Mayfield: Logic fails before religious symbols
Vail, CO Colorado
One can’t help but wonder how Thomas Jefferson would feel about the recent brouhaha at his alma mater, The College of William and Mary. Jefferson, who described the Constitution as building “a wall of separation between church and state,” most likely would be both shocked and disheartened by the action of the college’s governing board when they failed to back the college president on a matter of First Amendment rights.
In the end, the president, Gene Nichol, a former law school dean at our own University of Colorado and a First Amendment expert, resigned his position after learning that the board would not be renewing his annual contract.
The controversy surrounded Nichol’s removal of an 18-inch brass cross from the altar of William and Mary’s campus chapel. Since the chapel was often used for both secular assemblies and gatherings of non-Christian faiths, Nichol reasonably assumed that this central symbol of Christianity should be removed from such a prominent position in the state-owned facility and returned only during Christian services.
Oops. What Nichol didn’t count on was the vehement backlash his action would bring. Cries for his ouster began immediately after the decision was announced. Calls for his dismissal filled the inboxes of the board members. Two Web sites were almost instantly created generating popular support for his firing among newly outraged alumni and perpetually outraged conservatives. The claim was made that Nichol’s decision was one more blatant example of the folly of political correctness, the immorality of liberalism and, one could assume, clear evidence of the coming Armageddon.
Even though Nichol and the campus community mutually agreed to put the cross on permanent display elsewhere in the chapel, calls for his firing continued. His fate was sealed last week when a donor withdrew a $12 million pledge in response to the cross’s absence. Democratic principles and constitutional mandates crumbled under the hammer of one Christian’s misnamed charity.
Symbols, religious and otherwise, wield enormous power. The cross, for the Christian faithful and semi-faithful, has been misused over the past two millennia to lend support to a host of hate-filled horrors. In like manner, our national symbol, The Stars and Stripes, has found itself attached to some of the most unpatriotic of actions. Indeed, in recent years, the flag has become a decidedly different symbol than originally intended. For many, displaying the flag on the back of a bumper or the lapel of a suit has become less a commitment to national unity and more an
announcement of political partisanship.
The continuing controversy in South Carolina and elsewhere surrounding the display of the Confederate flag underscores the complexities of symbolic power. While some might suggest the rebel flag is nothing more than a nod to ancient history, others understand it very differently. Most African-Americans I’ve talked with know exactly what is going on when this particular symbol is run up the flagpole ” and ancient history it ain’t.
Closer to home, the Vail Chapel, like its counterpart at William and Mary, is utilized by a variety of religious organizations. Any symbolic one-upmanship is avoided by employing moveable religious artifacts that allow the building to serve as a synagogue on Friday night, a Lutheran wedding chapel on Saturday afternoon and a Baptist church on Sunday morning. Such allowance for diversity provides a helpful model as we seek to find solutions to the misuse of symbolic power.
For ex-president Nichol, the cross in the chapel was a symbol of constitutional confusion. But for others it was a symbol of religious clarity and a particular theological supremacy. The irrepressible movement toward globalization will make this cultural and religious tension even more pronounced in the days ahead. Our constitutional commitment to the separation of church and state will be tested over and over again. For those who are convinced by the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson, the expulsion of Gene Nichol is an ominous indicator of what lies ahead.
Rich Mayfield is the author of “Reconstructing Christianity: Notes from the New Reformation.” E-mail comments about this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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