Once at front, religion at Macalester sits on the side

By Brian Martucci

The cover of the October 24, 2005 issue of Presbyterian Outlook featured an idyllic photograph of a colorful, tree-filled college quad complete with clean-cut, smiling students on bicycles.

The only thing amiss about the picture: the fact that it was taken right here at Macalester, an institution ranked no. 1 on the Princeton Review’s list of schools where “students ignore God on a regular basis” in 2002. The college has remained near the top of that list every year since.

While the college is technically affiliated with the Presbyterian church, its day-to-day workings and the campus experience of its students is undoubtedly secular.

Only three percent of Macalester students identify themselves as Presbyterian while a whopping 64 percent see themselves as non-religious, according to Presbyterian Outlook.

Tobin Kaufman-Osborn ’07 only found out a few weeks ago that he was pictured riding a bicycle through campus on the magazine’s cover.

“I think it’s pretty ironic that I ended up on there,” he said. “I mean, I’m Jewish.”

The atmosphere on campus may be decidedly secular, but signs of the college’s religious heritage lurk just below the surface. Macalester has been affiliated with the Presbyterian church since its founding in 1874.

The college maintains a five-year renewable “covenant”—similar to a treaty between diplomatic powers—with the Presbyterian Synod of Lakes and Prairies as a symbol of its affiliation with the church, which maintains a presence in Macalester’s academic operations in the form of endowed chairs and scholarships, a Trustee hailing from the ranks of the Presbyterian clergy, and donations from individual congregations.

Many students feel apathetic about the college’s relationship with the church, and some ignore it completely.

“I don’t really pay much attention to the fact that we’re Presbyterian,” said Annie Flanagan ’09, who does not practice a religion. “Although at the same time I would imagine it would have to offend someone.”

Even some religious students shrug off Macalester’s affiliation, forgoing a strong bond with their peers on campus in favor of the freedom to worship elsewhere. Daniel Rau ’09 does not attend services at Weyerhaueser Chapel, choosing to venture off campus each week for church.

“Realistically, our religious affiliation is not very strong. I didn’t even consider it when I was applying here,” he said. “If I had wanted to live on a campus where religion had a strong presence, I would have gone to Bethel.”

Lisa Ostenson ’06, president of the Macalester Christian Fellowship and who also attends church off campus, believes that the diverse faiths on campus coexist well even in a secular atmosphere.

“Most people here are respectful of religious worship,” she said.

According to the covenant, the Presbyterian church endows the college’s chaplaincy, the Margaret W. Harmon and Arnold Lowe Chairs in Religious Studies, the Bloedel Trust of the Presbyterian Foundation and several unnamed student scholarships.

“Some students here think I would be offended by the lack of a religious presence on campus,” Chaplain Lucy Forster-Smith said. “But many non-Christian visiting professors have remarked to me that they notice a number of Presbyterian values in the day-to-day workings of the college.”

Social consciousness in particular is crucial to the Presbyterian ideal. According to Forster-Smith, the Presbyterian church is known for its open-mindedness—which may contribute to the strains of internationalism in Macalester’s social fabric—and commitment to “trying to create a just society,” she said.

“Presbyterian clergy always seem to be the last ones to leave the table at interfaith gatherings,” Forster-Smith said. “There’s a definite thirst on the part of Presbyterians to learn as much as they can about other religions and cultures.”

The “Common Convictions” section of the covenant states that both the college and the church “believe that scholarship and religious commitment have important contributions to make to the betterment of the world around us.”

Nevertheless, over the course of its history Macalester has undoubtedly experienced a shift from its religious roots. “Internationalism and multiculturalism started becoming the focus of Macalester’s image in the late 1940s and 50s, around the time a lot of other schools were experimenting with them as well,” Forster-Smith said.

But the college does owe its existence to the church. Edward Duffield, the college’s founder, could not raise enough money through conventional private sources to purchase a plot of land large enough to hold all the facilities he wished to build.

“After Duffield exhausted all his options with private investors, the Synod of Lakes and Prairies stepped in and provided the funds to purchase the land,” Forster-Smith said.

The value of the gift was approximately $25,000 in 1880 dollars.

Duffield did not necessarily feel beholden to the Presbyterian church, however. Although the church’s gift engendered an enduring relationship with the college, Duffield envisioned Macalester as an institution which was “Christian in purpose but nonsectarian in practice” from the outset.

The college’s formal affiliation with synod does not extend far beyond the realm of financial support and historical tradition.

“We hold on to the tradition of Presbyterianism, but in practice we look to create an inclusive dialogue with all faiths,” Forster-Smith said.