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 Whether it is a nation or a university, it must be careful to whittle away the outdated customs without cutting out the valuable ones as well.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.