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The cancellation of Dr. Nassif

Upsplash/Markus Winkler
Upsplash/Markus Winkler

For anyone wondering how traditional Christianity is going to fare in the culture in the future, even within many Christian institutions, the disturbing tale of Dr. Bradley Nassif, formerly of North Park University, an institution formally connected to the theologically conservative Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC), offers an interesting case in point.

Dr. Nassif is a well-known Orthodox theologian, a respected scholar, and a gracious contributor to ecumenical dialogues between Protestantism and Orthodoxy. Such is his standing that the Washington Post consulted him for commentary on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its implications for religious liberty. As a Lebanese American, he is a member of an ethnic minority. And until recently, he was also the only tenured Orthodox faculty member in the Bible department of an American evangelical institution. None of this protected him from dismissal, however.

In May 2021, North Park University (NPU) discontinued its Christian Studies Department (CSD) due to low enrollment, and consequently dismissed four tenured faculty, including Dr. Nassif. However, an investigation by a neutral outside organization demonstrated that the CSD was in fact in a strong financial position. Three of the four professors were rehired, but Dr. Nassif was left out in the cold. Now, adjunct faculty teach his courses.

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The reason is no mystery. Nassif maintains that all this occurred because he expressed his reasoned, orthodox views on marriage and human sexuality. He was the only faculty member in CSD who went on record in support of the ECC’s views of marriage and sexuality, and held that they should be included in the curriculum. Certain members of the faculty and administration responded to his perspective with hostility. And this stand on sexuality became a constitutive part of why he was dismissed.

Dr. Nassif’s lawyer has obtained sworn declarations supporting this claim from NPU’s AAUP president, Nancy Arneson, and former provost, Michael Emerson. While North Park is affiliated with a denomination, the ECC, that upholds traditional views of sex, sexuality, and marriage, it appears that North Park does not want these views taught in the classroom even as one option among many, let alone as the binding truth on all people. And Dr. Nassif’s objection to this has cost him his career. Dr. Emerson has offered evidence, stating that representatives of the university attempted to “shame and silence Dr. Nassif for standing up for the ECC position on human sexuality. This was evidenced in both public and private meetings.”

Dr. Arneson provides damning documentation that NPU flouted its own governing documents when it dissolved the CSD. And the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which sets standards for academic freedom and faculty terminations, has charged that the North Park administration did not adhere to those standards when it shuttered the department.

Given the denomination’s own teaching on sexuality, the case is simply astonishing. Further, if Nassif's views really are those of “old white men,” as one of his colleagues apparently posted on social media (whiteness now being a psychological category, to be used to describe all those who object to progressive ideology, in case you missed that development), why on earth would the university or said colleagues wish to remain associated with a conservative denomination that also upholds these views? 

Of course, the case is most instructive regarding our wider culture. It is another example of the way in which our politics is predicated on a therapeutic notion of personhood and the rhetoric of a psychologized, ever-expanding definition of violence and victimhood. And it exposes the fact that progressive Christianity is really just another discourse of power. 

As structures of power have flipped in favor of iconoclasm, discontinuity, and repudiation of the past, one of the ironies is that post-structuralist critiques of power — once the weapons of mass cultural destruction favored by the left — are now proving a two-edged sword and cutting those who used to wield them. As Giorgio Agamben showed with reference to emerging biopolitics during the COVID pandemic — and much to the fury of the left — ideas floated by Michel Foucault and company can actually be applied to power everywhere, whichever side happens to be using it. And what Dr. Nassif is finding out is that institutionalized progressivism is, to borrow a phrase from Foucault, part of a regime of truth. Whatever the claims it makes about its much-trumpeted commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, in reality, progressive rhetoric operates to demonize people like Dr. Nassif and delegitimize his beliefs without actually having to address their substance.

Under this regime, you can indulge in the lazy and sophomoric practice of dismissing a man from an ethnic minority as being “white” merely because you do not like his views. You can claim to be a Christian institution while refusing Christian teaching on sexuality a place in the curriculum. And you can do all this with impunity, perhaps even with the applause of the wider culture, because of the logic of the regime of truth within which you operate.

The good-faith advocates of pluralism need to take note: This new regime of truth does not respect Enlightenment principles of tolerance and fair play. It considers those to be cynical masks for power and privilege. Yet it is not self-aware enough to realize that its own rhetorical mask of DEI is far more cynical and its own privileges far less transparent and honest than the mask it has replaced. The goalposts are always changing. One's status as an ethnic or religious minority can be either a decisive factor or utterly irrelevant depending on what those in power think on any given day. It’s an unpredictable game of gotcha with no stable set of rules, as Dr. Nassif has discovered to his cost.

And there is a tragic postscript here: Dr. Nassif has been publicly humiliated and stripped of his position, income, and benefits at the very moment that his wife is struggling with Stage IV lung cancer. Modern educational progressives present themselves as concerned with the excluded, the weak, and the vulnerable. It is hard to imagine anyone more vulnerable in America than an elderly woman with such a medical diagnosis. We need to pray for the Nassifs.

In the meantime, perhaps it is time to dust off those old Foucault volumes and revisit his ideas. They might yet prove useful in exposing the regime of truth that the newspeak of progressivism constitutes. And, as an added bonus, nothing will annoy the righteous left more. 

Originally published at First Things. 

Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. He is an esteemed church historian and previously served as the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University. Trueman has authored or edited more than a dozen books, including The Rise and Triumpth of the Modern SelfThe Creedal Imperative, Luther on the Christian Life, and Histories and Fallacies.

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