Virginia Beach, Va. — It’s not as daring as, say, Pat Robertson’s Republican run for the White House in 1988. But there’s no denying that starting a Democratic student group at Robertson’s Regent University seems a bit audacious.
“Here, it is definitely a startling idea,” said Kalila Hines, a government major and one of the founding members of Regent Democrats.
Regent, where Robertson is president and chancellor, has long had a student Republican group. The university approved Regent Democrats as an official student organization in late January, and the group now counts about 30 members.
Robertson, a Christian broadcaster, is a staunch political conservative who often disparages Democrats, including during his commentaries on “The 700 Club,” Robertson’s flagship show on his Christian Broadcasting Network.
Although Robertson was not available for comment on the group, Regent’s vice president for academic affairs, Carlos Campo, said Robertson gave his thumbs up to the new group.
“He said, `You know what? It reflects the openness of our campus and how open we are to sharing of ideas,”‘ Campo said of his talk with Robertson.
Brandon Carr, a law student and vice president of Regent Democrats, described the group as “Democrats and independents who want to be Christian leaders to change the world … explaining to others how you can be a Christian and agree to some Democratic principles as well.”
As a Christian-based school, Regent has a strongly evangelical, charismatic accent, and all faculty are expected to be Christians. They sign a statement binding them with Regent’s Christian beliefs, such as the infallibility of the Bible.
But Regent’s 4,282 students represent a spectrum of religious denominations — and, obviously, political beliefs as well.
“There’s basically been an underground kind of movement to kind of get a Democratic organization on campus and to show that Christians can side with the Democratic Party,” said Carr’s wife, Heather, a divinity student.
Last year, amid the national excitement of the presidential campaign, the couple started a Facebook site to gauge student interest in launching a Regent group for Democrats and political independents.
Evangelical Christian colleges with student Democratic organizations include Wheaton College in Illinois (Billy Graham’s alma mater), Biola University in California and Anderson University in Indiana.
Regent’s student Democrats said they were pleased, but not surprised, by welcoming comments they’ve gotten from faculty and classmates.
“Just with this group out there, people are realizing that being Christian does not always equal Republican,” Heather Carr said. “Your faith should direct your politics, not your politics directing your faith.”
At the same time, many Regent Democrats say they don’t embrace the party’s agenda wholesale. Student Takeshia Stokes, who wore her Obama buttons proudly during last year’s campaign, said she disagrees with the party’s support of abortion rights.
Still, Stokes said she identifies with “the heart … the Democratic Party has for helping ‘the least of these,’ and that’s something that’s dear to my heart.”
For years, Regent has invited some of the country’s leading liberals and Democrats to visit, including 2000 presidential candidate Al Gore, his campaign manager Donna Brazile, 1984 vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro, and the Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The visits typically involve formal debates with leading conservatives.
David Gushee, a Mercer University Christian ethics professor and author of “The Future of Faith in American Politics: The Public Witness of the Evangelical Center,” said he’s not surprised to see a Democratic group pop up at the 32-year-old Regent.
Christian colleges typically get more mainstream as they respond to expectations from accrediting agencies, academia and students with varied backgrounds, he said.
“My first thought was that Regent is moving outside of the hyper-conservative Christian subculture to be a somewhat broader climate,” he said. “It actually speaks well of Regent that there is diversity there.”
But the Democratic club is also evidence of a generational shift in values among evangelicals, Gushee said — a broader moral agenda that goes beyond abortion and gay rights to include poverty, war, genocide and environmentalism, he said.
“Younger evangelicals are trending toward the center and loosening this kind of reflexive Republican Party identity,” he said.
That’s a good description of Brandon Carr, who said his moral concerns include the poor, stewardship of the Earth and avoiding pre-emptive wars.
“As a Bible-believing Christian, I believe in the truth that’s in here,” he said, tapping the cover of his Bible. “Some of his greatest commandments in here are to love one another, care for one another, to be peacemakers, and that’s how I approach (God’s) Word.”
By Steven G. Vegh
Religion News Service
Steven G. Vegh is a writer for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va.
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