A Crucifix Controversy at BC
Over the winter break, Boston College placed in its classrooms crucifixes and other Christian symbols, many of them brought back from historically Catholic countries by BC students studying there. To the surprise of no one, this turned out to be controversial at the Jesuit-run institution. Any lurch in the direction of religion by religious colleges is bound to leave some professors aghast. Chemistry professor Amir Hoveyda said: “A classroom is a place where I am supposed, as a teacher, to teach without any bias, to teach the truth. And when you put an icon or an emblem or a flag, it confuses the matter.” There’s a lot to unpack in that statement. Professor Hoveyda apparently thinks he will be unable to teach the truths of chemistry in a classroom containing a Christian symbol. The power of a Jesus image is apparently so strong that the professor believes he will be unable to function in a bias-free manner
And it isn’t just a crucifix. In his view, “an icon, an emblem or a flag” automatically brings bias to the class. (Make that the American flag, which is recurrently controversial in the academy and disdained by many as a symbol of imperialist aggression. It was banned on some campuses after 9/11 out of deference to foreign students who might have been as unsettled by its presence). The casual linking of flag and crucifix as troubling images recalls the writings of sociologist Peter Berger. He saw a connection between the increasing obeisance of believers to the “cultured despisers of religion” and the increasingly “large number of Americans (who ) seem to apologize for the basic character if not the very existence of their own country.” Both forms of back-pedaling, he thought, point to a hollowing out of traditional symbols.
A few professors used the “discomfort” argument, a powerful one on the modern campus: anything that makes me feel uncomfortable is intolerable. This puts the crucifix in the same category as the painting that discombobulated a feminist professor at Penn State years ago. She said she felt harassed by a copy of Goya’s famous “Naked Maja,” though the painting had been hanging there in class for decades before it began harassing her. The “discomfort” argument can also be called “the sensitive person’s veto.” The only way to avoid the veto is to ban any imagery that offends anyone, even Christian images at Christian colleges. To its credit, BC is unwilling to do that.