallen creature,” Sloan said. “I look back on any experience in life and I assure you I’ve made many mistakes. I failed to understand appropriately, failed to communicate well. I think the best thing to do is to acknowledge mistakes you made and to go on—ask the Lord’s forgiveness, ask other people’s forgiveness and do the best you possibly can.”
With acknowledgement that “we live in a Freudian age,” Sloan said there is a lot of time spent in introspection and Christians should have humility, but also a certain courage. “We ought to say, ‘Here look—this is what I believe.’ I don’t want to have to apologize for what I believe. I want to live with integrity and faithfulness and collegially bring people along.”
Deflecting another question about mistakes at Baylor, Sloan told Olasky: “I am much more concerned thinking about what Houston Baptist University should be. I’m committed to Christian higher education. I think the country needs institutions that are unapologetically committed to Christ; they are committed to academic excellence; that have a deep sense of free inquiry. They are not afraid of the truth. [They] are not just hunkered-down regional religious schools, but are also not private schools that are so worried about prestige and image that they leave their heritage of their faith and religion.”
Continuing after sustained applause, Sloan said: “I think that faith and academic excellence are not a zero sum game. … I think if we are committed to a God of all truth, that the Christian faith is not something to fear, that we can ask any question, that we not fear any question … and so we want here to have a faculty that are excellent, that are committed to Christ, that do research, that teach, and by the way, not only do they write books and do blogs, but we play NCAA Division I football.”
The university experience plays a large part in the lives of the mostly 18 to 22-year-olds who look at the practices and behaviors modeled all around them—“and we have refugees from the 1960s who are standing up as professors,” Sloan said.
After a long silence following a question about the biggest mistake he has made in the past 16 months on the job, Cruz said it could be that he hadn’t persuaded his colleagues to his point of view on issues.
Olasky asked Cruz and Sloan to predict what they would do if they were to switch roles.
Sloan said he wouldn’t necessarily create any new laws because the problem is not enough laws, but that the laws are not enforced. “I think I would try and pursue not more laws, but transparency in the ways things are practiced. I think when the light shines on unconstitutional or illegal practices and you just sort of hold them up you can make a real difference. Whatever senators can do, promote hearings, founding principles, making sure textbooks are honest about our history, there are many practices I would try and promote to protect religious freedom.”
Citing Obamacare, Sloan said it is “absolutely unconscionable. It is against our religious liberty and is a violation of those things that we hold most dear” to force the school to provide abortion-inducing drugs through its insurance company.
“I guess our administration just thinks that our religious views don’t matter, or they are not sincerely held or that they define religion, or that they are the neutral ones and we are the sectarian ones,” Sloan said. “Again, how can you improve upon the fact that ‘Congress will make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion.’”
Cruz said if he were the university president, he would inculcate young people with a focus on the understanding of the principles on which this country was built. Free market principles—the free enterprise system and religious liberty.
Counting religious liberty as the “first and foremost of the ‘extraordinary constitutional liberties reflected in the Bill of Rights’” and noting how the foundation protecting our individual liberties created the “most incredible nation in the history of the world,” Cruz said, “We can’t protect those principles if young people aren’t trained.”
Drawing on recent court decisions regarding homosexual activists embroiled in court activities with Christian cake decorators and photographers, Olasky asked how each one would proceed.
“I’m a lousy cook!” Cruz joked, before he said seriously, “Everyone has to reconcile their faith.”
“In my own perspective, I am perfectly willing to interact with anyone,” Cruz said. Look, I work in the U.S. Congress. But at the same time I don’t think the law should be forcing Americans to be violating their religious faith.”
Sloan said he recognizes business owners who are “on the horn of a dilemma” in providing a same-sex marriage as a wedding photographer or baker. He would refuse to photograph a ceremony. Sloan said part of the problem lies in having to be licensed for those jobs. “Having a license should not cause you to violate your religious faith and if we have laws like that those laws ought to be opposed,” Sloan said.
Speaking transparently and truthfully about such topics comes at a cost, Sloan said. “Now if you speak to the topic and oppose same-sex marriage, you are a hater, a bigot and so on. The conversation has just shut down. There is no religious freedom. There is no freedom of speech. There is this immediate assumption that ‘the debate is over’ and therefore you have to be silent. Our culture has shifted. It is easy for us to bemoan the state of our culture. …”
Olasky credited liberal journalists for having been “very adept at finding highly sympathetic people who love each other and want to be together” to represent the cause of same-sex marriage. “And gee, who’s gonna be against that except someone who at least in the typical journalistic slant has some homophobia or something?”
Sloan recommended HBU’s apologetics program as a means of preparing students to defend their faith in the culture. Responding to a question about the growth of atheism, Sloan said he believes the growth of religious indifference exceeds any increase in atheism.
“We are made by God and there is a longing for God in the human heart,” he explained. “To be an atheist requires an extraordinary suspension of mind and will.”
With scholars like Lee Stroebel serving on the HBU apologetics faculty, Sloan said students are equipped to defend their faith. “It’s important for people to know what they believe and why they believe and how to articulate that.”
Olasky added, “The way to fight on that issue and on every other issue is to try and bring people as best we can with God’s grace to a deeper understanding of what the Bible says.”
Cruz expressed gratitude for the preparation he received as a student at Houston’s Second Baptist School. He told Sloan, “I am grateful for the work you do every day to train young people academically and strengthen their faith and strengthen their walk for Christ and strengthen their ability to stand and witness to others.”
The event was presented by the new Center for Law and Liberty at HBU and Hashtag Productions, along with World Magazine.