A Christian college in the N.C. mountains that’s long been associated with the Billy Graham family is in turmoil over the school’s insistence that faculty and staff sign and live in accordance with a new document that opposes same-sex marriage and abortion.
Montreat College’s “Community Life Covenant,” which was recently added to faculty and staff handbooks, uses loftier language and includes many widely admired tenets like “be people of integrity” and “seek righteousness, justice and mercy.”
What’s become controversial are those parts of the covenant that expect those who work at the school to affirm “the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman” and the “worth of every human being from conception to death” – phrases that translate into condemnations of same-sex marriage and abortion.
Also an issue with some: The covenant appears to favor a literal interpretation of the Bible, calling the book “the infallible Word of God and fully authoritative in matters of life and conduct.”
Some faculty and staff have refused to sign, effectively ending their employment at the college as of mid-May, when the current semester ends.
A small number of the 876 students enrolled at the close-knit college held a public protest on Wednesday, hoisting signs reading “Make Montreat Montreat Again” and “Don’t Break Our Family.” Students are not required to sign the covenant.
The controversy has even riled up some in Montreat and neighboring towns. Black Mountain resident and lifelong Presbyterian Ina Jones Hughs wrote a fiery column for the Asheville Citizen-Times:
“What Montreat College has just done is alarming and disgusting. Demanding its faculty and administration to sign a pledge which … treats LGBT Christians as outside the fold and their relationships as spiritually unworthy; stands opposed to women’s reproduction choices; and declares theirs a literal interpretation of the Bible … Montreat College hard-handed ‘covenant’ …. brings shame to the history and reputation of Montreat as a welcoming community.”
But Montreat College spokesman Adam Caress, in a statememt emailed to the Observer, said the new covenant, as well as the college’s other “core documents” – mission statement, vision statement, and statement of faith – “are rooted in core biblical values that have been central to Christianity for 2,000 years and central to the college throughout its 101-year history. “They do not represent a change in the college’s core beliefs, but are rather an affirmation of what the college – and orthodox Christianity in general – has always believed.”
Some who oppose the covenant are pointing a finger at the conservative Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), which last month contributed $100,000 to the college’s scholarship fund.
The school and the BGEA both denied that the Charlotte-based ministry – now headed by Franklin Graham, a Montreat College alumnus and an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage and abortion – had any involvement in writing the covenant or insisting that faculty and staff sign it.
“BGEA had no role,” said its spokesman Mark DeMoss. “There is a 70-year relationship between the college and the Graham … family, with many gifts being given over the years from individual Graham family members and the BGEA.”
The Graham family and organization have had a say in Montreat College policy for years. Ruth Graham, Billy’s late wife, served on the school’s board of trustees for nearly a decade. (She and Billy were married in the college’s chapel, which now bears their names). Will Graham, Franklin’s son, has also been a trustee.
And two sources told the Observer on Thursday that David Bruce, executive assistant to 98-year-old Billy Graham and one of the college’s current trustees, will soon become the new chairman of that board.
The elder Graham, who still lives in the family’s mountaintop home in Montreat, never strayed from a literal reading of the Bible. But as he grew older, he appeared to mellow, emphasizing God’s love and offering a more inclusive vision that he said left the judging of others to God.
But Billy’s son Franklin, who read a Scriptural passage in January at President Donald Trump’s inauguration, has become a polarizing figure in his sometimes confrontational quest to promote socially conservative views he says are mandated by the Bible.
Corrie Greene, an English teacher at the school, said Montreat College’s new covenant may or may not have been Graham’s idea, “but it certainly didn’t hurt the relationship between the BGEA and the school.”
Greene, who also directs the college’s writing center, said she and eight other faculty members are leaving the school because of the covenant. She said the document doesn’t just pertain to what faculty do and say in the classroom and on campus.
“It says we must affirm and uphold the college’s specific spiritual stances in our full 24 hour/seven-day-a-week personal life,” said Greene, 44, who calls herself an evangelical Christian. “I can’t let somebody else write my personal testimony. In my faith, Christ is constantly showing me something new.”
Caress said in an email that only two faculty members – one of its 39 full-time faculty and one of its 142 adjunct faculty – have cited the school’s “core documents,” including the covenant, as the reason they will not return to the school after this semester.
Caress said Montreat College spent the past 2 1/2 years “reviewing and revising” those core documents in a “transparent and deliberative process” that included 13 “listening sessions,” during which the school heard and responded to the concerns of faculty, staff, and alumni.
One of the professors who signed the covenant and supports it: Kevin Auman, chairman of the music departmment and a professor of music business.
“The document didn’t seem unusual to me. I didn’t see anything new,” said Auman, 50, who’s been employed at the school for 17 years. “And it’s not out of sync with what I believe as an elder in a Presbyterian Church.” His church, Christ Community Church-Montreat, is affiliated with a denomination – Evangelical Presbyterian Church – that does not marry same-sex couples.
Auman said he respects fellow faculty who could not bring themselves to sign the covenant. He also pointed out that the covenant does not change Montreat College’s open enrollment policy toward students. “We are welcoming no matter what they believe in, whether they’re gay or straight. If that changed … I would leave in a heartbeat,” he said. “I see the covenant as: this is the institution telling me what they believe and if I am comfortable with that, then come (teach).”