The Secularization(s) of Christian Higher Education

Ringenberg, The Christian CollegeOn the eve of the decision of Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite University to withdraw from the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU), historian William Ringenberg told WORLD Magazine that the debate over those schools’ decision to hire LGBT faculty was “traumatic” for Christian higher ed. In his judgment, only one other crisis had been more significant: the period of secularization at many religious colleges between 1920 and 1960.

So I was struck to see the same scholar and the same comparison show up in the new Christianity Today article on the Goshen/Eastern Mennonite fracas. Reporter Sarah Zylstra noted that

The largest crisis of Christian higher education was from the 1920s to the 1960s, when many of the country’s most elite Christian schools (such as Duke, Northwestern, and Syracuse) downplayed their faith-based identity.That left a remnant of Christian schools to band together and begin the precursor to today’s CCCU, said William Ringenberg, historian at Taylor University and author of the forthcoming book The Christian College and the Meaning of Academic Freedom.

Concern about secularization, in other words, is encoded in the DNA of the CCCU.

So are they comparable situations, not just in scale of “crisis” but in the nature of what’s at stake? Does the decision to hire or not hire LGBT employees or extend benefits to their spouses have anything to do with a new wave of “secularization” in Christian higher ed?

Marsden, Soul of the American UniversityIf so, it would be a different phenomenon than what took place in the 20th century. (Here, I’d recommend the roundtable discussion in the newest issue of Books & Culture, where George Marsden and other participants reflect on the 25th anniversary of the “Secularization of the Academy” conference at Duke.) The relationship of faith to learning, the place of religious perspectives in a pluralistic academy, and the disestablishment of Protestantism in higher education are not at the heart of the now-simmering debate over sexuality and marriage. (Though the relationship of colleges to churches is certainly part of that debate, as it was in the 20th century.)

Yet it is striking that the CT article focused so much on what the CCCU crisis implied for the question of how evangelicals accommodate to, engage with, or distance themselves from “the world.” For example:

  • Sociologist John Hawthorne explained the hard-line stance taken by Union University and Oklahoma Wesleyan University as reflecting the view that “being a Christian university means you have to have a strong stance in separation from the broad cultural trends.”
  • Theologian Rod Sider warned that evangelicals had “to be faithful to what we believe is the biblical teaching” without in the process repeating “the old fundamental withdrawal…”
  • But to historian Jared Burkholder (as paraphrased by Zylstra), what seems to conservative evangelicals to be “giving in to worldly pressure to tolerate sin” actually stems from a distinctively Mennonite understanding that sees “inclusion, hospitality, and compassion as ways to separate from a brutal and oppressive world…”

It’s highly unlikely that Goshen and Eastern Mennonite will be the last Christian colleges to make such policy changes. (After all, they weren’t the first — just the first in the CCCU.) So as more such schools move in that direction, I fully expect to see even more claims of a new wave of secularization in Christian higher ed.

Burtchaell, Dying of the LightNow, I value Christian higher ed, and I do regret that the 20th century saw so many church-related colleges and universities lose any but the most nominal of Christian identities. But I tend to think that talk of a new version of James Burtchaell’s “dying of the light,” one defined by changing views on sexuality, is misguided.

First, those of us who uphold a “traditional” sexual ethic should hesitate to dismiss more “affirming” Christians as having exchanged biblical truth for worldly accommodation. For example, as Jared hinted in CT and more fully argued in his most recent post at this blog, socially progressive Mennonites have embraced same-sex marriage precisely because of how they read the Bible:

…if evangelicals would take the time to discern the core concerns that lay at the heart of the Anabaptist heritage, they would find a tradition of peacemaking that Anabaptists, regardless of where they stand on same-sex issues, believe is rooted in authentic and biblical Christianity and mandated specifically in Jesus’ teaching. This path is one where Christian faith mandates that others are not merely tolerated but embraced and where the oppressed are cared for through active service. This tradition necessitates inclusive attitudes precisely because those in the LGBT community have been so thoroughly marginalized and oppressed in the past.

November 2015 cover of Christianity TodayBut even if your exegesis of the same texts leads you to different conclusions, I’d echo what Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner argue in the cover article of next month’s issue of CT (subscription required): we evangelicals must “rebalance our approach to sexual ethics,” one in which “the focus on homosexuality became disproportionate.”

Indeed, I would suggest that debates about sexuality risk distracting us from more significant examples of Christian college accommodation to the world. There are many varieties of secularization, most of which have nothing to do with embracing modern or postmodern assumptions about truth or sexuality:

  • If Christian colleges align themselves too closely with one political party, or otherwise conspire to gain access to the corridors of that kind of power…
  • If they assimilate the values and practices of a certain economic system, or privilege educational programs that primarily serve the material purposes of that economy…
  • If they are complicit in and complacent about structural evils like racism, sexism, and deepening economic inequality…
  • If they view each other primarily as competitors, rather than as partners in a shared mission

In all those cases, Christian colleges are becoming more like the seculum.

Institutions that hire only Christian faculty who affirm lengthy theological statements, conform to traditional Christian ethics, and strive constantly to integrate faith and learning are still at risk of secularization if, for example, they conform their curriculum to the needs of the marketplace and engage in cutthroat competition with similar institutions for the same pool of students.

(Of course, there’s also a degree to which Christians, including Christian educators and scholars, ought to learn from the world. But I’ve already written that post…)

For that matter, how we talk about sexuality or other controversial topics also betrays a kind of secularization, as when we engage in discourse that’s as antagonistic and merciless as what you find in the zero-sum game of American politics. Here too, I’d encourage people to pay attention to Jared’s post on peacemaking in Anabaptist ethics: (italics below are mine)

Both evangelicals and Anabaptists value separation from the world, but they have divergent interpretations of how that separation should be applied to our society. While evangelicals have largely defined their separation from the world through participation in the culture wars, Anabaptists see such participation by evangelicals as no different from that of secular society. From an Anabaptist perspective, “the world” breeds divisions and conflict, defines insiders and outsiders, and gives preference to power, wealth and coercion. But Anabaptism teaches that to truly live separate from the world, Christians must reject all of this and swap it for the values of hospitality, compassion, service, and fair treatment.


2 thoughts on “The Secularization(s) of Christian Higher Education

  1. It seems inaccurate and unlikely to persuade conservatives that same sex marriage is a peripheral issue. They haven’t found words for it, but it is a foundational issue for them because it implies a radically different view of human nature than the one they hold. At bottom what seems to be at stake for conservative notions of orthodoxy is a premodern, essentialist, and sometimes hierarchical, masculinist, patriarchal notion of humanity and the sexes that was badly entangled in racist and ethno-nationalist constructions of Christianity at the dawn of modernity. (Rod Dreher verges on recognizing this when he talks about racial segregation vis-à-vis same sex marraige.) The metaphysical corpse of old, fragmented Christendom lives on in any mind that’s stuck on the idea that some people are more equal than others — especially those who imagine society will fall apart if we extend equal freedoms to all.

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