Religion: the least accepted part of Roosevelt’s social justice mission?

Religious Symbols Graphic

By Kristine Bearss

Roosevelt University’s social justice mission statement reads: “Social justice is based in a belief that fairness, honesty, integrity and impartiality should resonate throughout every institution within a civil society.” It also states that the university reinforces “the importance of social consciousness to [its] students and greater community.”
In many ways, Roosevelt does just that. Not only does the university strive to welcome people from all backgrounds, but it is very “diverse in age, gender, ethnicity, background, interest and point of view.”
Roosevelt students typically agree that there is a strong welcoming community surrounding those issues. However, there is one way in which the university does fail. It falls under the issue of “point of view,” specifically in the religious field.
Although Roosevelt by no means condemns or restricts anyone with any set religious beliefs, there are students who feel that the overall attitude is different from the official statement.
Christian student Angela Pantorno said that the classroom atmosphere is not the most welcoming place as it relates to accepting religious- or spirituality-based ideas.
“I feel like people here are open minded, but when it comes to religion, it’s kind of an exception to the open-mindedness,” she said.
Oommen George, another Christian student at Roosevelt, shared his own experience with religion and the academic atmosphere.
“I used to be really hesitant in sharing my faith,” he said. “But what I’ve realized as I get more into the community — as I get closer with all these other college students — what I find is that they actually have a yearning for religion or spirituality. … So, that is where I feel like college students try to find some kind of fulfillment.”
George’s response leads to an expansion on the idea of Roosevelt’s involvement with students when it comes to their spiritual lives — how involved they should be and how they can go about addressing this issue without singling out one religion as the sole focus.
George also said that he thinks students are more comfortable discussing religion than they are actually being around others who openly practice their respective religions.
The problem does not seem to be the philosophies behind the religions, but rather seeing it take a role in people’s lives.
This was the concern for Pantorno, as well.
“We used to have Bible studies here, and now we have them in classrooms,” she said. “And I feel like people sitting around us would feel uncomfortable sometimes when we would read out of the Bible or be praying.”
Roosevelt obviously does not prohibit public worship of any religion, but that does not mean that the attitude toward seeing it happen is completely, open-mindedly accepted. The interesting part is that there seems to be a conflict of interest when it comes to students not wanting to participate in religious gatherings, yet wanting to know more about them.
George said he went to The Leadership Summit 2014 camp in Indianapolis where the campers played a game with different labels on the wall like race, socioeconomic status, religion/spirituality, etc. The campers were first told to go stand by the label they were most comfortable talking about. George said he observed people spread out evenly between all the labels. Then, the campers were told to stand by the label they wanted to know more about, in regards to themselves.
“I found that a great majority of that crowd just went to religion/spirituality, and that really shocked me because these kids want to know more about that,” George said.
Could it be that Roosevelt students interested in learning about religion do not know where to go or who to ask?
“Yeah, and the only obstacle in the way is friends. … It’s like, ‘What would this person think?’” George said.
George praised the Counseling Center and how helpful it has been in his experiences.
He said he thinks that in a confidential environment such as that, students are more encouraged to express interest in different religions, because as he stated, “I just sit in the room and talk a lot, so especially when I speak about religion and faith, [the counselors] motivate those ideas for me as an individual … get me towards that direction.”
To give a secular perspective on the topic, political science major Derek Teeter offered his opinions on Roosevelt’s environment for the religious.
He said he would not feel uncomfortable talking about religion or witnessing religious practices at the university.
“I feel like people should be able to express their beliefs as long as they are not harming anyone or trying to force their beliefs upon other people,” Teeter said.
He added that he would not mind discussing or debating religion in the classroom.
“I think that is the whole point of us being here, is that we can express what we believe and debate and bounce ideas off each other,” he said.
However, there seems to be a common thread between religious and nonreligious students that if you have certain beliefs, being at Roosevelt means you should keep them to yourself.
Teeter’s views on whether the university puts as much emphasis on creating a safe environment for religious students as they do for other types of social justice issues is:
“I don’t think Roosevelt is really discouraging religion, but I don’t think it’s really encouraging people to speak out, either, so they feel like they’re being sort of oppressed or like they can’t speak out.”
One of the main objectives of social justice is to assure people who feel oppressed that there is not an unaccepting attitude toward their beliefs.
Problematically, religion/spirituality is not an official social justice issue at the university. In my first ACP class at Roosevelt, we discussed all of the social justice issues. The standard issues of gender, age, race, and sexual orientation were all frequently discussed. However, when the time came to chose a topic to write a paper on, I asked if I could write mine on religion.
I was told by my professor’s assistant that religion was not really a social justice issue at the university. I asked why and explained that it is a major issue all over the world; if social justice issues exist globally, then surely they exist locally. The assistant agreed with my point, and I was allowed to write my paper on religion.
Since that time, my curiosity on how deep rooted this issue is right here in our own social justice university has amplified.
To sum up the issue, Teeter said it best: “I think there should be more emphasis, like maybe more clubs or more recognition for religious holidays or religious beliefs,” Teeter said. “I think that one thing I do like is their emphasis on diversity and civil liberties, but the problem is I don’t think it’s really open to all opinion; it’s really only open to progressive opinion.”
Oppression of religious thought and other minority held beliefs is an issue at Roosevelt. This leads to an environment where it is difficult to speak up when you know from the get-go that your beliefs are not supported, or worse, welcomed at a school; especially at a school that is designed for acceptance.

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