Rob Spach ’84 (he/him)
Ross Hickman’s recent, thoughtful article challenges the trustees’ reaffirmation of Davidson’s Presbyterian affiliation. I agree that “white, male, heterosexual, cisgender supremacies” were intertwined with the early college leaders’ Presbyterianism. The inexcusable reality is that southern, white churchmen misused Christian ideas to justify an oppressive, supremacist culture. Similar distortions happen today: Hickman “grew up in an environment where Christian religious tradition validated bigotry, excused harm, and invisibilized individual and collective desires for a different future.” What they went through is wrong, period.
Clearly, people identifying with Christianity do despicable things. Sometimes they try to justify bigotry by claiming their symbols and words represent a prized “heritage.” It makes sense that minoritized identities are leery of Davidson’s Presbyterian “heritage” if that word refers to a mythologized, bygone era that in fact was exclusionary and harmful to many people. Moreover, those shameful parts of that past cast “long shadows … of harm that persist on our campus” (to use Hickman’s words).
In reaffirming the college’s church affiliation, the trustees weren’t trying to gloss over or ignore that dreadful reality. That’s why “heritage”, given its connotations, is the wrong word to describe what they reaffirmed. The trustees aren’t trying to hold on to a religiously hegemonic past; instead, they are seeking to guide the college into the future in ways that both engage the plurality of identities and perspectives on campus today and draw on the best of living, active Presbyterianism. I invite a reassessment of the college’s relationship to the Presbyterian Church USA (the denomination with which Davidson affiliates today) and to the Reformed Tradition, the broader strand of Protestantism of which Presbyterianism is a part.
Presbyterian pastors educated at Davidson fought segregation during the Civil Rights era. Presbyterian laypeople and clergy relentlessly advocated for the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people; the PCUSA today sanctions gay marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ+ clergy. Over the past fifteen years, the denomination elected to its highest office three white women, two Asian-American men, and (in alphabetical order by ethnicity/sex) a Black man, a Black woman, an Indigenous woman, a Puerto Rican woman, and a white man. So although the PCUSA is overwhelmingly white, its members magnify “the voices of those long silenced” (as one church document puts it).
Formed in 1983 by the merger of two prior denominations, the PCUSA is a tiny religious body. There are more Catholics in the Diocese of Chicago (2.1 million) than members of the PCUSA in the entire U.S. (1.3 million). Its affiliated colleges like Davidson promote things we’re familiar with like humane values, civic engagement, academic excellence, and respect for each person’s dignity and worth.
While these traits are found at many colleges (secular and religious), others aren’t as common. Presbyterians believe that faith and reason, science and religion, social justice and reverence for the divine can go hand in hand. They’re convinced that no single group (including Presbyterians, or Christians as a whole) has a corner on knowing truth about the world, human beings, morality, or God. PCUSA colleges support diverse religious identities and spiritual practices, never presuming to tell anyone what their faith or worldview should be. Davidson’s Statement of Purpose puts it this way: “the loyalty of the college … extends to the whole of humanity and necessarily includes openness to and respect for the world’s various religious traditions” (emphasis added).
While a variety of values are found at secular and religious colleges, the constellation of convictions and guiding principles at PCUSA colleges is distinct. These colleges sustain a minority perspective that could be marginalized or even disappear from American higher education. Their absence would lessen diversity and decrease plurality in academia, where pressures to conform are strong.
Offering a considered assessment of Presbyterianism, Hickman believes “in many of the basic ethical values which the college’s reading of the Reformed Tradition promotes.” Their concern centers on “why the specific ideological ‘heritage’ of our institution should be so critical for our present and future iterations of the campus community, when we have so many faithful and secular heritages upon which to draw.” For them, it’s limiting and unnecessary for a college as diverse as Davidson to be grounded in one tradition.
I agree that a Presbyterian narrative shouldn’t dominate at Davidson; it’s essential that other traditions join in shaping the college because, as anyone in the PCUSA would agree, Presbyterianism has a limited perspective. I am persuaded, though, that any institution will, over time, have to ground itself in some particular worldview to endure. What we cherish about Davidson didn’t emerge from an ahistorical, universally agreed-upon set of ideas about what is good, right, and just. There is no such thing, as philosophers and ethicists can attest. All values arise from particular perspectives, each of which has a history and underlying assumptions and categories shaping its priorities and principles. If we jettison our tradition of origin, some other worldview, whether religious or secular, is going to fill that role. Like Presbyterianism today, that worldview almost certainly won’t be shared by a majority of the college community.
Aware that Davidson is not guided by objective, universal values, people in the college community may appreciate why it’s worthwhile to understand its grounding tradition and to grasp how that tradition engages with diversity and change. Traditions, of course, differ greatly. Some are exclusivist, resist criticism and modification, and claim to have answers to all the big questions. Others promote plurality, engage in self-assessment and amendment, and acknowledge that their understandings of truths are neither complete nor absolute. The Reformed Tradition is in this latter group. The PCUSA refers to itself as “reformed and always being reformed”; its related colleges appreciate constructive changes brought by people with diverse belief systems, life experiences, and frames of reference.
When I arrived as chaplain in 1993, Davidson had one Catholic and four Protestant student groups. In the ensuing years, Jewish, Muslim, and Orthodox Christian students created their own organizations, invariably with support from the administration. The whole campus has benefitted. The presence of these groups enhances cross-cultural understanding, and during crises such as acts of antisemitism or Islamophobia locally, nationally, and globally, they have led us in responses of grief, outrage, and solidarity.
In reaffirming the college’s religious affiliation, the trustees aren’t trying (as Hickman eloquently puts it) to subsume the many traditions at Davidson into a broader Christian or Presbyterian narrative. Prompted by Reformed principles and the growing variety of perspectives on campus, their goal is to foster a community where diverse worldviews are each expressed in their distinctiveness, and where all contribute to a shared ethos. In their view, Davidson’s Presbyterian church-relatedness, though problematic in ways that should be exposed, critiqued, and changed, promotes a forward-looking educational vision that sustains spaces for disparate, even divergent views as it upholds humane values, academic excellence, diversity, inclusivity, freedom of conscience, varied faiths and spiritual practices, and the dignity and worth of every person.
Rob Spach ’84 is the Davidson College Chaplain. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.