Helping the young stick to faith

At first, there didn't seem to be much an 80-something grandmother could do to help her church's college freshmen wrestle with the trials and temptations of their first weeks away at college. After all, she knew very little about Facebook, YouTube, online homework, smartphones or texting, let alone "sexting."

She did, however, know how to write letters. So that is what she did, writing personal letters to each student to let them know that she was praying for them, wishing them the best as they searched for a college church and looking forward to seeing them at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

According to church members, the "students sought her out and rushed to give her hugs and to say, 'Thank you,' whenever they came home," said Kara E. Powell, who teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and directs the Fuller Youth Institute.

However, another church member later stressed that the researcher had not heard the whole story. "Instead of writing one letter and that was that, she had actually written a letter to each of the students every week," said Powell.

This was one of the most striking stories that the seminary professor heard while doing follow-up work for the Youth Institute's six-year College Transition Project, which followed 500 Christian young people as they jumped from high school to college.

The goal was to find strategies for parents and religious leaders who wanted to help teens develop a personal faith that would "stick" when tested. The research was released earlier this year in a book entitled "Sticky Faith: Everyday ideas to build lasting faith in your kids," written by Powell and another Fuller colleague, Chap Clark.

The letter-writing grandmother, said Powell, was an example of one major lesson discovered during this process. After years of "segregating" teens off into their own niche, age-specific worship services and programs, there is evidence that young believers also profit from intergenerational contacts, conversations and mentoring projects with senior adults. Young people are also more likely to retain their faith if they helped teach the faith to the very young.

Right up front, the researchers admitted that the young people in this study had higher than average grade-point averages, were more likely to have been raised in unbroken homes and had grown up in churches large enough to employ youth ministers. That was the point.

Nevertheless, some of the results were sobering.

* When studies are combined, it appears that 40 to 50 percent of "churched" young people will abandon their faith -- at least during the college years.

* Only one in seven young people in the Fuller study felt they were ready for the personal, moral challenges of college.

* Events in the first two weeks establish patterns for many college careers, especially those linked to alcohol, sex and involvement in religious activities.

The finding that will inspire, or trouble, many parents, according to Powell and Clark, is that the faith practiced by most young people is rooted in the beliefs, values and choices that they see practiced in their own homes. If young people see their parents praying, it's more likely that they will pray. If they hear their parents weaving faith into the joys and trials of daily life, it's more likely that this behavior will "stick."

It's one thing to talk to children, said Powell. It's something else to find ways to truly communicate -- two-way communication -- with the young about faith, doubt, temptation and forgiveness. Breakthroughs can take place while discussing everything from homework to movies, from a parent's confessions about mistakes in the past to a child's hints about his or her hopes for the future.

"We are not saying that it will help if you lecture to your children about faith," she said. Instead, the goal is for "every parent to be a student of what their children love and, whether its sports or movies or who knows what, to be able to engage their children on that topic. You have to ask, 'What is my child passionate about?' You also have to be honest and let your children know what you're passionate about.

"Then you have to ask how you can bring faith into those conversations so that you can share your faith journeys. There is no way to force this. If it isn't happening naturally, the kids are going to know it."

College campus holy wars

Anyone who explores academic hallways on American campuses will find lots of cartoons posted on professors' office doors and bulletin boards. But what if the cartoons included the Prophet Muhammad?

In one famous case, a professor at Century College in Minnesota dared to post the Muhammad cartoons that were published in a Danish newspaper. Facing fierce criticism, she put the images behind a curtain so that anyone passing her bulletin board would not see them unless they chose to do so. Administrators quickly created a policy requiring advance approval of all posted items.

It's easy to find hot religion buttons on campuses. What if a club tried to screen Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" and administrators banned it, citing its R-rating and controversial content? What if the same administrators allowed a play on campus in which a character pretended to perform a sex act on an image of Jesus?

What if a Jewish group sponsored a campus lecture by an Israeli official and it had to be cancelled due to heckling by Palestinian students? What if a professor urged students to destroy a campus-approved display of tiny crosses, created by pro-life students, that symbolically represented their opposition to abortion?

These cases are real and there are hundreds more.

Passions are boiling over on many campuses," stressed attorney William Creeley, who directs legal teams for the secular Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. "Students and professors and administrators are fighting about all kinds of things, but the surface issues are often proxies for the real issue -- which is religion. ...

"The garb in which these clashes are clothed may be student rights or campus fees, but they are usually about religion, morality and sex."

A recent survey by the foundation, he said, found that 71 percent of America's campuses try to enforce codes that in some way clash with the First Amendment. Meanwhile, many private schools -- which can create covenants that limit many freedoms -- are failing to warn students, faculty and staff about the contents of the documents they sign when entering these voluntary associations.

Catholic educators at Georgetown University had a legal right to ask the abortion-rights group "Hoyas for Choice" to operate under the name "H*yas for Choice" and to deny it some campus benefits. DePaul University had a right to deny equal treatment to a group called "Students for Cannabis Policy Reform." The issue, said Creeley, is whether private-school leaders explicitly warn students and parents -- before they enroll -- about "what they are getting into."

Scratch the surface and it's easy to find religion in other campus conflicts. For example, "conservatives" often claim they face discrimination when seeking faculty promotions or jobs in prestigious schools, especially in science and political science departments. Programs that discuss Islam, or deal with Israel and the Middle East in general, continue to generate heat. Can faculty who dissect the Bible do similar textual criticism of the Koran?

However, any FIRE review of recent campus fights, said Creeley, would have to discuss whether or not religious groups on state campuses can insist that their leaders support their foundational beliefs. In other words, can a Jewish group insist that its leaders support the right of Israel to exist? Can a pro-life group insist that its leadership be limited to those who oppose abortion? Can an evangelical group require that all members of its leadership believe in the Resurrection of Jesus?

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court -- in another 5-4 decision -- ruled that the Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco could require its Christian Legal Society chapter to use an "all comers" policy for members and leaders or lose its status as a campus organization. The case pivoted on the group's affirmation that sex outside of marriage -- the union of husband and wife -- is sinful.

FIRE has tracked 40 or more disputes of this kind, noted Creeley, and there are sure to be more.

"I cannot think of anything less 'liberal' than what we are seeing on many campuses," he said. While most educators "pride themselves on offering a 'liberal education,' " many are now promoting "an orthodoxy that tempts them to edit the First Amendment. ... You end up driving certain points of view off campus and silencing the religious voices that trouble you. That's dangerous -- period."

Notre Dame and her children

The women's clinic nurse confirmed that Lacy Dodd was pregnant, and then told her not to worry because she had "other options." That wasn't the kind of reassurance Dodd wanted, as a University of Notre Dame senior weeks away from her graduation ceremonies. When she returned to campus, Dodd headed straight to Notre Dame's grotto -- a small cave modeled after the famous Marian shrine in Lourdes, France.

"I knew this: No amount of shame or embarrassment would ever lead me to get rid of my baby. Of all women, Our Lady could surely feel pity for an unplanned pregnancy," wrote Dodd, in an essay aimed at Father John Jenkins, the university's president. The text was posted online by the journal First Things.

"In my hour of need, on my knees, I asked Mary for courage and strength. And she did not disappoint," she added. "My boyfriend was a different story. He was also a Notre Dame senior. When I told him that he was to be a father, he tried to pressure me into having an abortion. ... 'All that talk about abortion is just dining-room talk,' he said."

Family and friends stood by Dodd's side. Today, a decade later, she is a single mother and her daughter's name is Mary. Dodd serves on the board of Room at the Inn, an organization working to build an on-campus facility for pregnant unwed students at Belmont Abbey College, near Charlotte, N.C.

The timing of Dodd's essay -- "Notre Dame, My Mother" -- is, of course, linked to her alma mater's decision to invite President Barack Obama to deliver its mid-May commencement address and to receive an honorary doctor of laws degree.

Throughout his political career, Obama has opposed all restrictions on abortion rights, even in late-term procedures. But he has also reached out to Catholic and evangelical voters by pledging to help lessen the need for abortions, through government efforts to aid needy mothers and their children.

Catholic traditionalists and many Notre Dame alumni argue that honoring Obama in this way violates a 2004 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops policy that said: "The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."

Three years later, the bishops underlined the importance of this issue, arguing that the "direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life is always wrong and is not just one issue among many."

However, a recent online count found that only 66 bishops, out of 195 dioceses nationwide, have issued public comments critical of Notre Dame's decision. So far, the Vatican has remained silent on the issue.

Meanwhile, a Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life poll found that 50 percent of American Catholics approve of Notre Dame's decision to "invite" Obama, while 28 percent disapprove. However, only 37 percent of white, non-Hispanic Catholics who attend Mass weekly agreed with the Notre Dame decision, compared with 56 percent of those less active in the church. This parallels that fact that 61 percent of these "attend less often" Catholics support abortion rights in all or most cases, as opposed to 30 percent of the "attend weekly" Catholics.

Alumni and current students know that these kinds of divisions also exist at Notre Dame, said Dodd. Notre Dame students also face crisis pregnancies and some young women there are convinced that they must have abortions in order to stay in school.

While others focus on the political implications of honoring Obama, Dodd said she worries about the impact of this symbolic event on women in the commencement audience who are wrestling with the same secret she faced 10 years ago.

Thus, she ended her essay with this question to the priest who currently leads Notre Dame: "Who draws support from your decision to honor President Obama -- the young, pregnant Notre Dame woman sitting in that graduating class who wants desperately to keep her baby, or the Notre Dame man who believes that the Catholic teaching on the intrinsic evil of abortion is just dining-room talk?"

These kinds of influences make a difference, said Dodd.

"I think that Notre Dame needs to be in the lead when it comes to supporting women who face unplanned pregnancies," she said. "Notre Dame needs to be on their side -- always."

Brother Manning, on the road

The preacher's blue jeans are faded and artistically patched to symbolize the ragamuffin theme in his ministry.

The speaking voice is gentle, until the occasional verbal storm shakes the room.

The demons are familiar. Cigarettes, alcoholism and a lifelong struggle with guilt can give a 70-something orator an edge. Once a Franciscan priest, now a divorced Catholic layman, Brennan Manning is the only superstar on the evangelical speaking circuit who goes to daily Mass and to confession as often as he can.

The angels are familiar, too. Manning always begins with the same gentle joke: "In the words of Francis of Assisi when he met Brother Dominic on the road to Umbria -- 'Hi.' " What follows are flights of intellect, hints of poetry and blunt appeals to the emotions that lead to a common theme.

"God loves you just as you are," said Manning, during a swing through South Florida this past semester. "Not the way that you should be, because no one in this building is the way that they should be."

At the Last Judgment, he said, here are the questions that Jesus will ask every sinner: "Do you believe that I love you? That I waited for you day after day? That I longed to hear your voice?"

Year after year, the New Orleans-based Manning speaks in conferences and retreat centers nationwide. He has strong ties to Christians in the music industry, via his 1990 bestseller, "The Ragamuffin Gospel" and a dozen other books. An author's work is going to spread when he draws the attention of Michael Card, Michael W. Smith, Bono of U2 and others.

This message of divine love triumphing over shame, fear and guilt also strikes a chord in a setting that some might find surprising -- modern college campuses. While Christian colleges strive to offer a different environment, many of the issues are the same, said Manning, who as a priest once served as a campus minister.

"Based on my pastoral experience, I think there is serious guilt among college students today," he said. "It may not be guilt about some of the things that older adults think they should feel guilty about, but there is guilt all the same.

"It's guilt that is totally based on friendships and relationships. Most of it is about their peers. ... Many students feel as if they have given their hearts away and then they have been abandoned. Now they feel that they cannot even trust God."

Students may feel tremendous guilt about their parents, often for what to outsiders will seem like paradoxical reasons, he said.

It's natural for the young to feel resentment or hostility toward parents who have neglected them, especially workaholic, distant fathers. Often, they have been given large amounts of their parents' money, but not time and attention. Then there are families that have been splintered by divorce, abuse and various forms of chemical dependency.

These students feel anger, said Manning, but they also feel guilt about their anger.

Then there are the students whose parents have been highly involved in their lives and have sacrificed time and money to help them succeed. This creates a different kind of pressure and, thus, guilt.

"What if," he asked, "you knew that your parents had taken out a second mortgage on their home just so you can go to college? What if you knew that they were really making sacrifices for you, yet you also knew deep down inside that you are a bit of a slacker and a partygoer? Then you would feel guilty because of your own lack of gratitude, your own lack of love."

Over and over, Manning tells his listeners that they must accept that God loves them -- no matter what. As a result, his many critics insist that he is preaching "cheap grace," a kind of Christianity Lite that shortchanges hard teachings on sin and repentance.

Manning insists that his critics are missing the point.

"You see, you do not have to change to earn God's love and compassion," he said, near the end of one sermon at Palm Beach Atlantic University, in West Palm Beach. "This love always precedes the repentance of sins. Repentance is about you. It is about allowing yourself to be loved by God. The love comes first."

Freud, Lewis & God on PBS

Dr. Armand Nicholi of Harvard Medical School was caught off guard as he read evaluations of his first seminar on the life and philosophy of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis.

"Several of the students said the same thing," he said, recalling that semester 35 years ago. They thought the class "was good, but that it was totally unbalanced. They said it was one sustained attack on the spiritual world."

Nicholi had a problem. He decided that the students were right, but he knew it would be hard to find another writer with the stature to stand opposite Freud -- perhaps the 20th century's most influential intellectual. Then he remembered a small book he discovered by chance during his internship in a New York City hospital, a time when he wrestled with the agonizing questions of cancer patients and their loved ones.

The book was "The Problem of Pain" by C.S. Lewis, the Oxford don and Christian apologist. Nicholi revamped his seminar, focusing it on the life stories and writings of Freud and Lewis. Rather than back into discussions of spiritual questions, the psychiatrist placed them at the heart of the syllabus. Decades later, Nicholi's classic course became "The Question of God," a book that has inspired a pair of PBS and Walden Media documentaries for television and home video.

The format blends academics and drama. Nicholi presents Freud as a spokesman for the "secular worldview" that denies the existence of any truth or reality outside the material world. Lewis is the champion of a "spiritual worldview" which accepts the reality of God. Seven articulate women and men representing a variety of viewpoints join in the seminar discussions.

Freud and Lewis are represented by their own words, the commentary of experts and actors who dramatize a few episodes from their lives, often seen in counterpoint with archival photographs and film footage.

Nicholi said the goal is the same as in the seminar -- to let these giants grapple with the big questions of life. Is there a God? What is happiness? Why do people suffer? Is death the end? What is the source for morality? It helps that Lewis, before his conversion, was an articulate atheist and familiar with Freud's work.

"I was astonished at how Freud would raise a question and then Lewis would attempt to answer it," said Nicholi. "When you read their work it is almost as if they are standing side by side at podiums, debating one another. It was uncanny."

At the center of the project is a word that is criticized by some scholars -- "worldview." Nicholi said it's impossible to deny that Lewis and Freud had different approaches to life. Each saw the world through filters created by culture, heritage, philosophy, education, experiences, faith and prejudices.

Their actions and writings make no sense when separated from these secular and sacred worldviews, said Nicholi. By studying their worldviews, students can test and refine their own. Many educators seem afraid to even discuss this process, he said. They find it especially hard to discuss questions of faith and morality.

"You can study an opposing worldview and learn everything that you can about it or you can try to ignore it," said Nicholi. "Many religious believers are afraid to take Freud's work seriously. They reject him out of hand. On the other side are the critics of Lewis who say that his traditional Christian beliefs were fitting for the uneducated masses, but not for the classroom. You hear them say, 'I do not consider this is an intelligent point of view and, since I am intelligent, I don't have to pay attention to it.' "

This is education?

Through the years, Nicholi has defended his seminar from critics on both sides. He still finds it hard to believe that people who claim to cherish academic freedom and diversity can question the value of reading and contrasting the works of these two intellectual heavyweights.

"We are supposed to be as critical, as objective and as dispassionate as we can possibly be," said Nicholi. "But if we cannot allow this kind of dialogue between two worldviews to take place in an academic setting, then we are in trouble. Discussing these kinds of questions is what academic life is supposed to be about."

Free speech movement, for believers on campus

It took a few minutes for leaders of the Bisexual, Gay & Lesbian Alliance at Rutgers University to realize something was wrong at their back-to-school meeting.

The hall was full of unfamiliar students wanting to become members. Most were carrying Bibles with markers in the first chapter of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans. They also had copies of the campus policy forbidding discrimination on the basis of "race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, age, sex, sexual orientation, disability, marital or veteran status."

Truth is, this scene hasn't happened at Rutgers or anywhere else -- so far.

What if it did?

What if conservative Christians tried to rush a gay-rights group and elect new leaders? What if, when told they couldn't join because they rejected its core beliefs, evangelicals cited cases in which Christian groups were punished for refusing leadership roles to homosexuals? What if, when jeered by angry homosexuals, evangelicals called this verbal violence rooted in religious bigotry and, thus, harassment?

"No, no, no. I have never heard of a case in which conservative Catholics, Protestants or Jews tried to turn the tables in this fashion," said historian Alan Charles Kors, president of the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)

"That would never happen. There is an inherent meekness ... among students of faith on all these campuses. It's so ironic that people call them intolerant and offensive. Most of these religious students are among the last people who would ever go where they are not wanted. All they want is to be free to express their beliefs."

But there have been a growing number of cases in which traditional religious groups have been attacked because their "intolerant" beliefs and policies offend modern academia. Almost all of these cases are collisions between ancient moral doctrines and campus policies that defend and promote the Sexual Revolution.

The bottom line, according to recent FIRE legal guides, is that almost all campus policies that inhibit religious practices also inhibit the constitutional rights of free speech, association and assembly. Public colleges and universities are not supposed to make doctrinal decisions that deny privileges to some religious groups that are then extended to other secular or religious groups.

Yet that is what is happening.

"Religious liberty is now center stage in the battle for freedom on campus," according to David French, a Harvard Law School graduate who wrote the manual covering disputes over faith issues. "Religious students are particularly convenient targets. After all, they think and behave in ways that many other students don't understand; they tend to be small minorities on most campuses; and -- by religious conviction -- they often resist even the most heavy-handed repression."

For all of their talk about "diversity" and "tolerance," French is convinced many academic leaders think that "the fewer 'fanatics' -- of the 'wrong' kind -- the better."

While these campus disputes are often described in terms of "left" and "right," the FIRE project ( has been endorsed by a diverse coalition of activists ranging from Edwin Meese III, attorney general in the Reagan administration, to American Civil Liberties Union President Nadine Strossen.

The key is that academic leaders must be honest, said French. Leaders at state schools are quickly learning that their work is covered by explicit laws that ban any "viewpoint discrimination" that blesses some believers and curses others. Religious schools, meanwhile, are allowed to require particular beliefs and practices -- mandatory chapel, moral codes, doctrinal statements for faculty -- if these rules are clearly stated in writing.

Right now, the toughest battles are at some of America's most prestigious private colleges and universities. These secular schools once encouraged fierce debates and proudly tolerated dissent. But now, it seems that some worldviews are created more equal than others.

Many religious believers do not discover this reality until they arrive on campus and receive copies of the all-powerful student handbook.

"Students must be told the truth," said French. "They should not be duped into believing that they have enrolled in a school that respects their beliefs and their freedom to express viewpoints that are out of the so-called mainstream. These secular schools must be more honest in their recruiting materials and catalogues. This is a truth in advertising issue."