Christian colleges

Education wars among Georgia Baptists

When it comes to higher education, Georgia Baptists are of two minds these days. On Oct. 21, the trustees of Shorter University in Rome, Ga., approved a covenant requiring faculty and staff to support the "mission of Shorter University as a Christ-centered institution affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention." Then they asked employees to "reject as acceptable all sexual activity not in agreement with the Bible, including, but not limited to, premarital sex, adultery and homosexuality."

A fortnight latter, Baptists learned about a "fall update" email from leaders at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., announcing a policy extending health care and other benefits to the "domestic partners" of faculty and staff, regardless of sexual orientation.

The Georgia Baptist Convention cut its historic ties to Mercer in 2005. Now, the school's strategic shift brings it "into line with other leading private universities ... including Emory, Duke, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, Tulane, Furman, Rollins, Elon and Stetson," noted Mercer President Bill Underwood, in a statement quoted at, a progressive Baptist website. "It is also consistent with our established policy of not discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation."

While this divide may shock outsiders, these decisions are "totally logical" in light of trends in Baptist life and higher education, stressed Lutheran scholar Robert Benne of Roanoke (Va.) College, author of "Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions."

"These schools are headed in opposite directions because their leaders want them to become radically different kinds of institutions," he said. Shorter wants to "become a 'Christian' university in terms of its approach to education and campus life. ... Mercer is trying to become what its leaders see as an elite institution, the kind of place where if you tried to talk about 'Christian education' the faculty would raise all holy hell."

In some ways, these Baptist conflicts resemble those among educators in other religious groups, he said. For example, many American Catholic colleges and universities have become highly secularized, while their leaders insist that they remain rooted in "Catholic" values or some specific educational tradition, such as the legacy of the Jesuits. Meanwhile, a few other Catholic schools publicly stress their loyalty to the Vatican.

With that in mind, it's significant that Mercer's Internet homepage states: "Founded by early 19th century Baptists, Mercer -- while no longer formally affiliated with the Baptist denomination -- remains committed to an educational environment that embraces intellectual and religious freedom while affirming values that arise from a Judeo-Christian understanding of the world."

Benne noted that few well-known schools can accurately be labeled "fundamentalist," as would be the case with the independent Bob Jones University in South Carolina. Meanwhile, most conflicts in Southern Baptist academia involve debates about accepting some explicitly "Christian" approach to education, often referred to as the "integration of faith and learning."

Thus, it's symbolic that Mercer leaders openly say they want to go the other direction, following in the footsteps of universities such as Vanderbilt and Duke, and historically Baptist institutions such as Furman and Wake Forest. The Mercer student handbook, for example, contains no moral code covering student conduct on premarital sex, adultery and homosexuality.

At this point, Shorter accepts non-Christian students. However, Benne said Shorter's new doctrinal and lifestyle code for faculty and staff suggests that it will soon ask its students to sign a similar covenant of faith and moral conduct. If so, covenants of this kind are common on Christian campuses, including famous liberal arts schools such as Wheaton College, Calvin College, Biola University and numerous other members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (the global network in which I teach).

Many of these schools retain ties to the denominations that founded them, but they are reach out to recruit other evangelicals or traditional Christians as students, faculty and staff. Some of these schools now openly appeal to Catholics, as well.

The problem for many Baptist academics, stressed Benne, is that they place such a strong emphasis on "soul freedom" and the "priesthood of every believer" that they struggle to find ways to separate themselves from the "lukewarm people who are not really committed to the their school's vision."

The result is a perfect Baptist Catch 22.

"How do you defend specific doctrines and convictions," he said, "without daring to list these specifics, which means you have committed the sin of having a creed?"

College life (Christian) in the city

Any list of great cities in the ancient Mediterranean World would have to include Rome, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch and Corinth, or some other crucial crossroads near what would become Constantinople.

Thus, these cities became the five patriarchal sees of Christianity in the first millennium.

"From day one, there was a commitment to the dominant cities and regions of that time," said J. Stanley Oakes, chancellor of The King's College in New York City. "That's where the early church flourished. That's where the early church did its work. ... People who care about nations and culture and economics have to care about what happens in great cities."

Yet any study of American Protestantism in the early 21st Century would focus on Colorado Springs, Colo., Grand Rapids, Mich., Wheaton, Ill., Orlando, Fla., and, perhaps, Dallas. It would not include New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Houston, Washington, D.C., or the other great cities that shape this culture.

Oakes thinks that's tragic, which is why he has dedicated a decade -- backed by Campus Crusade For Christ's vast network -- to building an evangelical college in the Empire State Building. The leaders of The King's College are convinced that if their students can make it there, they can make it anywhere.

The college is based in a 45,000-square-foot "campus," with offices on the 15th floor and classrooms, a small library, a workout room, student lounge and other basic facilities on two floors underground. There are only 220 students, but administrators expect 130 freshmen next fall, said Dean of Students Eric Bennett.

This is not a normal Christian college setting and everyone knows it.

Quartets of students live in one-bedroom apartments in two high-rise buildings nearby on Sixth Avenue. Student life activities revolves around flexible activities in nine academic houses named after leaders selected by earlier students -- Elizabeth I, Sojourner Truth, Winston Churchill, C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Clara Barton and Susan B. Anthony.

It's hard to explain a college's mission to outsiders who consider its core values a kind of heresy against the status quo. As a Village Voice profile put it: "King's students adjust well to the style and pace of midtown, though their relationship with the city is never quite clear: Are they here to contribute to New York? Or save it?"

A recent Washington Post style feature contrasted an after-hours student chat group about the writings of Protestant hero John Calvin with what it called a more typical Saturday-night student scene in mid-town Manhattan, which would offer "mind-altering substances, which segue to deafening music, which ultimately leads to nudity."

Continuing with its "Sex in the City" theme, the story added, "Dating is permitted," but that "there are no rules against sex, but it's quietly discouraged."

Actually, Bennett said students pledge to follow an honor code backed by a handbook full of traditional doctrine. The sexuality statement, for example, says the college "promotes a lifestyle ... that precludes premarital and extramarital intercourse, homosexual practice and other forms of sexual behavior incompatible with biblical admonitions."

But the city is what it is. Thus, these fresh-faced Christians from 37 states and 11 countries are going to run into some New Yorkers who want to hook up, sell drugs, flash tattoos or worse. Bennett said that no one flinches when students sit in bars all hours of the night, studying for tests. No one wants to build a cloister.

"We're not out to police our students," he said. "You could try to live in a bubble here, too. But that's not what we're trying to do. That's what we're fighting against."

It would be easy to say that The King's College is about evangelism, said Oakes. It would be easy to explain that it hopes to help churches serve the poor and engage in other social ministries. That work is essential, but the goal is to build a college, not a church. And the long-range plan is to live and grow in New York City, as strange as that may sound.

"We love it when people mock us," said Oakes. "But we honestly believe that, if we keep doing what we do here, in about two decades people are going to be saying, 'Even though we don't agree with them, those King's people are interesting.' We want to make it hard for people to avoid us."

Georgetown revises its rules

David French knew what he was getting into when he signed up to study on a Churches of Christ campus in Nashville.

"When I went to David Lipscomb College, we all knew there was no drinking and there was no sex until you were married. We knew about the daily Bible studies and the required chapel services," said French, a Harvard Law School graduate who leads the Alliance Defense Fund's Center for Academic Freedom.

"There's nothing wrong with a private college trying to maintain a distinctive religious tradition, whether Jewish or Catholic or evangelical or whatever. The U.S. Constitution says that's fine. But you're supposed to tell students the rules up front."

Twenty years later, things haven't changed much at Lipscomb University and at many other religious schools -- yet students choose to enroll anyway. Meanwhile, other private colleges and universities have made headlines and inspired a few lawsuits by tweaking or overhauling their rules that affect faith and morality on campus.

That's why French wasn't surprised that Georgetown University administrators have decided to ban outside Protestant ministries from holding on-campus worship services, Bible studies, prayer groups or fellowship meetings. More than 50 schools -- including Princeton and Harvard -- have tried to do the same thing in recent years.

Georgetown leaders said the goal is a more unified Protestant voice on campus. Groups rocked by the decision say it's an attack on diversity.

"While we realize that this comes as a great disappointment, please know we are moving forward with this decision after much dialogue with the Lord," said the Rev. Constance Wheeler of the campus Protestant ministry office, writing to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Chi Alpha and other evangelical groups affected by the ban.

The banned groups may be able to maintain some presence on the world-famous Jesuit campus if they can find evangelical or conservative Protestant professors to serve as official sponsors, said Kevin Offner of the InterVarsity staff. The problem is that they are having trouble finding faculty members who will stand with them.

"What we want to know is if different religious groups are going to be treated alike," said Offner. "To what degree do Catholic, Jewish and Muslim students on campus have access to national organizations that support them in their faith, while there's this funny stuff going on with the Protestants?"

Ministry leaders from off-campus have, in recent years, been required to sign a covenant written by mainline Protestants in the official Georgetown campus-ministry office. In one clause, they pledged to "maintain respect for the various religious traditions" on campus, while avoiding actions that could be interpreted as "denigrating or ridiculing" others. Ministers were asked to help students of all faith traditions, yet the covenant specifically prohibited evangelism or "proselytizing" among those who might be "vulnerable in their faith or personal lives." Another clause stressed: "I affirm the legitimacy of Roman Catholicism as a path to salvation."

There are some tensions between religious groups at Georgetown, especially in an era in which Muslim students and donors have played a big role in the growth of new programs and facilities. However, the strongest tensions on campus are caused by moral and cultural issues, not over-zealous Protestant evangelists, said Manuel Miranda, a conservative Catholic activist and Georgetown alum.

"There are far more Protestants who convert to Catholicism while at Georgetown than the other way around," he stressed. In his opinion, the key to the ban on independent Protestant ministries is "the fact that all of these groups take very orthodox positions on the crucial social issues, like gay rights and abortion. If anything, they're more Catholic on these issues than lots of Catholics there."

The bottom line, said French, is that a private school can do what it wants to do, as long as it keeps any written promises it has made to students. The Georgetown campus-ministry website says, "Welcome," "Shalom" and "Assalamu-Alaikum (Peace be upon you)." The university claims to welcome students of "every religious profession."

"The issue is whether Georgetown is doing a bait-and-switch routine," he said. "The school says it has a come one, come all approach to religion. But when evangelical students get there, they may discover that they don't have the same rights when it comes to free speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion. ... The university has to state its rules clearly and then live by them."

God and the intellect

It's hard to laugh about religion in Northern Ireland, but Oxford theologian Alister McGrath likes to tell the following joke that hints at the challenges he faced as a young skeptic in that troubled land.

While visiting Belfast, an Englishman was cornered by three thugs. The leader asked one question: "Are you a Protestant or are you a Catholic?"

After a diplomatic pause, the Englishman said: "I am an atheist."

Confused, his attacker asked: "Are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?"

The tough religion questions continued when McGrath entered Oxford University, where he became the rare student who traded his Marxist atheism for Christianity while studying science. He would eventually earn two doctorates -- in molecular biology and theology.

Today, McGrath teaches at his alma mater and is admired by academic leaders around the world who are tired of being cornered and asked: Are you a Christian or are you an intellectual?

This was a big question during the 1960s when most secular educators believed that "religion was evil" and "on the way out," said McGrath, speaking last week in Grapevine, Texas, at a global forum sponsored by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

According to the "received wisdom" of that era, a "new secular age was about to dawn," he said. "The future was all about a godless culture and the church would just have to adapt to it and that was that."

These days, even the most skeptical of scholars admit that traditional forms of religion are on the rise and that millions of spiritually hungry students are questioning the chilly, strictly rational creeds of secular modernity. Faith is making a comeback and the high priests of mainstream academia cannot understand why, said McGrath. Thus, many are getting angry and, on occasion, shrill.

These tensions are even beginning to affect the bottom line.

A small wave of mainstream news reports have noted that enrollments are up 70.6 percent during the past 14 years at the 102 schools in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, the mostly evangelical Protestant network in which I teach journalism. Over the same period of time, enrollments rose 28 percent at secular private colleges and 12.8 percent at public colleges and universities.

Meanwhile, a national survey conducted by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute found that four in five students said they are interested in spiritual issues and 75 percent said they are searching for the meaning or purpose of life.

In this environment, said McGrath, it is crucial for leaders of religious colleges to know that they have two objectives instead of one. They must help students grow in their faith while also growing intellectually.

Failure on either side of this equation is failure in the whole process. This is tricky, because many educators believe that any affirmation of orthodoxy equals fundamentalism. Meanwhile, parents often question efforts to debate religious issues.

The goal, said McGrath, is to help young roots go deeper. Christian educators have a God-given responsibility to help the plants grow.

"We are not simply reassuring students that their faith is right, that it makes sense, ... that it connects up with reality," he told the forum. "One of the big distinctives between a more secular education and what you offer is the mirroring of this love of God for every individual, of helping them to dream dreams, to see visions of where they might be, of what God might do in them and through them."

This means that professors must accept that Christianity has, over the centuries, built up an unavoidable tradition of history, art, philosophy, ethics and theology that has implications all of life. Thus, McGrath stressed that education affects both the head and the heart and that it is unwise to create two zones on campus -- one spiritual and one academic.

In other words, the Christian faith has intellectual content that cannot be locked inside the chapel.

"We need a generation of economists, of lawyers, of politicians who intentionally set out to connect their faith and what they will be doing in the world, not doing it by accident or an afterthought, but rather seeing this as a God-given calling," said McGrath. Professors want their students to ask, "If I were to enter politics, how could my values and beliefs be reflected in what I say and do? And likewise with chemistry, biology, psychology, you name it."

Catholic college culture wars

Anyone trying to understand the Catholic college culture wars can start with last spring's commencement address by Cardinal Francis Arinze at Georgetown University.

Media coverage was guaranteed, since many list the Nigerian prelate as a top contender to succeed Pope John Paul II. Who knew he would dare to mention sex and marriage?

"The family is under siege," said Arinze. "It is opposed by an anti-life mentality as seen in contraception, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. It is scorned and banalized by pornography, desecrated by fornication and adultery, mocked by homosexuality, sabotaged by irregular unions and cut in two by divorce."

A theology professor walked out, as did some outraged students. Seventy faculty members signed a letter of protest. But traditional Catholics began asking a burning question: Why was it shocking for a cardinal to defend Catholic doctrines on a Catholic campus?

These fires are still smoldering as students return to America's 223 Catholic colleges and universities. The Arinze controversy also reinforced some controversial statistics suggesting that four years on most Catholic campuses may actually harm young Catholic souls.

"What we are seeing is a battle between orthodox Christian beliefs and the moral relativism that is becoming more powerful in many religious groups," said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, a fiercely pro-Vatican educational network.

"Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, you name it.