Mixed Messages on the Cross

February 9, 2007

David L. Holmes is in his 42nd year teaching at the College of William & Mary. When he started, he noted a pattern: He would regularly end up with a student with the last name Lee and it would only be a matter of time until each student would boast of being descended from Robert E. Lee. Sometime in the '70s or early '80s, he was calling roll on the first day of a course, came to a Lee and braced himself for more Virginia genealogy. But he called on a woman whose family was from Korea.

Virginia and William & Mary are demographically different from the days when Holmes arrived. But no one would accuse Virginians of ignoring tradition. And William & Mary has been in the middle of a huge debate in recent months over tradition, religion, tolerance and history -- prompted by the new president's decision to remove a cross from permanent display in a historic chapel.

On Thursday, the college's board attempted to find a path out of the controversy. The board refused requests from alumni leaders furious about the president's decision to order the cross returned. But in a statement released by the board after it heard comments about the issue, it noted that the president, Gene R. Nichol, had made mistakes in his handling of the issue, and said it would revisit the question of the cross after a committee appointed by the president on religion at public colleges issues a report.

The statement noted that the cross debate has "sadly divided important constituencies" at the college and implored all sides to recognize that their differences are based in part on their shared love for the institution. It is unclear, however, whether the president's committee can satisfy his critics unless it pushes for a full restoration of the cross. And there are no signs that the controversy is about to go away.

The chapel in question is part of William & Mary's Christopher Wren Building, which was constructed in the late 17th century. While the cross has been dubbed "the Wren Cross," it actually had nothing to do with Wren, but was donated by a local church in the 20th century.

It was on permanent display -- and over the years, especially as Lees were no longer automatically assumed to be related to Robert E., some questioned whether it was appropriate to be in one of the most prominent places at the college, a place used for both secular and religious events. In October, Nichol, who became William & Mary's president in 2005, ordered the cross removed except for when groups wanted it on display. In December, he apologized to the campus for making the decision quickly and without consultation, and he announced that the cross would remain on display all day on Sundays, but he stood by the rationale of his original decision.

“I have been saddened to learn of potential students and their families who have been escorted into the chapel on campus tours and chosen to depart immediately thereafter. And to read of a Jewish student, required to participate in an honor council program in the chapel during his first week of classes, vowing never to return to the Wren," he wrote.

"Or to hear of students, whose a cappella groups are invited to perform there, being discomfited by the display of the cross. Or of students being told in times of tragedy of the special opening of the chapel for solace -- to discover that it was only available as a Christian space. Or to hear from a campus counselor that Muslim students don’t take advantage of the chapel in times of spiritual or emotional crisis. Or to learn of the concerns of parents, immensely proud for the celebration of a senior’s initiation into Phi Beta Kappa, but unable to understand why, at a public university, the ceremony should occur in the presence of a cross.”

That letter failed to end the debate and critics of his decision have been pushing for the college's board to take action. A group of alumni called "Save the Wren Cross" organized a petition campaign (with nearly 15,000 signatures), letters and e-mail have been flying, and religious and conservative groups have turned the cross into a cause célèbre. Some of the pleas to the board to reverse the president have been civil, with strongly argued letters about the role of religion in American life and the importance of history. Other writings on the debate have been a little less focused on philosophy. A number of Nichol's critics have stressed repeatedly that the constitutional-lawyer-turned-administrator has supported the American Civil Liberties Union, as if that link alone would demonstrate that his stance is invalid.

The William & Mary board appears to be caught in the middle, and its statement indicated that its membership "contains a range of opinions." Several William & Mary sources said that the board members, whatever their views on the cross, have very much wanted the issue to go away. The college is finishing up a capital campaign, so it's a time that any board would want loyal alumni signing checks, not petitions.

The board's statement both praised and criticized the president. The statement said of Nichol: "As he has explained artfully, he cares deeply for William & Mary and the change was intended to promote important values of inclusion and diversity -- values the board certainly shares. His motives were sincere and his objectives noble."

But the board statement went on to say that "mistakes have been made," that Nichol is "new and he is learning" the job, and that he acted too quickly and without enough consultation. "A decision, such as this one, that so deeply affects the history and traditions of our school and bears on its values, past and present, should be a shared one. It should be a product of collective thought, discussion and even debate. It is a decision that should involve all stakeholders including the Board, alumni, faculty, students and long loyal friends of the College. We owe it to our community to do better and are persuaded that President Nichol agrees," the statement said.

The board said it did not want to reverse the president, and instead wanted to see more discussion on campus, an analysis of the legal issues, and recommendations from a committee Nichol announced last month in his "state of the college" address. He said the panel, to be led by faculty members, would explore not only the cross, but broader questions about the role of religion at public universities. (William & Mary was in some sense founded as a public institution when the government in charge of Virginia was the English monarchy, but it was a private institution for many years, until it became public again early in the 20th century.)

"In the heat of the dispute, broader questions than the placement of the cross have been implicated as well," said Nichol in his speech last month. "Does the separation of church and state at public universities seek a bleaching of the importance and influence of faith and religious thought from our discourse? Are modern public universities congenial to those of strong religious conviction? Can a public university honor and celebrate a particular religious heritage while remaining equally welcoming to those of all faiths? How does one square the operation of an historic Christian chapel with a public university’s general charge to avoid endorsing a particular religious creed?"

The board statement asked that the president and the committee report back to the board by April.

So far, there aren't signs of that committee calming the waters. Dennis Di Mauro, one of the organizers of Save the Wren Cross, said "the board has clearly determined to do nothing and they are just going along with what the president says." Di Mauro, a William & Mary alumnus who is currently a doctoral student at Catholic University of America, said he "can't imagine" a committee appointed by Nichol doing anything but agreeing with him. "Dr. Nichol is a member of the ACLU. This is a pattern. The objective is to remove any kind of religious symbols from the college campus," Di Mauro said.

The college "has been teaching our kids a terrible, terrible lesson," he added -- "that if you are bothered by a religious symbol, it becomes incumbent to get rid of it" rather than tolerating it. "We're saying that you aren't supposed to be tolerant." Asked if William & Mary's status as a public institution mattered, Di Mauro said: "Just because you are a public institution doesn't mean that you throw everything away. Just because you are a public institution, does that mean everything that is religious needs to be expunged?"

Holmes, the professor who has been teaching at the college for more than four decades, has a different vantage point. The Walter G. Mason Professor of Religious Studies, Holmes is an expert on American religious history and the author, most recently, of The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (Oxford University Press). A self-described "practicing Protestant," Holmes has also defended Nichol -- taking on Dinesh D'Souza, the conservative author, in a campus debate.

All of the references to keeping the cross because of the historical importance of the chapel are "baffling," Holmes said. "The Founding Fathers who attended William & Mary never saw a cross. The Episcopal bishops who led William & Mary never saw a cross. There wasn't one for 208 years." On his first visit to the chapel, in 1965, Holmes recalled that his guide -- who was involved with efforts to restore Colonial Williamsburg -- remarked that he wanted to get rid of the cross because it wasn't historically authentic for the time the chapel was constructed. Holmes noted that at the time the chapel was created, Protestant churches generally did not display crosses -- so it's not just that this cross isn't a true part of the original vision for the chapel, but no cross would be.

Holmes said that he has no doubt that Nichol mishandled the situation, and should have consulted with many on the campus before ordering the change in the policy for the chapel. "Very few people would say this isn't a blunder," he said. But he also said he respected "the principle" behind the president's decision. Holmes said that he has studied policies at other public colleges and has not found any clear pattern. But he said that crosses are much less likely to be featured in chapels that "are part of the historic main buildings of colleges."

What should the college do now? "I think it more historically appropriate and more welcoming for it not to be there" all the time, he said of the cross. "The right compromise is in effect right now. Display in on the Christian Lord's day. Bring it back any time anyone wants it there, but not generally."

One irony of the debate is that while it is quite heated among alumni and activists, the heat appears to be greatest off the campus. "It would be hard to find many students who are up in arms," said Andy Zahn, news editor of The Flat Hat, the student newspaper. "I think you have on both sides of the issue a few students who are very concerned about it, but that's a minority."

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