The Presbyterians founded Davidson College in North Carolina in 1837—in order, they said, to educate young men “of hopeful talents and piety, preparatory to the Gospel ministry...in humble reliance upon the blessing of God.” Davidson has changed since then, expanding the curriculum and opening its doors to women. It is now widely regarded as one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country, and certainly it is one of the hardest to get into.
Throughout its history, college officials have prized Davidson’s churchly ties, and indeed a visitor need not wander the campus long before coming upon the stately Davidson College Presbyterian Church—a name that could not more tightly conjoin college and church. DCPC is a member congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Some students attend the church, as does the college’s president, Robert Vagt.
Two years ago Vagt asked the board of trustees to consider what the college’s church-relatedness should mean today. Last February the board responded by taking a series of actions: revising the college’s mission statement so the school’s ties are not with the “Presbyterian Church” as such but with the “Reformed Tradition”; amending its by-laws to permit, for the first time, non-Christian trustees; and approving the creation of an endowed chair in Reformed Theology.
This story about Davidson College went unreported in the national press and would not have drawn my attention but for the fact that my daughter is a student at the college, and so I learned about the board’s labors from the student newspaper, The Davidsonian. The decisions quickly proved controversial. Few trustees had voted against the measures, but one who did, John Belk, class of 1943 and the college’s largest individual donor, felt so strongly that only Christians should govern the college that he resigned from the board. Many older alumni sided with Belk on the governance issue, while younger alumni, as well as most faculty members and students, supported the decision. Meanwhile, religion professors weren’t thrilled with the new position to be located within their department: We weren’t consulted, they said, and anyway Reformed Theology is already being taught.
Over the months things have settled, and it is evident that the board’s decisions will stick. Still, the Davidson story is worth a closer look, even for those with no attachments to the college. Davidson happens to be one of many older private colleges that started as Protestant endowments and eventually changed their character in a series of steps that came to seem inevitable. For these colleges, the steps taken were often presented in religious terms. The Davidson example stands out in that way, as the recent decisions demonstrate. The board, made up entirely of professing Christians, did not describe the decisions merely as practical ones compelled by earlier precedents. Instead, the board said the decisions were grounded in Christian faith. That, of course, is a basis for action not available to the next board, assuming it includes non-Christians.
The Davidson story begins early in 2004 with the board’s retreat, where it explored “what it means to be a church-related college in the Reformed Tradition.” The trustees unanimously concluded that “Christian faith and the Reformed Tradition” have been and should continue to be “positive influences” at Davidson. But the trustees felt those subjects weren’t properly treated in the college’s Statement of Purpose (first adopted in 1964), to which trustees, administrators, and faculty must give their support. Nor were many trustees satisfied with the by-laws requirement that all trustees must be “active members of a Christian Church.” The trustees concluded their retreat by appointing an Ad Hoc Committee to review the “issues raised” and to draft recommendations. The committee duly labored, and the full board accepted its proposals after making mostly minor revisions.
The new Statement of Purpose differs from the old mainly in terms of the college’s religious relations. Where the old statement said that “the ties which bind the college to the Presbyterian Church have remained close and strong” and that “the college intends that this vital relationship be continued to the mutual benefit of church and school,” the new statement contains neither reference to the church and recasts the ties that bind as ones between the college and “its Presbyterian heritage, including the historic understanding of Christian faith called the Reformed Tradition.” It also affirms the college’s commitment to continuing “that vital relationship, though nothing is said about its being of “mutual benefit” to church and school.
Nor must trustees vow fidelity—as they did under the old by-laws—in “seeking to increase [Davidson’s] effectiveness as an institution of Christian learning.” The new by-laws instead require trustees to “be faithful in...seeking to honor the traditions that have shaped Davidson as a place where faith and reason work together in mutual respect for service to God and humanity,” the description of the college as “an institution of Christian learning” now deleted. Since honoring a religious tradition is not necessarily the same as believing its teachings, a non-Christian can serve with clear conscience as a trustee.
The new by-laws establish that prospect. They provide that out of “openness to and respect for the world’s various religious traditions and the variety of religious preferences among the graduates and friends of Davidson,” persons “who are not active members of a Christian church” but are otherwise qualified may be recommended for the office of trustee. They also provide that, “as part of continuing the historic commitment of Davidson to the Reformed Tradition of the Christian faith,” at least 80 percent of all elected Trustees” must be “active members of a Christian church.” Thus, up to 20 percent of the 44 elected trustees—why this quota was chosen was not explained—need not satisfy the church requirement. They may be “non-active” church members, or active or inactive members of other religious entities. Or they may be of no religious faith at all.
These changes noted make Davidson less Presbyterian in its churchly relation and less Christian in its institutional identity and governance. This development is worth placing in historical context. In his 1998 book, The Dying of the Light, James Tunstead Burtchaell chronicled (as his subtitle declared) “The Disengagement of America’s Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches.” In his chapter on Davidson, Burtchaell relates how the college was initiated by the Concord Presbytery in North Carolina, which had complete authority over the school and required that trustees and faculty be in “full communion” with the Presbyterian Church. Burtchaell shows how this “Presbyterian enterprise” changed, with much of the story a recent one. In 1964 all faculty members had to attend “a Christian Church” and thus not necessarily a Presbyterian one. Within a decade all professors save those in the religion department were freed of even that, and in 1996 the board said the religion professors didn’t have to go to a Christian church either. The board experienced a similar though less complete passage, as by the early 1970s a trustee had only to be “an active member of a Christian Church.” A proposal to modify that requirement was before the board in 1996, falling several votes short of the two-thirds necessary. This time around, the votes were there.
Trustees and their supporters don’t see the board’s decisions as rendering the college in any way less Presbyterian or less Christian. Indeed, for them it is just the opposite. Consider that the cover letter to alumni transmitting what then were the Ad Hoc Committee’s recommendations said that “the primary outcome” of the process begun with the board’s retreat was “the renewed and unanimous support of Davidson’s faith heritage and its connection with the Presbyterian Church.” Or consider the statement by two former presidents of the college, who said that the board’s decisions reaffirmed and strengthened “the venerable ties between this institution and the Christian faith.”
Now it is true that the decisions explicitly bind the college to the Reformed Tradition, a new development. And there will now be the chair in Reformed Theology—created because such theology is, according to the board, “a component of [Davidson’s] educational mission.” Given the “Reformed” emphasis in the board’s decisions, you can see how a partisan of those decisions might think the college has become more “Reformed” and thus could not possibly be “less Presbyterian” or “less Christian.”
Indeed, the trustees made clear their belief that the Reformed tradition actually provides the basis for their decisions. Writing in the Charlotte Observer, the college chaplain, the Reverend Robert Spach, declared that the Reformed tradition “in which we stand” is not one that “fears, excludes or belittles those who are different” but is “ecumenical in spirit,” the point being that ecumenism—a truth now more fully understood, apparently—compelled opening board membership to non-Christians. Spach envisioned the “pursuit of truth” by an ecumenical board: “We [Christians] tell others what we believe and also humbly...listen to [the] beliefs” of “people of other faiths”—and “perhaps” learn “from each other.” For Spach, an ecumenical board will be better able to pursue truth than an entirely Christian board.
Is it worth mentioning that the original Reformers—Luther and Calvin and those in their train—had a somewhat different idea of the Reformed tradition? The Davidson reformers have no church as the object of their reform. Their standard for reform invokes theological language but encompasses nothing biblically distinctive. Indeed, the reformers’ ecumenism will be recognized as diversity or pluralism elsewhere in higher education, since the essential meaning is the same.
Soon the college will have an opportunity to offer a considered view of Reformed Theology. Must the new chair holder be active in a Reformed congregation, or might any Christian denomination do? Or might the person not be an atheist or agnostic? And with regard to Reformed Theology, what, substantively, will the new professor be expected to teach? Is Reformed Theology the most consistent statement of Christian faith there is, as some of its finest advocates have held? Most important, is it true in any exclusive sense? Does it draw any boundaries? Or is it so open to other beliefs that it is empty at the core?
Not incidentally, the Presbyterian Church (USA) faces similar questions. Shortly before his death, the distinguished Presbyterian theologian John Haddon Leith of Union Theological Seminary expressed concern over his church’s “inability to give a clear New Testament answer to the question Jesus put to his disciples, ‘But who do you say that I am?’” In Crisis in the Church, Leith cited “the continual pressure in a pluralistic society” to answer that question by saying that “even if he is the word of God made flesh, he is only one of many words.” Leith told his fellow Presbyterians that “in the doctrinal standards of the [church] no pluralism or diversity exists as to the faith by which the church lives and that distinguishes it from the secular culture.” It is a more serious matter for a church than for a college to fail to answer this question correctly. Yet it cannot be a mere trifle how a college that believes it has reaffirmed and strengthened its ties to the Christian faith responds.
Davidson has been under the pressure of pluralism for so long that it may be unable to draw any boundaries. In his book, Burtchaell recalls that in its 1964 Statement of Purpose Davidson understood itself as “a worshipping as well as studying community,”for only such a community could “nurture the whole man” and be “genuinely Christian.” Three years later the college ended all corporate worship. Today the college has eliminated most of the provisions designed to maintain that original, worshipping community, one of the last still on the books being the now parodic requirement that the college’s president be an active member of the campus church. The college hosts a community that studies, to be sure, but also aims, as a former Davidson president has put it, to embrace all people and support “their spirituality.” That, he says, is what it means to be “a profoundly Christian institution.”
It is elementary that colleges exist to educate students, and Davidson students committed to “the historic understanding of Christian faith called the Reformed Tradition” will fairly wonder whether the college is any place to look for instruction in Christian theology or, for that matter, Christian ethics. Not that the college fails to do many things well. It is in the highest rank academically, with many outstanding teachers. But students who confess the historic faith cannot be faulted for looking elsewhere for guidance on such fundamental matters. Indeed, the deepest lesson of the Davidson story is that the Church of Jesus Christ is not to be confused with a church-related college, that a church-related college can go its own way. The Davidson trustees did not intend to teach that, but it is the accurate lesson of the college’s last all-Christian board.
Terry Eastland is publisher of the Weekly Standard.