Timothy Keiderling’s decision to enroll in the Princeton Theological Seminary reflected his commitment “to give my life to work for justice and to live out the values of the Kingdom of God.” In a letter to the seminary’s president, Craig Barnes, he wrote that he “would sacrifice anything to make sure that my brothers and sisters see relief from their oppression.”
But the seminary’s concept of justice clashed with Keiderling’s conscience when PTS required him to attend “anti-racism” training sessions that he considered a form of indoctrination. He refused to participate in the sessions even after being reminded that they were mandatory. And then – early this year, with the potent support of the newly founded Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) – he convinced the seminary to exempt him from the training.
It was “a real victory which can advance the academic freedom cause substantially,” says Princeton Professor Robert George, a leader of the AFA who acted as an adviser to Keiderling, and whom the latter credits with making his victory possible. “Instead of a victim, we have a victor — one who stuck to his guns and persuaded his institution not only to respect his right of conscience, but to acknowledge the difference between education and indoctrination.”
As universities across the country careen more and more to the left – amid attacks not only on conservative and moderate students and faculty but also on liberals targeted for not being radical enough – mandatory instruction in far-left views on race, gender, and sexuality is on the rise. Students and faculty are told what they must think and say while submitting to “trainings” that require them to confess to, or otherwise accept guilt for, the taint of whiteness, or to defer to nonwhite and LGBTQ students or both.
Keiderling’s case matters because – at a time when critical race theory and anti-racism training are routinely described in the media as benign ways to encourage meaningful conversations – his experience opens a window into the often coercive and radical nature of those efforts. His willingness to push back against being told what he must think and to hint at a possible lawsuit to protect his right to think for himself may presage something like the broad pushback that has taken place in the courts against unfair procedures in campus sexual assault cases, suggested George.
Keiderling, who hails from the New Paltz, N.Y., area, said he entered PTS in August 2019, at the age of 24, hoping to learn the variety of opinions on the big questions about the New Testament, including nondenominational, outside-the-box perspectives.
He enjoyed most of his first year at PTS and his roughly 360 fellow graduate students and other friends in Princeton. But that year was a turbulent time, as the seminary was in the midst of an intensive, multi-year analysis of its ties to slavery, its “ongoing legacy of racism” since its founding in 1812, and its need for “confession and repentance.” And in Keiderling’s second year – after police killings of George Floyd and others had rocked the school along with the rest of the country – the seminary became focused on race, gender, and causes including “social justice” and “a serious overhaul in the nation’s approach to policing.” Beginning in August 2020, he said, he and his classmates were required to submit to direction by PTS in how they must think and speak about matters of race, gender and sexuality.
“We were given guided readings and videos and told that there is only one possible response,” he recalls. “In other words, we were told what to think. I considered it indoctrination.”
He is not alone in that concern, according to Samantha Harris, a Philadelphia-area lawyer and former student of George’s who specializes in advising students and faculty, and whom Keiderling retained at George’s suggestion.
“Students and faculty of all races and ethnicities have increasingly been objecting to diversity trainings that label people as oppressors or oppressed based on their group identity rather than focusing on the importance of treating every individual with equal worth and dignity,” Harris said. “And increasingly, these students and parents have been paying a steep price for challenging the official orthodoxy of the educational elite.”
Most students choose, however reluctantly, to go along with this sort of “training” rather than challenge it as Keiderling did. Indeed, he says, he might have gone along too, but for the help he got from the Academic Freedom Alliance.
As Keiderling now knows, but many well-educated people do not know, being ordered to say something that one does not believe has been held by the Supreme Court to violate the First Amendment guarantee of free speech since a 1943 decision barred public schools from requiring children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Private institutions such as PTS are not bound by the First Amendment. But courts have construed the assurances of freedom of thought and speech that most private universities (and seminaries) provide in their promotional literature and handbooks as contractually binding commitments to students who choose to attend. Keiderling saw that the PTS Handbook, for example, said that the “Seminary encourages frank and candid discussion of matters under debate in society and church [and] deplores efforts to suppress views contrary to one’s own.”
Nevertheless, Keiderling attended the first training session in August 2020. He was troubled when the trainers asked participants “to choose readings about racism to complete based on the race with which we identify.” PTS required that students be separated into three Zoom meeting groups: a “white-only group,” which students were told “creates a space where we can really grapple with our Whiteness and how we’ve been socialized” without “harm[ing] our colleagues and co-students of color”; a group of “students who identify as Black, Indigenous, or a person of color”; and a racially integrated group for those uncomfortable with segregation.
(These passages, from videos related to the training, were leaked to the conservative Young America’s Foundation, which posted them on its website.)
Barnes said in an email interview that “if students chose to initially self-select to participate in [racial] affinity groups, they were required to engage in broader, racially diverse, community discussions later in the process.”
Many of the meetings were led by paid consultants from companies that are in the business of conducting such training.
Keiderling was troubled when the trainers suggested that being white was “something to repent for.” In his view, followers of Jesus should not treat one another differently based on race and that kind of “training” would “divide us.”
A “Report From the Antiracism Task Force” sent to students and faculty by group’s chairperson, the Rev. Dr. Victor Aloyo Jr., said: “It is imperative to offer white and white-passing constituents opportunities to grow in their understanding of white privilege and white supremacy and their responsibility to dismantle it, both in their individual lives and within the Seminary. … Faculty, administration, students, and staff will be required to attend seminars on antiracism conducted by an external trainer. The seminars will include Implicit Bias assessment and training as a first step in creating an Equity Lens, which is essential to begin the difficult work of developing antiracism philosophy and practice.”
Students were also told that the “centering principle of Princeton Seminary’s training and growth efforts is around the wants and needs of the faculty, staff, and People of Color”; that these efforts “should fall primarily on members of the majority culture”; and that the “Seminary, and all its constituency together will continually identify and unpack systems of oppression present within the seminary culture.”
Keiderling said this approach was in conflict with the Seminary’s stated principles.
“The institution markets itself as a place that values free inquiry and the freedom of conscience,” he said. “Yet in a situation of momentous national importance, when it seemed like the foundation on which our country was built was cracking, that freedom of thought and inquiry was essentially taken away.”
Aside from indoctrinating students on how they must think and speak about matters of race, PTS policies and teachings contained multiple racial and other double standards unfavorable to white students. In a report titled “Princeton Seminary and Slavery,” the PTS leadership made assertions such as: “Whiteness is a form of structural sin that white people are embedded into, a system they did not choose but nevertheless benefit from.” Barnes, the PTS president, announced that any student who identified as a “person of color” could have free counseling sessions with a licensed psychologist for trauma. (Barnes said in the interview: “Counseling resources are available to all of our students, and the announcement you reference was in response to a specific request from students in a specific context.”)
Even as it pressed these views, the seminary worked to keep them hidden. Barnes sent an email to “the Seminary Community” on March 18, 2021, complaining that “the antiracism formational materials and videos that were created for our community were recently shared widely on a website that distorted the materials to discredit this important work.” He denounced as a “breach of trust” the leaking of them to the Young America’s Foundation and said that the seminary is pursuing claims with YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook to remove this “proprietary content.”
Barnes said in the interview: “We did not seek to ‘hide’ our materials as you suggest, but they were designed to be used within a specific context.” He said the leak violated participants’ privacy, and the distribution of the unauthorized recording “without the permission of participants is not only disrespectful but threatens the effectiveness of the initiative, which requires … trust and good faith.”
Telling Students How to Think
In addition to instructing students on race, Keiderling said, the seminary’s training session tried to tell students how to think about transsexualism, transgenderism, and gender ideology – including “preferred pronouns” that differ from a person’s birth sex. “Every time someone’s name appeared in the training, their pronouns were given,” he recalls. The fairly clear message was, he said: “Not only are we going to train you about how to be anti-racist, we are going to make it crystal clear, over and over again, that we think gender is something we can choose, and it is independent of who each person is physically and biologically.” Submitting to such training would, he felt, conflict with his religious beliefs.
“My faith does not allow me to give my assent to the idea that gender is something one can choose, or is constituted as a kind of psyche that is or may be distinct from a person’s bodily reality,” Keiderling explained. He and the Bruderhof community, a communal Christian denomination to which he has belonged since childhood, do not accept that cornerstone of trans thinking. “I respect the choices that my friends and classmates make,” he added. “But in this situation, it felt like more than simple mutual respect was being asked of me. If I submit the required writing assignments for this training without at least noting my personal objections, am I giving my silent assent to the idea of gender fluidity? It sure felt that way.”
The Bruderhof is an international Anabaptist Christian movement founded about a century ago in Germany with communal practices, Keiderling said, like those of Jewish kibbutzes.
Some fellow students shared his concerns about the training, Keiderling said. While about 40% of the faculty very strongly supported it and the “whiteness is a form of structural sin” approach, the rest were afraid not to voice support, he said. He added that he considers many of the PTS people involved in these trainings to be friends “in spite of serious disagreement.”
Keiderling did not provide the written responses required by the training that August or in the next round of trainings. But over time, the trainers, including two consultants from companies called Reverb DEI and Majors Leadership Group, and PTS’s administration made it clear that Keiderling, like his classmates, must submit to the seminary’s new dogmas.
He did not submit. And it soon became clear that PTS’s leaders did not know who they were dealing with. “It didn’t surprise me that Timothy took a personal stand,” says George, a Princeton University professor of jurisprudence and a Roman Catholic. “The Bruderhof, where Timothy comes from, are simply fearless. Gentle and fearless. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
George said he came to know the international Bruderhof community in 2014, when he was chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. He recalls: “Leaders of the Bruderhof reached out to me to ask how they could help refugees and others in the Middle East, whether Christian of not, who were suffering religious persecution.” The Bruderhof also have a long and well-documented history of supporting African American and other civil rights causes.
As Keiderling was trying to decide what to do, he sought advice from George, a leader of 30 or so Princeton faculty members who have strongly supported freedom of speech and conscience. (While the seminary is independent of Princeton University, the two institutions have historical ties. The university’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, declared in September 2020 that racial and cultural “training” would not be mandatory even though he supported educational programs to fight racism and promote sensitivity.)
George was also deeply involved in the creation of the AFA, a high-powered group of some 400 faculty members across the nation, chaired by another prominent Princeton constitutional law scholar, Keith Whittington. It was founded to provide moral, practical, and legal support – including help with legal fees, when necessary – to faculty members nationwide whose rights to free speech, freedom of conscience, or academic freedom are being threatened or violated.
While the AFA focuses mainly on helping faculty members, not students, George says that “we decided that this case had broad implications — not only for students but also for faculty — concerning the threat to academic freedom and the integrity of education posed by indoctrination in the form of mandatory ‘trainings.’”
In an Oct. 23, 2020, email to Keiderling, George wrote that he and his AFA colleagues at Princeton were “eager to support and help you in every way we can, including by making fully available financial resources to ensure that your contractual or other academic freedom rights are strictly respected by PTS. Although it is a private institution, any representations in any of its literature regarding freedom of thought, conscience, inquiry, expression, etc. are legally enforceable.”
George also arranged a consultation for Keiderling with Samantha Harris. With advice from George and Harris, Keiderling sent Barnes a 1,200-word email, dated Dec. 10, 2020, that requested “an exemption from all upcoming trainings,” about which he expressed “deep concern.” He explained that they “are antithetical to PTS’s mission and vision,” are divisive, “will impinge upon our freedom of thought, and … present a profound threat to freedom of conscience.”
‘Not the Way to Right the Wrongs’
He added: “As fellow followers of Jesus, we have no business treating each other differently based on our race. Don’t we remember that in Christ, these distinctions have no place anymore? Or what else did the Apostle mean when he wrote that ‘in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free’? The problem of racial injustice cries to heaven. But dividing us from each other is not the way to right the wrongs.”
Worse, he said, “[T]hese trainings present a serious threat to freedom of thought, to the point where it seems like we are being indoctrinated. We are only given one possible answer to every question about race, only one race among our student body has to do any learning, growing, or changing, the identity of one group of people is condemned as something that needs to be ‘dismantled’ even ‘in individual lives,’ and [white people] are told in no uncertain terms that their very identity should be something to repent for.”
Keiderling’s email also stressed that “PTS’s approach to anti-racism has stifled any opportunity” to have the kind of “frank and candid discussion” about questions surrounding race promised in its Handbook – a hint at a possible lawsuit.
Then he turned to the frequent “use of pronouns of choice” in the training sessions, which he said express “the notion that gender is something that one can choose or something that is independent of one’s bodily reality as male or female, an idea to which I cannot in good conscience assent. … If I complete this training as it stands, I would be giving my ‘yes’ to not just a problematic understanding of race, but also ideas about gender that go directly against my conscience and my faith.”
The answer from Craig Barnes came the next day. It was unyielding. Stressing PTS’s efforts “to be proactive in becoming antiracist in our policies,” he asserted that “we are requiring that every member of the PTS community participate in the trainings” while allowing members “to add comments” at the end. He suggested that Keiderling discuss his concerns with the Rev. Dr. John White, the PTS dean of student life.
On Dec. 16, Keiderling emailed Barnes to reiterate his concerns, including “my point that the training to which I object violates representations of academic freedom made by PTS on which I relied in accepting admission, and which I believe represent legally enforceable terms of the contractual relationship between PTS and me.”
Barnes responded on Dec. 17, more conciliatory than before. It might be possible, he suggested, for Keiderling and Dean White “to develop a creative way forward that meets the seminary’s goals in antiracism training while honoring the dictates of your conscience.”
“[T]hey have now blinked,” Samantha Harris declared half an hour later in an email to Keiderling and George: “This is a victory. Remember, the first response was – this training is still mandatory.” George agreed: “Yes. I know a blink when I see it. They blinked.” Harris suggested looking for a way to “allow them to save face,” such as Keiderling offering to read books or materials “that they consider important … and write a response to them of your choosing.”
On Dec. 22, Keiderling emailed Dean White and proposed an agreement: He would read Ibram Kendi’s “How to Be an Anti-Racist” and other works by thought leaders of the anti-racist movement and then write a long essay by Feb. 26 “with an emphasis on how I might apply the lessons … to my own work and ministry while still upholding the values and beliefs I cherish.”
Keiderling met with White on Feb. 5, after the holidays. “It went quite well,” he emailed his advisers. “He listened to my concerns and made it clear that … he respects and understands my position.” The two men agreed that they would both read and then discuss the Kendi book, about which Keiderling could be as critical as he liked, and then White would exempt Keiderling from the rest of the training. “I’m quite happy with this result,” Keiderling concluded. So were George, Samantha Harris, and the AFA, to whom Keiderling has expressed great gratitude. George sees Keiderling’s victory as a model for other students and faculty who face pressure to submit to indoctrination.
Keiderling graduated from PTS in May with a master’s degree in New Testament Studies. He accepted a position teaching hermeneutics and Greek at Nyack College, the New York City Bible college from which he had graduated summa cum laude in December 2018 (when it was in Nyack, N.Y.), and at which he taught New Testament Greek as an adjunct instructor during his two years at PTS.
This September, Keiderling will move to Jerusalem for doctoral studies at the Hebrew University there. He will be studying the foundations of early Christianity within Judaism, in a joint program with a professor from Hebrew University and one from the University of Munich supervising his doctorate. He relishes the prospect of living and learning in the land of the life of Jesus, “where all this stuff actually happened,” and experiencing the language of the Bible as a living language. This, he hopes, will help him “bring it to life” in his future work.
Stuart Taylor Jr. is a Washington journalist and author