Religious Students at Scripps Explore Identity, Activism, Perception in the Age of Trump

By Erin Delany

In the age of Trump, nothing is sacred. At least, this is what both sides of the aisle tell themselves: ever since the start of the 2016 campaign cycle, the intertwinings of faith and politics have become more apparent than ever before, opening avenues for any individual with the slightest political leaning to use their conception of a higher power to demonize and alienate the person who they view as ‘other.’

After the 2016 election, the Pew Research Center conducted a poll to determine how and why certain religious groups voted the way that they did. The results revealed that a record 81% of white evangelical Christian voters cast their ballots in favor of Trump. More surprisingly, when these voters were asked why they made their choice, the most common response was not the prospect of Trump’s Supreme Court nominations (70% of voters) and abortion policies (52% of voters), but his stance on terrorism, which 89% of white evangelical voters listed as a reason that they voted for him. Now-President Trump’s rhetoric surrounding terror is closely linked to the perceptions of Islam–and of those who practice it–which is perpetuated through the conflation of terrorism with the Muslim community. In this sense, Trump’s overwhelming white evangelical base of support may be linked as much to the perception of other religious belief systems as it is to the steadfast adherence to their own.

In the face of rampant Islamophobia, the abuse of religious scripture to condemn already marginalized social groups, and the vast political and ideological stratification which has served as a hallmark of our current political age, it is nearly impossible for students of faith at the Claremont Colleges to remain conscientiously neutral. Examining the intersections between their own beliefs and the social justice causes they support, many Scripps students are drawn to a position of defense, fighting against the narratives surrounding their faiths as they seek to pursue the values of justice that their religions champion.

One Scripps sophomore, who requested to remain anonymous, detailed the tension between the practice and perception of her faith which she has encountered since her arrival at the Claremont Colleges in 2016. “[My spiritual experience since coming on campus] has been really awesome,” she stated. “I fell in love with the Hillel community my freshman year and have since become more religious than I was in high school. However, there are people here who are against all organized religion or who are anti semitic, so sometimes I don’t feel comfortable sharing that I practice Judaism.”

This student expressed how her religion has intersected with her political and social beliefs, stating that her pursuit of social justice is driven by the teachings of her faith. “Judaism strongly encourages social justice,” she explained. “One of the core ideas is tzedakah, which means ‘justice’ in Hebrew. Jews are encouraged to fight for peace and equality.”

Despite this belief, this student acknowledged the discrepancies which have occured in the practice of tzedakah, and how her experience with Judaism and social justice does not necessarily mirror the experience of all Jews. “In some movements in Judaism, women are greatly discriminated against and prevented from doing many practices. However, in the communities that I am surrounded by, they are very equal, so it has not been an issue combining [Judaism and feminism]. I identify as both a feminist and a Jew, and have been part of movements to create more LGBTQ awareness in Jewish communities.”

The student also lamented the cognitive separation between Judaism and social justice which she has seen in light of the conflict between supporters of Israel and Palestine. “Because the Israel conflict has taken so much attention, people assume that all Jews are Zionists, and thus colonialists. However, activism is greatly encouraged in Jewish tradition, and it can be very frustrating when people stereotype Jews and their beliefs based on what they see in the media.”

Scripps first-year Andrea Flores is also working to counter stereotypes about her faith. One of five Mormon students at the five Claremont Colleges, Andrea fights to reframe the narrative about Mormonism at the Colleges, starting with her personal understanding and interaction with social justice and her faith. “Mormonism simply says that we need to be good citizens and members of our respective communities. This can mean lots of different things, from being socially or politically active, to running for office, to serving others. Nothing is explicitly said about social activism, but I do know that I’ve struggled with some things I stand for that differ from church policy.”

Difference of opinion does not stop Andrea from adhering to her religion; rather, it allows her to alter the conversation surrounding the Mormon community’s political belief system, which some view as homogeneously right-leaning. “Contrary to popular belief, Mormonism isn’t necessarily super conservative” she explained. “Like any religion, it comes down to the members’ experience and background.”

One common critique that Andrea faces when discussing her faith is the role that women play in the Mormon church. “I think the church is harshly critiqued for a lot of things, like the fact that lots of our leaders are not women. I’ve critiqued this, too, but I believe they are doing a better job with addressing these issues and giving a voice to the female membership [than they were before].” Andrea confirmed this assertion with her own experience within the church, saying that “I’ve never felt underestimated or belittled for being a woman in the church. It’s empowering to have a spiritual assurance of your identity and where you come from.”

To Andrea, identity is essential, defining both her own experience as a Mormon and the way that she interacts with activism, both inside and outside of the church. “A member’s background will impact the way they practice Mormonism,” she explained. “I identify as a Mormon activist because my background as a poor Latina and first-gen student permit me to interpret things differently. It’s a lot easier for a white Mormon not to see the flaws I see in my government and our government. [I’ve] been critiqued for being ‘too political’ or ‘causing unnecessary divisiveness,’ but my identities aren’t separable.”

Scripps junior Grace Wang, who identifies as a Christian, has experienced a similar conviction about the role that her faith plays in her larger belief system, especially in regards to activism. She stated that her time at Scripps has contributed largely to the way that she views her faith, explaining, “I come from a pretty conservative background. We didn’t really talk about social and political issues. With that in mind, a lot of my experience at Scripps has been learning about others’ experiences at Scripps and how to listen to marginalized voices and hear their stories.”

Grace states that the narratives that she has heard at Scripps have changed the way that she thinks about the world. “Through my perspective of faith, these stories have fueled an urgency to create change. I don’t know what that change will look like, but I know that this urgency is something that’s going to affect the way I live the rest of my life.”

In response to the urgency that she feels, Grace has found communities, both Christian and non-Christian, who are committed to the same goal. “The Christian communities here have done a great job of inviting social justice causes into their fellowship,” she said. “We know how Jesus cared for the marginalized, and especially through my first few years on campus I’ve been reminded of how he cared for those people and how we’re called to care for them.”

Even so, Grace has found examples of this kind of care outside the Christian community in Claremont as much as she has within it, stating, “I’ve been humbled a lot on campus. People love each other a lot more wholly and thoroughly than I’ve seen in some of my Christian communities at home. That compels me to love everyone I encounter.”

When asked how she sees an opportunity to cultivate that kind of love on campus, Grace was adamant about the McAlister Center as an “underutilized resource” for activism. “There’s a lot of visioning happening there,” she stated. “I know that the chaplains are there to make [interfaith activism] happen, too.”

Protestant chaplain Jeff Liou also adamant about the role that the McAlister Center–and the chaplains who work there–can play in relation to the activist interests of the student body, both as a support system to socially and politically active students and as a hub for community organizing and engagement.

“I am impressed by the number of organizations at the Claremont Colleges dedicated to issues that are important to students,” he stated. “Those of us at the chaplains’ office like to see students of different traditions working together to help others.”

Reverend Liou envisions the possible expansion of an interaction between different faith traditions, possibly taking the form of interfaith-focused community engagement events, such as an Alternative Spring Break. He drew the idea from other universities who already have programs such as these in place, citing the University of Calgary, where “the Kaleidoscope Project brings together diverse religious students for a week-long, interfaith, living and learning experience. I’d be interested in helping lead something like that.”

Even as he discussed what the McAlister Center may be able to provide for students in the future, Reverend Liou stressed the chaplains’ current role as an integral resource to students who are looking to better their communities and create change. “Among the four chaplains, we have connections to community partners and religious institutions that can be helpful for students helping to impact local communities in a concrete way,” he explained. “Also, we are here to provide sacred space and pastoral care when the demanding work of social causes generates the need for self-care.”

Beyond the basic desire for understanding, interfaith dialogue can open doors to a more powerful kind of community organizing.  Interfaith spaces, like the McAlister Center, allow students to reach across the misunderstandings that divide them and create the kind of change that they wish to see, rooted in parallel convictions of faiths that may not be as stratified in social and political intention as they initially seem.

Image Credit to NY Mag