In the university town of St Andrews, along the narrow road that overlooks the North Sea, there is a modest townhouse with a red door. The small black plaque at the building’s entrance reads “Chaplaincy”. Between its steps and the ocean is the little Catholic church of St James and, nearby, the ruins of a great cathedral.
The chaplaincy’s interior, its 1970s decor, dim lighting and musty scent, in many ways symbolises the impression I had of Catholicism as an 18-year-old student. This was a view that was compounded by my studies, where religion was casually dismissed by my professors in flippant remarks. At such moments, I’d look around the lecture halls for signs of challenge. But no one so much as flinched.
At St Andrews, I learned that, while Christianity may be a fascinating artefact and some sort of vague Christian identity might be acceptable in polite society, it was absolutely not to be used as an intellectual lens. One literature professor scolded me for citing the literary criticism of TS Eliot and CS Lewis in an essay (they were the only books left in the library). These ideas were “out of date”, she said. Marxist, Freudian, feminist, queer, post-structuralist, deconstructionist interpretations were all usable, and available on short loan.
The year after graduating, I moved to New York. I was curious, being under the impression that America was a place where one could discuss religious convictions without feeling like a freak. Besides, the New York University (NYU) Catholic chaplaincy was modern and stylish.
But I soon discovered that the culture, both inside and outside the classroom, entailed a high degree of political presumption. And in many and alarming ways, it was more aggressive than back home. At NYU, all present were automatically assumed to belong within mostly unspoken but implicitly understood progressive norms regarding politics, religion and sex. It was a difficult starting point for anyone outside the fold.
In the US, religion is much more closely aligned with political belief. For instance, on campus I learned that it was “the Religious Right” who were responsible for almost all American malaises including, but not limited to, misogyny, homophobia and gun violence. Once, during drinks with a fellow student, I admitted to being a churchgoer. Her next question was: “So do you support Trump?”
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