More on Higher Education–The “Secularization” Problem.

Posted on August 23, 2013 by


Despite the temptation to address President Obama’s most recent foray into higher education–which, by the way, if implemented by Congress, would only drive up costs more and eviscerate much of what is left that works–I will examine a different issue, one that for Christians poses an even bigger problem in the long run.  It goes by the name of secularization.  The word is very old and has to do with the world.  It wasn’t always used in a negative sense, but when we talk about Christian universities and other Christian institutions, it always has negative connotations.

What I am referring to is the steady, almost inexorable, drift of Christian colleges and universities over the past 200-300 years away from their explicitly Christian mission and toward or into a non-Christian (or at best, theologically liberal) stance.  If you have a chance, two must reads are James Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches and George Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief.  Both books offer a sobering history of how American colleges founded on solidly Christian principles gradually and subtlely jettisoned their Christian mission and teaching and fell into an acceptable “marketing mode” and even farther in some cases to hostility to historic Christian faith.

How did it happen?  And what lessons can we learn?  And will we learn those lessons?

It happened over time and each case was ever so slightly different.  But common features existed.  The core of the drift seems to have been found first at the level of leadership, which was charged with setting the course of the institution and with (ultimately) hiring faculty.  Presidents were hired by trustees who really weren’t very discerning (or who had hidden agendas).  The presidents were faced with problems:  low enrollment, tight budgets, etc.  They asked themselves (and trustees) how they might solve these problems and pragamtically responded by “loosening” the church ties or the confessional parameters.  Voila!!  More students, more tuition and more available faculty–but also less explicitly Chtristian.  Once this process began it was difficult to reverse.  The perceived costs were too high and now faculty also opposed any reversal, based on their call for “academic freedom.”  New presidents came and new trustees were elected, neither of whom really wanted outside accountabilty.  When the opportunity came the colleges simply but gradually detached themselves from their confessional churches or standards and then were free to leave behind their original Christian identity.  The world rushed in to fill the void.  The universities no longer sought to engage the culture on Christian terms, but allowed the culture to invade and influence them.

Let’s not fool ourselves.  There are many people, many Christians, out there who believe that intimate connection to any church or accountablilty to any set of theological principles is just unpalatable.  It is stifling to them.  They argue we must be free to pursue truth wherever it leads.  Faculty are usually at the forefront of this cry–though not always.  Those who oppose the drift are all too often thought of as “fundamentalists” or anti-intellectual, as if free-floating pseudo-intellectualism somehow led to better results.  Faculty wanted academic “respectability” and that chafed against confessionalism of any kind.  Accrediting agencies held both the carrot and the stick to move the secularization process along.  The Federal government dangled direct and indirect funds in front of college leaders–who could resist?  But it had a price.

It cannot be forgotten that the process of secularization often went all the way down to the students themeslves.  Chapels went unattended, no matter what was happening.  Interest in spiritual matters waned.  Some students became radicalized, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, though now the radicalization is no less real, just less strident.

The best academic example of this drift was found in Bible and theology departments and majors.  Hours required of students in Bible declined.  Department names changed from “Bible” to “Religion.”  Theology became a survey (and advocacy) of every new fad.  Read Edwards, Wesley, Calvin, Luther, etc.?  Who were they?  Even more contemporary evangelical conservatives were shunned for the new, the avant garde.  Philosophy was disconnected from theology completely.  Predictably, students lost interest in Christianity.  They could get what the college offered–not even required–from some other source–drugs, illicit sex, drunkeness, skepticism, nihilism, and on and on.

What have we learned?  For most “Christian” colleges and universities, it would seem, nothing.  We repeat the same predictable mistakes.  Some few colleges manage–by God’s grace–to reverse the trend or have not fallen prey to it, but I know of so few that I can count them on one or two hands.

What can we learn and will we practice it or ignore it?  If we do the right thing it will be hard.  Doing the right thing often is.  First, no university can afford to disengage from fixed theological principles that are then actually used to hire faculty, enforced, and serve as the basis for student life.  This is not to say we must define every theological debate as a doctrinal standard–it does little good to have a statement, for example, that prescribes the King James Bible as the only permitted transalation.  The absolute core doctrines of the Christian faith must be fixed and unalterable, while arguable issues need not be presented as core doctrines, even thought they may be used to distinguish a certain “brand” of Christian college.  But the administration must be very clear: This is what we hold as non-negotiable and that is what we do not want our faculty to oppose publicly.

Second, Christian universities must begin to devise some creative legal and institutional ways to prevent tinkering with their missions.  I confess I don’t know exactly how that would look.  Perhaps a college charter could have something like a reverter clause so that in the event certain “trigger points” are reached, it could be sued and even closed down by a court.  Who would define those points and how? I can’t say. Radical?  Yes.  Would I rather have a college that misled my sons and daughters or no college at all, if those were my only choices?  Perhaps some sort of outside authority could be invoked in a charter–beyond the trustees–in certain cases.

Third, be very careful who is hired to teach and do research.  This requires diligence, not just a two-day superficial series of interviews.  Be sure prospective faculty are not just academically proficient in their field but also have a sophistication in Christian theology sufficient to integrate their Christian theology with their field–beyond just prayer, far beyond.  If current faculty don’t have this, help them get it, by whatever means it takes.  It must be rigorous, a distinctively Christian worldeview in general and in the teaching areas.

Fourth, the matter of accreditation.  I have now touched the third rail.  At what point should a Christian university “pull the plug”?  I can’t say.  Could it reach such a point? Definitely.  Look only as far as the hundreds that have gone before who went down the road of accreditation and fell into a “black hole.”  I can’t blame it all on accreditation per se–some is good–but when it becomes intrusive, it is time to ponder.

For donors or potential donors.  Never, never, never give money to a Christian college without an accurate knowledge of what it actually does, not just what it says.  People can tell you anything to get money, we all know that.  In reality voting with your dollars (or the threat of it) can bring about real change.

Parents, do not ever send your child to a purportedly Christian college without knowing accurately what is taught there.  Parents (of which I am one) can be extraordinarily ignorant.  They often fall for the superficial–as do their children–such as an exciting student life, dorm rooms that resemble luxury hotels, etc.  Always ask pointed questions of admissions officers, administrators, deans, department chairs and faculty.  Do not be afraid.  Your child’s future might depend on it.  If you don’t get satisfactory answers or don’t see and hear truth in classes, run the other way.  The only exception is the college that everyone knows isn’t really Christian–at least they are honest.

Finally, may I suggest that Christian colleges begin to partner with churches (or denominations) that are theologically sound and will give honest feedback.  This is not for money-raising purposes but for accountability.

Secularization is an insidious process.  We must be vigilant without always being suspicious.  By God’s grace it is possible to move forward for the glory of God.  After all, that is why Christian colleges were founded in the first place.