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Democrats' star is rising, even at Biola University

For the first time, the school's GOP club has a counterpart -- one of many signs of change on campus.

October 26, 2008|Gale Holland | Holland is a Times staff writer.

The campus banquet room is reserved, the gelato ices are on tap and the students are hoping for red, white and blue balloons over the archway.

But for the first time in years, the Republican club at Biola University, a conservative evangelical Christian college, doesn't know whether its election party will be a celebration or a wake.

"It would be really great if McCain pulls it out, but if not, our party is going to be over by 8:15 p.m.," club president John Sirjord, 19, said at the GOP group's ice cream social last week.

Biola University has long been a Republican citadel, helping its La Mirada precinct deliver 93% of the vote in each of the last two elections to George W. Bush, the president's best showing in any Los Angeles County polling area that cast more than 20 ballots. But change has come this year to the 95-acre campus on the border of Los Angeles and Orange counties, and not without turmoil.

For the first time in memory, a Biola College Democrats club has formed, marking campus walls with slogans such as "You are the change you hope for" and "If you want peace in the Middle East, you're a Democrat." After GOP groups protested that the content was "offensive," the posters came down. Joint debate-watching parties with the Republicans were nixed after some political invective was aimed at Democrats at an early gathering.

"For some reason, here on campus they think you can't be a Christian and a Democrat," said Biola Democrats president Athena Fleming, 24. "We have to act with the utmost diplomacy."

This year's presidential race has been generally polarizing. But political friction on the Biola campus reflects a deeper tension as the onetime Bible school feels its way to the modern ideals of pluralism, while striving to preserve its conservative core values.

Biola today is an accredited university offering advanced degrees and preparing 5,900 students from across the nation for a wide array of secular occupations, from business to archaeology. Minority students now make up 39% of the school's undergraduate student body of 4,800, and President Barry H. Corey has made social justice and diversity centerpieces of his administration. Students from "mono-cultures" of suburban or rural Christian high schools or home-schooling are encouraged to take an "urban plunge" to study inner-city churches and schools.

At the same time, Biola does not admit nonbelievers, and there is no drinking or dancing allowed on campus. Students agree to abide by what they call "the contract," prohibiting premarital sex and homosexuality. The college also posts a "doctrinal statement" condemning "abortion on demand."

Pete Menjares, Biola's associate provost for diversity leadership, acknowledged that navigating the shoals of modern pluralism has been difficult.

"One of the concerns we have is the level of isolation a number of our students have grown up in," Menjares said. "Diversity is much more complex than racial diversity. It's gender diversity and idea diversity. It requires change at a deep level."

Students, both Republican and Democratic, said they embrace the school's diversity mission. Still, the Democratic Club's recent debate-watching party in a Biola classroom began as a lonely vigil by Fleming. Of the few students who showed up, several identified themselves as independents or Libertarians.

"I have a lot of undecideds in my club; they feel they can learn more," Fleming said. But closet Democrats also are starting to emerge. "They come up to you in the hall and whisper, 'I'm one too,' " she said.

Fleming, a public relations major who will graduate in May and plans to go to law school, said she and other Biola Democrats are concerned with bread-and-butter economic issues. "We go to a very expensive private school, and a lot of the parents here are pastors or missionaries; they don't make a lot of money," she said.

On the drop-down screen at the front of the classroom, Barack Obama and John McCain began debating. Obama "goes back to that every time: four more years of the same thing," Fleming commented after a remark by the Democrat. And later: "Who's Joe the Plumber?"

The young woman watched attentively as Obama addressed a question on abortion by saying that nobody is for it.

"It was banned before and it didn't stop it from happening," Fleming said. "I am looking for the best plan to prevent it."

Days later, a couple of dozen Republican students gathered in the same classroom for the ice cream social, offered as an enticement for a club discussion of ballot propositions. As they dipped into tubs of supermarket ice cream, topped off with glossy red cherries and nuts, club president Sirjord announced that Fleming had dropped her political column in the Chimes student newspaper because of nasty e-mails.

Sirjord, 20, who is double-majoring in English and philosophy, told club members that he knew they were not to blame, but added, "I want to re-stress we can still be Christians . . . and treat each other with love as brothers and sisters.

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