God and the Opinions of Men at Yale

Last week, Yale University took the extraordinary step of re-naming one of its original residential colleges. Called Calhoun since the 1930s, when the college was named for alumnus John C. Calhoun, one of the great American politicians of the 19th century, it will be known as Hopper after July 1st.

Some background here is important: Yale’s residential colleges are not exactly equivalent to dormitories at many colleges and universities. Students are assigned to one of the residences as freshmen and identify with them throughout their college careers and beyond, not unlike the college system at Oxford and Cambridge. This is to say that this was not a simple change of a building name, but a revision which affects almost a century’s worth of alumni. As of July 1st, the college will be named for Grace M. Hopper, a graduate of Yale who served as a computer programmer during World War II.

The decision came after a year-long battle over the legacy of John C. Calhoun. Admittedly, his legacy is troubling. On the one hand, he was one of the most accomplished legislators and orators in American history. Only Henry Clay and Daniel Webster challenge his position as the most consequential politician in ante bellum Congress. His contribution to American political thought especially on the idea of minority rights in a legislature is beyond question. A committee chaired by Senator John F. Kennedy named him one of the five greatest senators in American history.

At the same time, he was an ardent, staunch defender of slavery who appears to have believed to his dying breath in 1850 that slavery was not just a reality to be tolerated, but a good to be promoted:

     I take higher ground. I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different
     origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are
     brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead
of an evil, a good—a positive good … I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to
    the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention
    paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age. Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor
    houses in the more civilized portions of Europe—look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on
    one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master
    and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the
    poorhouse … I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which
    one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other.

It was his vigorous promotion of slavery backed by clear beliefs about the superiority of whites that led a Yale committee to remove his name from their residential college.

Many cheered this decision. It was hailed as a victory by those on campus who had been protesting the name of the college for years, a debate whose decibel levels increased with last year’s horrific shooting in a historically black church in South Carolina by a white supremacist.

At the same time, there are some who question the wisdom of the decision. From the Washington Post article, one can find the very wise comments of a current history major at Yale named Max Walden. “I’m not of the camp that’s trying to keep the name on the merits of Calhoun the man,” he said. “It’s on the merits of historical rigor and taking the long view, because we ourselves will be subject to the kind of judgment that Calhoun is undergoing right now.”

Better than I could ever articulate, this young scholar has identified exactly the tension involved in this debate. Let me say clearly: Mr. Calhoun’s positions on slavery and racial superiority are simply unconscionable. They were despicable then, and they are rightly judged to be beyond the pale today.

And yet, despite those facts, someone in the 1930s decided to name a building after him at America’s second-oldest college. We can question the wisdom of that decision, and we can learn from it. For this reason, I think Yale has lost a key teaching opportunity by whitewashing that decision into the past.

But Mr. Walden is exactly right. We of the 21st century consider ourselves highly superior using measures other than that of race. And one day, we will be judged by others. How will we look to them? To many of Calhoun’s friends in South Carolina, support of slavery must have been as ordinary as smoking tobacco. What “ordinary” elements of our culture in 2017 will be judged by the future as abhorrent?

The point for Christians is this: the world is fickle, and the opinions of men and women change. If we seek the approval of others – no matter how virtuous – and pride ourselves on being on “the right side of history” (whatever that means) without seeking to do the will of God above all, we will fail (cf. Acts 6:29). Memories fade, customs change, tides of opinion shift, but the “word of our God will stand forever” (Is 40:8). The only approval worth anything is that of the saints: “well done, good and faithful servant!” (Mt 25:21).

That’s why the Church canonizes men and women: to demonstrate to the world that doing the will of God is the only path to true human fulfillment. If such a life wins the praise of others (as demonstrated in the cultus of the saints), that is cause for celebration. But this will not always be the case, and we who toil in this world must be content with unpopularity. If our names are to be removed from the stone edifices of history, let it be because we loved Christ in freedom – and not the slavery of human approval.