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Losing the American universities to post-Christian secularism is one of the greatest tragedies of world history. Why does it matter? It matters because the university is the most influential institution of western civilization. From it come our journalists, artists, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, political leaders, K-12 educators, and future professors. As goes the university, so goes the culture. Indeed, as goes the U.S. university, so goes the world. Ideas have consequences.
EXTREME MISSION DRIFT
Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum were nothing like the modern university. It was not the Greeks or the Romans who invented universities. They established no scholarly guilds and no permanent institutions.1 Jesus said that our purpose in life is to know God (John 17:3), establishing that knowledge is central to the Christian faith. The Medieval project was fides quarens intellectum (faith seeking understanding). This thinking spread to America and around the world. Vishal Mangalwadi reminds us that it is neither colonialism nor commerce that spread modern education around the world. Soldiers and merchants do not educate. Education was a Christian missionary enterprise.2
The American model emerged from Europe’s Christocentric universities, such as Bologna, Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge. Most of the modern universities were for centuries largely established in the context of, and motivated by, the Christian faith. The motto of Princeton (founded in 1746) is “Under God’s power she flourishes.” The motto of Yale (1701) is “Light and Truth” in reference to Psalm 27 where light represents salvation of the Lord. The motto of Columbia (1754) is “In thy Light we Shall See Light,” quoting Psalm 36:9. All truth is God’s truth represented the unity of truth thesis. Christian intellectuals have since the rise of educational institutions seen themselves contemplating the two books of God — God’s Word and God’s world, Scripture and nature — without conflict.
The first college in America was established by the Puritans within a decade of their arrival: Harvard (1636). Chapel attendance and freshmen Hebrew were mandatory. Harvard’s original mission statement concerned knowing God in Christ. Over half of the graduates in the 17th century became clergy.3 It’s motto for the better part of 300 years was Veritas Christo et Ecclesia (Truth for Christ and the Church). That is until its 300th anniversary when it eliminated all but veritas.
According to Harvard’s recent Crimson Survey, the single largest religious group of the class of 2019 is atheist/agnostic. 4 Erstwhile Harvard student Bill Gates dubs Enlightenment Now, by Harvard atheist professor Steven Pinker, his “new favorite book of all time.”5 Pinker, like a great number of his colleagues, is a self-proclaimed atheist and liberal. From top to bottom, Harvard isn’t what it once was. He points out that in 1990, 42 percent of faculty were far left or liberal, 40 percent moderate, and 18 percent conservative, for a liberal-to-conservative ratio of 2.3 to 1.6 Today, for those ages 65 and older preparing for retirement it is 12:1; and for younger scholars ages 36 and under it is 23:1.7 In Religion departments it is a whopping 70:1!8 There is extreme bias against hiring evangelical Christians.9 It seems there is an all-out assault on the Christian faith where the major battlefield is the universities. Some professors explicitly target Christian faith: “Employing universities in the struggle against faith is a cornerstone in the larger strategy to combat faith, promote reason and rationality, and create skeptics.”10
WHAT WENT WRONG?
The story of what went wrong is complex but not mysterious. From philosophical ideas to secular method and practical need, Protestant leaders of education succumbed to the spirit of the European Enlightenment and Modernism. First becoming liberal Protestants, they undermined the core teachings of the Bible, promoting only its moral and social fruit. Liberal Protestants liked the Bible’s morality, but not its historicity. Eventually Liberal Protestants evolved into the secular humanists of today who control state-funded education, having dismissed the Bible’s authority altogether including its morality.
Like Harvard and Yale, which were established to train Puritan Congregational clergy, the colonial-aged colleges mainly trained ministers and served their respective sectarian religious interests — Princeton (1746) serving the Presbyterians, Brown (1774) the Baptists, Rutgers (1766) Dutch Reformed, Dartmouth (1769) Congregationalists, and Columbia (1754) Anglicans, to name a few. But over time, serving the broader public took precedence.
In the mid-18th-century, Protestant colleges serving the public good moved from denominational or sectarian focus to a pluralistic culture — even if Protestant pluralism (along with some deism). Academic freedom was celebrated. Historian George Marsden observes, however, that even a century later, “In 1840 four-fifths of the college presidents of denominationally related colleges were clergymen, as were two-thirds of state college presidents.” Students typically learned “evidences of Christianity or “natural theology.”11 Since belief in God was essential to establishing a moral order, such apologetics concerns were closely related to courses in moral philosophy. Such a course was taught by the president in the senior year. Non-sectarian moral philosophy was now the capstone of the program. Most of the university builders were active Protestants, and even in the 1890’s almost all state universities continued to hold mandatory chapel and required church attendance.
In the early 19th century, denominational offshoots of the colleges, such as seminaries and divinity schools, emerged to perform distinctly ecclesiastic functions. While most new colleges were still church related, each moved to serve the public beyond its own sect. Theology was becoming professionalized in the seminaries, and the colleges could focus on other things including morality. No matter the sect, each had to deal with the same American market with changing demographics as the nation grew. Theological distinctions limited a college’s constituency, becoming a liability. Hence colleges emphasized socially unifying aspects of Christianity, especially morality rather than theology.
THE DIE IS CAST
Several emerging commitments precipitated cataclysmic changes in the university that would take place between 1880–1930. First, with respect to religion, the defining feature was no longer training clergy. The majority were preparing for other professions. Ministerial education shifted to sectarian divinity schools. Second, Enlightenment thought was variously exported from Europe. The reverence for scientific authority took hold as the major new commitment. The corollary was that moral philosophy had replaced theology as the defining feature for Christian intellectual life. The pressure was set to jettison sectarian Christian aspects or broaden Christianity into moralism. Third, there were commitments to serve the public in practical ways via a free market economy in the face of the struggle for institutional survival. Colleges were competing for students for their new graduate, technology, and professional schools, which took a decidedly secular approach.
Through the latter half of the 19th century, German universities served as America’s graduate schools. It was rare to find a university leader or major scholar who hadn’t studied in Germany. Ideas have consequences. This was true for colleges and sectarian seminarians.12 German philosophy and secular research methodology was enormously influential. The philosopher Immanuel Kant (d. 1804) culminated the Enlightenment project undermining natural theology and giving us agnosticism. Subjective approaches to truth were being given more validity. Biblical criticism was on the rise. The trend to reduce religion to morality, and theology to anthropology, was growing. Marsden comments, “when the advanced German theological views became commonplace in American educational circles, these theological changes played an important role in allowing adjustments to the latest academic trends, such as scientific historical investigation and emphasis on development of character.”13
German universities were strongly controlled by the state, guaranteeing a measure of academic freedom from sectarian interests. Sectarian theological interests became scandalous outside of divinity schools. Near the end of the 19th century universities were still claiming to be Christian in religion, but sectarianism was anathema. Since religion was being reduced to morality and human progress, it was on a fast track to becoming obsolete. With the increasing strength of the scientific research university developing in conjunction with methodological naturalism,14 the introduction of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution (1859), and biblical criticism, Christianity was being severely challenged. Christianity was becoming broadly humanistic. The claim was being made that universities were Christian, nonsectarian, dedicated to high moral values, but also working toward a value-free, theology-free, scientific inquiry, which coopted the Protestant rhetoric of the evangelical establishment. This led eventually to the establishment of non-belief. The modern research university was being born from the colleges, and the defining methodology of graduate education following the German model was value-free and theology-free science. Virtually all university teachers eventually would be trained in graduate schools built on the purely naturalistic assumptions of the new science and professionalism.
Yale historian Julie Reuben examines the transition from the 19th-century broad conception of truth to the twentieth-century division between facts and values (roughly from 1880 to 1930).15 In the late 19th century, intellectuals assumed that truth had spiritual, moral, and cognitive dimensions. By 1930, however, intellectuals had abandoned this broad conception of truth. Instead, they embraced a view of knowledge that drew a sharp distinction between “facts” and “values.” Cognitive truth was now associated with empirically verified knowledge. By this standard, moral values could not be validated as “true.” Only “science” constituted true knowledge. Moral and spiritual values could be “true” in an emotional or nonliteral sense. While the hard sciences became dominated by scientific naturalism, the humanities took a postmodern relativism turn where even scientific truth was suspect. “All truth is God’s truth” eventually became “truth is what my peers will let me get away with.”
By the 1870’s the Enlightened critics who had traveled abroad mostly to Germany became so numerous and influential that they could and did take control of key institutions. They proceeded to dismantle the old college, severing the ties to religious denominations. But then there was also the academic revolution of the late 19th century. Liberal Protestantism, which dominated American universities from the Civil War to World War II, eased the transition from secular method to ideological separation. Liberal Protestantism contributed to its own demise by equating religion with morality. Under scientism neither could stand. According to Reuben, the university’s narrative during this period was the separation of knowledge and morality. The Bible was no longer trustworthy, and science became the new authority. Both scientific naturalism and postmodern relativism deny moral and religious knowledge. Neither of them see Christianity as a viable worldview that ought to be invited back to the table.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
If there is to be a renaissance of Christian thought, it will take concerted effort. First, pastors need to equip their people, especially parents and young people, in order not only to survive but also to thrive in the universities. Our culture, especially university culture, has shifted to an Acts 17 Mars Hill model.16 It’s been there for a long time. Given our culture, knowing doctrine and apologetics isn’t a suggestion, but a command. The apostle Peter’s admonition has never been more relevant: “In your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Pet. 3:15–16).
Second, campus ministries need to focus not only on reaching students with apologetics-evangelism, but also professors and administrators. If we can win the professor, we can win the classroom for thirty years. Failure to do so is the greatest omission of the Great Commission in the western world.
Third, Christians who are full professors and senior administrators need to focus on hiring before retiring to replace themselves. With baby-boomers retiring, we’re experiencing the biggest changing of the guard in history of the American professorate. Assistant professors and PhD students need to consider integrating faith and reason, faith and vocation. They need to move from being professors who happen to be Christian to missional Christian professors.17 More young Christian professors need to consider careers in academia as a mission field. It might be like storming the beaches of Normandy. It will not be easy. But by God’s grace it can be done.18
Corey Miller, Ph.D., is President/CEO of Ratio Christi, an apologetics-evangelism ministry on 180 campuses. Miller is co-author of Leaving Mormonism: Why Four Scholars Changed their Minds (Kregel, 2017).
- Charles Haskins, The Rise of Universities (New York: Henry Holt, 1923).
- Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book that Changed Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 194.
- George Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Non-belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 43.
- David Freed and Idrees Kahloon, “Beliefs and Lifestyle,” The Harvard Crimson, n.d., https://features.thecrimson.com/2015/freshman-survey/lifestyle. 2019 data accessed August 24, 2019.
- Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York: Penguin Random House, 2018), front cover publisher’s blurb.
- Pinker, Enlightenment Now, 372.
- Bradford Richardson, “Liberal Professors Outnumber Conservatives Nearly 12 to 1, Study Finds,” Washington Post, October 6, 2016, https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/oct/6/liberal-professors-outnumber-conservatives-12-1.
- Cass R. Sunstein, “The Problem with All Those Liberal Professors,” Bloomberg, September 17, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2018-09-17/colleges-have-way-too-many-liberal-professors.
- George Yancey, Compromising Scholarship: Religious and Political Bias in American Higher Education (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017).
- Peter Boghossian, A Manual for Creating Atheists (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2014), 177.
- Marsden, Soul of the American University, 81.
- Marsden, Soul of the American University, 104–105.
- Marsden, Soul of the American University, 106.
- Methodological naturalism is the view that only natural causes are admitted into scientific explanation (see Paul A. Nelson, “Life in the Big Tent,” Christian Research Journal, 24, 2 (2002), accessible at equip.org, https://www.equip.org/article/life-in-the-big-tent/.
- Julie A. Reuben, The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
- See Acts 17:16–34. For discussion, see Douglas Groothuis, “Learning from an Apostle: Christianity in the Marketplace of Ideas (Acts 17:16–34),” Christian Research Journal, 35, 4 (2012), accessible at https://www.equip.org/article/learning-from-an-apostle-christianity-in-the-marketplace-of-ideas-acts-1716-34/; cf. Brian Godawa, “Storytelling as Subversive Apologetics: A New View from the Hill in Acts 17,” Christian Research Journal, 30, 2 (2007), accessible at https://www.equip.org/article/storytelling-as-subversive-apologetics-a-new-view-from-the-hill-in-acts-17/.
- Paul Gould, The Outrageous Idea of the Missional Professor (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2014). Ratio Christi has a training program to help with this.
- Indeed, in small pockets it is happening. Since the late 1960’s Christian philosophers like Alvin Plantinga and others have established a significant beachhead in philosophy departments. In the atheistic journal, Philo, one atheist philosopher lamented the “desecularization of academia that evolved in philosophy departments since the late 1960’s.” Quentin Smith, “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism,” Philo 4, 2 (2001): 3–4.