Skip Navigation

"What Now for the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom?"

[The text of Paul Rasor's inaugurual address as new Director of the Center, October 6, 2005.]

This evening, I'm going to talk for 35 to 40 minutes about the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom. I want to focus less on what the Center is today, as good as that is, and more on what the Center can become. In the process, I'm going to make some pretty bold statements. I do this not only to be provocative, but because I believe in the Center. I believe in the work the Center is doing, and I believe in the Center's potential to make an even greater contribution to this college and to the surrounding community and to our democracy.

At the same time, I want to say that however audacious I may seem, nothing I will say here today comes out of the blue. Everything in my vision for the Center is grounded in the Center's own mission statement, and in the larger mission of Virginia Wesleyan College and the deeper values it stands for.

I'm going to speak of three interrelated themes: Education, Scholarship, and Engagement. In each case, I'll begin with the Center's mission statement, which is now articulated in terms of these three themes, and then expand each of them into the larger vision I want to share with you. You might think of the mission statement as the Center's basic job description. The vision, then, represents one possible future for the Center.


Let me turn, then, to the first theme, education. The Center's educational mission is "to provide Virginia Wesleyan students with an informed understanding of religious freedom as a basic human right." Pretty straight-forward. My larger vision starts with this, but recasts it in more ambitious language: "to provide Virginia Wesleyan students with the foremost understanding of religious freedom of any undergraduate liberal arts college in America." As I said, I'm going to be bold.

What does it mean to provide "the foremost understanding of religious freedom" to our students? We begin with the fact that Virginia Wesleyan is an undergraduate liberal arts college. This is critical in terms of the vision I am articulating here. For example, Virginia Wesleyan does not have a law school. If it did, my understanding of the Center's educational mission would be very different. By the same token, we do not have a theological school or a graduate center for advanced theoretical research. We're not competing with programs like the Initiative in Religion and Public Life at Harvard Divinity School or the Institute of Bill of Rights Law at William and Mary Law School. While some of our work may overlap or complement these sorts of programs, the more important point is that the Center performs a vital educational role within the specific context of Virginia Wesleyan's identity as an undergraduate liberal arts college. In this, we are unique.

So let me identify a few ways in which the work of the Center supports Virginia Wesleyan's mission. First, the College's mission statement specifically mentions religious freedom. That's a pretty clear sign that the Center has a key role to play. And, the College's mission statement links this to its identity as a Methodist school: "In accord with our United Methodist heritage, Virginia Wesleyan College aspires to be a supportive community that is committed to social responsibility, ethical conduct, higher learning, and religious freedom."

This is an important point. The United Methodist Church has adopted very strong statements on religious liberty and church-state separation. I have put these on the Center's web site. And while the Center is careful not to advocate any particular religious perspective, the College's Methodist heritage does help ground the Center's educational mission.

Second, the College's mission statement, not surprisingly, specifically affirms the value of a liberal arts education: "The mission of Virginia Wesleyan College is to engage students of diverse ages, religions, ethnic origins and backgrounds in a rigorous liberal arts education that will prepare them to meet the challenges of life and career in a complex and rapidly changing world." Here, too, the Center plays an important role.

For example, the Center offers interdisciplinary courses that explore religious freedom and related issues from a variety of perspectives. It sponsors interfaith forums that provide opportunities for face-to-face dialogue with people from traditions other than our own. These activities provide more than specific knowledge. They teach patterns of inquiry and attitudes of respect. This kind of learning becomes a permanent resource, available throughout our students' lives as they encounter new situations.

Third, the College is committed to interdisciplinary studies. This is reflected in many ways: the divisional structure of the academic disciplines, the general studies program, the availability of divisional, interdivisional, and interdisciplinary majors, and the Quality Enhancement Plan, or QEP, emphasis on "theme-based co-curricular programs," among others. Here, too, the Center's educational mission is fully consonant with this commitment. The study of religious freedom crosses several traditional academic boundaries, encompassing history, law, philosophy, political science, religious studies, sociology, and theology. This means that faculty members from across the College's academic divisions contribute to the Center's educational mission. By the same token, the Center's work also contributes to the College's holistic educational mission.

Let me connect this now to my broader vision for the Center. How might we build on these strengths to create a program that does indeed offer our students "the foremost understanding of religious freedom of any undergraduate liberal arts college in America"?

I want to return for a moment to the Center's current educational mission, "to provide students with an informed understanding of religious freedom as a basic human right." Right now, the college curriculum supports this mission at a basic level, but not much more. We have a director, who, beginning next year, will teach perhaps two courses a year. We have a handful of other courses, taught with varying frequency, by faculty from several disciplines, that relate to the Center's mission in one way or another. An updated list of these courses is on our web site.

We have other Center programs -- symposia and lecture series, interfaith dialogues, brown bag lunch conversations, and so on -- that also have enormous educational value. These are hooked into the curriculum in hit-or-miss ways. Several faculty take advantage of these programs by recommending, or requiring, that their students attend when a particular program relates to a specific course. This fall, I have linked one of the Center's programs to the Freshman Seminar, and I'm working with a sociology class on a research project that will make a substantial contribution to our spring symposium. I have also visited the school and society class to talk about church-state separation and the difficult issue of religion in the public schools. I'm hoping, with your help, to find other ways to coordinate Center programs with specific courses.

So, what we have in place is pretty good, as far as it goes. But it is irregular and uncoordinated, and for my money, it doesn't go far enough. Basically, it means that the Center can fulfill its educational mission for those few students who seek it out -- those who elect the courses and attend the programs that make it possible.

My vision goes beyond this. I envision an integrated religious freedom curriculum that would allow us to accomplish both the Center's and the College's missions at deeper levels. There are at least two possibilities for this that build on academic structures already in place -- and that won't cost any money. One is to develop a Certificate in Religious Freedom Studies. We have a precedent for this in the Church Music Certificate Program offered through the Center for Sacred Music directed by Sandi Billy. And, as many of you know, my predecessor at the Center, Catharine Cookson, had sketched out some preliminary ideas for a Certificate program. So, I'm not starting from scratch here. One option might be to make the Certificate in Religious Freedom Studies available not only to students, but also to community members, including attorneys or members of the clergy who might need continuing education units. The Church Music program does something similar to this. Lots of structural decisions and program details would need to be worked out, and I plan to begin looking into these this year.

The other curricular possibility is to add Religious Freedom Studies to the list of approved interdisciplinary majors. This also raises important structural issues that would need to be addressed, such as selecting appropriate course requirements, making sure they are taught often enough, gathering an appropriate oversight committee, and so on. But these are not insurmountable obstacles, and I believe this would offer a useful addition to the overall college curriculum.

Before I leave this theme, I want to say that I am fully aware of the potential impact these proposals might have on the faculty. I am not asking other faculty to teach my vision, or to change their own course offerings to satisfy the Center's needs. But I am asking for your support in principle for strengthening the religious freedom curriculum in light of our shared mission. Most of you have been here a lot longer than I have, and you probably have better ideas about how to do this. I'd like to hear them.

In the end, if we're serious about our commitment to religious freedom at Virginia Wesleyan, then we need to create and support the educational programs that make it happen. My vision for the Center is one version of how this commitment might take shape.


Let me turn now to scholarship. Again, I'll begin with the Center's current mission statement and then open this out into a broader vision.

The Center's mission around scholarship, as I have articulated it, is "to engage in sustained study of the legal, social and theological conditions of religious freedom." Scholarship has always been part of the Center's work. Many highly regarded scholars, including several of our own faculty, have given presentations at Center programs over the years. In addition, the Center published a collection of scholarly essays that emerged out of one of its symposia; and Catharine herself edited a remarkable volume entitled the Encyclopedia of Religious Freedom during her tenure as the Center's director -- just to name a few examples. One of my intentions in the mission statement was to name this aspect of the Center's work, since this had not been clearly articulated in earlier mission statements and self-descriptions. And by referring to the legal, social and theological dimensions, I did not mean to limit our scope, but to emphasize the broad interdisciplinary nature of the field.

My long-term vision starts with this, but proposes a shift in emphasis. It calls on the Center "to support and produce the highest quality scholarship on issues related to religious freedom." It says, in other words, we can do better. So, the obvious question is -- how? What are the programmatic possibilities, and what are their implications for the College and for individual scholars? I'll mention just a few ideas.

First, quite apart from the larger question of institutional research support for faculty, I want to find mechanisms through which the Center can support faculty scholarship. One possibility I have explored with a few of you is for the Center to host a series of faculty colloquia where we can talk with each other about our own research projects, perhaps share drafts of papers being prepared for publication or delivery at a conference, and offer constructive feedback and collegial support. I've done this sort of thing successfully at other institutions. I realize that for most scholars this is not the same as meeting with experts in your own field, but it has other advantages, not the least of which is collegial encouragement and support.

Another goal is to enhance the Center's library resources. This is already taking place. Through a generous private gift, and with the cooperation of Jan Pace and the Hofheimer library staff, we have begun adding several hundred carefully selected volumes to the Center's existing collection of about 1000 books. All of the Center's books are being catalogued, and while they will continue to be located at the Center, they will also be integrated into the college library's online catalog. My intention is for these to be shared resources, available to students, faculty and others who need them.

I'd also like to increase our ability to attract top-notch outside scholars. We already bring many first-rate scholars to Wesleyan to participate in our symposia, and we will continue to do this. But I'd like to explore some additional possibilities. These will require financial resources that are not yet available, but this is a vision, so why not dream a little! One possibility is to create a named annual lecture on religious freedom. My idea is to invite prestigious scholars or public figures who have made an important contribution to religious freedom. I'm envisioning a dinner, possibly an award presentation, a lecture, maybe a follow-up publication of some sort, and a commitment by the guest to meet with faculty, students, trustees, and others. This may be a good place to mention that I'm also thinking of a student essay contest on religious freedom. Awards for these student essays could be presented at this same dinner.

A related but much more ambitious goal is to create a fully endowed visiting scholar program. I'd like to be able to bring the nation's leading scholars on religious freedom to Virginia Wesleyan for a semester, perhaps even an entire academic year. This would be a continuous program, with a new visiting scholar each year. As I see it, this scholar would give one or two public addresses, out of which would come at least one publishable journal article, perhaps teach one course or seminar, and generally be available to consult with faculty and students. If we have a Certificate program or a religious freedom studies major in place, the visiting scholar could make an important contribution to those programs as well.

And finally, I'd like to see the Center publish a scholarly journal on religious freedom. This journal would be interdisciplinary, interfaith, and possibly international in scope. It might contain scholarly articles, serious reflective essays, book reviews, and other kinds of writings. This would of course take careful thought and planning, and I'd be pleased to hear your ideas about it.

As with education, my vision for scholarship also supports the College's mission in several ways. First, it is worth saying that any increased emphasis on scholarship supports the College's goal of becoming a Phi Beta Kappa caliber institution. Second, scholarship involving a complex issue such as religious freedom, with all its political, social, and religious implications, supports the QEP goal of creating a culture of inquiry at Virginia Wesleyan. In fact, it models one form of inquiry-based learning and sends a good message to our students. Third, because of its interdisciplinary nature, scholarship on religious freedom contributes to faculty development and cross-discipline cooperation. These things are all pretty obvious and don't require elaboration.

I do think it is important to come back for a moment to Virginia Wesleyan's identity as an undergraduate liberal arts college. Lots of scholarly research is being done these days on religious freedom and related topics. Dozens of lengthy and excruciatingly footnoted articles appear every year in the journals published by the nation's 200+ law schools. Most of these institutions have far greater resources than we have. We can't duplicate what the law schools do. But we can do what we can do. Besides, legal issues represent only one of the many scholarly lenses through which religious freedom must be examined. The journal I have in mind would take a broader approach. Our unique voice can make a substantial contribution to this ongoing scholarly conversation.

Finally, I want to acknowledge a couple of potentially sensitive issues. First, I have always been a strong supporter of academic freedom and scholarly independence. I want to assure you that I am not trying to persuade other faculty members to adopt my research agenda. Besides, I've been in the academy long enough to know that this would never happen. I'm simply trying to point out possibilities for mutual support – things that might benefit us as individual scholars and also benefit the college as a whole.

Second, I am well aware that some of my proposals will take money. Money issues always play out in institutional relationships and the allocation of scarce resources, especially at a small college. I'm sensitive to this, too. To be blunt, while I want to articulate a bold vision, and while I'll make my case for raising and spending money on it, I fully realize that other programs also have needs. In the end, we all want what is best for Virginia Wesleyan as a whole.


I'll move now to my third theme, engagement. Once again, I'll begin with the Center's current mission, which is "to combat religious intolerance by constructively engaging our society's broad religious pluralism."

My original draft of this point used the term "dialogue" in order to emphasize the excellent interfaith dialogue programs that have always been the Center's great strength. And just to make clear, I fully intend to continue these. I shifted the emphasis to "engagement" because I believe that, at bottom, this is what dialogue is all about. The point is not simply to talk with each other, though talking is essential. Rather, the point is to engage each other at a deep level, with the ultimate intention of overcoming the religious intolerance we still too often see around us. Or, to state it positively, our mission is to increase religious tolerance and understanding, toward the larger goal of creating a more just society. My vision is that the Center can become -- and in many ways has already become -- not simply a model, but a beacon for tolerance and understanding.

So, what do I mean by this, and how can we accomplish this lofty vision? The starting point is religious pluralism. It is widely known, though not well understood, that the United States, which we tend to think of as a Christian nation, is in fact the most religiously diverse country the world has ever seen. This reality is simultaneously a simple demographic fact, a complex cultural problem, and a great social opportunity. Let me share a few bits of data to give you a little perspective.

Christianity is still the largest religion in the United States by far. But its numbers as a percentage of the population are diminishing rapidly. In 1990, not so long ago, Christians made up about 86% of the U.S. population. Today, they represent about 75%, and according to one source, perhaps as little as 55%.  That is a dramatic shift. The second largest group, then as now, are those who describe themselves as non-religious. In percentage terms, this group has doubled in the past 15 years, to about 13% of the total population. The third largest group are Jews, about 1½%, basically unchanged as a percentage over the past decade and a half. This is the traditional way of looking at religion in the United States: Christian, Jew, other - or "none."

But if we broaden our angle of vision, we get a very different picture of America's religious landscape. The dramatic drop in the percentage of Christians is not due simply to the increased numbers of non-religious people or the problems of the mainline Protestant churches. Since 1990, we have witnessed a huge increase in the numbers of Americans practicing other faiths.

For example: In 1990, there were about half a million Muslims in the United States. Today, there are about 5 million, a ten-fold increase in only 15 years. In 1990, there were less than half a million Buddhists in the United States, and perhaps a quarter million Hindus. Today, there are 2 1/2 million Buddhists, and well over a million Hindus. There are also several million Americans who practice faiths that were barely visible a generation ago, such as Baha'i, Pagan, Sikh, and Afro-Caribbean traditions.

Here's another way of looking at it. In the United States today there are more Muslims than Episcopalians. There are also more Muslims than American Baptists; approximately equal numbers of Muslims, Presbyterians, and Mormons; and nearly as many Muslims as Jews. To take another example, in the United States today there are approximately equal numbers of Congregationalists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Hindus. A generation ago, these sorts of comparisons would have been unthinkable.

The so-called mainline Protestant denominations now make up less than a third of American Christians, and perhaps only 15 or 20 percent of the total population. In 1990, as in 1890, or even 1960, it was possible for most American Christians to live their lives without encountering anyone of other faiths. No longer. I haven't seen any long-term projections, but it is surely only a matter of time before Christians, and especially European-American Christians, become a minority group in the United States.

What are we to make of all this? How do these trends affect the mission of the Center? Most obviously, religious tolerance and understanding, values for which the Center must be a beacon, are needed now more than ever. Our culture has always been conflicted about this. We have simultaneously celebrated our diversity and been afraid of it.

On the one hand, the United States has a deeply engrained tradition of tolerance and open-mindedness. There is a reason those seeking religious freedom came, and continue to come, to our shores. But at the same time, our culture also has a disturbing undercurrent of intolerance and closed-mindedness. This plays out most obviously in our sad history of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry. And it plays out in religious intolerance too. Many of those who came here seeking religious freedom denied that same freedom to others once they were in power.

And while we readily welcome newcomers, we are often suspicious of those who are different. This tendency gets stronger in times of crisis. Since September 11, our cultural climate has shifted from one of relative openness and generosity toward one of increased suspicion and fear. When fear takes us over, we may find ourselves willing to sacrifice our most precious liberties in the hope that this will make us safer. Religious liberty is not exempt. A survey conducted by Cornell University last year indicates that nearly half of all Americans favor restricting some basic liberties for Muslim Americans. This is a very disturbing finding. This survey, by the way, is the basis for the project I am working on with the sociology class I mentioned earlier.

Responding to this situation requires several things. It requires education. Other studies show that the more people know about Islam, for example, the more likely they are to hold favorable opinions about Islam and Muslim-Americans, and to see common ground between Islam and their own religions. Knowledge helps overcome fear. This is why the Center's commitment to education is so important.

Overcoming intolerance also requires engagement. It requires getting to know people from religious traditions different from your own. It requires engaging them in dialogue about important issues of life and faith – the kinds of dialogue the Center has sponsored with the NEXUS interfaith group for several years. The Center is committed to moving beyond the passive "laissez-faire" form of tolerance that ignores our differences. Instead, we want to model an engaged religious pluralism, one that sees our differences as possibilities for mutual understanding and growth.

We need to learn to recognize our own stories and struggles, our own hopes and dreams, in the lives of others who have very different worldviews. When we do this, we learn not just about them, but about ourselves. When we do this, we affirm both our common humanity and our profound differences. This approach also strengthens the democratic principles that support religious freedom. As James Madison recognized, a healthy religious pluralism is as vital to democracy as a healthy democracy is to religious pluralism. Or as Diana Eck, director of Harvard's Pluralism Project, says: "Democracy doesn't function well if you're afraid of your neighbors."  The Center is a place where this constructive engagement can happen.


As I close, I want to mention a fourth theme. This theme is not stated explicitly in the Center's mission statement, but it underlies all that we do. I'm talking here about justice. Religious freedom is not about special privilege; it is about justice. We see this in all of the basic principles that give substance to our concept of religious freedom.

The principle of free exercise of religion is about the freedom to express your beliefs and practice your faiths, and about voluntarily forming associations with others who share your beliefs. And it is about recognizing the same freedom for others who have different beliefs and practices. This is an expression of justice.

The principle of freedom of conscience – perhaps the very heart of religious freedom – is about justice. We tend to think of freedom of conscience as an individual or private matter. But it has an important social justice dimension. Freedom of conscience guards against bullying. As a matter of constitutional law, it is about keeping our deepest convictions free from coercion by the government. But it is also about not being bullied by louder voices, even other religious voices that may have greater access to official and unofficial channels of power.

The principle of church-state separation is about justice. As Jim Wallis reminds us, religious freedom is religion not corrupted or co-opted by partisan political power grabbing. Church-state separation allows us to be prophetic. It enables us to bring the values of our faith to bear on the political and social conditions of our time. The great social prophets, ancient and modern, were independent of those in power. Think of Amos, Micah, Isaiah, Jesus, Muhammad, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Jr. These great figures spoke out of their religious traditions of a God of justice, a God who calls those in power to account for injustice and abuse of their power.

Religious freedom creates the social space for these prophetic voices. It fosters a healthy civic respect for the values of justice, peace, and special concern for the poor and the powerless. When religion is a tool of the state, the prophetic voice is silenced. And when religion too closely aligns itself with the state, or with a particular political agenda, the prophetic voice is compromised. The prophetic voice needs to be free. A society that recognizes the vital role of this voice, a society that creates the legal and social space for it to be heard, even when it makes us uncomfortable, will be a healthier and more just society. That is what religious freedom does.

Creating this sort of society is a task we all share. The Center is part of this work, which it carries out though its mission of education, scholarship, engagement, and yes, justice.

I invite you to join me in this critical work. Thank you.

Paul Rasor, October 6, 2005

Website Comments/Feedback

©2014 Virginia Wesleyan College