Supposedly Duke University thought turning the majestically Gothic bell tower of famous Duke Chapel into an Islamic minaret for every Friday call to prayer, heralded as “interreligious reimagining of a university icon,” would be non-controversial.
But the bow to campus multiculturalist ideology, thanks to nationwide publicity, barely lasted 24 hours. A campus spokesman curtly announced that what had been intended as unifying had become undesirably divisive. So the Muslim student group, which serves the five percent of Duke students said to be from Islamic backgrounds, will continue to worship in the chapel basement and will issue prayer calls outside the chapel instead.
The university also vaguely cited “threats” to explain its quick flip-flop. Some credited outspoken criticism of the bell tower/minaret policy from evangelist Franklin Graham, speaking from the other, more mountainous side of North Carolina. Almost no one offered a reasoned theological explanation for or against amplified Islamic prayer calls from the upper heights of Duke Chapel.
Of course, Duke’s initial decision was rooted in routine academic faddish multiculturalism, which disdains the truth claims of any religion, and sees various faiths as primarily a cacophony of spiritual diversity that advertises hyper-tolerance. The prominence that Duke Chapel would have afforded Islam, more so than other minority religious groups, probably owes to academic bias against Christianity as supposedly Western and imperialist, while viewing non-Western religions as victims of colonialism and modern discrimination meriting reparation.
There was also the added benefit of irritating conservative Christians, especially in the backwoods and hills of North Carolina, whom enlightened academics in Durham and Chapel Hill doubtless view condescendingly as yahoos, with Franklin Graham embodying many of their stereotypes.
Graham and other critics of the Duke minaret policy cited Islamic persecution of Christians overseas. And some recalled other Duke decisions that seemed to marginalize traditional Christians, such as evicting Chick-fil-A from campus several years ago, amid the restaurant owners’ controversial opposition to same sex marriage. There is also the history of the campus Muslim group, which has dubious overseas connections.
But what if Shinto priests or Buddhist monks were invited to perform their rites in the Duke Chapel bell tower? Any reason to object?
Duke University is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, but the school, like most institutions founded by Mainline Protestantism, has been primarily secular for decades. The school’s seminary, which trains Methodist and other clergy, has its own chapel on campus. Nearly fifteen years ago, Duke University compelled Duke Chapel to accept same sex unions, against United Methodist policy.
Undoubtedly the university would like Duke Chapel to transition from Christian church to interfaith community center. But the transition is far from complete. The chapel was dedicated in 1935 as a “summons to men to find the synthesis of all experiences in Jesus Christ.” It resembles a medieval cathedral, built in cruciform shape, and redolent with Christian imagery in its glorious stain glass, stone carvings, and carved wood. It hosts regular Christian worship, and the bell tower sounds forth Christian chimes.
Some defenders of the initial minaret decision huffily derided the religious intolerance of critics, chastising conservative Christians for only cherishing religious freedom for themselves. But does religious freedom mean religious worship spaces should no longer adhere to their own faith and should instead become public market places where all belief systems are equally valid, or, as some believe, equally invalid?
Florida United Methodist Bishop Ken Carter, formerly a longtime North Carolina pastor and a Duke Divinity School graduate, thoughtfully explained why consecrated worship space should be honored. He distinguished between interfaith dialogue and the “consecration of space set apart for Christian worship,” noting that Duke Chapel indeed had been “consecrated and set apart for Christian worship.”
“I respect the sacred spaces of Jews and Muslims, and honor their own purposes,” Carter said. “Jews and Muslims are right to retain the identity of their holy places, and they are not bigots if they choose not to allow other religious traditions to practice in them. Christians are also not bigots in viewing Duke Chapel as a place set apart for Christian worship.”
Specifying that he comes “from a very different place than Franklin Graham,” Carter said, “I honor the goodness of many Muslims, and I acknowledge the failures of many Christians, myself included. I speak as an advocate for continued interfaith dialogue and for the integrity of consecrated places of worship. From my perspective, the reconsideration [against Duke Chapel for Islamic prayer] was a wise one.”
Tensions between zealous multiculturalists and serious religious adherents of course will continue at Duke and countless other campuses. Minority religious groups, when offered seeming favors by campus elites, should consider the implications. Negating consecrated Christian space in favor of multi-faith experimentation ultimately doesn’t advance tolerance or respect. Instead it potentially impoverishes respect for the integrity of all religions.