In the nub of New Haven sits a tripartite monument to Yale’s religious heritage. Three Protestant spires (quite fittingly on Temple Street) extend up from the city lawns, pointing back to Yale’s Puritan past.
As if this Trinitarian triad wasn’t enough, there’s also Yale’s biblical motto, its seven residential colleges bearing the names of prominent Protestant clergymen and an annual graduation ceremony laden with enough sartorial splendor and ritual to cause even the cardinal college to blanch. All are relics of a bygone age of ecclesiastic education.
For me — as a devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormon — these religious symbols and allusions carry profound meaning and significance. Yet I wonder whether most students would feel similarly at such a diverse, secular institution as Yale.
After all, according to a recent Pew Forum study, “Young adults today are much more likely to be [religiously] unaffiliated than previous generations.” And while only 33 percent of citizens 65 and older don’t believe theism is requisite for having “good values,” the percentage nearly doubles among 18 to 29 year olds, according to a Brookings/PRRI survey.
In light of these shifting ideological realities, it’s worth asking whether there’s still value in Yale paying homage to a Puritan past amidst an increasingly laical present.
Such questions, of course, are nothing new. The United States and liberal democracies more broadly have long balanced promoting and preserving religious heritage with maintaining the so-called wall of separation between church and state. According to a Yale Daily News report, through 1925 Yale required students to worship at religious services. However, a mere 25 years later, William F. Buckley was distraught by what he described in his seminal “God and Man at Yale” as an apathy toward the University’s origins and a pervasive destain for religiosity.
Since then, Yale administrators, faculty, staff and fellow students have, as ample anecdotal evidence suggests, significantly improved the way they treat religious students and their belief systems. Yet with an institutional focus on secular learning and racial, ethnic and economic diversity, there seems to be little reason for Yale to re-embrace a founding narrative centered largely on conservative 18th century theologians of a puritanical persuasion.
Perhaps, as others have suggested, the only real utility for Yale’s founding story — the story of Puritans abandoning Cambridge for New Haven — is an extemporaneous pep talk before a Yale-Harvard game.
I personally believe, however, that Yale’s founding narrative should be more than mere chalk talk. There is, after all, something surprisingly universal in the tale of those initial Yalie pietists. They were men of great religious ideals and convictions who, as the historical record chronicles, became convinced that Harvard’s theological leanings had strayed too far from the founding beliefs they held dear. Rather than abandon their convictions or resign to the prevailing intellectual ideology of their alma mater, they poured their time and treasure into a cause for which they sincerely believed: Yale.
Thus, in one respect, Yale’s founding mythos is fundamentally about fighting for one’s conscience — it’s a parable as old as Socrates, as relevant as religious freedom and civil rights and as contemporary as the recent Gourmet Heaven protests. It’s a founding myth that all Yalies should be proud to champion.
So the next time you’re walking along Temple Street, consider stopping into one of those churches along the Green — if not to worship, then perhaps briefly to pay tribute to that band of brave brothers who pursued their conscience and in the process helped found an institution we cherish.
Hal Boyd is a student at Yale Law School.