If incongruity is the basis of humor, then the modern university is a pretty funny place.
College students are inundated these days with the Gospel of Service. Campus leaders great and small hector them: spend spring break in Appalachia; be a Big Brother or Big Sister to a poor kid in town; do an “urban plunge” in the Bowery (or someplace like the Bowery used to be).
Good point: today’s students are all too often self-centered, pampered, and take their affluence (that is, their parents’ money) for granted. But what do the colleges do the rest of the time? Tell these same students that they are the brightest ever, see to their every need, and immerse them in affluence—from the smorgasbord in the dining hall to the spa-like workout facilities. Except for having a roommate you might not like, life at the “U” is better than taking a cruise. The “U” can’t sink.
Dormitories are hives of behavior modification and thought policing, even as the adults on campus dance on the grave of in loco parentis and sing the psalm of academic freedom. “Orientation” speakers make sure all the incoming students get their minds right about “diversity” and “respecting difference.” Well, at least some differences, or maybe none: “straight,” “gay,” “queer,” “trans,” or “bi” are (all join the refrain now!) “fine by me.”
The mantra is pretty much the same across the board. Many students arrive at college with beliefs about God, marriage, family, and sexual morality that they hold as true. Because students hold varied and sometimes incompatible beliefs about these important matters, they arrive at school with real differences. Yet colleges do not respect these differences at all; they are treated instead as sources of intolerance and even violence.
The collegiate orthodoxy is that religion and these other moral beliefs are matters of private (read: subjective, unverifiable) opinion. They are not the kinds of things that could be either true or false. They are manifestations of experience, feelings, and even one’s peculiar genetic make-up. Properly understood, they make no more difference than that between a taste for Thai or Mexican food. And that is the Truth about “truth.”
The New York Times last week reported on an anomaly. This one is edifying and welcome: a Christian dorm at a public university! Troy University—Alabama’s third-largest public university—opened “a roomy 376-bed dormitory that caters to students who want a residential experience infused with religion.” The “Newman Center” was established by a private Catholic development company. It is modeled on the flourishing center of the same name at the University of Illinois. The same company recently opened another dorm at Texas A&M, as well as at the private (and non-religious) Florida Institute of Technology. More “Newman Halls” are planned.
It is a worthy undertaking, and long overdue. Troy’s new dorm is open to residents of all faiths. In fact, most residents are non-Catholic Christians. Even so, it promises to be a source of strength and a platform for maturity for those who choose to live there.
Its greatest value is not that it would insulate residents from the indoctrination to which they would be subjected in other dorms. That would indeed be a benefit, but a greater good is existential. Newman Hall residents can support each other in prayer and in faith, and live among folks whose goal for the weekend is more sublime than getting drunk and hooking up.
Residents would thus be spared the pagan culture of the “U’s” other dormitories. More important, they would be spared the temptation, not only to join the debauchery, but to confess adherence to the college creed: “although porn and jello-shots are not for me, that stuff is okay for those who are so inclined.” This is the collegiate faith: the “right” and “wrong” of such matters is in the eye of the beholder.
It is no anomaly that the strict-separationist watchdogs are unhappy about Troy. It is no surprise either that President Annie Gaylor, of the aptly named Freedom From Religion Foundation, thinks it is “very insidious.” Veteran First Amendment sentinel Charles Haynes says that faith-based dorms are a “constitutional mistake.” He opines that a “university really can’t take sides in religion, especially in a way that gives certain benefits to people of faith.”
Haynes’ is the mistake. Universities maintain chapels, and they have religion departments. For decades they have cooperated fruitfully with churches and other religious groups to make services available on campus or near student living quarters. A public college that simply said “no” to “giving certain benefits to people of faith” would itself be making a “constitutional mistake.”
The most pertinent Supreme Court precedents establish that religion must be treated no worse than other comparable viewpoints and activities. So, any university that set up other “values” or “identity” dorms—“green” or Africana or international or LGBTQ-friendly—would almost certainly act unconstitutionally if it flatly refused a proposal for a “faith-based” dorm.
In any event, the Times’ report missed the two larger points. One is that, even if a public university demurred, nothing in the law would inhibit developers’ acquisition of a near-campus parcel for the next Newman Hall. The second: nothing in the law would prevent a private university—Princeton, Duke, Notre Dame, Wheaton, or BYU, for example—from erecting a faith-dorm. Many have.
America’s Catholic philanthropists, bishops, and parents should take special note of this important experiment. It is no secret that the great majority of our country’s 225 “Catholic” colleges and universities are little more than nominally so. The student population at many of these schools is predominantly non-Catholic.
Meanwhile, about 85 percent of the Catholics enrolled in higher education are enrolled in non-Catholic institutions. The project of helping America’s young Catholics achieve an adult faith, therefore, is very largely the project of catechizing these young people.
Gerard Bradley is Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School.