The campus war against faithCANDACE DE RUSSY
The reality is that religious believers on secular campuses, many of them with religious family roots and deep faith commitments, face grim prospects, academically and personally.
Half a century ago, William F. Buckley chronicled the rise of unbelief among the faculty of the Department of Religion at Yale University.1 In case after case documented in God and Man at Yale, the professor who openly expressed his doubts about orthodoxy invoked the rights of the dissenter. Atheism and agnosticism flew under the flag of academic freedom; those students and alumni who wondered whether unbelief should be taught in a department of religion were decried as suppressionists and censors inhibiting the free flow of ideas.
The status of religion on campus has undergone a dramatic change in these five decades. It is not the heterodox who feel themselves under fire on campus, if they ever were. It is religious believers, both faculty and students, who face an inquisition with the de facto assumption of guilt. Because their values often conflict with the political priorities of the campus administration and other governing bodies on campus, they find them selves accused of intolerance and discrimination.
It is suggested that religious students must be subjected to discrimination and must not be tolerated by our new relativistic sensitivities. The Dean of the Yale Law School, for example, has defended its decision to prohibit the school's Christian Legal Society from continuing its religious identity with the claim that the identity itself offends "the School's principle of nondiscrimination." Prohibiting such a group from existing is not considered discrimination but an essential step in the campaign to stamp out "religious favoritism."2
The reality is that religious believers on secular campuses, many of them with religious family roots and deep faith commitments, face grim prospects, academically and personally. Hardly a day goes by when they are not reminded of the university's supposed ideals of diversity. But from their perspective, they are not considered a vital part of campus diversity, they are not tolerated, and they are not to be protected against discrimination in every aspect of their research and associations. Indeed, a crucial step in institutionalizing this new form of "tolerance" is to purge every hint of dissent from every corner of campus life. The real suppressionists and censors have nearly won.
From the trenches
How did this Orwellian situation come about and what can be done to end it? Let us first examine the nature and extent of the problem. I sit on the board of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE. It is FIRE's mission to defend and sustain individual rights, including religious liberty, at our increasingly repressive colleges and universities. Hence I have had the opportunity to observe a number of cases that together amount to a revealing trend.3
As religion has been driven from the class room and official events, students have turned to other social associations as the organizational centers of prayer and learning in their faith traditions. Yet many institutions are forbidding religious student associations from bearing witness to their faith in the choice of members and leaders, insofar as the choices impinge on politically correct concerns. For example, Tufts University, in the spring of 2000, removed recognition from its campus's Evangelical Christian Fellowship for refusing to pledge that it would not take into account the view on Scripture and sexuality of a gay member in considering her for a leadership role.
At Ball State University, the Christian Student Foundation was required to adopt language in its constitution that would violate its biblical principles. The problem began in the spring of 1998, when Ball State amended its non-discrimination statement with the phrase "sexual orientation." in the spring of 1999, all student organizations were notified that they must add the new language to the membership clauses of their organizations' constitutions.
When the Christian Student Foundation received the notice, it wrote two separate letters and met with the Student Activities Committee requesting clarification of the proposed nondiscrimination oath, which the Foundation found inconsistent with their values. The Foundation received no reply.
Ball State's web site boasts of a community in which its "students have formed religious organizations affiliated with most major religions in America." Unfortunately, despite being a state institution, Ball State was silent in ensuring that student religious groups had a right to select their membership and leader ship based on criteria that reflect their sincerely held religious beliefs.
In December of 2000, a variation on this same kind of intolerance of religious students occurred at Penn State University (PSU). The Undergraduate Student Government Supreme Court informed a chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) that the words of its constitution and mission statement, identifying rights as "God-given," had been found objectionable. Such words, the Court said, reflected a "devotion to god" and thus constituted "discrimination."
In January of 2001, the same student Supreme Court upheld its decision and "struck" the offending statements from the YAF constitution. YAF appealed again, this time to a student-faculty Appeals Board. This Board unanimously denied YAF the right to be recognized as a student organization so long as it insisted on keeping "religious" language in its constitution.
In another incident, in May of 2000, Williams College instructed its student groups to adopt "non-discrimination" language in their constitutions or lose their ability to exist as campus groups. A memo from an administrator specifically instructed student groups to include in "non-discrimination" the category of sexual orientation. The memo did not single out, for example, the category of ethnicity or race.
Williams justified this imposition by asserting, without any specific citations, that its actions in this case are "completely dictated by the Federal Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights guidelines for non-discrimination." Similar acts of discrimination have been reported and are being investigated by FIRE at Middlebury College, Whitman College and SUNY Oswego.
In a case that FIRE settled privately in June of 2000, a prestigious university's theology school came under fire when a student was accused and convicted (in an administrative finding) of "sexual harassment" for his words in a prayer service. The student had prayed for homosexuals and had asked that the devil be cast out of the sinners. The dean of students called the student into his office and pulled out the school's speech code. He told the student that he was a "sexual harasser" and that his future at the school would be imperiled it he ever prayed like that again.
(Given this case, it is not at all alarmist to regard many campus codes against sexual harassment as potentially threatening to religious rights. The target here is not actually sexual coercion, which is handled by criminal law, but expression that is regarded by feminist groups to be demeaning to their political agenda. Indeed, many of them regard all orthodox belief as demeaning because, in the radical feminist canon, the personal is the political is the academic.)
Finally, in yet another variety of such cases, and as cited by William Tucker in The Weekly Standard,4 there is a report of discrimination involving a student "residential adviser" at the University of Michigan. This student caused a crisis at an advisers' "retreat" by asking to go to church on Sunday. He was told this would "violate the spirit of the week end." Eventually he and some of his fellow dorm counselors were permitted to conduct a private prayer service.
Despite the insidious effects of discriminating against religious believers in the academy, such discrimination has been successfully combated, provided it is flagrant as in the examples cited above. For example, media attention induced Tufts University to restore to its rightful place the Christian Fellowship. In the Ball State case, a stern letter from FIRE Sufficed to cause the University to back down. Upon receiving this letter, which documented points of law and advised Ball State of its intent to wage a relentless publicity campaign, the University exempted the group from having to define itself contrary to its religious beliefs.
Similarly, at the prestigious university where a student had been convicted by the theology school as a "sexual harasser" for his words in a prayer service, one letter from FIRE prompted immediate action. The university assured the student that he had done nothing wrong, sending a clear message to the school administrators to mend their intolerant ways. The dean of students is no longer employed at that school. With equal alacrity, Penn State University reversed the student government ruling that had stripped religious language from the constitution of the Young Americans for Freedom.
In the words of Alan Kors, founder of FIRE, "About 90 percent of the time the universities will back down when threatened with exposure. As soon as they get out of their clubby little confines where double standards seem right and just, they're doomed."
All of these cases impinge on the freedom of students to speak and associate. They raise alarm bells concerning other forms of discrimination in hiring and admission. Fundamentalist Christians and orthodox Jews have reason to believe they might be passed over in admissions and promotions. The chilling effect may be the most pervasive and also the most difficult to document. How many student applicants and professors have chosen to bury their faith rather than risk running into academic trouble? How many organizations have chosen not to stay faithful to religious doctrine rather than face a grueling inquisition from campus administrators or student review boards?
The case for freedom of religion
Discriminatory acts such as these are transgressions against religious liberty and authentic pluralism. What's more, these actions often violate the explicit contractual obligations that the institutions chose to enter into with their students, contracts that guarantee the right to the freedom of association.
That the academy, which above all our institutions should nurture freedom of opinion and diversity of associations, actively discriminates against religious believers, is greatly ironic. On the one hand, the academy lavishes scholarly time and legal effort on the defense of academically irrelevant, or even divisive, categories of "diversity."5 On the other, it has no qualms about committing coercive acts of discrimination aimed at eliminating one desirable and important type of diversity religious diversity from its precincts.
These stories of discrimination only reveal the most egregious symptoms of a far deeper problem. In today's university setting, we are witnessing the widespread rejection of the liberal idea itself: the belief that education and wisdom thrive best when competing truth claims can be advanced in an atmosphere of freedom and tolerance, where the merit of students and faculty is judged by standards of excellence in scholarship and not according to some predetermined secular dogma, where the full range of opinion is offered as the basis of a well-rounded program of scholarly exploration and examination.
One response may be that suppressing religious expression is merely an extension of a broader effort to eliminate hateful expression in general, for example, racist sentiments. Such suppression, it might be said, is necessary for the maintenance of a civil academic setting. But the analogy does not work. Racism and religion are categorically different classes of speech and association. Indeed, anyone who says that traditional religious belief and practice have no place in university life is rejecting the very heart and soul of the liberal idea and even the university itself. It only adds insult to injury that this campaign of vilification and exclusion would take place in the name of liberalism.
Consider the opinions of that liberal paragon John Locke, known in his time as a radical educational reformer, on the relationship between religion and education. In 1693, he wrote that every student should at least know the Lord's Prayer, the Creeds, and the Ten Commandments by heart and that these prayers should be learned by constant repetition by which standard a huge percentage of to day's students lack even the basics. After these basics, he wrote, every student should learn a question and answer from the Christian catechism every day or every week. He continues: "And when he has this catechism perfectly by heart, so as readily and roundly to answer to any question in the whole book, it may be convenient to lodge in his mind the remaining moral rules scattered up and down in the Bible, as the best exercise of his memory, and that which may be always a rule to him, ready at hand, in the whole conduct of his life."6
Such a comment today by a professor or student might prompt an investigation on grounds of extreme religious intolerance. And yet his words constitute the very moral heart of what was once regarded as a liberal education. Locke might also agree, as I certainly do, that religious diversity among the students and faculty, as well as the curriculum, has intrinsically a positive intellectual value. Religious dialogue introduces intellectual content that can only serve to enrich the culture of Scholarly argument among bright young minds. Such diversity can help sharpen students' ability to think critically for themselves about the great questions of wisdom, purpose, and meaning which, after all, is the aim of a liberal education.
Granted, there are some well-meaning professors and other denizens of our modern campus who think it is actually acceptable to suppress religious belief, in much the way that it has become acceptable to suppress the freedom to smoke. There are other well-meaning professors of Christian background who sincerely but erroneously have embraced the idea that "objectivity" in research demands that all religiously based assumptions are off limits in scholarly activity; such scholars, ironically, often leave unquestioned the "unity of theory and praxis" advocated by political radicals and the general issue of the philosophical pre-suppositions of any intellectual endeavor. Mistaken as these scholars are, they are quite innocent by comparison with the campus politicos who fight religious belief for political reasons.
Sincere or not, those responsible for erecting barriers to the practice of faith on campuses are a source of grave personal, institutional, as well as civic, harm. Only five percent of the population is committed to the idea that God doesn't exist, so to coerce the rest who attend college to proceed in their learning as if God and faith have no bearing on what they believe is a gross injustice that harms students by exercising intolerant control over their minds and consciences. In helping to obliterate religion from the academy, it serves to distort the accuracy, coherence and completeness of all knowledge.
An academy and a society stripped of religious beliefs become dehumanized. Without spiritual grounding and restraint, human beings become subject to what Cardinal Newman calls the "wild living intellect." They come to deny and strive to overcome their human nature, and thereby reduce humanity to biological components and group ethnic identity. In C.S. Lewis' phrase, they effectively "abolish" man.
The American idea
The religious origins of the American educational system are not in doubt. John Harvard was a puritan minister who gave his personal library and money toward the establishment of the University. Edward Johnson's 1636 account says that Harvard was built with the Lord's "provident hand giving his approbation to the work" in order to benefit "the churches of Christ and civil government." Half of its graduates from 1648-1689 were clergyman, while physicians, government officials and teachers made up the bulk of the rest.7
The decidedly Puritan orientation of the early American academy had a sectarian cast that was reinforced by the relatively small segment of social and economic classes that made up its faculty and students. The faith confession of Catholics, for example, barred them from most colleges. They had to make the long and dangerous journey to Europe and face the ordeal of many years of separation from their families for the sake of higher education. Leaving home when he was only eleven years old, the signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, spent no less than seventeen years abroad in his college and legal studies all because of discriminatory laws, before he was able to return to his family hearth in Maryland.
Such discrimination favoring one religion over others is not itself a violation of rights; in private institutions founded and run by particular denominations, protecting the doctrinal homogeneity of the university setting is part of the founding mission. But matters become more complicated when such institutions are public, nonsectarian, and responsible to a broad range of taxpayers and internal governing boards that claim a commitment to pluralism. Insofar as social and economic factors continue to reinforce the traditional religious orientation of the campus, conflicts over religion can be held in check. But when the academic reach of the campus expands and it no longer makes adherence to creed a condition of teaching or attending, the campus must make a decision as to how to treat faith.
This is precisely what occurred in the aftermath of the Second World War. America's largest and most prestigious college campuses underwent a dramatic demographic upheaval that led to a reexamination of the relationship between faith and learning. First, American intellectual life benefited immensely from an influx of learned scholars from the European Continent who had fled the savagery of the total state, which had targeted intellectual dissidents for destruction. They sought and found in the U.S. a welcoming environment of freedom for research and for recruiting students. Second, among the Student population, the G.I. Bill permitted a far wider range of diversity religious, racial, and class of students to attend college than ever before. The environment of America's magnificent but demographically insular campuses would never be the same. These two factors permanently altered the religious character of the university.
After World War II Catholic and Jewish Americans had reason to believe that, in the words of their nation's Declaration of Independence, they could at last pursue "happiness" on the campuses of the colleges and universities of the United States. Whereas alumni boards and administrators once took for granted the existence of a broad religious homogeneity as the social and cultural foundation of the campus environment, they would now have to come to terms with religious heterogeneity on campus. Among both faculty and students, Episcopalians would now be required to mix with Catholics, Jews, and non-believers, of every social class, and each would have to find some way to tolerate each other, even learn from each other, even as they struggled to retain their own religious identity and hold onto their own valued claims to truth as they understood it.
In the twenty-five years that followed the end of the war, we hammered out something close to a solution to the problem, and it was a solution that flowed naturally from America's tradition of religious toleration. Students and professors would be evaluated based not on their religious identity but on their scholarly merits. Adherence (or lack of adherence) to religions creeds would, for the most part, be voluntary, not a matter of academic policy. Every manner of religious expression would be permitted, and cultural groups that promoted one or another faith would be tolerated and encouraged. In the classroom, we believed that students benefited from a wide exposure to a variety of religious and nonreligious traditions. Catholics, Jews, Protestants, and even skeptics began to realize that they did not need to hate each other in order to maintain their group identity. More importantly, they came to discover that each group had a greater stake in maintaining the freedom of all to worship and associate than they had in achieving a final victory for their own point of view.
The Two great books
Two books in particular stand out for leading the postwar consensus in favor of toleration and liberality toward faith on campus. The first was by Jewish sociologist Will Herberg. His 1955 book Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in Religious Sociology8 noted that American society seemed fully accepting of the concept of religious and cultural pluralism which included an important role for traditional religious beliefs. He argued that the fanaticism of the European varieties of both religion and irreligion found no natural home in America. As a consequence of religious freedom and religious pluralism, all faiths were given the maximum possible cultural and intellectual freedom to develop and evangelize.
His book observed that this system of academic freedom and pluralism concerning religion has paradoxically produced a "renewed interest in religion in the academic community, and among intellectuals generally." He documented "the extraordinary expansion of departments of religion and programs of religious instruction." Nor was the interest purely intellectual: even among the academic elite he noted a stirring of the soul taking place.
These observations struck a very hopeful note among Catholics and Jews, as did another important book of the period by Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray. His 1960 book entitled We Hold These Truths9 argued in favor of America's tradition of religious toleration, not as an article of faith but as an article of peace. By this he meant that people of all faiths, and Catholics in particular, were far better off under a system in which official institutions discriminated neither in favor of nor against religion, but rather permitted the widest possible liberty for religious exploration. Such a system need not compromise orthodoxy, he argued, but rather permits it to flourish in the fullest possible way.
The U.S. Constitution says very plainly: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . ." These are simple words that have led to a remarkably confusing legal minefield, as court decisions have piled up decade after decade. But Murray brings clarity to the issue: The whole intent of separating church and state, he argued, was to protect, not inure, the interests of religion in society. It is well known that his thesis had a profound influence in the drafting of Dignitatis Humanae (1965), in which the Catholic Church "declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others within due limits."
It is less well known that Fr. Murray included in his influential treatise a chapter on pluralism and the university. In this chapter, "Creeds at War Intelligibly,"10 we find our answer to the many conflicts over religion we encounter on campus today. These conflicts are not necessarily something to seek to banish. "If the university takes its function seriously," he says, "it ought to find itself in the characteristically modern situation of religious conflict, which is at once intellectual and passionate, a clash of individual minds and of organized opinions." The university should not and cannot ignore the reality that most students are in fact religious. Further, it would be naive to insist that the individual creeds and curiosities of the students (and the faculty) should not have implications for what is studied and taught, or for the associations that students form. Fr. Murray condemns the advance of solipsism that says one person's religious belief cannot be shared by another and can never rise above the status of mere opinion.
What should be the official university posture toward religion? Mere neutrality is not enough because "the university is committed to the task of putting an end, as far as it can, to intellectual savagery in all its forms, including a major current form, which is the savagery of the American student (perhaps also the professor?) who in matters religious and theological is all untutored child of the intellectual wilderness." The university must be committed to banishing ignorance, including ignorance of religion, unless it chooses to regard religion as identical to ignorance. True learning must also include schooling in religious doctrine, so that students can rise above a bull-session-level of knowledge of competing creeds.
In addition to that, Fr. Murray says, the university must be committed to the students' freedom to learn. This is the "major issue." The public university has no right to judge the validity of the student's religious commitments but neither does it have a right to "ignore the fact of these commitments." It will not do to merely institute a "religious emphasis week," or segregate faith into a Department of Religion. Real pluralism must deal with the fact that religious commitment is overarching and bears on a wide number of disciplines. The freedom to learn must allow for committed believers on the faculty to bring religious wisdom to bear on a whole range of the social sciences and humanities. He further recommends classes on all major religions taught by faculty who embrace the creed they are teaching and here Fr. Murray cites John Stuart Mill's dictum that every position should be explained and defended by a man who holds it.
Fr. Murray concludes with a reminder of the limits of the modern university. It is not a messianic institution. Its responsibility is intellectual development, which includes character development. Insofar as the university provides that, and erects no barriers to salvation, it has done its job. In stating this so clearly, lie provides something of a corrective to two sides of the debate: those who wish to banish nonbelievers in the hope of spiritual purification, as well those who would muzzle anyone with a favorable opinion on orthodox faith. The latter type is by far the greatest threat to the freedom to learn on campus today, and the source of the illiberality we see too often today.
Where did the hope go?
In the days of Herberg and Murray, there were many reasons to be hopeful that we had reached something close to an equilibrium on college campuses. No, the system was not perfect. Indeed, it is true that subtle forms of religious discrimination against people thrived throughout the 1960s and 1970s. But at least there was a growing sense of what we hoped to achieve: the fruitful exchange that seemed uniquely possible in American academia because it was possible in society at large.
I will make no attempt to thoroughly document the precise forces that let to the change we observe today, where people of faith appear to be at a worse disadvantage in the university environment than ever before. My purpose here is simply to note the change and describe just how far we have moved away from the consensus for toleration, as described by Herberg and Murray, and toward a particularly bitter form of intolerance.
The blatant discrimination against serious or orthodox religious believers on many of today's campuses on the part of administrators, faculty senates, faculty, and accrediting agencies would have been unthinkable not long ago. But, as I have illustrated, things have radically changed. Religious discrimination is making an alarming comeback in the academy. The discrediting of traditional religious beliefs or, more accurately, the arrogant and philistine rejection of the creeds of Christians, Jews, and Moslems as unworthy of respect in the academy, is a fanciful conceit, which rests not on scientific argument but rather upon a faith commitment to secularism as religion, in the tradition of Auguste Comte's "religion of humanity."
Russell Kirk argues in his 1978 work Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning11 that, in the first decades of the twentieth century, religiously uncommitted public institutions naturally appealed to professors who were steeped in this positivistic worldview, whereas church-related colleges and universities tended to attract those with religious convictions. Thus, as student enrollment at independent campuses steadily waned after World War ii, compared to enroll went in state institutions, so did the influence of Christianity throughout higher education.
This erosion was compounded by the decision of many Protestant colleges to sunder their denominational ties, as discussed by George Marsden in his The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Non-Belief12 In later years, other church-related institutions, particularly Catholic colleges, would relax their confessional character in order to obtain ever expanding federal grants and to gain "acceptance" by secular elites.13
This mere wasting away of the religious component, however, did not satisfy the influential forces within the educational establishment. It aggressively propagated a radically new interpretation of the First Amendment to the Constitution: no longer should it stand as a declaration of neutrality among creeds but, rather, as a declaration of disapproval of religious faith by the state. Just as secularism was replacing the Judeo-Christian heritage in the American public square, so too was it becoming the unofficial "religion" of the academy.
As James Hunter argues persuasively in his Culture Wars,14 it is not the religious discrimination of a Protestant elite against Catholic, Jews, Mormons, and other religious minorities but that of a hegemonic secularism against the orthodox religious believers of all faiths. Hunter uses the term "progressive" to describe those who war against the orthodox, and in their ranks he includes secularists, left-wing Protestants, left-wing Jews, and left-wing Catholic "liberation" theologians.
We might add to Hunter's list all those who insist on the existence of only one truth: namely that there is no truth, and that anyone who says otherwise, must be ridiculed, excluded, and even destroyed. Like their left-wing counterparts, these increasingly aggressive nihilists reflexively embrace secularism as dogma that must be accepted without question.
The freedom to learn
The political left of today, which is responsible for having betrayed the postwar educational consensus, has evidently lost confidence in the liberal program and the persuasive power of its own program, and has resorted to coercion as a means of gaining and retaining power. As a result, egregious acts of discrimination against campus religious believers are ubiquitous and no longer possible to ignore.
Shall we be free to pursue all truth, including the truth about God, about life and death and about all the ultimate questions of our existence which free men and women must try to answer in which is found our happiness, our completion, our disunity as human persons? Shall we be free to learn from each other in an atmosphere of freedom and mutual toleration within a framework of peaceful and open debate? Or shall we, in the prophetic warning of C.S. Lewis, collaborate in silence and passivity with those misguided among us who would abolish man?
My prediction is that the discrimination against religious believers in higher education will end, in the final analysis, because the principles of truth and freedom carry more resonance than the claims of the new despotism masquerading under the slogans of non-discrimination and diversity. Just as Fr. Murray and Will Herberg fearlessly called on us to commit ourselves to the highest ideals of both truth and pluralism in our own times, we need to renew our devotion to the idea of a university as a place of true tolerance and true diversity two words that many of us continue to use with sincerity. It is time that these ideals become a living reality on campus rather than slogans used to crush dissent.
Candace de Russy. "The campus war against faith." Homiletic and Pastoral Review (February, 2002).
This article reprinted with permission from Homiletic and Pastoral Review.
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Dr. Candace de Russy, a former college professor; has been a member of the Board of Trustees of the State University of New York since 1995. She has led efforts to raise accountability to the academy. A shortened version of this article has appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education. She is a contributing editor it Crisis magazine.
© 2002 Homiletic and Pastoral Review
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