In the fall, as student activists around the country protested racism on their campuses, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas dismissed secular universities as havens for “leftist, coddled kids.” The protests proved that these schools teem with “psychotic Marxists,” declared “The Daily Caller,” a conservative website.
When conservative Christians map the culture wars, they cast secular universities to the far left periphery – the region that medieval cartographers would have marked “here be dragons.” A cottage industry of books with titles like “How to Stay Christian in College” has long warned pious 18-year-olds that college is a place where the “Prince of Deception” will set “spiritual snares.”
U.S. evangelicals have a venerable tradition of painting the ivory tower as the bastion of unbelief and leftist ideology. As mainstream culture becomes more diverse and moves further away from traditional Christian teachings on matters like sexuality, we might expect evangelical students on elite secular campuses to feel more embattled than ever. Yet that’s not what I found when I spoke to a range of students and recent graduates.
Contrary to conservatives’ warnings about the oppressive secularism of the modern university, these students have taken advantage of their campuses’ multicultural marketplace of ideas. They have created a network of organizations and journals that engage non-Christian ideologies head-on. It’s true that many schools’ nondiscrimination policies have made life more difficult for Christian ministries that require student leaders to assent to a statement of faith. But some students have seized on this challenge as an opportunity.
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Since 2010, when the Supreme Court upheld a policy at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law that requires student groups to accept all students regardless of their beliefs, several universities have stripped InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and other Christian groups of their status as recognized campus organizations. At Vanderbilt, Bowdoin and other schools, the groups lost access to campus space, student fees and activity fairs – on the grounds that requiring student leaders to affirm a statement of faith violated the schools’ “all comers” policy.
“What our students have said is that it’s clear the administration doesn’t want us here,” said Greg Jao, InterVarsity’s director of campus engagement.
Yet some evangelicals have poured their energies into a different sort of Christian organization, one that has been proliferating quietly for decades at universities around the country: Christian study centers. These are not ministries, exactly, and what they do is not old-fashioned evangelism. Typically they occupy private buildings off campus and exist independently from the university, beyond the reach of nondiscrimination policies. The first study centers appeared in the 1960s and ’70s, but their numbers have mushroomed since 2000. The Consortium of Christian Study Centers counts 20 members – a small but significant number considering that many are embedded in the most prestigious universities around the country.
The centers position themselves as forums where students can hash out the tensions between their faith and the assumptions of secular academia – the same assumptions that have assailed more traditional ministries. They are, in a sense, spiritual “safe spaces” that offer cozy libraries, reading groups and public lectures, and sometimes advertise their ethos with names that honor Christian intellectuals who embraced the life of the mind (Chesterton House at Cornell is named for the English writer and lay theologian; Rivendell Institute at Yale evokes the world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which many Christians read as a subtle tribute to its author’s faith).
“The overall message is that the Christian faith is a viable thing in the world we live in, that it’s possible to live faithfully and think hard about whatever topic we’re discussing,” said Jay McCabe, a staff member at the Center for Christian Study at the University of Virginia.
Undergraduate journals of Christian thought, publications like the Harvard Ichthus and The Logos at Yale, have also multiplied on elite campuses in recent years. When Andrew Schuman arrived at Dartmouth in 2006, he and some like-minded freshmen founded Apologia, a semiannual journal that aims “to think critically, question honestly, and link arms with anyone who searches for truth and authenticity.”
“A lot of students who weren’t Christian were excited by its appearance,” Schuman told me. “A lot of us have spiritual questions, but we’re uncertain how to ask them. The journal draws on a millennia-old tradition of faith and reason to give a vocabulary for those questions.”
The staff and students involved in these study centers and journals position themselves not as evangelists, but as conveners of a conversation meant to grapple with the ideological divides that secular liberalism’s mantra of tolerance so often elides: How do people with clashing assumptions about what is real and good communicate and coexist?
To Philip Jeffery, a junior at Columbia, this question is at the heart of the recent wave of student activism – although he says older observers rarely seem to understand. “I keep seeing these articles about ‘coddling,’” he told me. “When you ask the question, what are the assumptions about human nature that are driving these things, you realize it’s more than people wanting a safe space to talk about trigger warnings.”
Jeffery has tried to bring those conflicting assumptions to the surface of campus debate through Columbia’s Christian journal Crown & Cross as well as his work for the Veritas Forum, an international organization that sponsors Christian speakers and interfaith dialogue on college campuses.
“The thing you'll run into with any of the campus activists that I’ve encountered is this idea that human nature is a collection of identity categories, that I as a human being am composed of a gender identity, a sexual identity, a racial identity and so forth,” he said. “Their perception of Christians, or of religious people more generally, is: ‘OK, these are people who have this one identity category, religion, and the religion they identify as is overstepping its bounds. It’s telling my gender or sexual identity how to act.’ The Christian response has to be: There’s something more to what a human being is than just these collective attributes.”
Most of the young evangelicals I spoke to had sympathy for the protests, and some had participated themselves. Today’s evangelical students are all over the political map. Christian groups are often among the most racially diverse on campus – 38 percent of InterVarsity members are nonwhite (another 14 percent are international students), and many local chapters are racially mixed. But they question the premises of secular identity politics, which they say is the lens that some university administrators mistakenly apply to religion.
“Vanderbilt didn’t understand religious groups,” said Tish Harrison Warren, who worked for InterVarsity at Vanderbilt before events there led her to relocate to the University of Texas. “They wanted to make us social groups, like fraternities who weirdly talk about Jesus, or service groups, or groups for the academic study of religion. But there is a proclamatory function. We are proclaiming a message to others.”
“Identity politics” is shorthand for the left’s effort to empower oppressed groups by elevating the authority of their experience as women, queer people or visible minorities. These identities are inborn or socially constructed (or both), depending on what kind of liberal you ask. But they often come with a tacit agreement to refrain from all but the most anodyne universal truth claims: to each identity her own.
Many religions – especially evangelical Christianity, which has a penchant for truth claims – are an awkward fit. “We’re realizing that the future of the university has to lie with something like a principled pluralism. Exactly how to do that? I don’t think we’ve quite nailed it,” Schuman said.
“We can role model civil dialogue that’s gracious and loving but recognizes differences,” said David Hobbet, the Veritas Forum’s executive director. “Students very rarely see professors, people they look up to, fundamentally disagreeing with each other on big important questions.”
Few liberals have openly confronted the big important questions raised by the InterVarsity episode: Do secular universities have any business supporting religious groups? How should they accommodate freedom of expression for those who condemn homosexuality or otherwise dissent from liberal values? As evangelical students have watched the penalization of Christian ministries on the basis of policies, like Vanderbilt’s, that explicitly include religion among the categories protected from discrimination, they have witnessed firsthand the contradictions and ambiguities of liberal ideology.
Today, many evangelical leaders are fond of proclaiming American Christians’ new status as a moral minority, but these students and campus ministers are the ones who are actually living that reality. It has prodded them to seek serious conversation about humans’ profound disagreements over morality and the nature of truth – questions that campus liberals, despite their professed concern for dialogue and critical thinking, often avoid in the name of tolerance and inclusion.
“We think it’s more constructive to talk about differences,” said Jeffery. Minority status sometimes has a funny way of turning people into more thoughtful critics of the culture around them.
The New York Times
Molly Worthen is the author, most recently, of “Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism” and an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.