by Ross Hickman (they/them), Perspectives Editor
Why does the Board of Trustees continue to reaffirm Davidson College’s Presbyterian ‘heritage’? For whom do we prize the past—given the evidence which spills over from the College Archives, into the writing and activism of students struggling to deal with our school’s long shadows?
Until recent decades, Davidson College has been a thoroughly Christian institution, steeped in the sometimes bitter leaves of the Presbyterian Church’s history. White- and male-supremacist politics were couched in the language of Christian moral destinies, justifying the colonization of Catawba land, the deployment of enslaved people’s labor to build many of the college’s early buildings, and the suppression of gender and sexual minorities. As with other reverberating structures and systems of oppression and exclusion, the influence of Christianity upon Davidson College may, for some privileged members of our community, seem more vestigial than our institutional history reveals.
Yet, the recent revision of Davidson’s bylaws regarding religious requirements for joining the Board of Trustees suggests that our history is, in fact, very much alive. As others have pointed out in The Davidsonian, the overturned bylaws, having required 80 percent of the board to be Christian and at least 25 percent to be Presbyterian, privileged the overwhelmingly white cohort from which to find candidates. None of this is to say that white Christians as a matter of course are less qualified for college leadership. Nor am I arguing that Christians should lessen their voices, presences, and faiths on campus. People of all faiths or no faith ought to be welcome at Davidson, and their contributions to our culture are meaningful. But problems arise, of course, when one religion hegemonizes the culture of an institution in racialized, gendered, and other ways that take decades of student activism to uncover and overturn.
Why, then, does the Board of Trustees continue to reaffirm Davidson College’s Presbyterian ‘heritage’? For whom do we prize the past — given the evidence which spills over from the College Archives, into the writing and activism of students struggling to deal with our school’s long shadows? For decades now, scholars, journalists, and activists have implored white Southerners to reconsider their attachments to the word ‘heritage’ when speaking about icons of racist violence like Confederate statues and flags. Criticizing such emotional attachments to mythologized, bygone eras is not anti-historical. In fact, when we demand that history moves beyond ‘heritage,’ we understand the fragmentary, living nature of history itself — and, vitally, the complex ways by which different people (dis)inherit or (dis)own such stories. The histories of Davidson College, the Presbyterian Church, and white, male, heterosexual, cisgender supremacies are at once deeply intertwined and fluid. Recent decades have proven the potential for this fluidity on at least some levels, as the college has begun to diversify its students, faculty, and staff and begun to reckon with the material, intellectual, and emotional consequences of its history.
Given these forward-thinking, more justice-oriented shifts in the past decades, why are we so attached to the ‘heritage’ of our Christian and Presbyterian roots? Of course, we should certainly not try to erase our affiliation with the Presbyterian Church from our history, but our ‘heritage’ is not something to throw around proudly or unreflectively. The college’s “Reflections on the Reformed Tradition at Davidson College” (2017) make some profound steps toward a more historicized reflection, but neglect to highlight the specific and enduring connections between the various racial, religious, regional, and other ‘heritages’ from which the college still benefits — and suffers. Indeed, the persistent glorification of heritage elides the exclusionary and harmful history of our institution and the hierarchical apparatuses of morality and identity therein.
Though many students of minoritized religious, gender, sexual, racial, and other identities on this campus feel demonized by the history that the language of heritage directly connotes, recycling the rhetorics of demonization is part and parcel of the heritages of harm that persist on our campus. And I want no part in isolating anyone else within the stories we inherit and reproduce, whether intentionally or unwittingly. I grew up in an environment where Christian religious tradition validated bigotry, excused harm, and invisibilized individual and collective desires for a different future. Along with many other queer people, I have a deep mistrust of religion for how Christians have historically deployed it, and for my personal political reasons, I am no longer religious. But I also know queer people who cherish their faiths and do not wish to linger in the past, or to call upon their own heritages without due reflection and historicization. I have witnessed the awesome power of critical thinking to change people’s lives, and I believe in many of the basic ethical values which the college’s reading of the Reformed Tradition promotes.
What I can’t wrap my mind around is 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. These different heritages do not deserve to be subsumed into a larger narrative of Christian or Presbyterian traditions, and the college leadership should proceed down a path of disaffiliating from the Presbyterian Church at an institutional level. Disaffiliation is not about excluding or shaming Presbyterians or any other Christian; it is about disestablishing the Christian religion from the operation of an institution that has a population of students, faculty, and staff who do not adhere to the specific traditions the college still crystallizes in 25 percent of the board — an overrepresentation of the roughly 9 percent of students who identify as Presbyterian. How do we reckon with the fact that 91 percent of our student body do not align with the Reformed Tradition? The administration justifies such a continued affiliation with the problematic charge of honoring ‘heritage.’ Like other academic and political institutions in the United States, the disestablishment of a singular religion from administrative bodies that seek plurality is an essential and not altogether finished goal. With a nuanced understanding of Davidson College’s history and traditions in tow, we should live up to our commitments to reform our traditions of thought and practice by making clear that we do not intend to romanticize the past, or stick to the conveniences of the present — but work together for a shared future.
Ross Hickman (they/them) is a History and Gender & Sexuality Studies major from Winston-Salem, NC, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.