These students have ample reason to feel left out. Not long ago, a group of such students at Wesleyan asked me to participate in a discussion about religion on campus, and now it was my turn to try to hide. “Hey,” I said, “I’m an atheist Jew. I’m the wrong guy to talk about these topics.” They pressed: What happened to your commitment to intellectual diversity? I signed up for the event. The organizers had planned a public conversation with Michael Wear, the director of evangelical outreach for President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, and more than 100 students attended, comfortable to be talking about these issues in “safe enough” company. I participated, but while doing so I also explained my reluctance to show up. As a Jew, I worried about the easy slide from “evangelical outreach” to harassment, and then to anti-Semitism. The tension in the room was real, and so were the issues we discussed.
I wasn’t converted to Wear’s liberal evangelicalism that night, and he wasn’t persuaded by my combination of atheism and Torah study. What I took away most of all was the reluctance of students to “bring their whole selves to class”—as we urge all Wesleyan students to do—because of perceived prejudice against faith practices. Now, some may say that students should check their faith at the door (perhaps alongside their privilege) before they enter the seminar room. But that’s not the way I teach. In my classes, I want students to bring their complex, changing identities into our efforts to wrestle with enduring questions of love and judgment, justice and violence, grace and forgiveness. These are historical questions, but they can also be meaningful in students’ lives right now. If we neglect these issues in our liberal-arts classes, we are cutting off a vital domain of human experience from an education claiming to deepen cultural understanding. And we desperately need that understanding in our polarized society.