Sunday, April 4, 2010

"Let reverence for the laws become the political religion of the nation."

The controversy over inviting evangelical theologian Greg Boyd to give the keynote address at the inauguration of URI President David Dooley.

The University of Rhode Island inaugurates a new president on April 8. David Dooley, a biologist by training, is described as the son and husband of Baptist ministers. I did not give this detail a second thought; after all, Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, was a Baptist minister. Then he announced that evangelical theologian and pastor Gregory Boyd, known for his opinions on gays (“I have to regard homosexuality as “missing the mark” of God’s idea”) and divorced women (“adulteresses”) would be delivering the keynote address. 

What could President Dooley have been thinking to have invited him? New England is one of the bluest regions in the union; Rhode Island, the most Democratic state.

President Dooley invited Boyd who, he says, is a friend of the family. This worries me more than anything I’d heard about the new president thus far. On one hand, it feels rather like the Obama/Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy during the presidential election. Obama distanced himself from the pastor as the race progressed. At the time, I remember thinking that Obama must have learned Wright’s controversial opinions over the course of attending his church for twenty years, and seen from the perspective of the black community, his opinions were justified: He claimed that God should punish America for its racism. Could a black person, enduring what blacks have had to endure throughout our history, feel any differently? Slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynching; school segregation; discrimination; general abuse—how could any reasonable person believe differently? Yet Obama must have realized that to white America, his association with him would cause a firestorm, and it did.

Nevertheless, Obama withdrew from the church and, in the opinion of many, threw the Rev. Wright under the bus. But then, he was running for president of the United States. Loyalty fell aside in favor of the pragmatism of winning an election.                                   

President Dooley stated that he chose Gregory Boyd because he had read a great deal by Boyd and felt that his writing had much to offer as a message of hope to the university community. Did it never cross his mind that he would be alienating and marginalizing whole segments of the university community? Or did he consciously choose to throw US under the bus in favor of a Wonder Bread message of hope?

We have major problems at URI. The diminishing financial contribution of the state has forced us to find more and more monies outside of the state budget, and to lean on students for greater and greater fees. Student retention is poor; minority student retention is worse. Programs are slashed; tenure lines are reduced, with department heads having to vie with each other for the lines that open when we lose a member of the faculty to retirement or death. But the new president choose Boyd's vision of hope. For me, his beliefs about women and gays invalidate anything he will say: I have no desire to contemplate the musings of a bigot.

In every organization I have ever worked for, “white, straight, and Christian” have been the default settings. Sometimes an administrator was acutely aware of this and acted to change it, but in most cases, they considered complying with the laws pertaining to discrimination and affirmative action as a nuisance, at best. Sometimes it came down to a discomfort around what to do about Christmas in a non-religious setting. At other times, there were greater stakes.

In the 1980s, I worked for a progressive organization that, in preparation for a major push across the United States, hired large numbers of organizers. Every week, they would take a new staff picture. There were two minorities on staff: A black woman and me. Every week, the two of us would look at the picture and wonder when they would do something about the unrelenting whiteness of the expanding staff. Finally, we posted a note under the picture (by this time there were over 100 staffers) that read, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

Nobody figured it out. We watched as people stared at the picture, trying to divine the “trick” and finally, turned away. They never saw anything wrong with having only one brown and one black face in the sea of white faces.

If any institution is identified with equal opportunity for all, it is the state university. “All” includes a vast sea full of humanity: Jewish, Christians, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, atheist, agnostic, gay, straight, and so on. Christianity should not be the default setting here.

Why shouldn’t an evangelical theologian be the keynote speaker at an inauguration? What about his right to free speech, you may ask. It's not about his rights. It's about setting the tone for the future of a pluralistic institution, a state university.

URI is a public institution; separation of church and state should be respected here more than in any other institution in our country. A theologian brought as a speaker in another situation would be fine; students, faculty and staff would be free to come to listen or to protest or to ignore the whole event. But the inauguration of a president is a unique occasion where the new president lays out his vision for the institution. It is disturbing that he would bring in a speaker who narrows rather than expands that vision.

Would the inauguration of the president of a Baptist college be strange if God were left out of it? I would think so because God is at the center of instruction; why else have a Baptist college? It is the adherence to religious principles that sets it aside from other institutions. But the heart of a state university is adherence to constitutional principles; constitutional government is what finally broke the monarchies of the old world. Our public persona should be blind justice; we should maintain an arena where everyone is free to practice their own religious beliefs, or have none at all, and not be compelled to listen to a religious message on an occasion of state .

To bring an evangelical theologian to give the keynote speech at the inauguration is a betrayal of the separation of church and state precisely because they espouse prejudice-ridden religious dogmas that discriminate that against many people. It declares that it is not enough to draw inspiration from the august body of laws and the secular culture that animates our republic. Religious leaders usually use their Gods to inspire and manipulate their followers. And when they are not followers? Then they are POTENTIAL followers; one must just play the right chord to drag them in.

Abraham Lincoln declared, "Let reverence for the laws become the political religion of the nation." If it was good enough for Lincoln, should be good enough for us.

I doubt that President Dooley intended to proselytize his religious beliefs at his inauguration but it is disturbing to see that he does not realize that that is what the proposed speaker's message is likely to be. A message of hope? In what? In whom? Why pick a speaker who, by his own admission, has never spoken at a secular event? How will a speaker whose life is constructed around the message of the Gospels give a message of hope that does not involve hoping and trusting in his God? Is he even capable of delivering his message without alluding to God?

In the wake of this controversy, President Dooley has issued a statement declaring his belief in diversity. Words. More words. We want deeds; so far, his choice of a keynote speaker indicates his real beliefs far more than his reassuring platitudes.

Periodically, articles and studies appear that claim that the faculty of universities tend to be liberal. I would say that this incident shows “liberalism” at its squishiest and most spineless in its inability to protect itself against those who threaten it. As for having “some speakers who make us uncomfortable,” how about this: Let us begin with one who says we should vote on YOUR marriage.

I feel betrayed. Whatever hope I had in the new president faded when I learned how his mind functioned as shown by this signature choice and his apparent inability to see the insult he has slapped us with. We may not have had a choice in the speaker but we can choose not to participate in a new era of self-deception.

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