Homosexuality is not a focus at Wheaton more than any other college, said Ryken, but culture places a priority on sex. The college does not keep track of the number of students who leave over homosexuality, he said. "There are a variety of challenges that different Christian colleges and universities face from people advocating homosexuality," Ryken said in an interview in his campus office. "OneWheaton has been clear in saying they're not interested in changing the college, but it remains to be seen what kind of influence they desire and may seek to have."
A growing trend
Evangelical colleges likely face generational differences in attitudes toward sexuality as younger evangelicals develop friendships with people who are gay, says David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, a Christian market research firm.
"There has been a shift from rightness to fairness," Kinnaman said. "There's a real sense in which their institutional loyalty and their loyalty to theoretical morals and ethical choices are trumped by their peer relationships."
About 40% of evangelicals between the ages of 18 and 29 are likely to say homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared to 24% of evangelicals who are older than 30, according to the 2007 religious landscape survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. But there is still less acceptance of homosexuality by evangelicals than by other young people. The same Pew poll found that 63% of Americans age 18 to 29 say homosexuality should be accepted by society, as do about half of Americans ages 30 to 64.
As a younger demographic is less opposed to gay marriage, they are also are more likely than before to identify as pro-life. Forty-one percent consider themselves "pro-choice," a record low since Gallup began asking the question.
"During the last five to seven years, there has been a definite uptick in interest [in homosexuality]," says Michael Hamilton, a history professor at Seattle Pacific. "As evangelicals and the main currency of American culture converge, an increasing number of gay students are going to say, 'Wait a minute. I don't see a problem.'"
Last year, students at Seattle Pacific University received student support and a faculty letter backing a group's desire to discuss being gay. Its administration approved the request but declined to give it official status. In 2010, Abilene Christian University declined to grant official status to a gay-straight alliance.
Michael Lindsay, president of Gordon College in Massachusetts, said that homosexuality is just one of a basket of issues that evangelical schools are dealing with now for the first time.
"Any moral issue dealing with the body gets a visceral response," said Lindsay, who said future important issues will include bioethics, disability and other questions dealing with life. "Because sex is tied in with the body, naturally it's one of those issues folks will have highly charged responses."
Facing alternative views
The Wheaton alumni group, OneWheaton, was initially a private Facebook network that went public partly in reaction to an April 2011 chapel service at Wheaton featuring Wesley Hill, a gay Wheaton alumnus who says he chooses to be celibate, a path that some gay students and alumni take. Hill wrote the 2010 book "Washed and Waiting," about being gay, Christian, and celibate, and told students how he came to his position that sex is between man and a woman in marriage.
"I found myself convinced of the position the church has held with almost totally unanimity throughout the ages, that although many people find themselves, through no fault of their own, to have sexual desires for members of their own sex, this is not something to be affirmed and celebrated, but is a sign that we're broken, in need of redemption and recreation," Hill told students.
"Gay people are not uniquely broken," he said. "That's a position we share with every other human who has ever lived or will live. But we are, nonetheless, broken. And following Jesus means turning our back on a life of sexual sin, just as it does for every other Christian."
According to a survey conducted by the Wheaton student newspaper in 2008, about 5% of students (mostly male) reported having "had a homosexual experience." About 56% of students agree or strongly agree that homosexuals are not welcome at Wheaton, the survey reported.
OneWheaton is working to change that in some in-your-face ways. During one homecoming weekend, the group held a concert featuring Jennifer Knapp, a former contemporary Christian Music musician who came out as a lesbian in 2010. "Although I disagree with painting sexual orientation and gender identity as a biblical sin, Wheaton has a right to that interpretation," Knapp said. "But I don't know how you can be welcoming but not affirming."
Knapp questions whether colleges such as Wheaton present alternative theological positions.
"Whether it's alcohol or premarital sex, is Wheaton an academic institution willing to present both sides, or is it wanting to churn out soldiers that believe exactly the same things they do?" said Knapp, who used to identify as evangelical but now disassociates herself from the movement.
The college does not typically host speakers who espouse theology that affirms same-sex behavior, but it does not forbid such discussion from taking place. Administrators say they know that students might end up differing with the college theologically.
"This is not a place of indoctrination," said Jones. "This is an educational community. We need to have a high level of patience and tolerance for students working through those issues."
In many ways, Jones said, students need to be thoughtfully engaging the issues.
"Many students have only heard about homosexuality in the context of 'Those bad people who we must oppose,'" he said. "There are many in our student body who want to engage these issues sympathetically, but there are others who are prone to thoughtless speech that can lean in the direction of incivility."
At the same time, he said, Christian colleges are facing outside professional and political pressure on gay issues. Wheaton administrators spent several months preparing for a 2006 visit from Soulforce, a group aiming to change religious leaders' minds on gay issues that was co-founded by Mel White, who was a ghost writer for some evangelical leaders, including Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell.
Soulforce members had been arrested at other Christian campuses that ban same-sex behavior, but the group had a cordial gathering at Wheaton and visited again last year.
In 2009, the American Philosophical Association adopted a procedure to "flag" ads from employers that ban same-sex sexual conduct.