The Devil in Harvard Yard - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

The Devil in Harvard Yard

Credit: Tim Sackton via Flickr

Imagine if a group of undergrads organized a Seder ritual that mashed up Jewish prayers with phrases pulled from Mein Kampf, using Torah scrolls smeared with pork fat. Would Harvard host such an event? Would liberals defend this “service” as an innocent expression of religious freedom? Such questions arise in the wake of the sordid spectacle of Harvard agreeing to host a Black Mass, a parody ritual whose rubrics demand a consecrated Host stolen from Catholics at Mass.

Watch Harvard students and ISI honors scholars Aurora Griffin and Jim McGlone on Fox News discussing the Black Mass controversy. 

Happily, after an ugly public controversy, the university changed its mind. But Christians and social conservatives are rightly rankled that such a public profanation came so close to gaining official sponsorship at the nation’s leading university—particularly when U.S. colleges prove so willing to restrict free speech when it suits them. Are colleges simply dominated by progressives, who cite the First Amendment for convenience when they wish to promote leftist causes, then drop it like an Occupy mask when the time comes to censor conservatives? Do liberals believe that “error has no rights”?

The quick answer is yes, but the issues at stake are deeper. We are arguing not over policy but philosophy, over the most basic questions of human happiness and dignity. The problem is that secular progressives believe that the argument is over, the questions are settled, and all that remains is to implement and spread their conquering doctrine. They are acting like triumphalist bishops advising the Emperor Theodosius to close Rome’s last pagan temples.

There is a vast font of goodness at Harvard. Natural good, in the form of brilliant young minds created by God to know the truth, the children of families who sacrificed to advance their educations. There is immense cultural and class diversity, the fruit of the school’s hunger to recruit the most talented students, not merely the grandchildren of Beacon Hill donors and fat-cat alumni. There are honest and selfless scholars, creamed off the best universities in the world, who pursue human betterment as best as they can discern it.

There is supernatural good as well, in the form of lively churches and apostolates. I have been deeply impressed by the Catholic chaplaincy at Harvard and by the Harvard-based Latin Mass organization Juventutem. Harvard is far from the worst place a Catholic could go to college—and I’d hate to see the Enemy score a “win” by using this Black Mass fiasco to spook my fellow believers into avoiding this elite institution. Four years spent there will challenge them more and grant them much greater access to cultural influence than would four years at some inbred, all-Catholic enclave. Catholics with strong spines who can go to the Ivy League ought to do so, just as the Jesuits boldly sailed off to Japan rather than hiding out in Spain.

Why Satanism? Why now?

So why would such a school allow a Black Mass on its campus? First, let’s address the most obvious bad arguments. You could say that a Black Mass is a religious ritual, and so it deserves the same respect as a Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, or Protestant service. But that argument is spurious, because Satanism is not a real religion but rather a parasitical parody of liturgical Christianity. It’s no more of a religion than the Worldwide Church of the Creator—a political sect that venerates the white race as divinity incarnate. The Black Mass is not a religious observance but merely a form of hate speech—the kind of speech universities routinely and rightly restrict.

OK, if it’s not really religious, then you could assert that the Black Mass is a form of protest ritual and deserves protection as politico-cultural “speech.” Given the content of the speech—a howl of scorn and hatred aimed at one religion and its members—a Black Mass deserves no more protection than a cross burning or a bonfire of Qur’ans. In fact, the implicit violence aimed at Christians in the Black Mass has more than once erupted in real-world murder: Black Masses were held by anticlericals in revolutionary France, where they stoked the mob for the slaughter of helpless contemplative nuns. And blasphemous rituals formed part of the Bolshevik war on Russian Orthodoxy—again, as the preface to killing.

Perhaps you could argue that the Black Mass is not an attack on Christians per se but instead a protest against historical bigotry. Satanists, like witches, were a persecuted minority targeted by an intolerant Christian Church backed by the power of the state, and reviving Satanist rites is merely an edgy way of rebuking the Inquisition. This piece of sophistry, at least, has a better chance of persuading some people—namely, the ignorant. There never was an organized Satanist movement in the Middle Ages. Witches were falsely accused of Satanism and viciously persecuted for practicing left-over pagan rituals. Modern Wiccans reject any association with Satanism. The Christian churches have rightly repented of their cruel mistreatment of real and accused “witches” and the ruthlessness that marked the suppression of paganism. Wiccans are perfectly free to hold “sabbats” at Harvard’s campus, and Catholics aren’t complaining.

No, the only reason to hold a Black Mass is to spit in the face of Christians and mock their beliefs. Now, there are compelling reasons why people might wish to do that.

We Are against Human Happiness                 

These reasons go much deeper than crabbed disputes about the limits of free versus hate speech. In fact, there is a profound theological shift at work in American universities—including many traditionally Christian institutions—that just as often works to suppress free expression by students. A new religion has come to dominate American public life, and it is an intolerant one. That new faith could best be called “utilitarian hedonism.” As I’ve written for IRO before, this new faith

tries to make respectable the old despairing slogan “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we will die”—denying that human suffering or self-sacrifice has any significance, and using every technological means to create a “brave new world” where human beings can accumulate as many happy and comfortable moments as they can before they are annihilated.

Our country has gradually shifted from an intolerant (ca. 1688) to a tolerant (ca. 1783) Protestant culture, to a broadly religious humanism (ca. 1945), to embrace after 1968 a new and crasser creed. The lowest common denominator on which we can all agree boils down to this: suffering is worse than being happy, and being alive is better than being dead—except if it means that you will suffer.

That is the sum total of what Americans can agree on, the fighting creed of the free world for which we expect our soldiers to march off and die. The triumph of this new religion is everywhere apparent, and it’s the only rational way to explain to your grandmother how it is that gay marriage is now legal in most places where cigarette smoking isn’t, and why states that shrug at sadistic pornography grimly insist upon seat belts.

The God of the Happy Moments is a jealous god, and his zealots are proving to be bigots. Those of us who worship older and higher gods, who hold different theories of suffering, or who insist on ideas of human dignity based on the study of human nature, appear in the new believers’ eyes as dangerous cranks. When we object to their bacchanalian sex parties or chic lesbian weddings, we don’t merely come across as people who disagree about the structure of human happiness. No, we are against human happiness. We don’t want people to live long, have fun, and die happy. We want to jump them through meaningless flaming hoops rigged up by dead white males a thousand years ago, merely because we are cruel. Or because we want to cling to cultural power. Or hold back women’s progress. Or something else even more sinister that could only be turned up by therapy.

Our arguments aren’t bad; our motives are evil. We are “wreckers” and “saboteurs,” like the kulaks who frustrated Stalin, speed bumps on the Yellow Brick Road. We are probably also racists who torture kittens for kicks.

We are the kind of people whose speech, by its very essence, is always hate speech—because we hate the Good, and want to ruin people’s lives. Any college that wants its students to be happy will try to keep us under control and prevent us from poisoning their pupils’ innocent minds.

So the next time you hear of a leftist administrator trying to force a Christian group to admit non-Christian members, or a student senate trying to ban a pro-life organization, you should try to empathize with the censors: they are priests of a new religion who believe they are serving the highest good accessible to man. Our statements of faith and assertions of natural law are profoundly offensive, even blasphemous. To the Church of the Happy Moments, they are prayers from our own Black Mass.

John Zmirak is author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism, and of the upcoming The Race to Save Our Century (with Jason Jones). His columns are archived at The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall.

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