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But our citizenship is in heaven.
And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Phil. 3:20 (NIV)

Educational Nationalism is one of the major temptations for Christian education leaders today. Educational Nationalism, which in liberal democracies I call Education for Meta-Democracy, is characterized by two important traits. First, it makes creating citizens the primary focus of educational institutions. In contrast, Christians should seek to humanize students by helping them recover their originally intended vocation: to be image bearers of God. Only that purpose prevents politics from distorting the university’s ends. This essay will provide some examples of Education for Meta-Democracy, describe its implications for moral education, and discuss the evidence about how Christian institutions are addressing this temptation.

How do you spot an institution that has succumbed to Meta-Democracy? First, you look at their mission statement and see how they define the persons whom they hope to educate. An institution focused on Meta-Democracy will define the outcome as some form of earthly citizen. For example, “The mission of Kansas State University is to foster excellent teaching, research, and service that develop a highly skilled and educated citizenry necessary to advancing the well-being of Kansas, the nation, and the international community.” It is also the thinking behind such books as Amy Gutmann’s Democratic Education.

Since publicly funded higher education institutions now educate over three-fourths of American students, higher education institutions, scholars, and faculty habitually use this type of language and define the purpose for all of higher education. Consider the authors of the first twenty-first-century book to survey moral education in higher education fittingly titled, Educating Citizens (the authors followed up with a book called Educating for Democracy).1 The authors proclaimed, “Higher Education has the potential to be a powerful influence in reinvigorating the democratic spirit in America.”2

To make their point, the authors drew upon the results of a three-year study in which they examined more than 100 colleges. The institutions all emphasized moral and civic education as central to their mission and sought to base moral education on students’ identity as citizens. Thus, rather than leaving students to define morality on their terms, these institutions sought to lead students “to redefine their personal identity, making sense of themselves as citizens and ethically responsible individuals central to that identity.”3 For public institutions, we can understand this focus, but we should recognize this framing as problematic.

To focus first on educating citizens, as education for Meta-Democracy does, is to reduce education to its political purpose instead of its human purpose. It distorts the human person to be primarily a political animal, and it makes higher education primarily about forming citizens of an earthly kingdom. In contrast, Christians believe education should be about helping students understand their primary vocation: to be and bear God’s image.

The second problem that emerges from education for Meta-Democracy is that institutions with these ends focus primarily on encouraging students to acquire political virtues. The more liberal politicized institutions or organizations focus on social justice. For example, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) described the university’s responsibility as “responsibility for society’s moral health and for social justice [and] active participation as a citizen of a diverse democracy.”4 The statement defended a concern with the moral life on the following basis: “The integrity of a democratic society depends on citizens’ sense of social responsibility and ethical judgment.”5 Interestingly, when highlighting this statement in the most recent edition of How Colleges Affect Students, the authors chose to emphasize that universities are charged with maintaining “the integrity of a democratic society” and the “responsibility for society’s moral health and for social justice.”6

The obvious problem with this approach has been set forth by Eboo Patel and Cassie Meyer who observe regarding social justice and interfaith education:

In our experience, activities and programs focusing on social justice often have embedded explicitly or implicitly, progressive political convictions. Put differently, an articulation of social justice that seeks to understand society and relationships in terms of power, privilege, and oppression often looks like a project that necessitates political commitments that may not be shared by many who hope to be included in interfaith work.7

Since politically liberal universities, organizations, and institutions comprise the majority of academia, social justice receives the most emphasis.

There are, however, moderate and conservative forms of this virtue reductionism. Moderate institutions tend to focus on the one virtue that conservatives and liberals seem to agree upon and that is service. Yet, service is usually conceptualized as something one does for the nation, one’s politically identified community, or one’s professional association. The more politically conservative universities, of which there are very few, tend to rely upon old virtues such as “honor” or service. These are places such as military academies, the last few remaining men’s colleges, and conservative institutions in the south, such as Texas A&M University. Like the call for men to be gentlemen, this moral virtue has largely faded for various reasons I cover in The Dismantling of Moral Education.

In any of these forms, the adherence to Meta-Democracy ultimately leads educational institutions not only to prioritize political identities but also to reduce the virtues on which humans should focus. This reduction devalues the importance of other virtues associated with pursuing identity excellence in all other areas of life such as those required for friendship, family, stewardship of nature, one’s body, and culture, and certainly not one’s religious identity. Yet, as we see throughout our society and other societies (e.g., communist countries), without the practice of other virtues, any advocacy of social justice, service, and honor becomes less effective and undermines these virtues. For example, when social justice advocates in the Meta-Democratic tradition omit the practice of other virtues when advocating for their cause, they rely less on the truth and goodness of their cause and more on power, social pressure, and shame. In contrast, the pursuit of social justice within the Christian tradition recognizes the need for other virtues, as was the case with Martin Luther King, Jr. who combined his pursuit of social justice with virtues such as self-control, love for one’s enemy, and nonviolence.

To what degree have Christian universities succumbed to these two problematic features of Meta-Democracy? It largely relates to how they operationalize their Christian identity in general. For example, in looking at 539 Christian university mission statements, there are 240 statements that either mention Christ, Christian, or Christianity in their mission statement. Not surprisingly, 75% of those statements come from the 160 institutions scoring above 13 on my Operationalizing Christian Identity Guide (OCIG—for details see my book on Christian Higher Education: An Empirical Guide). Only 25% of the 213 institutions scoring a 13 or below mention these identity words in their mission.

In contrast, only 25 mission statements focused on educating citizens. Not surprisingly, 80% of these institutions scored 13 or less on my 27-point (OCIG). It appears that one path to secularization and educational nationalization comes from prioritizing political identity above one’s core Christian identity.

Now, when it comes to virtue, those Christian universities operationalizing their Christian identity are demonstrating a strong counter-cultural movement that focus on more than one virtue. For example, a book published by The John Templeton Foundation, Colleges that Encourage Character Development, recognized only nine public institutions out of 100 colleges and universities that demonstrated “a strong campus-wide ethos that articulates the expectation of personal and civic responsibility in all dimensions of college life.”8 Three of those institutions were military academies. Five of the other institutions did not focus on virtue development beyond service and academic honesty. Interestingly, the only attempt to implement a broad character or virtue-focused approach on a state campus at Colorado State University was short-lived.9 In contrast, seventy of the institutions making up Templeton’s list were religiously affiliated with most of those focusing on developing a wide range of virtues.

My own more recent research has confirmed that this trend has continued and the Christian educational institutions focus on more than social justice, service, or honor and tend to draw upon the broad tradition of Christian virtue. Christian educational institutions should take heart how they are resisting Meta-Democracy. For now. That being said, Christian universities should always be aware that we should encourage our students to acquire all of God’s virtues (e.g., the fruit of the Spirit) and not simply a virtue or two that relate to our identity as earthly citizens.

I should note that I recently found one concerning oddity that needs to be addressed to make sure institutions do not give into this temptation. Not one Christian mission statement at any Christian university refers to students as being bearers of God’s image. Nor does even one articulate the mission in the manner of Hugh of St. Victor who taught at a precursor to the first university in Paris. He noted the liberal arts are particularly meant to help “restore within us the divine likeness, a likeness which to us is a form but to God is his nature.”10 If one wants to focus on a larger audience without secularizing or nationalizing, Christian universities should keep Hugh of St. Victor’s purpose for the liberal arts in mind. Education for the flourishing of God’s image bearers starts there.


  1. Anne Colby, Thomas Ehrlich, Elizabeth Beaumont, and Jason Stephens, Educating Citizens: Preparing America’s Undergraduates for Lives of Moral Responsibility (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003); Anne Colby, Thomas Ehrlich, Elizabeth Beaumont, and Josh Corngold, Educating for Democracy: Preparing Undergraduates for Responsible Political Engagement (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007). Another similar volume in this genre is Robert J. Sternberg, What Universities Can Be: A New Model for Preparing Students for Active Concerned Citizenship and Ethical Leadership (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016).
  2. Colby et al., Educating Citizens, 8.
  3. Colby et al., Educating Citizens, 50.
  4. Association of American Colleges and Universities, Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2002), xii.
  5. Association of American Colleges and Universities, Greater Expectations.
  6. Matthew M. Mayhew, Alyssa N. Rockenbach, Nicholas A. Bowman, Gregory C. Wolniak, Tricia A. D. Seifert, Ernest T. Pascarella, and Patrick T. Terenzini, How College Affects Students: Volume 3, 21st Century Evidence That Higher Education Works. How College Affects Students (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2016), 331.
  7. Ebo Patel and Cassie Meyer, “Social Justice and Interfaith Cooperation,” in Educating about Religious Diversity and Interfaith Engagement, eds. Kathleen M. Goodman, Mary Ellen Giess, an Eboo Patel (Sterling, VA: Stylus Press, 2019), 45.
  8. Templeton Foundation, Colleges That Encourage Character Development, v.
  9. For example, see Perry L. Glanzer and Todd C. Ream, Christianity and Moral Identity in Higher Education (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), chapters 5 and 6.
  10. Hugh of St. Victor, The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor, trans. Jerome Taylor, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 61.

Perry L. Glanzer

Baylor University
Perry L. Glanzer, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Foundations and a Resident Scholar with Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.

One Comment

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    I fear we stop short if we state our purpose as being image bearers of God. What does that mean in the practice of the Christian life? Paul stated that that Christ died for all so that (we) who live should live no longer for ourselves but for Him, i.e. for His kingdom purposes. (2 Corinthians 5:15). Francis Schaeffer’s shortest book was perhaps the most important one he wrote for Christian living: focused on John 13:35: “By this all people will know that you are My disciples: if you have love for one another.” His argument was that sceptics are right to question the genuineness of our faith (and the gospel) if Christians fail to love one another as we ought. Christ showed shortly before making that command what He meant by it: washing one another’s feet, i.e. being attentive to, and meeting, one another’s needs. It is a sacrificial, serving love to which we are called. It is active, not for political purposes but spiritual, to demonstrate that the gospel is real and to fulfill the most important commandment concerning human relationships, to love our neighbor as ourselves. Because, after all, we are each created in the image and likeness of God.