US religious universities speak out with authority in Trump era

University of Notre Dame president says faith-based institutions have unique ability to counter fear and anxiety with hope

July 31, 2018
Fr John Jenkins
Source: Shutterstock

Few US university leaders have been as publicly vocal in their criticism of the country’s current administration as John Jenkins.

Last year, the University of Notre Dame president attacked the “sweeping, indiscriminate and abrupt character” of Donald Trump’s travel ban, stating that it would “diminish the scope and strength of the educational and research efforts of American universities” and “demean our nation”.

Earlier this year, Fr Jenkins released a statement saying that he was “deeply disappointed that the Senate failed to pass a bipartisan immigration bill that would have, at long last, protected Dreamers” – undocumented migrants who came to the US as children – adding that he “pray[s] that our leaders will end the cruel uncertainty for these talented and dedicated young people who have so much to offer our nation”.

And in June he “call[ed] on the administration to end immediately the cruel practice of separating children from parents and parents from children” after Mr Trump implemented the now suspended policy of separating immigrant families at the US border.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Fr Jenkins said that there are “criticisms to be made” about the “particular person of the president and his style” but “the deeper worry I have is that the fears and anxieties that he and people like him capitalise on and the way in which they do it will not serve the nation in the long run”.

“When you step back and you ask why this person was elected at this time, I do think there’s a general anxiety about globalisation, about its impacts on ordinary working-class people who for a long time made a living from blue collar work and those jobs are going away – not because of immigrants to the US but because of automation,” he said.

He added that he hoped that “my country rises above its fears and its reactions and its temptation to scapegoat certain people, to find solutions that will serve us in the future”.

Fr Jenkins said that religious universities, such as Catholic Notre Dame, have a unique opportunity and responsibility to provide a moral conscience at a time when it can be hard to find these within the political sphere.

“These challenges are about hope and about our responsibility towards one another, our responsibility towards society at large. Religious institutions do have the ability to speak to those issues in a powerful way,” he said.

In June, the Indiana university sponsored a conference at the Vatican between the Pope and the world’s leading oil and gas executives exploring how to transition from fossil fuels and provide new sources of energy – almost exactly a year after Mr Trump withdrew from the Paris climate agreement.

“It is important to see that those challenges certainly have a technological dimension, they certainly have an economic dimension, but they also have a moral dimension,” said Fr Jenkins.

“It’s an issue about our common society and what we value…and religious institutions do have a responsibility and an opportunity to highlight those broader issues of morality and hope.”

In another diversion from the stance of Mr Trump, Notre Dame has built closer ties with Latin America and the Latino community.

Fr Jenkins said that the university has “a long tradition of interchange and interaction with Latin America going back more than 100 years”, but admitted that moves to deepen these partnerships have been “coloured by the fact that a lot of rhetoric in the US – some coming from the president – tends to speak pejoratively of those coming from the south to the US”.

In July 2016, Fr Jenkins called the “vitriol” directed at Mexican immigrants “churlish, insulting political theatre”.

Later that year, the university opened an office in Mexico City “to develop initiatives for sharing of ideas, collaborative research, student-faculty exchanges and cultural understanding between Mexican educational and cultural institutions and the University of Notre Dame”.

The centre now offers grants for Notre Dame academics and staff to partner with Mexican institutions and recruits high school students from Latin America to take part in summer programmes at the university’s Indiana campus.

“It fits with our tradition,” explained Fr Jenkins. “We welcomed predominantly Irish immigrants at a time when they were vilified and they were excluded. It accords with who we are now to welcome the Latino and Latina population at a time when they are questioned and marginalised to some extent.”

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: US religious universities ‘provide moral conscience’ in Trump era

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