The study of religion in the public university


When Michael Hooker was sworn in as chancellor of the University of
North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Oct. 14, 1995, he took his oath on a 17th
century Bible said to be one of the first to be brought into the state.
His performance of this ritual with a distinctly Christian sacred text
was juxtaposed with the university's seal, proclaiming the Latin motto
"Lux et Libertas," meaning "Light and Liberty." Two
centuries ago when UNC was founded, this phrase was an emblem of the Enlightenment,
when one of the key ingredients of liberty was freedom from religion being
enforced by the state. Behind our tradition of the separation of church
and state lies the horror of the founding fathers at the fratricidal religious
wars that consumed countless lives in Europe. Yet our recognition of the
decisive role of religion in life permits us to use religious elements
in state ceremonies such as inaugurations.

Nevertheless, teaching religious studies in a public university can
be fraught with difficulties. Religion and theology have played a leading
role in private higher education since Harvard College was founded in 1636
as a seminary. Although public universities taught religion and held chapel
during the 19th century in an unselfconscious way, the growth of religious
pluralism in recent times has led to strong emphasis on separation of church
and state. This policy not only protects religious minorities, but also
keeps religion from being directly entangled in political struggles. But
one surprising result was the near-disappearance of religion from curriculum
of public universities. In many cases, religion courses only reappeared
after Supreme Court decisions recommended teaching the religions of the
world, while prohibiting advocacy of any religious position.

The Department of Religious Studies at University of North Carolina
at Chapel Hill is one of the oldest departments of its kind in a public
university. Founded in 1947, it will complete its first half-century this
year. It is the only UNC department whose legal existence has ever been
seriously questioned, due to fears that the state would get into the business
of training ministers of one church or another. Today the department has
embraced the role of a key humanities department, with strong teaching
and research on the history, literature, art, philosophy, and theory of
religion. While the faculty recognize the great importance of religion
in the lives of our students and the public at large, for this very reason
we feel that religious training - as in divinity schools - should be the
responsibility of private institutions, where direct sponsorship of one
church's teachings will not create a public conflict. As my colleague Warren
Nord points out in his important book, "Religion in American Education,"
training in religion (the role of churches) is different from the education
about religion that is the duty of the public university. By educating
students about the history of religion, and particularly about the religions
of others, we prepare them to be responsible citizens in a pluralistic

Polls suggest that religion is increasingly coming into the spotlight
in the United States. According to Publishers Weekly, religious nonfiction
is the hottest growth industry in publishing, eclipsing even fiction with
an annual sales increase last year of 27 percent. From the victory pronouncements
of Super Bowl players to the establishment of the Faith section in The
News & Observer last June, the outlets of culture attest to a growing
fascination with this aspect of life. While some secularist portions of
the academy are perhaps unfriendly to any serious consideration of religion,
it would be a mistake to enshrine anyone's theology in the state university.
Our duty to the citizens of this state and the nation demand instead that
we study religion as a critical part of our common humanity.

 The News and Observer (Raleigh, NC) February 7, 1997 Friday, ( Carl
W. Ernst, a specialist in Islamic and Indian studies, is professor and
chair in the Department of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina
at Chapel Hill.

Copyright 1997 The News and Observer The News and Observer (Raleigh,
NC) February 7, 1997 Friday, FINAL EDITION SECTION: FAITH; Pg. E2