John Myers received his B.S. degree in journalism from Auburn University. He is a member of the staff of Christian Leadership Ministries where he is the editor for The Real Issue and is responsible for a number of other publications. He and his wife have two children and live in the Dallas area.
There was a firestorm in Columbia, South Carolina, last summer-a blaze of controversy ignited by a graduate-level course offered at the University of South Carolina.
The Christian community in Columbia raged against a course which would "assist school practitioners and others in understanding the fundamentalist phenomenon and combatting its challenge to public education in a secular democracy."
Dr. Jim Carper, associate professor of foundations of education, was upset by the course description as well, but he withheld his judgment and went directly to the source of the dispute. His efforts helped turn the course into a platform for evangelical thought.
It wasn't only the written description of the summer course "Christian Fundamentalism and Public Education" which upset the Christian community, but the teacher chosen to oversee the course as well.
Activist homosexual professor Dr. Jim Sears, teacher of educational leadership and policy studies and author of Growing up Gay in the South, was picked to lead the four-and-a-half week series of lectures.
Battle lines were quickly drawn on both sides of the issue after The State newspaper in Columbia broke the story of the course description and teacher on its front page Friday, May 28. Conservative Christians were outraged, and they protested directly to the school's administration and in letters to the newspaper.
Soon, conservatives in South Carolina became frustrated because administrators were reluctant to concede to their demands to cancel the class or change its content. The class was already an officially approved and continuing summer course which simply had a change in topic.
The issue became so divisive that both liberals and conservatives began to engage in name-calling, according to Carper.
Carper is a vocal and well-known Christian within the college of education at USC. He took an objective look at the dispute and decided to exercise the Christian principle of personal confrontation before reacting publicly.
"I told them the best thing to do when there's someone with whom you have a grievance or a grudge is to go to that individual personally before you start yelling at department heads, deans, trustees, and the president of the university."
When Carper saw Sears in a grocery store, he arranged to meet with him to discuss the content of his course.
During their meeting, Sears admitted to Carper that the course description contained a poor choice of words. He claimed what was meant by the course description was to examine combatting the fundamentalists when they engage in extraconstitutional efforts to change the public schools.
To Carper's surprise, Sears then invited him to give suggestions for the bibliography, reading material, and possible speakers for the fundamentalist perspective. He said Carper knew the conservative world better than he did, and he was trying to obtain speakers on both sides of the issue.
"I went directly to my office and spent about three hours typing up a selected bibliography, recommendations as to persons I would like to see involved in the course, what their specializations were, and how they might contribute to the course," said Carper.
As soon as he finished the list, Carper went straight back to Sears and handed it to him.
Sears took the recommendations seriously. The resulting course included lectures delivered by Christian speakers such as First Amendment law expert Mike McConnell from the University of Chicago, Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the publication First Things, a representative of Focus on the Family, University of Notre Dame scholar Dr. George Marsden, well-known and versed pastors from the area, and even Carper himself.
"I have two graduate students who took the course and they said it was extremely well done . . . probably one of the best intellectual experiences they had ever had," Carper stated.
And there were speakers from the other side of the fence, such as a representative of People for the American Way. But according to Carper, who listened to the lectures on tape and received regular reports from his graduate students, Sears was fair in leading discussion and didn't try to bias class opinion.
"Jim did not dominate the discussion after presentations," Carper commented, "but only helped to facilitate them."
Carper said being a part of the course taught him a great deal about working with someone he disagrees with philosophically.
"I was put in a situation in which I literally had to interact face-to- face with someone whose politics and sexual orientation I find utterly abhorrent . . . and yet to see him as a human being."
Carper suspects Sears was probably savaged verbally while growing up by people he would consider Christians; people who never "attempted to speak the truth in love" to Sears.
"There were some things said during the controversy by Christians about Jim's sexual orientation that could have been left unsaid," Carper remarked.
"I think Sears' own perception had long been that you couldn't be a conservative Christian and an academic; that it was almost an oxymoron.
"I believe the one reason Jim and I got along as well as we did," he continued, "was this may have been his first experience with a conservative Christian who is an academic and treated him civilly."
After the course was completed Carper said he did see in The State where even Sears stated, "I've changed my mind about a few things after this, too."
The Christian cause on campus could benefit if Christians exercised more composure and sought dialogue with "the opposition" before reacting, Carper suggested.
"There's a whale of a lot of stereotyping taking place on both sides."