Religion — an integral part of UW’s identity

Just off University Avenue, Lutheran Campus Ministry is one of the many places religious students gather on UW-Madison’s campus. Emma Conway photo

Whether she is manning the desk, sipping coffee or leading bible study, Sami George spends quite a bit of time at Lutheran Campus Ministry off of University Avenue. A LCM Intern, George is one of 47,963 students who attend The University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Upon admission, a variety of factors are taken into consideration, like grades, hometown and race to name a few. But one contentious category may slip under students’ radar — religious affiliation. Many mindlessly check Christian, Jewish or none, while others realize the question’s gravity.

 

As a Lutheran Campus Ministry Intern, Sami George navigates religious conversations with other UW-Madison students. Emma Conway photo

George checked Christian. Coming into college, George knew she wanted to continue pursuing Lutheranism. Back home, the church brought George community. In Madison, Lutheran Campus Ministry did the same. Yet she has noticed that her religious ties can elicit an array of reactions from fellow students.

“Telling people that you’re religious can be a really polarizing issue,” George said. “Religion has been used to discriminate [against] people forever.”

The division George describes does not solely apply to the Madison area but the entire country. Amidst polarization, the U.S.’ religious landscape has changed. The U.S. population has steered away from religious institutions toward general disaffiliation. Less than 50% of Americans consider themselves members of a church. This dynamic has influenced religious interactions. 

While the growing “nones” are half of the population, affiliates are the other. Regardless of which box one checks, people pursuing religion are far more similar than different. 

Beneath the surface, religious systems are asking big, meaning-of-life questions. Nobody holds the same answer. Yet UW poses an important question — What is religion’s role at a public university? Overtime, the answer has evolved. 

Religion’s role in diversity, equity and inclusion

Ulrich Rosenhagen has been at UW-Madison for 15 years. While facilitating religious conversations with students as a director and professor, he noticed a shift in UW’s religious outlook. 

In 2013, UW began embracing diversity, equity and inclusion. Rosenhagen says religion falls under DEI’s umbrella. 

“The university quickly realized it’s not just issues of race, it’s not just issues of sexual orientation, it’s not just issues of gender,” Rosenhagen said. “It’s also religion that plays an important role.”

Considering religion as a piece of students’ identities was a start. Yet more needed to be done. 

According to CRGC’s Digital Coordinator Emma Lai, it’s one thing to talk about DEI — it’s another to enact it. 

As a CRGC’s Digital Coordinator, Emma Lai can speak to UW’s religious landscape. Emma Conway photo

While UW backs CRGC and the idea of DEI, Rosenhagen says some of the center’s efforts have fallen on deaf ears. Take this semester’s start date as an example. CRGC and UW faculty spoke out against classes starting on Sept. 7, the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Though the Jewish New Year is one of Judaism’s holiest holidays, UW decided to carry on with classes as scheduled. After many called UW out on its lack of DEI, UW issued a statement. According to Rosenhagen, UW is far from fully adopting the DEI mindset they embraced in 2013. 

Lai has seen UW as a student and recent graduate. She says CRGC’s commitment to DEI is bridging divides on campus. 

“CRGC at UW-Madison opens up a whole nother can of worms, a whole nother platform, per se, in which people can cross party lines, can cross racial ethnic lines, can cross religious lines,” Lai said. “It’s almost spinning it on its head. Religion is no longer a divider, but it’s what brings people together.” 

Coming together

According to Lai, CRGC can only take UW’s religious equity so far. She says conversation drives connection. Real change stems from students, reaching out to others who checked a different box on their application. 

 “A place like UW where people are open minded — they’re constantly thinking about other perspectives and they’re open to new ideas — that’s a perfect breeding ground for better interfaith dialogue.”

Students are headed in the direction Lai envisions. As of 2020, 75% of first year students and 70% of seniors say they had discussions with people who have different religious views than their own, a solid start. 

George continues to be one of those students. She has stepped outside her box by engaging in interfaith conversations. Some have elicited different responses than she imagined. But being receptive to other religious perspectives is larger than listening, according to Emily Tveite, George’s Boss at LCM. 

“There’s something that relates to the Wisconsin Idea,” Tviete said. “The idea that we are supposed to be nurturing adults to do something that is important to our whole state, our whole society.”

And there is much more to UW students than the religious box they choose to check — if 47,963 Badgers choose to see beyond their own beliefs and engage with one another.