The connection between college and religion

Published 6:51 pm Sunday, April 1, 2018

If we only received our evidence from TV talk shows and social media posts, we would assume that colleges are anti-Christian. Yet when we go to college campuses, especially the private non-profit schools which are religiously-affiliated, it’s a very different story. Such colleges are one of the few institutions that can actually reinforce the faith of our students, and even those among the administration, faculty and staff.

First of all, the populist attack on higher education is nothing new. More than 100 years ago, Democratic politician William Jennings Bryan went on a barnstorming tour across the United States. Stung by being rejected by the voters three times in presidential bids, Bryan found a new source to blame for his shortcomings — colleges. He accused universities of promoting atheism, according to Daniel Cox with

“Our classrooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women,” Bryan thundered.

But whether it’s an old-time politician or a modern-day political opportunist, the argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. A PRRI poll finds that nearly 80 percent of crises of faith and a decision to leave the church occur long before the young person turns 18. Family actions, such as divorce, church attendance and other behaviors weigh heavily on a child, far more than some teacher.

When critics run the numbers, they typically survey the behavior of all 18-24 year-olds, assuming that all of them are college students. But only a third or less actually go to college. In fact, evidence I have cited in a prior column on this subject noted that those who go to college maintain their faith better than those who are 18-24 who don’t go to college.

True, Millennials don’t attend church or Sunday school as much as their Baby Boomer counterparts. But I would love to see those numbers compare students at public schools versus the private non-profit colleges. You see plenty of our students make up the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the Wesleyan group, Baptist Student Union, etc. Plenty come down to our Wednesday Evening Weekly (WEW), walking the extra mile for food that they could otherwise get at our cafeteria. These students who I see greet me as I occasionally serve up a dish of mashed potatoes.  And you can even find a few making their way to the pew and Sunday school youth group, helping out with kids like mine with Sunday school lessons.

Nor are such responsibilities confined to our outstanding chaplain and his wife, a key community organizer, who team up with religion faculty to lead mission trips abroad and at home. We have faculty (liberal and conservative) too who are not only active in their church, but I’ve seen them meet individually with students (and not just in one of our many religion classes, of which all students must take at least one class to graduate) to talk about faith and crises of conscience.

I want to cite one in particular — biology professor Sarah Beth Mallory. I mention her because she counseled me. We had discussions of our faiths while serving together on committees and judging at presidential scholars weekends.  She told me what Baptists believe in, what it means to have a public expression of faith, and why it’s important, and how she reconciles faith and science. She passed away last week after a lengthy battle with an illness, but I’ll always remember her willingness to share so much with someone from a different faith.

If you are a young student looking at colleges, or the parent of one, don’t believe the political hype and bids for cheap votes to drive an agenda that may not always follow your religious doctrine. Don’t be a doubting Thomas. Come to a religiously-affiliated college. Meet students and college personnel for yourself. See if they’ll do what our college’s stated goal is — to challenge the mind and inspire the soul. More likely than not, you or your student will do the challenging and inspiring too.