Three Comments on Rachel Fulton Brown

Of the many misleading statements made by Rachel Fulton Brown, one that struck me as a Berkeley local and indeed a veteran of the Free Speech Movement of 1964 was her representation of the anti-Milo student protesters

By David Hollinger / Amy Dru Stanley / Nancy Frankenberry|March 2, 2017

Of the many misleading statements made by Rachel Fulton Brown, one that struck me as a Berkeley local and indeed a veteran of the Free Speech Movement of 1964 was her representation of the anti-Milo student protesters. They were, she implies, happily on the side of the black-clad paramilitary unit that stormed the place and caused the police, justifiably, to cancel the event. Yes, there were some who felt that way, but the overwhelming majority of anti-Milo voices here had nothing to do with the violence and afterward said to one another repeatedly that the violence and the cancellation had expanded Milo’s audience from the few hundred who would have heard him to the many millions who heard him interviewed on TV in the wake of the cancellation.

Although early press accounts of the event did not make these distinctions, later press accounts did, and the campus administration was praised by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for its steadfast defense of the rights of the student Republican organization to have Milo as a speaker. The campus works hard to protect free speech, but raids like this one from organized groups off campus are very hard to counteract. A couple years ago, Peter Thiel was shouted down by a group like this storming the auditorium in which Thiel was speaking with the steadfast support of the campus authorities. Thiel has been invited back repeatedly but has declined to come. Politically conservative critics of the University can advance their cause by not showing up, and by claiming the University is afraid of their ideas. I and a number of other colleagues here are organizers of the Baxter Liberty Initiative, which for the last four years has brought to campus a number of prominent speakers representing what would normally be classified as right-wing opinions.

Brown is also misleading in her capsule history of the relation of religion to higher education in America. She offers only the old polemic that there is something natural about religion as a foundation for higher education. From Brown, one would never know that something called science had ever existed, that the academics who led the diminution of religion in American colleges and universities had reasonable grounds for pushing in that direction, or that secular communities of inquiry are capable of discerning assessments of truth-claims. There will always be a constituency for the line that Brown voices here, but there is a formidable body of scholarship that shows the history of American higher education to be much more complicated. Of the numerous volumes that one can consult, I recommend Andrea Sterk, ed., Religion, Scholarship and Higher Education (Notre Dame, 2001), and Christian Smith, ed., The Secular Revolution (Berkeley, 2003). I choose these books because they take seriously religious claims and make an honest effort to engage them in relation to modern standards of cognitive plausibility.

David Hollinger is the Preston Hotchkis Professor of History Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley.

Indisputably, it is the right of all members of the faculty in the History Department at the University of Chicago to exercise free speech, in their academic work, opinion pieces, and personal blogs. Yet it is crucial to point out what is self evident: the hateful beliefs advanced by Rachel Fulton Brown are not the values of the History Department—but solely her own. Her opinion on race, sex, gender, and faith is both so specious and so odious as not to be worth debating. Exercising my own right of freedom of speech, also as an individual faculty member in the History Department, I repudiate her invective in its entirety.

I also join the faculty questioning the publication of her views on a platform of the University of Chicago Divinity School, which places its editorial and scholarly imprimatur on work appearing on that platform. Notably, passages in Fulton Brown's piece seem to indicate that she perceives the classroom as a place for conversion of students to Christian religious faith—and the professor as a missionary seeking to advance a religious project: the minds of students should be “filled” with Christian religion to counter dangerous secular ideas. That false proposition hardly counts as opinion based on scholarly research.

Amy Dru Stanley is Associate Professor of History and the Law School at the University of Chicago.

In the wake of last week’s breaking news about Milo Yiannopoulos’s disinvitation from CPAC, his dropped book contract with Simon & Schuster, and his ouster from Breitbart News, Rachel Fulton Brown is no doubt reflecting on just what Milo’s message is. I would ask Professor Brown to reflect also on two things I find disturbing about her February 16th Sightings piece. The first is her conflation of “religion” with the Christian religion to the complete exclusion of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, African religions, and Chinese and Japanese religions. The second is her disregard of all those students who do indeed “wrestle with religion,” only to come away without endorsing any particular faith or sectarian creed—thus exercising a freedom not to be religious, a freedom as guaranteed under the disestablishment clause as the freedom to be religious. She seems to think that an unholy trinity has tripped up this generation of students, but I see them as too sophisticated to be lost to “bad theology”: multiculturalism is simply their milieu, not their “religion”; race, class, and gender are their analytic categories, not their politically correct avoidance of critical thinking; and as for the “secular ideals of socialism and Marxism” that Brown oddly finds making inroads—last time I looked, capitalism was on a roll on most American college campuses.

Granted that “fake news” has taken on new proportions lately, students in recent years have been perfectly alert to the irony in Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and to the parody in The Colbert Report. The current crop of very savvy undergraduates and postgraduates are not likely to mistake Milo’s message, or to be “scared,” “threatened,” or too “challenged” by it. Rather, they are offended by it—and rightly so. If Professor Brown thinks that Milo “holds out the possibility of conversion, of changing hearts and minds,” as she states, then she needs to take another look at his dismissive response to the student protests he engendered at Berkeley and other campuses.

Making Milo into a free speech martyr only masks the larger question we should be debating: is hate speech free speech?

Recommended authors, from my campus to yours:

- For a fresh view of how theological texts might yet figure in a liberal arts curriculum, see Devin Singh, “The Trinity and Social Capital, or, Some Benefits of Teaching Theology in a Liberal Arts Curriculum,” The Huffington Post, April 27, 2016.

- For a comprehensive overview of the issue of free speech as both a problem for philosophical analysis and an exercise in constitutional interpretation, see Susan Brison, “Hate Speech,” in Hugh La Follette, ed., International Encyclopedia of Ethics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).

Nancy Frankenberry is the John Phillips Professor in Religion Emeritus at Dartmouth College. She was a 2015-2016 Martin Marty Center Senior Fellow.


Sightings is edited by Brett Colasacco, a PhD candidate in Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Subscribe to receive Sightings in your inbox twice a week. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

David Hollinger / Amy Dru Stanley / Nancy Frankenberry