Emory University has a history of opening its doors to voices of faith strongly in favor of LGBT equality. Visiting professors like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and President Jimmy Carter have talked on campus about why they believe all should be treated as equal by the church. The university has also housed an LGBT Life office for over twenty years, and was the first in the South to offer same-sex partnership benefits. As Emory has evolved from a small Georgia college into a world-class university, they have been quick to point out their commitment to diversity and inclusion.
But now Emory is facing a bit of a problem with that image. Because this fall they have made the controversial decision to grant a Distinguished Alumni Award to the Rev. Dr. Eddie Fox. Dr. Fox is better known in United Methodist circles as the man most responsible for making sure that Methodist doctrine continues to state that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching”. Despite a strong push to acknowledge differences of opinion on the matter several years ago, Fox led a fight to retain the language that precludes the full inclusion of LGBT people in his church.
Which means that Emory is having a bit of a identity crisis. On the one hand, they are the incredibly diverse academic institution that was just ranked number twenty in the country by US News and World Report. And on the other hand, they are the school that is saying a man who has consistently tried to stand against LGBT inclusion is one of their most distinguished alumni.
To be fair, the award is being presented by the Candler School of Theology, Emory’s graduate school of theology which is affiliated (like the university) with the United Methodist Church. But because Candler is a part of Emory, this means that Emory is also putting its seal of approval on the award. For Emory’s many LGBT alums and their allies, who come from the many schools which comprise Emory (including Candler), this is deeply troubling. (Full disclosure: I am one of these alums, having received my undergraduate degree from Emory University.)
When the Dean of Candler, Dr. Jan Love, was asked to reconsider Dr. Fox receiving this honor, she decided that the award should be awarded as planned. But she also wrote, “Candler not only adheres to all Emory University policies on inclusion but we also fully welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons into our community as we do any other students, staff and faculty.” Which, naturally, must feel a little confusing to not only the LGBT students at Candler right now, but also to those of us who are a part of the wider Emory community. Because I’m not so sure how you fully welcome LGBT people while you simultaneously call a person who has gone to great lengths to deny them full inclusion one of your most “distinguished” graduates.
And so now Emory must decide. Are they comfortable with one of their schools honoring someone who has made life a whole lot harder for LGBT Methodists? Or are they the university that lives out the values of inclusion in which they take so much pride? And if they choose the former, are they aware of the message that will send not just to LGBT people at Candler, but also to the gay alum who gets a fundraising letter, the straight ally considering a professorship at Emory, or the out teenager weighing their undergraduate acceptance letter?
My hope is that Candler will reconsider. Not because Dr. Fox is a horrible man. He’s not. Not because he is not a good Christian. I’m sure he is. But because his actions have disenfranchised members of the community which bestows this honor. And because you can’t have it both ways: you can’t be a community which simultaneously respects diversity and bestows its highest honors on those who do not.
But if Candler does not reconsider, I hope the entire Emory community calls upon it to do what is right. Many incredible people have passed through the halls of Candler and gone on to give all of God’s children respect, dignity, and a place at the table. Candler, and Emory, should understand that those are the people who have truly already honored Emory’s values. Now it is time to honor them.