On Monday afternoon, a group of protesters, dressed in red sashes and carrying bagpipes, gathered on the sidewalk outside of the Benjamin West parking lot. They were demonstrating in order to, as one sign read, convince Swarthmore to “STOP attacking God.”
These protesters were members of a conservative Catholic organization called the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property. Their protests came after several right-wing news organizations, including Fox News and Breitbart, reported that Swarthmore would be offering a Religion course titled “Queering the Bible” in fall 2018. The course will be taught by associate professor of religion Gwynn Kessler, who is on leave and could not be reached for comment.
TFP Student Action leader John Ritchie took a break from reciting Hail Mary prayers to express his dissatisfaction with the college for offering the course.
“A college that purports to thrive on tolerance is committing an act of intolerance by attacking Christianity, and many people are offended. Most of all, God is being offended and as one nation under God, we want to keep it one nation under God as a country. That’s why we’re here praying.”
TFP has a long history of protesting institutions that it believes are violating its conservative values. This includes, according to the TFP website, organizations that support “abortion,” “the social acceptance of homosexual practice,” “transgenderism,” “international communism,” and “public blasphemy.” The Student Action wing of TFP, which led the Monday protest, has protested at many colleges and universities. TFP members have protested at Catholic colleges who have granted charters to LGBT affinity groups, including Notre Dame, and has held rallies in support of heterosexual marriage, which they refer to as “true marriage,” at colleges across the nation. Another wing of TFP, America Needs Fatima, has staked public opposition to works of art it finds blasphemous, including the film “The Da Vinci Code” and the HBO series “The Young Pope.”
By holding an in-person protest, the TFP members hoped to push President Valerie Smith to change the school’s curriculum.
“We’re really hoping that Dr. Smith will cancel the course and find a better way to teach religion,” Ritchie said. “We’ll have a delegation to present 14,000 petitions that we’ve collected … over 14,000 people have signed a petition asking Dr. Smith to cancel this course. We’re hoping that she will hear us favorably and resolve this question.”
A small crowd of student onlookers began to gather in the parking lot. At first, many did not know what the protest was about.
“When I got there it was me and a couple of other friends,” Peter Chong ’20 said. “People were walking by in the parking lot and we just got into a conversation about what this was because no one seemed to know.” Chong described student attitudes as “confused amusement.”
“A lot of them were trying to look and see because this kind of stuff doesn’t happen very often,” he said. According to Chong, several TFP protesters began to play the bagpipes, and students jokingly requested songs.
Chong himself chose not to engage with the protesters and recalled that a faculty member encouraged student bystanders not to take the protesters’ “bait.”
Bystanders who did talk to protesters did so calmly. Nathan Holeman ’18 noted that religion professor Mark Wallace was one of the first to engage with the protesters.
“Professor Wallace brought with him a mood of patience and respectfulness, and the students followed suit,” Holeman wrote. “That does not imply that any professors/students present agreed with any of the protestors. Instead, it was understanding for the sake of intellectual honesty.”
Holeman followed Wallace’s lead and ended up talking with a protester for about 20 minutes. During the dialogue, Holeman attempted to explain to her why the college would offer such a course.
“We told her calmly — and quite slowly — that sometimes it’s valuable to consider all sorts of ideas, even if they’re challenging. We explained that people should sometimes even scrutinize beliefs that they know are wrong,” Holeman wrote.
Though the protester did not dramatically change her view, Holeman believes that the conversation was somewhat fruitful.
“I determined that my conversation with [the protester] was getting somewhere. Her starting point was, ‘It’s stupid,’ which taken as an argument is vapid. Her ending point was ‘Some ideas are dangerous,’ which is indeed a real argument. She made one tiny step toward engaging in productive dialogue with us.”
John Woodliff-Stanley ’21 also attempted to engage in dialogue with a protester.
“I believe that they absolutely have the right to practice their religion and hold their own views,” Woodliff-Stanley wrote. “But their own religious freedom does not grant them the right to impose their views on others.”
While Woodliff-Stanley believes that dialogue between groups can lead to deeper understanding, he emphasized that it would be unfair to expect marginalized people, such as LGBT students, to engage with groups that oppose them.
“If a group is bringing into question someone’s fundamental identity or worth, I do not believe it is the responsibility of the oppressed people to engage in this in order to defend themselves,” he wrote.
The protest was ultimately a peaceful affair. “There were no explosions, tensions weren’t high,” Chong said.
President Smith was out of town on Monday and was not available for comment. However, the Communications Office released an official response which showed no indication that the college would make changes to the curriculum.
“Swarthmore is committed to fostering intellectual freedom, respect for diversity of thought and expression, and the examination of ideas in pursuit of truth. We affirm the rights of our faculty to explore new ideas in their teaching and research, and the rights of our students to learn within and beyond the classroom. Members of our on- and off-campus community have the right to engage in peaceful demonstration and free expression as long as those rights do not interfere with the rights of others to work, to teach, and to learn.”