Puritan theology divided human beings being into two groups: Saved and Damned, saints and sinners, sheep and goats. The “Elect” were redeemed through a predestined grate. Macalester’s secular religion also divides human beings into two groups: oppressors and victims. Its “Saved” are the sinless victims of white supremacy and the patriarchal power structure. Its “Damned” are oppressors – first and foremost straight, white males – along with members of other groups who victimize those below them in the “intersectional” hierarchy of power:
Macalester College in St. Paul, with its classic Georgian building and leafy quad, is one of the nation’s elite liberal arts colleges. The total cost of a Macalester education is worth more than $70,000 a year, according to a U.S. News & World Report. The college promises students an education that will expand their horizons, cultivate “intellectual breadth and depth” and “logical thinking,” and ensure tolerance for “many perspectives.”
But a stroll through campus, and a scroll through the course catalog, reveal a starkly different reality. Flyers on bulletin boards, extra-curricular activities, student clubs, and course descriptions – all reflect a cardboard cut-out world of hackneyed, ideologically charged platitudes. Tolerance, though often invoked, seems in strikingly short supply.
We’ve come to expect this sort of thing at American institutions of higher education, of course. But after decades, it remains puzzling why the most privileged generation in American history should be so cramped and one-dimensional in its thinking, and so hostile to the priceless heritage its forebears have bequeathed. Macalester provides a fascinating perspective on the answer to this question. Though its students may fancy themselves free-thinkers, most appear in thrall to a new lockstep orthodoxy that, while generally traced to the 1960s, has linked to movement in America’s past that would likely appall and astonish them.
The ideology that undergirds like at Macalester is grounded in a simplistic, but fervently held, article of faith: Life is a power struggle between oppressors and their victims. A hierarchy – a ladder of “intersectionality” based on group identity (the familiar trinity of race, class, and gender) – explains all social relations and outcomes. At the top are powerful, straight white males. At the bottom are oppressed trans “people of color.”
In this binary universe, students who want to align with the angels go through a kind of conversion that “wakes them up” to the injustice and inequality that allegedly pervade society. They become “woke”—and so, driven to denounce and resist it.
Recent events at Macalester reveal this new creed in action. In October 2019, for example, the Macalester Weekly newspaper devoted an entire issue to exposing the social evil from which all others are presumed to flow: “the white supremacy endemic to Macalester and Minnesota’s past and present.”
The issue, titled “Colonial Macalester,” impugned the white male benefactors— “the men Macalester immortalized”— whose efforts and fortunes helped make the college the elite institution it is today. They included DeWitt Wallace, the founder of Reader’s Digest, businessman Franklin Olin and lumber magnate Frederick Weyerhaeuser. All, it seems, fell far short of contemporary Macalester students’ lofty moral standards: Wallace was “fiercely anti-communist,” Olin manufactured ammunition, and Weyerhaeuser’s family supported compulsory attendance at weekly chapel services.
But the man truly in the crosshairs was Macalester’s first president: the Rev. Edward Duffield Neill. Neill, a Presbyterian minister who founded the college in 1874, was one of early St. Paul’s most eminent and public-spirited citizens. Not only an outspoken abolitionist who served three U.S. Presidents, he was Minnesota’s first superintendent of public education, the first chancellor of the University of Minnesota, and a founder of the Minnesota Historical Society.
But the Mac Weekly contemptuously brushed aside Neill’s remarkable accomplishments. He was, it declared, a “white supremacist,” a “misogynist” who opposed co-education, and a “settler- colonialist who advocated the genocide of the Dakota” Indians and built Macalester on land stolen from them. His crimes demonstrated that Macalester College was morally corrupt from the outset.
The paper intoned the charge against Neill: “His sins are legion, and they are unforgivable.” Stripping his name from the humanities building, it said, “must be the beginning of a broader institutional effort” to “make amends for [Macalester’s] role in the historic and continuous displacement of indigenous people.” The college’s president and trustees overwhelmingly approved the name change, without serious debate.
One month later, Macalester’s creed was on display again, as The College Fix interviewed students before Thanksgiving about whether Americans should celebrate the holiday. In a video entitled “No Thanks at Thanksgiving,” many students said no, citing what one called the “really awful oppression of indigenous peoples.” Another rejected Thanksgiving as “capitalist bullsh*t.”
It’s difficult to exaggerate the powerful allure of victim status at Macalester. Much of campus life seems to revolve around the quest to secure and exhibit it. The process is marked by extensive moral preening. Victimhood confers power, the cloak of moral righteousness, and an automatic right to special treatment. But there is a way out for students (and faculty) whose Y chromosome or skin color doesn’t qualify them for victim status—in particular, straight white males. They can still display their “woke” credentials by denouncing “oppressors” like Neill and becoming “allies” to women, “people of color” and sexual minorities.
Yet here’s the irony. Today, authentic examples of inequality and unfair treatment are in egregiously short supply at Macalester. The result is an often-amusing spectacle: an Alice-in-Wonderland world of “implicit biases” and “microaggressions,” where students conjure up and inflate oppression as they scramble to position themselves at the bottom of the hierarchy-of-power heap.
Take the “Naming Hate” campaign of February 2020, organized after “racist graffiti” appeared on campus. The Mac Weekly described it as “a three-day series of lectures, panels and workshops on the nature of hate and how to respond to manifestations of hate on and off campus.” Here’s what passed for guilt-inducing “hate”: four of the college’s seven academic buildings and six of its eight dorms are named after white men, and only two of these buildings after white women.
“We don’t look up to the figures that are important in Macalester [history] as anyone but white men, and that’s a big deal,” one of the event’s organizers complained. It is “a way to keep people out of spaces…by making them uncomfortable and by saying, ‘Our priority is to honor this bad person.’… It’s essentially saying, ‘We don’t want you here.’” “Macalester,” the organizers charged, “must drastically change its priorities,” as the Mac Weekly put it.
The claim that women and POCs (people of color) are unwelcome at Macalester is, of course, absurd. The college’s student body is 60 percent women, and in 2019-20, four of the student government executive board’s five members were “women of color.” “Diversity, equity and inclusion” permeate every aspect of college life. But where zealotry rules, facts are of no importance.
Not surprisingly, during the 2019-20 school year, the most powerful student at Macalester was student body president Blair Cha, a “woman of color.” In her campaign, Cha traded on her alleged underdog status, telling the Mac Weekly she was driven to run by her “passion”
to “empower students” by “speaking up about her experiences” as someone with a “marginalized” identity. She trounced her white male opponent with 60 percent of the vote.
After her victory, Cha made a play to upgrade her victim status. At a faculty meeting in March 2020, she stood up—surrounded by sign-waving female students—and accused one of her professors of discrimination on the basis of “gender, race, ethnicity and national origin in the classroom.” During the nine-month Title IX investigation that had followed her original accusation in Spring 2019, she said, “I struggled every day with extreme anxiety to the point where I could not stand the pain.”
The professor, who had already been officially exonerated, responded that Cha had breached a confidentiality agreement by discussing the matter publicly. He characterized her conduct as “totally beyond the pale.”
Cha’s inability to highlight real injustice during her run for office reveals how slim the pickings really are at Macalester. In an interview with the Mac Weekly, here’s the best she could do: “On the whole campus, it still feels uncomfortable to talk about intersectional topics such as menstruation, being queer, being a POC, etc., at Macalester.” As a result, she said, she had become a leader in initiatives like “Better Sex at Mac” (Title IX, “sexual violence”) and “the Menstrual Hygiene Project” (free menstrual supplies as a human right).
Incidentally, “menstrual health”— or “menstrual equity”—is now one of the hottest social justice issues on American campuses. Its appeal may arise from its combination of two intersecting “woke” causes: feminism and Green activism.
At Macalester, student Miriam Eide, a “Zero Waste Project Coordinator” in the college’s Sustainability Office, was a leader in the menstrual equity project. “I know we have free tampons, but why don’t we have free menstrual cups, too?” Eide said in a Mac Weekly interview in November 2019. She decided to use menstrual cups from OrganiCup, a “sustainability-focused company,” noting “they had a lot less waste in their packaging.” She dubbed the project “SustainaCup.
“OrganiCups are reusable, vegan and cruelty-free, and they are made completely out of hypoallergenic, medical-grade silicone,” according to the Mac Weekly. (You can’t make this up.) “Health and inclusivity are also very important parts of the program,” the paper noted, adding that according to Eide, “a lot of people struggle with the chemicals in tampons.”
By the way, the word “woman” does not appear in the Mac Weekly article about SustainaCup. These menstrual products, it seems, are not for women, but for “people that have periods.” Presumably, it’s important not to exclude “trans women.”
Where do Macalester students get the preposterous ideas just described? They come from the top. President Brian Rosenberg, who recently retired, appeared fully on-board. The college’s trustees
have named Dr. Suzanne Rivera as his successor. Rivera will be the school’s “first female President and first Latinx president,” according to a press release. Rivera told the Mac Weekly she was “drawn to Macalester” by its “deep commitments to social justice,” and highlighted her “passion around the importance of equity and inclusion.”
Most of Macalester’s faculty—at least in humanities and social science departments—appear to be prodigiously “woke” themselves, to judge by the course catalog.
That’s no surprise in “oppression studies” departments, such as Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGS), whose mission is to advance an activist, not an academic, agenda. The jargon that saturates these departments is mind-numbing. In WGS, topics examined include “key questions raised within feminist and queer theories and the fields of women’s, transgender, bisexual, lesbian, and gay studies.” Students “examine interlocking systems of cultural and political difference based on gender, sexuality, race, nation, class, ethnicity, and ability.” Courses bear titles like “Comparative Feminisms: Whiteness and Postcolonialisms” and “Constructions of a Female Killer.”
Macalester’s “Courses in the City” include “Energy Justice,” which “builds on” the concept of “climate justice,” focusing on “visible and invisible infrastructures” including pipelines, Yucca Mountain nuclear storage and “issues around the fracking (sic).”
The American Studies department’s home page features a photo of an artwork entitled, “The [American] Flag is Bleeding.” The department describes race as “the central dimension of U.S. social, cultural, political, and economic life,” and proclaims that “we put the knowledge and experiences of marginalized people at the center of our curriculum.” Courses include “Bruce Lee: His Life and Legacy,” “Visual Culture: Critical Prison Studies,” and “Latinx in the Midwest.”
But the same blinkered ideology appears to dominate mainstream disciplines such as history.
In the History department, the survey courses necessary to understand history’s fundamental events are lacking, or are haphazard and skewed. In general, course- work is organized around the holy trinity of race, class and gender. The “array of fields” featured on the homepage are “the history of the Environment; Gender; Colonization and Empire; Law and Social Justice; Race and Indigeneity; and Public History.”
Course listings include offerings with names like “Sex, Love and Gender in History”; “History of U.S. Feminisms, Gender and Sexuality in Colonial America and the Early Republic”; “Narrating Black Women’s Resistance”; “U.S. Environmental History”; “Captives, Cannibals, and Capitalists in the Early Modern Atlantic World” and “U.S. Imperialism from the Philippines to Viet Nam.”
What’s really going on at Macalester
Yet at the deepest level, something more profound is amiss at Macalester, and its historical roots go back much farther than the 1960s.
Macalester abolished compulsory chapel decades ago. But today, it’s back—in a perverse and twisted form—in classrooms, public events, publications and student activities. Presumably, Macalester students, most of whom seem to know little of history and religion, don’t realize they are being indoctrinated into what amounts to a militant new secular faith.
This faith is enshrined in the college’s curriculum and controls terms of discourse and frames of reference. It has its own dogma, rituals, saints and heretics. Intolerance is its very essence. Its adherents are convinced they possess a Higher Truth and are zealously committed to imposing their vision of virtue on others. This new religion lacks one thing: It has no God. But “the left has grown comfortable in practicing theology without benefit of God,” according to Lance Morrow of the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Macalester students would probably indignantly reject a comparison of their new faith with that of our nation’s earliest religious zealots: the Puritans. Yet the parallels are striking, as a number of thinkers have noted. “Puritanism in its negative sense is now less common among the Protestant faithful than among Progressives, who carry on the Puritan tradition unconsciously,” wrote English journalist A.N. Wilson. Commentator John Zmirak put it succinctly: “Woke is the new saved.”
A core tenet of Puritan theology is “innate depravity”—the doctrine that human beings are inherently wicked as a result of original sin. Innate depravity has been “reborn in the 21st century and adapted to the Left’s insistence on the innate depravity of the ruling class: the wickedness
of the patriarchy, of white privilege and supremacy and of the nation’s entire past,” according to Morrow. Recall the Mac Weekly’s words in consigning Edward Duffield Neill to perdition: “His sins were legion, and they were unforgivable.”
Puritan theology divided human beings into two groups: Saved and Damned, saints and sinners, sheep and goats. The “Elect” were redeemed through a predestined grace. Macalester’s secular religion also divides human beings into two groups: oppressors and victims. Its “Saved” are the sinless victims of white supremacy and the patriarchal power structure. Its “Damned” are oppressors—first and foremost straight, white males—along with members of other groups who victimize those below them in the “intersectional” hierarchy of power.
Puritans believed those who profess false doctrine pose a danger to the larger community. They often shunned, punished or drove out dissenters who might mislead the Saved, for whom avoiding the occasion of sin was imperative. Today, “‘bigot’ and ‘hater’ are the new ‘wizard’ and ‘witch,’” as commentator Mary Eberstadt has observed. Salem, Massachusetts had its witch trials. Macalester has its “Colonial Macalester” campaign, intended to brand white male benefactors like Wallace and Olin with Hester Prynne’s red “A” of shame and to erase Edward Duffield Neill’s polluting presence from the campus.
Yet in the new secular Puritan creed, sinners can in fact join the Righteous. To be saved, “you need first to confess, i.e., ‘check your privilege,’ and subsequently live your life…in a way that keeps this sin at bay,” writes Zmirak. “The price is steep: a life of self-denial and penance,” he notes. But those who choose to walk this path “can attain justification.” Not by “your own efforts,” he adds,
but by the righteousness that suffering, innocent victims (non-straights, non- whites, non-males) can impute to you. As an ‘ally’ of the less privileged, you earn the same right to despise the mass of oppressors.
At Macalester, confession and penance are everyday occurrences. At the “Naming Hate” event, for example, students were instructed to acknowledge their guilt and reject future sin, i.e., “to write and sign their own, individualized pledges to continue educating themselves and actively tackling hate in Macalester and beyond.” A Mac Weekly writer made the same point: “[E]veryone, even those who may think they don’t, must conduct some level of self-inventory to root out internal microaggressions and attitudes (emphasis in original).”
Other rituals are designed to atone for the college’s institutional sins. For example, the “Colonial Macalester” campaign included a “land acknowledgment,” and called for renaming Neill Hall as part of “a broader institutional effort” to “make amends for [the college’s] role in the historic and continuous displacement of indigenous people.” The History department, too, contritely acknowledged “the role that academic history has played and continues to play in silence, oppression, and cultural genocide,” and promised to “restore and honor” native cultures going forward.
The “Colonial Macalester” campaign is Macalester’s homegrown version of The New York Times’ notorious “1619 Project,” which asserts that “nearly everything that made America exceptional grew out of slavery.” Both exemplify the Left’s practice of what Morrow has called making “a sacrament of national self-accusation.”
The end-game is clear: If “the entire American project was depraved from the beginning—Columbus was a louse, the Constitution countenanced slavery, and Washington and Jefferson owned slaves—then the whole thing may be, without qualms, damned absolutely and dismantled at will,” in Morrow’s words. At Macalester, by pronouncing anathema on the college’s founder and benefactors, students declare their intent to wipe out the institution’s tainted heritage and construct their own utopian City on a Hill.
Macalester’s new secular religion offers “some of the same psychic rewards” that a “real religion would do,” to use Zmirak’s phrase. For fervent adherents like Blair Cha, the rewards are many. As a certified victim, she receives the “blessed assurance” that she belongs to the Elect. She also receives gratifying confirmation that “she should feel virtuous for wallowing in anger and resentment,” as Zmirak puts it.
The new faith also offers a path to power. For students like Cha, it provides a head start in the contest for campus influence. For faculty, it offers the opportunity—and the budget—to promote their own activist agenda in place of serious academics. And of course, it underwrites a phalanx of diversity coordinators, equity specialists, and gender and sexuality counselors.
Macalester’s new, secular faith has all the vices and none of the virtues of historic Puritanism. Unrestrained by Christian belief, “It replaces worship with protest. Spirituality with unhinged histrionics. Examination of conscience with the scapegoating of others conveniently dead or out of power,” as Zmirak observes.
Prospective students and parents considering Macalester may recognize they will be signing up for a heavy dose of Leftist ideology. They would likely be surprised to learn, however, that entering freshmen may well graduate as Puritan- influenced “true believers.”
Katherine Kersten, a writer and attorney, is a Senior Policy Fellow at Center of the American Experiment. She was a founding director of the Center and served as its chair from 1996 to 1998. Katherine has written on cultural and policy issues for a variety of publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, Christianity Today, Policy Review, and First Things. For two years, she served as a regular commentator for National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” She earned a B.A. from Notre Dame, an M.A. from Yale, and a J.D. from the University of Minnesota Law School.