Should Bethel be responsible for who's under its roof?

Matthew McDermott via Wikimedia Commons

Welcome at Bethel?

Academic and environmental blogs have been aflame over the recent nastiness of the dispute between climate skeptic Christopher Monckton and St. Thomas University professor John Abraham.

Amid all the hubbub over Monckton's outlandish behavior and the debate over who has the science right, something strikes me as odd:

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Here we have a minor celebrity with sketchy credibility (Monckton) being allowed to take the stage at Bethel, a Christian university. When a professor from St. Thomas, another Christian university, contradicts the man's work later on, the celebrity publicly insults and bullies the professor, trashing the university and its leader in the process.

Public statement from fellow Christian Bethel: Nothing.

Granted, the president finally did run a rather mild we-had-nothing-to-do-with-it piece on his blog Friday, but it seemed less than introspective, and its embarrassment level seemed practically zero.

That leaves me with the question:

What responsibility does a Christian university have when it comes to vetting third-party speakers?


Considering that the Moncktons of this planet already have plenty of forums in the polarized world of TV and talk radio, must a university really allow a potential bomb-thrower a platform? And should it apologize if he takes the stage and explodes?

While I wait for university responses, here's the background:

Monckton spoke Oct. 14, 2009 at Bethel University as guest of the Minnesota Free Market Institute.

He started in early by calling climate-change activists are "forces of darkness" and "bed-wetters," and the environmental Left in general:

"The Left, the environmental Left, the intolerant, communistic, narrow-minded faction does not care how many children it kills ... They want as much of humanity as possible, it sometimes seems to me, to be wiped off the face of the planet."

(He was actually talking about those who support the ban on the pesticide DDT, but the quote gives some of his flavor.)

He then proceeded to lay out why he thinks the science behind climate change is bunk. I won't get into science in the debate -- just the tactics.

Afterward, St. Thomas mechanical engineering professor John Abraham, who has a PhD from the University of Minnesota and specializes in heat transfer, fluid mechanics and computational methods, put out a presentation countering Monckton's claims.

Then Monckton shot back in an Alex Jones Show interview, here on YouTube, in which he called St. Thomas a "half-assed Catholic Bible college," and said that "apparently in this Bible college, lying is part of what they regard as their Christian mission."

He called St. Thomas' Rev. Dennis Dease a "creep of a president," and said that "the bishop these days is probably too busy sorting out the problems of little boys that he hasn't got time to deal with this one."


Abraham has, at least publicly, remained calm. Monckton has said he's trying to get St. Thomas to investigate Abraham, but St. Thomas won't back down. The university's attorneys told Monckton to shut it in a recent letter, as posted on the blog Rabbet Run.

On behalf of the University of St. Thomas, we demand that you immediately cease and desist making any further disparaging or defamatory comments about the University of St. Thomas, President Father Dease, Professor Abraham, the Archdioceses of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, or anyone else associated with the University. If your inappropriate conduct does not cease immediately, the University of St. Thomas will have no choice but to take appropriate legal action.

Meanwhile, Bethel said practically nothing in public until President James "Jay" H. Barnes III wrote in his blog on Friday that Bethel merely rented space to the program's sponsor, the Minnesota Free Market Institute.

Does this mean that by allowing them to use their space for the event there was tacit approval or endorsement of the event? No. Do we as a university object to or endorse either side in this debate? No. Does it mean that we “invited” him to speak? Emphatically, no.

In addressing the vetting of engagements on Bethel property, he wrote:

Do we screen these rentals and make judgment calls as to what we do and don’t host? There are legal as well as practical issues that play into this. As long as an event or group is not antithetical to our mission, we will usually host an event if our space is available and appropriate.

The Bethel president mentions the group -- in this case it was the Minnesota Free Market Institute, which I assume would pass the test -- but not speakers.

Go over Monckton's past and decide for yourself whether his statements and tactics are antithetical to Bethel's mission.

He has had a less-than-unblemished history back in Britain. In a piece titled "Monckton's response to John Abraham is magnificently bonkers," George Monbiot of the British newspaper The Guardian writes:  

"... Monckton has falsely claimed to be a member of the House of Lords (although you can read his explanation here); falsely claimed to be a Nobel laureate; falsely claimed to have won the Falklands war (by suggesting to Margaret Thatcher that the SAS introduce a mild bacillus into the water supply in Port Stanley); maintained that he has invented a cure for HIV, multiple sclerosis, influenza and other diseases; and grossly exaggerated his role in shaping Margaret Thatcher's views."

Aside from that, in 2007, The Scotsman newspaper reported that Monckton had concocted a pity story for the news media so he could boost sales of a puzzle he had invented. In other words, he didn't tell the truth.

Meanwhile, St. Thomas has remained low-key. After all, the university has itself had its share of fallout from controversial speakers -- most notably Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Ann Coulter.

"We think, 'Oh, Bethel, we feel your pain because we’ve been there," said St. Thomas spokesman Tim Winterer.

Bethel spokeswoman Amanda Wanke said the flap hasn't strained relations.

 "There's never been anything tough between St. Thomas and us," she said.