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The difficulty of being Christian at Duke

“Get your Bibles out y’all,” one of my professors said, mostly joking, as we started a discussion about how a passage in a Flannery O’Connor story we were reading connected to something in the book of Revelation. A few classmates laughed at this, because the idea of carrying around a Bible is funny to them. 

Even though I’m a Christian who tries to study the Bible daily, this incident by itself is normally something I would shrug off. Apathetic attitudes toward God and religion prevailed in my high school, and outside of friends I have met through Bible study, I am the only one within my friend groups who believes in God. 

This didn’t use to bother me, but over the course of my first year at Duke, the frequency of seemingly minor comments or incidents like this has become increasingly bothersome. At a place like Duke, where students pride themselves on their acceptance of all people regardless of religion or ethnicity, it seems backward that it’s still acceptable to mock God and Christianity in front of people who incorporate religion into their lives. Maybe it’s because the modern trope of a “Christian” is a white man or woman with a southern accent who isn’t educated, is xenophobic, homophobic or a Trump supporter, or who will tell you you’re going to hell if you don’t believe in God. Christians aren’t an oppressed group—after all, much of history has consisted of “Christians” persecuting other minority groups or religions, like in the crusades or the Spanish Inquisition—so perhaps we assume they don’t need to be supported or defended now. For most of this year, I haven’t spoken up about my beliefs because I didn’t want to be labeled as unintelligent or associated with these kinds of Christians.

But these tropes about Christians are stereotypes, too. Most Christians don’t make snap judgements about other people just because they haven’t been saved. Most Christians don’t have a “holier than thou” attitude, and we try to follow what we learn from the Bible to the best of our abilities. But when Christians fall short of the moral standard to which we try to adhere, we’re called hypocrites, as if being Christian means you’re immune to human shortcomings. 

Some prominent Christians are consistently hypocritical in how their actions compare to the words they preach, but this isn’t true for all Christians. Usually, hateful or overly-judgmental statements made by self-proclaimed Christians in the name of God is dogma and isn’t supported by the Bible. And I don’t like or support these kinds of Christians any more than non-Christians do. 

I was disappointed when Donald Trump called himself a Christian during his presidential campaign and quoted scriptures; his words and actions demonstrated that he doesn’t follow any of the Christian principles on which I was raised. Those types of people are the reason Christians get a bad rap, and I wish it was more widely understood that not all Christians are this way. To think so is to succumb to generalization.

We’re quick to reject stereotypes about minorities or previously oppressed groups, and as a black woman, it’s encouraging to hear stories that alumni recently told about Duke students coming together for the Silent Vigil after MLK’s death, or when I see someone who isn’t black wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt around campus. But a stereotype is a stereotype, whether it’s about black people or Christians. I don’t hear many Duke students challenging the latter. Maybe it’s because we assume that Christians are in the majority in other parts of the country, and even in North Carolina.

For a while, my bio on Instagram was “believes in God and climate change.” I was hoping that in this small way, an idea would catch that not all Christians are close-minded. It is possible to believe in God and science. Every time I thought about changing it, an incident arose—like Trump pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Accords—that persuaded me to keep it. 

The reason I value my religion is because believing what the Bible says has made me into the kind and thoughtful person I am today. Holding on to Christianity at Duke has not been easy, but what keeps me is when I read verses that remind me to speak words that build up others.These verses remind me that it’s better to give than to receive, and that I can do all things through Christ. I wouldn’t be the person, friend or Duke student I am without growing up with Christian values like these—and I find myself disappointed when the same friends who love me because of the person I am degrade the belief system that has made me so. 

When I come back to Duke in the fall, I hope to be more open about sharing my beliefs, and my goal is to do so without worrying that I’m making people uncomfortable or that I’ll be seen as less intelligent because of it. But I also think this kind of comfort can at least partially stem from all of us becoming more conscious of the words we speak and the jokes we make about beliefs that are different from our own.

Victoria Priester is a Trinity first-year. Her column, “on the run from mediocrity,” runs on alternate Fridays. 

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