Faith, Freedom and Higher Education

on October 10, 2014

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Christian higher education has been an important source of strength for Christians even as secularization has advanced in the wider American society in recent generations; today it is faced with legal and social challenges to its existence. The same can be said for committed Christians and their organizations on secular campuses. These issues were well discussed by Paul J. McNulty, now beginning his tenure as President of Grove City College, at a Faith and Law presentation on September 26.

McNulty first discussed the difficulties of distinctively Christian groups on secular campuses. These center around the “all comers” policies advanced at liberal, secular colleges and universities that require college recognized Christian organizations to be open to all students, including opening leadership positions in these organizations to all students, even those who disagree with Christian faith and morals. He referred to a recent Christianity Today article that noted that a “winsome faith” does not gain a place at the secular table; it did not allow InterVarsity Fellowship to continue as a recognized Christian organization on the campus of Vanderbilt University, since all InterVarsity leaders must sign a doctrinal statement. Other institutions who recently took similar action are Bowdoin College and the California State University system. “In effect, the new policy privileges certain belief groups,” McNulty said. “Broad Christian orthodoxy” (i.e., distinctive beliefs held in common by Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox) is increasingly excluded on college campuses. This exclusion tends to cause unpopular Christian doctrines, and the people who hold them, to be stigmatized by the educated classes in the wider society.

Not all secular campuses are moving to an “all comers’” policy. McNulty noted one instance at least, in which a complaint about such a proposed policy by a Muslim group caused college officials to refrain from implementing the policy. But faith and freedom should matter everywhere. Further, faith and learning should be integrated (as Christians, although not secularists, understand). “They belong together,” McNulty said. He cited St. Paul in the Bible declaring that Christ is the one “in whom are hidden all treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). And so, “we are called to pursue the life of the mind with energy and vigor.” While this may be the commitment of Christians in the secular academic environment, all viewpoints, and thus all religions “should have a place at the table of ideas.” McNulty claimed that “banning religious groups sends exactly the wrong message.” It implies that “genuine belief has no place in the public world.” This affects freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, resulting in moral relativism, which holds that all viewpoints are acts of will. There is thus ultimately a “battle of wills” in the contemporary Western world. The America of classical liberalism understood that consensus should be based on a moral force guiding decisions. The attempt to force a change in conscience violates a free society, and the “all comers” policies now being implemented at secular educational institutions basically requires a violation of conscience. Ironically, McNulty noted, the protest generation of the 1960s appealed to conscience. In rejecting conscience, the wisdom of the sacred over the secular is rejected, he maintained.

The attempt to exclude the ideas of exclusivist Christianity on secular campuses suggests that such ideas are also unacceptable in the secularist society that is being constructed. McNulty noted that this therefore affects Christian colleges, which are now being attacked at a most basic level, namely, accreditation. “Christian colleges may be penalized by accreditation,” he said. This was recently noted by the present writer in a recent article on the attack on Christian colleges. More recently, Gordon College in Massachusetts confirmed that it will consider no longer requiring Christian morality of its students to appease attacks in an upcoming accreditation process. McNulty went on to say that a real danger in this area is that the Department of Education will take over accreditation from the private associations that now grant it, thus making the accreditation process more susceptible to ideological criteria.

He noted that the American understanding of freedom has always respected religious commitments because they are commitments that go to the very core of existence. This, he said, was recognized by the founders of the American nation. Because religious belief touches on ultimate questions that the state is not competent to address, the nation must respect the moral conscience. The chilling of Christian life by stigmatizing it as discriminatory will impoverish American culture, McNulty claimed. He urged prayer for Christian colleges, and said Christians must remain faithful and stand fast in love and commitment in this crisis.

Grove City College is somewhat less exposed to the secularist assault than other schools, McNulty said, since it receives no federal funding. In the 1980s, the school was sued by the U.S. Health, Education, and Welfare Department. In the ensuring high profile federal case, the college prevailed in some measure at the Supreme Court. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which was critical in the recent momentous Hobby Lobby case, was in some degree a response to this. At the time of its passage, it was called “the Grove City bill.” McNulty suggested that more attention to government affairs is needed at Christian institutions as the nation moves into an era less friendly to religious liberty in general and orthodox Christianity in particular.

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