The Veritas Forum brought together President Michael Roth ’78 and former faith outreach director for the Obama administration Michael Wear to discuss balancing the freedoms of religion and speech on Thursday, March 1.
President Roth spoke from the perspective of a self-identifying atheist and Jew, while Wear spoke as a man of faith.
The Veritas Forum, which began at Harvard University, is an event that takes place at colleges and universities across the United States. Typically, they examine a contemporary issue from both Christian and secular viewpoints. The conversation was moderated by Professor of Government and Environmental Studies and College of East Asian Studies Chair Mary Alice Haddad.
Right away, Wear and Roth laid bare their differing views on the role of Christianity in American society, identifying Christianity’s potential to have positive and negative impacts. Wear noted that Christians have had a positive impact on many communities, especially during the during recent natural disasters in Tennessee and Dallas, Texas.
“Christianity can be a remarkable motivator for good deeds,” Wear said.
To counter, Roth pointed out that many see Christianity as an institution that protects racism, sexism, and homophobia.
The discussion centered around many aspects of the freedom of religion and freedom of speech, including the role of religion in education and politics. The discussion raised a number of questions: Should Christian colleges exist? How should religion manifest itself on college campuses? Should a Christian sermon continue to take place before graduation at Wesleyan? What do the First Amendment, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, and Supreme Court cases like Baker v. Forest and E.E.O.C. v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores tell us about freedom of religion and expression according to the law?
The topic of this year’s Veritas forum related closely to issues prevalent at the University, known for its liberal student body and faculty.
“Tension arises when students of faith feel they cannot express their opinion in class for fear of alienating their professor or fellow students,” Roth said. “That is a sign of a weak community and a weak educational project.”
Forum organizer Daniel Lee ’18 was inspired to revive Veritas at Wesleyan this year after he read Michael Roth’s article last May in the Wall Street Journal, where Roth expresses support for an affirmative action-like system for bringing diverse viewpoints to the University.
Lee described the Veritas Forum as a place where conservative and Christian voices can be heard in an organized and friendly way. During the forum, someone asked Lee if he had ever felt silenced as a result of his Christian background.
“In my evolution class I felt like I could not disagree with what the Professor was teaching,” Lee said. “Although [my professor was] encouraging people to speak, I had a hard time voicing my opinion because I knew who [my classmates] were, expressing their own beliefs that were already hostile towards my own views.”
Despite their differing perspectives, Wear and Roth agreed over a couple of very important issues during the discussion. They both emphasized that a religious background can make result in important contributions to classroom discussions.
Wear commented more specifically on the academic experiences of religious students who might find difficulty in voicing their perspectives.
“Often times religious people engage in these types of conversations, and they often resort to appealing to simply the authority of scripture among an audience that they know doesn’t hold that authority,” Wear said. “I would just advise [religious students] to appeal to generally available knowledge. The Catholic tradition of natural law is an example of such a tactic.”
In response to the discussion, Michaela Flum ’21 offered her thoughts regarding the importance of having the Wesleyan community be a place where all voices are heard.
“I’m not sure how to do that without giving a platform to people who are problematic,” Flum said. “But it is important because when we leave Wesleyan and go out into the world we will be forced to confront diverse viewpoints.”
Regardless of the differing opinions on religious freedom and freedom of speech, Lee expressed a desire for Wesleyan to host more discussions like Veritas in the future.
“The start is learning,” Lee said. “The start is the conversation. Knowing more about the other, where are you coming from, why are you saying what you are saying.”
Leila Etemad can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.