IIThe Concordia case, for all its paradigmatic significance, is not by itself a fully satisfactory referent for the issues involved in the problem of academic freedom and the religious university. Start with the policy of the AAUP with respect to the interpretive history of the 1940 Statement . One can imagine that a great many secular academics committed to the substantive view of the AAUP”that there should be no religious restrictions on academic freedom”would nonetheless concede that the Association’s handling of the issue has constituted a bad faith exercise in semantic obfuscation that does violence to the meaning of words and to the reputation of the organization that allowed that exercise to proceed. A straightforward repudiation of the Limitations Clause would solve that problem, which, for all its current practical importance, is after all irrelevant to the central issue at hand. There is also, not incidentally, the distinction between a theological seminary and a church-related university. Most people would concede it reasonable to extend a more expansive definition of academic freedom to a University of Notre Dame than to a Catholic seminary preparing men for the priesthood, or to a Valparaiso University than to a Concordia Seminary. But here, unlike the case with the treatment of the Limitations Clause, the problem cannot be solved neatly. Just how expansive should that more expansive definition of academic freedom be? Should it be infinite, or, if not, where should the line be drawn? The first thing that needs to be said here is that wherever that line is properly drawn, the decision as to the drawing of it should be made by the religious institutions involved, and not by external groups such as the government, academic accrediting agencies, or secular representatives of the professoriate like the AAUP. Religious universities, we should remember, have academic freedom rights of their own. The Supreme Court, in a 1957 decision written by Felix Frankfurter, acknowledged “the four essential freedoms of a university”to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.” No professor, after all, is required to take a job at a religious university, and so long as the university lays out clearly in advance the restrictions it imposes, it should be free to interpret and apply rules of academic freedom according to its lights (which, to recall again, was the original position of the AAUP). But to settle the question of right is not at all to solve the problem of prudence. Granted that religious universities have the right to limit academic freedom, the question remains: to what extent, if at all, should they do so? The dilemma, for which no conclusive, one-size-fits-all solution can be offered, stems from the religious university’s dual nature as both a community of inquiry (Athens) and a community of conviction (Jerusalem). A university, qua university, is involved in an endless and unfettered pursuit of truth, a pursuit originating in skepticism toward received truths, whereas religion, at least Christian religion, must, if it is to be true to itself, in some sense simply claim to be the already revealed and unsurpassable truth. The community of conviction, of religious faith, speaks necessarily of orthodoxy and heresy (after all, no heresy, no orthodoxy), terms inadmissible in the community of inquiry”though the pathology of political correctness reminds us that even the most secular of academic institutions are not immune to the inquisitorial impulse. This Athens/Jerusalem tension has, for a very long time now, tilted overwhelmingly in the direction of Athens. Richard Hofstadter noted some forty years ago that of all the themes in the history of American higher education, “the oldest and the longest sustained is the drift toward secularism.” Scholars such as James T. Burtchaell and George M. Marsden have, in these pages, described in detail the process by which higher education in America”even at universities that began as church-related institutions”drifted more and more in the secularist direction indicated by Hofstadter. The general pattern, continuing into the present, has been from specific denominational affiliation to generic Christianity to generic religiosity to outright secularity. The dominant pressures of the modern academy point in the same direction. Faculty members at academically ambitious religious universities, socialized by their graduate training, focus their energies more on research than on teaching. As they do so, they tend to focus less on the distinct religious preoccupations of their institutions, since those preoccupations are more likely to be relevant to the classroom than to the highly specialized and particularistic tasks of scholarship. Similarly, professionally ambitious academics direct their loyalties more to the disciplines in which they work than to the institutions at which they happen to do that work. Their loyalty is to the scholarly guild and its standards and norms rather than to the concerns of their academic residence. Thus, duly socialized modern academics are inclined to insist that in matters like hiring and retention of faculty nothing other than academic promise, as defined by the norms of the relevant disciplines, should come into play. Intrusion into those matters of questions concerning religious commitment or dedication to the particular purposes of the institution comes to seem at best parochial, at worst a betrayal of the academic calling. All this and more makes it difficult for religious universities, especially those with academic pretensions, not to let their duties to Athens reduce to the vanishing point their loyalty to Jerusalem. The clear and present danger in church-related universities today is not that they will give over the academy to the religious obscurantists and yahoos, but that, in an incremental process so subtle and gradual as hardly to be noticed, they will give up the particular religious commitments for which they presumably exist. The point is not that the Athens/Jerusalem tension should be resolved unequivocally in the direction of Jerusalem, but that it should be maintained, and that, so maintained, it will exist in a perpetual state of irresolvable and therefore unsettling uncertainty. For most of us, any university worthy of the name will remain a place where people are involved in deep and fundamental argument with each other. That is simply”and gloriously”the nature of the place. And few Christian institutions today will find normal difficulty in letting the university be what it naturally is. Most versions of Christianity, after all, do not pretend to offer all-inclusive answers to all philosophical dilemmas and questions; they do not presume to intellectual (or even moral) comprehensiveness. Most Christians”and I hope I am not simply revealing my Lutheran biases here”would remain skeptical not only of Christian physics or Christian chemistry but also of Christian economics, Christian history, or Christian political science. For most religious universities, in other words, most of their life and work most of the time will be carried on without questions of academic freedom ever arising. Yet for almost any Christian confession worthy of the name, there remain certain fundamental issues of faith and morals, violation of which constitutes violation of the confession itself. When such issues and occasions arise, academic freedom cannot be in religious universities the trump it would be in secular institutions. And those of us who would argue for a carefully restricted demarking of those fundamental issues are nonetheless required to respect the right of other Christians to define them more expansively. What should not be tolerated in the church-related university are those faculty members for whom religious questions are matters either of contempt and ridicule or dismissive unconcern. Religious universities justify themselves in the larger academic world by raising and contemplating questions that are not elsewhere engaged”an argument, one might say, for diversity, if that term were not so corrupted by current usage”and those who are not willing to engage such questions have no proper place there. The hesitancy of most church-related universities to define academic freedom in terms relevant to their distinctive purposes stems from their thralldom to the reigning norms of the secular academy. And they are in thrall precisely to the degree that they aspire to respectability and prestige within the secular academic community. A Bob Jones University, after all, can maintain its radically sectarian independence because it does not care what the “respectable” academic community thinks of it. I would not for a moment suggest Bob Jones U. as a model for religious universities to follow, but I would encourage church-related institutions to keep in mind its unconcerned independence of spirit. Although I was of two minds at the time, I now fully agree with the president of Concordia Seminary, who, informed in 1988 of the AAUP’s concern with the Seminary’s policy on academic freedom, told the Association that its attitudes on the issue were entirely alien to the Seminary’s fundamental purposes, and that the Seminary’s internal affairs were, for that reason among others, none of the Association’s business. Religious universities need, if they are to confront the issue of academic freedom with neither defensiveness, obduracy, nor fear, a recovery of nerve and will. To achieve that, they need to come to terms with the history of church-related universities in America, a history of largely self-imposed subservience. The moral of the story of the decline and fall of most religious universities in this country is clear: the road from religion to secularity that most of them followed was paved with massive institutional forgetfulness and disastrous good intentions. The movement from religious commitment to secularity was the result most often not of any secularist plot but rather of a fit of absence of mind, combined with a lusting after acceptance by the secularist academic establishment. Schools that had been born Christian, that had stayed Christian, that had assumed they would always remain Christian, suddenly awoke to find they were no longer Christian, or were so far down the road past Christian identity that it was too late to recover. The historical record shows that the critical steps down the slippery slope to secularity were almost always initiated by administrators and faculty members who did not intend secularity at all. They wanted to improve their institution’s academic standing, to move beyond sectarianism, parochialism, and church control in the direction of greater acceptance in the scholarly community. Almost all of the formerly Christian institutions that capitulated to secularity lost their religious identity incrementally and by inadvertence, not by one critical step or by conscious policy. The question of academic freedom for religious universities needs to be understood in the light of this history. The response to that history should not be one of defensive protectiveness, but of a certain serenity of conviction. The fundamental issue for the preservation of religious distinctiveness in American higher education is whether, given the message of modernity, any such serenity is still intellectually available. For those of us who believe that it is, who are persuaded that the secular enlightenment model does not exhaust authentic ways of knowing, the opportunities for religious universities to define their own norms of academic freedom may be seen not as negative requirements but as positive occasions for affirmation of their distinctive visions and purposes. The religious university, after all, sets its own rules of academic freedom not in order to restrict the pursuit of truth by those within its walls but to affirm those higher truths that determine its existence in the first place. In contradistinction to the secular academy, the religious university’s controlling norm is not radical individual autonomy. It is rather that suggested by C. S. Lewis. “I was not born to be free,” Lewis said, “I was born to adore and to obey.” It is in their freely assumed responsibilities to adore and to obey that religious communities, and the religious universities they establish, find their reasons for being. And it is in light of their reasons for being”and without regard to the arrogant intrusions of the secular academy”that religious universities should frame their policies on academic freedom. *I was made aware of the Ganzaga case”and of the 1957 Supreme Court decision noted below”by Michael McConnell’s “Academic Freedom in Religious Colleges and Universities,” Law and Contemporary Problems , Vol. 53, No. 3, Summer 1990. Anyone interested in the subject of academic freedom and religious universities should consult McConnell’s thoughtful essay.
James Nuechterlein is Editor of First Things .
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