Going to the Chapel

Harvard wasn’t the only school to appoint a woman last week.

Sharon Kugler

Her femaleness notwithstanding, Drew Gilpin Faust is a conservative choice for the presidency of Harvard. She’s a historian, an administrator, and a bona-fide preppy, an alumna of a girls’ boarding school, a women’s college, and a prestigious graduate school. If she were male, she’d be the perfect Ivy League administrator, circa 1960. But news of her appointment obscured a far more radical appointment, also of a woman, also at an Ivy League university. On Feb. 9, the same day the Harvard news broke, Yale announced that Sharon Kugler, currently the chaplain at Johns Hopkins, would assume the same job at Yale. Yet Kugler, who will be the top religious official at a school that has graduated Jonathan Edwards, Timothy Dwight, and William Sloane Coffin, is not a preacher but a layperson—and a lay Catholic at that. How in heaven did it come to this? What does it mean to have a chaplain who is not ordained, and why would a historically Protestant school hire a Catholic? These are, as the Book of Matthew says, signs of the times.

In choosing a Catholic, Yale is acknowledging what has long been obvious: that its campus, like every other Ivy League school’s, is no longer a Protestant monoculture. The Protestant chaplaincy has become a relic, a quaint nod to an older time. The current chaplain, a Baptist minister and social worker named Frederick Streets, is a worldly man with a side specialty in counseling those traumatized in wartime. But for 15 years he has preached to a Sunday audience numbering, on good days, in the strong two figures—and their average age is squarely in the 60 Minutes demographic. This anemic attendance predates Streets, who came to his job in 1992; it’s a symptom of what ails mainline Protestantism as a whole. There are plenty of religious students at Yale, to be sure, more than when I graduated 10 years ago. Catholics attend St. Thomas More, an on-campus chapel, or St. Mary’s, a local parish. Jews worship at the Joseph Slifka Center. Muslims have their own imam. And there are evangelicals, who worship with groups like Campus Crusade for Christ and Athletes in Action. What Yale doesn’t have is a strong contingent of churchgoing, mainline Protestants—the students who listened to Rev. Coffin’s sermons in the 1960s.

There are Episcopalians, of course, and Congregationalists and Presbyterians and American Baptists—this is the Ivy League, after all. But church attendance in these religious denominations has crashed in recent decades, and students are hardly exempt from the trend. Harvard has managed to keep attendance at its Memorial Church high by employing chaplain Peter Gomes, one of the country’s best preachers, possessed of a unique charm that can’t well be imitated. Gomes is a black Baptist, but he was raised in Plymouth, Mass., speaks in slow, hyper-articulate New England tones, and flavors his sermons with snippets of Thoreau and T.S. Eliot. Were it not for Gomes, Harvard might be like those historically Christian schools—throughout the Ivy League and at colleges like Bates, Wesleyan, and Emory—where there is no longer a Protestant preacher speaking every week to a large portion of the student body.

But more important than Yale’s choice of a Catholic for the job is its redefinition of the job itself. While choosing Kugler, the university simultaneously changed the job description by splitting the responsibilities in two. In the past, the chaplain was both the school’s Protestant preacher and its overseer of all religious ministries. There was a Catholic chaplain and a Jewish chaplain and a Muslim chaplain, but none of them was the chaplain—that role was reserved for a mainline Protestant who preached in Battell Chapel on Sundays. But Kugler will not be the Sunday preacher; rather, she now gets to hire a Protestant for that job. She will be a lay bureaucrat coordinating the religious missions of a Catholic priest, a Muslim imam, ministers from a variety of Protestant denominations, the main preacher in Battell Chapel, and so forth. “It’s not being all things to all people,” Kugler told me, speaking of her new job, “but helping advocate for people of different traditions, help them come together, explore their own faiths.” In other words, there is no longer anything primary about the Protestant heritage at Yale, except that the Protestant chaplain gets to use the biggest chapel on Sunday. In this regard, Yale joins Columbia, Brown, Dartmouth, and dozens of other schools whose chaplains are employed to superintend campus religious life, without particular attachment to any one tradition.

I will confess that I, being a crusty alumnus of the sort that Yale is especially good at producing, was initially horrified by this new conception of the chaplaincy. As a historian of religion, I’ve listened to old tapes of campus sermons that were delivered live to audiences of hundreds, and I was hoping that the search committee would be looking above all for a spectacular preacher, someone who could bring many to church on Sunday. I like to think that a college can have a central spiritual spokesman (or spokeswoman), a prophetic voice whose sermons would spark lively debate. And, though I’m Jewish, I believe that having a Big Protestant on Campus is at least a bulwark against the sort of touchy-feely “spirituality” in which college students do not need to be encouraged. Finally, a chaplain, preaching every Sunday from the Bible, is a force for tradition in a world filled with people who say things like, “The Internet has changed everything.”

But if the audience for such sermons has fractured, then keeping alive the myth of a unified Protestant audience does more harm than good. For one thing, unless he has a Gomes-like gift, any preacher trying to draw hundreds on a diverse campus will deliver sermons of such breathtaking ecumenical vagueness that only a Unitarian could come away inspired. Such sermons embody the opposite of rigor, intellectual or moral. And they will inevitably alienate many religiously serious Protestants, who, finding pablum in the mainline church, will turn to evangelical groups. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it shouldn’t be the only option for a Protestant who wants a traditional, scriptural sermon.

In effect, American universities are at last learning the lesson of the United States, which is that religion prospers most where it is compelled the least. By refusing to create a national church, the federal government forced religions to compete in what scholars have called a free market of religion. The results are all around us: a seemingly infinite array of religious options. Contrast that cornucopia with, say, England or Germany, where state support of religions continues yet the pews are nearly empty. For centuries, our universities were like little villages in England, with official vicars who, increasingly, nobody paid attention to. Now, as schools decouple the pulpit ministry from the chaplaincy, the Protestant ministers are no longer responsible to the whole university, and are freed to preach the kind of sermons that might, if we’re lucky, inspire and offend in equal measure. By conceding that Protestantism is no longer normative, colleges founded in its name may see it once again become distinctive.