December 4, 2008
God and Man at Yale
— Eboo Patel
The Commons at Yale University looked like a cross between Hogwarts and Medina. Over five hundred students, staff, and faculty had gathered for a university-wide iftar, the meal where Muslims break their dawn-to-dusk fast during the month of Ramadan. Linda Lorimer, Yale's Vice President, gave an opening talk, expressing the University's commitment to religious inclusivity and interfaith activity. Omar Bajwa, the University's recently-hired Coordinator of Muslim Life, thanked Yale for its efforts to accommodate the unique dietary and prayer needs of Muslim students. And when the Muslims left the dining area for the evening prayer, most of the seats were still occupied. Hundreds of Jews, Sikhs, Christians, Hindus, agnostics, Unitarian Universalists, and others had come to support their fellow Muslim students, partake in some excellent South Asian food, and celebrate the religious devotion and diversity that are increasingly a part of campus life at Yale.
It is a remarkable shift from when I was a student fifteen years ago. Identity politics were all the rage then, but they were almost always about race, class, gender, and sexuality. Academic departments, leadership programs and residence halls - prompted by the Rodney King incident - put on hundreds of diversity programs every year intended to create a more inclusive campus environment. Late-night student discussions typically focused on the new Spike Lee film or bell hooks book. Religion was something that the InterVarsity kids did at their song circles on Wednesday evenings. The rest of us didn't sneer at it; we just shrugged and went on our way. Faith might play a role in some people's private lives, we figured, but it barely registered in our campus discourse. Even as newspapers told of strife in the Balkans, Northern Ireland, South Asia, the Middle East, West Africa, the multicultural movement hardly turned its head. As Harvard Professor Diana Eck wrote in Encountering God, "Religion (was) the missing 'r' word in the diversity discussion" at universities.
This is the result of what I call secularization theory hangover, a condition that afflicted universities long after the rest of society recovered. Secularization theory emerged from lecture halls in the 1960s, advanced by scholars like Peter Berger and Harvey Cox who stated that as societies modernized they would necessarily secularize. Such scholars revised their theories a long time ago. But many of the intellectuals who came of age during that era, and who are now running the universities where they once read such books, continued to believe that religion, if it persisted at all, would do so in the privacy of a handful of homes and at the furthest margins of our public life.
But an important segment of student life on college campuses was actually heading in the opposite direction. Groups like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ continued to grow, bolstered by a powerful Evangelical movement in the broader society. Additionally, as Dr. Alyssa Bryant of Spirituality on Campus observes, "There is increasing interest among today's college students, faculty, and administrators in the inner life of spiritual reflection, contemplation, and meaning-making." Finally, the past two decades have seen the American-born children of the 1965-era immigrants arrive on campus in significant numbers and bring their Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist faiths with them. Sharon Kugler, the Chaplain at Yale, told me that the number of religious organizations at her previous post, Johns Hopkins, skyrocketed from eight to twenty-seven during her fourteen years there.
This combination of devotion and diversity occurred on campus just as religion emerged as a central force in the broader culture. 9/11 has done to religion what Rodney King did to race - put it front and center on the campus agenda. One way that universities are responding is by hiring leaders like Sharon Kugler - the first lay, Catholic woman in her position at Yale - to transform their historically liberal protestant chaplaincies into fully-fledged multifaith programs. This means working with the existing Jewish, Catholic and Protestant (both evangelical and mainline) ministries; hiring new staff to work with Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu students; and organizing interfaith service projects and multifaith student councils.
We live in a society starkly polarized around religion. A 2007 Pew Survey found that twice the number of respondents had a negative view of Muslims than a positive view. If the color line was the problem of the twentieth century, as DuBois famously observed, it appears that the faith line will be the challenge of the twenty-first. And just as decades of campus activism on the issue of the color line has helped to produce a more racially inclusive society, so will initiatives like Yale's Ramadan Banquet ultimately produce one characterized by religious pluralism.
Eboo Patel is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Youth Core. He is the author of Acts of Faith, recently published in paperback from Beacon Press.