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A Public Letter for Tengatenga

Tengatenga Living Church.jpgAn extended statement of support headlined Defending Bishop Tengatenga has been published in the Living Church newspaper. Among the fourteen signatories are South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu; German Professor Irene Kacandes, who led the Search Committee that chose Tengatenga; and Religion Professor Randall Balmer, who was also on the search committee.

Much of the 1,283-word text reprises positions backing Tengatenga’s character and his suitability for the Tucker Foundation post that have already appeared in this space (here and here). However, the following phrases in the document synthesize a position that has underlain much of the debate, but that has not been addressed directly. It deserves further analysis:

The President’s [Hanlon] decision brought applause from some in the Dartmouth community. Others were appalled, as are we. The action represents a gross injustice to an individual who would have made an ideal person to provide moral and ethical leadership at the College. It casts serious doubts on what is being learned in American universities when members of those communities fail to distinguish between public positions of institutions and the views of individuals who participate in those institutions. [Emphasis added]

Not to put too fine a point on things, but isn’t the above bolded text no more than an articulate way of saying, “Don’t blame Tengatenga for his statements; he was only following orders.”?

Now, don’t get me wrong. Life is full of compromise. Perhaps we can accept that the Bishop made homophobic comments in the fulfillment of his church duties as part of a strategy to fight certain battles (Tengatenga publicly opposed government corruption and supported efforts to provide unjustly withheld medication to Malawian HIV/AIDS sufferers) and not fight others. One can argue that it is better to win victories on some fronts and stay quiet in other areas, rather than attack everywhere at once and achieve nothing.

But if we do accept that — and this choice is none too clear in the present context — it was up to Tengatenga to clarify his previous controversial statements in the weeks after his hiring was announced. I see that time period as akin to a public confirmation hearing. However, when Dartblog, the Dartmouth chapter of the NAACP, and The D raised numerous questions about Tengatenga’s past comments, he was incomplete and then evasive in explaining himself. A community like Dartmouth is based on honest intellectual give and take. It is not clear to me that Tengatenga realizes this central fact.

Had Tengatenga not jumped the gun and announced his hiring before the College’s PR arm was ready to present him to the Dartmouth community, an extended visit to Hanover could have been arranged, and he might have explained directly to his critics why he had chosen to adopt the positions that he had in Malawi, and he could have noted other past steps he had made in support of gay rights that had not yet entered the conversation. Regrettably, that dialogue did not occur.

As a result, we can fairly conclude that Tengatenga performed poorly in his confirmation process. Did he even take his critics seriously? His first, curt statement (“I consider all people equal before God regardless of their sexual orientation. Their dignity should be honored and respected and their safety assured. Where the law prescribes rights those rights have to be upheld. Discrimination of any kind is sinful.”) would lead one to think that intellectual exchange is not his forté.

Later, when Phil Hanlon withdrew his job offer, Tengatenga again showed an imperious, or at least petulant, side of himself, as in this e-mail that he sent to me:

Tengatenga Response1.jpg

Other public remarks were in a similar vein.

In short, Bishop Tengatenga had it in his power to ask forgiveness for his past ambiguous actions. And when his job offer was withdrawn, he could have shown magnanimous regret, rather than anger. He did not do so. That he failed both tests leads me to agree that Phil Hanlon made the right decision in cutting Tengatenga loose.

Addendum: The former Bishop for the New Hampshire diocese, Gene Robinson, did not sign the aforementioned statement. He is once again conspicuous by his silence in the current debate.

Addendum: Bishop Michael Ingham of the Diocese of New Westminster of the Anglican Church of Canada wrote to the Valley News in support of Tengatenga yesterday. Among his remarks:

After three decades of opposing intolerance and discrimination in both church and society, I must say to Hanlon that liberal intolerance is no more acceptable than its opposite. Both are dangerous to civil society and to a free university. Inclusion must by definition embrace different cultural perspectives — or else it is not inclusion at all. Dartmouth has lost an extraordinary opportunity to forge a relationship with Africa through one of its outstanding intellectual leaders.

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