I experienced my oddest graduate class discussion in a comparative ethics course at the University of Southern California. The class was taught by a visiting secular, feminist professor who was quite happy to let the discussion run free and wild. This particular class session was held at a conservative Jewish student’s home. In attendance, were three other types of Jews, several secularists, a Wiccan, a Buddhist, and various progressive Protestants and Catholics. I recall being the only Evangelical.
What made the class conversation odd that day was that two mainline Protestant feminists took control of the discussion at one point. They then engaged in an overt evangelistic effort to convince the feminist professor to be a progressive Christian, while the other students looked on awkwardly.
At one point, the secular professor simply said that she could not be a Christian, since she could not worship a man (i.e., Jesus). To address that barrier, one of the progressive Protestant feminists happily replied, “I don’t worship Jesus either. I simply worship God.” Based on the Pauline epistles (e.g., Phil 2:9-11), I am certain that is not what Paul meant when he said, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). Instead, it was an effort to accomodate the norms of a secular feminist at the expense of Christian identity.
Secular Accommodation and Mainline Protestant Universities
I find a similar form of accomodation to secular norms common among progressive mainline Protestant colleges and universities.1 In other words, as a whole they basically borrow the norms of secular universities and rarely rely upon a Christian identity to differentiate any of their institutional policies.
Now, I am not implying that conservative Protestants, Roman Catholics, or Eastern Orthodox institutions do not engage in forms of institutional cultural accommodation that try to please different audiences (they do, see here, here, and here). Yet, the type of secular accommodation occurring among mainline Protestant institutions that I am identifying has had unique implications for their higher education institutions in North America that are not comparable to Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or other Protestant institutions. It leads them to cease identifying as Christian. For example, one can count on one hand the number of historical U.S. Catholic institutions that have ceased operationalizing their Christian identity in the United States. In contrast, at least 108 of the first 160 American mainline Protestant institutions started before the U.S. Civil War have completely secularized according to my empirical examination of their administrative operationalization of Christian identity.2 In addition, every mainline Protestant institution in Canada has now secularized.
Furthermore, of the 127 existing mainline Protestant institutions in the U.S. that still operationalize some institutional policy elements based on their Christian identity, almost three-fourths (71 percent) operationalize their Christian identity in only minimal ways (usually by mentioning their Christian identity in their mission or “About Us” web page and privileging Christian worship in some manner). There are only five mainline Protestant institutions, unaffiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), that operationalize their Christian identity in the university’s rhetoric, membership, curriculum, and co-curricular activities in the same way that the lowest-scoring CCCU institutions do. Overall, the empirical reality is that most mainline Protestant universities and colleges have lost any significant operationalization of their Christian identity they once had.
In addition, they also lack the will and conviction to create new institutions that might do so. The lack of vitality among these denominations is evidenced by the fact that they only started fifteen colleges or universities between 1923 and 1973. They have not started any new colleges or universities in close to half a century.
What Are the Signs of Secular Accommodation?
What are the signs of secular accomodation in a Christian university? From my empirical research, it does not begin with administrative decisions about whether Christian chapel is privileged or whether Christian rhetoric is used on the web page or in mission statements. Those elements secularize last. Instead, it begins with four other areas: faculty hiring, faculty development for Christ-animated learning, the curriculum, and the co-curricular.
First, mainline Protestant faculty absorb the hiring norms of their secular counterparts. They want to hire non-Christians of all and every type. Indeed, only eight mainline Protestant universities outside the CCCU require all faculty to be Christian. Anecdotally, I also find they demonstrate bias against conservative faculty in hiring–something I also see at my non-Mainline Protestant university. In my time at Baylor University, I have had a provost, numerous administrators, and multiple faculty members express concerns to me inside or outside of hiring committees about a potential administrative or faculty hire being too evangelical or conservative in orientation. Often, they are not judging the person, but they have concerns because the person went to a certain kind of undergraduate institution or seminary or attends a certain church associated with a denomination with particular conservative beliefs. These two approaches to hiring tend to go together. I know of numerous progressive Protestants on my campus who do not want to hire conservative Christians, especially for leadership, but they are open to and argue for hiring non-Christian professors.
This approach follows secular academia. For example, consider my colleague George Yancey’s illuminating data in Compromising Scholarship: Religious and Political Bias in American Higher Education. He found the two most discriminated against groups in potential collegiate hiring scenarios were Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. I also know of departments at Baylor that have turned down graduate students on this basis as well. The same faculty who bemoan the marginalization of non-Christian students, staff, or faculty end up quite willing to marginalize conservative Christians. Ironically, at Baylor University such an approach to hiring or accepting graduate students risks narrowing a broad Christian university that hires or accepts all types of Christians and lessening it into a progressive Protestant Christian university.
Second, mainline Protestant universities simply do not prioritize the project that we at CSR call Christ-animated learning as it applies to faculty and the curriculum. They do not have one center or institute devoted either to the integration of faith and learning or the relationship between Christianity and another academic discipline. Only one mainline Protestant institution outside of the CCCU sponsors our journal. I do not know of any mainline Protestant institutions that specifically sponsor faculty development for the Christian mission. In contrast, the Christian vitality of an institution is evident when this project is emphasized across the faculty and administration. For example, at my university, we host the Institute for Faith and Learning, which recently started a year-long mentoring program for faculty in this area called Missio. I would encourage other institutions that do not have such an institute or program to do the same.
Third, secular accommodation occurs when courses that prioritize Christian education are simply dropped or replaced with broad religion distribution requirements. Only three mainline institutions require more than two Christian courses and only fourteen require more than one. Almost two thirds (65%) do not require a single Christian course. Now, I advocate that Christianity can animate any and every course in a Christian university, but making sure students receive foundational biblical and/or theological education helps students understand the foundations of this enlivening.
Fourth, in the co-curricular, the vast majority of mainline Protestants institutions do not use theological moral reasoning in their student conduct codes and tend to take the view of “Christian” hospitality that I noted in my post last month. Only thirteen percent of their moral codes contain Christian moral reasoning. In addition, forty-five percent of mainline Protestant groups host other religious student groups on campus.
Anecdotally, I find this trend may combine in unusual ways with another one—an unwillingness to sponsor conservative Christian groups. For example, I had a chaplain at a mainline Protestant institution in Texas recently tell me that they did not approve a Cru student group because they were too evangelistic. Another institution I know failed to approve a Ratio Christi group for similar reasons. What I see usually happen on campuses where this occurs is that administrators and student life staff try to be especially sensitive to non-Christian students and their student groups for what administrators and staff believe are noble reasons (e.g., a concern for belonging). But then by doing so, they allow the minority or concern for the minority to override robust staff, or student Christian formation and discussion on campus in the name of tolerance.
Finally, I want to suggest what I suspect is a fifth element although I can only offer anecdotal evidence for this point. In my experience, Christ-animated learning often fails to receive attention from mid-level administrators. For instance, this past August I attended one of the two leadership sessions for deans, chairs, and graduate program directors at my university. For the breakout sessions, there was one session devoted to the integration of faith and learning, which encouraged me. When I went to the session, however, there were only two of us there besides the presenter. I surmise from this attendance that many of Baylor’s mid-level academic leaders have received the message from upper administrators that this topic is currently not as important to them as other issues. Mid-level administrators and not just young faculty need incentives to care about this issue.
When you mix all of these ingredients, the historical trend is that these institutions end up barely operationalizing their Christian identity or secularizing completely. Thus, if one wants to look for the vitality and creativity in Christian higher education associated with the operationalization of a Christian identity, one must look elsewhere to find it. For where that might be, see my recent co-authored book, Christian Higher Education: An Empirical Guide.
- The major denominations commonly classified as mainline Protestant today are the following: American Baptist, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Church of the Brethren, Congregationalist, Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA), Moravian Church in North America, Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church in America, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), United Church of Christ, and the formerly United Methodist Church.
- For the details about how I measure this operationalization empirically and how I score individual institutions see my recent co-authored book, Christian Higher Education: An Empirical Guide. Oddly, some institutions such as Texas Christian University and Southern Methodist University still have the identity in their name but not in their mission statement or any other key source of identifying rhetoric, membership qualification, or curricula.