Advocacy as a Witness for Christ

Advocacy as a Witness for Christ

Spring 2024

Shirley V. Hoogstra

For nearly 50 years, the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities has advocated to advance the cause of Christian higher education. From the outset, the CCCU knew we would have a strong presence in Washington, lending our voice on pressing issues of the day. Former CCCU presidents, including John Dellenback, Myron Augsberger, Bob Andringa, and Paul Corts, saw their personal contribution and the contribution of the larger organization as vital to the functioning of an excellent higher education sector in the United States.

Of course, the legislative, judicial, and regulatory landscape has altered greatly during that time, with a rate of change that accelerated over the past 10 years. Jim Denison’s podcast, The Denison Forum, recently hosted Aaron Renn, cofounder and senior fellow at American Reformer. According to Renn’s analysis, American culture has undergone three phases in its relationship to religion so far. The first was faith-positive, followed by faith-neutral. But according to Renn, in 2014 we entered a faith-negative phase in our nation’s history, as the broader American culture adopted a critical view of religion.

I assumed the role of president of the CCCU in 2014. And in 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage in the United States. This immediately created new territory of conflict within states, regulators, and Congress. Christian colleges and universities in the CCCU hold to a historic understanding of marriage, and since the Obergefell ruling, Christian colleges and universities have been at the tip of the spear for many unresolved tension points.

In 2015, our board of directors had to decide how to manage this new cascade of tension points. They decided that the CCCU would be “at the table” for all the discussions that were sure to ensue. That posture required us to form new partnerships. It required us to form deep theological understandings of how to live in a post-Christian society, like Daniel in Babylon. It required new ways of thinking for institutions that had previously enjoyed the positive, and then neutral, attitudes of culture towards Christianity. Now, Christian colleges and universities needed to serve as a light on a hill through their thoughtful contributions in a world where differences had become sharper.

This model has impacted all our advocacy work over the past decade. The CCCU’s advocacy always seeks to protect key operational principles for Christian colleges and universities, including:

  • the ability to hire, and fire, based on Christian beliefs and mission,
  • the ability to maintain policies for students, faculty, and staff that align with Christian principles,
  • the availability of funding to organizations with a religious mission, and whether it is being unfairly curtailed in violation of the separation of church and state, and
  • exemptions from regulations like Title IX based on an institution’s sincerely held religious beliefs and mission.

The staff at the CCCU continually monitors legislation, regulations, and court cases so we can intervene effectively in each of these spheres and beyond. We start by determining whether something will affect the way in which Christian higher education can function with institutional autonomy. Oftentimes, decision-makers do not even realize how a particular outcome could have an adverse effect on Christ-centered colleges and universities.

In court cases, we utilize a board-approved matrix that indicates when we file an amicus brief, or friend-of-the-court brief, essentially laying out a set of facts and how potential rulings would impact Christian higher education. We consider the importance of the case to higher education and/or religious freedom, the scope of the case, and the exigency of the issue. Many organizations file these amicus briefs so that the court’s ruling is well informed, not confined to a limited set of facts.

As one specific example, the CCCU intervened in the lawsuit Hunter v. Department of Education in 2021. In this case, current and former students from dozens of Christian colleges and universities sought to overturn the religious exemption to Title IX. Through this case, we successfully represented the good work that Christian colleges and universities do with LGBTQ students without compromising on a historical and biblical view of marriage.

In the face of these and other challenges, the CCCU remains committed to our first and foremost goal: to serve as a witness for Jesus Christ.


We developed a group of subject matter experts and compiled primary research which showed that LGBTQ students were better served on our campuses in many aspects than on secular campuses. This is so countercultural to what society believes about clashing viewpoints but demonstrates how Christian colleges and universities can show a way forward in polarized conversations. The judge granted the motion to dismiss the case in January 2023; the plaintiffs appealed the case, which is still ongoing. (Advocacy work related to human sexuality is one small part of our overall agenda. We have addressed new legislation around taxation and charitable giving, regulations around financial aid and accreditation, and court cases around hiring. One area where we find much satisfaction is our advocacy around Second Chance Pell for incarcerated individuals. See the timeline here for more details.)

The CCCU has always been quite aware of this fact: The federal government, which is of course our biggest funder through Pell Grants and other allowable loans, grants, and contracts, can also be the entity that most interferes with Christian higher education. In our legislative work, we conduct scores of visits with representatives and senators each year. The CCCU continually works to create conditions for dialogue and consultation with senators and representatives.

When it comes to the executive branch, the CCCU forms relationships with the staff of key departments — particularly the Department of Education, but also the Department of Labor and Department of Justice. As a nonpartisan organization, we set out believing that the people we encounter in the executive branch, regardless of the administration in power, come to their work wanting to do their best and be excellent public servants. Until we know otherwise, that is our posture towards them. We are determined to be team players and problem solvers around the things that matter to them, and to us.

This work is not always easy. To solve many different problems, we have to sit at many different tables, where we needed to cultivate a breadth of partnerships. Our institutions already had friends at many table settings, but we also had to form working relationships with new allies — in many cases, with people who shared many, but not necessarily all, our viewpoints. Over the years, that has challenged us to think about how to hold strong convictions while working with people with whom we may strongly disagree. We have learned how to unite under a common cause.

Another challenge has been funding our involvement in key court cases. The CCCU strives to be the leading voice for Christian higher education. We have filed scores of amicus briefs over the last 10 years. Our legal strategy requires excellent outside counsel who have been worth the high cost, providing immeasurable value for our legal strategy of vigorous representation and Christian witness on a contentious issue.

In the face of these and other challenges, the CCCU remains committed to our first and foremost goal: to serve as a witness for Jesus Christ. Our advocacy should be effective, but it must also always reflect the person of Jesus Christ through the fruits of the spirit — in particular, through a hospitable and problem-solving approach. Oftentimes advocacy can be characterized as elbows out, sharp, or war-like. But at the CCCU, we believe in making strong, compelling, and effective arguments for Christian higher education without brandishing a spear or conjuring fear in the hearts of our opponents. We confront every issue with the knowledge that both our allies and our opponents are image-bearers of God as we seek his Kingdom here on earth.

No matter how our culture changes in the future, the CCCU looks forward to advocating for Christian higher education over the next 10 years and beyond.