Bahai News -- McLennan's path Publication Date: Wednesday, December 18, 2002

McLennan's path

Stanford's dean of religious life promotes spirituality in a 9/11world

The Rev. Scotty Mclennan became dean of religious life at Stanford on Jan. 1, 2001, after a long stint as university chaplain at Tufts University.

A Midwesterner from suburban Chicago and a graduate of Yale, McLennan lives on campus with his wife Ellen. They have a son, Will, who is a Stanford junior and another son, Dan, who has been accepted to Stanford but is taking a year off before starting.

McLennan is also well-known as the Yale roommate of "Doonesbury" cartoonist Gary Trudeau and the partial inspiration for the recurring character the Rev. Scott Sloan in the comic strip.

McLennan is the author of two books, "Finding Your Religion," and "Church on Sunday, Work on Monday," which he co-authored with Laura Nash, a senior research fellow at Harvard Business School.

McLennan talked recently with Weekly senior staff writer Don Kazak about the mood on campus one year after 9/11, how the religious communities on campus are faring, and the "Doonesbury" connection.

An edited transcript of that interview follows.

Palo Alto Weekly: Was there something specific that gave you the calling to become a minister? Was there something about that time (the late 1960s) that made you think this was the best way you could use your life?

McLennan: Those times were absolutely critical times in my formation. I went from being quite a conservative Midwesterner politically and religiously to, at a time in high school when I thought there couldn't be a God at all because of all the terrible things that continued to happen in the world.

I was very influenced by the chaplain when I was at Yale, his name was William Sloane Coffin. He was a peace activist against the war in Vietnam, he was a Civil Rights activist, he was also much more liberal in his perspective (than the norm at Yale), and he was also a Presbyterian. I was a Presbyterian growing up.

He had a seminar for "friendly disbelievers," and I took that seminar when I arrived as a freshman. He opened me up to a much more liberal view of Christianity, and to other world religions.

I spent the summer after my freshman year in India living with a Hindu priest, that was also very formative for me. I got very interest in Ghandi and non-violence, and got involved in the anti-war movement myself.

So I really came to religion through activism, but also through an interest in religious questions -- Why are we here? Is there any meaning?

And also intellectually. Because I had cleaned the slate for myself intellectually as a self-proclaimed atheist, I was able to find in my academic studies little signs and signals of transcendence that began building a religious world-view back up from scratch.

PAW: Was there an epiphany at some point? And some point did you realize, yeah, you were probably going to do this?

McLennan: Really by my sophomore year, after coming back from India. I had always planned to be a lawyer my whole life, that was the plan, and so I never stopped planning to be a lawyer. But I decided to also go to (Harvard) divinity school, and somehow merge law and divinity.

It turns out that my first 10 years out of law school and divinity school I ran something called the Unitarian Universalist Legal Ministry in an inner city neighborhood in Boston, where we tried to provide legal services but with an orientation to look at our clients' whole life.

PAW: You've spent most of your life growing up in the Midwest or on the East Coast, and I'm wondering now how you feel about your decision to come to Stanford?

McLennan: It's wonderful . . . It's a very, very different environment. You put that together with the weather. You can stand in the middle of the Quad here and you can look down Palm Drive, and it looks like you're looking into infinity, with the big sky and the sense of openness. I guess that goes back to gold rush mentality and the Silicon Valley mentality.

PAW: What does the dean of religious life do at Stanford? I suspect there's a ministerial aspect to it, a counseling aspect to it.

McLennan: To put it in its most simple form, I'm here to provide spiritual, religious and ethical leadership to the university. That's obviously a very wide job description.

Another way of thinking of it is I am the umbrella for all of the religious activities on campus, the campus ministries, the religious organizations, and work that we do out of this office for religious life. Anything related to the practice of religion really comes under my hat.

We have a Religious Studies Department on campus that studies religion as a human phenomena, that's a difference in how we divide up our responsibilities.

Maybe 20 percent of my time is spent in one-to-one counseling with students and faculty and staff. A good part of my time is spent on all the liturgical events that come up on a regular basis: weekly worship at Sunday morning at 10 here in Memorial Church, weddings -- we have four or five weddings a weekend, I don't do them all but I'm often involved with them -- memorial services, and various invocations and benedictions at university events.

Then there is teaching. I teach in the regular curriculum. I taught a course to undergraduates last year called "Ethics and the Professions." I'll teach a course this next spring for business students on business ethics. We also do a lot of programming from here, programming into the residence halls at night, conferences and symposia, grief groups, interfaith dialogue groups of various kinds.

I am also very much concerned with the prophetic issues of war and peace, of wealth and poverty, and raise those issues both on campus and get involved in those activities in the larger community.

Another thing I do is I work closely with the administration, as providing some advice and consultation, as requested, to the president and the provost.

PAW: One of the things that makes Stanford such a vibrant and interesting place is there are so many cultures here, with people, especially in the graduate schools, coming here from all around the world. There are so many religious communities . . .

McLennan: From Baha'i's to Zoroastrians, I wish we had an "A."

PAW: To what degree is interfaith dialogue happening on campus? I suspect there is a relatively high degree of tolerance on campus between religious groups. Is that a pretty safe assumption?

McLennan: Yes, in fact you will see that a requirement to be one of these 30 groups (in Stanford Associated Religions) is that you support the university's stated exercise of free inquiry and its pursuit of the highest standards of intellectual and moral excellence, while representing your own group forthrightly while at the same time treating with respect the religious traditions of others. That's an important part of what it means to operate in this community.

At the meetings we have a couple of times a quarter for Stanford Associated Religions, often we will be sharing on something like faith or war and peace amongst ourselves so we are constantly in a learning process with the variety of traditions represented on campus.

Then, when you get an event like 9/11, we will do something like we did out on the Quad... where we will have representatives of all those traditions coming together. And we do that regularly on campus anyway.

PAW: 9/11 changed a lot of things in the world, in our lives and how we think. I'm wondering if it changed religious life on campus and spiritual awareness.

McLennan: I think it had a huge impact on this campus in terms of a sense of community. It really brought people together, immediately thereafter and it has continued to provide people a chance to think anew of what it means to be part of the human community, and to support each other from a wide variety of backgrounds.

For example, soon after 9/11 we decided to try to support the Muslim community, not only (Stanford President John Hennessy) with advice from this office, but with others on campus issuing very strong statements about not tolerating any kind of religious discrimination on campus.

But we also gathered for a Friday afternoon service where we gathered outside the Old Union, and provided information to other people about what Islamic worship looks like . . . and for the Muslim community to feel supported by all of the other religious communities on campus.

That sort of thing has been a real legacy of 9/11.

There's also been a lot of information provided, in the formal classroom setting, in symposia and lectures and a variety of other ways, about Islam, and about the interactions of the core religious traditions on campus. That's been a constant theme following 9/11.

PAW: President Bush is starting to get hammered very hard by some of the fundamentalist Christian ministers for his statements about Islam being largely a peaceful religion. Some of those ministers are saying, no, Islam is evil.

McLennan: I have to say that I have been very encouraged and impressed by President Bush's response, on this particular issue, right from the start.

Muslims are part of our population, these are fellow citizens. The religion itself, like all major world religions, is at its core peace loving. And like all major world religions -- he doesn't say this but I would say this -- there is a propensity toward violence.

I could probably bore you for a long time with the litany of how every single major world religion has very strong traditions of violence.

With Christianity it's obviously from the Crusades through the Inquisition up to the Holocaust. Very strong traditions of violence.

And use of religion as a rationale for violence . . . Other parts of the tradition would say the Holocaust had nothing to do with Christianity, even though Hitler used Christian ideology as part of his defense of the Holocaust.

PAW: So your advice to President Bush would be to hold firm with what he is saying about Muslims.

McLennan: Absolutely. It is a slur on Islam to claim that that tradition promotes violence, any more than the claim that Christianity promotes violence.

PAW: It feels very positive the way groups on campus are supporting each other.

McLennan: But it should quickly be said that the Muslim groups got a slew of hate-mail after 9/11.

PAW: There may be more terrorist events coming. There have been things happening overseas -- the bombings in Bali, there's always things happening on the West Bank. If there are more terrorist acts in the United States, and more Americans die in what are identified as attacks by Islamic fundamentalists, al Qaeda or whatever, do you have any fears that whatever tolerance we have for Muslims will be endangered?

McLennan: If attacks continue and they are identified as Muslim attacks, indeed, that's a continued risk of continued discrimination against American Muslims.

But it's worthy of note that a lot of American attacks like the Oklahoma City bombing were based on Christian ideology. And you think of (David) Korash and Waco, Texas, and so on. Do we continue to use the word Christian terrorists, Christian bombers, or do we talk about terrorism and bombers and so on, instead of using that label?

It's also a media problem, it seems to me. It's not fair to keep using terminology that identifies this as somehow Islamic activity when there are a number of Christian groups, based on their Christian ideology -- including a number of militia groups, Aryan Nation and discriminatory groups of various kinds -- that we don't keep labeling with the Christian label . . .

PAW: Because none of us would think of them in any way as representing Christianity.

McLennan: Exactly. These are people who are maybe using the Christian label, but we certainly wouldn't own that, so why do we do we do this with Islam? It's an interesting question.

PAW: Do you feel that you've been personally changed by 9/11 and the aftermath? Do you look at things somehow a little bit differently? Do you have different sensitivities you didn't have before?

McLennan: I think the two different sensitivities I have are, one, the sense of community and the importance of community, and the importance of thinking about what really matters in life. That's come out in my own work and my own thinking.

And, on the other hand, the issue of war and peace which, since my Vietnam War days, has not been as clearly on the front-burner as it is now. And helping people think conscientiously about these decisions to go to war.

And that means having a lot more careful analysis of "just war" theories that Christianity, Muslim and other traditions have had historically. Of Geneva conventions, of the U.S. Military Code, of historical protection of civilians in international law. And of pacificism and conscientious objection to war.

When is war appropriate at all, if ever?

And trying to promote discussions and hard thinking about when and how and whether one goes to war.

PAW: Does that enter into any of the spiritual values you might be giving people on a one-to-one basis?

McLennan: Yes, peripherally you can see people reacting to things in ways they wouldn't before 9/11, but they may not be specific about it.

But some of them are being specific about it. They are saying, What would happen if there would be a draft? There are faculty who are literally putting their lives on the line by doing things like going to Iraq with Christian peace-making teams to sit with Christian families in Iraq, and bring medical supplies and humanitarian supplies.

PAW: Can we talk about "Doonesbury?"

McLennan: Sure.

PAW: You went to Yale with Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau.

McLennan: We were roommates at Yale. We had a group of roommates who went through three of the four years together, in complexes of rooms together. He used his roommates and friends in his (cartoon) strip on campus, which was called "Bull tales."

And that strip went national and became called Doonesbury, and the characters kind of continued on into the national environment.

The very name Doonesbury comes from another of our roommates called Charley Pillsbury, who comes from the flour family. Pillsbury, when we went through Yale our nickname for him was the Doone. So he took his nickname and put it together with half of his last name.

And all of his characters are composite in some way.

PAW: But you can identify in some way with Scott Sloan (McLennan's Doonsebury character) . . .

McLennan: Yes, that character, in terms of the face and hair and way he looked 30 years ago, was my face and red hair and so on. But "Sloan" comes from William Sloane Coffin, so he was trying to create this classic chaplain concept. I have the great honor to be linked with my mentor in this strip forever.

PAW: Are you still in contact with Trudeau?

McLennan: Yes. He came out and preached at my installation sermon in the spring of 2001. Also, I book I wrote, "Finding Your Religion," he was kind enough to endorse on the back of the book. Both he and William Sloane Coffin came to Tufts and we had this wonderful celebration and kick-off of the book. Gary wrote the introduction to the book.

PAW: Over the years, it's all been in fun, but it's also been about somewhat serious stuff. Did Trudeau peg your right in the strip?

McLennan: Well, you quickly want to say, it's a composite character, a character with its own life, and so on. But he started out with a character, as he said in the introduction, that bore some resemblance to me and to Bill Coffin. And there have been plenty of times I've said over the years, oh, that character is doing things I hope I never do and so on.

But Gary doesn't take any advice from me about what his character should do (laughs). And it's an honor to be related to a very close friend in this way. And this character is more benign than most (Doonesbury) characters.

Don Kazak can be e-mailed at

©Copyright 2002, Palo Alto Weekly (Palo Alto, CA, USA)

Return to: UGA Baha'i Association's Home Page
Baha'i News Archives' Index
This page was designed by Sohayl Moshtael suggestions, and news submissions are welcome, and appreciated.

The content and opinions expressed on this Web page do not necessarily reflect the views of nor are they endorsed by the University of Georgia or the University System of Georgia.

Page last updated/revised 021217