In the end, Menand & Co. backed down, and the matter never made it to a vote. A more brutal fight was put off for another day. But that's a pity—for Harvard, its students, and the rest of us who need leaders better informed about faith and the motivations of the faithful. Harvard may or may not be the pinnacle of higher learning in the world, but because it isHarvard, it reflects—for better or worse—the priorities of the nation's intellectual set. To decline to grapple head-on with the role of religion in a liberal-arts education, even as debates over faith and reason rage on blogs, and as publishers churn out books defending and attacking religious belief, is at best timid and at worst self-defeating.
Harvard's distaste for engaging with religion as an academic subject is particularly ironic, given that it was founded in 1636 as a training ground for Christian ministers. According to the office of the president, Veritas was only officially adopted as its motto in 1843; until then it had been Christo et Ecclesiae ("For Christ and the Church"). While it's true that other Ivy League colleges don't require undergrads to take religion (with the exception of Columbia, where readings in the mandatory Contemporary Civilization course include selections from Exodus, the Book of Matthew, Saint Augustine, and the Quran), it's fair to say that the study of religion at Harvard is uniquely dysfunctional.