By Randall Balmer
James Tengatenga, the Anglican bishop of Southern Malawi, will not be the next chaplain and dean of the Tucker Foundation at Dartmouth College; the offer was extended and then later rescinded this summer. What does this unfortunate episode tell us about the limits of diversity at an elite liberal arts college?
When the provost’s office asked me to serve on the search committee for a new dean of the Tucker Foundation, I sought (and received) assurances that this would be a true search, not another anointing of an inside candidate. I quickly learned that the William Jewett Tucker Foundation, founded in 1951 and named for the last preacher-president of Dartmouth, was “charged with supporting and furthering the moral and spiritual work of the College.” Indeed, the Tucker Foundation occupies a unique niche; its very existence attests to the belief that a liberal arts education has a moral purpose beyond the mere aggregation of knowledge.
Early on in our deliberations, the committee decided that Dartmouth needed someone with moral authority as dean of the Tucker Foundation, someone who could help us understand that living as a community is more than the accident of proximity. While specific affiliation was not a consideration — he or she could be Methodist, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, Reform Jew or, for that matter, a member of the Ethical Culture Society — we sought someone who, when there was a sexual assault or a homophobic incident or racist graffiti on campus, could both express our collective outrage and help us articulate why such behavior was wrong and how it rent the fabric of our common life.
When James Tengatenga’s application arrived, we recognized that he was an extraordinary candidate, a seasoned administrator who was both an academic and a cleric, someone who had confronted injustice and bigotry and corruption since he was a teenager growing up beneath the thumb of a white supremacist regime in Africa. In addition, Tengatenga has been an advocate for human rights his entire adult life. He has worked to eliminate HIV/AIDS, sex trafficking and violence against women. He is head of the Anglican Consultative Council and chair of the Public Affairs Committee, an interfaith organization of Christians and Muslims. He has lived in fear for his life for the last decade because he dared to challenge the corruption of Malawi’s regime. Here was a person who, when his beloved Anglican Church was torn asunder, chose not to abandon it but to seek reconciliation between factions that, very often, refused even to look at one another much less talk with one another.
The committee, after extensive deliberations, unanimously and enthusiastically recommended Tengatenga’s appointment as dean of the Tucker Foundation. The provost and the new president, after conducting their own due diligence, concurred. Tengatenga was offered the post, which he accepted.
Such a high profile and unconventional appointment naturally attracted curiosity, and these days the internet serves as the tool of choice. Some people at Dartmouth were alarmed when they came across a brief quotation in the Los Angeles Times in 2003 in response to the election of V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire. “I come from an angry people,” Tengatenga told the newspaper. “I come from a very frustrated church, a church that feels it has been betrayed by its brothers and sisters.”
On the face of it, Tengatenga was criticizing the elevation of Robinson, who is a hero to many for his spirited advocacy of gay rights and other progressive causes. A subsequent quotation mined from the internet appeared to reinforce those concerns. Tengatenga affirmed to a reporter in 2011 that official Anglican teaching still condemned homosexuality, though he added: “The church’s position and an individual’s are two different things.”
Although one of the principles we teach students at Dartmouth is the importance of responsible scholarship and patient deliberation — not rushing to judgment based on fragmentary information or quotations wrenched out of context — Tengatenga’s critics ignored those canons of scholarship and quickly judged him unsympathetic to gay and lesbian rights. Despite the fact that gay rights activists in Africa and throughout the Anglican Communion celebrate Tengatenga as a hero, and his enemies deride him as part of the “homosexual lobby,” the bishop’s critics at Dartmouth decided that he was homophobic.
A little digging, however, and a bit of contextualization would have alleviated their concerns. Robinson’s consecration had sent shockwaves throughout the Anglican Communion because many Anglicans around the world (including Episcopalians here in the United States) deemed it a violation of church doctrine and a departure from centuries of tradition. A bit more digging would have uncovered the real source of Tengatenga’s pique (“I come from an angry people”): a reckless statement by John Shelby Spong, then the bishop of Newark. “They’ve moved out of animism into a very superstitious kind of Christianity,” Spong said of Christians in Africa. “They’ve yet to face the intellectual revolution of Copernicus and Einstein that we’ve had to face in the developing world. That’s just not on their radar screen.”
Although Spong eventually apologized for those remarks, his characterization of all Africans as backward thinking had inflicted considerable damage. The arrogance of that statement together with what were perceived as the renegade actions of the Episcopal Church had once again made matters difficult for Anglican bishops in Africa, forced now to justify and defend the consecration of a gay bishop. (When I recently asked two signatories to the letter of protest against Tengatenga if they were aware of Spong’s precipitating comment, both acknowledged that they were not.)
The smoking gun that Tengatenga’s adversaries so confidently brandished turned out, on careful examination, to be not even a water pistol. But, having arrived at their conclusion with only partial command of the facts, they persisted in their opposition, and here the saga degenerates into absurdity. The case against Tengatenga was abetted by a Dartmouth alumnus whose abiding fixation is a reduction of the college workforce, and a letter of protest came out on letterhead from the local chapter of the NAACP (last I checked, Tengatenga would probably qualify as “colored”).
Tengatenga’s adversaries, however, showed no interest in advancing a person of color, and some of them openly objected to the fact that he was an ordained minister. Tengatenga, a good and decent and morally courageous man, was pilloried and vilified. The litany of attacks, moreover, was curiously uniform: Tengatenga had insufficient administrative experience (despite a dozen years as bishop), he could never understand a place like Dartmouth and his English-language skills were inadequate (despite the fact that he speaks eight languages and has taught in both the United Kingdom and the United States).
In the midst of the controversy, testimonials came in over the transom about Tengatenga’s worldwide reputation as a human rights advocate. The head of the Africa chapter of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission applauded Tengatenga’s “courage.” Many church officials and several prominent Episcopal bishops, including the former presiding bishop, warmly endorsed him. The head of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation lauded Tengatenga’s “prophetic voice” and noted that he is known in Africa as the “Desmond Tutu of Malawi.” Tutu himself, the venerable opponent of apartheid, also endorsed Tengatenga.
All to no avail. The president of Dartmouth, also a good and decent man, rescinded Tentatenga’s appointment as dean of the Tucker Foundation on August 14. He apparently thought — mistakenly, it turns out — that he was striking a blow against homophobia, but instead he succumbed to specious arguments tinged with racism.
What will happen with the Tucker Foundation? I’m typically a glass-is-half-full guy, but in this instance I’m not sanguine. The administration will appoint a task force, which, after a decent interval, will recommend that Tucker cede its religious bearings to the various affiliated chaplaincies and thereby rid the college of the “divisive” influence of religion on campus. At precisely the moment when Dartmouth needs to hear voices of conscience to help us navigate the shoals of diversity and globalism in the twenty-first century, the college will designate a student-services type as administrator. Then, sadly, the one place on campus that “educates Dartmouth students for lives of purpose and ethical leadership, rooted in service, spirituality, and social justice” will be diminished.
To the extent that diversity requires countenancing a person of faith or someone not yet fully conversant in Western code language for gay rights, diversity, apparently, has its limits.
Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is chair of the religion department and Mandel Family Professor in the Arts & Sciences at Dartmouth College. His newest book, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter, will be released in April.