Vanderbilt enters the pre-9/11 world

The concept of the post-secular university is an intriguing and hopeful development in American higher education. It arises from the realization that modernity has not produced a lessening of religious belief despite the best efforts of many moderns to bracket religion and place it in the margins of the life of the mind and of that modern project known as the university.

The post-secular university, at least in my view, is hopeful because in it religion is once more added to the voices and perspectives that contribute to the conversations around ideas and meaning that stands at the core of the university as a learning community. Post-secularity seeks to empower all voices to contribute to this conversation rather than marginalizing either those outside the Christian mainstream (a mark of the university in an earlier age) or those within the Christian mainstream (a mark of a recent various of the secular project).

It’s increasingly obvious to many that religion is a significant force in culture and that interfaith literacy and competency are no longer luxuries but critical skills for navigating life and work in a global marketplace.

That’s why it is so unfortunate, and dare I say backward, that Vanderbilt University should have re-introduced a fairly radical secularist agenda in respect to the religious student organizations that contribute to the life of the university.

In introducing a new policy that prohibits religious student groups from requiring their leaders to adhere to the beliefs and practices represented by the group, Vanderbilt takes one step back into a pre-9/11 world–a world where all religions and religious beliefs are the same and are pushed to the margins of the life of the university.  

A thoughtful response to the secularist agenda is a post-secular community that practices hospitality that is rooted in principled pluralism as well as principled particularity. Such a community will value and respect the differences within it because the authentic expression of beliefs and practices by diverse groups actually enriches the community rather than erodes it. Perhaps ironically, such respect can only happen where there is freedom for diverse communities to be themselves–that is, principled pluralism can only flourish in a context of principled particularity.

I commend Tish Harrison Warren’s thoughtful commentary on the Vanderbilt controversy which was recently published at She argues:

Couching this discussion as “the university vs. Christian students” is inaccurate, unhelpful, and allows the conversation to be caricatured and dismissed. Instead, this debate reflects a much more crucial question:  Do we want different communities with conflicting narratives and ideologies to be authentically represented on campus or not?

And further,

This promise of principled pluralism is why I, an evangelical Christian, was glad the university granted greater religious freedom to Wiccan students by excusing them from class on their holidays. This is not because I think Christianity and Wicca are basically saying the same thing or equally true, but because I want Vanderbilt to be a place where student communities — not just individual students but students united around common belief — can authentically express their ideas and ideals.

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