In the university town of St Andrews, along the narrow road that overlooks the North Sea, there is a modest townhouse with a red door. The small black plaque at the building’s entrance reads “Chaplaincy”. Between its steps and the ocean is the little Catholic church of St James and, nearby, the ruins of a great cathedral.
The chaplaincy’s interior, its 1970s decor, dim lighting and musty scent, in many ways symbolises the impression I had of Catholicism as an 18-year-old student. This was a view that was compounded by my studies, where religion was casually dismissed by my professors in flippant remarks. At such moments, I’d look around the lecture halls for signs of challenge. But no one so much as flinched.
At St Andrews, I learned that, while Christianity may be a fascinating artefact and some sort of vague Christian identity might be acceptable in polite society, it was absolutely not to be used as an intellectual lens. One literature professor scolded me for citing the literary criticism of TS Eliot and CS Lewis in an essay (they were the only books left in the library). These ideas were “out of date”, she said. Marxist, Freudian, feminist, queer, post-structuralist, deconstructionist interpretations were all usable, and available on short loan.
The year after graduating, I moved to New York. I was curious, being under the impression that America was a place where one could discuss religious convictions without feeling like a freak. Besides, the New York University (NYU) Catholic chaplaincy was modern and stylish.
But I soon discovered that the culture, both inside and outside the classroom, entailed a high degree of political presumption. And in many and alarming ways, it was more aggressive than back home. At NYU, all present were automatically assumed to belong within mostly unspoken but implicitly understood progressive norms regarding politics, religion and sex. It was a difficult starting point for anyone outside the fold.
In the US, religion is much more closely aligned with political belief. For instance, on campus I learned that it was “the Religious Right” who were responsible for almost all American malaises including, but not limited to, misogyny, homophobia and gun violence. Once, during drinks with a fellow student, I admitted to being a churchgoer. Her next question was: “So do you support Trump?”
The Catholic students I have talked to at NYU, Columbia, Cornell, Yale and Harvard (as well as those at British universities) have told me that “coming out” as Christian is not only hazardous for academic reputations, but social ones, too. One student recounted how, on a date, she had been discussing her seven siblings when her suitor asked: “Don’t your parents know about contraception?” Another gentleman I know was ridiculed by fellow students after declining a proposition from a young woman when he gently explained that he didn’t believe in sex before marriage.
The complaints I have heard – of rudeness or ignorance – do not strike me as much as a cry of persecution as a sigh of resignation. Aware of the struggle, Christian students will often rely on their chaplaincies for moral support, then in day-to-day campus life try to keep their heads down as much as possible. But this, surely, is not the real purpose of a university. Some of my American Christian friends have said to me: “It’s NYU, though, what do you expect?” Many of them, although academically gifted, preferred less prestigious, religious institutions (which are usually much cheaper). I consider this the “Benedict Option” for higher education.
Yet this approach comes with similar limitations, as Lindsey Renee Jacobs, an Evangelical and graduate of the non-denominational Christian college Cornerstone University, points out. “When Christians are in a school that is entirely Christian,” Jacobs says, “maybe they have people from other denominations who challenge them on very minute theological points, but they don’t get challenged on the bigger things… I think that is part of why American Christianity is often so superficial.”
I can testify that the same can be applied to secular universities and their orthodoxies. For instance, recently at NYU, during a class exercise, we were asked to write a polemic from the opposing viewpoint. We had 10 minutes and could either pick the Trump presidency or abortion. There was much groaning. Of the eight people who chose to write about abortion, I was the only one to adopt the pro-choice persona (as Devil’s advocate).
As I listened to the seven representations of the pro-life position, I was astonished. Many of them were stylishly written, some certainly contained pro-life soundbites, but not a single one would have passed for the real thing. Emphasis on women as murderers, autonomy as unimportant and “potential for life” as paramount. As the last to speak, I started by stating the necessity of bodily autonomy as a human right, after which I anticipated the pro-life objection by arguing that this extended only to human persons (not merely “humans beings”). I even threw in a quotation from Hillary Clinton for a distinctly American flavour.
What was left glaring was a complete lack of familiarity with the logic and motives of those who oppose abortion. One classmate even admitted that, for her, the greatest challenge in the exercise was “not making the person sound like an idiot” – a notion that had, quite honestly, not even occurred to me.
Madeleine Kearns is a Scottish journalist based in New York