Clueless in Academia

The New York Times has an interesting article today about an upswing in religious interest among college students:

Peter J. Gomes has been at Harvard University for 37 years, and says he remembers when religious people on campus felt under siege. To be seen as religious often meant being dismissed as not very bright, he said.

No longer. At Harvard these days, said Professor Gomes, the university preacher, "There is probably more active religious life now than there has been in 100 years."

Across the country, on secular campuses as varied as Colgate University, the University of Wisconsin and the University of California, Berkeley, chaplains, professors and administrators say students are drawn to religion and spirituality with more fervor than at any time they can remember.

More students are enrolling in religion courses, even majoring in religion; more are living in dormitories or houses where matters of faith and spirituality are a part of daily conversation; and discussion groups are being created for students to grapple with questions like what happens after death, dozens of university officials said in interviews.

Many college students may therefore be in for a bit of a surprise when they realize how ignorant some university professors are of religion, and even hostile to it.

Take the recent brouhaha over statements made by a professor at my alma mater, the University of Chicago Law School. Geoff Stone, also former dean of the law school and provost of the university, wrote the following about the Supreme Court's recent partial-birth abortion decision, Gonzales v. Carhart:

Here is a painfully awkward observation: All five justices in the majority in Gonzales are Catholic. The four justices who are either Protestant or Jewish all voted in accord with settled precedent. It is mortifying to have to point this out. But it is too obvious, and too telling, to ignore. Ultimately, the five justices in the majority all fell back on a common argument to justify their position. There is, they say, a compelling moral reason for the result in Gonzales....

By making this judgment, these justices have failed to respect the fundamental difference between religious belief and morality. To be sure, this can be an elusive distinction, but in a society that values the separation of church and state, it is fundamental.

Hmmm. What's mortifying (since Stone likes that word) is egregiously mischaracterizing the opinion and imputing motives of which he has zero knowledge. We don't know, and Stone doesn't know, what these justices' religious beliefs are or how they sort this all out in their heads; he just knows that they are affiliated with a faith. American Catholics are famously divided on a number of social issues, including abortion. Only someone completely ignorant of Catholicism would think that all Catholics think the same or -- even worse -- that they can't think for themselves. (Not to mention that he assumes Protestants and Jews must be pro-choice. There are plenty of both who aren't.)

Just to be clear: I think it's an interesting question to ask how people's personal backgrounds might influence their legal reasoning. That's absolutely a legitimate topic for conversation. What Stone wrote, however, is a hit-and-run job, and it's a pedagogical embarrassment to an institution that is vastly better than that.  I'm sad to see such sloppy and irresponsible thinking from Prof. Stone, because this is exactly the kind of sloppy and irresponsible thinking that is eschewed at Chicago.

A number of people have called him on the carpet (see Jan Greenberg here, Rick Garnett here, Patterico here, and Ed Whelan here for a sample), but we've heard very little from the law school itself, a silence that I also find puzzling.

Just one example: this is the same law school that engaged in all kinds of soul-searching and public apologizing and hairshirt-wearing when a white kid dared to show up at a student halloween party dressed as Janet Jackson in the throes of her wardrobe malfunction (back when that was still a timely costume). The email that went out from the Dean of Students used very strong and slightly hysterical language, but apparently it's not worthy of an official condemnation when you accuse Catholics of not being able to serve effectively as Supreme Court justices. You can hear the crickets chirping.

I'm also recalling, with much eye-rolling, a faculty brown-bag lunch I sat in on (one of the perks of being Dean of Admissions back in the day -- I got to sit in on all that stuff). Two very prominent academics were trying to figure out why prostitution has historically been criminalized in the common law tradition, and where that stigma against prostitution could possibly have come from.

While they were scratching their heads over that puzzler, I was scratching mine, wondering how two crazy-smart people could fail even to mention the role of religion. Not once did religion come up. You could have grabbed the first non-tenured person walking down the sidewalk on the South Side of Chicago, and he or she would have understood intuitively that the Judeo-Christian tradition has a lot to say about the role of sex in people's lives (whether individual Jews and Christians happen to agree with it or not). These two academics, on the other hand, couldn't figure out why people wouldn't just treat prostitution like any other consensual commercial transaction, like getting a haircut. It was fascinating to observe this weird blind spot, and to realize that these professors seemed never to have encountered an average American.

Mind you, I don't think that's terribly unique to Chicago Law School. In fact, overall, Chicago is probably friendlier towards religion, and more intellectually honest about it, than plenty of other schools. Students there have greatly benefited from professors like Mike McConnell (now a federal judge), Rick Garnett (currently visiting Chicago from Notre Dame), and Philip Hamburger (now at Columbia).

That being said, academia is a strange, strange place, and many religious students are in for a shock when they get to campus.

As for Professor Stone... Real men say they're sorry.