Religion in Retreat at the 5Cs

It won’t shock anyone to hear that college is not a religion-friendly place. According to the McAlister Center here on campus, “The Perception on many liberal arts campuses across the country is that there is less support for the religious and spiritual identities of students and that it can be difficult for students to ‘out’ themselves as religiously identified. Students describe their experiences both in the classroom and in the social settings as often being difficult if they talk about their faith or even are identified/perceived to be of a particular faith by what they wear, how they look, or their name.”

1891FoundersSeal
Pomona College’s original seal.

Secular institutions dominate the higher education scene, and with that comes a difficult line to walk: balancing the needs of religious students against the secular identity of the college. Some do this better than others. California State University schools “derecognized” the CSU Stanislaus Chi Alpha chapter, also known as the Stanislaus Christian Fellowship (a part of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship), this past fall, denying it the free access to rooms, access to student activity programs (including student fairs), and standing across their 23 schools that every other student organization receives. The universities based the decision on the claim that InterVarsity violated school policy by requiring the group’s leaders to be Christians. “What they cannot be is faith-based where someone has to have a profession of faith to be that leader,” CSUS Associate Vice President Tim Lynch told CBS Sacramento. “Every club is allowed to establish its own standards for how leaders are selected – as long as its non discriminatory – and then they are voted on by the members. Fraternities and sororities must comply with all the requirements there of but there is a gender exemption [sic throughout].”

Besides the obvious logical issue of how one can, well, discriminate between potential club leaders without being “discriminatory,” the fact of the matter is that religion, as a standard, is targeted. One level of categorization, gender, is acceptable but religious affiliation is not. With this outright religious discrimination by the official University administration as a context, the 5Cs look downright reverent.

The lineup of religious resources has changed significantly over the history of the 5Cs. Generally, the religious options have multiplied and diversified from a core of Christian services to what is available today. The McAlister Center provides a significant chunk of the options. It conducts Zen meditation times, Church of the Latter-Day Saints services, Quaker Friends meetings, Shabbat service and dinner, Catholic mass, and Jum’ah prayer every week. There are 21other organizations on campus which offer their own services, large group meetings, lecture series, and even publications. They range from the Claremont Colleges Bahá’í Club to Queers of Faith to the Muslim Student Association to Hillel to P.A.G.A.N. (Prayers About Gods and Nature) to the Soka Gakkai Budhists to the Hindu Society to the 5C Spirituality Club. All are listed on the McAlister website. Members of these groups even arrange small groups meetings that exist outside the range of the club and, of course, there are the non-school institutions like the Islamic Center of Claremont, the St. Ambrose Episcopal Church, and the Wat Bhuridattavanaram.

Throughout this expansion, the 5Cs have repeatedly reaffirmed their commitment to serving the religious, as well as non-religious, students on campus. Judy Sahak, who now runs Denison Library and previously attended Scripps, told the CI in an interview that “[t]here have been several occasions when the council of Presidents… or CUC… have questioned the need for the chaplains but it has prevailed.” However, the official mantra of expansion and diversification has been accompanied by a distinct pressure from the 5C community for religious groups to recede from the discourse on campus in the interest of tolerance.

Part of this is from the campuses’ general avoidance of straightforward, possibly offensive dialogue. Minority opinions and experiences go undiscussed because it could discomfort others and the pain of accounting for all potential offense is too much trouble. This intolerance in the name of tolerance clearly cuts down discourse, particularly for students who are genuinely experiencing emotional distress on campus. Religion happens to be a topic labelled by popular campus culture as potentially offensive so issues relating to it go widely undiscussed in mixed circles. The result is a growing, but insulated religious community.

Michael Stalcup, a leader of the Intervarsity chapter that serves CMC, Scripps, and Mudd (3CIV) cited the 5Cs as a remarkably safe space for religious observances compared to other institutions of higher education. But he also spoke of the changing definition and acceptability of proselytizing on campus. Stalcup rightly pointed out that “proselytizing” used to mean genuinely coercive forms of conversion, like offering food to a starving child only when they agree to follow your doctrine. Now, the definition has shifted to mean simply evangelizing. So policies against proselytizing, like that of the McAlister Center, mean something different today than when they were created. The distinction between rejecting religious oppression and oppressing religious discourse is a precarious one.

The intensity of secular hostility has shot up only recently. Sahak recalled that “until about the mid-2000s, one of the [5C] chaplains came to [the Scripps] commencement and gave an invocation.” This is reflective of a wider pattern across liberal arts colleges. According to the McAlister Center, “The research indicates that there is more religious bigotry and intolerance on the college campuses as well, especially in recent months.”

The McAlister Center told the CI that, while “[t]here are vibrant, enthusiastic, diverse religious groups and widely inclusive religious/spiritual observances ranging from a variety of religious/spiritual clubs through McAlister Center and in the greater community… there have been painful and demeaning acts and expressions of religious bigotry and prejudice on campus which reflects growing trends of anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia, and negative views of Christians, Hindus, and other religious people. The Administrations of the Colleges have been concerned and responsive to these behaviors, but this does not always resolve the fears and concerns some students are experiencing.”

That being said, the 5Cs are in a much better position than most secular colleges. The McAlister Center is a powerful resource for students who are religious or want to explore existential questions. Nearly all services provided by McAlister or the 21 other organizations on the campuses are open to all comers. It’s up to the community at large, students and faculty, to encourage open and honest conversation, to wear down the divide between secular and religious conversations.

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