Harvardian Civil Religion

A higher power and systematic faith woven into the fabric of the University

There is an implicit way to be here—and the here in this case is not some wildly nebulous concept in which the edges are constellational and ever expanding into dark matter, unattainable. No—the here is tangible, neat, an institution like Harvard that inputs scholasticism and dedication, grinds and molds these factors for four years and churns out summa cum laude grist that’s supposed to change the world. Although the diversity of inputs is evermore variable, the same ethical principles underscoring the nature of these students remains stagnant—due diligence to their studies, being just and truthful in the pursuance of their goals, and more. As such, each person is subjected to the same educational mill whose mechanisms are accepted with such fervor by these students, learning to navigate through this system as their hunger for achievement salivates for more.

Everyone graced by this epitomal “here” wants to taste success. Thus, they learn the way to be here; they subject themselves to the hustle and bustle of Harvardian life, hoping to skim to the surface of this higher aim. The University, in turn, utilizes their students’ desires for the future to rhetorically guide the tide of the campus, to build the most faith in the administration and dedication to the policies of the school.

This is not to say that these intentions are not pure in nature. The crux of this relies in understanding why the instinct of University members is to trust that these actions are in accordance with the ethical principles and moral foundations that substantiate their overall goals—not whether or not the message conveyed is wrong or maliciously calculated.

In this simple rhythm of “transformative experiences,” “community,” “home,” “intellectual transformation,” and other cadences of sound, students are serenaded in a choir of hopes and expectations that conveniently align with their personal aspirations. Students and staff alike are then lullaby-ed into a verbal sense of security that is gleaned from what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt defines as their moral foundations, or an innate ethical infrastructure broken into six categories that are utilized to sway reasoning (particularly in religion and politics). Leaning heavily on the ideals of care for others and a universalist loyalty to the community, the University succeeds in pushing a narrative that its members will accept comfortably.

Some might call the response to these serenades almost religious in nature, where there’s a certain higher concept underscoring University rhetoric that students rest their faith and laurels upon. Although the ideals of a Harvard education and the way in which it is obtained are not a straight line from a religious authority to the steps of Widener, this implicit way to be here has a reified tone to it.


Robert Bellah breathed life anew into the term “American civil religion” in a 1976 article, commenting on the way in which presidents past have utilized the aforementioned moral foundations invoked within many religions to bring legitimacy to or incentivize constituents to heed their actions. Harvard officials seem to have adopted this system in a manner similar to past presidents. Yet, the overarching goal at Harvard that gives legitimacy to the hierarchical faith in the system is not a higher being, but in the promise of an unmatched access to a liberal arts education placed on a pedestal.

This tool is wielded carefully: Just as John F. Kennedy ’40, a former Crimson editor, asks for “high standards of strength and sacrifice” in the name of God in his inaugural address, Harvard calls on its students to “serve the world” in having “intellectual… [and] social transformations” in the naming of having an “unparalleled educational journey” in its mission statement. Just as President Obama assures that equality, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness are a “God-given promise,” University President Drew G. Faust uses a similar syntax in her 2017 commencement speech in praising the risks of free speech and being fearless towards possible verbal insult as part of accepting our University’s “values and our theory of education.”

As we continue to abide by and support policies of the administration, we must be wary of the method of communication itself—woven with rhetoric promising the liberal arts and science education of our dreams—morphing into sophistry. Although the beatitude of attending a university like Harvard shines brightly, it can be almost blinding, and that’s when the ability to delineate coaxing rhetoric from subjectivism becomes blurry.

Jessenia N. Class ’20, is a Crimson Editorial editor in Quincy House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.


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