The Truth, Mainly - 10/06/1997

Potholes in the road back to fixed ethical standards
by Leon Satterfield

And on the Ain't-It-Awful front, these developments:

•The chaplain at Harvard has invited gay and lesbian couples to use the school chapel for same-sex marriages.

•Two such ceremonies have recently befouled the Stanford chapel.

•A same-sex marriage was scheduled this summer in the chapel at Emory University, a Methodist-related school. It was postponed only because the church conference—but not the university—objected.

Mark Tooley, director of the Methodists' Committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, has alerted us to these disturbing developments. In a piece in the Sep. 15 issue of The Weekly Standard, he laments that "Emory has strayed far from its origins. The university was created to foster the scholarly search for truth, whose foundation was understood to be the Scriptures."

Emory, he says, like lots of other colleges, is "denying the fixed ethical standards upon which the great schools of Western civilization were established."

Ain't it the truth.

I know academics—and not all of them dirty, rotten secular humanists—who argue that any university worth its ivy ought to stray far from its origins, the farther the better. They say denial of fixed standards—esthetic or scientific or even ethical—often accompanies, sometimes even promotes, intellectual growth.

I know Bible scholars—Bible scholars!—who say the Scriptures do not constitute just one foundation for truth, but multiple and not always compatible foundations for multiple and not always compatible truths.

And I know writers like Emerson—who argues that Divine Truth is still unfolding, that we're wrong to "speak of revelation as long ago given and done, as if God were dead….God is, not was…He speaketh, not spake."

But I'm not one of those people. I'm with Mr. Tooley. I like the idea that nothing important changes. It means I can use my old lecture notes. It's comfy.

And think how much more comfy we'd all be if our universities had not strayed from their origins, if they'd stuck firmly to the fixed ethical standards of their founding fathers.

Harvard, to use Mr. Tooley's example, was founded in 1636, its original purpose to educate preachers. Not just any preachers. Calvinist preachers like Cotton Mather who later would be head cheerleader for the Salem Witch Trials.

But now, alas, Harvard turns out all sorts of preachers, as well as scientists, writers, physicians—some of whom, God love us, are critical of witch trials.

Stanford was founded in 1885 "to qualify students for personal success and direct usefulness in life," that success and usefulness probably measured by how closely they might imitate their robber baron founder,Leland Stanford.

How much more prosperous Stanford grads would be today had the school not gone astray.

I don't know which fixed ethical values were the foundation of Emory's original goals, but I can give an example of early intent lamentably strayed from at another Methodist school, this one right here in Lincoln.

I'm talking about the passionate anti-theater views of Rev. D.W.C. Huntington, appointed Chancellor of Nebraska Wesleyan in 1898—only 11 years after the school was founded.

He'd been a Methodist minister before he came to NWU, and David Mickey's "Sunset on the Prairie" reports a sermon Rev. Huntington preached on the Sunday following Abraham Lincoln's assassination.

Good Christians, he said, "felt the double shock of not only knowing that their President was dead, but that he fell where they would have wept to have seen their sons alive….He should not have gone to the theater….Our Chief Magistrate had no possible business in a theater."

And there's more:

"There were many villainous men in the country who hated the President and wished him dead, but when the agent was found who could plan and execute the deed…the volunteer was a theatrical performer. It took John Wilkes Booth to murder President Abraham Lincoln. Common rebels, and rowdies, and guerillas stood back and paled at the thought, but a miscreant stageplayer was found equal to the infernal task…and the crime of Booth…is but the fruit of his theatrical life."

Oh sure, theater majors and theater faculty wouldn't like it had the school stuck to those values, but when you're affirming fixed ethical standards, you can't please everyone.

Still not convinced that all the really great truths were uncovered centuries ago? Then try this: Imagine what the Cornhuskers might have achieved had Tom Osborne stuck to the fixed ethical standards of the straightforward flying wedge and the no-deceit single wing.

I thought that might bring you around.


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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