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Isabella Chow: When winsome isn’t enough

The 18-year-old in our house probably gets tired of me saying it, the stuff about looking outside the norm for your heroes. “Dig into dusty biographies of the dead,” I tell her. “Reach out to today’s not-so-cool.” During such conversations, I generally do not point her to people in the headlines, but last week a name kept popping up in the news feeds I read. Conservatives were calling Isabella Chow “courageous” and “Christlike.” Fox’s Laura Ingraham lauded her like a Joan of Arc. I figured there was something about the college coed and her controversial stand that might be worth examining. 

Chow’s story is rooted in 1972, when President Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law. It’s an act that prohibits institutions receiving federal money from discriminating on the basis of sex. Of course, back in 1972 “sex” was a discernable reality, but under Obama, reality was redefined. The Trump administration has said it will seek to reestablish the scientific and original intent of the word as used in Title IX.

In response, the student senate at The University of California, Berkeley introduced a resolution urging the university to increase its support for “transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming students.” That’s where Chow comes in. The soft-spoken double major happens to occupy a reserved seat in that senate body, and when push came to shove, she didn’t vote for the measure. Her five-paragraph written statement included salient points like: 

“I have said, and will always say, that discrimination against or harassment of any person or people group is never, ever okay . . . My God is one who assigns immeasurable value to and desires to love each and every human being . . . That said, I cannot vote for this bill without compromising my values . . . Where this bill crosses the line for me is that I am asked to promote a choice of identities that I do not agree to be right or best for an individual, and to promote certain organizations that uphold values contrary to those of my community . . .” 

Oh, the outcry that ensued. Instant enemies called Chow a bigot, a hater, homophobic, transphobic, and other things I won’t repeat. Her campus political party renounced her. A petition called for Chow’s resignation from the student government. Her phone blew up with caustic messages. A school senate meeting packed with some 300 students lambasted her for three hours. The student newspaper vilified her but wouldn’t print her response. Concerned friends escorted Chow to and from classes. The university cancelled her piano recital, fearing protesters would disrupt it. 

Chow later said, “I didn’t expect that a place that claimed to be so inclusive and tolerant would turn its back on me so quickly.”  Yet it did. She told Fox News, “If I don’t represent the Christian perspective—the minority perspective—there won’t be anyone to represent these views.”

Let me emphasize again that Chow wasn’t spewing hatred at Berkeley. Quite the opposite. She repeatedly emphasized her love and respect for those with whom she disagrees. Even the San Francisco Chronicle credited her with politeness. That’s why she’s being hailed as a model of what a Christian should look like in the public square.

Lots of big names have commented on Chow’s situation, but some of the best words have come from Andrew Walker of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He said the real lesson here is for Christians who believe winsomeness will win the day. “We’re tempted to think that finding the right aesthetic or tone will resolve the underlying tensions that exist when Christianity confronts the world with an ethic that the world does not want to hear. We think we can have our cake and our popularity, too. Chow is a living example of how this approach is naive.”

Even so, Christians practice a faith that calls them to be kind, polite, and more than civil. Walker says the key is not fearing the reprisals that are sure to come despite those efforts: “(Chow’s) example is an example for all of us as Christians prepare to stay faithful in a culture that looks less and less Christian by the day.”

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com