Duke Divinity School on the adhan controversy

In response to the controversy over Duke University granting, then rescinding, permission for their Muslim student group to make the traditional call for prayer from the Duke Chapel bell tower, the head of Duke’s divinity school has issued a letter defending the university’s decision to rescind permission. Time magazine has reported on this. The letter itself can be read here.

In the interest of bringing clarity to the on-going discussion of this issue—that is to say, in the interest of shoveling aside the bullsh*t—I’m providing below a paraphrase of the dean’s letter. It’s admittedly a very loose paraphrase, but I’m confident I’ve accurately captured the heart of what the dean is saying. Again, you can read the original letter here.


Dear members and friends of the Duke Divinity School community—especially our valued donors:

First, let me make clear that this controversy has nothing to do with us. We at the Divinity School have no control over what happens at the Duke Chapel, a state of affairs that might strike you as ill-advised in retrospect, and perhaps the administration ought to rethink it. At any rate, if we had been in charge, I can assure you none of this would have happened. We have our own chapel here in the Divinity School, which is used strictly for Christian worship. “Faithful Trinitarian Christian worship,” I mean—no Unitarians, or Mormons, or Oneness Pentecostals, or anyone else heretical.

The fact that this controversy has nothing to do with the Divinity School isn’t going to prevent me from sounding off about it. But because I’m not responsible, please direct your outrage to the foolish administrator who is: Christie Lorr Sapp, the University’s Associate Dean for Religious Life, at christie.lorr@duke.edu. Fill her inbox with your hate mail. I’ve made damn sure not to put my email address anywhere on this letter.

Now, before we get to the points I’m most invested in making, let’s get the obligatory disclaimers out of the way: Obviously Duke University values diverse religious traditions—and we at the Divinity School go along with that, too, as long as those other religions keep to their own turf. Obviously, I’m appalled by the hateful and even threatening things people have been saying. No need to mention names, certainly no one nationally prominent headquartered here in North Carolina. But come on, people, you’re making Christians look bad! And obviously, Muslims at Duke should not be held responsible for the behavior of Muslims elsewhere in the world—their terrible, terrible behavior. Millions of Christians are being persecuted in Islamic societies today. They’re prohibited from practicing their faith. Did you know that? Millions. When is there going to be a rally on the quad protesting that?

But look, here’s the fundamentally important thing: The Duke Chapel is Christian turf. That’s what this issue boils down to. Plain and simple. The chapel is a “Christian place of worship.” Not a “neutral space” to be used for purposes of “interfaith hospitality.” Which could raise the question of why the Muslim students are being allowed to pray there at all . . . but I won’t raise that question here. Let’s just stay focused on the call to prayer. As long as the Muslim students worship in the basement, where no one can see them—or hear them—we at the Divinity School raise no objections. For now.

But letting the chapel’s bell tower be used as a minaret—that’s another matter. Because how will that be perceived in parts of the world where Muslims are persecuting Christians? You might as well hang a banner on the chapel that says, “Go, Islamic State!” I realize, of course, that Muslims here perceive the situation as communicating hostility toward them, and I lament that. Really, I’m tearing up about it as I write this. But it’s a question of priorities: How the situation is perceived by Muslims here is not as important as how it might be perceived by Christians on the other side of the globe. Nor as important as how it might be perceived by certain generous Divinity School donors (generous when it comes to money, at least).

Again, let me be clear. We’re not Islamophobes here at the Divinity School. We’ve hosted Muslim representatives for interfaith dialogue—Jews, too, for that matter. We even have a Muslim who teaches at the Divinity School. (Team-teaches, I mean; it’s not like we leave him alone with our students.) We’re proud to have on our faculty Davis Marschall, a leading specialist in Christian-Muslim relations, someone who would certainly know better—ahem—than to countenance anything that might give the appearance of blurring interfaith boundaries in a way that could trigger conservative Christian outrage. Regretfully, Professor Marschall was not consulted about the propriety of letting Muslims use the Duke Chapel for the call to prayer. He didn’t even know it was under consideration. Someone might expect that a specialist in Christian-Muslim relations would be in close enough touch with the university’s Muslim student group to stay apprized of such a development; but Professor Marschall has bigger fish to fry. Still, I can’t understand why no one thought to reach out to him about this.

I hope I’ve cleared up any misconceptions about the Divinity School’s responsibility for this sorry debacle. I hope, too, I’ve made clear that while we at the Divinity School bear no ill will toward Muslims (those millions of persecuted Christians notwithstanding), we firmly oppose allowing them to borrow Christian houses of worship. To our valued donors: Please keep those checks coming!

Grace and peace be with you all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,

Richard P. Hayes

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Adhan at Duke . . . oops, nope

A couple days ago, former fellow UNC alums posted to Facebook the news that Duke (where many of us took classes) had granted permission for Muslim students to perform the adhan–the call of prayer–from atop the campus’s iconic chapel bell tower. (A weekly Friday prayer service is held in the chapel basement.) “How nice,” I thought. “Good for the Dukies.”

Now the word is out that the administration has rescinded permission. A key player in that abrupt reversal is Franklin Graham, who lambasted the adhan plan on Facebook, then elaborated to the news media as follows:

“As Christianity is being excluded from the public square and followers of Islam are raping, butchering, and beheading Christians, Jews, and anyone who doesn’t submit to their Sharia Islamic law, Duke is promoting this in the name of religious pluralism,” Graham wrote on Facebook.

In an interview Thursday before the reversal, Graham told The Charlotte Observer that Duke should not allow the chapel to be used for the call to prayer. “It’s wrong because it’s a different god,” he said. “Using the bell tower, that signifies worship of Jesus Christ. Using (it) as a minaret is wrong.”

Graham did say Muslim students should be allowed to worship on campus. “Let Duke donate the land and let Saudi Arabia build a mosque for them.”

And referencing the recent terrorist attacks in France, Graham added, “Islam is not a religion of peace.”

(Charlotte Observer, Jan. 15, 2015)

The inevitable irony: Omid Safi reports that threats of violence were made against people at Duke by opponents of the adhan plan.

And who says Duke is losing its historic Christian identity?

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Still an ethnic church, but…

Last month, my husband and I attended a posada organized by Guatemalan immigrants living in the Price Hill area of Cincinnati. Afterward, we took the dog (who was waiting bundled up in the car) for a little walk down the street. On the corner was an old church. A sign in German carved over the door identified it as the First German Evangelical Protestant Church, founded in 1886. However, the German immigrants long since became upwardly mobile and moved out. The building is now in the hands of a different ethnic minority: new signage, in Spanish, identified the building as home to the Hispanic Nazareth Evangelical Church. Still an “evangelical” group–but in a different sense of the word.

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Santa at the manger

A house down the street from mine put up this nativity scene on their front lawn. I’ve fantasized before about something like this–a nativity scene with Santa, and reindeer, and Frosty, and scarf-wearing penguins.


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Miscellaneous Christmas news stories

With Christmas approaching, here’s a miscellany of Christmas-related news stories that crossed my screen recently:

Satanic Temple Wins Battle To Bring Lucifer Display Inside Florida State Capitol” (Huffington Post): These people are obnoxious gadflies, but in a worthy cause. Beelzebub bless them, every one.

73 Percent Of Americans Believe Jesus Was Born To A Virgin” (Huffington Post): I confess to being surprised the figure came out that high. Following a link to Pew’s short report on the larger survey this figure came from, I learned that nearly half of Americans believe that nativity scenes either should not be allowed on government property, or should be allowed only if accompanied by symbols of other faiths (read: menorahs).

They’re Christian, but Christmas is off limits for several faiths (Deseret News): I want to say I’m not a fan of the DesNews (a Mormon-owned paper which is currently trying to buy out its competitor, the Salt Lake Tribune–a Mormon vs. non-Mormon battle dating back to the 19th century). But this was an interesting article about Christian groups that hang back from Christmas–Churches of Christ, Friends, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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From the US Army: Communism as religion

I need to be grading right now, but I’m brooding about the CIA torture report. It’s put me in mind of a text I encountered a couple years ago–an excerpt from a 1989 manual that the US army used at the School of the Americas to train Latin Americans in counterinsurgency, i.e., in how to suppress left-wing movements.

In this particular passage, the author describes Communism as a kind of religion, the explicit implication being that Communists are irrationally committed to their dogmas. (Is the unspoken implication that they’re irredeemable and must therefore be eliminated?)  Note that Catholicism provides the author’s archetype of “religion”–more specifically, of religion as irrational dogma. I find it hard not to read that in light of the long history of American Protestants equating Catholicism with superstition and tyranny. Note, too, that the manual functions as a kind of counterapologetic, aiming to show readers the “fallacies” of Communism as contrasted to “democratic doctrine”–the true religion. (Why did the manual’s author perceive that counterapologetic as necessary?)

My source is the Latin American Working Group.

Communism is “a kind of pseudo-religion, given that it has a founder, a mythology, a sacred book, a clergy, a place of pilgrimage and an inquisition. The founder is Marx; the mythology is communist theory; the sacred book is Das Kapital; the clergy are members of the Communist Party; the place of pilgrimage is Moscow; and the inquisition[,] the state (KGB) and others. Truly, as Marx said, communism is ‘the spectre surrounding Europe.’ Today this spectre is surrounding the whole world. You can’t hope to convince a devoted communist of the errors in his doctrine, but you ought to be able to point out to an impartial person the fallacies of the communist ideology; and you ought to feel more justified in the validity of the democratic doctrine in light of the fallacies you have learned to discover in communist doctrine.”

(“Revolutionary War, Guerillas and Communist Ideology,” 128)

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All Lives Matter? Black Lives Matter?

Lately my husband and I have been attending an Episcopal church in Cincinnati. One of the appeals is that it’s a racially mixed congregation–white, African American, Latino (mostly Guatemalan immigrants). There’s a strong progressive social consciousness: they host a transgender support group; they help immigrants navigate the legal system; a couple Ash Wednesdays ago, the priest led a service calling corporations to repentance; etc.

So it was not surprising when we arrived at church this past Sunday to see a “Black Lives Matter” banner (bilingual, English-Spanish) hanging outside the building. What was surprising to me was the way that the church seemed to feel the need to explain, in a little leaflet tucked inside the program of worship, why they had chosen “Black Lives Matter,” rather than “All Lives Matter.” The reasoning was what you’d expect: Of course all lives matter, but at this particular moment there’s a need to affirm the value of black lives in particular.

What surprised me was the impression the leaflet gave that there were people in the congregation (more specifically, I would assume, in the lay leadership, i.e., the folks who would be deciding to hang the banner) who had voiced reservations about “Black Lives Matter” and had favored “All Lives Matter.” If that is the case, it drives home to me the range of political diversity that exists in this on-balance progressive congregation. That is to say, there would appear to be people in the congregation who favor a color-blind discourse and don’t subscribe to the kind of hermeneutic that sees that discourse as obscuring racial privilege. We’re not all consciousness-raised Berkeley progressives here. And that’s probably healthy. Though I’m glad that “Black Lives Matter” prevailed.

A couple relevant links:

#BlackLivesMatter: Why We Need to Stop Replying ALL LIVES MATTER (Adam Philips) – A blogger with Sojourners critiques the “All Lives Matter” meme.

Black and White; All Lives Matter (Ashley Pratte) – A Christian Post commentator exemplifies what Philips objects to: using the meme to critique and redirect the discourse away from the anti-racism protests. (For her, “All Lives Matter” becomes a plea for empathy for Darren Wilson, a condemnation of black rioters–and an opening to condemn abortion.)

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Stephen Colbert, John McCain, and the New Testament

On December 1, John McCain was on The Colbert Report plugging his new book (in preparation for a presidential run?). As the interview began, Colbert remarked that McCain was one of the last guests who will appear on the show.

“You’re scraping the bottom of the barrel, huh?” McCain responded.

No, no, Colbert assured him. “We have saved the best for last, to paraphrase the Gospel.”

“What chapter in the Bible is that?” McCain laughed–trying to show that he got the joke. (Hey look, young people–I may be old, but I’m still “with it.”)

At which point Colbert spent a few seconds recounting the story of the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned the water to wine, and the master of the feast expressed surprise to the bridegroom that he had saved the best wine to serve at the end. The audience cheered as McCain prepared to recover from his embarrassment.

“How are you going to appeal to Christian conservatives if you don’t know your Gospel, sir?” Colbert jibed.

“Now I remember,” McCain fake-laughed. “Thank you for refreshing my memory.”

Click the link to watch the video–the exchange occurs in about the first minute.


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Jehovah’s Witnesses and Thanksgiving

Somehow, a couple of days ago, it occurred to me to wonder whether Jehovah’s Witnesses are discouraged from celebrating Thanksgiving, given the distance they seek to maintain from institutions of nationalism. I knew that they object to the pagan roots of Christmas, Easter, and birthdays–but what about Thanksgiving?

(Quick tangent: The first time I personally encountered Jehovah’s Witnesses was as a teenager while visiting relatives in California for Thanksgiving. Two Witnesses, African American women in perhaps their sixties, knocked on the door, taking advantage of the holiday to find people at home.)

I couldn’t find anything addressing this question on the Watch Tower Society’s official website. But here are some relevant texts I discovered:

* An independent apologist gives three reasons why Witnesses don’t/shouldn’t celebrate Thanksgiving: (1) real Christians give thanks every day, not just once a year; (2) harvest celebrations have pagan origins; (3) Thanksgiving’s founders, in the 1860s, intended to fuse American patriotism and Christian piety, to which Witnesses object.

* A short article by ex-Witnesses provides several quotations from a 1976 Watchtower article that articulates points 1 and 2, above.

* An “etiquette expert” at Belief.Net advises that your Witness neighbors probably wouldn’t be offended by an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner, even if they declined.

* A self-identified “apostate” recounts his first Thanksgiving dinner in this YouTube video:

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Salat before boarding

I’m getting ready to board a flight to take me from the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, in San Diego, back to Ohio so I can be there to teach on Monday and Tuesday. (Yes, I am such a goody-goody, much to my students’ annoyance, no doubt.)

As I wait to board, I’m remembering something that happened… I think it was after last year’s AAR. I was waiting to board a flight, and I ran into an acquaintance from graduate school. He’s Sufi–he always smells like incense (which is pleasant). We chatted for a while. Then, once the airline personnel announced that they would start boarding the first zones soon, my friend got up and retreated to a relatively unobtrusive corner of the waiting area to perform salat.

I glanced around to see if anyone was reacting to the sight. No one did, that I could see.

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