More Religion, Politics and the University

What do students lose when religion Is left out of the academic conversation?

February 2, 2018

This week for our course Religion, Politics and the University, my colleague John Inazu and I taught parts of George Marsden’s classic text, The Soul of the American University. Marsden claims that American universities were largely built by “men who came of age during the earthshaking national conflict (the civil war) and who inherited a sense of calling to serve God and nation in a cultural mission who founded and defined American universities.” This was the case both for private colleges that took as a principal purpose Christian formation and also public universities. Protestant Christianity and American nation were effectively one and the same. 

Marsden further states about the founders of these colleges: “Typically they did not abandon the Christian idealism of that heritage but rather adjusted it to accommodate their commitments to modernity.” Eventually the forces put in motion by their commitments to modernity, which at first excluded certain forms of evangelical Christianity from the university, wound up excluding many forms of Christian expression from many universities. (One of our students pointed out that this certainly does not take into account strongly religiously-affiliated universities, and probably does not particularly account for the academic cultures of universities in the American South).

These days, the exclusion of religious perspectives are virtually taken for granted in much of academic life, even though this development is fairly recent. It’s useful to detail how the change came about: 

  • First by a commitment to a kind of objective scientific worldview that did not want to abide by the constraints imposed by some forms of religious belief; 
  • A concern that when religion defines ‘the common good’ it excludes other viewpoints (feminist, LGBT, etc);
  • The questions raised about the ‘character building’ and ‘civilizing’ role of Christianity in the post-colonial and post-in loco parentis era.   

These days, according to Marsden, the unspoken understanding of diversity on many campuses goes something like this: “Persons from a wide variety of races and cultures are welcomed into the university, but only on the condition that they think more or less alike.”

One of the fascinating ironies that Marsden points out is that, now that no one believes in pure objectivity or neutral inquiry, why isn’t religion considered a legitimate ‘standpoint epistemology’, along the lines of being black, female, etc?

The key question that Marsden asks is, What would it mean to recover a genuine commitment to pluralism? For him – and for me, I should add - it has to recognize the place of religion. Marsden again: “Since religion is integral to most cultures, one might expect that a commitment to diversity would entail the encouragement of intellectual expressions of a variety of religious perspectives.”

How to deal with the inevitable clashes brought about by opposing viewpoints: “The presence of strongly held beliefs should be dealt with by rules of civility, not by intolerance toward and exclusion of a whole class of viewpoints.”

          A key question that John and I had for our students: What do you think you lose by religious viewpoints not being robustly represented in the academic life of the university? What do you lose intellectually? What do you lose in terms of career preparation and citizenship?



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