The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on October 9, 2013
Kemal Ataturk Is Alive And Well And Living In Madison, WI

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.

  • Gary Novak

    Richard Rodriguez once gave a talk in which he described his visit to a Los Angeles high school where the lunch tables were voluntarily segregated by ethnicity. Even the Chicanos and Mexican-Americans sat at separate tables. Like Berger, Rodriguez thinks an important part of education is broadening one’s comfort zone. So he described the situation as one in which the United States had been infected with the Canadian virus of multiculturalism.

    I obtained a video of the talk and showed it to my introductory sociology class. One of my students went to the department head and complained that she was uncomfortable hearing multiculturalism criticized. It was too late for her to drop my class and take his, so he proposed that we accommodate her by having her attend his classes and take his tests, and he would tell me what grade to assign her at the end of the semester. I refused on the grounds that it might do her some good to hear multiculturalism criticized by a gay Hispanic. If I had wronged the student, I should go, not her. And, of course, if the situation were reversed and an ethnocentric student wanted out because talk of multiculturalism made him sick, the policy of accommodating the needs of all our student consumers would come to a screeching halt. “But that’s why you go to college– to learn you’re a racist!”

    I suspect the department head felt quite virtuous for accommodating ME. “You see– even though you’re teaching the wrong stuff, my respect for academic freedom knows no limits. Your student clearly needs to be rescued, but I’ll take no action against you!” (The text I used– like all sociology texts– was, of course, making the case for multiculturalism.) Double standards and political correctness account for much of the increasing awareness that colleges today offer, as Berger puts it, “an increasingly costly and dubiously useful product.”

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    The pecuniary motivations of the ACLU and FRRF should not be overlooked in understanding their actions. Opposing the establishment of Newman clubs in universities eliminates the competition. And opposing Newman or Evangelical Christian clubs is a main marketing galvanizer for donations. Atheists, like gays, are attempting to institutionalize their social movements much as religious sects have historically turned into churches. Atheists want government sinecures for professorships, military and hospital chaplaincies, free use of government facilities, and exclusion of competitor’s symbols. Atheism is big business just as are gay weddings and gay divorce lawyers are. The Kemalist secularists want to delegitimate religion in the public sphere in part for their own gain.

    But what will happen to a society where government has no legitimation by the religious body politic? Berger alludes to this question at the beginning of his web post when he states: “federal judges…may soon have to find constitutional means to prevent the collaboration between the Congress and the White House to destroy the American economy.” The marginalized evangelical-based Tea Party has withdrawn its legitimacy for Obamacare and at least parts of the welfare state. Before the U.S. Civil War, the mostly evangelical abolitionists withdrew legitimacy for slavery. The consequences were enormous.

    Philosopher Erica Benner in her superb book “Machiavelli’s Ethics” (yes, he had an ethical system) points out that even the so-called unscrupulous Niccolo Machiavelli found there was a limit to founding society only on human reasoning (Marx tried the same thing with ruinous consequences). Machiavelli made a distinction between “ordinary” and “extraordinary” social orders that is perhaps helpful to the discussion. Quoting Benner:

    “’Ordinary’ actions and conditions always have or confer the quality of order on relationships among individuals, parties, peoples or cities. Whenever Machiavelli describes a mode of action as ‘extraordinary’, one stands outside and in tension with them…Actions taken ‘ordinarily’ are unregulated by good ‘ordini ‘ and tend to uphold them. Actions taken ‘extraordinarily’ are unregulated by ethical or civil orders, and tend to undermine them.” This is reminiscent of Berger’s ‘nomizing’ and “anomizing’ concepts.

    Here Machiavelli sounds somewhat like sociologist Berger’s penchant for social order and recognition of the ‘taken for grantededness’ of society. Societies are held together by legitimations. Ordinary social order is legitimated; extraordinary is not. How can a pluralistic society legitimate its authority if one so-called tiny elite group wants to become the supreme delegitimizer? Mimicking Juvenal, who legitimates the delegitimators who don’t want to legitimate anything but themselves?

    Machiavelli asks how can corrupt cities be reformed without moral legitimacy? While rational utilitarian ethics may work in ‘ordinary’ times they often won’t work during ‘extraordinary’ times. Will the body politic follow modern day sagacious nymphs or irreligious freethinking atheists during ‘extraordinary’ times? Will corrupt city leaders reform based on an appeal to reason without legitimate force? How can Machiavelli’s and Max Weber’s “ethic of responsibility” (and possibly compromise and non-self interest of a leader) about the consequences of actions work if a religious citizenry is marginalized to the point their only option is extremism? In Berger’s classic “Invitation of Sociology” he wrote: “all worldviews are the result of conspiracies.” This could be also said about the open conspiracy of the secular Kemalists. Machiavelli wrote in his Discourses: “of all the dangers that can come after the execution of a conspiracy, there is none more certain nor more to be feared than when the people is the friend of the prince that you have killed.”

  • free_agent

    You write, “the patently absurd assertion that, say, a Republican club must be open to Democrats”. But this is not difficult to achieve. At MIT (my alma mater) there is a requirement that all recognized student activities must be open to all students. This really means that clubs are associations of people interested in a particular topic, rather than filtrations of people based on their personal characteristics. (E.g., the MIT International Students’ Association defined the United States as a foreign country for purposes of membership.)

  • mandrewa

    I have always assumed that Kemal Ataturk’s attitudes towards Islam, and simply the fact that he even came to power, had a great deal to do
    with the murder of a million armenian christians by islamists and their explusion of a huge number of christians from turkey. I believe between those killed and those expelled it was about 20% of the Turkish population.

    I dismayed that it is apparently taboo to mention this; and that the fact that this even happened is
    being erased from our collective memory.

    I also dislike the likening of Ataturk to the ACLU and Freedom from Religion Foundation, and do not feel that the motivations of the latter two groups are at all the same as Ataturk’s.