The Slippery Slope: Congress and William & Mary

They are among the best known figures of speech: "the slippery slope," "Pandora's box," a "hidden agenda." They all make the same point: that decisions we make today may have unforeseen and undesirable consequences. The decision to permit newly-elected Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) to take his oath on the Koran could be one of them. Ellison is an American-born convert to Islam.

On one level, it is hard to take issue with giving Ellison this option. What would be the argument for demanding that he take his oath on the Bible? The Bible is of no special importance to him. An oath taken with his hand upon it would carry no greater weight for him than if his hand were placed on the Encyclopedia Britannica. More to the point, Article VI of the Constitution states clearly that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." I can't see any way to deny that forcing a public official to take an oath upon the Bible would require him or her to make a public concession to its unique religious status in our society.

This is where the slippery slope appears on the horizon. What do we do if the day comes when dozens of Muslims are elected to Congress and form a Muslim caucus to discuss ways for the US Constitution to be amended to reconcile it to Sharia law, the Islamic belief that public and private life should be regulated by a legal system based on the Koran? There is now virtual agreement among those who study demographic patterns that many countries in Europe will have to face precisely such a situation by the end of this century, as their Muslim populations grow to near-majority status. That was the point Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA) was trying to make when he took the occasion of Ellison's oath on the Koran to warn of the impact of Muslim immigration upon the United States.

 One cannot answer Goode by arguing that such a thing will never happen here. That is an evasion of the issue, not an answer. Recent history has given us many examples of factions within society gaining enough power to make demands that would have been considered unthinkable in the past. In the 1950s, for example, people would not have thought it impossible for partial-birth abortion, homosexual marriage, and prohibitions against singing Christmas carols at public school assemblies to become facts of life in the United States.

Let me give you another example. J.R. Labbe, deputy editorial page editor of the Star-Telegram of Fort Worth, Texas, recently wrote a column on a situation that has developed at William & Mary College in Virgina. It is a classic example of the slippery slope. The school's president, Gene Nichol, has decided to acquiesce to the demands of certain students that a cross be removed from the school's Wren Chapel. That is not a misprint. William & Mary was founded by the Church of England in 1690. The students want the cross removed from an Episcopalian church! The offended students do not want the cross to be in the chapel when they go there for some private time or when they are showing the campus to friends and relatives. They say they are "put off" by the cross.

The students want the cross stored in the chapel's sacristy, until someone requests its presence, at, for example, a wedding of students or alumni who happen to be Christian. Nichol thought this a reasonable middle ground, defending his decision by saying he is not "willing to compromise on that fundamental principle of equal access for all." He sympathized with the students who told him they felt "only tolerated" when they visited the chapel. Alumni pressure was applied to Nichol. He compromised — a bit. He agreed to permit the cross to be displayed on Sundays. The rest of the week however, writes Labbe, "it's back in the closet."

Labbe continues, pointing out what would seem to be obvious:  "It's not as if the chapel bore a huge sign that read, ‘For Christians only. All others need not enter.' No one was denied use of the chapel. No one was forced to keep the cross in place during non-Christian ceremonies or events." But, Labbe asks, why deny that the "Wren Chapel is what it is — a Christian church"?  Labbe concedes that the university is no longer an Episcopalian university: "William & Mary, the second oldest college in the country, is a public university. Under the leadership of Virginia's  then-Governor Thomas Jefferson, W&M became a university in 1779. All of the property was deeded to the Commonwealth of Virgina in 1906."

But why act as if the Anglican church did not play a major role in the school's founding and early history? Why would a modern student be offended by traces of that history appearing in the school's public places? Why would they demand that they be erased? It all sounds like something from George Orwell's 1984, the rewriting of history that he called "Newspeak."

There is some good news. This battle is not yet lost. There is a blog site called "Save the Wren Cross." Amy Bryce Paul, a 1990 graduate of the university, wrote there: "If you chooose to visit a chapel, for meditative purposes, please do not be offended if there happens to be a cross within sight (much as you would expect to find books in a library). I would also say the same to a Christian who perchance wanders into a synagogue or a mosque and is ‘surprised' by any religious symbols they find there."

Moreover, there is a legal think-tank planning a First Amendment lawsuit that will argue that President Nichol's decision is exhibiting not neutrality toward religion but hostility. One would think this case can be made effectively. President Nichol is treating the Christian cross as some kind of threatening un-American presence at William & Mary, rather than as a sign of an important part of the school's history.

There is a lesson here for Catholic universities. I like to thumb through Catholic college admissions brochures. It is fascinating to observe how these schools deal with their Catholic identity. They like to play it up when they are seeking to make the point to the parents of prospective students that their campuses provide a refuge from the coarse "Animal House" atmosphere of many public universities. But they play it down when they are trying attract a "diverse" student body, for which purpose they portray their schools as committed to academic excellence and the needs of our technological and multicultural world.

There is a price to be paid for that "diversity." What is going on at William & Mary illustrates how high it can go. A hypothetical question: What do you think President Nichol's reaction would be to a group of Christian students who demanded the removal from an Islamic study center of posters with verses from the Koran?

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • Guest

    It has come to pass in America where “tolerance” is not mutual respect for those different than you, but a politically correct targeted hatred for Catholicism and and an attack on Christianity.

  • Guest

    One can only hope and pray that not only colleges and universities, but ALL American institutions will see this article and re-think their unequivocal demand for diversity–at least as they envision it currently. The kind of ‘tolerance’ as practiced today is NOT what the founding fathers had in mind.

  • Guest

    I agree with Cooky642.  What is called religious tolerance today is actually an effort to lock popular taboos–like the Cross–in a closet, then tell believers to pray in isolation.  We have to wake up and take up the call to reevangelization before, God forbid, persecution of Christians spreads back into the First World . . . and to realize it happens even today in the Third.

MENU