Secular Universities Now As Religious as Puritan Harvard

Secular Universities Now As Religious as Puritan Harvard January 11, 2019

How’s that for click-bait? But if you thought today’s universities was filled either with secularist lefties or party-going sporting-event spectators, you haven’t been reading.

First, from the authors of a new book about religion on campuses:

Public and nonsectarian private universities are some of the most religiously diverse places in America. Since the ’60s, they have witnessed an increase in the sheer variety of religious activity, reflecting the rise of campus evangelicalism, the revitalization of Jewish student life, a surge in new immigrant religions and the emergence of alternative forms of spirituality. At the same public university where Coach John Wooden and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar forged an interfaith friendship, religious diversity flourishes. Today the University of California, Los Angeles, is home to nearly 50 religious groups, including the first Campus Crusade chapter, the first Chabad House, a large Hillel building, a 54-year-old Muslim Student Association, a Coptic Orthodox Christian club, a Methodist cafe and a University Buddhist Association. Across the country, private philanthropy has supported dozens of ventures at secular institutions, including the Lilly Endowment’s recent vocation initiative and Yale University’s $75 million Roman Catholic center.

Responding to this diversity, the field of student affairs is rediscovering a more holistic understanding of student development that recognizes religious, secular and spiritual identities (the focus of two recent NASPA gatherings). A growing number of secular institutions have constructed multifaith chapels and meditation spaces, catering to both people of faith and the spiritual but not religious. A burgeoning interfaith movement has tried to connect these diverse communities, though recent findings from the IDEALS survey suggest that universities could do more to foster an inclusive climate.

Evangelicals should read this news with a grain of salt, though, since the authors aren’t happy with the way faith plays at evangelical schools. Why? Trump, of course, silly:

The alliance between Liberty University and the Trump administration contributes to the cynicism many Americans have about religion and public life. While such coalitions go back to the Reagan administration (and are rooted in the fraught racial history of white evangelicalism), there is a growing sense that evangelicals will do anything for political power. Because of its immense online footprint, Liberty looms large in public perceptions of Christian higher education. Yet scholars at dozens of other evangelical institutions (see, for example, the work of Kristin Kobes Du Mez, John Fea and Soong-Chan Rah) do not identify with Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham. They are also alienated from the 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted for Trump. Many faculty have ditched the evangelical label. Others have articulated an alternative vision of evangelicalism that rejects misogyny, racism and xenophobia, though it is hard to shout louder than Falwell and Graham.

Then comes a smart interpretation of social justice warriors on campus (from Sam Goldman):

Rather than relativism derived from the philosophical critique of natural right, today’s “wokeness” phenomenon is more usefully understood as a secularized version of the Puritanism that America’s leading colleges and universities were founded to promote.

Consider some key terms in our debates about race and gender: guilt, debt, responsibility, accuser. This isn’t the language of moral equivalency or indifference. It is a vocabulary of sin that owes more to Christian theology than it does to skeptical (not to say atheist) modern philosophy. The public performance of campus movements of protest and disruption also has a religious quality. Instead of threatening enemies with destruction, it demands their participation in rituals of atonement that almost invariably begin with an apology—that is, a confession of the sinner’s unworthiness of forgiveness.

So you win some, you lose some, depending for which team you play. (For more reading on religion and U.S. higher education, go here.)


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