St. Olaf Professor’s Promotion Sparks Criticism From Religious Right

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Professor Anantanand Rambachan has taught religion and philosophy at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., for 22 years, and was recently named head of the religion department. Rambachan, who was reared in a Hindu community in Trinidad and has been outspoken in the past about the harms of proselytizing, will chair the department at the beginning of fall semester. His appointment has drawn criticism from factions of the religious right, both locally and nationally.

Jan Markell, a nationally syndicated talk-show host and founder of Olive Tree Ministries, an end-times ministry in Maple Grove, took issue with Rambachan’s appointment. “How can Christ be at the center when Professor Rambachan states that he is trying to ‘give my students an understanding of what it means to see the world through Hindu eyes?'” wrote Markell in an email to supporters. “It is likely that many parents of these Lutheran-rooted students did not send them to St. Olaf to learn ‘religion’ from a Hindu no matter what his credentials are and no matter how sincere he may be.”

In addition, WorldNetDaily, a popular conservative Christian website, took issue with an interview Rambachan gave to St. Olaf in May. Rambuchan said:

“Last year we met in Rome in a joint consultation with the World Council of Churches to discuss conversion. This was the first meeting of a three-year project to study the issue and to develop an acceptable code of conduct. Certain forms of Christian proselytization have given rise to tension and even violence between some religious communities… Our discussion was frank and at times difficult, but we agreed that while everyone has a right to invite others to an understanding of their faith, no one has the right to violate others’ rights and religious sensibilities. At the same time, all should heal themselves from the obsession of converting others.”

The WorldNetDaily article is critical of Rambachan’s stance on conversion and raises concerns about a Hindu teaching Christian theology. St. Olaf denies that the professor’s faith will have an impact on students’ ability to learn Christian theology, that the purpose of learning is cognitive — not spiritual. “Studying religion at St. Olaf … must be centrally a cognitive, not a spiritual, exercise: indeed, in the words of the St. Olaf mission statement, the academic study of religion cultivates ‘theological literacy,'” Charles Wilson, a professor of religion at St. Olaf, said in a statement released by the school.

While most mainline Christian groups have remained silent on the appointment, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities said St. Olaf could not gain membership. “We have this expectation that they have to hire as full-time faculty and administrators only persons who profess faith in Christ,” said Nate Mouttet, assistant vice president for marketing and communication of Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

While some website forums and blogs attacked Rambachan and St. Olaf, Dan Wright, a Catholic deacon in Austin, Texas, wrote:

“Personally, I am not bothered at all to see a Hindu heading a religion department at a Christian university. Undoubtedly, being open to understanding one another’s religious diversity is key to building peace and lasting respect. It does trouble me is that often I find a closed-minded attitude on the Internet — even on Catholic blogs.”