Bagg: On faith, U.S. should follow Yale

Yale is a Christian university. In 1701, it was founded by Harvard alumni dissatisfied with the religious instruction of their alma mater. Like it or not, the primary objective of the new university was to train Protestant clergymen.

As a historically Christian institution, Yale is not unlike the nation whose leaders it has often produced. America’s founders, too, sought to escape the religious decay of their homeland. Forged by devout Christians and carried to maturity by Christian moral and legal systems, the United States is, indeed, a Christian nation.

Yet, as a proud Yale senior and American citizen, I am far from Christian.

One major difference between my country and my school is that Yale has successfully transformed itself from a historically Christian institution into a dynamic, accepting and modern university, while the United States remains a nation dependent on God. Inside Yale, we are protected by a tightly sealed secular bubble. Outside, however, the story is different. As I consider my impending departure from New Haven, the prospect of American religious fervor does not excite me.

Yale’s transformation should not be taken for granted. Breaking free of traditional allegiances is a difficult process for any institution to undertake. Whether it is a nation or a university, it must be careful to whittle away the outdated customs without cutting out the valuable ones as well. The significance of history is easily underestimated, but Yale could not be what it is today without acknowledging its Christian heritage — and neither could the United States

Certainly, value is lost in the complete abandonment of heritage, even if it has been tainted. The Christian Right’s attempts to protect traditional American values could even be the product of good intentions. However, their solution, to reject any changes whatsoever, is the opposite extreme. The course Yale has taken, and which America could do well to imitate, is to mold its heritage — neither forsaking tradition entirely nor desperately clinging to it.

Dwight Hall was once devoted to promoting the gospel of Christ. It has certainly changed since then. But even devout Christians would be hard pressed to say that its purpose today is less worthy. Throughout the ages, Dwight Hall has encouraged devotion to service; and, perhaps more importantly, it has promoted humility among Yale students in the midst of a privileged existence.

The University Chaplain herself embodies the changing nature of religion at Yale. Even in a secular institution, the Chaplaincy remains relevant to a diverse array of students. She is a lay Catholic and a “multifaith” chaplain, more interested in opening doors for the sake of exploration than doling out religion instruction. Still, her title remains that of a University-wide pastor and she counts as her own many responsibilities of that office.

These two University institutions are examples of the carefully negotiated shifts of focus and a gradual growth in tolerance that have characterized Yale’s transformation. They have given her the gift of a meaningful tradition without the disgrace of endorsing an intolerant past.

The nation at large still fails to exhibit similar priorities. Instead of finding new language to talk about the moral codes that must guide our nation, our politicians relentlessly barrage us with invocations of a God that is unavailable to many Americans. Instead of acknowledging our changing religious demography, the religious right presents us with a false choice between fiercely public, evangelical Christianity and utter moral decay.

If Dwight Hall can convincingly update a well-meaning but exclusive religious tradition, so can Capitol Hill; and if Sharon Kugler can open more eyes and hearts than she closes, so can our next President. I challenge him to do so.


  • Anonymous

    Dear Mr. Bagg,
    I was struck by your article's well-meaning but surprisingly exclusive argument against America's religious tradition (taken rather imprudently as a whole and portrayed rather unfairly on the whole). In particular, I wonder at the contrast you make in the following statement: "One major difference between my country and my school is that Yale has successfully transformed itself from a historically Christian institution into a dynamic, accepting and modern university, while the United States remains a nation dependent on God."

    Why is it that the presence of belief in God implies that an institution (or a country for that matter) is intolerant and outdated? To put it another way, why can't a dynamic, accepting, and modern institution be Christian, traditionally or otherwise? Indeed, I would describe my church back home, and the churches I've been to around Yale, as dynamic, accepting, and modern (unless of course by modern you mean leaving an aftertaste of nihilism).

    I also take issue with the idea that a secular, liberal university is an appropriate "neutral", whereas the rest of the country is biased by the vast Christian conspiracy. Again, you characterize the change in Dwight hall and the chaplaincy to represent "carefully negotiated shifts of focus and a gradual growth in tolerance", assuming - quite incorrectly - that a more secular institution is necessarily more tolerant. Comparing France to America, the former has decided to outlaw religious symbols in public institutions while the latter has been a nation of many religions since its founding and continues to allow people of all faiths to flourish. Is America then the more intolerant, for allowing people to express there religious beliefs or unbelief freely? Neither religion nor secularism is inherently tolerant or intolerant; rather, tolerance has long stood as both a religious and moral virtue.

    It seems to me that Mr. Bagg's vision of tolerant secularism at Yale is also mistaken in some ways (warning, this is where my argument becomes more personal and controversial). While there are many people of faith at Yale, the culture of Yale tends to look down on religion and faith as outmoded systems of thought. I'm not sure where this culture stems from, but in place of religious faith it encourages a highly individualist spirit of achievement and a certain amount of disrespect for traditions. Ambition is not a bad thing, and there is a healthy level of criticism one can bring to tradition, but without a higher purpose (most specifically when one has lost sight of one's formerly held higher purpose in order to conform to the Yale culture) and with an identity torn from its religious roots, many find themselves turning to unhealthy escapist or hedonist alternatives (see binge drinking, Toad's). I wonder, indeed, if there was an intended connection between Mr. Bagg's declaration of the secular Yale and Mr. Kosselyn's article on the need to rediscover meaning in life at Yale.

    Ignoring or dismissing religious people as foolish or at best old-fashioned overlooks the faith that makes life meaningful for so many Americans (which is politically unwise: I would end this response by encouraging Mr. Bagg and others who do not believe in any particular religion to show more consideration for their peers and countrymen who do, and by encouraging those who do still believe at Yale - difficult as it is - to know that they are not alone.

  • Yale 08


    Sam Bagg urges us to flee Christendom, but never sets a new location.

    Much like the Senator from Illinois who demands that we changes, but never acknowledges into what we should change.

    If by the tired old traditions of the Religious Right, Bagg means Tradition, Family and Property, then I am all too willing to stand against him and his "change" and "progress".

  • SIMS

    This article is full of generalizations unsupported by facts. It is true that Yale has been transformed from a Christian college to a secular one like other Ivy League schools (with the exception of Princeton, which did not have any religious affiliation from the beginning). The United States, however, has never been a Christian state or a theocracy. Although it is founded on Judeo-Christian and puritanical beliefs, the constitution espouses the freedom of religion as a central tenet. Although the country is largely Christian and has always been so, it has always embraced people of other religions to a degree that very few countries have done through its history. Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, to name a few groups, are able to build their temples tax free and support religious causes outside the United States with these tax free funds. Religious visas for these groups are freely granted by the US government. The government cannot discriminate on the basis of religion by law. This article implies that Christianity as it is practiced in the United States today is a negative force within government and society. The author, however, dismisses the fact that Christian beliefs in liberty and religious choice were and are foundational truths that foster religious freedom in the United States.


    Yale appears to have moved away from secularism to the endorsement of the Muslim faith as evidenced by the recent hiring of a Muslim chaplain. Sam Bragg's assumption that Yale is secular is wrong.

  • MJG

    SIMS is in error in stating that Princeton had no religious affiliation from the beginning. It was a famously Presbyterian institution. SIMS can consult Princeton Seminary (2 vols) by David C. Calhoun.

  • @ GEMINI

    I assume your kidding. Ha ha. (If you're not kidding, you can take your anti-Muslim hysteria elsewhere.)

    And the fact that Yale hires rabbis and ministers means that it endorses both Christianity AND Judaism.

    I suppose Yale is bipolar, too.