Over the past year or so, Vanderbilt has repeatedly made headlines with its new “all comers” policy, which prohibits religious student groups from selecting leaders who share the group’s religious convictions. Everyone from columnists to congressmen have expressed dismay over this policy and the way it eliminates religious freedom and freedom of association for students. So I was curious to see how Chancellor Zeppos would address the issue during last week’s graduation. To my amazement, he did so by jettisoning the policy during the commencement festivities.
Vanderbilt opened its Senior Class Day ceremony with an “interfaith welcome,” which featured Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian prayers. But the remarkable thing was who delivered the prayers. A Hindu student gave the Hindu prayer, a Jewish student gave the Jewish prayer, a Muslim student delivered the Muslim prayer, and Christian student likewise represented his faith.
Of course, this arrangement is entirely logical and proper. After all, Judaism is best and most vividly represented when a Jewish student—someone who actually believes its teachings—delivers the Jewish prayers. And the same is true of the other faiths.
But this arrangement is also at odds with the new “all comers” policy that Vanderbilt imposes only on religious groups. To be consistent, Chancellor Zeppos should have mixed everything up. The Hindu student should have given the Christian prayer, the Jewish student should have given the Hindu prayer, the Christian student the Muslim prayer, and the Muslim student the Jewish prayer.
Of course, this “all comers” approach would have been disorienting for the audience and disconcerting for the members of each faith. They would have seen at best a tepid, watered-down version of each faith and at worst a wholly inaccurate one. And the entire thing would have been a farce because none of the students would have believed what they were saying, and everyone would have known it.
But this is exactly the problem inherent in Vanderbilt’s so-called “all comers” policy. Forcing religious groups to allow those of widely divergent beliefs to serve as leaders will only dilute and diminish the voice of each faith on campus. After all, how is the Christian faith to be represented on campus accurately and coherently if—as Vanderbilt said recently—Christian student groups cannot insist that leaders have a “personal commitment to Jesus Christ”?
Despite all of his clichés about welcoming all religions, not even Chancellor Zeppos wanted to put his “all comers” policy on display last week. Instead, he opted for a common-sense approach—allowing each faith to be represented by people who actually believed its teachings. It would be refreshing if he would give students and their organizations the same liberty, as Vanderbilt previously did for decades.