The possibility of pluralism

Faith and diversity at Vanderbilt

By Tish Harrison Warren, Campus Staff Member, Graduate and Faculty Ministries
This commentary was published at on Oct. 2, 2011.

The debate over Vanderbilt’s new religious life policy demonstrates how difficult it is to discuss faith without the conversation degrading into binary “us vs. them” categories — conservative vs. liberal, religious vs. nonreligious, tradition vs. individualism.  The more public the controversy, the greater the possibility of mutual demonization using these tired, increasingly irrelevant categories.   

The issue presented by this policy change is whether Vanderbilt will allow student groups to ensure that their leaders share the core beliefs and purpose of the group.  This change came from the highest levels of Vanderbilt’s administration, not the Interim Director of Religious Life or the Dean of Students office. Several religious organizations, including Graduate Christian Fellowship, the ministry in which I serve, are on “provisional” status due to this policy.  Like virtually all campus religious groups, our membership is open to all students.  We merely ask that our leaders hold to our core doctrinal beliefs.

Couching this discussion as “the university vs. Christian students” is inaccurate, unhelpful, and allows the conversation to be caricatured and dismissed. Instead, this debate reflects a much more crucial question:  Do we want different communities with conflicting narratives and ideologies to be authentically represented on campus or not?

Vanderbilt’s chancellor and top leaders are in the difficult position of navigating this institution through the unpredictable currents of pluralism.  Because true diversity can be messy and contentious, the human tendency regarding pluralism is often to flatten differences and stamp out unpopular ideologies.   Irreconcilable ideologies produce conflict; conflict threatens peace.  However, the proper resolution is not to abrogate conflicting ideologies, but to learn to embody our robust particularities respectfully and intelligently.  

The tragedy of removing some religious organizations from campus would not be merely the loss of religious liberty, an enormous and embarrassing loss indeed, but also the tacit admission by the administration that pluralism is not, in the end, a possibility.  It’s an admission that, at the end of the day, the university must ask student communities to surrender their particularities to guard against controversy and debate.

Our social responsibility in a diverse university is to protect and preserve ideas, not only one’s own ideas or popular ideas, but all ideas that are peacefully and thoughtfully expressed. I’ve seen this lived out beautifully these past months as students and campus chaplains, despite real differences in belief and practice, have met, dialogued and sought together to preserve liberty on campus for all student groups.  This is the promise of pluralism — that communities can have opposing ideologies, yet not silence one another, but instead learn to live as neighbors and, more radically, as friends.  

This promise of principled pluralism is why I, an evangelical Christian, was glad the university granted greater religious freedom to Wiccan students by excusing them from class on their holidays. This is not because I think Christianity and Wicca are basically saying the same thing or equally true, but because I want Vanderbilt to be a place where student communities — not just individual students but students united around common belief — can authentically express their ideas and ideals.

A free marketplace of ideas is not a tidy, easy place to live.  Ideas and the practices that grow from them are powerful, with potential for good or harm.  But we trust our students to help find cures for cancers, create solutions for systemic injustice and environmental degradation, and preserve and cultivate the best of literature and culture. Can we not also trust them with powerful, at times opposing, moral and religious ideas?

As I’ve worked with leaders in Religious Life and the Office of the Dean of Students over recent months, I have been impressed by their professionalism and willingness to listen.  They have asked good, hard questions of the religious community and are seeking a way to allow all students on campus to live out their identities, which is a deeply challenging task.  I sincerely hope Vanderbilt’s decision makers will choose to protect religious communities and preserve robust pluralism.  For if students are not allowed to form peaceful communities on campus that preserve their most deeply held beliefs, practices and identities, then pluralism here has failed.  And if pluralism cannot be preserved in the university, how can it ever flourish in our broader global community?

Tish Warren Harrison holds an MA in Theology and is a campus minister with Intervarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship at Vanderbilt.