I’ve been watching for a couple weeks now the saga of Paul Griffiths, Warren Professor of Catholic Theology at Duke University.

For those unfamiliar, in February, Griffiths, an esteemed scholar who has taught at Notre Dame, the University of Chicago, and numerous other colleges, sent an email to colleagues urging them to not accept the invitation of another professor, Anathea Portier-Young, to attend diversity training, predicting it would be “intellectually flaccid” and a waste of time.  

“This training is a waste,” Griffiths wrote. “Please, ignore it. Keep your eyes on the prize.”


Griffiths’ email was impolite, in my opinion. Even if one agrees with these sentiments, we keep such thoughts to ourselves. People (other people, not me of course) may share a wink or eye roll with a colleague, but that’s about all. 

Griffiths’ email was also a brave act. He was openly pushing back against a powerful idea that has become embedded in America’s most powerful institutions. It’s an unspoken rule: One simply does not question the merits of (racial and sexual) diversity in 21st-century America.  

The reprisals against Griffiths were swift. In early May he announced that disciplinary proceedings had been launched against him on two fronts. By May 10 he had announced his resignation. On May 18, in Commonweal magazine, Griffiths explained why he resigned.

“It’s over because I recently, and freely, resigned my chair in Catholic Theology at Duke University in response to disciplinary actions initiated by my dean and colleagues. Those disciplinary actions, in turn, were provoked by my words: critical and confrontational words spoken to colleagues in meetings; and hot words written in critique of university policies and practices, in support of particular freedoms of expression and thought, and against legal and disciplinary constraints of those freedoms. My university superiors, the dean and the provost, have been at best lukewarm in their support of these freedoms, preferring to them conciliation and accommodation of their opponents. And so, I reluctantly concluded, the word-struggle, the agony of distinction and argument, the search for clarity by dramatizing and exploring difference—these no longer have the place they once had in the university.”

I’d encourage a reading of Griffiths’ letter in full. It has a rather poetic quality to it.

What I find most interesting is that Griffiths’ comments were treated like a modern form of blasphemy, a noun defined as “the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence to a deity, to religious or holy persons, or a sacred thing.”

Let’s face it: Diversity is treated as sacred today in our culture. It’s not just the universities. We teach it to children in our schools. It’s in our art and our popular culture (especially television commercials and movies). It’s everywhere. 

The quasi-religious nature of the diversity movement is getting more difficult to ignore. (Former members of the Social Justice movement have noted its cult-like character.) And as religious zealots are wont to do, they are turning a good thing into an evil thing. Loving people and being sensitive to our differences is a good thing; persecuting those not on board with a particular formulation of the dogma or the mantra is not.

I think it’s safe to say that at the vast majority of colleges—even religious campuses—showing contempt for diversity places one at far greater professional risk than showing contempt for God or faith.

The very diversity classes Griffiths scoffed at seem to have a religious parallel. One could make a persuasive argument that such programs are a form of atonement, a sort of reparation for America’s sins. Indeed, atonement seems the very raison d’etre of the Social Justice movement. What is it, after all, if not an effort to rectify the sins of our fathers?

The Social Justice faith is practiced in different ways in different places. University leaders are not as coarse or shrill as those who describe themselves as Antifa, but the endgame is much the same: it involves punishing those who speak out against the sacred thing.  

One cannot help but wonder if Griffiths, a Christian theologian, made a decision, consciously or subconsciously, to confront this new religion with Christianity’s most famed and effective weapon: martyrdom.

[Image Credit: Flickr-Katie Tegtmeyer | CC BY 2.0]