Faith & Action: The Role of Religious Groups in Campus Politics

On June 25, 2015, Tufts Student Services sent an email to the student body in response to the murder of nine Black people by a White supremacist at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The email went on to list various resources for students, including the University Chaplaincy. Based in Goddard Chapel, the Chaplaincy is a collective of religious organizations designed to provide religious and spiritual support to members of the Tufts community. The email concluded, “Through sustained support of one another and a commitment to social justice we stand strong against racism and violence in our own community and in our broader society today and every day.”

The Chaplaincy was also listed as a resource in July 2016 in an email about the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, as well as in an email about “the deaths of two African-American men at the hands of law enforcement officers in Minnesota and Louisiana, and the subsequent deaths of five law enforcement officers at the hands of a lone gunman in Texas.” In each email, the Chaplaincy offers space for dialogue as well as emotional and spiritual support. In the wake of many traumatic events, the Chaplaincy offers grief counseling or an open discussion space. University Chaplain Reverend Gregory McGonigle explained in an email to the Tufts Observer that the Chaplaincy also “work[s] with student, faculty, or staff activists who are wanting to recharge from work they are engaged in and are looking for a confidential space to process.”

The Chaplaincy has not, however, issued official statements or stances during these politically charged moments, nor has it organized or advertised political actions such as protests or rallies. Instead, the Chaplaincy sees itself as a resource to support students emotionally and spiritually.

The University Chaplaincy website reads, “We are here for all members of the Tufts community.” The Chaplaincy cites “worship, prayer, meditation and ritual leadership, pastoral care and counseling, teaching and educational programming, holiday and cultural programming, community service and social justice work, interfaith work and institutional relations, and making recommendations to the President” as its many goals on campus.

Reverend McGonigle stated that he sees the Chaplaincy’s main role as creating space for dialogue, regardless of political leaning. But in certain circumstances, it seems clear what the Chaplaincy thinks the campus community should be talking about. In a September 27 newsletter, the Chaplaincy advertised talks such as “Analyzing the Racialization of Muslim Masculinities,” the Consortium of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora’s symposium titled “Native American and Indigenous Studies, Colonialism, and the University,” a roundtable on immigration policy and practice, and “After Orlando,” among others. These events take on political issues such as racism, homophobia, and settler colonialism—all issues embedded in larger movements for social justice.

Reverend McGonigle mentioned that many of the individual students involved in interfaith communities at Tufts are part of those movements. However, the University Chaplaincy does not seem to have taken specific stances during moments of visible political activity, like the Title IX protests in the spring of 2014 and the #TheThreePercent protests and demands in the Fall of 2015. Reverend McGonigle explained that though individual students involved in religious groups on campus may have been involved in those movements, the Chaplaincy as a whole “seeks to serve the full range of religious and philosophical communities on the Tufts campus, and these traditions, communities, and their members represent a diversity of viewpoints on various issues.”

Nathan Foster, a student involved in the Humanist Community at Tufts (HCAT), echoed the emphasis Reverend McGonigle put on serving a wide range of people. He explained, “Religious groups can be very powerful places to organize action around political issues, but they also have to be open to all members of their community, no matter their political views.” Religious spaces that take explicit political stances, said Foster, can feel alienating to some students.

Miranda Siler, a senior studying religion and social movements, expressed a similar sentiment. “I think [religious spaces] don’t want conflict, especially if they’re trying to create a welcoming religious space, sometimes it’s hard if people have different political views,” she said. Refraining from collective political stances or action, McGonigle, Foster, and Siler say, is a way for religious spaces to remain welcoming and comfortable for all.

Jesse Mahler is a senior and a member of Alt-J, a Jewish space on campus that was created, according to Mahler, as an alternative for Jews who don’t feel comfortable in more institutional Jewish spaces like Hillel. Mahler sees Alt-J as inherently political. He said, “For me personally I can’t separate politicality from my Judaism… I can’t understand my Jewish identity as separate from what it means to struggle with racial justice and gender justice, and I…bring that with me into Alt-J.”

For Mahler, an explicitly political space like Alt-J needs to exist because “a lot of other [religious] spaces on campus are actually not comfortable and are exclusive in that they do not recognize how race, gender, sexuality, impact one’s ability to practice safely, to practice comfortably, and how identity and oppression determine one’s safeness in religious spaces.”

Sophomore Sara Arman, Interfaith Student Council (ISC) representative from the Muslim Students Association, noted that some religious groups are more inclined to do social justice work than others. “From my perspective, groups that aren’t being targeted aren’t doing as much social active work within their own communities. Muslim and Jewish and Sikh students who are being targeted would tend to do more work about racial justice and social justice.”

Miriam Israel, junior and ISC Hillel representative, echoed Rev. McGonigle’s sentiment that religious spaces on campus remain neutral to create space for dialogue along the political spectrum. “I understand that often being apolitical can be viewed as inherently political, and I understand that distinction, but I think that there is value in not having a standard that we’re all going to be held to,” said Israel.

The ISC provides a space that aspires to political neutrality, similar to those described by Siler and Foster. On the ISC, student representatives from various religious and spiritual faiths on campus can come together to share events, news, and learn about each other’s organizations on campus. Israel described the ISC as a conglomeration of students with many political leanings. “In the interfaith community,” said Israel, “people come together and they might have different religious backgrounds or journeys, and we can use that religious foundation to deal with things that we encounter on campus.” To Israel, creating interfaith community is about “looking internally to then better understand the external.”

Arman describes the ISC as a space focused on building interpersonal relationships and support systems between faiths. She described the atmosphere of the Council as “more cooperative, working to understand one another—internal work like that.” Arman described compassionate interfaith solidarity such as this as inherently political, given that it challenges the narrative of inter-religious animosity.

Like Arman, Israel sees religious and spiritual spaces as conducive to progressive political dialogue, although she recognized that others might disagree. “I think a lot of times religion can be seen as sort of a barrier to liberal social justice values, which I think is very contradictory,” she said. “They’re really connected, but I think being religious on campus can often be viewed as antithetical to that.”

“If religion is politicized,” said Arman, “it’s definitely done in a way to pit different religious groups against one another, and if we’re actively working against that bias and getting rid of the notions that we shouldn’t love one another or be cooperating and coexisting peacefully, then we are an activist group. [O]ur activism is building community, erasing stereotypes, educating, and loving one another.”





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