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The Soul of the American University Revisited

George M. Marsden
Published by Oxford University Press in 2021

Julia D. Hejduk is the Reverend Jacob Beverly Stiteler Professor of Classics and Associate Dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. She has written numerous articles and books on Latin literature, most recently The God of Rome: Jupiter in Augustan Poetry (Oxford 2020), and essays on faith and society for journals such as Public Discourse, Church Life Journal, Christian Scholar’s Review, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review.

When I agreed to contribute a 3,000-word essay that would “mix personal reflections with a review of George’s book,” I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Not that I regret my decision. The book is lucidly written, thoroughly researched, and panoramic in scope, extending from colonial times to the present day. With sympathy and wit it brings to life the both the broad trends and the individual personalities that shaped American higher education, providing a wealth of insights into the soul of America altogether. Perhaps the most cogent summary of its thesis appears about halfway through:

[B]ecause the United States s the only modern nation in which the dominant culture was substantially shaped by low-church Protestantism, we should expect the institutions of that dominant culture to bear indelible marks of that heritage. So with respect to American universities, their pragmatism, their traditionlessness, their competitiveness, their dependence on the market, their resort to advertising, their emphasis on freedom as free enterprise for professors and individual choice for students, their anti-Catholicism, their scientific spirit, their congeniality to business interests, and their tendency to equate Christianity with democracy and service to the nation, all reflect substantial ties to their low-church Protestant past. (180)

How does one write a meaningful review of and reflection on such a monumental work, when any of the themes Marsden mentions would merit a monograph in itself?

Like any historiographic text, Soul pieces together from innumerable facts a story consistent with the author’s understanding of the world, even as it shapes that understanding. What we see is always driven by our loves. I once took my two-year-old son to an IMAX movie on the glories of nature—erupting volcanoes, thundering waterfalls, stampeding elephants—and asked him afterward what impressed him about the movie. He answered, “The jeep.” While I hope this essay is closer to the mark than that, I have not shied away from highlighting the aspects of Marsden’s story that interact most closely with my own.

Using and Replacing God

The telos of a human being is to worship God, who is Love. That is what we are created for, and nothing else can satisfy us, any more than something other than food can satisfy our physical hunger. We live in a war zone, however, under constant attack by a malevolent spiritual being of angelic intelligence. Since he knows that everything is conducive to joy if our loves are rightly ordered, he creates disharmony by tempting us to “idolatry,” or the elevation of subsidiary goods over the primary one. “Original sin” is another way of saying that we are born with a proclivity for idolatry addiction.

As Marsden demonstrates in chapter 3, “Two Kinds of Sectarianism” (63-72), the Founding Father of a distinctively American variety of idolatry was Thomas Jefferson. He famously created his own “holey Bible,” cutting out the angels, miracles, and anything else uncongenial to his opinion of what Jesus—whom he regarded merely an inculcator of moral precepts—should have said and done. Like his modern progeny, Jefferson did not see this as a rival faith: “From his perspective liberal religious views appeared objective and scientific and only traditional ones appeared sectarian. Hence, he saw nothing wrong with using the state to enthrone his objective scientific views” (68). The struggle between Jeffersonianism and Christianity is one of the defining features of our nation’s history.

American idolatry often involved treating “religion” as the means to an end, such as civic harmony, economic prosperity, or keeping young men’s animal spirits in check. A typical example comes from Francis Wayland, president of Brown (1827-1855) and the era’s most influential textbook writer:

No nation can rapidly accumulate or long enjoy the means of happiness, except as it is pervaded by the love of individual and social right; but the love of individual and social right will never prevail, without the practical influence of the motives and sanctions of religion; and these motives and sanctions will never influence men, unless they are, by human effort, brought to bear upon the conscience. (85)

Marsden notes that Charles Eliot, president of Harvard (1869-1909 [!]), took a similarly instrumental view of religion: though he sought to divorce Harvard from any sectarian claims that might conflict with its pursuit of truth, he felt that “[v]oluntary religion should be encouraged both out of respect for family ties and because no one had found an effective way to teach morality without religion” (166). As Woodrow Wilson, president of Princeton (1902-1910), observed, “There is nothing that gives such pith to public service as religion” (171). These leaders recognized that one need not accept the credal claims of Christianity to endorse it as a means of inspiring people to do good.

Such an approach is not without some merit. Religious faith should make us into better people and better citizens. The problem, however, is that a God so instrumentalized is unlikely to be effective even as an instrument. Why would people put themselves out for a “religion” that is obviously a product of human designs? And if the Bible is riddled with lies and fantasies and fairy tales, why should we suppose that such an unreliable witness tells us the truth about morality? In his discussion of “The Indifferent Generation” (265-272), Marsden summarizes the conclusion of James Bissett Pratt, Professor of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy at Williams College, in 1923: “liberal religion had removed not only bondage to the letter of Scripture, but most of the reasons for paying attention to the Bible in the first place” (266).

In light of this trivialization and instrumentalization of the God of Abraham, intelligent people understandably came to worship the more compelling god of intellectual achievement itself. In chapter 5, “The John the Baptist of the German University Ideal” (89-95), Marsden shows how the German idea of Bildung came to be regarded as the summum bonum: in the words of Johann Gottlieb Fichte, the most influential theorist behind the model university established at Berlin in 1810, “the university…is the most holy thing which the human race possesses” (90-91). Henry P. Tappan, president of the University of Michigan (1852-1863), echoes Fichte in his assertion that “the true end of Learning, the genuine fruit of knowledge is the development of the human soul that it may become wise, pure and godlike—that it may reach that perfection which is the ultimate ground of its existence” (91). One wonders whether Tappan also intended to echo an earlier promise about the fruit of knowledge (Gen 3:5). Whether or not he did, it is hardly surprising that he and other proponents of this view saw the Church as their mortal enemy (94).

Science and the Failure of Reason

One of the prevalent themes to emerge from Soul is the perennial tension between “religion” and “science,” often caricatured by non-believers as reductive fideism (“The Bible says it, so I believe it, no questions asked”) warring against the pursuit of objective truth. As every student of American history knows, this tension came to a head in the battles over the teaching of Evolution in the early twentieth century, which Marsden pointedly describes in chapter 15, “The Fundamentalist Menace” (241-254). If Christianity were dependent for its survival on works like Hell and the High Schools: Christ or Evolution, Which? (1923, by the secretary of the Anti-Evolution League), it surely would have died out long ago. One can see here a precursor to our own century’s culture wars, where some champions of “Christianity,” however well-intentioned, pose substantial obstacles to winning hearts and minds.

On the other hand, Soul also helped bring into focus—sometimes explicitly, sometimes more subtly—how the Enlightenment and its offspring failed to submit their own propositions to the light of Reason. For instance, empiricism posits that only what is measurable can be real or true: engraved in stone on the social science building at the University of Chicago is its axiom, “WHATEVER EXISTS AT ALL EXISTS IN SOME AMOUNT” (300). Is it not obvious that this truth claim—not to mention the thought that gave rise to it and the language that expresses it—does not exist in some amount? 

This problem of the self-refuting proposition emerges clearly in Marsden’s discussion of “Methodological Naturalism” (132-135). Many who believe that science and religion conflict are failing to observe the distinction between “‘methodological naturalism,’ as in considering only natural phenomena in scientific experimentation, and ‘metaphysical naturalism,’ which would be the claim that natural causes are all there are or are all we can ever know about” (132). “Scientism” is a kind of “metaphysical naturalism” dependent upon philosophical presuppositions that lie outside the realm of science, and it therefore refutes its own claim of sola scientia. (As an atheist friend once told me, “Of course I don’t believe in miracles. I’m a scientist.”) A similar objection could be made to relativism, the “tolerance” that excludes the possibility of truth. There is a logical contradiction in saying, “I’m right that it’s impossible for anyone to be right.”

At several points Marsden also brings to light the related logical problem of circular argument. For instance, he summarizes the critique by Yale president Noah Porter (1871-1886) of Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer: “Having defined science in such a way as to exclude all absolutes, [Spencer] then triumphantly concludes that science shows there are no absolutes” (118). Similar circularity characterized the work of pragmatist pioneer John Dewey: Marsden notes how Dewey concluded his sociological study of religion, “‘It is shown that every religion has its source in the social and intellectual life of a community or race.’ Dewey did not mention that this outlook was the premise of the research as well as the conclusion” (146). And if one starts from the assumption that religious faith is evidence of deficient intellectual merit, it is easy enough to demonstrate that people of faith lack intellectual merit (220).


As a Catholic convert (in 2004, after 15 years as an Episcopalian/Anglican and 20 years as an agnostic), I sometimes struggle to understand the depth of anti-Catholicism among other Christians and the world at large. Soul helped me to see its sources, in both the flaws and the virtues of Catholicism.

In academia, especially, the charge of anti-intellectualism is damning, and Marsden shows that it was often justified. As stated during the 1920s by The Christian Century, the leading mainline Protestant journal, “The backwardness under the Roman Catholic system is a commonplace” (254). I cringe when I read sentences like this that demonstrate why: “In 1906, much to the consternation of a number of Catholic biblical scholars, the Pontifical Biblical Commission declared that the settled church position was that Moses was the substantial author of the first five books of the Bible and that one could not teach otherwise” (199). In the twenty-first century, I expect, and find, intellectual solidity in our leading theologians and Popes: of John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptoris Mater (1987), for instance, Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) writes that it “presupposes historical-critical exegesis of the Bible, but it then takes the next step,” basing its theology on “the conviction that Scripture—the multiplicity of its authors and its long historical genesis notwithstanding—is one book having a real, intrinsic unity in the midst of its various tensions.”1 It was helpful to be reminded that in some eras this sort of reading was overshadowed by the authoritarian anti-intellectualism of which Catholics are frequently accused.

Another serious charge was that Catholicism opposed the American ideals of freedom and democracy. In chapter 4, “A Righteous Consensus, Whig Style” (73-87), Marsden notes that the greatest fear of Lyman Beecher, a founder of the Society for the Promotion of Collegiate and Theological Education in the West (1843), was of Catholics, since they were “almost invariably associated with tyranny and opposed to republicanism” (79). William Rainey Harper, who founded the University of Chicago (1892), could cheerfully declare how Christianity was outgrowing its “‘dead institutions and deadly traditions’ (that is, Catholicism and monarchy)” (183). The association of Catholicism with fascism in the first half of the twentieth century was a natural continuation of its association with European despotism in the eighteenth—and sadly, these accusations, too, were not without some foundation.

What will always be offensive about Catholicism, however, is its refusal to become a “religion of no offense” (272). No matter how ambivalent, disobedient, or angry individual Catholics may be, the teaching authority of the Church stubbornly refuses to budge on certain key issues. Marsden describes the outrage engendered by this obstinacy, in his observations about a 1943 conference held by secular academics on “The Scientific Spirit and Democratic Faith”:

Max Otto, professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, noted a passage by Jacques Maritain depicting civilization as locked in a struggle between God and the Devil and deplored that this passage was “not written by an untutored fundamentalist, but by one who is called the outstanding Christian philosopher of our time.” Brand Blanshard, a philosopher at Swarthmore College, quoted a passage from Cardinal Newman and observed that the objection to Catholicism and to other authoritarian religions was that their loyalties to democracy were expressly limited by a higher faith. Such loyalties, Blanshard suggested, led ultimately to the logic of the Inquisition. (307)

These accusations are on target. In the Catholic view—as in any orthodox Christian view—civilization is indeed locked in a struggle between God and the Devil, or perhaps more accurately, Woman and the Devil (Gen 3:15, Rev 12). Our allegiance to Christ is indeed higher even than our allegiance to democracy, or to any earthly power. This worldview and this loyalty, when disordered, have indeed led to some horrific outcomes. When rightly ordered, they have also led to the best. 

Ironic Heroes

In his hopeful Epilogue, “An Unexpected Sequel: A Renaissance of Christian Academia” (365-89), Marsden highlights, among others, two ironic heroes central to my own story: C. S. Lewis and Baylor University. While many life events contributed to my conversion to Christianity as a rising college senior, the determining step in my intellectual journey was reading Lewis. To take just one of many examples, Lewis showed how biological Evolution poses no threat to Christianity. Our intuitive sense that things “evolve,” from worse to better and less complex to more, derives from two phenomena we observe regularly: the growth of a seed into a plant or animal, and the “evolution” of a technology such as the automobile. The first happens because the seed comes from an originator like itself, the second through the agency of intelligent minds. What had seemed an argument against God’s paternity and continuing guidance is in fact an argument for them.

I read with delight, then, about the role Lewis played in the transformation of Wheaton College. Marsden describes how in the 1940s Wheaton faculty member Clyde Kilby had to overcome significant suspicion from his fellow faculty members and students:

In addition to smoking and drinking, Lewis did not hold that the Bible was without error in all its historical claims, believed God used evolution as a means of creation, had no time for fundamentalist premillennial views, and had a rather ambiguous view of hell. Though he had been a distinguished scholar and teacher at Oxford and Cambridge, Lewis would not have come close to being allowed to teach at Wheaton. (372)

Nevertheless, by 1965, Wheaton had become a major research center on Lewis and other brilliant Christian scholars from Great Britain, and Lewis was, “next to Billy Graham, perhaps the leading saint in the evangelical hierarchy” (373). It is a nice example of God’s sense of humor that a man ineligible to teach at Wheaton would become part of its intellectual and spiritual center.

I conclude this reflection, as Marsden (almost) concludes his book, with a phenomenon I have been blessed to experience from within. As more Christian colleges and universities were gradually becoming centers of intellectual life, they increasingly felt “the lack of a traditionalist Protestant university that was truly a research center for training future generations of evangelical scholars” (382). It still seemed preferable for the most talented Christian students to earn their doctorates at elite institutions rather than second-tier Christian ones. “The major response to these challenges was the transformation of Baylor University as it entered the new century” (383). I came to Baylor in 2003 because I thought that developing a true research university, rooted in Baptist tradition but ecumenically Christian, was the most exciting experiment in all of higher education. I think so still.

Have I mentioned God’s sense of humor? With my secular liberal upbringing (my parents were U.S. Government lawyers) and elite education (Princeton BA, Harvard PhD), the last thing I expected while I was growing up was that I would live my adult life in the buckle of the Bible Belt, let alone that I would feel welcomed and happy there. At a university that once deliberately excluded Blacks and Catholics, I have witnessed the friendship and collaboration between Baylor’s white Baptist chaplain and the Nigerian priest at the Catholic Student Center—which is not on campus, to be sure, but right across the street. Yes, the time when American higher education, and America altogether, could rightly be described as “Christendom” is “largely a distant memory or lost ideal” (388-389). The important things usually happen on the margins anyway. When all eyes were on the Emperor Augustus, the most powerful man the world had ever known, the Word was made flesh in a Jewish girl’s bedroom. In Waco, Texas, and in unremarkable cities and schools around the globe, his injured body is quietly being healed. 

Cite this article
Julia D. Hejduk, “American Idols: Review of George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University Revisited”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 51:1 , 61-67


  1. Joseph Ratzinger, Mary: The Church at the Source (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 38-39.

Julia D. Hejduk

Julia D. Hejduk is the Reverend Jacob Beverly Stiteler Professor of Classics and Associate Dean of the Honors College at Baylor University.