For the past two years, Dean of Students Archie C. Epps Ill blocked Michael J. Hrnicek '96's pursuit of University recognition for his group, Harvard Christians in action (HCIA) with every tactic he could muster. Epps offered administrative delays, called for stringent application of campus guidelines, and exhorted the University to supersede those same rules, all to stop the Boston Church of Christ (BCC) from operating beneath the Harvard banner.
Not many Harvard students have rallied behind Epps' efforts. In fact he was opposed by all five student members of the Committee on College Life (COCL). The students reasoned that Hrnicek's claim that the HCIA was autonomous from the BCC should be taken at face value. Besides, they said, Epps is discriminating against Hrnicek because of his religion. But the bottom line is that Epps' concern was for his students, and his instincts were right on.
Unfortunately, Epps lost this battle. On Monday, Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57 agreed to recognize Hrnicek's HCIA on the provisions that they refrain from recruiting for the BCC and they preserve their autonomy. Jewett's decision has a certain logic. Harvard should not be able to punish a student group before it actually violates any College rules. But if Jewett's action appears reasonable, it fails to examine the nature of HCIA's "independence." Where is the line between a bible study group and a recruiting session for the Church? Jewett seems to believe that there exists some separation, but in Epps' memorable phrase, this is "a distinction without a difference."
According to Hrnicek, the HCIA is an independent Bible study group that is "united under the voice of the Church," i.e., the HCIA represents the BCC on campus. And this group is hardly a pluralistic sect, offering a literalist, univocal interpretation of the Bible. Each member is assigned a "disciple" who instructs them in the orthodox reading of the text. There is no room for free expression or autonomy.
But then the group's formal independence was never strictly the issue here. You don't see Hillel or the Catholic Students Association dissociating themselves from the influence of their parent religious groups. HCIA is different because its parent group, the BCC relies on aggressive missionary tactics, recruiting efforts many cult experts say resemble mind control.
And according to cult experts, those tactics begin with "non-denominational," Bible study groups, exactly like the kind offered by HCIA. These study groups turn out to be anything but "non-denominational," organized by BCC church leaders and designed to assault the psychological barriers of vulnerable students. New participants are showered with love and attention from BCC members, while at the same time they are reproached for their "un-Christian" life outside the BCC.
"One Bible study can do it to you if you have one ounce of faith," one former member said. "From the beginning I felt inadequate, that I wasn't a good enough Christian."
Harvard students are often skeptical about terms like "mind control" and "cult." Brought up under the virtues of free expression, students see no reason why HCIA should not operate under University recognition. Students should have the right to participate or not participate in these meetings as they see fit.
But it's not that simple. The BCC may not use force to recruit new members, but not all coercion is physical. Their high-pressure recruiting practices prey on the insecurities of their recruits. College students are at a vulnerable point in their lives. They are often lonely and unsure about their future. They are particularly susceptible to those who offer them security. The BCC offers these students security, but only at the price of their independence and their self-esteem.
Now, the BCC will operate under the aegis of Harvard University, giving it a legitimacy that is has not had before. HCIA will offer its nominally independent study groups to the unwary, and students seeking to learn more will find there's a lot to lose instead.
Steven A. Engel's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.