If a Communist student group required leaders of the group to subscribe to the ideals of the Communist Manifesto, we probably wouldn’t accuse the Harvard Communists of discrimination. And yet, because the constitution of the Asian American Christian Fellowship’s (AACF) parent organization—the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship (HRCF)—requires that officers “subscribe without reserve” to articles of Christian faith, the Undergraduate Council (UC) deems the AACF a discriminatory group. This is at best an error in consistency and at worst a manifestation of intolerance towards Christians.
Last night, the Undergraduate Council voted 26-19-1 in favor of allowing groups with “discriminatory clauses” in their constitutions to receive funding for events open to everyone, but still fell short of the two-thirds vote necessary to pass a constitutional amendment. While Christians and council members alike lament the proceedings of the meeting, which included a two-hour discussion on constitutional interpretation and an attempted walkout, everyone is missing the point. The real issue is the UC’s characterization of the AACF as a “discriminatory group” in the first place.
The UC’s classification has failed to appreciate the distinction between outright discrimination due to factors one cannot change—like race or gender— and those that one can—like religion and political views. Sometimes, a statement clarifying that the leadership criteria include an individual’s adherence to certain beliefs is necessary to preserve the group’s integrity and purpose, and in this case, the latter type ought to be permitted. Can, after all, a Christian group flourish with a non-Christian leading prayer? I doubt it. As the AACF constitution correctly states, “because we are a religious organization, the ability to lead is inextricably tied to religious beliefs.”
Because anyone is welcome to attend the events, meetings, trips, and join the e-mail list of this group, including non-Christians, one cannot assume that everyone in the group is a devout Christian. As conversion is a gradual process, it is possible that there are many students who are active in the group but are not 100% sure that they believe in all of the articles of the Christian faith. Such a person might aspire to one day lead the group, but should realize, because of the explicit lines in the constitution, that he or she cannot assume the responsibility of leading Christians in their walk with Christ unless he or she can “subscribe without reserve,” to the tenets the Christianity. At the same time, the clause even explicitly affirms that recent converts—people who might have grown up in Jewish, Muslim, or atheist families—are eligible to lead the group if they subscribe to the Christian faith.
Those who label AACF as a discriminatory group claim that if the UC were to overlook the fact that the AACF only allows Christians to be officers, then it would have no reason to deny funding to all-male finals clubs and fraternities. But to anyone who understands what it truly means to be a Christian, these two distinctions are not comparable. All-male groups are discriminatory because they exclude based on factors one cannot naturally change—such as gender. No matter how hard I try, I cannot naturally become a man, so I cannot join an all-male finals club or fraternity. The same can be said for groups that might include in its constitution a requirement that officers can only be of Asian descent, for example—it excludes individuals on the basis of something they cannot change.
Religion, unlike race or gender, is a choice—a difficult choice, certainly, but still a choice. Anyone can become a Christian, as HRCF’s constitution reminds us, by subscribing to the articles of the faith. Requiring that its officers affirm that they have made this choice, a choice that is open to all people, should not be misconstrued as discrimination.
Loui Itoh ’07, a crimson editorial editor, is a government and comparative study of religion concentrator in Quincy House.