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Everyone needs a place to belong – a family, a neighborhood, a community. It is not good for a person to be alone. But in recent years, loneliness seems to have become a disease infecting our culture. Studies have shown that many young people report having no friends or even acquaintances. “Deaths of despair,” that is, death from suicide and substance abuse have risen sharply, and loneliness is certainly a factor here. Lonely, disaffected young men are becoming radicalized by extremist groups online.
There are surely many causes of the so-called loneliness epidemic. Smartphones and social media probably play a role. Economic forces have corroded community life. The collapse of the family most certainly plays a role. Perhaps one contribution can be found in some attempts to engineer inclusivity, which have the effect of dissolving institutions that give people a sense of belonging.
An example of this phenomenon is playing out on college campuses. Some colleges and universities have imposed “all-comers” policies on campus organizations, including religious organizations. These policies require that the organizations allow anyone to be a leader. For religious groups, such a policy would mean that someone who does not share the faith of the group could potentially be a leader. So, for example, a Muslim group could be forced to allow a Hindu to serve as president. Or, an evangelical bible study could be compelled to allow atheists to lead the study.
The absurdity of such policies is obvious. Imagine an animal rights advocacy organization being led by someone who wears leather and serves meat at the meetings. Imagine the college libertarians being led by a socialist. What is the point of a group whose leaders do not support the mission of the group?
These policies effectively ban most religious groups from campus, including Jewish and Muslim, as well as Catholic ministries. Groups that insist on selecting their own leadership lose access to important resources, like on-campus meeting spaces. Most importantly, they are excluded from campus life and cannot reach students at events like new student orientations.
For many young students, becoming active in an on-campus group is an important part of finding a sense of belonging during college. For people of faith, religious organizations are vital. And for people of no faith, or people who want to explore another faith, campus groups can often feel less threatening than, say, a house of worship. Campus groups can also be places where people of different faiths encounter one another. When I was an undergraduate, my future wife and I worked with Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant groups to coordinate events during Holocaust days of remembrance. During a time when young people are suffering loneliness, and when intolerance and distrust are running rampant, excluding faith groups from campus life is the exact opposite thing that a wise administrator would want to do.
Fortunately, there are efforts underway to ensure that all campus organizations can choose leaders who agree with the mission of the group. The Equal Campus Access Act of 2019 protects students by withholding certain federal funding from public universities that discriminate against religious student groups. All-comers policies, besides being unfair, are detrimental to young people. Thriving student groups contribute to a healthy campus life.
Aaron Matthew Weldon is Program Specialist for the Office of Religious Liberty.
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