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Country club Christianity

We stand on the shoulders of underdogs. Notre Dame began as a school for the poor, Irish, Catholic immigrants that were not welcome anywhere else. At every turn, we have been counted out for being “too Catholic,” in the middle of nowhere, or as “just a football school.”

For the game against Berkeley, one of my dad’s friends visited campus for the first time and said, “there’s something special here, you can hear it in the ways the students talk about the world.” 

Those who have never visited don’t understand. When I decided to go to Notre Dame, all of my friends at home thought I was making the biggest mistake of my life. One friend even went as far as to say, “out of all the schools you could’ve gone to, you choose the one that hates you.” 

I didn’t think much of it, because I saw what is so special about Notre Dame: a student body that cares so deeply about making the world brighter that it hurts your eyes. Of the top 20 schools in the country all were founded with some form of religious intention – we’re the only one that has kept it. There is something special about this campus and our students. 

However, to that beauty, there’s another side to our Lady’s university. We’ve grown in fame, wealth and prestige. Intense academic life has become a cornerstone of campus. We’re still underdogs compared to some of the Ivy’s, but underdogs with a 13 billion dollar endowment. With all this change we’ve started to lose touch with our background built in the margins; we’ve become a country club.

The official definition of a country club “is a privately owned club, often with a membership quota and admittance by invitation or sponsorship, that generally offers both a variety of recreational sports and facilities for dining and entertaining.” That’s us.

Yes, we spend our time fighting the good fights: anti-poverty work, peace advocacy, ministering to the sick, building renewable energy, improving literacy rates and so much more. Heck, 80 percent of the student body does community service while on campus. While we’ve been ready to fight for the world, we’ve been more hesitant in fighting to make our community truly welcoming and a home for everyone.

Lush green lawns, Gothic buildings, some of the smartest people in the world, impressive sports and robust religious life — Notre Dame seems like it’s own little slice of eudaemonia. However, that slice is only available to some.

As the world has begun to recognize the strength diversity can play in providing world-class education, Notre Dame has been left in the dust in truly offering a welcoming environment for those whom we do let in. A country club where if you look, think and act a specific way you’re welcomed, but if you fall out of line, it’ll point it’s golf clubs at you.

My two most memorable experiences at Notre Dame involved run-ins with the country club. 

In the fall of last year, my friend sat crumpled on the shag carpet in his room, shedding tears of shame and hurt. Over our hours-long conversation, he told me how wished to end his own life. 

A young man, who since he was a little boy has been taught that God rejected him, poisoned by a perversion of the love of God. It is something that he carries with him in the deep recesses of his bones every single day.

A feeling he’s reminded of in the dorm he’s placed into, in the shouts that were yelled after him as he walked on the quad one night, and in the University policies that tell him he’s not fully worthy of protection.

I’ve had the country club come after me too. Last year I ran for Student Body Vice President, where you’re sure to face some scrutiny. But as golf ball-sized lies and deceitful messages pilled up I called them out. 

Wrapped tightly in a blanket on the floor of my friend Zoë’s apartment watching the Chronicles of Narnia and my phone. Counting and screenshotting I saw my phone filled with over 400 anonymous pointed dagger messages until the counting got to be too much. 

Some messages were funny like, “Dane Sherman looks like he’s a used shovel salesman.” Objectively, I wish I could be that cool. But others with more insidious messages: telling me to kill myself, threatening to hurt me, making fun of my sexuality, using slurs, demeaning my character, my gender presentation, weaponizing every insecurity, fault and flaw imaginable.

When you make the country club uncomfortable it swings back. I’ve learned quickly not to care what some bigot’s on the other side of a phone think of me, but those words were also reaching into the psyche of other people’s phones who might not feel as safe and those sentiments not just confined to the keys and a keyboard. 

Our experiences are not in isolation. Every two years the University does a survey of the entire student body called the Inclusive Campus Survey where they survey and compare how students of different identity groups are doing and if they’ve experienced any adverse treatment.

This year’s numbers show a scary trend. The most important question for me is: do you feel a sense of belonging here? For more marginalized groups the numbers got worse.

49% of transgender and nonbinary students stated they did not feel a sense of belonging as opposed to only nine percent of cisgender students. Even though only a quarter as many students stated they were not cisgender in 2018, that result in 2018 was only 33 percent.   

24% of atheists and 17% of other religions said they did not feel a sense of belonging, as opposed to only five percent of Catholics.

22% of gay, lesbian and bisexual students stated they did not feel a sense of belonging as opposed to only 7 percent of straight students. Even though only half as many LGB students filled out the survey in 2018 it was only 16 percent said they did not feel a sense of belonging. 

18% of students from a household that makes less than $50,000 said they did not feel a sense of belonging, as opposed to about six percent of those whose families make more.

16% of first-generation students, as opposed to nine percent of those who are not first-generation.

14% of students of color stated they did not feel a sense of belonging. As opposed to eight percent of white students.

These numbers become jarring when put in contrast with our peer universities, and even more jarring when contrasted with the words of our administration.

In 2012, Father Jenkins stated, “At Notre Dame, we do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.”

In 2022, the Board of Trustees released their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion report. They stated, “we believe our over-arching aspiration is to act to ensure that EVERY member of the Notre Dame community feels not merely “welcome” here, but rather that this is truly their home.” 

In 2016, Father Jenkins stated, “We are all Notre Dame or none of us are.”

Father Jenkins and the Board of Trustees, your words cut deep because we know they ring hollow. We can’t say we don’t discriminate when we are not willing to put measures in place to protect all students. 

Examples of these shortcomings abound including:  A non-discrimination clause that doesn’t include sexual orientation, gender identity, or religious identity. An expandingly diverse class, but not the expanding resources to support them. A shaky record in supporting first-generation and low-income students. A horrendous record in dealing with cases of sexual violence

One of my favorite lines from Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is when he states, “There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.”

If you love Notre Dame, it’s time to be angry. It’s time to tear down the country club and for us to become a rehab center for some of the best and brightest minds in the world.

Dane Sherman is a junior at Notre Dame studying American Studies, peace studies, philosophy and gender studies. Dane enjoys good company, good books, good food and talking about faith in public life. Outside of The Observer, Dane can be found exploring Erasmus books with friends, researching philosophy, with folks from Prism, reading NYTs op-eds from David Brooks/Ezra Klein/Michelle Goldberg or at the Purple Porch getting some food. Dane ALWAYS want to chat and can be reach at @danesherm on twitter or lsherma2@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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