The Time Has Passed

On February 16th, 2017, Sightings published an article entitled “Why Milo Scares Students, and Faculty Even More,” by University of Chicago professor Rachel Fulton Brown

By Emily D. Crews|March 2, 2017

On February 16th, 2017, Sightings published an article entitled “Why Milo Scares Students, and Faculty Even More,” by University of Chicago professor Rachel Fulton Brown. In the piece Fulton Brown theorizes about the discomfort that Milo Yiannopoulos, the then-rising star of the far right’s pyrotechnics show, inspires in many students and faculty at American universities. Her argument relies on an assertion that Yiannopoulos “speaks about the importance of Christianity for the values of Western civilization” in a context in which “these issues, most especially the civilizational roots of culture and virtue in religious faith, are… purposely avoided.” The 21st-century American university, she states, “does not allow students to keep an open mind” because “their minds are already open—and being filled with what they are given in place of religion: multiculturalism; race, class, gender; the purportedly secular ideals of socialism and Marxism.” Yiannopoulos, by contrast, returns us to a conversation about “people’s deepest convictions,” and the backlash against his presence at institutions of higher education is “evidence of a deep crisis in religious thinking.”

In the days since its release, the article has inspired a storm of controversy. On social media, in classrooms, and throughout the University of Chicago people have reacted either with disbelief, disgust, and outrage, or with support and enthusiasm. Within 24 hours the piece was featured in a post on Breitbart, the far-right online news outlet that prior to February 21st employed Yiannopoulos, and to which Fulton Brown herself has previously contributed. It has since been quoted and discussed elsewhere.

Members of the University of Chicago community have advocated for a variety of responses to Fulton Brown’s article, at least one of which is to offer no response at all.  “Don’t add fuel to the fire,” these voices say. Others go so far as to argue that the piece should be removed from the Sightings website altogether. I understand the logic of these approaches, and I am persuaded by them in certain instances. They are supported by a number of my colleagues and mentors, who have spoken about them with wisdom and eloquence and whose training in theology or medieval European Christianity makes them far more qualified critics of Fulton Brown than I am. Even so, I disagree that removal and silence are the best courses of action in this particular case. I believe that these would act in contravention to the fundamental goals of the academy as I understand them, and would prevent what is, in fact, an opportunity for scholars of religion to provide much needed critical commentary on issues of public concern. Fulton Brown’s piece, not in spite of but because of its problematic nature, offers us this opportunity.

The time for saying, “Let’s not dignify this with a response,” has passed. That method has been painfully unsuccessful. The reality facing us now is that the things we have thought would disappear if we looked the other way have not only remained, but put down roots. They’ve set up camp. They’ve been elected president. And so it seems to me that Fulton Brown’s piece, as objectionable as many find it, provides scholars of religion with an ideal opportunity to do something we have, by and large, failed to do in recent years, and particularly in the months since the election of Donald Trump: step into the fray. While political scientists, pollsters, and countless other kinds of pundits have commented on Trump’s campaign and victory, the vitriol spewed by members of his new administration, and the agenda of the “alt-right,” scholars of religion have been largely silent. We have neglected to make use of our skills and our unique ability to offer to interested members of the public valuable and necessary insight into pressing issues of our time, from the ban on Muslim immigrants entering the United States to the role of Evangelical Christianity in 21st-century American culture.

Fulton Brown’s major critique of American higher education is that it “lacks any clearly articulated and tested faith.” She is wrong. Our faith is in the fundamental commitment to the rights of any person, regardless of perspective, to enter into principled, disciplined debate, and advance an argument supported by credible evidence. From this commitment comes the duty to object to work in which our peers do not uphold this standard. Fulton Brown’s position within the University alone—one that Breitbart has been all too happy to use as a means of authorizing Yiannopoulos’s agenda—demands that we address the claims she has made and work to counter them where we see such acts as appropriate, not only for ourselves as scholars, but also for the many members of the public who read and take very seriously the essays published via the University’s online media, including Sightings and the Religion & Culture Forum.

In that spirit, let me highlight a few points on which one might critique Fulton Brown’s article. First is her nostalgia for the medieval European university, which stems from the fact that it welcomed theological reflection. What the medieval university did not welcome was the presence of women, or Jews, or homosexuals, or countless other classes of people who make today’s universities the thriving places they are, and whose willingness to counter patriarchal hegemony has made it possible for a woman to hold the position of professor—and for a certain provocateur who identifies as queer to be treated as a full human being, despite his unwillingness to do the same for others.

I disagree, too, with her assertion that religion is the “wellspring” of culture. In this she has, I would argue, misunderstood the relationship between these two deeply contested categories. Religion is not the wellspring of culture; it is the structures, biases, prerogatives, and asymmetries of culture projected into and justified by a realm beyond the human. It is culture naturalized as supernatural. 

Most problematic of all, to me, is Fulton Brown’s claim that universities do not allow students and faculty to openly address religion. This suggests that, despite her own affiliation with the University of Chicago Divinity School, she has never set foot in Swift Hall, where, for better or worse, religion in its many forms is constantly discussed, debated, and defined by people of diverse faith commitments, including Christians who practice the theology they teach (and preach) as well as the atheists and humanists of whom Fulton Brown seems so afraid. 

In encouraging engagement with Fulton Brown’s piece I do not mean to say that we should tolerate the kind of hateful speech that has been so thoroughly and effectively utilized by the Trump administration and many of its supporters, including Yiannopoulos. Nor should we fall prey to the trap in which we play patty-cake with fascists in order to show our support for the First Amendment, or to hush murmurs of intolerance. But it is time for academics to take their conversations out of elite circles and into the public square. In the era of “alternative facts,” we are uniquely qualified to undertake the painstaking labor of historicizing, contextualizing, and falsifying. This process is not sexy, it’s not flashy, and it’s certainly not efficient. It is, nonetheless, the response to which I feel we’re obliged by our membership in this profession. And it is a response we lose the opportunity to offer if we remove this article from the Sightings website, or continue to look away from the issues staring us in the face.


Author, Emily D. Crews, is a PhD candidate in History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Her dissertation explores the religious lives of Nigerian Pentecostal immigrants in Chicago. A 2015-2016 Martin Marty Center Junior Fellow, she is a former editor of the Religion & Culture Forum and currently serves as Interim Director of the Undergraduate Program in Religious Studies.

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.
Emily D. Crews

Emily D. Crews

Emily D. Crews is the Executive Director of the Marty Center. She oversees its operations and its relationship to its host institution, the University of Chicago Divinity School. In collaboration with its staff and faculty co-directors, she sets the research and programming agenda of the Marty Center. She also acts as its public representative and leads its partnerships with collaborators across the University, the city of Chicago, and beyond.

Emily joined the Marty Center as Assistant Director in 2022, after teaching at the University of Alabama and the University of Chicago. As Assistant Director she managed the research agenda of the Center, as well as its partnerships with media organizations. She also piloted the Center's inaugural Author Talks series, a collaboration with the Seminary Co-op Bookstore; led its Junior Fellows Program and Public Religion Residency Fellowships; and conceived and ran its capstone conference on Religion and Reproductive Politics.