The Institute of Freedom and Community recently announced a spring series titled “Religion and the Public Life.” I am concerned that this title does not accurately reflect the content of this series. Judging by the event pages, the majority of these presentations are concerned with Christianity. Three of the five events have the word “Christian” or “evangelicalism” in their titles. And almost all of the invited speakers seem to conduct research either directly related to Christian theology or at least under a dominantly Christian theological context. How can the series be called “Religion and the Public Life” when its content appears to relate to only one religion? This is like having a series called “Birds and the Forest” but only focusing on parrots. Of course parrots are birds, but there are also many other kinds of birds. Calling the series “Birds and the Forest” would be imprecise and misleading.
Likewise, titling the Institute’s spring series as “Religion and the Public Life” is also imprecise and could be misleading. The term ‘religion’ is wide-ranging and encapsulates many different beliefs and practices. An event named “Religion and the Public Life” should consider more than just one tradition to stay truthful and accurate to its title. If the Institute made a conscious decision to focus on Christianity for whatever reason (maybe because St. Olaf is a Lutheran school, or maybe because Christianity is the predominant belief in our community and so Christianity would be more applicable to the general public), then perhaps the event should be named something like “Christianity and the Public Life” instead. While it is possible that the scheduled topics may allow room for generalization to other religious traditions, it is still a stretch to call it “Religion and the Public Life” when the majority of the assumption at play does not consider thoughts with origins from other traditions.
Despite my concerns, I personally find the event topics quite interesting and am looking forward to the series. But the failure to consider traditions beyond the dominant view can limit empathy towards people with differing beliefs and stifle creative thoughts. I urge the Institute of Freedom and Community to 1) be more thoughtful about including a wide range of thoughts in the future and 2) change the name of the Series to “Christianity and the Public Life” to more truthfully reflect its content.
Yishu Dai ’18 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Glendale, Calif. She majors in political science and philosophy.