A holiday email from Chancellor Jack Hawkins Jr. to the university community touched off a debate about religion’s role in democracy and in the administration of a public university.
Hawkins sent an email to all Troy University faculty, staff and students that included a video of Harvard Business School Professor Clay Christensen commenting on an observation of a Marxist economist from China.
Hawkins mentioned in the email that the 90-second video serves as a “reminder of America’s greatness and vulnerability.”
According to Christensen, the Marxist said, “I had no idea how critical religion was to the functioning of democracy.”
Christensen bases the video content on the discussion he had with the economist from China and says that religion plays a role in motivating citizens to be law-abiding.
The day following the first email release, Dec. 31, a formal letter was sent by American Atheists President David Silverman addressed to Hawkins. According to the group’s website, the American Atheists, based in Cranford, New Jersey, is a group that fights “for the civil liberties of atheists and the total, absolute separation of government and religion.”
Danielle Muscato, public relations director for the American Atheists Center, said a Troy University student contacted the group on Dec. 31 in regard to Hawkins’ email. The student was not identified.
Other students have also had negative reactions to the chancellor’s video.
The Troy University Secular Student Alliance gathered quotes from students about the video and sent them to the chancellor, telling the chancellor that his video was offensive.
The Student Secular Association said in its letter that it is an organization that “represents atheists, agnostics, and other non-religious students.”
One anonymous quote, gathered by the Student Secular Association from a Troy University student, said that the video was an inappropriate choice because of the type of institution Troy is.
“The message sent out by the chancellor was distinctly and unavoidably religious in nature,” the student said. “Troy University is a public, secular institution with students and employees from various backgrounds, and it is completely inappropriate for a person in his position to distribute such a message.”
The Secular Student Association invited the chancellor to attend a meeting. “We want you to understand why the video in question is so offensive, and how we can move forward positively,” the letter said.
Silverman requested in his letter a “public apology to the student, and other atheists whom you have disparaged with the video you included in your email.”
Silverman also included study results and statistics in his letter stating that atheists were law-abiding despite not being religious.
“Atheists are overwhelmingly ethical and upstanding people. It is not true that religion is necessary to keep people from becoming criminal,” Silverman said.
Hawkins directed a follow-up email in response to the letter from the American Atheists on Jan. 5, 2015, saying his intentions were not meant to offend or to promote religion.
“The recent New Year’s message I shared with the university community was not intended to offend. It was intended to encourage recipients to embrace the year ahead and to stimulate thought,” Hawkins said.
Kelsey Burgans, community director of Troy University Newman Center, said that this is a hot topic, but it spurred a discussion that needs to take place. The Newman Center is a Roman Catholic organization.
“It reminds me of the publicity the Newman Center received when it was first being built and the misconceptions associated with it,” Burgans said. “The Newman Center is a residence hall where free thoughts and ideas can be discussed on a variety of issues, including religious freedom.
“I feel as if the chancellor did not violate anyone’s religious freedoms, and, on a personal level, I support the video.”
According to Muscato, the American Atheists were not pleased with the chancellor’s response email to the Troy University community.
“We are not satisfied with the response and it was not an apology. We are not going to let this go,” Muscato said. “If he wants to evangelize privately, that’s fine, but not while wearing his chancellor’s hat.”
Steven Brown, chair of the department of political science at Auburn University, said that the idea that religion is essential to democracy is not a new idea. According to Brown, Alexis de Tocqueville, author of “Democracy in America,” believed that democracy “was only a step or two away from anarchy.”
“Democracy was fragile and needed support,” Brown said.
Brown said that Tocqueville believed that the reason Americans did not dive into chaos was because of the “prevalence of religion.”
Andy Ellis, university relations director, released a statement on behalf of Hawkins.
“Troy University is an international university that contributes to the global marketplace of ideas. This message and video were shared to provide the university community with information and insights for healthy consideration and debate about our country’s democracy, the role it plays in the world and the challenges America faces going forward,” Ellis said.