Wheaton College in Illinois is scrapping its athletic-team mascot, a crusading knight on a charging steed, in favor of a less violent symbol. The decision is prompting other Christian colleges to rethink whether their mascots—many of which are similar to Wheaton's—are sending the wrong message about Christianity. Wheaton College president Duane Litfin credits the change to
"a simple matter of faithfulness to Christ." He says the school's motto, "for Christ and His Kingdom,"is poorly served by "how offensive the image of the Crusades is to large portions of the world."
Litfin was prompted to think about the appropriateness of the school's mascot two years ago when Wheaton's student newspaper raised the issue. He launched a personal study of the Crusades, which were military conquests by European Christians designed to reclaim the Holy Land from Muslims in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries.
"We are hard-pressed to find anything in these disastrous waves of fighting that our Lord might have approved, despite the fact that the conflict was ostensibly carried out in his name,"Litfin said.
Other Christian colleges with the Crusader mascot see the issue differently.
"Our faculty, students, and alumni voted overwhelmingly to keep the Crusader," says David Sayer of Evangel University in Missouri. Calvin Holsinger, professor emeritus at Evangel, says that school sees the historic connotations of Crusader as positive.
"The word originally meant one who bears the cross, and when we selected the name Evangel and the mascot of a crusader, we were intentionally trying to communicate our desire to bring the good news and cross into every situation we encountered."
Holsinger also says Christians must be careful not to let the world "steal and devalue all our good words. Yes, for a period of history, crusaders were soldiers, but for hundreds of years, crusaders have been people who stood for Christ against unjust causes like slavery, child labor, and pornography."
While the most popular mascot among Christian colleges is the Eagle (a nod to Isaiah 40), many other schools have symbols similar to the Crusaders. Westmont College in California uses the Warrior as its mascot, Taylor University in Indiana uses the Trojan, and Calvin College in Michigan uses the Knight. Trinity Christian College in Illinois says that its unusual mascot, a troll holding a club, in no way detracts from the Christian message of the school.
"I think our troll mascot is viewed as different, unique, and fun," says David Ribbens, Trinity's athletic director.
"It's meant to portray athletic assertiveness, but it's a fairy-tale figure, so it's nonthreatening."
James Mathisen, a professor of sociology and religion at Wheaton, says that virtually every society erects a totem animal or bird to symbolize its people.
"This totem also represents the very best of what people hope to be,"Mathisen says, "but the meaning associated with the symbol or totem will change over time."
In the '20s when the Crusader name really caught on, fundamentalists were wrestling with modernists about some important issues of the faith. At that time, an image of someone passionately devoted to a cause would have had real resonance.
"Wheaton has removed the Crusader symbol from its athletic facilities, and the campus bookstore no longer sells sweatshirts or T-shirts with the Crusader symbol or name. There will be little visible change on the college's courts or fields because nearly 20 years have elapsed since the college had a costumed mascot at its sporting events.
Litfin's four-page explanation of the decision is available on the college's Web site. The site also allows visitors to submit names for the new mascot, which will be announced this fall. Current suggestions range from the fanciful Narnians, after the popular C.S.. Lewis series of children's books, to religious symbols like the Cherubs, Martyrs, and Prayer Warriors.The Chicago Tribune announced the change on the front page of its April 25 issue. "Sightings," a commentary from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, has a commentary on the mascot change .Beliefnet has a list of several other Christian colleges using the Crusader mascot, and a list of colleges that have changed their mascots over sensitivity to Native Americans.
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