The Bishop, the Statesman, and the Wren Cross: A Lesson in American Secularism

Halfway down one wall of the Wren Chapel at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, is a plaque in honor of Bishop James Madison, who is often confused with his more famous cousin, James Madison, author of the U.S. Constitution, co-author of the Federalist Papers, and the fourth President of the United States. Though they pursued separate careers–Bishop Madison as an Anglican minister, a leading scientist, and an extraordinary academic administrator, and Founder Madison as a secular reformer, a superb statesman, and one of the most sophisticated democratic theorists in history–the plaque could hardly honor one without the other, so interlinked were both their legacies to the College, religious freedom, and American democracy.

Juxtaposed to the Madison plaque at the front center of the chapel on a table behind the altar, there has stood until very recently a two-foot, bronze-plated Christian cross.

If you enter the Chapel now, except during Christian services, you will see the plaque on the wall but not the cross behind the altar in its usual place. Boxed-in pews still line each side of the room. A small balcony in the shadow of organ pipes reaching toward the ceiling high above still borders the back. And the altar, replete with cushioning for kneeling, still surrounds the now vacant spot.

Of course, the cross has been removed before. Regularly, in fact. Under the policy recently abandoned, it could be temporarily removed for non-Christian services, such as nonreligious weddings (I was married there myself in a completely secular ceremony in 1987), but it was to be returned to the altar immediately after such events, leaving the Madison memorial and the cross juxtaposed in an arrangement for thousands of visitors each year to see and interpret for themselves. Under a new policy initiated by William and Mary President Gene Nichol, the cross has been permanently removed from the altar, as has the interpretive challenge.

To say that the change has caused a fuss would be like referring to the Civil War as the “late unpleasantness,” especially in Virginia, where the abhorrence of change and the value of tradition are sometimes hard to distinguish. A petition containing thousands of signatures and a call for restoring the cross has accompanied charges of “political correctness gone amock” and “secularism running wild.” CNN has produced several reports on the event, and right-wing commentators Dinesh D’Souza and Bill O’Reilly have been to town, hoping to embarrass President Nichol in public debate.

In reaction, the left has lathered while the right has frothed. Faculty members have published letters in the local newspaper praising Nichol’s sensitivity; college committees have produced resolutions swearing loyalty to the president’s cause; and the Board of Visitors has predictably deferred the burden of leadership to an unsuspecting committee, which has decided to encase the cross in glass and return it to the chapel, but place it somewhere away from the altar. Where to put it, of course, remains as vexing as the issue of its removal, leaving the politics of expedience to the merciless fate of poetic justice.

In hopes of making contact with American sentiments too long suppressed by the routine rancor of the right and the left, a third perspective is in order. What’s at stake isn’t simply a local affair in a small but prestigious university, but an issue about the possibilities of American unity amidst diversity. The pot that has spilled over at William and Mary is boiling in various ways all over the country.

I think the cross should be returned to the altar and the old policy renewed. I am an unapologetic atheist, a secularist in the Madisonian tradition, and a self-professed, dyed-in-the-wool American. That I align myself, then, with the disgruntled Christians on this issue might make my view worth the effort to understand. I certainly can’t be written off as a lackey for Newt Gingrich or some other element of the far right.

An atheist’s perspective is akin in some ways to the social awareness of Jews of the diaspora. We live in the expectation of being a minority in perpetuity among an overwhelming majority of people who don’t share our basic beliefs and who view us as somewhat strange, even with some suspicion. We are also aware that when it comes to belief in a supernatural creator, other minorities side with the majority, making us the few among the few.

Yet American atheists, skeptics, agnostics, and humanists have a special sense of belonging that is foreign to a diaspora psychology. Because of the Madisons and the tradition of American secularism, we see the United States as the land of our origins. We have no sense of a non-American homeland from which our predecessors have been dispersed. This is our country. Not that it’s an atheist country, mind you, but it is one where people who can’t believe in God have a home as much as anyone else. I’m not wandering in a strange land.

It may seem odd then that I would interpret the old arrangement so differently than President Nichol and those who complained about the cross. They saw the cross as unwelcoming and, in a certain political language, noninclusive. In a letter to the College Board of Visitors Nichols elucidated that perspective:

    Though we haven’t meant to do so, the display of a Christian cross–the most potent symbol of my own religion–in the heart of our most important building sends an unmistakable message that the Wren Chapel belongs more fully to some of us than to others. That there are, at the College, insiders and outsiders. Those for whom our most revered place is meant to be keenly welcoming, and those for whom presence is only tolerated. That distinction, I believe, to be contrary to the best values of the College.

It is precisely because the Wren Chapel touches the best in us that it is essential it belong to everyone. There is no alternate Wren Chapel, no analogous venue, no substitute space. Nor could there be. The Wren is no mere museum or artifact. It touches every student who enrolls at the College. It defines us. And it must define us all.

In the College’s family there should be no outsiders. All belong.

These are heady words, to be sure. But no matter how heartfelt, they can, like the cross, send different messages to people with different sensitivities.

Even among politically moderate Christians, a very different bunch than the professional head-hunters who make the news, many will read the letter as the passive-aggressive prose of containment rather than as any real attempt to reach out to them as members of the William and Mary “family.” To them, the letter seems addressed to all and only those members of the family long since converted to a certain version of the gospel of inclusiveness, and laden more with sentimentality than genuine sentiment. To them, the letter is a stiff-arm, a preemptive rebuke, in a very fatherly tone, to any member of the “family” daring to challenge its central claim that the display of the cross “sends an unmistakable message” that non-Christians are at best only to be tolerated at the College. To these Christians, the letter is rudeness unmistakably disguised as a lesson in the etiquette and ethics of hospitality.

At the root of their umbrage is the central claim of the letter, which is false. If the cross sent an unwelcoming message, it isn’t one that is “unmistakable.” Thousands of people very familiar with the Wren Chapel (including at least one atheist) clearly didn’t get such a message. Are we really so dense and insensitive that we have missed the obvious?

There is a culture on campus (and most campuses) that is strong in administrative circles, student associations deeply influenced by administrative involvement, and among many faculty committees with administrative contacts, and that sees itself as enlightened on the issues of inclusiveness and multiculturalism.

But this culture is not as enlightened as it thinks; I dare say it is even insensitive. Reasons need to be given to the rest of us for the central claim of the letter, and none are. Instead, the point is simply asserted, and without any discussion of its merits outside the culture that produced it, a political concept is introduced for governing future William and Mary policy. The “Hospitality Norm,” as I will call it, requires any practice that is unwelcoming to any student at the College to be replaced.

Of course, public universities should avoid making any reasonable student, religious or not, feel unwelcome. But to characterize all opponents of the cross decision as objecting to hospitality for students regardless of religious orientation is perverse. Any intelligent person will ask what an appropriate welcome should be and how policies for a welcoming atmosphere are to be assessed. Even the general language of the administration implies the legitimacy of such questions when it asks us to think of ourselves as a family.

Should we think this way?

The notion of the “college family” (whether Christian or multicultural) is both puzzling and troublesome. Literally welcoming someone into your family involves thinking of that person as a family member: bringing home a newborn baby, adopting a child, accepting new mothers and fathers-in-law, taking back the prodigal son, or receiving a soldier-spouse home from the war. But which familial relations are supposed to exist in public universities? Who are the parents, siblings, and children, the uncles, aunts, and cousins? If students are university children, are administrators and faculty university parents? And is university teaching best understood as a form of parenting?

No doubt the doctrine of in loco parentis has fueled the idea of public universities as families, but it is hard to see the reason in the rhetoric. Does the idea do anything to clarify how we should provide a welcoming atmosphere?

I teach at the College of William and Mary and also have two adolescent daughters. But parenting my girls contrasts more than it compares with what I do when I go to campus to teach. I am there to teach young adults, not children, how to get on with intellectual inquiry. If students aren’t yet grown up enough for that task, they aren’t welcome in my classes. And if students feel unwelcome because I don’t treat them like kids, let alone like my kids, then they, not I, have a warped sense of hospitality.

Moreover, if students expect either a class or a campus atmosphere in which they are at home in the way that they are home with the values and beliefs in their family, they are simply deluded regarding the goals of a public university in a democratic republic. We aren’t here to be one big happy family. We are here, in part, to have our beliefs and values examined rather than confirmed or denied or celebrated, which makes the diversity expected here somewhat unpleasant and incompatible with what even the most accommodating family could provide. The family metaphor suggests that a public university is a cocoon for kids away from home, but neither Christian nor non-Christian students (who should refuse to be thought of as kids) should experience that kind of intellectual shelter on university campuses. This is why the rationale for the new policy insofar as it appeals to the university family is deeply troubling.

Of course, none of this denies that students should feel welcome at public universities. They should. (And it bears mentioning that students should also be made to feel physically safe.) But appeals to the concept of family are no more legitimate to save universities from crusading Christians than they are to save marriage from homosexuals. So how are we to understand the kind of welcoming atmosphere we seek?

Some believe that the notion of the college community will help, but I have my doubts that it will make the case against the cross.

Consider this. Williamsburg is a fairly typical American community. Some people are welcome here, and some aren’t. This is a fact not just about Williamsburg but about all communities, and sometimes it is a very unpleasant one. The sense of belonging to a community includes the sense that some people don’t belong and others do. Among those who don’t and who can expect to feel unwelcome in Williamsburg are Osama bin Laden, Wal-mart, some students who insist on voting in city elections, and homeless people who attempt to gather around Merchant’s Square.

No sarcasm is intended; every community has an unwritten list of this sort.

Among those welcome in Williamsburg are Christians, Jews, Muslims, secularists, strip mall outlets, and gay couples (the marriage amendment banning civil unions failed in this city). The relevant question in this context is this: what kind of welcome is appropriate to members of such a community?

It is a fact about Williamsburg, as about most American communities, that there are Christian churches everywhere, even around campus in full view of students at the College of William and Mary. From the second floor of James Blair Hall where I sometimes teach, I can look out the window across the way (sometimes while discussing Madison’s views on church and state) and see a Christian cross on the steeple of the Second Baptist Church. Similar Christian architecture proliferates the Williamsburg skyline, near and far from campus.

Yet even as a member of the most unpopular minority in America, I feel welcome in Williamsburg. True, I neither expect nor desire to be welcome in Williamsburg’s churches. Why should I? Churches are where people go who share certain beliefs and values, and I don’t share those beliefs and values. Nonetheless, a sufficient number of my Christian neighbors play golf with me, discuss politics and religion with me, and leave their children to play with mine. Of course, some of these same people think I’m going to burn in hell. They don’t go on and on about it, and they don’t communicate this to my children, but they are worried about my eternal welfare.

And though I don’t go on and on about it, I think they are, to put it bluntly, deluded in this regard. The very idea of hell is morally incoherent to me, obscene, and an undeniable product of superstition. Nevertheless, in spite of these deep differences, I feel welcome here. That is what American communities at their best are like.

Now what if I complained to the mayor that the steeples and the crosses had to be put away because I don’t feel welcome? Most of us understand that the steeples and the crosses no more mean that Williamsburg is a Christian community than that it is a white community, despite the fact that Williamsburg is mostly Christian and mostly white. Of course, if that is what the public visibility of the steeples and the crosses meant, then I wouldn’t feel welcome, and neither would Muslims, Jews, and many other people. If the crosses were placed on government buildings in a manner some Christians would like, then the message would be different, the peace threatened, and the community divided. Otherwise, being appropriately welcomed in Williamsburg is consistent with the public display of predominantly Christian symbols by nongovernment institutions. Diversity in Williamsburg is accommodated without pretending that there isn’t a visible religious majority.

Indeed, it is hard to see how there could be diversity in a democratic republic without it becoming obvious that some traditions are practiced more by a majority of people than others. This doesn’t mean that the majority always rules, but it does mean that any view of multiculturalism that requires our society to make all cultural traditions equally visible is incompatible with any real diversity. In this sense, multiculturalism often seems to be an opponent of diversity rather than a proponent, which is both puzzling and deeply objectionable to the tradition of American secularism.

If the City of Williamsburg adopted similar policies toward welcoming residents as the new College policy takes toward welcoming students it wouldn’t resemble any kind of healthy pluralistic community in America.

It is also hard to see how the rationale for the new policy could generalize across the campus. Are Christian faculty to remove pictures of Jesus from their office walls? If so, what about pictures of Voltaire, Darwin, and Bertrand Russell on the walls of secular faculty? Will the college community, properly purged and governed by the Hospitality Norm, then have all the warmth and unity of the Chinese Cultural Revolution? Ask the Chinese about that kind of community.

Multiculturalists are right to insist that insensitivity to difference can undermine a pluralistic society. What they seem hidebound in not seeing is that hypersensitivity to difference can be just as deadly. By hyper-moralizing, it poisons the atmosphere in such a way that the commitment to serious discussion of deep differences is unwelcome. For that reason I feel less welcome now on the William and Mary campus than I do in the larger Williamsburg community and than I did before the cross was removed.

I suggest then that viewing the cross with the Madison plaque in the field of vision and the steeples on Williamsburg’s churches with City Hall in the background doesn’t send the message that Christians have favored status as Americans. By rejecting any religious test for holding public office, our secular Constitution insures this. In secular America, the shared culture reflects the Christian elements of its past and its present, including the fact that Christians are the predominant social group and that we have all assimilated part of that history into our lives, as we have parts of other traditions.

Similarly, the cross doesn’t dominate the Wren Chapel from my perspective. Nor when juxtaposed to the Madison plaque does it send the message that non-Christian students are unwelcome, to be merely tolerated within the William and Mary community. Because of the influence of the Madison cousins and the fact that the College is a state institution, the cross stands ready to withdraw gracefully to share scarce space with others in the College community as equal members. American Christianity at its best is neither unduly modest regarding its standing in the pluralistic culture which is America, nor is it so arrogant as to challenge our secular foundations, as so many on the political right are currently doing. I thought the old arrangement expressed all this very well.

Driven by their own interpretation of inclusiveness, many multiculturalists apparently see the relationship between being equal and being a minority differently than I do. Nothing about the cross under the old policy made me feel unequal as a member of the College community, though it unmistakably reminded me of my minority status. Multiculturalists seem perplexed as to how someone can feel like a minority without feeling unequal. I do so quite easily. American secularism is the brand of cultural pluralism (distinct from multiculturalism) that makes this possible for me and for many other people as well.

Minority status for some, even many, is the inevitable consequence of any pluralistic society, and nothing is going to change that except the elimination of American diversity itself.

So I invite those who complained about the cross to consider this different way of seeing it so that together we can work on real problems of exclusivity, like the exclusion of gay and other-gendered Americans from the American family and a Pledge of Allegiance that is only for religious Americans but not for American atheists, many of whom have paid the ultimate price for all our freedoms. In doing so, we can reassure our Christian friends that we don’t seek to manipulate them into becoming publicly invisible, but only ask that they desist from doing the same thing to us.

Unfortunately, the vigilance of the multicultural establishment in making students feel welcome isn’t matched by a similar vigilance that students graduate from college sufficiently knowledgeable of the diversity of their own history and other cultures. Typical of many prestigious universities, William and Mary requires no American history for a degree. Nor does it require a course in government or anything that would insure that students have at least read the U.S. Constitution, a document grandly designed for a diverse, pluralistic society. In both cases, fears of chauvinism are inflamed by the academic avant-garde, the way that fears of terrorism are employed in other quarters of our country. Nor is any serious understanding of other cultures required, whether European, Asian, or Third World; the required study of other cultures at William and Mary can be exhausted with courses in popular music and the anthropology of food.

The unmistakable message here, one far more unmistakable than any sent by the cross in the Wren Chapel, is that contemporary multiculturalism in its current vogue at public universities is too soft to promote any real understanding of diversity. As a substitute for cultural sensitivity gained through persistent, rigorous inquiry, it all too often cultivates a self-serving, manipulative sentimentality that impedes real cultural engagement.

American universities can do better. The Madisons would insist.