Opinion | Apr. 28 7:02 pm EST

(Dis)respecting interfaith dialogue

On a campus as diverse and passionate as ours, I am proud to see the amount of dialogue that seems to constantly arise between groups that could otherwise stand in conflict and opposition. This takes many forms, whether as debates co-hosted by the College Democrats and College Republicans or as discussion-laden CC classes in Hamilton. Interfaith dialogue on campus is alive as well. Just last night the Interfaith Collective hosted a pleasant dinner and discussion centering around the role of faith in politics, and vice versa. It was a thoroughly enjoyable event not only for the food, but also because widely divergent opinions met together respectfully and shared thoughts without fear of harsh criticism or silencing.

Because everyone had arrived to an empty room without any presupposed opinions, the field was clear to discuss.

Sadly and shockingly, the Office of the University Chaplain seems to have omitted to keep in mind that one of the key principles of interfaith dialogue is that participants should never be alienated before they even arrive. Though there has not been much reporting on it, the Baccalaureate service, hosted by the Chaplain and described as “an interfaith, intercultural service celebrating the completion of each undergraduate’s academic career,” is breaking this cardinal rule. Instead of creating a service that strives to create an environment in which all faiths will feel welcome and celebrated, they have set the stage for alienation and insult instead of respect and common understanding.

The keynote at this year’s Baccalaureate will be Faye Wattleton, a trustee of Columbia and, more significantly, the president of Planned Parenthood from 1978 to 1992. While she has accomplished much in her life and has served her community in many ways, her presence as a keynote speaker at an interfaith event is inappropriate. Though many (if not most) Columbians may not see Planned Parenthood any differently from any other nonprofit in the world, a significant amount of students of faith on our campus find one of its purposes—to provide abortions—offensive, if not heartbreaking. To them, the fact that Ms. Wattleton will be the main speaker for the event sends a clear message—that their beliefs are not being considered or respected. Depending on the strength of conviction, this situation could be felt as a direct rejection of their beliefs. Is that the proper way to organize interfaith dialogue?

Though little can be done about it now, it would seem that this situation sheds light on an insensitivity and disconnection between the Chaplain and the communities of faith on campus. With only a cursory poll, the OUC would have found that such a speaker is not an ideal choice for an interfaith service. Instead, the Office’s actions indicate that there needs to be some serious consideration of how it should fill the role of the “minister to individual faiths” at Columbia.




  1. ng • April 28, 2010 at 8:42 pm • Reply

    While I understand the concern voiced in this piece, I believe that you are also neglecting to understand the core value behind the the Baccalaureate Service, tolerance. An interfaith dialogue’s boundaries are not limited to the realm of recognized, or organized religion. If a person’s beliefs are not based on the words of God, or any text or scripture, but rather centered upon the human capacity to make proper decisions for their own lives, should that not be respected in such a service? In order words, ones convictions can easily be understood as their personal religions; if someone maintains a strong pro-life conviction, then would actively uninviting Ms. Wattleton, or actively avoiding controversial figures, be equally…

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    • sarahn • April 28, 2010 at 9:45 pm • Reply

      but the point derek, from my understanding, is trying to make is not that Ms. Wattleton is a-religious or nonreligious. he’s not even, i believe, trying to make a normative argument about whether being pro-choice is religiously moral or not. his point is mainly empirical, in that he feels, and this might be untrue, that a “significant amount” of religious students (Christian, presumably) disagree strongly with Ms. Wattleton’s views, and so they will presumably feel alienated and “rejected” from the interfaith dialogue since the speaker is supposed to, in some ways, embody the spirit and purpose of the dialogue.

      derek, although i agree that ms. wattleton may not present the most welcoming environment for people of faith to come…

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  2. sarahn • April 29, 2010 at 12:42 am • Reply

    personally i am very intrigued to hear talk. I want to know what she thinks of Psalm 139:13, for instance.

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