On July 1, 1899, three Christian commercial travelers met at the Janesville, Wisconsin Y.M.C.A. to form an evangelical association. The “Gideons,” as the small band styled itself, soon came up with the bright idea of furnishing Bibles for every hotel room in the country. In this way, they thought to make God's Word available for those who would spend the night away from home. Seeing this as a service to clients, hotel proprietors, by and large, were amenable to the proposal; soon, Bibles could be found in hotel rooms throughout the nation.
That was then, this is now. Flash forward a hundred years, to the world of political correctness. Last week another evangelical band, “Campus Crusade for Christ,” decided to give incoming Dartmouth College freshmen a Christmas present: C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. On Wednesday night, students gift-wrapped 1,100 copies of the book, and signed cards explaining that the book was a free gift. They delivered 40 boxes full of the gift packages to the Dartmouth mailroom—in compliance with the usual campus policies—and prepared to head home. That's when the College administration stepped in to block distribution of the book.
Scott Brown, dean of Dartmouth's department overseeing religious activities, justifies the college's actions on the grounds that “a large number of students” were likely to take offense at the gift. This despite the fact that a year ago Campus Crusade distributed 1,069 copies of the same book to incoming freshmen, and only 6 students registered complaints. Poor C.S. Lewis. He seems to grow more offensive with each passing year.
This is, of course, the same Dartmouth founded in 1769 as a Christian college by the popular preacher of the Great Awakening, the Reverend Eleazar Wheelock, and the same Dartmouth that prides itself on its openness to diversity, offering such mind-widening courses as “The Invention of Heterosexuality and How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic.” Yet it is also the same Dartmouth that banned the school glee club from singing at the annual tree-lighting ceremony, because their repertoire included carols such as Silent Night and O Come All Ye Faithful, which contain explicit and offensive lyrics.
Jennifer Wan, a Dartmouth junior from Brookline, MA, expressed her consternation at the college's actions: “I don't see the book as trying to convert anybody. It's weird to me that it would offend people. It's just a book. You don't have to read it.”
Dean Brown, however, does not agree. Subtle and insidious mind maneuvering is afoot. Unlike flyers (the campus mail service recently distributed leaflets handed out by Buddhist monks), Brown explains, gifts create a “psychological hook,” that elicits a response from those who receive it. Therefore, Brown suggests, Mere Christianity might create a sense of obligation in those who found a copy in their mailbox. Without wishing to impugn the motives behind Brown's paternalism, one questions his low estimation of students’ capacity for independent thinking.
Dartmouth has made some concessions. Scott Brown allowed that all students could receive the book in their mailboxes, provided that the group mailed them through the U.S. Postal Service, rather than the College's own mailing system—effectively committing the college to refraining from tampering with U.S. Mail, which is, in any case, a Federal offense. That way, Brown asserts, the college would not be “subsidizing” the distribution of the book. Some students have found this policy puzzling, especially since their mailboxes are constantly barraged with college-distributed mail of other sorts, ranging from monthly J. Crew catalogs to a computer magazine that showed nude photos on its cover. Amidst a plethora of worldviews and opinions, it seems that Christianity has been singled out as uniquely unworthy of tolerance.
Political correctness as practiced on many American college campuses adheres to an unwritten, two-tiered policy toward diversity. On the one hand deviancy from traditional canons is encouraged, and anything critical of Western civilization, orthodox religion, and especially Christianity enjoys favored status. Anything which upholds objective truth, on the other hand, and especially religious and moral truth, is to be quashed as undermining the tenets of the New Society.
As Edwin Feulner, president of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, has written: “In a ‘PC’ world, you only have a right to one opinion: theirs. If you don't agree, you are immediately labeled ‘insensitive’ and become a fair target, even for physical attack. And the people who revel in this gender-neutral, multi-cultural, lockstep mindset do so in the name of tolerance!”
Let's not be surprised if one day soon we discover a J. Crew catalog in our hotel room where the Gideon Bible once was.
Father Thomas Williams is rector of the general directorate of the Legionaries of Christ in Rome.