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Goodness Gracious

Harvard’s intellectual culture discourages identification with Christianity

By Lucy M. Caldwell

Yesterday was Easter, the day that marks the end of the 40-day season of Lent. For Christians, Easter commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. On this day, they believe, three days after his crucifixion on Good Friday, Jesus rose from the dead. Easter is the holiest day of the year for Christians.

In this season of Lent, I was reminded of the absence of visible Christian faith at Harvard. As secular student organizations across campus planned Passover seders last week, there was at best little talk of Easter celebration, and at worst disrespect. Last Tuesday, Harvard’s Owl Club hosted a “Catholic Schoolgirl” themed party. “Want to show off your spring break tan?” the event invitation queried. “All of this sacrilege can be had at the Owl Catholic Schoolgirl Party.”

Despite the offensive nature of such an event, most of Harvard’s Christians turned the other cheek. But had another of Harvard’s final clubs hosted a “Burqas Off!” party during Ramadan, the entire community would have been up in arms. The Harvard Foundation would have nervously proclaimed a town hall meeting, and the national media would have surely picked the story up.

Harvard Christians’ response to this string of events is a sharp contrast to last November, when Harvard’s Muslim community felt under attack at the publication of anti-Islamic Danish cartoons. A town hall meeting had to be called to save face. No such action, or demand, for that matter, has occurred in the case of the Christians. Apparently, Harvard’s Christians are used to being slighted.

Harvard was founded by Puritans as a place of study for clergymen. As it grew into a more modern and progressive institution, the University shed its Christian roots and began admitting a wide range of religious backgrounds. Today, the University is rolling in religious diversity. Dharma, the campus Hindu organization, is booming: the Harvard Islamic Society recently organized an entire week of Islam awareness, and campus Jewish students flock to Hillel nightly.

Ironically, in this flurry of religious progressivism at Harvard, it is Christianity that has been pushed to the wayside. The religion is seen as backward, nonintellectual, and extreme. No one will say that directly in public space—it is not appropriate—but it is an underlying assumption of many at Harvard. Whereas Muslim students attending Islamic services or Hindu students attending Dharma’s religious events are admirably in touch with their cultures, a Christian who is religious enough to regular Memorial Church or St Paul’s Cathedral is painfully unprogressive.

Because of this, being openly Christian at Harvard proves to be a burden. Defending Christian values becomes an extracurricular activity unto itself: students who do so are thought of as moralists or dubbed reactionaries. Last fall, when Harvard Right to Life published anti-abortion posters—though the organization is secular, objection to abortion is common to most Christians—many students ripped the posters down.

It is not right to blame Harvard’s Christian community for not taking an active role in campus affairs. They do. The Catholic Students Association and the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship, among others, do a reasonably good job in tending to their flocks. But the larger point is that the intellectual culture at Harvard discourages identification, public or otherwise, with Christianity in the way it does not with Muslims, Hindus, or Jews.

One might argue that because Christianity was the old norm and now pervades our culture, it does not need protection in the way Harvard’s newer religions do. But this is to mistake the debate, which is not about protection and tolerance, but about equal respect. Without respect, Harvard’s Christians will always curtain a part of themselves and consequently never feel comfortable about being Christians here.

That Harvard is no longer the Puritan institution it was more than 300 years ago is no travesty: the school is bound to become less Christian in aspiring to student diversity. But in its shift, the Harvard community must be conscious to preserve respect for the religion, especially given that it was within Harvard’s Christian culture that the religious pluralism we now enjoy was produced.

Lucy M. Caldwell ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.

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