(From left to right) Dr. Julie Sullivan, Cornel West, Ross Douthat, Seanne Harris, and Elizabeth Schiltz. Photo by Mike Harris.

These aren’t easy times on college campuses. Academic blue bloods like Yale, Princeton, and Middlebury find themselves with unwanted publicity over student protests that can seem like the tantrums of spoiled children hell-bent on ruining the fragile thing we call a university. Those of us with long memories remember the excesses in the student activism of the 1960s. At the same time, the current unrest obviously reflects serious strains in the country at large, now forced into a collective examination of conscience as it tries to understand how an electorate that twice voted an African-American with an Arabic name into the White House can have elected a man whose history of racialized politics began with a defamatory attack on his predecessor’s right to citizenship. Student unrest can also be a healthy wakeup call at institutions that have been lulled to sleep in their protected enclaves, many of which look like gated communities for the entitled. A recent book called Yale’s student body “excellent sheep.” A retired colleague at a prominent Catholic university says that the undergraduates were mostly sleepwalkers who wanted to major in finance.

At lower-profile institutions like my own, there is justified worry that an unsustainable financial model is about to come crashing down on our heads. Proposals for free tuition at public institutions, taken up by both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, were not encouraging news to those who work at private colleges and universities, already struggling with a tightening student demographic and the creeping mercantilization of the curriculum. On bad days, I’ve been tempted to say that my university’s motto should be, “If you can sell it, we can teach it.” It’s not a surprise that Phi Beta Kappa has twice rejected our application for a chapter, on the grounds that the business-education tail is wagging the liberal-arts dog.

That is why I am happy to file a (mostly) upbeat report on a recent week of life on my campus, where several events illustrated what universities are uniquely capable of doing to counteract the tides of bigotry and fear washing across the country.

On Monday of last week, the University of St. Thomas’s recently founded Institute of Catholicism and Citizenship hosted Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., former Master of the Dominican Order, to speak on “Truth in the Service of Love: Understanding Thomas Aquinas.” Fr. Radcliffe, a gifted speaker, charmed and fascinated a large student audience with his insistence that, while the Truth is ultimately simple, getting there is complex indeed, and that is why universities and the specialization of research are necessary. Over-simplification is the enemy of truth, not a shortcut to it. And the smartphone in your pocket is everyone’s temptation to take that shortcut. 

Over-simplification is the enemy of truth, not a shortcut to it

On Thursday, another large audience jammed a room—at the College of Business—to hear Professor Timothy Snyder of Yale University talk about his book on the “bloodlands” of Eastern Europe during the dark decades of the 1930s and ’40s. (He would go on that evening to give a complementary presentation at the nearby University of Minnesota on his new book about Hitler’s “ecological” ambitions in the colonized East.) He also peddled copies of his little handbook On Tyranny, with twenty counsels on how ordinary citizens can protect our democracy. Nos. 9 and 11 suggest less time on the internet and more time with books and long journalism (corollary: “subscribe to print media”). Amen to that.

Then on Friday, St. Thomas’s Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy hosted a conversation between Cornel West and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat on “Christianity and Politics in the U.S. Today.” A cynic might have derided this as a celebrity event. It was much better than that, and the planners deserve warm congratulations for pulling off a remarkable success. The Murphy Institute is named for the late Msgr. Terrence Murphy (d. 2004), for over thirty-five years the university’s president and chancellor, and sometimes referred to as St. Thomas’s Fr. Hesburgh. The institute is jointly administered by the university’s Center for Catholic Studies and the law school. Apart from its legal-education programs, for much of its twenty-year history the institute stuck to topics and speakers from the conservative end of the Catholic spectrum. The last few years it has been braver about going outside the usual suspects. A good example is the seminar led by German sociologist Hans Joas on his 2013 book The Sacredness of the Person, which draws on American pragmatism and German historicism for a new genealogy of human rights.

Cornel West was a reach well beyond that. I am not privy to whatever dealing brought him and Ross Douthat, a very public Catholic conservative, to our campus. It turned out to be an inspired match. Anyone who expected Crossfire-style vituperation would have been disappointed. West, who looks like an aging Frederick Douglass in cufflinks, was funny, powerful, and lightning quick on his feet, with a daunting expressive range and a limitless supply of intellectual and cultural allusions. He played his audience like a maestro conducting an orchestra. Douthat was the real surprise. His journalism didn’t prepare me for his self-deprecating humor and charm. There wasn’t a trace of the sometimes-churlish voice of the columnist. West’s booming greeting to “Brother Ross” set the tone. Douthat also showed impressive self-possession in not being bowled over by West’s bombast. He seemed mostly willing to play the straight man to West’s shtick (did he have a choice?), while slipping in his own sly cracks. The humor and the moral and intellectual passion were infectious. Who expected a spirited detour on John Dewey (Douthat called him an aggressive secularizer and a defender of amoral instrumental reason; West said his love of democracy was mystical and almost religious)? Or Cornel West invoking “Gilbert Keith Chesterton”? It helped that they shared a common contempt for Donald Trump (and possibly Hillary Clinton as well). On Trump, Douthat was unsparing—when I referred above to Trump’s “racialized politics,” I was borrowing Douthat’s phrase.

Moderator Elizabeth Schiltz, codirector of the Murphy Institute and professor in the law school, met the challenge of keeping two voluble speakers more or less on task. The talk started with Thursday’s missile attack on Syria, moved to the public standing and influence of Christianity, and finally got around to race. Here I will only mention some specific points that might be of interest to Commonweal readers. (A video of the event will soon be available on the institute’s St. Thomas website.)

There wasn’t a huge disagreement on American engagement in the Middle East. West deplored American military ubiquity, but expressed his deep respect for the distinctly military virtues, while warning against “over-valorizing” the military. Douthat agreed that, while the current ascendancy of the military in the Trump administration looks good compared to Steve Bannon’s crackpot historical theorizing, we can’t ignore that the military will favor military solutions, and there is always the ultimate worry about Caesarism lurking in the wings. He mentioned the law of unintended consequences where interventions are concerned, and had the good grace to instance his own support of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Cornel West refused to concede the premise that Christianity was somehow unable to engage with the modern world

More interesting was the discussion of Christianity in domestic politics. Schiltz raised the question of the “Benedict option” as a response for traditionalist Christians who believe that they have lost the culture war and that American society is set irreversibly on a secularizing course that is hostile to religion. This was Douthat’s cue. Here was the only time he stuttered—because the topic touched a very sensitive nerve. Douthat is a convert of a familiar type, the kind who seems drawn to Catholicism as an antidote to civilizational decline and the loss of normative authority. This is a classically conservative trope, and I would contrast it with conversion stories like those of Edith Stein and Erik Peterson (Newman, on the other hand, had more than a touch of the unnerved conservative). Douthat sees the obvious decline of mainline Protestantism and is acutely sensitive to the same dynamic playing out in Catholicism, in which Christian accommodation to modernity (always selectively defined) ends up in the dissolution of Christianity. I call this the Dying of the Light syndrome, after James Burtchaell’s book of that title. The late Richard John Neuhaus endlessly pulled this alarm.

West refused to concede the premise that Christianity was somehow unable to engage with the modern world precisely in its supposed secularity. He showed no fear that the Gospel could somehow lose its savor, its power. If that appeared to happen, the conclusion could only be that the Gospel had been misunderstood by its supposed guardians. When asked by Douthat about the relative decline of the black churches as forces for social change, West conceded that formal Christianity was nowhere near as visible in current protest as it had been in the 1950s and ’60s, but he insisted that there was real spirituality at work nonetheless. He may be right.

The really charged topic was race. Black Lives Matter has been a vigorous and disruptive presence in the Twin Cities for some time now. Last summer’s fatal shooting of an African-American man named Philando Castile by a St. Anthony Village policeman during a routine traffic stop became instant national news thanks to his partner’s video posting of the shooting as it occurred. So the presence of a firebrand black spokesman like Cornel West was sure to draw a crowd. This was not lost on the Murphy Institute, but even they may have been surprised when twelve hundred people registered to attend. As a result, a whole lot of people showed up who would normally never set foot on our campus, which has a mostly deserved reputation as a white, Republican, suburban enclave in the middle of the city. It was gratifying to see such diversity. Judging from the applause and laughter, support for the two speakers was fairly evenly divided.

Douthat had the tougher challenge here, because (at least in front of a campus audience) the burden of moral opprobrium is necessarily and rightly on the side of those who are the political voice of the white majority. And it’s not controversial to say that the heart of the modern GOP is the one-time Democratic segregationist Solid South. Douthat handled it well. He resisted West’s effort to link all racisms together in a rainbow coalition, insisting that the legacy of chattel slavery on American blacks is a qualitatively different burden from what Latin American immigrants face. Even indigenous peoples were defeated in war and to that extent disarmed as an actual threat—unlike the embedded fear of the slave-owning class of a slave rebellion. That fear has never gone away and troubles white attitudes on race to this day. He refused to let the term “colonialism” be used promiscuously and thereby vitiate our ability to make necessary distinctions (West was unconvinced). Douthat also criticized the current purge of historical memory in the fights over buildings and monuments. It is wholly understandable why Yale might want to remove the name of John C. Calhoun from a university building. But why demolish statues and such, especially in the South, where their existence reinforces the memory of a history that we can’t afford to forget? On the condition, that is, that the history of oppression that was forgotten gets its due commemoration.

In an unwitting link to the two earlier presentations I’ve described above, Douthat exhorted us to pay attention first of all to the empirical facts around us, and not to be swept up in the sometimes artificial anxiety induced by immersion in the world of the internet. Yes, we are in the middle of a difficult time, and yes, the Trump administration poses unique threats to our democratic institutions. But we have known worse times in our history, and hysteria and despair are both traps to be avoided. To make the point, he pulled his smartphone out of his pocket. Timothy Radcliffe would have approved.  

I wish I could end there, with a huge, diverse, and richly entertained audience applauding the bravura performance of our guests. But as if to remind us how weird the times are, in the very course of this invigorating event, the university’s Public Safety had to send out an official alert that “an accidental gunshot” had occurred in a nearby dormitory, that one person had been accidently but not seriously wounded (in fact the injury required surgery), and that no threat was posed to the rest of the community. St. Thomas is a weapons-free campus—this is Minnesota, not Texas or Florida—and the university and the St. Paul police are investigating. Regardless of what the full story turns out to be, the very existence of a gun in a dormitory is a horrifying contradiction of a university’s reason for being and a bizarre counterpoint to the free, honest, charitable, informed, and passionate public discussions that this past week of campus events so beautifully represented.

Michael Hollerich teaches theology at the University of St. Thomas.

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