PHOENIX, Ariz. — Arizona State University President Michael Crow is cooking.

He has skewered Fox News and CNN, recited lessons from the French Wars of Religion in the 1500s and labeled a professor dismissed by ASU a lunatic for arguing that his derisive comments about a Latter-day Saint student’s beliefs should have been shielded by academic freedom standards.

He also has declared Arizona State — a public university and state school — a bastion of religious liberty.

“You are at a free and open institution in the highest spirit of American democracy, protecting and defending freedom of religion with everything that we do,” Crow tells his audience, a conference of the Coalition on Human Dignity and Religious Freedom.

“It is the case that we protect the religious freedoms and the religious rights and the religious identities of our students,” he adds.

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It’s late September, and outside, it’s 100 degrees. Crow may seem to be winding down as he transitions to inviting questions from the audience in the air-conditioned hall just inside the doors of ASU’s law school, but really he’s still rolling. He doesn’t directly mention the national attention that encircled him and the university after the recent firing of its famous football coach, Herm Edwards, but he raises the specter of the controversy by noting that he gets a lot of five-page, single-spaced emails telling him what to do with the football program.

It’s front-page news here in Phoenix, and Crow knows his audience.

“God has basically decided that all university presidents are going to hell,” he teases, “and that when you go to hell, you get two things: We get two medical schools, because they’re so difficult to run. And you get a football team.”

The joke slays.

The exceptionalism of American religious freedom

Crow, 66, is building toward a crescendo about Arizona’s State’s special role in American exceptionalism, but first he traces his family’s ties to religious repression on two continents.

  • His wife grew up in a Paris neighborhood where 2,000 people were murdered on one day for their faith during the French Wars of Religion. Millions died across four decades of conflict.
  • Crow’s father’s family migrated as indentured servants from England to Maryland half a century before the Maryland Protestant Revolution of 1689, which led to a ban of Catholicism until 1776.
  • His mother’s family migrated from Ireland and was in New York City for the Orangemen’s Riot in 1871, when 60 people were killed in Manhattan in a clash of Irish Catholics and Protestants.

Crow says the lesson is that religious liberty is a lived reality today in the United States. “We don’t have millions of dead and thousands of people executed in the streets,” he says.

“It’s not like a theory that we’re working toward. It’s a theory that we’re implementing. Those are two different things,” he notes, adding, “It is absolutely essential that everyone understand that freedom of religion exists in the United States. It is hard-fought, the fight continues ... but it exists.”

Crow knows more than most that the ideal isn’t perfected. He said churches or faith groups meet on ASU’s campus every day, not just on Sundays. It’s complicated, he says.

“We’re 250 years, give or take,” he says, “into this process of implementing the first bold experiment in freedom of religion: Can you actually build a society in which a person can freely express their own religion without fear, without punishment, without intimidation? The answer is, yes. But you have to work at it. It is a work in progress.”

The ‘drivel’ driving Fox, CNN and other cable news networks

This is where he takes on cable networks for presenting ideology as news.

“Now what you don’t probably imagine, because you spend too much time watching Fox or CNN or all the other drivel stations that are out there advancing every level of drivel that you can possibly imagine, and that is that we have no principles, we’re just arguers, we have no agreements.”

Crow’s point about America’s divisive bent toward argument and ideology over substance is underscored by the fact that he is delivering the morning keynote address for a conference that will end with a panel including Arizona Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers, a Republican whose stand on elections made him a national name and recently cost him his bid for reelection.

Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, right, listens as 1st Amendment Partnership President Tim Schultz speaks in Phoenix.
Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, right, listens while Tim Schultz, president of the 1st Amendment Partnership, speaks during a conference of the Coalition on Human Dignity and Religious Freedom at the Arizona State University law school in Phoenix on Sept. 27, 2022. | Jayna Hedges

“Are you kidding me?” Crow thunders. “We have no agreements? We agree in freedom of religion. We agree in freedom of speech. We agree that liberty is an achievement to be pursued by every individual, to be maintained and protected. And when it isn’t, it becomes an issue and we resolve it.”

The exceptionalism of American religious freedom

Crow believes both in American and Arizona State exceptionalism. The first is rooted in the soaring ideals of the nation’s founding documents and First Amendment. ASU is special because of its size, innovation and new-found diversity.

ASU’s student body has more than doubled during Crow’s presidential tenure, which reached 20 years in June. He says the school has 600,000 faculty, staff and students in all. The growth has come from diverse sectors. The university was 98% white in 1990. Now it is 50.5% non-white or Hispanic.

It isn’t just racial diversity, either, Crow says. It’s socioeconomic and religious diversity, too.

“There’s no institution with our level of diversity,” he says, “that exists and operates on a day-in and day-out basis with people living with each other side by side, debating things side by side from each of their perspectives, welcoming every perspective imaginable into the institution as a part of helping the institution to prove the point of freedom of religion, to prove the point of freedom of speech.”

Crow is adamant that public schools have a role in openly supporting religious freedom. Instead, he says, many public universities college presidents are mortified by politics on, he says, not just “both sides” but from a dozen sides.

“ASU really is a prototype for the future, a prototype for how freedom of religion can be protected and defended and advanced, even though we’ve already achieved such unbelievable progress (in America),” he says.

Why public universities must TK religious freedom

Crow says American founders were educated in seminaries that became leading U.S. universities, such as John Adams matriculating at what became Harvard.

“Those universities play no less of a role today,” he says, but his argument is that universities have a long history of poorly protecting religious liberty.

“For a while some American public universities decided they were going to go down the path of some Eastern European or even Russian public universities,” he says, “that basically argued we can’t have anything to do with anyone that’s associated with anything associated with faith.”

It’s easier for private schools like the University of Chicago to support free speech, he says. ASU has signed onto Chicago’s freedom of speech principles, for example.

Crow offers praise for a few other public universities for their defense of the freedoms of speech and religion, naming Purdue, Virginia Tech, Texas A&M and Florida.

Crow says there now are 80,000 students on ASU’s campus. Its admission policies make it, he says, inclusive and egalitarian.

“Welcome to the most connected group of individuals from the broadest set of backgrounds that you can possibly imagine,” he says. “We have more Jewish students at ASU than Brandeis has students, and it’s a largely Jewish university. We have more Muslim students at ASU than Jewish students. We have students from every faith that you can possibly imagine. We have students from 153 countries, including Native American religious heritages, every religious heritage that you can imagine from Africa, Asia, as well as all of the great religions that are prospering in the United States. All of it compressed into one place. It’s almost laughable to see outsiders criticize the universities for not maintaining freedom of speech or freedom of religion. Are you kidding me?”

Seven ways ASU protects, defends and advances freedom of speech

The center of Crow’s talk is a list. He says American and ASU values can’t be taken for granted.

“So I listed out here seven things we do at ASU to protect and defend, and to advance and to further freedom of speech in the hope that our institution can actually be a role model,” he says.

  1. “We fight to protect and advance freedom of speech and religion together.”
  2. “We fight to protect the separation of church and state. There is no state religion in the United States. ... It’s not the state’s place in this republic to determine what is ‘the way.’”
  3. “We advance awareness and education among and between faiths. ... Awareness and education are a way to produce respect for another person’s faith.”
  4. “We work with all faith-based groups to be welcoming and successful. We have 60 faith-based groups at the university.”
  5. “We support values-based teaching and learning. Our institution is not a values-neutral one. How could it be? ... We protect and defend the values represented in the Constitution of the United States.”
  6. “We allow for, encourage and drive forward a focus on the mind, body and spirit.”
  7. “We fight all and any religious bigotry whenever we find it. ... Religious bigots are not tolerated.”
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Fielding a question, Crow credits the creation of what he called a warm, welcoming environment for all religions at ASU with making more parents comfortable sending their children to the school, including Native Americans. He said more than 250 tribes now are represented on campus.

“What we don’t want to do is prohibit spiritual development by basically going too far to the extreme by somehow blocking all of those activities, not letting religious groups meet on campus,” he says. “We let them meet on campus. Churches meet on campus. Religious groups meet on campus. Every group meets on campus. Our council of religious advisement meets on campus. They work together. We allow evangelists on campus. Have at it. It’s your energy and your pursuit, but we have to make sure that it’s fair and protect the interests of our students also. So there are some complications there, but that’s what I mean by using that term.”

Crow has been talking, and answering questions, for 50 minutes. He drives home his point one more time.

“Let me say, since I’m out of time, what I really wanted to do was just let you know that you’re sitting in the (Armstrong) Great Hall of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, at one of the great universities in the republic known as the United States of America advancing freedom of religion and freedom of speech in everything that we do.”

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