Author: AnnaRose King and Riley Hooper
“This is a Christian school where the religious life is not offensive nor obtrusive, but is the real thing,” former Occidental President John Willis Baer said at the College opening address on September 14, 1910. “It is not necessary that we should all worship God in the same way, or wear our religion on our sleeves, but it is absolutely essential to the right kind of success that we should all of us be God-controlled.”
These days, you won’t hear College President Susan Prager preaching about issues of morality and faith, but rather discussing funding issues and the importance of a diverse campus. Yet on a campus so concerned with diversity, it is interesting that religious diversity is seemingly neglected.
It’s no secret that Oxy has a Presbyterian past, yet today the only traces of this history easily found on campus are the plaque outside of Herrick and the hard-to-disguise cross formation of the building itself. Does Oxy promote religious diversity? The Weekly explores the religious climate on campus-past and present.
Drinking, smoking, partying-sounds like an accurate rundown of weekend activities for a good amount of our student body. Considering dances are held in the Cooler on many weekends, it’s hard to imagine a time at Oxy when dancing (let alone grinding) was prohibited. It’s hard to think of a time when the president was also a Presbyterian minister-a minister who would speak about God and preach to the student body every Sunday. Yet such a time did exist at Oxy.
At its founding in 1887, Occidental was a Presbyterian institution. And in 1910, the College officially cut legal ties with its Presbyterian affiliation. This was done at a time when many colleges dis-affiliated to take advantage of funding from nonreligious sources, Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Diana Akiyama said. However, Oxy’s relationship with the Presbyterian church held strong for many years to follow.
Department Chair of Religious Studies Dr. Keith Naylor teaches the course “History of Religion at Occidental College.” In teaching this student-research based course that focuses on the College’s religious history up until the 1920s, Naylor found that in 1910 the College was “deeply immersed in religious life.” The two most dominant student groups on campus were the Young Men and Young Women’s Christian Associations (YMCA and YWCA). All students were required to attend church, and the services were led by the President of the College, a Presbyterian minister.
With his induction in 1906, President Baer was the first President of the College who was not a Presbyterian minister. However, according to Naylor, he was still a well-known layperson in the Presbyterian church, and an advocate of Christian schools and colleges. In one of his addresses, he made his intentions clear.
“I appeal for a stronger religious life in our schools; it need not be obtrusive, it must not be sectarian, it will not be offensive, it can and must be vitalizing,” he said.
This strong Christian presence on campus remained through the following years. According to an article written in The Occidental in 1995 entitled “A Matter of Faith,” students were required to attend chapel until 1966. However, in the late 1980s the College underwent some big changes concerning religion on campus.
According to another article-“Herrick Finds a Leader Outside the Clergy,” written in 1991 by the Occidental Weekly’s News Editor Lloyd Farnham-the name of Herrick was changed from “Herrick Memorial Chapel” to the current “Herrick Memorial Chapel and Interfaith Center” in 1989. In the same year, three large decorative crosses were taken down from the exterior of Herrick (one of which now resides at the Pasadena campus of the San Francisco Theological Seminary in Southern California). Naylor said the crosses were removed mainly in response to faculty concerns, as the College was moving toward a growing multicultural agenda. The crosses sent the wrong message-especially since they were the first thing people saw upon arriving on campus through the main entrance.
According to Farnham’s article, following these occurrences, College Chaplain Douglass Gregg retired in 1991 after 17 years of service. Akiyama said there was some controversy which may have influenced his retirement-he had “violated the spirit of the rules against proselytizing on campus,” she said. In light of this incident, the Chaplain position was dissolved and Dr. Michael Kerze was appointed as Director-the official new title-of Herrick Memorial Chapel and Interfaith Center.
“For the first time in decades the person in charge of the Herrick Chapel and Interfaith Center at Occidental College is not an ordained member of the clergy,” the Weekly reported.
When asked about the current religious climate on campus, Naylor offered insight into the portion he is well acquainted with-Oxy’s Religious Studies Department and religion as an academic area of study. Naylor said the major is drawing in increasingly higher enrollment and that students are eager to study religion in a serious manner.
“I think we’re more interested in religion intellectually rather than in terms of faith,” Akiyama said. She noted that this tension is not new or unique to Oxy.
“I think religion in general isn’t talked about on college campuses,” Akiyama said, “and the least popular faith to talk about is Christianity.”
“There is an academic suspicion of people who profess a faith-someone who believes in God is anti-intellectual,” she said. “This is true for some, but not for all.” She said that this anti-intellectual perception permeates not only Oxy’s campus, but most liberal arts colleges across the nation.
Hannah Dreitcer and Allison Enari (sophomores), student leaders of Progressive Christians Uniting (PCU), are working to address religious climate at Oxy. “[Religion is] not really talked about, partially because it seems like people don’t really know what they believe or how to ‘deal with’ or react to students of faith,” they said. “When religion is talked about-in class or out-it’s almost in a negative sense.”
Dreitcer also addressed some preconceived notions of students who proclaim their religious beliefs. “When you say, ‘I’m a Christian,’ people make all these assumptions about you,” she said. “They assume you are right-wing, both politically and spiritually.”
However, not all religious discussions on campus are entirely stifled. Jenn Pope (senior) of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship sees Oxy as a place “where people of faith seem free to explore their spiritual identity and learn how to integrate that part of themselves into the rest of their lives.”
Lauren Grokett (sophomore), student leader of the Pagan and Wiccan Support Group, said the level of religious discussion on campus is low. “For the most part, Oxy is pretty open-minded, but not too many people actively discuss it except for Hillel and the EDGE group,” she said. “There are other groups, but they aren’t as visibly active [ . . . ] In general Oxy is very tolerant.”
Views vary on the extent of religious diversity on campus, in terms of the religions that students practice as well as the religious events that are held on campus.
Dreitcer and Enari do not believe Oxy is very religiously diverse. “The majority of students appear to be either apathetic or anti-religion,” they said. Pope sees the campus as being “moderately diverse.”
Dreitcer and Enari also believe it is important to discuss religion because of its cultural influences on our campus, as well as on a global scale.
“Even if one doesn’t ascribe to any faith, it’s important to realize that religion shapes culture and thus has had an influence on humanity’s history and the state of our world today,” they said. “Being open to discussions about culture includes being open to discussing religion, since religion and culture are closely tied.”
The College has come a long way since 1887-from a religiously affiliated institution to one that now
accepts a multitude of religious beliefs and practices. But as Akiyama said, there is still room for improvement.
“We need to talk about religion-not just from an academic perspective-but also from a variety of faith perspectives,” Akiyama said. “The different religious beliefs that people hold are as much of their identity as other kinds of diversity. Occidental supports diversity and exploring religious diversity is part of that commitment.”
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