Duke University Chapel is one of the great places in U.S. campus religious life. It is more cathedral than chapel, its gothic spires soaring high into the clear North Carolina air. Look closely, and you’ll notice that the carvings outside the cathedral doors are not medieval saints but Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jefferson, and Southern poet Sidney Lanier. John Wesley, with early Methodist Bishops Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, also appears in the stone, as does 18th century revivalist George Whitfield, along with such heroes to Protestants as Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, and Girolamo Savonarola. On the lawn is a statue to Duke University’s founding philanthropist, tobacco mogul James Buchanan Duke, unsurprisingly clasping a cigar.
Architecturally the chapel is simultaneously a Christian church, shrine to southern culture, celebration of America, ode to Methodism, and champion of Protestantism. Former First Things editor Jody Bottum, a Catholic, once commented that Duke’s campus was maybe one of the last locales where the old Mainline Protestant ascendancy can still be felt.
Duke University is officially still owned by the United Methodism Church’s Southeast Jurisdiction, though it effectively operates without deep regard for the denomination, like most Mainline Protestant founded schools. The affiliation with the church was further stressed in 2000 when the school’s president insisted Duke Chapel host same-sex unions, which the denomination prohibits. Then Duke Chapel Dean Will Willimon, though not personally supportive, acquiesced. Duke’s Divinity School, which still graduates many Methodist clergy and is arguably the most orthodox of the church’s official seminaries, created its own separate chapel that would operate under church rules.
Willimon’s successor as chapel dean chaplain is Sam Wells, an erudite, liberal-leaning Church of England priest who espouses a “generous orthodoxy.” North Carolina’s legislature recently approved a proposed state constitutional amendment defining marriage as man and woman, which Wells thought less than generous. He responded with his own curt denunciation of the legislature at a pro-same sex marriage rally on the chapel steps, with the carved Lee, Jefferson, and Wesley statues stoically looking on.
Citing Jefferson’s affirmation of the “pursuit of happiness,” Wells, while incorrectly ascribing it to the Constitution rather than the Declaration of Independence, declared: “It is impossible to understand why you, legislators of the state of North Carolina, are considering singling out one population, a population that makes such a rich and profound and wide-ranging contribution to the wellbeing and culture of our state, to be denied the pursuit of happiness in the form of a publicly recognized union of two persons only asking to be allowed to share a life together.”
Wells complained that same-sex couples can’t fully pursue “happiness” while ostensibly denied rights to hospital visits, tax credits, pension benefits and other marital accoutrements. He sarcastically further implored: “Is this what gives you pride and joy in your work, to know that you have selected a misunderstood minority of our population and succeeded in systematically denying them the pursuit of happiness? Is this what brings you satisfaction and makes you truly happy? Really?” And he urgently concluded: “Now’s the time to show the people of this state what this state is really made of. Now’s the time to pull together and address the real issues of our day. Now’s the time to say to every single person in your community, ‘We need you. We need you, your creativity, your energy, your loyalty, your courage — we need you if we’re going to face these challenges together. And we appreciate you, for your individuality, what you bring that no one else can bring, what you are that no one else is. We need you, because only with you, can we all be truly happy.'”
Redefining marriage as an essential human right rooted in the Declaration of Independence neatly summarizes Mainline Protestantism’s accommodation of America’s liberal secular culture, with its prioritization of rights and atomized individualism. Even Jefferson (an Episcopalian who inclined towards Unitarianism) would probably wince. And surely General Lee would, while there’s no doubt about Wesley, Asbury, or Luther. More mindful of transcendent truths, North Carolina voters almost certainly will ratify the traditional definition of marriage in May of next year. And the United Methodist Church, at its governing General Conference next year, almost certainly will reaffirm traditional marriage, thanks mostly to growing numbers of African delegates, who will soon surpass members of declining U.S. churches.
In fairness, political correctness does not completely rule over Duke Chapel. A service in August featured Jason Byassee, a prominent Duke alumnus and now North Carolina Methodist pastor who previously was an editor at Christian Century. That Chicago-based magazine was once the flagship of dominant liberal Protestantism and followed those churches leftward and downward in influence in recent decades. With help from Byassee, in recent years, the magazine became more centrist and inclusive of orthodox voices. His August sermon at Duke was an orthodox recollection of God’s providential calling of the ancient Hebrews and how Christians, by faith, become “honorary Jews.” The music, liturgy, and processional were majestic, fitting for the splendid gothic stage, as sunlight streamed through gorgeous stained glass. The engraved visages of John Wesley and Martin Luther outside the doors still had some cause to nod in approval. The embers of Mainline Protestantism still endure, even if diminished from former glory.