A Tragic Abandonment of Identity: The Secularization of America’s Religious Colleges and Universities

Today’s religious colleges and universities face a choice between two opposing worldviews: the traditional, spiritually embedded worldview upon which they were founded, or the secular, hedonistic, materialistic worldview that dominates them today.

Several recent articles caught my attention. Each involved a religiously affiliated university contradicting the religious principles that undergird the institution. These particular cases involved Catholic universities and centered on abortion, same-sex marriage, and residence facilities for students who identify as gay, lesbian, or transgender.

First, the University of Notre Dame refused an offer by the Trump administration to exempt it from the Obamacare mandate requiring it to provide abortifacients and contraceptives to its students and employees. Even though Notre Dame had previously sued for this right, they recently announced that their health plan contractors would continue providing free birth control, directly violating Catholic doctrine.

Second, Georgetown University likewise took action inconsistent with Catholic doctrine when it approved special residential housing for students who identify as gay, lesbian, or transgender who are interested in examining gender identity and sexual orientation. Previously, Georgetown actually considered the possibility of defunding a pro-marriage student group promoting Catholic teaching regarding marriage as the holy union of one man and one woman (“Love Saxa”).

And third, Marquette University fired a tenured political science professor for writing a blog post criticizing an intolerant graduate instructor who informed a student at this Catholic institution that the student could not express his disagreement with same-sex marriage in her ethics class because it was “homophobic.” He recently appealed an adverse trial court decision in Wisconsin.

These recent examples are symptoms of a far deeper problem that has been going on for decades: the gradual loss of the religious character of innumerable colleges and universities that were founded by a broad variety of denominations, from Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Congregationalists, Lutherans, and Methodists to Latter Day Saints, Catholics, and Jews.

History

Many American colleges and universities were founded with a strongly religious character but have since morphed into schools that endorse secular humanism. Harvard, Yale, and the University of Chicago are a few well-known examples. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these schools had clergyman presidents with a strong Christian worldview that unequivocally defined the identity of the schools they led. The curriculum often included Scripture and religious doctrine. Doctrinally sound content was included in most of the courses. Often, a majority of the faculty were required to be practicing members of the sect with which the school was affiliated. Chapel attendance was often required of all students. Over time, however, this religious educational environment was abandoned for a liberal secularism that ran contrary to the doctrines of the faith. Requiring students (and faculty) to live by a set of principles, as set forth in Scripture, is no longer seen as the foundation for healthy, productive, and moral lives.

The process was a gradual one. Initially, many Protestant-affiliated colleges transitioned from being denominationally affiliated schools to ones supporting a more generic Christianity. From there, the mission changed by incorporating some vaguely defined religious values, finally leading to an environment of total secularization and fidelity to secular humanism. This is not to say that all religiously affiliated colleges and universities followed this path. Wheaton College, Calvin College, the University of Dallas, Hillsdale College, Liberty University, Ave Maria University, Patrick Henry College, and Brigham Young University are examples of colleges of differing faiths that appear to be resisting the tide.

Path to Secularization

The first schools to begin the process of secularization were several liberal Protestant colleges and universities that are now part of the Ivy League. They began separating themselves from their sponsoring churches in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Harvard, for example, founded by Puritan Christians in 1636, later ousted its Calvinist board members and replaced them with Unitarians. By the end of the nineteenth century, President Charles Eliot transformed the University into a secular one.

Catholic schools initially resisted the secularization movement, but in 1967 a group of Catholic educators issued what has become known as the Land O’Lakes statement, asserting institutional autonomy and academic freedom “in the face of authority of every kind.” Shortly after this meeting, several Catholic colleges removed from their governing boards the majorities of priests, nuns, and members of religious orders. Some secularized their mission statements. A few decided to declare themselves totally independent of the Catholic Church.

In 1990, Pope John Paul II responded to the continuing loss of religious identity on Catholic campuses by issuing an apostolic constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, as part of his effort to slow the trend toward secularism. An important component of this document—which has been resisted or ignored by most Catholic colleges and universities—was a requirement that the local Catholic bishop in which the school was located attest that the teaching of theology at the school was consistent with official Church doctrine.

Outside Influences

Sometimes, the secularization process has been mandated by our liberal courts. For example, prior to the Obergefell decision, Yeshiva University, which operates under Orthodox Jewish auspices, rented its married student housing facilities to those who were legally married. Same-sex couples sued on the basis that Yeshiva violated a state law prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination in housing. Even though the plaintiffs could not be legally married in New York at the time, and the university’s requirement was solely based on marital status rather than sexual orientation, the school was forced to admit the same-sex couples to their married student housing.

A different type of outside pressure involved Gordon College. Its accrediting body, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, challenged this evangelical school in Massachusetts to justify its “life and conduct statement.” Among other things, the statement prohibits “sexual relations outside of marriage and homosexual practice.” Fortunately, it was able to keep its accreditation, but it is required to provide updates on various initiatives it promised to undertake, thereby permitting greater inroads against its religious values.

Economic Incentives

Beginning in the 1960s, federal aid programs, which have had the effect of subsidizing the survival of many colleges and universities, have prompted the loosening of religious strictures. In some cases, secularization is required as the condition of financial support. Religious institutions committed to acting on the biblical definitions of marriage, for example, risk losing financial assistance when they resist. In other cases, the very availability of federal or state funds, even when there were no explicit requirements to denigrate the institutions’ religious principles, inexorably made the grantee institutions eager to follow the “politically correct” policies of the larger society.

Another economic factor has been the financial support offered by major foundations (e.g., the Carnegie Endowment) that encouraged schools to abandon their religious affiliations because its funding was only offered to nonsectarian institutions.

Yet a third economic factor evident in the increasing secularization of our colleges and universities is the need to recruit tuition-paying students, many of whom are non-adherents of the sponsoring religious group. In our liberating ecumenical age, this also applies to the increasingly religiously diversified and secular faculty. Adherents of the faith of the sponsoring institution become fewer, often becoming a minority of both the students and faculty, thereby creating internal pressures to adjust its standards.

Political Correctness

The ever-widening definition of academic freedom and increasing insistence on its incompatibility with religious belief also strengthens the hands of progressive academic elitists. This ties into an unfortunate anti-intellectual bias that has pervaded many of our religious denominations, thereby estranging scholars from their religious roots.

One cannot avoid the political correctness that is pervasive on American colleges and universities. Students no longer receive from most professors any kind of moral foundation, which is found in our great religious traditions. Most university curricula no longer require the classic subjects of western thought, history, and philosophy, but rather provide a jumbled, fragmented mess of scattered course options. In so many schools, the traditional Judeo-Christian worldview, premised on the universal moral ethics of the Noahide Laws, no longer dominates the curriculum or student life. In its place, we see the continual encouragement to deconstruct the institutions of marriage, family, and community, to accept a sexual culture of “hook-ups” and transient relationships, and to disrespect authority figures.

Today, we face an ultimate choice on our college campuses between two opposing worldviews: the traditional, spiritually embedded worldview upon which most were founded or the secular, hedonistic, materialistic worldview that dominates them today.

Efforts to Reverse

At several schools, alumni are seeking to regain the religious traditions they encountered when attending college. For example, Charles LiMandri, a University of San Diego alumnus, formed “Alumni for a Catholic USD”  because he believes that his alma mater lost its Catholic character, citing, for example, USD’s recognizing pro-abortion and LGBTQ activist student groups, offering LGBTQ courses, advertising for Planned Parenthood job openings, and hosting both Queer Film Festivals and National Coming Out Day Events. After the University hosted several “drag show performances” to “foster students’ . . . empathy for . . . gender non-conformity,” LiMandri succeeded in having the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education declare that the drag shows constituted a harmful “scandal” in violation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Similar alumni organizations have been formed at other schools, including Notre Dame and Georgetown, to fight the trend toward secularism. Sycamore Trust was founded to bring about an authentic Catholic renewal at Notre Dame. It is specifically fighting against the decision concerning the Obamacare mandate. Georgetown University Petition, founded by Exorcist author William Peter Blatty, filed a canonical complaint asking the Catholic Church to require Georgetown to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae or, alternatively, to remove or suspend the University’s right to call itself “Catholic and Jesuit” in any of its representations. Its meticulously footnoted complaint lists numerous faculty and staff who publicly advocate anti-Catholic values such as abortion, assisted suicide, gay and lesbian activities, and contraception.

Reasserting Religious Values

As Rabbi Dr. Shimon Cowen and I previously discussed here at Public Discourse, the Judeo-Christian worldview is premised on seven core beliefs given by G-d to Noah after the great Biblical flood. Among these seven laws are commandments that prohibit idolatry, blasphemy, certain sexual relationships, and murder. The rhetoric and actions of most of our politically correct colleges presently violate these commandments. Whether the religious institution that sponsors a college is a Protestant denomination, the Catholic Church, Orthodox Judaism, or any other faith that has as its root the Noahide Code, it is critical that they openly assert the religious beliefs that govern the school they created or supervise.

Perhaps religious denominations should consider reasserting the requirement that committed adherents of the sponsoring religion predominate in the governance, teaching, and student body of the college. While non-adherent individuals should be warmly welcomed at religious institutions without discrimination, it needs to be made abundantly clear that such institutions are committed to following the tenets of the faith.

We must challenge the political correctness so prevalent in today’s colleges and universities. We must fight against “the aggressive secularization and repression of the culture of faith as the moral anchor of society and the individual.” This can be done if men and women of faith rededicate themselves to incorporating religious values in the colleges and universities they sponsor. While committed alumni at several colleges are battling to reestablish a religious environment, they cannot succeed without the assistance of faithful people everywhere.

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