THR Web Features   /   May 4, 2021

The Problem with “Western” Religions on Campus

The strange politics of administrative antiracism.

Anna Keating

( Berry College Chapel in Mount Berry, Georgia.)

I knew I had to quit my job in the Chaplain’s Office at the small liberal arts school where I worked, but it took a long time to bring myself to do it. The workplace had become so toxic that it was affecting my well-being. I also knew that when I left my position as the Coordinator of Catholic Life would not be refilled. I wasn’t worried about myself. I would be fine. I was worried about the students I left behind. What would become of their thriving community? As I had discovered, the progressivism that has suffused the atmosphere of elite schools like mine does not always welcome religious students. Indeed, it makes it difficult for students to engage with religion in a serious way.

Like many other American colleges that were originally religious institutions, the one I worked in had become entirely secularized. Founded in the late 1800s by Congregationalists, the historical heirs of the Puritans, it had long ago thrown out its hymnals and removed the cross from its historic main building. In part because it still had a gorgeous chapel in the center of its campus to contend with, the college retained two full-time Interfaith Chaplains and a Chaplain’s Office. But even secular institutions such as this one recognized that religion remains a vital source of campus life, being, for many students, an important part of the college experience.

The Chaplain’s Office at this college received money every year from many sources, including the school’s endowed fund for Roman Catholic Studies. With a tiny bit of that money, the Chaplain to the College hired me to work part time as the Coordinator of Catholic Life. There was also a part-time Coordinator of Jewish Life and a dozen or so volunteers from various faith traditions. Catholics were the second-largest religious identity on campus after Jews, although the majority of students at the college claimed no religious affiliation at all.

When I took the job, I didn’t see my presence on campus as a Catholic campus minister as controversial or political. I am a liberal, a feminist, and myself a product of an “elite university.” Both culturally, and in terms of my expertise, I thought I would be a good fit for a progressive institution committed to helping students explore their various identities, whether in terms of gender, race, sexuality, or even religion.

But I was unaware of the massive ideological changes that had taken place on college campuses in the decade since I had graduated. Arriving as a chaplain at a progressive secular college with traditional views of what a liberal arts education in the humanities was about, I thought it meant exploring different ways of being, and weighing different narratives by bringing them into conversation with one another. I saw religion as another identity to be explored and therefore essential to a student’s experience and self-definition. I also considered the study of comparative religions and the presence of religion on campus as elements of a true multiculturalism.

The two heads of the chaplaincy program were both ordained Protestant ministers, but they tended to focus on Eastern and New Age style offerings, from qigong and zen meditation to queer spirituality, yoga, and tarot card nights in the chapel. Although I was passionate about pluralism and often attended the events of other groups, I believed, as a Roman Catholic woman, that I had something distinctive and important to contribute to our students’ explorations of the varieties of religious life. Specifically, I saw myself and the other part-time Coordinator of Jewish Life as resources for students who wanted to explore what was curiously called “Western spirituality.” If students were interested in learning to make candles for Advent or in reading Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change, they came to me. Students of many faiths or no faith took part. We had many agnostics who loved ritual and fellowship with others in the group. It was pleasant for the students to be a part of a community that wasn’t dedicated to résumé building. We prayed Lectio Divina and cooked dinner together. The Catholic community was more like a family, a family that reflected the ethnic and racial diversity of the global church.

And for a while at least, it seemed as though we were filling a need for students interested in religious community. At a typical Thursday night supper there might be fifteen students and eight different native languages at the table. In a school that was 65 percent white and American, we had black, white, Latino, Asian, Indigenous, and mixed students—students from China, Poland, Kenya, France, Slovakia, Austria, the Philippines, Mexico and Bangladesh. We had first-generation college students and students whose parents were in the top 1 percent. We also had a diversity of perspectives and viewpoints. As one student said of our community suppers, “This is the only place on campus where I have conversations with people who think differently than me.”

The liberalism we all grew up with relegated religion to the private sphere. And though this was an overly restrictive way of thinking about religion, at least it tolerated religious minorities unless they broke laws or infringed on the rights of others. A small group of Catholic students at a liberal arts school meeting for Mass on Sunday nights in an otherwise unused chapel wasn’t a problem. Such kids might be considered weird, but they weren’t hurting anybody. The same went for gathering on Friday nights for Shabbat. Modern liberalism even tended to celebrate such displays of religion as reflections of individual choice and freedom of religion and expression.

But liberalism’s commitment to that kind of pluralism has been eroded by what the writer Wesley Yang calls  “the successor ideology.” Rooted in the critical race theory of the Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo school, this ideology is far less tolerant of Jewish kids gathering for Shabbat or Catholic kids for Mass. Under the influence of this form of ideological thinking, students were coming to view religious services or religious observance as part of the structure of  “white supremacy.”

When I first began to encounter this pernicious form of intolerant group-think, I was a bit incredulous. A “spiritual but not religious” student who sometimes came to Catholic community events wearing her “I support Planned Parenthood” pin told me, “It’s taboo to explore Western spirituality, especially in liberal circles. I’m careful who I tell about it.” She was not alone. Other students asked me not to take photos of Mass and post them on social media. They didn’t want to be “outed” as Catholic. One Catholic student who lost her faith and then found it again told me, “When I stopped being a Catholic I made so many friends.” The notion that a person couldn’t engage with a religious tradition without endorsing every one of its views (or claims) was new to me.

I had never thought of religions as fitting neatly into ideological boxes. Religions consist of poetry, metaphor, art, ritual, and emotion, among other things. Religions can also include practices that are psychologically sustaining, such as self-scrutiny, repentance, absolution, and meditation. Such features of religious life are ignored by proponents of the successor ideology, who are determined to see certain religions solely in terms of how they supposedly support structures of political, social, and economic power.

The drive to eliminate whiteness, masculinity, and heteronormativity on college campuses has made entire religious traditions suspect, particularly those that are absurdly lumped together as part of  “Western spirituality”—despite the inconvenient fact that the majority of the world’s one billion Catholics are neither white nor western, or that Judaism includes Africans and Arabs and other non-European peoples.

In his book How to be An Antiracist, which our college followed in formulating its antiracist plan, Kendi explains that ideas are either racist or antiracist, bad or good. For Kendi, the disease of racism is not about individual bias or acts of discrimination but about systems that allow for disparate outcomes among groups. One goal of the antiracism project, then, is “leveling group differences.” Most people hear this and think as I did: Yes, let’s get rid of unequal funding for public schools, reform the criminal justice system, or implement reparations for black Americans.

Most people certainly don’t think that leveling group difference means tinkering with the religious demographics of an institution. But college administrators made it clear to me that members of certain religious groups were overrepresented on campus. This was why the college wanted to get rid of chaplaincy programs. I suddenly realized what was at stake in the move from the civil rights work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama, or Thomas Chatterton Williams, for example, to the antiracism of Ibram Kendi or Robin DiAngelo. Telling me that the “number one priority of the college is antiracism,” my supervisor in Student Life explained:  

And because of the colleges’ commitment to antiracism and equity the question finally becomes, Is chaplaincy sustainable? Our Jewish community has the support of its alumni donor. How do we manage that? And Roman Catholic students and others interested in Catholicism can apply for grants from an endowed fund for Roman Catholic Studies. And in order to be antiracist we have to have equal resources for Hindu students, Muslim students, Buddhist students, or we need to do away with Spiritual Life groups all together.

My supervisor was echoing Ibram X. Kendi, who writes, “If discrimination is creating equity then it is antiracist.” Inequity, in this case, means any difference between ethnic groups that isn’t reflected in the racial demographics of the United States. How does this relate to religion? I didn’t think that it did. But here this administrator decided that because Jews, being a tiny percentage of the US population are overrepresented in higher education generally, and at the college where I worked in particular, antiracism in this instance required that the number of Jewish students be reduced. Moreover, because there were 60 students at Shabbat and only a handful of Muslim students on campus, the Jewish group should not exist.

In the hermetically sealed world of campus progressivism, the fact that all of this sounds more than a little anti-Semitic is mostly ignored. So is the idea that religion may have something to offer that wellness programs, for example, cannot. And that is precisely what the administration planned to replace the chaplaincy program with: wellness education aimed at stress management, substance abuse, and sexual safety.

Self-care is important, of course. But it’s not the same as communal worship, as blessing and breaking bread with people who pray for the repose of the soul of your abuela and call you to see if you’re okay after her funeral. Replacing religion with wellness is like replacing poetry and music with massages and journaling and working out. They all have value, but they are not the same.

But wellness is deemed a suitable substitute for religious practice because progressive administrators find it more “manageable.” After all, questions of equity, in practice, are often questions about the allocation of resources. So budgets are shifted around and monies moved away from programs that are “for” members of a religious group but open to all comers and toward programs “about” a particular cultural celebration—even if the latter tend to be paper thin. So, for example, we were treated to a campus-wide celebration of Diwali with an Indian food buffet, but no Hindu spirituality in sight. And there was a celebration of Día de los Muertos that gave students the opportunity to decorate sugar skulls and to see ofrendas in the hallways of the campus art museum, but these ofrendas did not feature any explicitly Christian or Catholic imagery. It’s the Epcot of cultural encounter. Ultimately, the successor ideology benefits academics and administrators who use it to protect themselves from any possible criticism or censure for being insufficiently antiracist, but it provides students with nothing more than an ersatz, feel-good simulacrum of diversity and equity. 

The cost of entry into America’s elite spaces, the college degree, should not mean leaving behind the traditions and “metanarratives” that have sustained your ancestors—unless, of course, that’s what you have freely chosen. Nor should it mean forsaking the ability to engage critically with ideas that form a critical part of Western liberal thought. But that is what is increasingly being required, to the impoverishment of all students, religious or not.