This short entry is simultaneously a critical reflection, a word of congratulations and a note of appreciation.
A few weeks ago, after over a year of proposal revisions, committee meetings and public, university-wide hearings, the City University of New York approved a new Bachelor’s degree program in Religious Studies at
Back in 2005, during my first days at
One of my earliest memories at Medgar Evers was the greeting I received from a couple of senior faculty, both of whom I now count as colleagues, at an orientation session. Their warm welcome was quickly followed by a somewhat sarcastic warning of a growing concern among faculty that President Jackson, who is also an ordained minister, was trying to build a seminary within the college. Never mind that nothing in the degree proposal resembled even the most remote concern with protestant proselytizing, much of this cynical thinking continued to plague the degree-making process. Given the historic relationship between HBCUs and the
In light of the religious intolerance of the post-9/11 world in which public discourse has been increasingly infused with explicit God-talk, it is essential that students have the resources necessary to cultivate a critical lens towards religious traditions both within and beyond their most immediate communities. However, in contrast to legends of religious studies professors who’ve made it their business to create a crisis of faith within their classrooms, it is equally important that faculty respect the religious traditions of their students as much as they do the theories of deconstruction detailed on their syllabi. Moreover, while students need be familiar with the multiple languages of the United States’ religiously plural society, it is increasingly important that they be able to make sense of a national history in which the Christian tradition has all too often been conflated with state power - in troubling ways, to say the least. More particularly, given that the method in which authority continues to assigned in black communities also evidences an explicitly Christian cast, it is even more essential that students at a predominantly black college like Medgar Evers be able to sort through the convoluted and confusing convergences of racial and religious rhetoric that float across the airwaves. The curriculum and faculty in
Fortunately, despite ill-informed criticisms of the proposal’s content and disrespectful assaults on the character of the college’s administration, the democratic processes of the City University of New York approved this innovative new program. And the students of
At CUNY, Religious Studies, or Religion?
The City University of New York Board of Trustees approved the creation of a religious studies major at
Medgar Evers, a predominantly black college in
The religious studies program has considerable support on the Medgar Evers campus and was approved by the college’s faculty in May 2006. Charlotte Phoenix, the college’s interim provost, said that the institution’s history of activism means that “if in fact there was faculty opposition [to the program] on this campus, everyone would have heard about it.”
At Monday’s meeting, Frederick P. Schaffer, senior vice chancellor for legal affairs and general counsel at the CUNY system, said he “saw nothing” to back up the concerns of some members of the University Faculty Senate who feared that the program might violate the Constitutional separation of church and state. The concerns, he asserted, were based not on the proposal but on the religious backgrounds of the program’s faculty and of the college’s president. Edison O. Jackson, the president of Medgar Evers, is an ordained minister who serves on the ministerial staff of an African Methodist Episcopal church in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Faculty leaders, however, cited a range of perceived problems with the degree program as conceived by Medgar Evers. At a June 4 meeting of the trustees’ Committee on Academic Policy, Programs and Research, Lenore Beaky, vice chair of the
One concern, Beaky said, was that “the proposal appears to promote the practice of religion to teach religion rather than to teach about religion.” The program, she added, “would be unconstitutional [because] as a public university we cannot violate the separation of church and state by favoring either religion or any particular variety of religion.”
The program, Beaky said, was “geared to … community experiences more suited to the practice of African-American protestant religions,” rather than the academic study of religion. She pointed to the religious affiliations of the college faculty who would teach in the program, as well the Christian affiliations of all of the scholars and others from whom Medgar Evers sought endorsements in its proposal.
Of the nine faculty members whose C.V.s are included with the proposal and who are to teach in the religious studies program, five focus their work on Christianity or African-American churches. Three others are scholars of philosophy and the fourth studies Islam in the black community.
The committee also criticized the affiliations of experts who wrote letters in support of the program that Medgar Evers officials cited in their proposal. Of the seven letters, four came from academics, all of whom focus on Christianity. Emilie M. Townes, a professor of African-American religion and theology at
The fourth letter was from Barbara Austin-Lucas, a professor of religious education at Alliance Theological Seminary in
The other three letters came from community leaders, including the executive director of the local YMCA and Lonnie F. Oates, a minister of the Christian Church, who wrote that his church is “in great need for better educated church members and a preparatory program for our ministers.” He added: “A degree in religious studies would be a sound foundation for their preparation for Seminary.... Religious studies graduates would provide us with needed potential staff members and would of course be welcome in our churches for lay minister positions in education, evangelism and community development.”
Beaky also complained that students would also be required to do internships “requiring them to work closely with professionals, practitioners, and/or graduate professors in their field of choice in order to obtain hands-on experiences in the professional practices related to religious studies,” at least some at community and faith-based organizations. The proposal, Beaky added, confirmed that the program is “geared more toward the personal development of students — development as agents of change — rather than of their critical understanding of religions,” as would be expected of a liberal arts major in religion.
Manfred Philipp, chair of the University Faculty Senate and a chemistry professor at
Philipp also contends that the program offers several courses on “a specific brand of Christianity” — the Protestantism found in black churches — including a required upper-level course called “African Traditional Religions.” Students concentrating in philosophy and religion would also be required to take “Black Philosophical Thought” and students in the religion and social justice concentration would be required to take “Caribbean Religions and Social Justice Movements” and “The Role of the Church in the Black Community.” Other than a class on Buddhism and Hinduism required of the philosophy concentrators, all of the other required classes are surveys, such as “Peace Education,” “Religious Ethics” and “Philosophy of Religion.”
“Our program is in no way trying to prepare students for seminary or sectarian studies, because that’s not what most of our students want,” Phoenix added, explaining that a survey of students interested in the religious studies major found that students were more likely to want to go to law school or to pursue non-profit or social service jobs than to go on to study divinity or become clergy members.
Jeremy Leaming, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said “the fact that some faculty say it may not be a very well-rounded program at the moment doesn’t amount to a violation of the separation of church and state.” Unless there is evidence that the program’s faculty are “trying to proselytize or inculcate Christianity or another religion,” he said, there are no grounds for objection to the religious studies program.
“Public universities,” Leaming added, “must ensure that religious study courses are just that, academic courses on religion, and not classes that should be taught at a bible seminary or a bible college.” He declined to comment further without more information on the program at Medgar Evers. -Jennifer Epstein