Is the loss of faith inevitable for religious colleges and universities?
In the past few years there have been several studies and books detailing how many of the leading U.S. colleges — from the Ivy League to Catholic schools — have lost their religious identities, making such a transition seem almost like a natural process. In his new book Quality With Soul (Eerdmans, $19), Robert Benne believes the secular drift is far from inevitable.
Benne, a religion professor at Roanoke College, even holds that reversals can occur, as secular schools regain at least a measure of their religious ethos and vision. Benne presents six case studies of colleges and universities that have maintained their Christian identities after more than 50 years: Wheaton College (evangelical), Baylor University (Southern Baptist), Notre Dame University (Catholic), Calvin College (Christian Reformed), Valparaiso University (Lutheran), and Saint Olaf College (Lutheran).
Benne chose these schools because they are able to balance academic respectability and vibrant Christianity, with varying degrees of interchange between faith and learning. These schools hold on to their religious identity through two strategies. Schools such as Wheaton and Calvin have an explicit statement of faith that faculty and students must agree upon. The others maintain their identities through a “critical mass” of students, administrators, and faculty who belong to a specific tradition.
Benne finds that the most important ingredient for religious colleges in “keeping the faith” is a close connection between the institution and a specific and vital tradition. Generic Christianity just doesn’t bring in the students, support and commitment that schools of a specific denomination or tradition are able to generate. In fact, these schools hold religious identity and involvement as a major criterion for hiring and admissions (Benne holds that one-third of the student body should belong to the host tradition).
Other factors Benne found in his case study include: a charismatic and guiding figure (from the past or present), usually the president, was important in articulating the theological vision of the school; the theology departments tend to represent and defend the tradition and most of the rest of the faculty are supportive or sympathetic to the tradition (though this wasn’t the case in the Lutheran schools, where there was less unity); public worship opportunities (such as chapel services) and extracurricula religious activities are encouraged by the administration.
Most importantly, the colleges Benne profiles were confident that their traditions and Christianity in general should be applied to, or exist in dialogue with, the whole range of academic disciplines. These colleges and universities have established numerous institutes, such as Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Religious Values in Business, to further such connections.
Benne believes it is also possible to reverse the secularization of once-religious colleges, and in a follow-up article in the Christian Century (April 18-25) he provides the example of his own school. Roanoke is the second-oldest Lutheran college in the U.S.but by the 1960s, it had stopped hiring faculty in regard to religious faith and discontinued required chapel services and religion courses. By the 1970s, Roanoke was listed in Playboy’s catalog of top party schools. Things started to turn around in the 1980s when a new president sought to strengthen Lutheran connections by endowing a religion chair and starting a center for church and society.
Other faculty became more outspoken in their faith and were able to amend the college statement of purpose to include a concern for “nurturing a dialogue between faith and reason.” (though not without opposition from some faculty). Though far from a strongly religious college, Benne says that Roanoke demonstrates how a “determined but patient group of leaders who believe that the Christian account of the world is publicly relevant to all facets of the college’s life and mission can move such a college toward a new relation to its religious heritage.”
(Christian Century, 407 Dearborn, Chicago, IL 60605)