“I often say that if I headed back to college today, I would major in comparative religions rather than political science … because religious actors and institutions are playing an influential role in every region of the world …”
This quote from Secretary of State John Kerry has been posted to my office door since last fall, when it appeared in an op-ed he wrote in America: The National Catholic Review. Of course, the idea of understanding religion and religious individuals resonated strongly with me, a professor of religious studies at a liberal arts college. But I believe the reasons for this sentiment are lost in the public discourse around both education and religion in the contemporary United States.
Turn on the evening news, open the morning newspaper or log on to any news page online and you will find a wide variety of stories that have some reference to religion. Syrian immigrants, evangelical voters, the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party in India, anti-Muslim rhetoric, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, neo-Catholicism under Pope Francis -- all of these recent stories and more would be fundamentally illuminated if viewers and readers had knowledge of the religious actors. Contemporary discourse in America, both in the public domain and in academe, is often quick to posit that these stories are “really” about politics, power, class, social standing and the like, and people often refuse to take the religious aspects of the narrative seriously. Yes, of course, any of these issues can be understood within a broader context of social and cultural concerns. Nevertheless, this contextualization does not give license to disregard the religious angle as superficial or otherwise unimportant.
Whether we like it or not, individuals and communities are inspired by their religious identities to take action in the world. Those actions can have positive effects on the world, such as social outreach or providing a sense of community to adherents, or negative ones, including violence against rivals or intolerance for others. The fact remains, however, that their actions are often rooted in religious ideals, or their worldview. The principal concern of religious studies is to expose differences in those worldviews so that we might understand the beliefs and practices of a wide variety of cultural actors. Different religious groups imagine the world differently, and that affects how they respond to contemporary concerns.
The academic discipline of religious studies does not train students to be Catholics or Buddhists or Jews any more than political science trains students to be Democrats or Republicans. Even though I teach at an institution that is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, my department is not wedded to Lutheran doctrine or even Christian identity, but to a scholarly desire to understand the world’s inhabitants and cultures. We train our students to read closely, think deeply, write cogently and, above all, analyze carefully the important -- and sometimes decisive -- role that religion plays in the lives of cultural actors across the globe. I often tell my students that it is our responsibility to use a “dispassionate third-party perspective” when viewing the religious phenomena, to understand and analyze while withholding judgment.
If the only people who understand Christianity are Christian, or Islam are Muslims, or Hinduism are Hindus, we are condemned to a world of misunderstanding, conflict and sectarianism. If we cede understanding of religious ideas to religious individuals, we lose the capacity to comprehend the motivations behind the thoughts and actions of anyone beyond our own religious tradition.
Don’t get me wrong, the discipline of religious studies is not imagined as a substitute for religious training. Faith communities will always have a strong desire and need to train members and leaders for service in their own religious communities; that enterprise is a permanent fixture in traditional religious practice.
However, for those aspiring to leadership in the 21st century, knowledge of the religions of the world from a nonconfessional perspective is not a luxury but a necessity. Study of the variety of religious traditions around the world makes it abundantly clear that different people operate under different assumptions about the way the world works. To understand their actions, we must also understand their motivations.
That distinction between the discipline of religious studies and training within religious communities is often lost when considering the topic of religion in an educational setting. But, as Thomas Clark, a former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, wrote in the majority opinion of Abington v. Schempp, “It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion …” This sentiment is, perhaps, more true now than when Justice Clark wrote it in 1963.
This “complete” education that Clark mentions includes the habits of mind that we cultivate in our students. By combining the ability to understand motivations beyond ourselves with other disciplinary perspectives within the liberal arts, we train students to interact with the world in a responsible and informed way. The broader context of this type of education opens our students to a wide variety of skills, including language study, quantitative and scientific reasoning, and the various perspectives offered by the social sciences. All those tools and disciplinary lenses contribute to a nuanced view of the world that goes beyond vocational training. It also equips our graduates with agile minds that can solve problems and understand perspectives that we are yet to encounter.
In an environment that increasingly stresses skills that are immediately marketable, humanities departments often feel that we must justify our existence and our usefulness to employers. Consequently, you see the publication of brochures and the creation of websites that emphasize problem solving, critical thinking and cogent writing. Those are fine goals and, I would argue, our curriculum equips our graduates with these skills.
But the most important attribute that the academic study of religion offers to our students is even more vital and far more concrete: the ability to understand others. In a world in which we are increasingly exposed to difference of all types, what could be a more vital skill for navigating the future?
William "Chip" Gruen is an associate professor of religion studies at Muhlenberg College.
Submitted by Mark Yudof on December 14, 2015 - 3:00am
George Orwell remarked in 1984 that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Orwell’s aphorism describes the strategy of today’s proponents of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement on college campuses against Israel. They see their movement as a way of protesting Israel’s alleged mistreatment of Palestinians, its efforts to defend itself in a dangerous neighborhood and its purported colonialism. Yet their rhetoric corrupts the language of human rights and expropriates the words historically used to demean the Jew, focusing instead on the Jewish state. The strategy, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has stated, is to accuse “Israel of the five cardinal post-Holocaust sins: racism, apartheid, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and attempted genocide.”
Part of that strategy -- though apparently not the goal, which is to delegitimize Israel -- is to root BDS on campuses in a progressive coalition. If you are opposed to homophobia, if you are concerned about events in Ferguson and Staten Island, if you favor a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, the party line is that you also should perceive Israel as an illegitimate colonial-settler nation. If, in the endless student government debates over BDS, the occasional 19th-century blood libel surfaces, those calumnies are ignored for the cause is just. For example, at the University of California at Berkeley, a professor who attended the BDS debate reported to me that Israeli soldiers were accused of deliberately killing women and poisoning wells. In age of exquisite sensitivity on some campuses to microaggression, or language that subtly offends underrepresented groups, the ironic toleration of microaggression against Jews often goes unnoted.
The fact is that, despite the hallowed traditions of academic freedom and freedom of inquiry, many campuses today are hostile to genuine conversation and debate. Freedom of expression is viewed by a vocal minority as a ploy to preserve privilege. There is a fear of listening to those with whom one disagrees. Campuses are viewed as “safe” only if they are ideologically pure. In the words of Santa Barbara Hillel Rabbi Evan Goodman: “At a university, of all places, there must be space for legitimate political discourse and analysis. This includes legitimate critiques of Israeli policy …. But when the one Jewish state in the world is obsessively singled out for condemnation, Jewish students recognize that their own religious and cultural identity is being called into question.” This corruption of facts and history must be rebutted.
Words do matter. The Jewish people have a long memory for the vituperative words and vicious pogroms of the past, most recently in 20th-century fascist Germany and Austria. Not surprisingly, however, people on campuses robustly debate whether BDS is itself anti-Semitic. Logic and history dictate that it is certainly possible to be highly critical of Israeli policies and yet not to be a Jew hater. Allegations of anti-Semitism against the speakers should not insulate the Israeli government from criticism. Many Jews and non-Jews alike are troubled by Israeli government policies on settlements and the West Bank. They embrace a two-state solution. Many back the agreement with Iran on nuclear weapons.
In what sense then, can BDS appropriately be described as anti-Semitic?
There are four reasons to be apprehensive. First, as former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers has urged, the impact if not the specific intent of the BDS movement is anti-Semitic. Why focus solely on the world’s only Jewish state? While nations like China, Iran, Russia, Syria and others get a pass on campuses, Israel is the sole object of BDS. There are many displaced peoples around the globe, many conflicts and many settler nations. The double standard for Israel yields suspicion about the real agenda. Or, as Alan Dershowitz, a retired Harvard Law professor and leading defender of civil liberties, frequently challenges critics of Israel: “Name a single country in the history of the world, faced with threats comparable to those faced by Israel, that has a better record of human rights, compliance with the rule of law or seeking to minimize civilian casualties.”
Second, as Pope Francis recently noted, challenges to the right of Israel to exist smack of anti-Semitism. If one reads the writings of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and related groups, it is my impression that the ultimate aim is one state and not a Jewish state. The official ideological line of SJP is it is nonpolitical. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) insists “the BDS movement is consistently and completely neutral on the question of the political solution to this colonial conflict.”
But Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of BDS, has said that “definitely, most definitely we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine.” Other BDS leaders by their words and actions also seem to oppose a two-state solution.
At bottom, BDS is a challenge to the legitimacy of the state of Israel and not just its policies; it is a disestablishment movement. No doubt, in the view of many people, controversial Israeli policies fan the flames, but the ultimate objective is not policy reform or redrawn boundaries.
Third, the narrative surrounding advocacy for BDS is often anti-Semitic. Jews are privileged and powerful; they block efforts to expose Israeli misadventures; they are too influential with Congress, the news media and the corporate sector. Perhaps that is why a group of student leaders told me when I was president of the University of California that the First Amendment should protect only marginalized peoples and not privileged folks like me (and presumably other administrators, Israelis, Zionists, etc.). I had the temerity to object to students trying to prevent the Israeli ambassador from speaking on one of the UC campuses. In recent protests at the City University of New York, SJP protesters screamed “Zionists out of CUNY.”
Fourth, whether deliberate or not, whether outliers or mainstream BDS advocates, the epiphenomena of BDS are anti-Semitic incidents -- swastikas painted on Jewish fraternities and other campus sites at Northwestern University, Vanderbilt University, the University of California at Davis and elsewhere, and questioning of Jewish candidates for student government posts on their likely positions on BDS (Stanford University, the University of California at Los Angeles). The distinction between the Jewish people and Israelis is often completely lost. As in parts of Europe, Jews are likely to be considered unreflective auxiliaries of Israel. Hence questions are raised about the suitability of Jewish students for student government service if they are active in Jewish organizations or have visited Israel. No wonder that the most common question I am asked when addressing Jewish audiences is, “Where is it safe to send my children and grandchildren to college?”
As I write, the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) estimates that dozens of campuses are at high risk of a student government pro-BDS votes; as many as another 100 universities show signs of significant BDS activity. In the last few years most University of California campus student governments have embraced a version of BDS, as have those at Northwestern, Stanford and other esteemed institutions.
What is to be done? Outraged emails and letters signed by Jewish leaders will not alone turn the tide, although I applaud the effort. Some off-campus Jewish organizations (I choose not to name them) have demanded the silencing of pro-BDS voices, a violation of free-speech principles in public universities (and most often voluntarily adopted in private institutions). There have been a handful of cases where the local pro-Israel community tried to "ban" SJP from campus. Such approaches violate democratic norms and will fail. An effective response requires less heated rhetoric, more truth telling, more organization and more tenacity, staying power, resources and planning. The BDS movement is an organized political campaign; only the tools of politics and committed opposition will defeat it.
A primary focus should be on the students, particularly the undergraduates who bear the brunt of campus BDS contretemps. They need support, including mentoring, which requires empathy -- understanding their needs and perspectives. It will not do for outside groups to helicopter in with ideologies that do not resonate with them; it will not do to offer to accomplish things they don’t want done.
Students also need better access to professionals who can help them organize, assist in reaching out to other student groups and in recruiting candidates to run for student government, and in fashioning tactics and strategies. Only the students can carry out these things, but others can empower them.
The role of faculty is crucial, but much work needs to be done to galvanize them. A subset of all faculty, including Jewish faculty, strongly endorse BDS. Most faculty members, however, stand apart from the fray; they are scholars and teachers who largely avoid controversies that do not immediately impact their important academic work. Most Jewish faculty tend to be unaffiliated and not necessarily strong supporters of Israel.
But it is vital to cultivate faculty voices that will fill the void. If only a dozen faculty members and administrators out of the many hundreds on a campus will educate themselves and others on the hurtful symbolism of BDS, write op-ed pieces to explain the complexities of the Jewish state, stand up for robust campus debates on Middle East policies, eschew the ideology of “antinormalization” of Israel and nonengagement by its critics, and take the time to mentor students, much can be accomplished. Who better than savvy faculty to put a stop to the Orwellian logic and corruption of language, facts and history in the BDS debate?
The path to success in all of this is an end to ad hoc and often amateurish responses. It is best to think of anti-BDS initiatives as a campaign and not just a series of one-off incidents requiring evanescent responses. Certainly the BDS proponents think in these terms. Faculty members and administrators from various campuses have formed a national network. They will meet periodically to test messages, devise communications strategies, research the issues, produce fact sheets, mobilize community groups, provide support and training, and bring together colleagues to share views and best practices. Such expertise should be available to students, staff and faculty on affected campuses, including the availability of speakers well versed in the issues, campus field teams and microgrants to campuses in crisis. The campaign should include a digital strategy, websites and video production.
Most important, people on campuses and in the larger Jewish community should strive to establish a new narrative based on universal values and not on the distortions and linguistic corruptions of the BDS movement. That narrative should emphasize democratic participation and civil rights; tolerance; equality for people of all races, ethnicities and sexual orientations; human rights; freedom of expression and academic freedom. If Israel or its neighbors fall short of these expectations, criticism is quite warranted and legitimate and should be a part of the narrative. No hypocrisy, no double standards.
A crucial part of this effort should be to repair relationships between Jewish students and other groups, especially communities of color. More than 50 years ago, Abraham Joshua Heschel marched in Selma, Ala., with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Heschel walked only a few feet from the great civil rights leader. Jewish people overwhelmingly supported civil rights for African-Americans. Most Jewish leaders appreciate the plight of immigrants and object to homophobia and other virulent forms of discrimination. Whatever other differences may or may not exist among these groups, they should walk arm in arm, as King and Heschel and others did in 1965, unified in pursuit of equality.
In the long run, education is the key. Israel studies programs, professorial, administrator and student exchanges, administrator and faculty leadership trips to Israel and the like are vitally important. So too, research collaborations with Israel, already extensive, should be expanded. If exposed to the realities on the ground, including the genuine issues for Israeli Arabs and those in the West Bank, unfettered by Orwellian prose and distortion, I trust people to make up their own minds. Better personal observation and reflection than the corruption of language and events offered by the BDS movement.
The stakes are high. It is not so much that BDS will have an immediate economic impact on Israel, nor is it that boards of trustees and regents will ban investments from their endowments. They will not. (In fact, not a single board of regents or trustees at American campuses has yet embraced the boycott.) Nor is it my principal fear that American universities will withdraw from collaborations with the many outstanding Israeli educational institutions.
My concern focuses more on the underpinnings of BDS that challenge the legitimacy of the Jewish state. In the coming decades, today’s university students will become leaders of America -- in public service and in the academic, corporate, military and nonprofit realms. What will be their understanding of Israel and its history and culture? Will they comprehend the relationship between anti-Israel attitudes and anti-Semitism? Will the historic friendship and mutual support between the United States and the Jewish state be imperiled? Will they perceive Israel as part and parcel of white privilege and colonialism?
And what will be their attitude toward violence in Israel? Today’s BDS leaders defend the recent intifada and stabbing of civilians in Israel as an appropriate means of resisting the occupation of the West Bank. How will future American leaders view such terrorism against Israelis? What happens on campus never stays on campus.
Most of all, I worry that the spirit of democracy may be withering on college campuses. Those who seek to silence campus speakers -- as occurred most recently at the University of Minnesota, when pro-Palestinian protesters tried to shout down Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal -- argue that they have a First Amendment right to drown out opponents. Another Orwellian twist of language and law.
American colleges and universities should affirm their commitment to robust debate and discussion of public issues and to the human capacity to reason and to educate and to address the perplexities of the human condition, including the longstanding conflicts in the Middle East. Campuses should never be “safe” from ideas and disagreement. They should be safe from ideological constraints on what may be expressed.
Mark Yudof is chair of the advisory board of the Academic Engagement Network, a new organization that brings together faculty members and administrators to address issues related to Israel, and president emeritus of the University of California.
Let’s not let the sideshow in Tennessee -- where, pretty much on cue, politicians have been waxing indignant over the call for “inclusive holiday celebrations” at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville -- distract us from the real war on Christmas: the one nobody at Fox News wants discussed.
Early campaigns to abolish the holiday form a largely forgotten chapter in American history. They were part of a larger cultural war, inspired if not actually led by the intellectual elite in Europe. Today the educational system and mass media of the United States make sure that everyone knows that Thanksgiving was first celebrated by the Pilgrims. But they somehow never get around to telling us about the Pilgrims and the other late-year holiday, the one they loathed: the ungodly, blasphemous abomination known as Christmas.
First things first. We need to go back a little farther in history to consider the cutting-edge scholarship of the 16th century. The hot field of the day was chronology, a controversy-laden discipline that you do not hear much about anymore and haven’t for a while. It was in part a response to the flood of new information coming into Europe about other parts of the globe and amplified by the invention of the printing press.
Chronologists scrutinized -- and struggled to integrate -- the historical record available from Jewish and Christian Scripture, the pagan authors of Greco-Roman antiquity, and newly available secular material from the Levant (what today is usually called the Middle East), such as the lists of Egyptian dynasties. The goal was to piece together into a coherent, consistent timeline running from the Garden of Eden down to the present. Chronologists knew they would eventually have to incorporate the records of far-flung civilizations in the Orient and the New World, but the documents at hand by the mid-1500s presented more than enough challenge at the time.
And the stakes were enormous, given the rift in Christendom. There were Catholic specialists in chronology, to be sure, but the painstakingly critical re-examination of the historical record had a particular urgency for reformers. Any established doctrine or traditional religious practice was fair game. If it did not find sanction in Scripture, it was surely a Romish affront to true Christianity -- and the Protestant chronologist could not help noticing that the Gospels were conspicuously silent on the date of Jesus’s birth.
The simplest argument appealed to both classical literature and common sense: “Could one seriously assume,” writes Nothaft in paraphrase, “that such a wise administrator as Augustus would have ordered a census, which forced people to travel long distances, at such a rainy and inconvenient time of the year? And even more strikingly: the shepherds attending to their flocks in the outside was hardly a scene to be expected during winter, when sheep were supposed to stay inside their stables, as Columella (De re rustica 7.3) taught.”
Other chronologists tried to determine the possible date of the nativity through textual analysis and deductive reasoning, some of it fairly convoluted. The Gospel of Luke has the angel Gabriel informing Mary of her unusual conception six months into the pregnancy of her relative Elizabeth, whose husband Zechariah is a priest. Gabriel had visited Zechariah while the latter burned incense and let him know that Elizabeth, despite her age, would give birth to a son named John (aka “the Baptist”).
So if the time and circumstances of John’s conception could be made congruent with the date of Zechariah being in the temple, then there would be sufficient grounds for determining Jesus’s nativity. That is, of course, one big if. Various dates for the incense burning from the Jewish liturgical calendar were advanced through various arguments too complex to digest here.
The upshot is that Jesus was born sometime between September and April -- probably toward the beginning or end of that period, considering the shepherds’ weather concerns. Chronologists could not reach a consensus on the date, but they could at least agree with a statement by Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609), the pre-eminent thinker in their field. A French Protestant scholar of almost appalling erudition, he gave the Jesuits a run for their money in polemical combat. Questioning Dec. 25 as a Christian holiday could get you hauled in front of the Inquisition, he acknowledged, but that was because the pope and his minions had no better argument. “In fact,” Scaliger said, “the basis of their assumption is so absurd that it is astounding that all of Europe has agreed with it.”
Protestant militants had other, less recondite reasons for disliking Christmas and wanting to stamp it out. Nothaft quotes the First Book of Discipline issued by the Church of Scotland’s listing of Christmas as one of the holidays that, “because in God’s Scripture they neither have commandment nor assurance, we judge them utterly to be abolished from this realm.” Not to be too reductionist about it, but all those feast days on the calendar of the medieval church must have been quite galling to the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. The theological arguments were sincere, but so was the emerging mentality that prized hard work and self-denial.
And indeed, the drunken office party at Christmas has deep roots. Chronologists suspected that the holiday was a holdover from the ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia, decorated with some Christian trimmings and without the orgies. (This remains one of the more plausible theories of how Christmas began.) Certainly, the holiday had too much of an odor of paganism for the Puritans. One of them, cited by Nothaft, complained that Christmas was just an excuse for “Drinking, Stage-plays, Enterludes, Masks, Mummeries, Dancing, and all licentious dissoluteness.” The road to hell is paved with reminders to have a very merry Christmas.
James P. Walsh’s paper “Holy Time and Sacred Space in Puritan New England” makes clear that Puritan New Englanders not only disdained Christmas (they called it “Foolstide”) but also were pretty aggressive about how utterly nonspecial it really was. The Lord’s command was to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy -- full stop. When Dec. 25 rolled around, the Puritans approached it with a tactic Walsh characterizes as “profanation.” His account bears quoting:
“In Plymouth, on Dec. 25, 1621, the Pilgrims went off to work, well aware that the date was regarded holy by most Englishmen. On their way to the fields, the Pilgrims encountered a group of their neighbors, recent immigrants, who refused to work on Christmas Day. After a heated discussion, Governor William Bradford grudgingly excused their benighted conformity to ancient custom, and the working party continued on its way. Upon returning from the fields at midday, however, Bradford found the idlers playing. Totally exasperated, Bradford broke up the game by taking away the ball. Samuel Sewall acted in the same spirit when he snooped around Boston on Dec. 25 to make sure that shopkeepers remained open for business.”
In 1659, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay colony enacted legislation fining those who celebrated Christmas in any manner. An earlier Dec. 25 in Massachusetts Bay was officially observed as “a special day of fasting and humiliation.” I guess you could call that “celebrating Christmas,” but it’s a stretch.
The righteous struggle against Christmas waxed and waned, but it continued in America well into the 19th century. As late as the 1830s, the day was marked in Providence, R.I., only by the tolling of a single church bell on Christmas Eve. A writer who spent his boyhood there recalled that “the airy music of that evening bell, and the cheerful church next morning, dressed with aromatic hemlock sprays, were his only Christmas.”
Resistance to the holiday eventually eroded, for reasons only indirectly related to its religious significance. For one, there was the impact of immigration (e.g., not that many Calvinists coming in from Ireland). Even more, there was the practically irresistible culture-shaping course of mass media and consumerism.
“In the 1820s and ’30s,” according to one account, “the newspapers began their campaign of Christmas advertisements, with an occasional ‘Christmas or Holiday Offering,’ consisting chiefly of clothes, books and the illustrated annuals then popular. …”
I’m not sure whether the expression “Christmas or Holiday Offering” appeared in newspapers of the 1820s and ’30s, or if it was coined by the author of the article just quoted, which was published in 1935. Either way, it seems suspiciously inclusive, at least by the standards of our exhibitionistically aggrieved demagogues who wait all year for the opportunity to act like they’re being persecuted. They would embarrass the Pilgrims -- and not just for making an idol of Christmas. Say what you will about the Puritans, but at least they understood that self-pity is a vice, not a badge of honor.