PHILADELPHIA — THE high holy days of the NCAA basketball tournament - "March Madness" - approach.
The team I will cheer on, from Valparaiso University, once again joins the 64-team field. The team is talented, and could repeat or even exceed the wonderful "miracle" of their 1998 season, when they made it to the "Sweet Sixteen" and became the Cinderella story of the tournament.
But I must admit a little devotion anxiety this year.
I am uneasy because Valparaiso's mascot is the "Crusader." I have long been vocally embarrassed by that fact, first as an alumnus of the school and then as a 12-year faculty member.
This year my embarrassment is more acute. In the wake of Sept. 11, and the subsequent reminders of how charged the term can be, I expected that my alma mater would change the mascot. But it endures, as it does at the College of Holy Cross, and countless other Christian academies and schools across the country.
I REALIZE that these things take time, but it is hard to believe that the schools that cling to the crusader as their mascot can be happy any longer with the implications of their imagery.
The term originated, of course, in the medieval military campaigns by Christians to conquer the "holy lands." In the course of those campaigns, the usual atrocities of war were accompanied by the peculiarly brutal logic of religious violence. Children, women, the aged, and other "infidels" were indiscriminately slaughtered.
This example of men behaving badly was reason enough for Wheaton College to drop the mascot in favor of the "Thunder," and probably has much to do with the Ku Klux Klan's continued use of it.
I suppose there are many out there for whom the crusader is the perfect symbol for this year. Defiant, such devotees will take pride in refusing to succumb to the forces of "political correctness," and will "take a stand" for the fact that we are at war with terrorists like Osama bin Laden. If he calls us crusaders, then who are we to back down?
This isn't about being politically correct. (Although as I often point out to students, it's currently politically correct to be against being politically correct.) It is about being civil, and about being religiously sensitive in a pluralistic culture and a shrinking world. Mascots, like corporate logos and names, are about the signals an institution wants to send to the public.
Signs matter. This is why Enron will change its name when its executives finish answering their subpoenas. And when institutions with public responsibilities in the United States continue to use the imagery of the crusader, they reinforce the impression of Muslims overseas, and of some here in the US, that this isn't really the land of the free, but the home of the defiantly narrow.
Fully 95 percent of Muslims in Pakistan think of the United States as arrogant, according to a recent Gallup poll. To persist in behaviors that reinforce their perception is not wise policy. It may in fact be downright dangerous, given that Pakistan and much of the Arab world are important allies, that the American Muslim population continues to grow, and that our own ideals of freedom and justice for all are at stake.
Fortunately, President Bush realized that this symbol isn't appropriate in public. When in a weak moment he referred to the military action in Afghanistan as a "crusade," he was quick to apologize, setting the tone for what has been for the most part a good exhibition of leadership in religious sensitivity. Universities and schools around the country should follow his lead.
Besides, history tells us that the crusaders usually lost. So, go ... Valpo.
Jon Pahl teaches the History of Religions in the United States at the Lutheran Theological Seminary. This column originally appeared in Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.