Religious Colleges Coming of Age

Strict Norms and a Sense of Mission Help Shape Campuses

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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, MARCH 12, 2005 ( A new “Missionary Generation” is being formed at a growing number of religious-inspired colleges in the United States. A just-published book, “God on the Quad” (St. Martin’s Press), by journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley, analyzes the phenomenon.

She begins by observing that the university campus is normally associated with secularism and a decided hostility to established religion. Liberation from the strictures of morality, coed dorms, and prohibitions against any one of a myriad of forms of “discrimination” are only too common, notes Schaefer Riley.

But this is far from being a complete picture of the college situation, she adds. In fact, there are now 1.3 million graduates of more than 700 religious colleges. In her travels the author visited 20 of these colleges in 2001 and 2002. She found that the students “reject the spiritually empty education of secular schools.”

And student numbers are rising sharply. The more than 100 members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities — liberal arts colleges committed to teaching Christian doctrine — saw enrollments jump 60% between 1990 and 2002. Catholic institutions are also flourishing, and Orthodox Jewish colleges have more applicants than they can take.

Not surprisingly, many of the students come from private religious schools, and from families that take their faith seriously. Another important factor that the author identifies among the students is the proportion who come from a home-schooling background. About 10% of the students at evangelical colleges were home schooled. In the case of some Catholic colleges, such as Thomas Aquinas and Christendom, the proportion rises to 20% and 30%, respectively.

Transforming culture

For their part the faculty in the religious colleges hope that their graduates will become young professionals imbued with a strong moral code and will be able to transform secular culture from within. This is no pipe dream, Schaefer Riley observes. One of the most liberal states, Massachusetts, now has as governor Mitt Romney — a graduate of Brigham Young University.

Schaefer Riley starts her profiles of the colleges with Brigham Young, located in the state of Utah. The Mormon-run university carefully selects its students from among the 100,000 or so co-religionists who graduate from high school each year. The overwhelming majority of faculty staffers are Mormons with teachers and students (99% of whom are Mormons) alike bound by a strict honor code. Students who fail to abide by the norms face expulsion.

From Utah, the focus shifts to South Carolina, and Bob Jones University. The fundamentalist Christian institution, the author notes, is famed for having represented the racist and intolerant image of the South. It also gained a reputation in the past for anti-Catholicism.

Students must sign a creed declaring belief in the divinely inspired Bible and the role of Christ as Savior, among other things. Regular chapel meetings are a part of weekly student life. Like their Mormon counterparts, most of the students at Bob Jones have participated in overseas missionary activity, or plan to do so in the near future.

Rules are strict here, and accumulating 150 demerit points means students will be “shipped out.” A dress code, strict curfew and zero tolerance of drinking and premarital sex are among the norms students must follow.

Strict norms are the rule in the religious colleges, Schaefer Riley observes. In many cases it involves not only drinking or sex, but also the type of music and reading material allowed on campus. But it is not just about rule making. College administrators also offer guidance and help in the area of character formation, and try to prepare the students for life in the adult world. The students do not live in a vacuum, she notes.

One of the aims the colleges have in this area is to teach the students cultural discernment, “that is, teaching students the best of what secular culture has to offer and providing them with the tools for examining it themselves.”

California to Texas

The Southern California campus of Thomas Aquinas College is another of the institutions surveyed by Schaefer Riley. Founded in 1971, the liberal arts school has about 300 students. It is also noted for providing vocations: 11% of its graduates have gone on to try religious life. According to one chaplain, Father Wilfred Borden, Catholicism is fundamental to the identity of the school. It is not unusual, he notes, to find 50 students at a weekday Mass.

The curriculum follows a Great Books program and the teaching style favors the Socratic method. The focus is on learning and study, with an emphasis on oral presentations and debate.

Another visit took the author to Baylor University in Texas, a Baptist-run institution. It is in the midst of an ambitious expansion program, planning to hire 220 new full-time faculty members by 2012. It has also taken steps to reinforce its Christian identity. Catholics are the second-largest group of students and, unlike at other evangelical schools, they are represented among staff members.

The majority of students are regular participants in the numerous churches close by the campus. With 8,000 undergraduates the university is bigger than a lot of the other religious schools, and less aggressively evangelical. Nevertheless, the Christian identity and an education that integrates faith and scholarship are well present.

Faith and learning

One of the questions the book considers is whether the close integration of faith and learning will work in the long run. The more than 700 religious-inspired institutions covers a wide gamut in terms of intellectual orientation and quality, the book notes.

Employers and graduate schools can be skeptical of applications from graduates of religious colleges, Schaefer Riley observes. However, this is not always the case. She notes, for example, that the overseas missionary experience of the Mormon graduates of Brigham Young stands in their favor, given their language skills and acquired maturity.

The religious colleges also have another positive factor: a more motivated environment. In her visits the author noted a “sense of mission” among students, and many teachers reported that their pupils are keen to come to class and study. She also commented that professors at religious colleges are often more qualified than their counterparts at secular schools, and have the advantage of sharing with their students a common motivation.

Religious colleges and universities, Schaefer Riley concludes, “have a tremendous opportunity to provide hospitals, law firms, businesses, and political organizations with the kind of ethically aware professionals that they desperately need today.”

Having spent time in college contemplating what God is calling them to do not only means that the graduates of religious colleges will be devoted to their careers, she observes, but they also have a well-formed sense of how their vocation should be carried out.

She also hopes that the evidence provided in the book will dispel the notion that the members of strongly religious communities are intellectually backward. In fact, the schools she examined “disproportionately require students to complete a rigorous traditional core curriculum, at the same time that the curricula of their secular rivals have often been watered down.”

Christendom College’s president, Timothy O’Donnell, commented that the school’s mission is “to restore all things in Christ.” The success of this and the other 700-plus religious colleges seems destined to make a significant impact in coming years.

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