The Bishop, the Statesman, and the Wren Cross:
by George Harris
Halfway down one wall of the
Wren Chapel at the
Juxtaposed to the
If you enter the Chapel now, except during Christian services, you will see the plaque on the wall but not the cross behind the altar in its usual place. Boxed-in pews still line each side of the room. A small balcony in the shadow of organ pipes reaching toward the ceiling high above still borders the back. And the altar, replete with cushioning for kneeling, still surrounds the now vacant spot.
Of course, the cross has been removed before. Regularly, in fact. Under the policy recently abandoned, it could be temporarily removed for non-Christian services, such as nonreligious weddings (I was married there myself in a completely secular ceremony in 1987), but it was to be returned to the altar immediately after such events, leaving the Madison memorial and the cross juxtaposed in an arrangement for thousands of visitors each year to see and interpret for themselves. Under a new policy initiated by William and Mary President Gene Nichol, the cross has been removed from the altar, as has the interpretive challenge.
To say that the change has
caused a fuss would be like referring to the Civil War as the “late
unpleasantness,” especially in
In reaction, the left has lathered while the right has frothed. Faculty members have published letters in the local newspaper praising Nichol’s sensitivity; college committees have produced resolutions swearing loyalty to the president’s cause; and the Board of Visitors has predictably deferred the burden of leadership to an unsuspecting committee, which has decided to encase the cross in glass and return it to the chapel, but place it somewhere away from the altar. Where to put it, of course, remains as vexing as the issue of its removal, leaving the politics of expedience to the merciless fate of poetic justice.
In hopes of making contact with American sentiments too long suppressed by the routine rancor of the right and the left, a third perspective is in order. What’s at stake isn’t simply a local affair in a small but prestigious university, but an issue about the possibilities of American unity amidst diversity. The pot that has spilled over at William and Mary is boiling in various ways all over the country.
I think the cross should be returned to the altar and the old policy renewed. I am an unapologetic atheist, an American secularist in the Madisonian tradition, and a self-professed, dyed-in-the-wool American. That I align myself, then, with the disgruntled Christians on this issue might make my view worth the effort to understand. I certainly can’t be written off as a lackey for Newt Gingrich or some other element of the far right.
An atheist’s perspective is akin in some ways to the social awareness of Jews of the diaspora. We live in the expectation of being a minority in perpetuity among an overwhelming majority of people who don’t share our basic beliefs and who view us as somewhat strange, even with some suspicion. We are also aware that when it comes to belief in a supernatural creator, other minorities side with the majority, making us the few among the few.
Yet American atheists,
skeptics, agnostics, and humanists have a special sense of belonging that is foreign
to a diaspora psychology. Because of the
It may seem odd then that I would interpret the old arrangement so differently than President Nichol and those who complained about the cross. They saw the cross as unwelcoming and, in a certain political language, noninclusive. In a letter to the College Board of Visitors Nichols elucidated that perspective:
Though we haven’t meant to do so, the display of a Christian cross—the most potent symbol of my own religion—in the heart of our most important building sends an unmistakable message that the Wren Chapel belongs more fully to some of us than to others. That there are, at the College, insiders and outsiders. Those for whom our most revered place is meant to be keenly welcoming, and those for whom presence is only tolerated. That distinction, I believe, to be contrary to the best values of the College.
It is precisely because the Wren Chapel touches the best in us . . . that it is essential it belong to everyone. There is no alternate Wren Chapel, no analogous venue, no substitute space. Nor could there be. The Wren is no mere museum or artifact. It touches every student who enrolls at the College. It defines us. And it must define us all.
In the College’s family there should be no outsiders. All belong.
These are heady words, to be sure. But no matter how heartfelt, they can, like the cross, send different messages to people with different sensitivities.
Even among politically moderate Christians, a very different bunch than the professional head-hunters who make the news, many will read the letter as the passive-aggressive prose of containment rather than as any real attempt to reach out to them as members of the William and Mary “family.” To them, the letter seems addressed to someone else, a sermon to an already convinced choir, to all and only those members of the family long since converted to a certain version of the gospel of inclusiveness, and laden more with sentimentality than genuine sentiment. To them, the letter is a stiff-arm, a preemptive rebuke, in a very fatherly tone, to any member of the “family” daring to challenge its central claim that the display of the cross “sends an unmistakable message” that non-Christians are at best only to be tolerated at the College. To these Christians, the letter is rudeness unmistakably disguised as a lesson in the etiquette and ethics of hospitality.
At the root of their umbrage is the central claim of the letter, which is false. If the cross sent an unwelcoming message, it isn’t one that is “unmistakable.” Thousands of people very familiar with the Wren Chapel (including at least one atheist) clearly didn’t get such a message. Are we really so dense and insensitive that we have missed the obvious?
There is a culture on campus (and most campuses) that is strong in administrative circles, student associations deeply influenced by administrative involvement, and among many faculty committees with administrative contacts, and that sees itself as enlightened on the issues of inclusiveness and multiculturalism.
But this culture is not as enlightened as it thinks; I dare say it is even insensitive. Reasons need to be given to the rest of us for the central claim of the letter, and none are. Instead, the point is simply asserted, and without any discussion of its merits outside the culture that produced it, a political concept is introduced for governing future William and Mary policy. The “Hospitality Norm,” as I will call it, requires any practice that is unwelcoming to any student at the College to be replaced.
Of course, public universities should avoid making any reasonable student, religious or not, feel unwelcome. But to characterize all opponents of the cross decision as objecting to hospitality for students regardless of religious orientation is perverse. Any intelligent person will ask what an appropriate welcome should be and how policies for a welcoming atmosphere are to be assessed. Even the general language of the administration implies the legitimacy of such questions when it asks us to think of ourselves as a family.
Should we think this way?
The notion of the “college family” (whether Christian or multicultural) is both puzzling and troublesome. Literally welcoming someone into your family involves thinking of that person as a family member: bringing home a newborn baby, adopting a child, accepting new mothers and fathers-in-law, taking back the prodigal son, or receiving a soldier-spouse home from the war. But which familial relations are supposed to exist in public universities? Who are the parents, siblings, and children, the uncles, aunts, and cousins? If students are university children, are administrators and faculty university parents? And is university teaching best understood as a form of parenting?
No doubt the doctrine of in loco parentis has fueled the idea of public universities as families, but it is hard to see the reason in the rhetoric. Does the idea do anything to clarify how we should provide a welcoming atmosphere?
I teach at the
Moreover, if students expect either a class or a campus atmosphere in which they are at home in the way that they are home with the values and beliefs in their family, they are simply deluded regarding the goals of a public university in a democratic republic. We aren’t here to be one big happy family. We are here, in part, to have our beliefs and values examined rather than confirmed or denied or celebrated, which makes the diversity expected here somewhat unpleasant and incompatible with what even the most accommodating family could provide. The family metaphor suggests that a public university is a cocoon for kids away from home, but neither Christian nor non-Christian students (who should refuse to be thought of as kids) should experience that kind of intellectual shelter on university campuses. This is why the rationale for the new policy insofar as it appeals to the university family is deeply troubling.
Of course, none of this denies that students should feel welcome at public universities. They should. (And it bears mentioning that students should also be made to feel physically safe.) But appeals to the concept of family are no more legitimate to save universities from crusading Christians than they are to save marriage from homosexuals. So how are we to understand the kind of welcoming atmosphere we seek?
Some believe that the notion of the college community will help, but I have my doubts that it will make the case against the cross.
No sarcasm is intended; every community has an unwritten list of this sort.
Among those welcome in
It is a fact about
Yet even as a member of the
most unpopular minority in
And though I don’t go on and on about it, I think they are, to put it bluntly, deluded in this regard. The very idea of hell is morally incoherent to me, obscene, and an undeniable product of superstition. Nevertheless, in spite of these deep differences, I feel welcome here. That is what American communities at their best are like.
Now what if I complained to
the mayor that the steeples and the crosses had to be put away because I don’t
feel welcome? Most of us understand that the steeples and the crosses no more
Indeed, it is hard to see how there could be diversity in a democratic republic without it becoming obvious that some traditions are practiced more by a majority of people than others. This doesn’t mean that the majority always rules, but it does mean that any view of multiculturalism that requires our society to make all cultural traditions equally visible is incompatible with any real diversity. In this sense, multiculturalism often seems to be an opponent of diversity rather than a proponent, which is both puzzling and deeply objectionable to the tradition of American secularism.
If the City of
It is also hard to see how the rationale for the new policy could generalize across the campus. Are Christian faculty to remove pictures of Jesus from their office walls? If so, what about pictures of Voltaire, Darwin, and Bertrand Russell on the walls of secular faculty? Will the college community, properly purged and governed by the Hospitality Norm, then have all the warmth and unity of the Chinese Cultural Revolution? Ask the Chinese about that kind of community.
Multiculturalists are right
to insist that insensitivity to difference can undermine a pluralistic society.
What they seem hidebound in not seeing is that hypersensitivity to difference
can be just as deadly. By hyper-moralizing, it poisons the atmosphere in such a
way that the commitment to serious discussion of deep differences is unwelcome.
For that reason I feel less welcome now on the William and Mary campus than I
do in the larger
I suggest then that viewing
the cross with the
Similarly, the cross doesn’t dominate
the Wren Chapel from my perspective. Nor when juxtaposed to the
Driven by their own interpretation of inclusiveness, many multiculturalists apparently see the relationship between being equal and being a minority differently than I do. Nothing about the cross under the old policy made me feel unequal as a member of the College community, though it unmistakably reminded me of my minority status. Multiculturalists seem perplexed as to how someone can feel like a minority without feeling unequal. I do so quite easily. American secularism is the brand of cultural pluralism (distinct from multiculturalism) that makes this possible for me and for many other people as well.
Minority status for some, even many, is the inevitable consequence of any pluralistic society, and nothing is going to change that except the elimination of American diversity itself.
So I invite those who complained about the cross to consider this different way of seeing it so that together we can work on real problems of exclusivity, like the exclusion of gay and differently gendered Americans from the American family and a Pledge of Allegiance that is only for religious Americans but not for American atheists, many of whom have paid the ultimate price for all our freedoms. In doing so, we can reassure our Christian friends that we don’t seek to manipulate them into becoming publicly invisible, but only ask that they desist from doing the same thing to us.
Unfortunately, the vigilance
of the multicultural establishment at making students feel welcome isn’t
matched by a similar vigilance that students graduate from college sufficiently
knowledgeable of the diversity of their own history and other cultures. Typical
of many prestigious universities, William and Mary requires no American history
for a degree. Nor does it require a course in government or anything that would
insure that students have at least read the U.S. Constitution, a document
grandly designed for a diverse, pluralistic society. In both cases, fears of
chauvinism are inflamed by the academic avant-garde, the way that fears of
terrorism are employed in other quarters of our country. Nor is any serious
understanding of other cultures required, whether European, Asian, or
American universities can do
George Harris is Chancellor Professor of Philosophy at the College of William and Mary. His latest book is Reason's Grief: an Essay on Tragedy and Value, Cambridge University Press, 2006.