As a welcoming message, the United Ministry at Harvard & Radcliffe sends a pamphlet on religious life at Harvard to all incoming first-years. The Ministry encourages students to explore some of the 36 groups that it currently recognizes. Among them are a multiplicity of Christian organizations, Hillel for Jewish worship, the Baha'i Association, the Buddhist Community, a Humanist Chaplaincy, the religious Society of Friends, as well as Hindu and Zoroastrian associations.
Groups that have no place at the Ministry include cults, as the Boston Church of Christ (BCC) has been called. The characteristics o these "DESTRUCTIVE RELIGIOUS GROUPS," according to the Ministry's brochure, include "a leader who claims divinity or a special relationship to God." One could logically include almost every religion now sanctioned by the Ministry in this definition, at least in their early stages. Webster in fact agrees with this all-encompassing usage of cult. In the 10th Collegiate edition of Merriam-Webster, a cult is described as "a system of religious beliefs and ritual."
Perhaps we would be more enlightened about the position of the United Ministry by redirecting our attention to Webster's second definition for cult: "a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious." The factor that currently differentiates the religious groups recognized by the Ministry from cults is that the groups have been around for a while--long enough, at least, not to disturb the current theological balance of power.
When the BCC applied to Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57 for recognition as a student group called Harvard Christians in Action (HCIA), its resume lacked an essential element--the approval of the United Ministry. Because religious groups are separated from other student organizations, they are required to conform to the guidelines established by the chaplains in the basement of Memorial Church.
Though Jewett temporarily approved the group for a trial period, that acceptance was rescinded because "[HCIA] no longer satisfies College regulations for recognizing student groups," Jewett said Monday. Tow weeks earlier, Jewett had conditioned HCIA's acceptance on a promise to remain autonomous from the BCC and to refrain from proselytizing, two key factors for recognition for the United Ministry. Obviously, HCIA's difficulties in getting recognized by Harvard resulted from its religiosity.
The materials required for application to the United Ministry require "written agreement to conduct ministry in accordance with... and documentation of conformance to requirements of By-Laws." In April, 1987, a resolution on religious proselytizing was added to the other four pages of By-Laws. It prohibits active proselytizing endeavors such as approaching individuals and inducing them to join a certain religion. Yet the resolution permits passive proselytizing enterprises such as posting and public announcement of group events, the espousal of religious views at such events and the acceptance of members of other religious group.
Evangelism is obviously acceptable at Harvard. But only on the part of the established religious groups. A common argument against recognition of the HCIA is that its members will approach lonely students, especially those vulnerable first-years, in the dining halls in order to convert them. There are two answers to this concern.
The first is: So what? Why is the "cult-like" BCC any worse a choice than the Swedenborgian Chaplaincy, which is recognized by the United Ministry? Will its members not go to heaven? This should really not be Harvard's concern. Does the BCC destroy students' lives? Those students make their own decisions about submitting to the groups' practices and policies.
The second response to the discomfort-potential of HCIA actions is that such actions essentially take place already. Is there any real difference between a BCC member sitting down to dinner with a student and a student reading a poster like Hillel's recent one: "Eating alone again at the Union? Come to Freshman Night at Hillel"? In fact, there is no difference at all between proselytizing actively and passively (provided that active recruitment bars harassment).
I recently attended a 25th anniversary concert of the Kuumba Singers at Paine Hall. What I assumed to be an evening of entertaining gospel music proved to be something much more, as the Reverend Bruce Wall of the Dorchester Temple Baptist Church informed us in his invocation. The purpose of the Kuumba show was not simply to please the ears of the audience, but to spread the word of the Lord Jesus Christ. The singers did so successfully with such numbers as "Silver and Gold," "I Will Go in Jesus's Name," "The Blood" and "He's Ever Faithful."
One particularly poignant scene occurred when Joel Kemp '97 provided "testimony" to the Lord's good deeds. Kemp essentially claimed that despite his family's hardships of which the worst was hopelessness, Christ resurrected Kemp's life and allowed him to attend Harvard. The concert was most definitely evangelical, yet the group has been recognized by the University for a quarter-century and is now supported personally by Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III, according to the Kuumba playbill. Are Kuumba and other "non-religious" groups such as Under Construction truly secular? After seeing one of its concerts, I'm sure that you wouldn't think so.
Religious groups have always been treated differently from other associations, even garnering special recognition in our Constitution's First Amendment. Harvard relies on the United Ministry to decide which religious groups it will recognize, and therein lies the Ministry's power. By drawing a line between active and passive Proselytizing, the Ministry shows its true hypocritical colors: They allow the established religions freedom at Harvard and prevents new ones from starting on the campus, a fertile intellectual environment on which any major movement could begin in the present day.
The Ministry now holds, a monopoly on religion at Harvard. It should not, not only because its chaplains are not omniscient, but also because individual liberty is truly stifled by such control. If Harvard really believed in freedom of religion on campus, it should recognize all religious groups that conform to the guidelines for every other student group. The United Ministry's hypocrisy with regard to proselytizing makes it unfit to determine campus religious policy.