Last Acceptable Prejudice on College Campuses

Last Acceptable Prejudice on College Campuses May 19, 2014

I don’t often go to campus talks at my university. I don’t go because if I attended all those that interest me I would never get my work done. But I made an exception for Dr. Eboo Patel. He was named by US News & World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders of 2009. He is the Founder and President of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a Chicago-based organization building the interfaith movement on college campuses. He served on President Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and was a Rhodes Scholar earning a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University. He is also the author of an award winning book, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.

I showed up just before his keynote would begin, and it turned out that I was one of only ten in attendance. I was shocked, but maybe I shouldn’t have been. The UW has so much going that turnout for these kinds of talks are hit and miss. Eboo was smart, however, he turned it into a seminar, we had UW administrators in our circle, with students and others interested in inter-religious dialogue. I had no idea what to expect. Our university, from my experience, does little to address religious diversity on campus. For the most part it ignores it, as the UW administrators confirmed.

When Eboo asked us what are doing to address this point of diversity, we dithered, saying in sum, we address most of the other diversity factors on campus, GLBT community, racial and ethnic groups, various forms of disabilities, and the like, but we do next to nothing in terms of religious diversity. “Do we have this diversity on campus?” He asked, rhetorically. He then suggested that our vaunted “secular but spiritual” tag probably fits the majority of the white population on campus, but as for minorities, it is flipped, most of these “diverse” ethnic students were likely religious, whether Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu. And, from what I can tell, this is accurate.

Eboo pushed us hard to begin to think of what we are doing for these students, and particularly for more conservative types of students in these various religions. He suggested, that while he is a political and socially progressive in his own Muslim faith, that most are not, and many Christian and Muslim students feel alienated by the type of open sexuality that is practiced and advertised on campus, “They feel oppressed by this kind of atmosphere. What are you doing to address these issues?”

Nothing. I suggested that “One of the few acceptable prejudices on public university campuses is the idea that conservative religions are backwards, oppressive and unenlightened—and this is the kindest way to put it.”

I was discussing this with a graduate student, who is already a published author in multiple peer-reviewed articles. He said, “I came into University of Washington as an undergraduate as a conservative Christian. And in a number of classes I had professors explicitly criticize religion and being religious, particularly conservative forms of Christianity. Several times I simply dropped the class, and after a while I just avoided these professors. But can you imagine professors saying openly it’s dumb to be gay, or women are not as intelligent as men? They would be reprimanded immediately.”

And I thought, indeed, that is true. Now, of course, I’m talking most directly about a secular public university in a city that is not known for its piety. And yet because I study Protestant evangelicalism, I know there are plenty of these folks on campus. I know these students, and they are very good students, often some of the best in my classes. But why is it okay to discriminate against them? At what point will the university begin to be pro-active in addressing these minority views? And more interestingly, should their speech, the speech of conservative religious and social values, be protected? I think most would say yes. But the fact is, at this point, at secular universities, it is not protected, indeed, one can say it is discriminated against.

One of the founding acts of the Comparative Religion Program at the University of Washington was a court case in which fundamentalist ministers sued arguing that the Bible as Literature class promoted a particular kind of theology, that is, a form of liberal Protestantism. The suit was thrown out, primarily, as the court argued, “… that the course: does not promote a particular theology for purposes of religious indoctrination, nor is it slanted in a religious direction, nor does it induce any particular religious belief, nor does it advance any particular religious interests or theology.” By the way, one of the three justices dissented from the final decision.

And so, Comparative Religion, at the University of Washington can teach about religions but not promote any specific form of religion. But I wonder, are we now talking about an atmosphere in which religion(s) are now discriminated against because they disagree with the overall social and political mores of a secular university culture? I tend to think that this is true. As Eboo argued, it’s time for the University of Washington to begin to take the rights of religious conservatives more seriously, because, perhaps ironically, the growing groups on campus, ethnic minorities, tend to be the very groups that express this kind of religion. And wouldn’t it be awkward to support ethnic groups and at the same time discriminate against one of the most important parts of their identity?

And this comes from someone who is an academic that studies contemporary forms of Christianities, and someone who is also a religious progressive. I would argue shouldn’t a university in this day and age be a place where all religious views can be expressed? A domain where these freedoms should be fiercely protected? I think so. But the truth is that they are not and it is one of the last acceptable prejudices on many US college campuses.


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