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In yesterday’s post, I recounted Burtchaell’s argument about the threats to Christian higher education and my response recorded in the book, Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions.1

Burtchaell’s response to me, in a private letter, was quite complimentary but he claimed I was wrong on two types, the critical mass and the intentional pluralism, which he thought would easily secularize. Initially, I didn’t accept his verdict, but as the new century progressed, I was haunted by his judgment that the two types were unstable and would weaken.

First, I had close-at-hand evidence that Burtchaell was right about the instability of my third type, “intentional pluralism,” which was how I typed my own college, Roanoke.

Soon after I returned from by sabbatical at Valparaiso, I was asked by the new president to lead a task force to write a proposal for a substantial Lilly Grant that would enable the college to strengthen the Lutheran teaching on vocation in its curriculum. Our task force wrote a strong proposal, but one that had two fatal flaws. The task force did not prepare the faculty adequately for such a serious proposal, and the president did not take ownership of the initiative.

During one of the longest mornings of my life, a strong majority of the faculty—led by a cabal of secularists—thoroughly rejected the proposal. While I was quite embarrassed about the flaws in our task force’s approach, I think in retrospect that no strong proposal could have survived. The later history of the college more or less confirms that.

Since then, there has been a gradual secularization that has finally led to a complete sanitation of the college’s religious baggage. The final blow came in 2017, when the college was to celebrate the 175th anniversary of its founding, as well as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Throughout its history the college had taken pause at its anniversaries to reflect on its identity and mission. That always included a grappling with its Lutheran heritage. In 1992 we had done so at its 150th, with a fine program of broad reflection.

In order to do my share in participating in such reflection, I spent four years on writing a history of the college’s relation to its religious heritage. It is entitled Keeping the Soul in Christian Higher Education: A History of Roanoke College.2 I timed its publication to come out during the year of remembrance and vision. As I wrote the book over several years, I submitted each chapter as I wrote it to the president and discussed with him his reaction to each one. He seemed pleased with each chapter, even the last one. In the final chapter I argued that certain steps needed to be taken to preserve the public relevance of the Christian faith in the life of the college.

Upon publication of the book, which the president had the college subsidize, he ordered a large number of copies to distribute to the board, to new faculty, and to display in his office. He even invited me—to my great delight—to engage the college board for several hours at one of its meetings. Those of us who cared about the college’s religious heritage looked forward to a pivotal conversation at its 175th birthday.

Lo and behold, nothing happened. The whole event was canceled, though one faculty member did arrange observations of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. But no college-wide discussion of our identity and mission as a church-related college. Indeed, the president shelved the many copies of my book he had ordered on an obscure bookshelf. My engagement with the board was cancelled. Instead, I was given five minutes in the midst of the board dinner to say my piece.

Sorely disappointed, I met with the president to ask what happened. After hemming and hawing, he finally told me that board members found my book too pessimistic and disturbing, especially its last chapter where I laid out necessary steps for the college to preserve “a voice at the table.” One Lutheran pastor exclaimed that “We have never been more Lutheran than we are,” as the last Lutheran professors departed the college.

The endowed Lutheran chairs remain unfilled, the college doesn’t present itself as a church-related college, its theology department is now a religious studies department, secular Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion ideology has moved in as the last remnant of orthodox Christianity has moved out, the chaplain prays to “the One of Many Names,” the choral program has been downsized, and orthodox faculty and students self-censure, and no new faculty of orthodox persuasion are hired.

What happened to my “intentional pluralism college” that I thought was a genuine way to express one’s religious identity? In short, the board did not understand or endorse such a strategy because the president did not present it or insist on opening it. Such a vision was not in its mission statement and faculty were hired without considering it.

So, Burtchaell was right about one of my more modest types of religious colleges. It was indeed unstable. And the many colleges of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America followed suit, as did most of the colleges of mainline Protestant Christianity.

Further, the other type in my typology of schools, the “critical mass” colleges and universities, did not do so well either. The “dying of the light” was far more prevalent than I thought.

Now we have strong evidence that Burtchaell was right about that too. A new book by Perry Glanzer and associates, entitled Christian Higher Education: An Empirical Guide, scores 537 Christian schools according to a set of criteria that reflect the school’s public operationalization of its Christian identity and mission. (The authors eliminated over a hundred more schools that once had connections to the church but scored 0 according to their criteria. Think of Texas Christian or Southern Methodist.)

The criteria include items such as: membership requirements for the president, faculty, staff, and board; an ample religion department with required courses; chapel or mass observance; a robust Christian self-definition under “About Us” on the school’s website, the number of centers that engage in Christian concerns, as well as many more self-presentations that the school’s leadership makes public.

The scoring runs from 27 to 0, with the schools who scored 0 eliminated. It is fascinating to look up scores of schools that you know about and many that you don’t. Scores above 15 seemed to indicate some fairly strong ongoing commitments, but most schools did not score that highly.

What was shocking to me, and what corroborated Burtchaell’s dark judgments, were the scores of those “critical mass” schools that I thought would “keep the faith” by operationalizing their Christian identity in significant ways. St. Olaf scored an abysmal 5.5 and Valparaiso scored a low 8.5. My “intentional pluralism” college, Roanoke, came in at 2.5. My alma mater, Midland University, which was in my student days a robust Lutheran college, came in at 3. None of the ELCA schools scored more than an 8.5, yet they claim to be “rooted and open”—maybe more open than rooted. Missouri Synod schools did much better.

Even my critical mass schools that I thought were stable became shaky: Notre Dame at 15.5 and Baylor at 13. The only one of my selected schools that seems strong is Wheaton at 22.

So Burtchaell was right and I was wrong about most of the schools I thought were really solid. He was also right about my typology—only the orthodox seem to operationalize their Christian identity in robust ways . But his pessimism is not fully warranted either. A number of Catholic schools did well. Thirty-four scored above 12.5 and 23 above 15. The new Catholic schools begun by committed lay leaders scored the highest, e.g., Christendom and Wyoming Catholic at 20.5.

Some of the strongest Protestant schools come from what the authors call “independent low-church Protestant cooperative endeavors,” mostly from what we would call “sectarian” traditions. Seventeen of such schools scored 20 and above. Thirty-four evangelical schools associated with the Consortium of Christian Colleges and Universities scored 20 and above. Biola scored a 26!

What to make of all this? Certainly, the method used to assess schools is not faultless, as the authors themselves admit. The criteria are “empirical” in the sense that they are publicly presented characteristics of the school. But those empirical markers do not get at what is going on at the ground level in the schools. For example, it is important to know what content is taught in required religion courses. Further, their empirical approach does not get at the ethos or “feel” of the school, as I was able to do by visiting my six colleges and universities. Nor does it plumb the historical sweep of the school, which Burtchaell did so masterfully.

Nevertheless, the book is extremely important. It reinforces Burtchaell’s insistence that a serious Christian school must have high standards of hiring. It has to have an explicit, orthodox, Christian mission and it has to hire administrators, faculty, and staff for that mission. It has to have a fully informed and committed board that insists on those things happening. Above all, it needs a president committed to an orthodox vision who is willing to insist on a board that understands and supports it, as well as one who insists on hiring according to that vision. Without that there will be a slow accommodation to the secular, elite culture that is so insistent in the “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” ideology. Indeed, if a college or university has swallowed that ideology whole, orthodox Christianity will move out as it moves in. (Some Christian schools have “massaged” that ideology enough that it might not be fatal, but it is still very worrisome. For others, it will be fatal.)

I worry also about those such as Notre Dame and Baylor that scored in the mid-teens. Will they have the will to survive the secular winds that will slowly eat away at their orthodox commitments? I dearly hope and pray so.


  1. Robert Benne Quality with Soul : How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2001).
  2. Robert Benne, Keeping the Soul in Christian Higher Education: A History of Roanoke College (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2017).

Robert Benne

Robert Benne is Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and Research Associate at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.  He currently teaches Christian Ethics for the online Lutheran Institute for Theology.   In 1982 he founded the Roanoke College Center for Religion and Society, which the College named in his honor in 2013.  He was Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion and Chair of the Religion and Philosophy Department at Roanoke College for 18 years.  Before that he was Professor of Church and Society at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago for 17 years.  A native of Nebraska and a graduate of Midland University, his graduate degrees are from the University of Chicago.  He has authored 14 books, the one most relevant to the current blog is Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with their Religious Tradition (Eerdmans 2001).


  • Marilyn Lundberg Melzian says:

    I applaud you, for realizing that pluralism and secularization eat away at schools. The same thing is happening in the seminary in which I am a part-time teacher. The trouble is, the anthropology of secularism, and the anthropology of Christianity are diametrically opposed. In Christianity, we are ordered to God and the highest good is God, but in secularism, we are ordered to the self, and the highest good is self-fulfillment. You simply cannot have a mix. I think this has been the great mistake of the church in general. Let us pray for those institutions which are turning more and more away from the primary mission of the Gospel.

  • Michael Jindra says:

    Great, but disheartening update. I was at the conference at St. Olaf around 2000 where you presented your book Quality with Soul. Flash forward 20 odd years later, and I have a son in college there. Still a good organ/music program with great church music, but the religion courses were pretty lame, lots of social justice without much theology. In the meantime, I have taught at various colleges, including Notre Dame, where as a Lutheran the fireworks between the solid Catholics and the secularists always made things interesting. If I remember right, I too thought you were a bit optimistic back then. The “quality with soul” balance is pretty tough to maintain, and even the more orthodox colleges, which I have taught at, struggle in various ways.