Politics & Policy

Duke’s Religious Pluralism, or Preference

(Betty Leung/Dreamstime)
In converting its chapel to a part-time minaret, the university leans away from its Christian history.

Via an op-ed in the Raleigh–Durham-area News & Observer this week, Christy Lohr Sapp, associate dean for religious life at Duke University Chapel, announced that the adhan, or Muslim call to prayer, will now sound from the chapel’s bell tower each Friday to announce jummah, a weekly noontime prayer service. “The neo-gothic cathedral at the heart of Duke’s campus is a symbol of the faith of the school’s founders,” she wrote, “but the use of it as a minaret allows for the interreligious reimagining of a university icon.”

“Reimagining” is one word for it. In fact, the transformation of the bell tower into a part-time minaret will require little imagination. Duke has been preparing the ground for this decision for years.

Though the university maintains that it has always been non-sectarian, Duke’s institutional history — from its earliest days in the mid 19 century, when it was founded through the efforts of Methodist (and Quaker) families — is bound up in the history of North Carolina’s Methodist Church. The 1903 articles of incorporation for Trinity College, as it was called, required that twelve members of its 36-member board of trustees be elected “by the North Carolina Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, south; twelve by the Western North Carolina Conference of said church; and twelve by the graduates of said college.” And when, in 1924, Trinity College became “Duke University,” the 1903 “aims of Trinity College” were amended as follows:

The aims of Duke University are to assert a faith in the eternal union of knowledge and religion set forth in the teachings and character of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; to advance learning in all lines of truth; to defend scholarship against all false notions and ideals; to develop a Christian love of freedom and truth; to promote a sincere spirit of tolerance; to discourage all partisan and sectarian strife; and to render the largest permanent service to the individual, the state, the nation, and the church. Unto these ends shall the affairs of this University always be administered.

Unsurprisingly, though, the Christian language — indeed, any religious language — is absent from its most recent statement, revised in 2001.

Like the overwhelming majority of academic institutions, private and public, Duke has gradually abandoned any pretensions to a specific religious identity. It embraces instead, in Sapp’s words, “a larger commitment to religious pluralism,” one that is “at the heart of Duke’s mission and connects the university to national trends in religious accommodation.” Duke, she says, is committed to letting “each religious group on campus express itself in its own way.”

The obvious question is whether that commitment has any limit short of a group’s constituting a disturbance to the campus learning environment or posing a threat to public safety. It is difficult to think of one. If each religion practiced on campus has equal potential to “enhance the community” and “contribute to Duke’s motto of eruditio et religio,” there is no principled reason to allow the chapel bells to sound for Sunday-morning Mass but to disallow the adhan; they are both merely traditional ways of summoning the faithful to worship, between which the school has no grounds to distinguish.

Which is why the objections of such people as the Reverend Franklin Graham — a North Carolina native, who issued a scathing response to the decision on Facebook — will fall on unhearing ears. Within the intellectual framework to which Duke has committed itself, discriminating among faiths and their expressions is largely indefensible.

Obviously, though, this is not a problem restricted to Duke; the same trouble arises in any society that maintains a principle of pluralism — because such a principle is in inevitable tension with the natural impulse toward identity. Is America a Judeo-Christian nation founded on Biblical precepts? Or is it a melting pot that promises freedom to all comers, regardless of creed? Can it be both? Exactly this tension has prompted the rise of certain far-right parties in Europe, which advocate a renewed sense of cultural identity against what they see as an untenable commitment to multiculturalism. How to strike a balance, between a commitment to pluralism that can devolve into societal dissolution and a commitment to identity that can devolve into bigotry, is one of the profound questions facing the modern West.

But Sapp makes clear how easily a purported devotion to impartiality can veil an outright preference. She writes: “With the recent attacks in Paris and Pakistan and renewed conflict in Nigeria, there is much negative press focused on parts of the Muslim world. From ISIS to Boko Haram to al-Qaida, Muslims in the media are portrayed as angry aggressors driven by values that are anti-education and anti-Western.” This invitation, then, is an effort to show “a strikingly different face of Islam than is seen on the nightly news.”

Thus, under the guise of equality, Duke is actually working to raise the reputation of what it views as an unfairly maligned group. The questions that follow — Would the school do the same for Christians or Jews? If non-Muslim students offer unfavorable opinions of Islam, will the school protect those students’ freedom with equal vigor? — answer themselves.

For universities, which, when responsible, aim to foster an environment of intellectual freedom, a back-breaking devotion to pluralism may end up being less dangerous than the opposite (given the leanings of the typical professoriate). But Duke refuses even that. Under the guise of pluralism, which Sapp, like so many liberals, seems to believe is all upside, it has expressed a clear preference, and shown how easily the principle of pluralism can devolve into its opposite.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

UPDATE: Duke has canceled its plan to use the chapel bell tower to sound the Muslim call to prayer on Friday evenings. The author comments here.

Ian Tuttle — Ian Tuttle is the former Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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