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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Lawrence explores religious identity

Published: November 19, 2010
Section: Front Page

What if: Future university President Frederick Lawrence spoke Monday about multiculturalism.
PHOTO BY Nafiz “Fizz” R. Ahmed/The Hoot

Interfaith cooperation requires that people take pride in their individual religious identities and realize that societies, not people, are multi-cultural, Frederick Lawrence, the university’s next president, said during a reception Monday evening in Rapaporte Treasure Hall.

“It’s actually pretty idiotic to think of people being multi-cultural,” Lawrence said. “For interfaith [cooperation] to make any sense, there’s got to be a faith structure there for each of us.”

Before working together, he advised community members first to acknowledge their differences.

“I think sometimes we’re afraid to talk about differences,” Lawrence said. “If we’re not authentic about who we are, we will never get to how we can reach across to each other.”

Burning Qur’ans in public is a practice constitutionally protected by the First Amendment, but one that private universities have every right to prevent and condemn, Lawrence told students during the speech in reception sponsored by several organizations, including the Brandeis Interfaith Group (BIG), the Interfaith Chaplaincy and the Brandeis Pluralism Alliance.

“Assuming you have a permit to burn those [Qur’ans] in public, I think it’s Constitutionally protected,” said Lawrence, an author of many works on hate crimes, including his book “Punishing Hate: Bias Crimes Under American Law.”

He explained that although the First Amendment probably protects it, burning the holy books is very divisive to society. “The First Amendment sometimes lets you do that [divide society],” Lawrence said.

Regarding hate crimes, he told the audience that society must first recognize hate crimes for what they are and then declare their “intolerance of intolerance” and acknowledge that the motive of these crimes is of extra concern.

Lawrence, a practicing Jew, joked that when he was growing up, interfaith meant cooperation between three different sects of Judaism—reform, conservative and orthodox.

Upon enrolling at Williams College, he said he was immediately exposed to a new kind of religious diversity on campus.

Regarding this year’s controversy over the building of a Muslim Cultural Center near the site of the World Trade Center, Lawrence said that a memorial with different religious structures representing several faiths would have been the best proposal.

“That would have been a remarkable response to say this is how the United States of America responds to such things,” he said.

Lawrence answered questions about his own faith and belief in God, including one student who asked him where he felt most spiritual.

“How cool is it—this place? Do you know there’s not another university president in the whole world being asked this question?”

Shortly after being named president, Lawrence attended a Sunday mass led by Catholic Chaplain Father. Walter Cuenin. He said he was pleasantly surprised when Cuenin gave a prayer for him and his family for the new journey they were about to undertake. Students followed Cuenin and joined in the prayer, Lawrence said.

“I think the power of that moment was not in spite of the fact that I was not Catholic. It was not in spite of the fact that I was a practicing Jew. It was because [I am Jewish],” Lawrence said.

One student asked Lawrence where atheists fit into a discussion of interfaith cooperation. “If you can believe with an absolute certainty that there’s no God, that’s a deep kind of faith,” Lawrence said.

Erica Shaps ’13, a co-coordinator of the Brandeis Interfaith Group said that the message of the evening was about the possibility of interfaith work on the community.

“What if Brandeis students from all different faiths came together to have an impact on their community?” she said.

Shaps said that 19 other colleges hosted similar speak-ins this past week.

Lawrence and students continually referred to the symbolism of the university’s three Jewish, Protestant and Catholic chapels having been constructed in a way so that when the sun sets, neither chapel casts a shadow on another.

Protestant Chaplain Alexander Kern applauded Lawrence for encouraging a discussion about interfaith and explained that “academic excellence and social justice are impossible without interfaith understanding and cooperation.”

Although he is still on the faculty, Lawrence stepped down as the Dean of the George Washington University Law School last Friday, he said.

He will officially takeover as president of Brandeis on Jan. 1, and will be inaugurated in March.

Regarding the university’s history in the Jewish community, Lawrence recognized the impact.

“This is a school that has deep and powerful Jewish roots and allows all of us to grow in interesting ways,” Lawrence said.