St. Olaf College. You may know it from the billboard on I-35, its extensive choral tradition or, most likely, as a “Golden Girls” reference. What is often forgotten about the college, however, is the institutional racism that exists through St. Olaf’s prioritization of Nordic and Lutheran values over other cultures.
The founder of the college was a Norwegian-Lutheran minister and because of this foundation, St. Olaf has valued Norwegian heritage and Lutheran values since its beginning. Having a Lutheran and Norwegian foundation is not a problem. The problem arises when the institution broadcasts itself as a diverse and inclusive place where no culture or faith is valued above another.
This is clearly a contradiction and is represented in the mission statement itself: “St. Olaf College challenges students to excel in the liberal arts, examine faith and values, and explore meaningful vocation in an inclusive, globally engaged community nourished by the Lutheran tradition.”
The initial way I interpret this mission statement is that the College values a globally engaged, inclusive student body while simultaneously believing Lutheranism guides us all throughout college and life.
This implies that while St. Olaf respects the individual’s right to not practice Lutheranism, the institution promotes the idea that Lutheranism, and by extension the Christian God, is guiding us all. This attitude is incredibly patronizing – bordering on offensive – toward those who are not Christian. What the statement seems to imply is that an individual can practice whatever they want, but whether they like it or not, the Lutheran tradition is still nourishing them and guiding them because it is the tradition that matters.
It is not only the implication of the mission statement that is bothersome, but the actual practices within the school which have the power to alienate students and faculty. For example, of the 20 religion classes (that are not BTS-B) offered this semester, only three are focused on a religion outside of Christianity.
The St. Olaf religion department’s mission statement includes that the purpose of studying religion is to have “an exposure of faith in its many forms.” I personally think that having 15% of a religion department focusing outside of Christianity doesn’t feel like much exposure to many forms of faith. Additionally, what message is this prioritization of Christianity sending to those who aren’t Christian? That their faith can be summed up in one course, while the nourishing Christian tradition deserves 85% of the department’s attention?
It is easy for me to point out this contradiction by St. Olaf, as I am not personally affected by it as a white American. Therefore, it is important to recognize the individuals at St. Olaf who have vocalized their concerns over St. Olaf College’s institutional racism and those working towards making St. Olaf a more inclusive place.
We need to recognize a Collective For Change On The Hill, the Race and Ethnic Studies Department and the many clubs on campus that celebrate diversity, inclusivity and the many cultures and religions also represented at St. Olaf.
Maggie Meyer ’20 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Evanston, Ill. She majors in race and ethnic studies and theater.