In her column last week, Rebecca Aman ’20 argued that Brown should change its Latin motto from “In Deo Speramus,” — meaning “In God We Hope” — to “Speramus,” — meaning “We hope.” The original motto, she writes, “is not only contradictory to our founding values but also undermines our contemporary commitment to diversity and inclusion.”
Both of these claims misunderstand Brown’s purpose for retaining the Latin motto. Like Brown’s seal, the motto is an indelible artifact of the University’s history, rather than a reflection of Brown’s values in 2019. It contributes to Brown’s identity by reminding us of this history. For this reason, it is worth preserving.
It is worth mentioning that I count myself among the 19 percent of Brown students who, in the poll that Aman cites, identify as atheist. I have no particular attachment to this “Deo”; I do not think that God contributes anything to Brown’s community and values anymore, nor that He ought to. But I do appreciate institutional history, and I cannot ignore the integral role that God used to play at Brown, both at its founding and at the time when the University adopted its motto and seal.
Aman is right to point out that at the time of its founding, Brown was especially tolerant of different sects and creeds, at least in comparison to other universities. But she downplays the fundamentally religious nature of Brown’s founding and early history. Brown was primarily a Baptist institution. In 1763, the Philadelphia Baptists Association sent the Reverend James Manning, the University’s future first president, to Rhode Island with the explicit purpose of founding a Baptist college. The charter specified that the president had to be Baptist, and this rule was not amended until as late as 1926. Since 1776, for over two centuries, Brown has held commencements in the First Baptist Church in America, built “for the publick Worship of Almighty GOD; and also for holding Commencement in.” But if we were to take Aman’s argument to its logical extent, then we should also stop hosting commencement in the Church. I suspect that even the most secular among us would object to doing away with such a time-honored tradition.
Aman’s logic takes us in some other unwelcome directions. Brown’s current seal, commissioned along with the motto in 1834, contains a conspicuous red cross — unambiguous religious imagery. Both the seal and the motto are records of Brown’s institutional history. One could argue that, just like the motto, the seal alienates non-Christian students and therefore ought to be removed. But no one is asking Brown to get rid of the iconic seal. To get rid of the seal, just like the motto, would be to deny and erase the parts of Brown’s history that one just so happens not to like.
Fortunately, Brown can retain the Christian imagery and language in its motto as historical artifacts and not as reflections of the community’s values today. Other universities do the same thing. Yale’s seal depicts the Bible, imprinted with the Hebrew words Urim and Thummim from the Old Testament. Its current Latin motto “Lux et Veritas” is supposed to be a translation of the two Hebrew words. Princeton’s seal also depicts the Bible, and its Latin motto is “Dei Sub Numine Viget” — “Under God’s power she flourishes.” Today, despite their Christian insignia, these institutions are no less secular than Brown. The point is that such insignia inform us about the institutions’ past, not their present, and for that reason they are valuable.
Aman concedes that her proposal “would not necessarily require the University to remove the motto from the few places where it is still depicted” on campus. This makes sense; I cannot imagine anyone wanting to etch out “In Deo Speramus” from atop the Van Wickle Gates. The gates are, after all, one of the campus’s most iconic artifacts, even though they were built in 1901, late in Brown’s history. Brown comprises an amalgam of physical structures, iconography, traditions and rituals that originated in many different historical periods. All of them together, from the Van Wickle Gates to the commencement ceremony in the First Baptist Hall — and, yes, even the current Latin motto — define the University.
An institution is defined as much by its history as it is by its contemporary values. My guess is that every student — regardless of whether they believe in one god, many gods or no god at all — can appreciate this fact.
James Flynn ’20.5 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.