One of the greatest things about morality is how those who claim to act on its behalf are often the ones drinking from the emptiest cups.
Take Marty Dickens, for example.
As the chairman of Belmont University's board of trustees, Dickens has served as the voice of godliness behind the Nashville school's recent decision to fire Lisa Howe, its women's soccer coach, because she has the audacity to be gay and expecting a child with her partner. As Dickens told The Tennessean on Sunday, "We expect people to commit themselves to high moral and ethical standards within a Christian context. That includes members of the board, faculty and administration." Dickens went on to explain that Belmont, a Christian university, boasts a very strict no-sexual-relations-outside-of-marriage policy, and since gays can't marry in the state of Tennessee, well, hey, Howe had to go.
Every day, men like Marty Dickens wake up and thank God for their positions as unofficial deities. Every day, I wake up and thank God for men like Marty Dickens. Without such people, after all, who would we intolerance-seeking journalists have to write about?
But, alas, I digress. Until late last week, when she was let go from her position, Howe was one of the most respected figures on campus. In six seasons at the school, she guided a once-floundering program to a 52-48-16 mark, including an appearance in the 2008 NCAA tournament, a school-first. Howe was, without question, a dogged worker, a keen soccer mind, a beloved mentor, a positive influence.
In a dignified statement released Monday via her attorney, Howe thanked Belmont students for their support: "I respectfully ask members of the media to turn their attention away from me and toward the broader issues at stake that affect so many people in the Belmont community -- such as what it means to be a diverse Christian community and how we can support and respect each other despite our differences."
Despite her success things took a turn for the worse when Lowe recently asked Belmont administrators for permission to tell her players of her partner's pregnancy. After not hearing back, Howe repeated the request. Further silence ensued and finally -- with rumors of the impending baby swirling around her team -- Howe held a closed-door meeting to set the record straight. "She didn't want us to hear it from other sources," Erica Carter, a senior forward, told The Tennessean. "She has never talked about her personal life before. We always hear rumors, speculation and things. She wanted this to come directly from her."
By telling her players that her female "friend" was due with their baby, Howe was telling her players that she was a lesbian. By telling her players that she was a lesbian, Howe was violating what is, in effect, Belmont's very own "don't ask, don't tell" policy -- which, in its defense, permits homosexuality ... as long as nobody knows about it.
Hence, Howe -- according to many members of her team -- was pressured into resigning by the school (the university claims a "mutual decision" was made), which suddenly finds itself battling Bob Jones University for the top spot on the prestigious U.S. News and World Report annual BEST AMERICAN UNIVERSITIES TO ATTEND IF YOU HAVE NO TOLERANCE OF ANYONE list. Wrote Gail Kerr of The Tennessean: "Here is a woman who has been ousted by a Christian university because she is choosing to become a mother in a nontraditional way and refuses to lie about it or hide who she is. During the Christmas season. Imagine that."
Here's the good news: In the traditionally conservative, Bible Belt city of Nashville, people are livid. As men like Bob Fisher, the university president, and Mike Strickland, the athletic director, speak only in limp press releases (neither Fisher not Strickland returned calls from SI.com), Belmont's students are demanding accountability. Led by the gritty reporting of sports editor Pierce Greenberg, the Belmont Vision, the school's student newspaper, has been hammering the story with unrelenting vigor. On Sunday, meanwhile, some 40 students braved snow and fierce cold to hold a protest outside the campus. "For us," Becca Stone, a Belmont senior, told the Vision, "firing Coach Howe because of her sexuality was not the Christian thing to do."
Personally speaking, my favorite piece of this saga is Dickens, thus far the only Belmont official willing to stand up and admit that while the university might not hate gays, per se, it sure doesn't like 'em. "We do adhere to our values as Christ-centered," Dickens said, "and we don't want to make apologies for that."
Because the Bible is vague and textured and ancient and, at times, contradictory, the most respected theologians are often those who leave room for interpretation. It was Robert McAfee Brown, author of Theology in a New Key, who once said, "The Church cannot be content to live in its stained-glass house and throw stones through the picture window of modern culture."
For characters like Dickens, however, there is no wiggle room, and stones can be tossed at will. In his eyes, and in the eyes of Belmont's administrators, Howe's homosexuality violates a moral code that must be adhered to.
A good coach has lost her job because she's about to become a mother.
A good university has lost its reputation for the same reason.