It wasn’t necessarily a statement of dogma. Nor was it a purely religious declaration. Instead, what Governor Tim Pawlenty said during his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference was more of a mention of what influenced his view of American liberties. In a list of what he considered to be critical conservative ideals, the first item he mentioned was that “God is in charge.” Continuing on, he reminded the audience of right-wingers that the Declaration of Independence asserts that our rights are “endowed by our Creator.” As the applause from the audience grew, I felt myself do what any self-respecting Columbian would do in that situation. I reacted impulsively against the idea of bringing God into the discussion. After all, this was a political conference—not some religious congregation looking for teachings from above.
I say that this reaction was impulsive because, after enough time at Columbia, we all seem to unwittingly adopt a mindset that religious belief belongs only in the restrictive realm of personal life, regardless of the strength of our conviction. So long as these beliefs remain comfortably in the private sphere, they can be accepted. If not, then the ever-thinning acceptance quickly turns to intolerance of what is deemed publicly irrelevant. The reality is that these tacit expectations of restraint, as tame as they may seem, actually serve as aggressive regulators of belief on this campus.
So why cringe at a comment like Pawlenty’s? From my experiences here, I can guess that my response had less to do with what he was saying than with where he was saying it. He was in a political environment but failed to stick to our approved system of separating “real” parts of life from the more “unreal” parts like religion. He brought in a topic that we would consider inappropriate to the discussion—an unwelcome intruder from a separate social dimension. Instead of sticking to a sober combination of policy and secular persuasion, he was invoking “religion.” This appeal, whether by politicians or anyone else, finds no acceptance at Columbia.
Granted, not every environment at Columbia is hostile toward faith. In a religion class or a service, perspective informed by faith is embraced. If you are a religious person in such a class, your viewpoint is thoughtfully considered. In this limited way, Columbia is quite supportive when it comes to religious life. Outside of these very specific situations, however, faith is an unwanted interloper.
When Columbia’s strict social boundary between academic and religious identity begins to blur, people get uncomfortable—especially when the latter makes surprise appearances into the former’s territory. Don’t buy it? Think back to a time when this overlap happened. Recall when, in Frontiers of Science, a student mentioned that she believes in some variant of Divine agency in creation. Remember an instance when a classmate refuted Aristotle’s theory of natural slavery by asserting a belief in an equal dignity given by a Creator. Consider that moment when a fellow anthropology student mentioned that he didn’t believe a certain cultural practice was morally acceptable.
Can’t think of any instances of that happening? No? That’s probably because, like most Columbians, you would consider such a scene laughable. Even the religious students among us realize this and have forced themselves to suppress their convictions. They realize that at Columbia, religion has no place in the classroom except as a subject of cultural examination.
Chesterton put it this way: “You are free in our time to say that God does not exist; you are free to say that He exists and is evil. … But if you speak of God as a fact, as a thing like a tiger, as a reason for changing one’s conduct, then the modern world will stop you somehow if it can. We are long past talking about whether an unbeliever should be punished for being irreverent. It is now thought irreverent to be a believer.”
To someone devoted to his faith, there is no part of life that is somehow separate from personal beliefs. To leave his religious convictions at the door of a classroom is as ridiculous as the prospect of leaving other philosophical opinions or life experiences there as well. Faith is not the same as having a cultural food that you like to eat or a type of clothing that you prefer to wear. Faith is a framework for life itself—it affects everything. It’s a worldview. Relegating faith to outside the classroom implies an attempt to create a faith-free zone, when in fact the classroom already teems with faith of every sort. My hope is that Columbia can recognize this silent judgment against religious thought and condemn it for what it is: an atrocious censoring of identity.
Derek Turner is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in anthropology and political science. Opening Remarks runs alternate Thursdays.