During the weeks leading up to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, there was a lot of discussion about changing social attitudes. A law that had been generous at its time for allowing gay soldiers to serve their country was now oppressive because soldiers weren’t as intolerant as once they were; many soldiers in the same barracks as openly gay men have teachers, aunts, friends who are also gay. The law could progress to match social attitudes.
There’s another place where Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is still thriving, though: surrounding religion in public universities. One prominent class-discussion scholar calls the discussion of religion in academia “the last great taboo” and one of my professors described admitting her religious persuasion as “coming out of the closet.”
Why are we so anxious about the idea that academics can be religious? There’s a persuasive view in academia, like there once was about gays in the military, that all religious people fit an undesireable stereotype: unthinking, pushy, anti-intellectual. Sadly, to paraphrase the bumper sticker, when only anti-intellectual people openly identify as religious, the only religious people you’ll know will be anti-intellectual. I had a roomful of colleagues express utter shock to hear I was Mormon. In their comments was the underlying assumption that I didn’t fulfill their expectations of what a Mormon, or perhaps a person of faith should be.
This power of embodiment, of just being allowed to be who you are, is vital. Many people’s stereotypes are formed around a floating concept that isn’t actually present in the people around them. Whether in the Church’s “I’m a Mormon” campaign, or in the way soldier’s attitudes towards gay comrades changed with each openly gay person they actually knew, seeing the way lives are lived, the way we have more in common than not, is the most powerful force for acceptance. But not letting academics openly profess their faith, we are perpetuating hate and ignorance.
I’m not talking about preaching here. I’m talking about the way a room of PhD students freezes when I use the phrase “church potluck” in describing my weekend. Any admission of religion in a culture where we academics routinely sit around and mock the people who believe in the rapture or protest gay marriage is to open yourself up to the burden of prejudice. And do you want to know about the worst thing with our casual Evangelical-bashing? Many of our students come from that religious background. As professors, we’re comfortable calling our students idiots for believing what they believe. Some religions are more protected than others. Muslims are generally okay, because the Evangelicals in our minds are intolerant towards them, and Jews, if they’re not too religious. Mormons are probably not, because they’re all Republicans (there’s another whole blogpost in academic intolerance to the right-wing), and the worst of the worst are the many shades of Christianity right outside our door, particularly in the form of the Young Conservatives and the Texas Legislature.
The result is that ugly stereotypes are perpetuated and no one even knows that they’re stereotypes. One of my students recently wrote “Republicans and Christians would be against sex education” and she had a hard time believing that (a) those terms aren’t necessarily synonymous and (b) neither group is necessarily against sex ed. Another student wrote that “Christians all think that everyone’s going to hell.” No, we don’t. As a matter of fact, my religion says that very few, really bad people go to hell, and only then after multiple chances to repent. But I can’t say that. I have to just suggest that she is more thoughtful and research her audience. When I’m listing untenable, but still viable, claims, I can’t list the existence of God along with, for example, the declaration that all men are created equal or that animals deserve compassion. The most powerful evidence that I can give that religious people can be smart, articulate, restrained and tolerant is my ownself (aw, shucks) and I’m not able to share that.
I am, of course. (I think) there’s no law prohibiting me from letting my students, or my colleagues, know that I’m “openly” religious, but the social atmosphere is prohibitively icy. In addition to deep-rooted stereotypes, we’re terrified of anything like religious instruction going on. As Porthoro ???? points out, though, there is a crisis of religious ignorance in this generation. People seem to have no idea what Muslims actually believe, or who those guys with turbans are, or, as demonstrated when a cocky young thing graffitied “Jesus lives—Easter is cancelled,” the basic premises of Christianity.
This is a problem. First off, if college is about learning new things about the world around us, religion certainly out to be a part of that education, because it’s a big part of that world. And if college is also about expanding viewpoints and becoming tolerant, then people of all religious backgrounds should feel safe in identifying who they are. Finally, there are real dangers about our country becoming so alcoved that academics feel comfortable assuming they know what religious people think and religious people assuming they know what’s going on in the universities (yes, this door swings both ways).
I generally play my persona close to the chest. I don’t tell my students my political views (incidentally, I’m a registered “undeclared” who spends a week before elections with the League of Women Voters’ pamphlet) and I don’t talk about my personal life. But when, chatting with a sports journalist student, I mentioned that my school was the one whose player got ponytailed, there was a moment of tension as he put it together that I went to BYU, or when another student asked me what I did on a Saturday, and I answered kayaking, Comic Con, and church meeting, and of those three, Comic Con was not the most embarrassing.
Let’s just be cool about this, guys. That’s all I’m asking for, in the end.