A few months after Massachusetts became the first state to recognize same-sex marriage, a college senior in Michigan wrote an essay on why his church should do the same.
In 2004, Joseph Kuilema was getting ready to graduate from Calvin College, an affiliate of the U.S. Christian Reformed Church that is based in Grand Rapids and has a few hundred thousand followers scattered mostly across the Upper Midwest. The CRC is a Protestant denomination that sees the Bible as “inspired and infallible” truth, while drawing upon three Reformation-era texts called “confessions” to explain what that truth means in real life.
Among the lessons the CRC takes from these writings is its position on same-sex relationships. The CRC promotes love for gay members, calling past hostility toward the LGBTQ community “a great failing.” But it also deems homosexual behavior “incompatible” with Scripture because, in the church’s view, intimacy is a divine gift reserved for marriage between a man and a woman.
The CRC first staked out that position in 1973. Kuilema, writing three decades later, explained why he thought it was wrong.
In a paper that he called “Tuxes for Two” and submitted for a course on theological ethics, Kuilema highlighted what he saw as inconsistencies in CRC doctrine and argued for interpreting religious texts in the context of their times, which, he said, meant focusing on the nature of the loving, lifelong partnership the Bible celebrates rather than whether it is between a man and woman.
“This is about … couples who are in love, devoted to God and the Christian faith, ready to embark on a lifelong journey of commitment and mutuality,” Kuilema wrote.
Aggressively interrogating such widely accepted principles of faith would have qualified as rebellion at many Christian colleges. At Calvin, it was a tradition, with students following a tone set by the faculty. School policies explicitly allowed professors room to criticize elements of CRC orthodoxy as long as they agreed to conduct their lives according to the church’s rules. And in a long-running internal CRC debate over how to temper biblical writings with contemporary values, Calvin faculty were frequently among those pushing hardest for more progressive views.
That environment is one reason that Kuilema returned to Calvin several years after graduation, to become a tenure-track professor in the social work department. As a researcher, he focused on the intersections between faith and activism. As a teacher, he directed study abroad programs in Liberia. He liked to speak out on issues related to race, once drawing the scorn of Tucker Carlson’s website, and became a visible ally to Calvin’s LGBTQ students, one of whom later came to him with a request.
Nicole Sweda had gotten to know Kuilema when she was an openly queer undergraduate and had kept in touch with him afterward, when she got a full-time job at a research center that operated within the school. She was getting ready to wed her longtime girlfriend, and the two were hoping Kuilema could officiate the ceremony.
Kuilema agreed, reasoning that it would be compliant with Calvin faculty rules because he wasn’t the one getting married ― and because the ceremony would be secular and on his own time. He checked with the elders at his Grand Rapids church, which is part of the CRC, as well as his department chair at Calvin. They said they were fine with it.
But Kuilema had run afoul of Calvin officials before. In 2018, the Board of Trustees overruled a faculty recommendation and blocked his tenure, citing concerns over the “tone and substance” of past statements about the LGBTQ community. Kuilema had remained at Calvin afterward, working on a two-year renewable contract that was serving as a probationary period.
Presiding at the wedding risked drawing more official ire. At the same time, Kuilema thought, there was a higher authority to consider ― and more important imperatives to follow.
“For me, the religious question was not whether God approves of such unions, I think God absolutely does, but whether I would be faithful to God,” Kuilema told me recently, thinking back to why he decided to go ahead. “The question was whether I would practice what I preach and be willing to accept whatever consequences that might follow.”
Those consequences would soon become clear ― and upend his life.
In early December, about two months after the wedding and just as Kuilema’s newest reappointment was on the verge of approval, he was summoned to a meeting with the provost, Noah Toly. Somebody had sent Toly a photo of Kuilema officiating the wedding. When Kuilema confirmed that the image was authentic, he learned that his reappointment was on hold, pending a fuller investigation and discussion of whether that should affect his contract status.
Kuilema wasn’t the only one facing consequences. In January, Sweda got a calendar invite for her own meeting with Toly, whom she had never met. There, Sweda told me later, officials asked her to verify her relationship status and told her that she was in violation of Calvin guidelines. Sweda said she hadn’t known the rules for staff prohibited same-sex relationships, then she asked nervously, “Am I being fired?”
After a few more weeks, and while administrators were still weighing their options, a reporter for the student newspaper, Chimes, broke the story of Kuilema, the wedding and the possibility of employment repercussions, instantly turning the private matter into a public controversy and exposing deep rifts in the Calvin community over not just the fate of a student and beloved professor, but also the future of the institution itself. The story has since gone national, with coverage in several religion and higher-education publications.
The controversy at Calvin has a lot in common with disputes elsewhere in the U.S., including an ongoing fight over anti-gay hiring policies that has divided students, faculty and trustees at Seattle Pacific University, a medium-sized Christian college, as well as a possible split of the United Methodist Church into two denominations, one recognizing same-sex marriage and one continuing to reject it.
And there are echoes of fights playing out in other contexts, including the political debates over classroom discussion of sexual orientation in Florida and over transgender athletes competing in collegiate sports. The same underlying tensions are also at the heart of a lawsuit, pending in federal court, over a special exemption that allows religious schools to collect federal education funds even if they have policies that discriminate against LGBTQ students or faculty.
The thread running through all these controversies is a clash between the traditional and the modern ― between those who think their worlds have already changed too much and those who want them to change more ― over a whole set of cultural issues but especially over those related to sexuality. And at Calvin, it’s fast becoming an existential crisis, with newer generations of students and many faculty pushing the school to accept and embrace the LBGTQ community more firmly while outside forces pull in the opposite direction.
Among those outside forces are some wealthy donors and alumni, including at least one with ties to the DeVos-Prince family, one of the most influential financiers of conservative politics in the U.S. Another source of pressure are parents of Calvin students, specifically the ones who expect the school to shield their kids from a culture they believe promotes LGBTQ behavior.
Then there’s the CRC itself, whose governing congress, the Synod, this week voted to elevate its position on LGBTQ matters from “pastoral guidance” (which effectively allows some room for questioning and dissent) to “confessional” status (which doesn't). A number of Calvin professors have already threatened to leave if the vote leads to change in school policies.
In the past, Calvin’s leaders have frequently tried to find a middle ground on issues related to sexuality by talking up academic freedom even as they pledged fealty to biblical authority, and by preaching love even as their policies condemned the behavior of LGBTQ students.
Today that middle ground feels less stable than ever. Many in and around Calvin wonder how much longer it can hold and fear what the school will become if it doesn’t.
The first time I met Joe Kuilema was in early May, at a coffee shop about two miles from campus. He is tall and slender, with a full beard and bald head, and as he sat across from me in a booth to tell his story, he talked with an animated enthusiasm that made it easy to understand why undergraduates voted him “teacher of the year” in 2019.
The eatery had a hipster feel, with exposed brick walls, hardwood floors and industrial track lighting. Nothing about the scene would have felt out of place in Cambridge or Berkeley, or in Ann Arbor, for that matter, although there are reasons that Kuilema’s academic trajectory took him instead to Grand Rapids — and to Calvin. One of those reasons is faith. Another is family.
Kuilema’s lineage traces back to the Dutch immigrants who settled in western Michigan in the 19th and early 20th centuries and today remain a dominant presence in that part of the state. The first wave established the CRC to carry on the traditions of the churches they had known in the Netherlands and established a Calvin seminary to train clergy who could lead services in their native language. Later, school administrators broadened the academic mission and spun off the non-ministerial division, which became Calvin College ― and more recently, Calvin University ― although the close relationship to the CRC remained. To this day, the church has direct governing responsibility over the college, plus it supplies a portion of the operating budget.
But historically Calvin administrators haven’t tried to wall the school off from the outside world in the way some other Christian colleges have ― which is why, in the late 1960s, some of the turmoil that was roiling the rest of America seeped into the Calvin campus. Among those caught up in it were Kuilema’s parents, who met when they were both undergraduates and whom Kuilema described as “long-haired hippies.” His father once helped produce a spoof of the official CRC newspaper that featured a drawing of the famous Iwo Jima flag-raising but with a giant dollar bill instead of the Stars and Stripes on the pole.
Several years and a few haircuts later, Kuilema’s father came back to Calvin as an employee, serving in a variety of high-ranking administrative roles. But neither he nor Kuilema’s mother ever stopped pushing for change ― in the world, in the church or on campus. One of Kuilema’s most vivid childhood memories is from 1990, when he would have been 8 years old, and his mother was participating in a demonstration to protest the CRC’s traditional prohibition on women holding leadership roles in churches. Kuilema and his two sisters went along, sitting in delegate chairs, holding lighted candles and singing along with the protest chants.
Years later, the CRC’s Synod officially adopted a new position that gave individual churches discretion over whether to accept women leaders, though it would take 12 more years before they let women vote on denominational decisions. Kuilema says that watching his parents made a big impression and led directly to his professional choices.
“My father’s trajectory from radical student protesting Vietnam and publishing subversive magazines to respected Calvin employee was part of what convinced me that there was room for someone like me at Calvin,” he said.
When Kuilema was getting ready to join the Calvin faculty, in 2008, he mentioned his belief that the CRC should support same-sex marriage. The dean responded by noting that many other Calvin professors felt the same way. Which wasn’t surprising.
A small but growing minority of religious scholars from across Christian faiths had been arguing that the anti-LGBTQ reading of Scripture was too literal and too selective. Several found a home at Calvin, where professors have long had license to engage in wide-ranging debates, even those touching directly on issues of faith.
But professors also sign pledges to live by the CRC’s rules for conduct. They aren’t supposed to challenge the CRC’s most fundamental beliefs. And although there’s a lot of disagreement over exactly where that line is, sometimes professors have gotten into trouble because the administration believed they had crossed it.
In 2009, a pair of religion professors published a paper stating that fossil records made it impossible to believe a biblical Adam and Eve had been exiled from a garden paradise, effectively calling into question the CRC’s understanding of original sin. Among those who expressed outrage was Gaylen Byker, who was president of Calvin back then and also happened to be a prominent Republican Party donor. One of the paper co-authors ended up leaving, under undisclosed terms, prompting one school critic to write in the Chronicle of Education that the episode had “stained” Calvin’s reputation.
A major controversy over the treatment of the LGBTQ community had started just a few years before, over a play called “Seven Passages” that was about LGBTQ life in conservative Christian communities in the Midwest. The author was Stephanie Sandberg, a Calvin theater professor. She’d gotten the idea for it after meeting with a distraught undergraduate who was afraid to tell his parents that he was gay. While working on it, she told me, she was careful to keep her faculty superiors informed of her work and to underwrite the project with independent funding.
“Seven Passages” played to a month of sold-out shows at a Grand Rapids theater. Calvin faculty attended, including some who were also part of a panel on LGBTQ issues that Sandberg moderated on campus. A production company even decided to make a film version. But an outraged CRC pastor in Iowa wrote Calvin officials and the elders at Sandberg’s Grand Rapids church, accusing her of violating church orthodoxy.
The Board of Trustees responded with a statement saying that “advocacy of homosexual practice and same-sex marriage is not permitted” ― and stood by its pronouncement even after 36 to 4 vote in the Faculty Senate calling on the trustees to withdraw it.
Over the next few years, a college working group produced a series of new guidelines for faculty behavior that made a point of recognizing the need for academic freedom. But it also called on professors to check in with their academic superiors whenever their work might question or undermine core CRC beliefs.
It’s impossible to understand the controversies at Calvin without recognizing how rapidly the world around it has changed and how threatening those changes feel to some parts of the school’s community. Nicole Sweda has seen both parts of that story.
She arrived for her first year in 2016. The U.S. Supreme Court had just made same-sex marriage the law of the land, with the public strongly approving. Car companies and other retailers were sponsoring Pride events and targeting gay customers with ads. It was no longer a big deal to see openly gay figures in business, politics or professional sports ― and at Sweda’s large public high school in Rochester Hills, an upscale Detroit suburb, it wasn’t a big deal, either.
“Honestly, I didn’t feel like anybody cared,” Sweda told me. “Freshman or sophomore year, you’d sometimes hear people still say, ‘That’s so gay’ or whatever, but by the end of high school, even that wasn’t the case anymore. It was going out of style.”
Sweda played bass and snare drum in the marching band and developed a relationship with Annica Steen, who played flute and who came out as queer later in high school. For college, Steen chose Grand Valley State University, a public institution just outside Grand Rapids with more than 20,000 students. Sweda opted for Calvin, which had only about 3,000 students and where two of her siblings had gone.
Sweda knew that Calvin’s code for students prohibited intimacy among same-sex couples as part of its demand for chastity outside of marriage. But during campus visits, she’d seen students and instructors wearing pride buttons. She had also taken notice of Calvin’s Sexuality and Gender Awareness (SAGA) peer support group, which it publicized on its website, and a speaker series on sexuality the university had sponsored.
Other prospective students came to Calvin with similar impressions ― among them, Lindsay Owens, who grew up in a conservative, rural Ohio town and who told me she felt out of place there because of her Mexican ethnicity as well as her sexual orientation.
During high school, Owens had attended a summer program at Calvin for racial and ethnic minority students, led by progressive faculty and full of like-minded participants. When it came time to apply for college, she checked out Calvin and saw the SAGA web page. She also took note that the CRC’s position didn’t actually condemn people for being gay, only for acting on it.
“People on my Facebook page will talk about how it’s a perversion or something like that, how it can be cured and all sorts of stuff,” said Owens, who graduated this year. “Calvin doesn’t take that position. … They affirm that God loves you, you’re fine the way you are. They say they just don’t want you to act on it, and that automatically seems more welcoming to people who come from my background.”
But once on campus, Owens and many other students felt as if Calvin’s accommodations had limits. SAGA offered a “safe space” but wasn’t able to operate as an advocacy organization, which it does on other campuses. Resident advisers believed they couldn’t be in LGBTQ relationships, even celibate ones, making it difficult to accept a position that many of them needed to help pay their bills.
The policies themselves are not so clear. In response to written questions, university spokesperson Matthew Kucinski confirmed that the school “discouraged romantic same-sex dating relationships” among resident advisers while adding that “it’s important to note that we’ve never fired an RA for dating someone of the same gender.” He stressed that Calvin is a “caring and diverse community” and said the school has “worked hard to help those within our community who identify as LGBTQ+ to feel a sense of belonging.”
But to students like Owens, the school’s message isn’t ambiguous. “The supports Calvin does have are not like, ‘Let’s celebrate your being queer and let’s celebrate your identity.’ It’s very much, ‘Let’s help you as you’re struggling.’ And that comes off very much like there’s something wrong with you.”
Harm Venhuizen, the student journalist who broke the Kuilema story and graduated this spring, said he can understand how prospective students get the wrong impression. “You come to Calvin and you visit; you might be told there’s an organization for gay students on campus, there are Pride flags around campus,” he told me. “It’s something that exists at Calvin. But it’s something that’s bound, too ― something that is restricted by policy and not as affirming as promotional materials might lead you to think.”
Students weren’t the only ones who felt disappointment. Julia Smith, who was on the Calvin staff and ran the sexuality speaker series from 2008 to 2019, said administrators routinely fielded angry feedback from parents and alumni that sometimes filtered down to her.
In one instance, she said, “an influential person close to big money” sent a long email full of “anti-trans talking points,” pushing her to disinvite a gay speaker. Another time, she said, a manager arranged for a meeting with a parent who objected to the whole approach of exposing students to LGBTQ speakers. The parent wanted to know Smith’s personal view on same-sex marriage. Smith said she refused to answer and feared that, if she had, she might have lost her job.
“They affirm that God loves you, you’re fine the way you are. They say they just don’t want you to act on it, and that automatically seems more welcoming to people who come from my background.”
Sexual orientation wasn’t the underlying issue the first time Kuilema was part of a public controversy.
A 2015 column he wrote about white privilege landed him on the “Professor Watchlist” from the right-wing group Turning Point USA and made him the focus of an article in The Daily Caller, the conservative publication Tucker Carlson founded and was still editing at the time. (Headline: “Professor Blames White Privilege for the Existence of Michigan.”)
When the publicity led to a wave of angry emails and social media posts, including a few death threats, more than 100 of Kuilema’s colleagues rallied to his defense with an open letter asking to be part of the same watchlist. It was testimony to the high regard he had among fellow scholars and the main reason he was optimistic about his chances for tenure in 2018, especially because he also had enthusiastic backing from his department and dean.
Kuilema’s final interview with the screening committee went so well that he wrote a Facebook post afterward thanking all of the people who had helped his career ― and noting that he seemed likely to get tenure even though, as he admitted, he had gently poked the administration. The “poke” he had in mind was yet another statement he’d made, during the interview, about his feelings about the LGBTQ community and the church’s posture toward it. He told me he mentioned it for the same reason he did when he first joined the faculty: He thought honesty demanded that he be upfront about his feelings.
But Kuilema didn’t get tenure. The Board of Trustees rejected the recommendations, and in a letter outlining its rationale cited a number of instances (including the Facebook post) when he’d made public or private statements about LGBTQ issues.
The letter noted the tradition of such dissent at Calvin but said it was important to express such disagreement with a “tone” and “strategy” that was more respectful toward the CRC and its positions. “The Board needs more evidence that your communications, whether written or spoken, formal or informal, serve to strengthen the college and the broader Christian community in constructive and transparent ways,” the letter said.
Several professors later told Chimes that they could not recall another instance of the trustees overruling a screening committee recommendation, let alone one that was so strong and backed by so many members of the faculty. But instead of leaving, Kuilema took up the trustees’ offer (which was itself unusual) to stay on at Calvin, with a two-year contract that could be renewed, in order to demonstrate that he could address their concerns.
Kuilema took several steps, like taking care to recruit panelists who held the traditional position for an LGBTQ “teach-in” and giving plenty of emphasis to the CRC’s position during a classroom lecture ― so much so that a student complained it gave short shrift to the pain people experience when they must hide their identities. Kuilema also began working with Micah Watson, a politically conservative, Princeton-educated political scientist who believes the traditional CRC posture on LGBTQ issues represents the most honest reading of Scripture and the confessions.
Watson bristles at the suggestion that the CRC (or Calvin) should “condemn” people for what they feel or desire; in an interview, he said he hopes that both would continue to welcome members of the LGBTQ community. The goal, he said, should be to set clearer standards for behavior and then “be pastoral, understanding and grace-filled” to “those of us who, for whatever reason, have a hard time living up to the standard.”
Kuilema said one reason he sought out Watson was that he wanted to demonstrate he could engage with such arguments and their advocates respectfully, which was something else the trustees had questioned. Kuilema told me later that the collaboration helped him sort out his own thoughts ― and that he has enjoyed getting to know the more senior professor, whom he considers a friend.
Watson said pretty much the same thing about Kuilema, describing him as intellectually serious, well-versed in Scripture and full of integrity.
“I like Joe,” he said.
On the day of the wedding, Kuilema said, he was calm for the first time in weeks.
Early in his remarks, he followed the couple’s request to memorialize their union as significant without turning the ceremony into a political statement. He mentioned the “difficult and painful decisions about who is safe to be open with” that the two had frequently faced ― and how, just a few years prior, “we would not have been able to stand here and legally marry you.” Then he spoke about their relationship, echoing the sentiments of his old senior class paper and throwing in a corny joke about the two former marching band performers making music together.
“You have built your relationship together, with few models for how to do so or what it might look like, and you have built something beautiful,” Kuilema said.
The ceremony went well, and so did the celebration, despite some morning rain and a lack of fall colors that Sweda and Steen had hoped for when they picked the October date. They danced to “Golden Hour” by Kacey Musgraves and managed to get a few bites of the beef tenderloin and goat cheese-stuffed mushrooms from the buffet. Sweda said she felt disappointed that one college friend had opted not to attend, apparently because the friend’s husband objected to the ceremony on principle. But they still had about 150 guests, including some other Calvin faculty, alumni and students.
“The overriding emotion was just joy,” Kuilema said. “It was such a beautiful day.”
Sweda and Steen told me they were careful when posting about the wedding on social media, consciously excluding photos of Kuilema presiding because they didn’t want anybody to accuse him of using the wedding to make a public statement. To this day, neither they nor Kuilema knows who sent the image to Toly, the provost ― and Toly wouldn’t tell me.
But when the summons to the meetings came, both Kuilema and Sweda knew something was amiss. Sweda told me she got even more scared when the other officials present began the meeting with a prayer, asking for God’s help to give her peace. “It felt very ominous,” Sweda said.
It took a few weeks for administrators to sort out her situation. Eventually they cut ties with the research center where she worked, allowing it to operate independently. The decision took many faculty members by surprise, but it meant that the center was free of Calvin’s personnel rules and Sweda could have a job.
Kuilema wasn’t so lucky. In April, he got a five-page, single-spaced memo from the dean, Benita Wolters-Fredlund, acknowledging his “stellar record” as a scholar, teacher and colleague, and quoting several professors who gushed at length about his work. But, Wolters-Fredlund explained, the decision to preside at the wedding and failure to consult anybody in the top echelons of campus governance was a “serious lapse in judgment” that threatened the university’s integrity, especially given that Sweda was a Calvin employee.
Because of this judgment lapse, Wolters-Fredlund said, the university was not renewing his contract.
The memo made it clear that Kuilema could file an appeal, which he promptly set about doing, although he knew it meant winning over some of the same officials who had already ruled against him ― and who were subject to pressures of their own.
“We all at various points in our lives join communities or institutions that have rules or norms we wouldn’t make ourselves.”
Colleges around the country are about to hit a demographic cliff when the population of potential new first-year students will decline by as much as 15% ― enough to threaten financial stability at all but the most elite, sought-after and generously funded schools. The situation is even more dire for colleges that draw heavily from the Midwest, because of out-migration. On top of that, Calvin is still recovering from a period of unrelated financial instability that led to buyouts, layoffs and eliminations of whole departments.
One consequence of that pressure is that campus controversies can have serious fiscal implications, especially when they touch on hot-button political issues of interest to powerful alumni. A former Calvin official told me it was widely known that a number of major donors was angry and in some cases stopped providing contributions after all the national publicity about Claire Murashima, who in 2020 came out as Calvin’s first openly queer student body president.
Current Calvin officials wouldn’t comment on that except to point out that donor reactions to news are common and run in both directions. But nationally, “it’s often the donors and conservative trustees who are opposed to full LGBTQ inclusion,” according to Jonathan Coley, an Oklahoma State University sociologist and author of “Gay on God’s Campus: Mobilizing for LGBT Equality at Christian Colleges and Universities.” At Calvin, it’s no secret that one high-profile university supporter, Allan Hoekstra, resigned from the Board of Trustees in 2020 at least partly because of the school’s handling of LGBTQ students.
Hoekstra is president of a real estate holding company in nearby Holland, Michigan. He is also a prominent figure in conservative circles with ties to the DeVos and Prince families, who together form one of the most powerful dynasties in national right-wing politics. (As of mid-2020, according to tax filings, Hoekstra was secretary/treasurer of the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation, which has in the past financed Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and other organizations promoting a Christian conservative agenda.)
Among the DeVos and Prince family members who received their undergraduate degrees at Calvin is Betsy DeVos, the conservative activist who has championed Christian schooling and served as education secretary in the Trump administration. One of the largest donations in Calvin’s history was a pair of $10 million contributions, one each from DeVos and Prince family foundations, that underwrote construction of the DeVos Communications Center and the Prince Conference Center. The DeVos center is now home to an institute that focuses on Christianity and public life.
In 2021, Hoekstra wrote an email to several officials and professors in which he recounted some of the reasons he’d stepped away from the board a year earlier. He mentioned some recent university-sponsored seminars on inclusiveness, one of which he called a “roadshow,” as well as a story he had heard about a Calvin graduate who “had a double mastectomy, changed her identity from she to he and married her female partner.”
“Parents and students have the right to believe teaching at Calvin will reflect that sex has its rightful place in the context of a marriage between one man and one woman,” Hoekstra wrote. “I could not remain as a trustee, who had executed the very same Covenant as you, knowing that faculty members were endorsing same sex marriage and the board and administration was unwilling to hold them accountable to the prescribed process.”
Kuilema told me he thinks he’s the professor in the email, although he can’t be sure. Hoekstra declined to answer questions about either the email or his broader feelings about the school.
As for the reference to parents, that resonates with what a number of people in the greater Calvin universe told me about the school, the image and its future as a financially stable institution. “Some parents send their children to Calvin, or to some other Christian school, in order to stop them from being gay,” said Smith, who ran the speaker series.
“It doesn’t actually work that way,” she added quickly. But in the face of a shrinking enrollment pool, and given that families with more affirming attitudes might be less interested in a religious school anyway, Calvin has a strong incentive to make sure the school remains appealing to families who expect it to remain a bulwark against a culture increasingly supportive of the LGBTQ community.
“The market really plays to conservative Christians in the Christian college orbit,” said Kristin Du Mez, a history professor and author of the 2020 bestseller “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.”
“I can say that whereas before I’ve always felt like I belonged at Calvin … that’s now an open question. And I think it is for many of us.”
Kuilema started the 23-page letter appealing the school’s decision on his contract by recounting his deep ties to the college.
“I love Calvin University,” he wrote, noting that both his parents and his wife were graduates and that he had been part of campus life since he was a kid. He also spoke about his faith and its centrality to his work: “I love the idea of being ‘reformed and always reforming according to the word of God,’ the sense that God is alive and active, moving and working in God’s creation, and that we return again and again to God’s word to discern and confess what each new moment demands of us.”
Under faculty guidelines, a successful appeal requires demonstration of procedural errors or injustices ― or relevant information that university officials lacked while making their decision. Kuilema said there were several, arguing that faculty guidelines were unclear about the restrictions on conduct and whose permission he needed to seek. He argued that his church, not Calvin officials, were the rightful arbiters of whether his actions violated CRC doctrine. He also recounted his efforts to demonstrate he could live up to the standards in the tenure denial letter while reprising some of his substantive critiques of the CRC position.
By this time, his case was getting media attention and public support ― through those online alumni and faculty petitions, plus an opinion article in Chimes, written by psychology professor Emily Helder, hailing his contributions and warning that “I am finding it increasingly difficult to work at Calvin with integrity.”
It was amid the growing outcry that I met with Noah Toly at his campus office on a rainy day in early May.
Toly is something of an outsider at Calvin. He’s not from the Midwest and didn’t grow up in the CRC, although he belonged to churches with similar theological bearings. He came to Calvin from Wheaton College, the evangelical Protestant school in Illinois where he was an undergraduate and then a professor of urban studies and politics. His 2020 book, “The Gardeners’ Dirty Hands: Environmental Politics and Christian Ethics,” uses Greek and biblical texts to think through debates about climate change, which he believes is real and requires policy responses. Its theme is the need to recognize and accept the tradeoffs ― even painful ones.
Toly maintained the institution’s silence on the specifics of the Kuilema case but addressed some of the broader issues it raised for an institution like Calvin ― including the apparent tension between academic freedom and fealty to biblical authority, which, Toly said, didn’t really exist in the way many outsiders imagine.
“We assume that God has made that world both good and intelligible to us and has called us and equipped us for vocations of serious intellectual inquiry,” he said, calling Calvin’s commitment to academic freedom one of its great virtues. “And we believe that that inquiry is not going to lead us to conclusions that are against the grain of God’s truth as revealed in Scripture or taught by the church.”
When I pressed Toly about the obligations of faculty who find CRC positions on issues like same-sex marriage objectionable and who believe Scripture is on their side, he said the university respects the right to dissent.
But, he said, “the expectation to abide by those positions remains even for those who disagree.”
Calvin’s position will only become more precarious following the big Synod vote this past week, which makes opposition to same-sex relationships a matter of confessional status ― in other words, something that congregations can’t violate. Many observes believe it will turn the existing divide over sexuality within the denomination into a potentially irreparable breach, in ways that resemble the broader polarization of U.S. politics.
Congregations with more affluent, more highly educated members are more likely to recognize LGBTQ relationships. Many of them are in and around Grand Rapids, whose downtown is full of bars and restaurants with pride flags. One of churches recently elected a deacon who is in a same-sex marriage.
Congregations in more rural areas and with more blue-collar members are more likely to have the traditional view, that same-sex marriage and homosexual activity more generally is sinful. So do many foreign chapters within the CRC, which have been providing a critical source of new membership at a time when churchgoing across denominations in the U.S. is falling. During the debate at the Synod, those foreign CRC congregations were among those supporting adoption of the stricter human sexuality standard, according to an account in The Banner.
It could take a few years for the results of the Synod vote on sexuality to take full effect as the denomination goes through its own process of bureaucratic implementation. But there’s already widespread talk of individual churches breaking away from the CRC. At Calvin, prominent faculty, such as history professor Du Mez, are openly questioning what it all means for the denomination and the school.
“I can say that whereas before I’ve always felt like I belonged at Calvin and within the CRC, that’s now an open question,” Du Mez told me. “And I think it is for many of us.”
“The hardest thing, I think, has been seeing LGBTQ students wrestle with this. What does this mean for them? And can they still be here?”
Whatever Calvin’s future, Kuilema won’t be part of it.
In late May, he got a letter from Bruce Los, chair of the Board of the Trustees. It was just two pages and conspicuously lacking in the pleasantries of earlier communications. It disputed Kuilema’s claims, concluding that he failed to show either process errors or incomplete information in the university decision. Absent those two conditions, Los said, there was no grounds for reversal.
Los said the university’s decision did not represent a substantive judgment on either Calvin or CRC policies toward the LGBTQ community. The core issue, he said, was Kuilema’s failure to work “within college policies and procedures” and to act in ways that would “strengthen the [university] and the broader Christian community in constructive and transparent ways.”
The decision shook other professors, including Rachel Venema, who joined the faculty about the same time that Kuilema did and, like him, has a Calvin undergraduate degree. When we spoke in May, while Kuilema’s appeal was still pending, Venema said she was torn about her future.
“The hardest thing, I think, has been seeing LGBTQ students wrestle with this,” she explained. “What does this mean for them? And can they still be here? I really want them to know that there are still plenty of people on campus who are affirming of their identity and their relationships. But I also feel like my CV, like having worked at Calvin for 13 years, is starting to become a sort of a liability in the field of social work. I think that there may be some assumptions about who I am and what I think about same-sex relationships ― things that aren’t true. And so I feel like I need to be on the record in some way.”
Last week, Venema revealed her plans in an email to colleagues. She has decided to leave.
One other question I asked Toly was about prospective students who identify as queer. What advice would he give them about attending Calvin? He was unequivocal: He said he hoped that they would come, that they would feel like they would be loved. He noted that the rules against intimacy outside of marriage apply equally to students of all sexual orientations. Asking for celibacy might seem like a lot, he acknowledged, but college is just four years.
“We all at various points in our lives join communities or institutions that have rules or norms we wouldn’t make ourselves,” Toly said. “We often find ourselves submitting to those rules or norms, for a season at least.”
I put the same questions to the students and alumni I interviewed, including those who now identify as part of the LGBTQ community. The responses varied, with some saying it was worth coming to Calvin in order to push it in a more progressive direction and others saying the difficulties were simply too great.
Sweda said she would advise queer students to go to secular colleges, although she says some don’t have that choice because their parents won’t pay tuition if they don’t attend Christian schools. “The point a lot of people miss is that, for a lot of queer students... there is some sort of financial or family coercion going on there.” Sweda has actually set up a GoFundMe, which she says she uses to help LGBTQ Calvin students while on campus.
A very real possibility is that Calvin could evolve over the next few years so that it has fewer students like Sweda and fewer professors like Kuilema, creating a campus and academic environment both more aligned with CRC teachings and more insulated from the culture around it. Universities like Bob Jones, Liberty and Oral Roberts offer a possible glimpse of that future.
They have never had Calvin’s reputation for intellectual diversity. And although those schools have LGBTQ students, over the years many have spoken about the shame and stigma they feel, even instances of abuse, while experts and advocates worry about the toll on the students’ mental health. This was the biggest concern I heard over and over again from former staff who worked with LGBTQ students ― their fears for students struggling with issues of identity and sexual orientation, maybe for the first time and perhaps without sympathetic families.
“There’s no such thing as just giving a philosophical and theological message like this without affecting someone’s well-being, because people internalize it,” said Kelsey Colburn, who was coordinator of student success and sexuality programming from 2019 to 2021. “If you’re telling queer young people … that [they] shouldn’t be able to be in relationships, then they end up wrestling with that themselves internally and thinking maybe I’m not OK, maybe there’s something wrong with me, maybe God doesn’t want me this way. And that can lead to severe mental health problems. I’ve seen it.”
As for Kuilema, he has a wife, a toddler and two baby twins. For all of the recent discussion about morality and student well-being, Scripture and institutional integrity, Kuilema is still a working parent with bills to pay. When I called him last week, he was on the job market, looking for a faculty position at another institution.
I asked him how he was feeling, given that Calvin has been part of his life for as long as he can remember, and whether he now wished he had made a different decision about the wedding. He admitted to some emotional ups and downs, likening them to the process of a grieving cycle, but added, “I strongly believe that it was the right thing to do, that it was consistent with everything that I believe. I wish we had been able to find a way to work it out, but I don’t regret officiating at all.”
A few days later he was back at Calvin for a protest against the Synod vote. He brought his kids, calling it a “family tradition.”