On October 4, 2013, the New York Times published an article by Kim Severson about the opening of the Newman Center residence hall in Troy, Alabama, which contains the third-largest public university in the state. The dormitory “caters to students who want a residential experience infused with religion”. Newman Centers have of course been around for a very long time, outposts of the Roman Catholic Church on non-Catholic campuses. Even a Newman-linked dormitory is not a completely new occurrence—one was established in 1926 at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (a public institution). So it is not altogether clear why the Troy event has created some sharp criticisms, which, given the litigious propensity of Americans is sure to lead to litigation in the federal courts. (As I am writing this in the midst of the shutdown, I can imagine that endless First Amendment lawsuits may provide some welcome distraction to federal judges, who may soon have to find constitutional means to prevent the collaboration between Congress and the White House to destroy the American economy.)
One reason for the critical attention may be the fact that the establishment of the Troy Newman Center is part of a much larger program by the Newman organization to establish similar dormitories all over the country. This year new foundings took place at Texas A&M University (also a public institution) and at the Florida Institute of Technology (a private one). Dozens of similar foundings are planned for the next decade.
Everyone involved of course understands the ever-looming threat of litigation. Accordingly, so as to create some distance between the Center and the Catholic Church, the place is run by the Newman Student Housing Fund, a private foundation. The Archdiocese of Mobile rents space for a chapel and a ministry program. Since some court decisions have ruled that publicly funded campus programs must be open to all student applicants (up to the patently absurd assertion that, say, a Republican club must be open to Democrats and all other, hopefully non-violent, political communities). Matt Zerrusen, the president of the Fund, stated that the dormitory was open to students of any or no faith—“you don’t want to exclude anyone”. In fact, most residents are active Protestants (Catholics are thin on the ground in Alabama). The NYT story doesn’t give much detail on the program, but what is given positively reeks with Evangelical Protestantism—such as seeking support and guidance from people with “shared Bible-based values”. A photo accompanying the story shows a “resident assistant” leading a group of students in Bible study (one gathers from the blackboard the passage being discussed is Matthew 7:1-5, which begins with Jesus’ admonition “Judge not, that you be not judged”).
American colleges and universities—large or small, public or private—have been competing for students, increasingly understood as consumers of an increasingly costly and dubiously useful product. Very few outside the enchanted circle of elite institutions can afford to look on students as humble petitioners begging for the privilege of admission. Consumers must be wooed. Thus everything is being done to make the “college experience” as pleasant and comfortable as possible—from building luxurious sports facilities, to offering 24/7 available counseling for every conceivable distress, to providing generous cable TV in dormitories. Some consumers want religion. Religious services can be directly provided by a college (especially if it is defined as a religious one in the first place). Alternatively, they can be supplied by other sources. Kosher or halal food can be catered from the outside. A wide array of religious ministries exist on or near campuses—at Troy in a space actually called “Church Row”. Nothing new in any of this. What is new is the organized campaign to make publicly funded campuses “religion-free”—even if the religious activities are supported from private sources (such as, say, the Catholic Archdiocese of Mobile).
Commenting on the criticisms of the Newman Center, Jack Hawkins, chancellor of Troy University, stated: “This is not about proselytizing, but about bringing a value-based opportunity to this campus”. I’m not quite clear what “value-based opportunities” other than religious ones are on offer. Political ones? Aesthetic ones? As long as they don’t try to convince anyone of their “values”. “Proselytizing” is of course a no-no word in the lexicon of political correctness. Hawkins’ denial that this is what the Center intends, is somewhat at odds with Matt Zerrusen’s observation that the South is a very religious part of the country—“It’s definitely an evangelization opportunity, which is why we went down there”. Whatever the fine distinction between “evangelizing” and “proselytizing” may be, it does not impress Annie Gaylor, president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation (which is based in Madison, Wisconsin). She exclaimed – “This is too cozy!” – “This is too insidious! – because its purpose was “to create a space that favored religious students and thus was a violation of the Constitution”. If I were chairman of a campus society devoted to the music of Mozart, I’d worry that Ms. Gaylor would sue me for discriminating against fans of country western. Or, if I headed a GLBT support group, could someone take me to court for discriminating against heterosexuals?
Back to college dormitories: “Theme housing” has long been a feature of American campus life—dormitories for those who want to speak a lot of Italian, or who are interested in English literature, or for rugby players. More recently the “themes” have had to do with identity politics—residences for blacks only—or “gender-neutral housing” for lesbians (rather a misnomer—I suppose that truly “gender-neutral” dormitories would encourage the cohabitation of lesbians with macho males—“judge not, that you be not judged”). College administrators have two ways of explaining such housing policies—one, in terms of freedom to live by one’s “values”, and alternatively, by making sure that students are “comfortable with” the people they live with (presumably only people like themselves”). I would not want to go on the barricades to oppose such policies. I would tend to argue that an important part of the “college experience” should be a broadening of one’s comfort zone.
But if the argument is made in terms of the right to express one’s “values”—by what curious reasoning are religious values excluded from this right?. I am not a constitutional lawyer. But it seems to me that either of the two clauses in the First Amendment to the US Constitution precludes either argument. The free-exercise clause clearly precludes it. And the no-establishment clause was not intended to say that any state or state-funded organization must not do anything that might make anyone “uncomfortable”. Is it unconstitutional for a town to stage a St. Patrick’s day parade because it might annoy some Protestants from Northern Ireland? Or a military parade on July Fourth because it makes Quaker pacifists “uncomfortable”? In the case at issue, I find it difficult to imagine that the mere presence on campus of the Newman Center (even if it did engage in Christian or Catholic propaganda) would make a reasonable Jew, Muslim, or for that matter convinced atheist, feel oppressed.
Kemal Ataturk founded the Republic of Turkey as a militantly secular state. The Kemalist elite, while it could not (and, let us charitably assume, did not intend) to eradicate religion, it certainly made it clear that believers were second-class citizens. Their animosity was of course mainly directed against Islam. It did not succeed in making much headway against the majority population of Muslims, especially in the vast Anatolian hinterland. As Turkey became more democratic, these allegedly backward people voted—and not surprisingly they voted their “values”. The result has been the (thus far moderate) Islamist government.
The Kemalist policy toward religion has been a kind of disease control: Religion is basically a danger in a civilized society. It must be tightly controlled, contained within its tolerated spaces, kept out of the officially legitimated public sphere. In recent time Kemalism has not fared well in Turkey. It is unlikely to do better in the United States, the most religious country in the Western world, unless a currently assertive secularism achieves results in the federal courts which it could never achieve through the democratic process. The Freedom from Religion Foundation and, more importantly, the American Civil Liberties Union are spearhead organizations in the secularist campaign. This is not the place to speculate about the reasons for their recent activism. But I think it is useful to understand that their attitude toward public expressions of religious faith is essentially Kemalist.