Non-Religious Discussion?

When a movement exclusive in membership, religious in orientation, and all comprehensive in its ideological scope attempts to gain the sanction of a secular university community committed to diversity and inclusion, it obviously puts itself into a paradoxical situation. This was the situation the founders of Princeton’s Anscombe Society, a group “dedicated to affirming the importance of the family, marriage, and a proper understanding for the role of sex and sexuality” (their website) faced when they decided to apply in February 2005 for official University recognition as a campus group. Since the group gained this recognition – and the access to University funds that came with it – it has remained a mostly benign presence on the Princeton campus, the occasionally target of jokes for campus columnists and more often a lobbying group for chastity- and marriage-related political issues; in December 2005, the group drafted an opposition amicus brief to the New Jersey Supreme Court gay marriage case Lewis v. Harris.

But the group’s leaders have maintained that the Anscombe Society is a non-partisan – and non-religious – group. In reference to Lewis v. Harris, then-President David Schaengold noted, “the Anscombe Society is not primarily a political society. However, one of our positions is that we define marriage as the union between a man and a woman.” The student chair of Princeton’s Student Groups Recognition Committee (a group that grants University recognition to student groups) said after approving the Society’s application that “though [we] questioned the inclusivity of the group, the officers ensured that the Society would be free of any religious or political affiliation.” And were one, in spite of it all, to judge the Society as basically a pro-life Christian group, they would have to overlook Schaengold’s February 12th, 2007 comment that the group is “conscious to keep the debate in secular and psychological terms. Of course, we have no problem that some religious groups agree with what we stand for.” As then-advertising coordinator Cody May ’07 argued at the time of the group’s approval, “we’re not affiliated with any religion. You don’t have to be theistic to be part of the group. Everyone is encouraged to join.”

At a campus where many student groups seem to fade into oblivion only months after their founding – a quick survey of Princeton-sanctioned groups yields such names as the Concord Coalition, Distractions Puzzle Magazine, and the Epicurious Gourmet Cooking Club – the Anscombe Society seems to have done rather well for itself. With officer Sherif Girgis ’08 writing columns for The Daily Princetonian, a well-maintained website, and a lineup of conservative speakers booked for the academic year, the Society could boast of more than most comparable student organizations.

Society officers had also organized a conference for this month titled “Making Love Last: Finding Meaning in Sex and Romantic Relationships.” “Our conference,” the Society’s website explains, “[served] two purposes. First, we [brought] in speakers to educate students on the positions ‘Anscombers’ hold in regards to marriage, family, and sexuality.” This was no exaggeration. The two-day conference was to begin with a catered dinner and a keynote address by politics professor Robert George, while the following Saturday attendees could expect to hear talks on subjects such as “Chastity, Integrity, and Marriage;” “The Sociological Data on Natural Law, Chastity, and Happiness in Marriage;” “The Case for Marriage.” This, then, was the second purpose of the conference: “to coach other students on how to start and organize an Anscombe Society on their campuses. This was a well-funded event: the first fifteen Princeton students to register for the event would eat for free, while the Society provided the option of free dormitory housing or discount rates at the Nassau Inn to students from other schools, in addition to financial aid for those on a tight budget.

There seems, then, to be little to object to when it comes to the Anscombe Society. For while one might disagree with their message, they would seem willing to play by the rules of the liberal academy, keep their philosophy secular, and remain a group to which any student – regardless of religious or philosophical conviction – who agreed with the group’s stances could feel at home.

But this is not the case. If it is true, as the group’s website notes, that the purpose of the conference was to bring in “speakers to educate students on the positions ‘Anscombers’ hold in regards to marriage, family, and sexuality,” then the Anscombe Society can be best described as a front organization for a peculiar brand of Protestantism and politics usually associated with the Republican Party. It is a group whose ideology is so religious in scope that it is inconceivable that a Christian, let alone atheist or agnostic Princeton student, could be in the group. And as the following excerpts from the speaker notes and presentation by speaker Patrick Fagan leaked to the Nassau Weekly by an anonymous source attest, it is a group that has taken Princeton University’s sponsorship and funds in bad faith.

What is the material in question here? The Nassau Weekly has been able to obtain the presentation given on the morning of Saturday, February 17th to the Anscombe Conference by Patrick Fagan, the William H.G. FitzGerald Research Fellow in Family and Cultural Issues at the Heritage Institute, a Washington conservative think tank. His biography notes that his areas of expertise include “Family and Religion, Crime, Abuse, Adoption, and Foster Care,” and a quick survey of his papers shows that his most recent work, “Why Religion Matters Even More: The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability,” makes the claim that:

“To work to reduce the influence of religious belief or practice is to further the disintegration of society. Some may be uncomfortable with the religious beliefs and practices of others, but that discomfort is small compared to the effects of having a society with little or no religious practice.”

If this was the man that the Society had chosen to represent them, what was he to speak about? The title of his talk, The Sociological Data on Natural Law, Chastity, and Happiness in Marriage, gives only an incomplete picture, for what sounds like a dry topic turns out here to be a 93-slide Powerpoint presentation on pre-made Heritage Foundation slides with a bright yellow background, embossed with the Heritage logo. The presentation had eight sections: an overview of correlations between sexual promiscuity and unpleasant experiences, second, “The Five Institutions,” third, “Abuse First, Crime Later,” fourth, “Crime & Citizenship,” fifth, “Health, Mental Health,” sixth, “Sexuality and Marriage,” and seventh, “The Culture.” Diffuse and disorganized, the presentation and the accompanying notes nonetheless give a picture of a political program sweeping in scope and Christian and Republican in character.

The Five Institutions

The next part of Fagan’s talk asserts that there are “five basic institutions” in society that fulfill “five basic tasks:” “Government,” whose task is “the common good,” and the “Marketplace,” whose task is “Income,” are called “instrumental” institutions of society. The other three institutions are the family, whose goal is “sex affection,” the church (worship), and school education.

Combined, these five forces make up society and “the basic tasks of the five institutions are present in all the actors at all stages of life.” A new slide comes up giving a visual representation of society. As Fagel notes, the family is crucial to society, for it is the place where (obviously) the children are born and the next generation learns the basics of life from their parents; the child learns to learn and study; the child learns the fundamentals about God and the transcendent issues of life; the child learns fairness, justice and responsibility for others – the basis of citizenship; the child learns to work and sees his parents cooperate in work.

A series of thirteen slides follows this, but again a new element of exclusion through definition is clear: the family definitionally exists in part to teach children about God. If this is the position “’Anscombers’ hold in regards to marriage, family, and sexuality,” it is again difficult to contemplate the Society as a group friendly to the non-religious.

Education; Abuse First, Crime Later; Crime & Citizenship; Health, Mental Health; Sexuality and Marriage

Following Fagan’s description of society a series of thirty slides on the above themes follows. While there are, to be sure, many different slides here on an overwhelming scope of topics (from the ironic slide “GPA/Enligsh by Math Structure, which shows a correlation between the “Average GPA Enligsh/Math [sic] Combined,” to the slide that shows a correlation between English and Math GPAs and religious practice; from a slide comparing adolescent cocaine use by family structure to another uniquely misspelled slide, here “GPA English-Math by Family Structure & Religious Practice”). But the overwhelming effect here is one of repetition: the Anscombe marriage is the best way for society; many of our societal ills can be avoided by following the Anscombe ideology.

The Culture

Fagan’s presentation comes to an end with a section titled “The Culture.” Here graphs and repetition are no longer the order of the day; instead, assertions about societal engineering are to be found. Reaching the inescapable conclusion that his earlier mountains of graphs demand, this part of Fagan’s presentation notes that “on every outcome measured the cohort of children from intact married families does best .. [sic] always, everywhere.” The next slide draws a more expansive point: “the nation thrives to the degree families are intact.”

Following this, we move to a recap of the five institutions of society. Fagan’s graph of society again appears on the screen, but following it we see a new graphic outlining a more complete picture of society:

Conclusion
Where to go from here? The fact that the Anscombe Society is, as the above evidence shows, basically a group exclusively for Christians is not grounds enough for the group to be dissolved: Princeton recognizes the worth of religious organizations; hence the various campus denominational groups. To paint this article in terms of an attack on religion would be unfair. Regardless of whether one regards the Anscombe ideology as something strange or foreign, the point is instead threefold: first, the Anscombe Society is an implicitly exclusive society that is not “free of any religious or political affiliation,” as its founders said it was when applying for recognition and funds. Second, insofar as the Society’s religious ideology is similar to or identical to that of other campus Christian organizations, Princeton University now finds itself in a situation where it funds two groups with identical goals – clearly an awkward situation. And finally, insofar as the Anscombe Society, as “the” campus conservative sexuality group, enjoys such an organizational monopoly on that viewpoint that it is impossible for any non-Christian student to enjoy an organization in which they can discuss their views in the “secular and psychological terms” the Anscombe Society offered when applying for funding.

Whether this amounts to a case for dissolving the Anscombe Society is a matter for the student administrators, not the journalist. But given the evidence from their conference, it seems impossible to maintain the fiction that the Anscombe Society is an inclusive secular organization and ought be treated as such.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s