We have some interesting news here in East Tennessee about the University of Tennessee holiday wars. I call them "holiday wars," as opposed to "Christmas wars," because it appears to be very hard to fight Christmas here in the valley framed by the Cumberland and Great Smoky Mountains.
As I mentioned the other day, UT's Office for Diversity and Inclusion posted very specific guidelines on how to make sure that official "holiday" party held on campus did not turn into, as the memo put it, a "Christmas party in disguise." The memo also instructed UT folks to use "non-denominational" holiday cards and said those attending holiday parties "should not play games with religious and cultural themes -- for example, 'Dreidel' or 'Secret Santa.' "
The news is that the memo that ticked off Tennessee Republicans -- the dominant party here in the hills -- is gone. Also, the diversity office's leader, Vice Chancellor Rickey Hall, now has a UT communications officer screening his website. The new memo -- text here -- contains zero instructions about how to edit Christmas out of campus parties. Here is a large chunk of the "new" memo, which apparently is a memo that was used in the past:
Recognizing a wide variety of cultures and beliefs, we should note that people choose to celebrate in different ways and on varying days of the year.
While there are many joyous occasions and special opportunities to gather, employee participation in any celebration should always be voluntary. While it is inevitable that differences will appear in how people celebrate, everyone is encouraged to have an open mind and to approach every situation with sensitivity.
Alas, there are all kinds of facts we still don't know about this drama, almost all of them linked to religion.
For example, we don't know if Christian groups on campus get to hold UT recognized or supported Christmas parties, to the same degree as celebrations held by Jews, Muslims and other religious groups. In fact, we don't know if other religious groups hold UT recognized and supported parties. There are crucial facts, if one cares about real diversity and "equal access" principles.
Hold that thought, because we will come back to another interesting religion angle in this story which received some attention -- hello Fox News -- from national media.
A group of students and faculty -- size unknown -- did hold a demonstration to show support for the diversity office. Was this primarily about Christmas? One clue: In a photo featured at The Knoxville News Sentinel, the person (I dare not speculate on gender) shouting into the megaphone is wearing a UT Sex Week t-shirt.
University of Tennessee Chancellor Jimmy Cheek said:
... he supports diversity at UT and is proud of the progress Hall has made, but was disappointed in two Web posts -- one that encouraged such gender-neutral pronouns as “xe” and “xyr” for transgender students and the Christmas post.
“We are deeply disappointed that the Web posting has become divisive; certainly that wasn’t the intent,” Hall said. “My intent has been to include.”
The changes led to an unplanned meeting for more than an hour between students, faculty, Cheek and Hall. Many students left that meeting for a rally in Circle Park with continued support for Hall and split feelings about Cheek. ...
U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., R-Knoxville, who first took issue with the post on holiday parties, said the changes announced Tuesday were “exactly what I thought they would do.”
As I said before, there are all kinds of specific facts that we don't know about this highly symbolic episode. In particular, I found this passage in an earlier News Sentinel update to be quite intriguing:
Campus clergy from four different denominations wrote an open letter to lawmakers expressing frustration over the backlash and assuring them "Christians, be they student, faculty, or staff, are not in any way being punished or persecuted on the UTK campus."
Ah, here is another chance for local media to offer some specific information that would help readers understand the nature of this conflict on the Knoxville campus, and perhaps other faith-driven conflicts as well.
So I will ask: Would it be helpful to know which four religious groups were represented by leaders who signed this letter to defend the university and to protest those pro-Christmas, or anti-holiday party, protests?
One would assume that we are talking about clergy from progressive Protestant denominations, starting with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
How about the United Methodists? Well, in this neck of the woods there are plenty of evangelicals left in that healthy flock. It might be news if a UMC leader signed that letter. How about campus Catholic leaders? A leader in a mainstream African-American denomination?
I think it's safe to assume that the Southern Baptist didn't sign, and ditto for anyone from the Assemblies of God. But might a progressive evangelical from a nondenominational ministry have signed? That would be news.
Why not publish a bit of content from that highly symbolic letter? Clearly, there are religious tensions linked to this generic "holiday" standoff. That's news, here in East Tennessee.