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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Church and School: A Presbyterian Affiliation at an Atheist College

By Zac Farber

The Princeton Review ranks Macalester as fourteenth on its list of schools where “students ignore God on a regular basis” and 41 percent of 2004 Macalester seniors reported having “no religion” according to a recent survey prepared by the Institutional Research Office. Yet Macalester remains one of the few elite colleges that maintains a religious affiliation.Macalester has largely skirted controversy by changing its relationship with the Presbyterian Church to an “historical affiliation.” Only five percent of current Macalester students consider themselves Presbyterian and there is a prevalent feeling of apathy among the student body that stems from the perception that the Presbyterian Church exercises little influence on campus life.

“I was always under the impression that the church didn’t have much of a say on campus,” said James Mallek ‘10, a self-described “Catholic with a Presbyterian mother.”

Talia Kahn-Kravis ‘07 said she feels that the affiliation is just an “historical precedent” and that “it is symbolic rather than something they enact on campus.”

“The affiliation doesn’t affect daily life at all,” Clara Hill ‘10 said.

In reality, the connection between Macalester College and the Presbyterian Church is somewhat deeper than the rhetoric that an “historical affiliation” implies.

In Lucy Forster-Smith’s 12-year tenure as Macalester’s chaplain, the “Statement of Covenant” between Macalester and the Midwest chapter of the Presbyterian Church (officially called the Synod of Lakes and Covenants) has been twice renewed, most recently in October of 2004.

The 2004 covenant affirms that the relationship is “historic and continuing” and outlines Presbyterian involvement in the College.

The covenant calls for the continued “presence of Presbyterian ministers and laypeople on Macalester’s Board of Trustees.” The Pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, Timothy Hart-Andersen, is currently the Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustees.

Macalester receives economic benefits from its connection with the Church. Some of these benefits mentioned in the covenant are “the Bloedel Trust held by the Presbyterian Foundation and other continued financial support by Presbyterian individuals and congregations.”

Under the section of “Common Convictions” in the 2004 covenant the College and the Church align their principles and delineate the shared commitment to a pluralistic, broadly diverse global context; to open inquiry and serious study; and notably to the critical exploration and practice of ethical values and religious commitments.

Forster-Smith has found that the connection between Macalester and the Church goes deeper. The Presbyterian Church shares many values with Macalester, Forster-Smith said.

“Presbyterianism is a denomination that is quite liberal, very socially aware, and at the forefront of social justice,” she said. “We’re a very thinking faith.”

Presbyterianism is a branch of Protestantism that traces its roots back to traditional reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin, Forster-Smith said.

During the Scottish Reformation, Scotland’s severing of ties with the papacy, John Knox established Presbyterianism in an attempt to create a church where all the congregants could create their own relationship with God without resorting to Catholic intermediaries like priests and bishops.

Macalester’s emphasis on multiculturalism is taken from the Presbyterian faith, Forster-Smith said, in addition to the Scottish coloring of school ceremony and sporting events.

Forster-Smith said she feels that Macalester’s affiliation with the church cannot be dismissed with the adjective historical.

“I would argue that it is not a historic tie and is alive and vibrant today. I’d look at it that history is alive and vibrant in influencing the present,” Forster-Smith said.

The Macalester administration has compiled a list of 40 “peer colleges” that Macalester measures itself against. Today, since the secularization of higher education, only five of these forty colleges have maintained a religious affiliation.

In 1996 Macalester’s covenant with the Church was set to expire and there was discussion on campus about whether or not to reaffirm it. The Board of Trustees ultimately decided to renew the affiliation.

“The Trustees consider the affiliation a distinction (from other colleges),” Forster-Smith said. “Macalester thinks that we need to claim our history rather than be embarrassed by it or discard it.”

Another perspective is that at a school like Macalester a little bit of institutional religion may be an ideal antidote to at least inspire spiritual thought.

Mallek states that for those who assume atheism as an axiom, a college affiliation with a religion “is something different to them.”

“Macalester raises the bar academically in so many ways,” Forster-Smith said. “But it sort of dumbs down religion, making it sound like a knee-jerk, non-thinking proposition.”

Perhaps an historical affiliation simply means an optional one where students can choose the extent of their religious involvement.

“It’s here, if students want it, but we’re not going to push it,” Forster-Smith said.

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