The powers that be at Hillsdale College applauded when Chuck Colson delivered his lecture that was, with a nod to Fyodor Dostoevsky, entitled "Can man be good without God?"
But there was one problem. When the Christian apologist reviewed a version of his text prepared for Hillsdale's "Imprimis" newsletter, he saw that all of his references to Jesus were missing. When Colson protested to Lissa Roche, the college president's daughter-in-law and strong right hand, she said it was campus policy not to "use the Lord's name in any of their publications." President George Roche III finally allowed two references to Jesus.
In hindsight, it was a highly symbolic dispute.
This was long before Lissa Roche shot herself in the head and before George Roche IV said his wife had confessed to a 19-year affair with his father. Then President Roche resigned. Then officials on the Michigan campus began hinting that Lissa Roche had been unstable and delusional. Then, as the media storm raged, insiders began trying to draw a line between "Christian education" and merely "conservative education."
"What Roche was trying to do at Hillsdale ... was to create a strong pro-family, pro-traditional values institution -- but keep it secular," said Colson, in a radio commentary. "Many politicians try to do the same thing, giving us the impression that we can create a good and just society on our own, without reference to a transcendent moral authority. ... It just doesn't work."
The map of American academia is dotted with "Christian colleges" that have evolved into liberal carbon copies of their secular counterparts. Hillsdale offers a rare academic cautionary tale about a secular brand of conservatism.
The key is that "Christian colleges" must not cut the ties that bind them to their churches, according to Father James Tunstead Burtchaell, former provost of the University of Notre Dame. In his book "The Dying of the Light," he shows how colleges keep following the same path on issues affecting finances, faculty, morality, doctrine and student recruiting.
In America, most religious schools began as tiny, struggling communities led by clergy and other church leaders who mixed ministry and academics. They had modest goals and emphasized teaching. While they stressed personal piety, they also -- because they needed tuition dollars -- tried not to be too exclusive. "Chapel services" were religious, but they were not true church services.
The schools that survived eventually attracted wealthy donors and broader community support. These schools could then afford better faculty, which, by definition, meant ranking prestigious degrees and scholarship above church ties and spiritual leadership, said Burtchaell, during a Washington, D.C., conference on trends in Catholic higher education.
Campus religious life would remain vital, for a few decades, but led by chaplains and campus ministers. Faculty members vanished during services. Later, this faculty indifference on religious issues would turn into cynical sniping and then open hostility.
This kind of college, said Burtchaell, has a head and a heart, but they are not connected. The bank accounts and secular accreditation reports are solid, but the spirit is weak.
As Christian colleges gained "sophistication and financial stability, they naturally suffered church fools less gladly," he said. Besides, defending divisive doctrines was bad for fundraising. Eventually, "worship and moral behavior were easily set aside because no none could imagine they had anything to do with learning," he said.
"You know the battle is lost," said Burtchaell, "when a school has no meaningful ties to a church, no real sense of accountability or communion, yet its leaders keep talking about its religious heritage or some vague sense of cultural values. ... That cannot last. The church is the ground of the faith, not the college."
Meanwhile, Hillsdale has reassured supporters that its work will go on, unchanged.
The first post-scandal issue of "Imprimis" -- with its motto, "Because Ideas Have Consequences" -- ended by saying: "Hillsdale is not a church-affiliated college. We do not represent any denomination, but we are an institution that has never forgotten its Judeo-Christian roots. ... We at Hillsdale College consider the sons and daughters who have been entrusted to us for a short while as most worthy of the highest things."