The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops have recently approved procedures for certifying that theologians teaching Catholic theology at Catholic colleges do in fact teach Catholic theology. While the decision was decried by some as an assault on academic freedom, the bishops explained that they were only trying to stem the sort of widespread secularization of higher education that has affected Protestant schools. Though many observers had already recognized a secularizing trend in Catholic higher education, James Tunstead Burtchaell’s seminal 1998 book The Dying of the Light was the first work to thoroughly document the widespread loss of religious identity in America’s Christian colleges and universities since the 1960s. Reporting not only on faculty members’ dwindling sense of religious commitment, but also on administrators’ laissez-faire attitude toward student behavior, and students’ diminishing respect for religious authority and alarming lack of knowledge about their faith, Burtchaell issued a wake-up call to those interested in the future of Christian higher education.
Now, three years later, several observers are revisiting the issue. Robert Benne, a professor at Roa noke College, agrees with Burt chaell’s fundamental premise. But in his new book, Quality with Soul, Benne presents what he believes to be the exceptions to Burtchaell’s rule, describing six schools that in his view have “kept faith with their religious traditions.” The schools he examines—Calvin, Wheaton, Valparaiso, Notre Dame, Baylor, and St. Olaf—have all managed to combine academic rigor with a seriously religious education both inside and outside the classroom.
Benne identifies several key ad ministrative policies that can make or break a school’s religious identity. Calvin College, for example, is supported by a network of “tightly knit and highly disciplined churches and a system of elementary and secondary schools.” Both the financial and moral support of the founding church and a ready supply of students who strongly identify with the faith are important components in the fight against secularism, not least because they help to guarantee financial security, the lack of which, according to both Benne and Burtchaell, has been a factor in the secularization process. In order to compete with secular rivals, many religious institutions have built expensive campus facilities and devoted precious resources to attracting famous scholars with little to no commitment or loyalty to the school’s religious identity.
Benne points out that once the religious commitment of a school’s faculty wanes, it begins to lose its religious character. The issue is not restricted to religion or theology departments, the areas recently addressed by the Catholic bishops. Rather, Benne emphasizes the importance of the entire faculty’s involvement in the integration of faith and knowledge. Wheaton College (an interdenominational Christian school in Illinois), for instance, requires all new professors to participate in a Faculty Seminar in Faith and Learning, which introduces them to the religious mission of the school. During their second year, faculty must attend a weekly seminar covering such topics as “The Biblical and Theological Foundations of the Christian Account” and “Christianity and the Liberal Arts.”
Quality with Soul also details the importance of administrative involvement in student life. Benne praises the in loco parentis role of school authorities at Notre Dame, for instance, where dorms are segregated by sex and an extensive system of rectors enforces the university rules regarding alcohol use and visitation by members of the opposite sex.
While Benne offers numerous useful observations about how schools can maintain their religious identities, he goes a bit far in seeking to provide his readers with a “recipe for success.” The result, unfortunately, is a certain amount of pseudoscientific oversimplification. For instance, his graph, on which such factors as “ethos” and “public rhetoric” are plotted against such categories as “orthodox” or “intentionally pluralistic,” is not terribly illuminating.
Benne’s largely theoretical work is complemented by another new book, Religion on Campus, which paints impressively detailed pictures of four colleges. Although the authors (Conrad Cherry, Betty A. DeBerg, and Amanda Porterfield, professors at Indiana University, the University of Northern Iowa, and the University of Wyoming, respectively) are academics, they have written a journalistic rather than an academic study. In an effort to explore whether secularization has, in fact, become the order of the day in higher education, the authors spent a few months at each of four schools, which are, somewhat oddly, given such nondescript aliases as South University and North College. They interviewed faculty, students, and administrators, and attended classes and meetings of campus religious organizations. The result is a colorful and useful portrait of the role of faith in the life of these schools.
The first school, a large western state university, is the only officially secular school discussed in the book. It has a plethora of religious organizations, including Catholic and Lutheran ministries and a Hillel Jewish student center. Each of the school’s numerous religious groups has enjoyed a certain amount of financial stability ever since the Supreme Court handed down its Rosenberger decision, which held that religious organizations had to be treated like any other student group when university funds are distributed. Nonetheless, the authors conclude that the “state of religion at WU may be summed up in economic terms as healthy supply and weak demand.” Despite the best efforts of the school, whose administrators do not at all seem averse to religious activity on campus (group prayers, for instance, are permitted before athletic events, and the admissions office passes along names of applicants who report religious affiliation to the appropriate ministry), only about 10 percent of the student body is involved in organized religious activity on campus.
What is more interesting, the authors point out, is the kind of religion practiced by those students. Many religious organizations have submitted to student demands that they cut back on formal services in favor of support groups, retreats, and community service activities. At a certain point, it becomes hard to discern any distinctive religiosity in the activities. During a weekly meeting of the Wesley Foundation (a United Metho dist group), students do take communion, but most of the meeting involves singing folk songs and chatting about the challenges of campus life. In answer to the leader’s question “How can we keep the spark of God burning inside us this week?” the responses included “I’m a vegetarian and that’s religious to me,” “Smile,” and “Take time to be quiet and alone.” Another student who is active in the (Catholic) Newman Center, calls herself a “spiritual junky,” citing as an example her experience of turning out the lights in the room with a male friend and listening to an Indigo Girls CD.
Spirituality, as opposed to participation in organized religious rituals, is a major presence at the other schools the authors visit. At East University, a Catholic school, the university chaplain told the authors, “Catholicism comes across as being about rules and regulations. But undergraduates are at a time in life when they’re not really interested in rules and regulations.” So the school often goes outside the Catholic tradition to stimulate student spirituality. About 30 percent of the incoming freshmen participate in a two-day retreat modeled “on the idea of taking the Indian brave into the forest away from the tribe” in which students are taught to “recombine and reconceptualize the elements of their lives.” Similarly, when the authors asked the student government president at South University, a historically African-American college, whether students were religious, he answered, “No, but most of them are very spiritual.” While the students at South University, North College, and East University attend church to varying degrees, many of them talk about their “personal relationship with God” as largely separate from their religious community and particular denomination.
To their credit, students do use their religious groups to organize community service events. At East University, they volunteer at soup kitchens. At North College, they boast one of the highest numbers of graduates entering the Peace Corps. And at South University, students serve as counselors at a center for battered women.
But students don’t really need campus ministers in order to accomplish community service, or to achieve what they regard as a personal relationship with God. As a result, the role of religious leaders on these campuses is unclear. At North College, the ministers make more of an attempt to befriend the students than to serve in an authoritative capacity. There the authors attended a “Jello wrestling match” between the college pastor and the dean of students. While the event was organized to raise money for charity, the question of whether it was worth the demeaning activity seems not to have crossed anyone’s mind.
And while students have little idea of what constitutes religious practice in their extracurricular lives, the attempt to teach religion in the classroom seems even more muddled. At the state school, the answer seems easy: teach about all religions but avoid presenting any one faith as superior to any other. But at East University (the Catholic school) the administration and faculty seem confused. On the one hand, although there are “numerous non-Catholics [among the faculty] representing a wide spectrum of religious belief,” the consensus in the religion department seems to be that it extends “the presumption of truth to the Catholic religion.” But, on the other hand, two-thirds of the students taking classes in the theology department reported that “their professor did not advocate any religious perspective.” Some of the religion courses seem academically rigorous and religiously serious, but in another a student reported that during the first week back from Christmas break class time was devoted to “hugging each other and finding out how we were.”
Although there is much concern among administrators and faculty members at the religious schools that professors will be too biased when teaching about Christianity, professors of other world religions (usually hired by the schools to instill diversity in the student body) do not have any qualms about proclaiming the truth of their religions. While Karen Cassidy, who teaches the History of Christianity at North College, calls herself “a historian whose topic happens to be religion,” Sinad Banik tells his classes that he is a “Hindu scholar rather than simply a scholar of Hinduism.”
While the commitment to teaching “religious diversity” is quite strong at the state school, the Lutheran college, and the Catholic university, it is not much of an issue at South University. And with the exception of one or two professors who organized “religious emphasis week” (during which representatives of other world religions were brought in for a few sparsely attended lectures) there seems to be remarkably little controversy about this. In some ways, the school’s overwhelmingly African-American population gives it an advantage that other religious schools used to have. That is, the religiously homogeneous character of the student population permits faculty to teach Christianity in the classroom and encourage its practice on campus without the fear of offending many students. The authors describe the unself-conscious way that religion is still practiced at SU:
One of the most remarkable features of religion on this campus was the manner in which virtually every public event became a worship service. Founders Day, freshman investiture, commencement, convocation, and the coronation of the homecoming queen were framed as orders of worship, included the presence of the chaplain, were saturated with religious music, and focused on religious messages. . . . The ethos was . . . decidedly shaped by public religious ritual.
While such rituals were once common at many American colleges, both secular and religious, Cherry and his coauthors clearly show that nowadays SU is the rare exception. Although they have added to Burtchaell’s picture, they have not really contradicted it. While the authors report having “found little evidence that the strong tendencies toward religious freedom and religious pluralism led to any lack of religious vitality” in the campuses they visited, their account suggests otherwise: faculty and administrators are afraid to offend students by supporting religious “rules and regulations” or by teaching Christian doctrine. In its place, they substitute a mushier sort of “spirituality” and feel-good “togetherness.” It is probably impossible to separate cause and effect, but on most American campuses today, as in the broader society, the vitality of religion as an intellectually serious and morally authoritative activity is not conspicuous.
Naomi Schaefer, a new contributor, is writing a book about religious higher education in America.