Lessons From a Volatile Event at Yale
Framed pictures of former Yale Law School students draped in black judicial robes looked on as current students shuffled in holding handmade cardboard signs — a fair number filled with profanity and obscenity. The anger and anarchy clashed with the backdrop of structure, privilege, and history. The lecture hall started to feel smaller as the students grew more volatile.
I’m a Christian and conservative; I don’t assume the world to welcome me or my beliefs. As an attorney and general counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, I’d also calculated that my presence at Yale’s Law School might be met with hostility by some students. After all, ADF has litigated (and won) hundreds of free speech cases on college campuses; we’re aware public discourse in American academia is messy and often intolerant.
I still wasn’t entirely prepared for the belligerence I faced. We ended the event on time, but it was impossible at times to hear or speak over the chanting, singing, and wall-pounding of the 120 or so students. They seemed unable to tolerate honest engagement with people and ideas they disagreed with. I was grateful for the police escort protecting our exit to a nearby police car.
Ironically, the event was designed to demonstrate how an atheist progressive and a Christian conservative could find common ground in protecting free speech. The Yale Federalist Society invited Monica Miller, an attorney with the American Humanist Association, to join me for a panel discussion of ADF’s recent U.S. Supreme Court win, Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski. I argued that government officials can and should be held accountable when they violate constitutionally protected freedoms. Monica and her organization certainly didn’t endorse our client’s message, but they agreed government shouldn’t have the power to censor its citizens.
But, while we offered a case study in cross-ideological collaboration, most tried to drown us out with their ideological outburst. I am thankful for the Monicas of the world — people who hold deep convictions while simultaneously recognizing the value in rigorous debate and, where possible, collaboration to protect civil rights. This kind of generosity has lent great strength to our country. But our experience at Yale made it painfully clear that such pluralism or freedom isn’t guaranteed. Without cultivation, it could disappear.
So what happens when the “COEXIST” stickers start to peel off? How does a Christian exercise a neighborly faith when one’s neighbors won’t let you finish a sentence or even share a room with you? The solutions aren’t simple, but I suggest Christians love their neighbors faithfully by showing up, listening up, and standing up.
For me, showing up meant accepting an invitation to a hostile event. If I’m invited back, I intend to accept. But “showing up” takes many forms. Maybe it’s helping your toddler communicate without throwing a tantrum (well before he or she enters law school), asking your niece or nephew about their favorite social media influencer, attending a local school board meeting that could get contentious, or risking a real conversation with the neighbor who voted for the other candidate.
Change — especially the kind of change that would reason with a mob of woke future world leaders — isn’t just a job for elite professionals. It’s the quiet, hard, and often unseen work of Christian living. It requires a truly faithful presence.
Christians also need to listen to their neighbors. I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul’s strategic Gospel conversation on Mars Hill. He’d paid attention and noticed the locals’ commitment to worship and used their superstitions as a conversation starter.
Listening should focus on real, specific individuals. But a good listener can benefit from cultural critics who study and help explain a community’s behavior — trends like a deep suspicion of institutions, unified tribal protest, and an obsession with sexual identity.
My Yale experience made conversation difficult. But the event highlighted a new class of thinkers who believe deeply in shame — even if their moral framework is misguided. I heard the chants and yelling of students who desperately want to be heard. They crave power, protection, and unqualified affirmation for themselves and people they believe are marginalized. They also believe that Christian orthodox beliefs are not just irrelevant or irrational but immoral. Listening is a vital part of understanding.
But listening isn’t enough. Christians must also stand up for truth. ADF’s primary mission is to defend First Amendment freedoms to keep the doors open for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For our clients, silence and compromise aren’t viable options. Some have faced job loss, fines, lawsuits, and harassment simply for behaving like Christians. In the face of such hardship, why do they keep standing?
Their convictions are too important. Their freedoms are still protected by the Constitution. And, fundamentally, caving to the activists’ authoritarian version of tolerance doesn’t allow them to authentically love their neighbors.
One such client is Lorie Smith, who owns 303 Creative, a Denver-based web design studio. If Lorie designs websites for weddings between a man and a woman, Colorado requires her to design and publish websites promoting messages that violate her religious beliefs. Lorie’s already received a request to design a website that would celebrate a same-sex wedding — something that violates her religious beliefs.
Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit issued a truly appalling ruling against her. Even though the court acknowledged that Lorie doesn’t discriminate against any customers, it ruled that Colorado’s law requires her to engage in speech that violates her conscience. Thankfully, the Supreme Court agreed to take her case, giving ADF the opportunity to argue that Lorie should be free to speak messages consistent with what she believes to be good and true. This should be the case for all Americans.
Most of the Yale law students I met in March probably don’t appreciate Lorie’s convictions or share my hopes for the outcome of her case. But my colleagues and I defend Lorie, in part, for their benefit. We want all future lawyers, leaders, and Americans to enjoy a country marked by greater tolerance and freedom.
I’m disappointed by the intolerant behavior of the nation’s most elite, privileged law students. But whether Yalies grow to appreciate and engage with diverse viewpoints or not, the best news for Christian believers is that our citizenship in this great nation isn’t permanent. We’re “looking for the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). In our efforts to be the most neighborly neighbors possible, we will show up, listen up, and stand up with a cheerful eye on our final home.