CTrecognizes the widely divergent views among evangelicals on the issue of government aid, in one form or another, to Christian educational institutions. The following article comes to stimulate further consideration of those views. It represents an opinion different from the one set forth in CT’s editorial (see p. 22). Evangelicals need to think through the ramifications of the issue raised in this article and the editorial. Every indication shows that this issue will loom larger and larger on the evangelical agenda of the eighties.

The ramifications of federal government subsidies for students at Christian colleges and universities are too complex to be dismissed with simplistic solutions. The considerations related to this issue include both abstract principles and concrete practices—considerations that require a closer look.

One of the more straightforward issues related to federal subsidies to Christian college students is the increased intrusion of government controls into the operation of the colleges those students attend. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said it all some 34 years ago when he observed, in effect, that what the government pays for it must ultimately control. His declaration has been realized repeatedly in both secular and religious institutions—even when the government’s financial involvement was less apparent than in student subsidies.

Although government intrusion into the operation of Christian organizations is straightforward in practice, it is based on an abstraction: interpretation of a constitutional principle. The federal statutes and agency regulations that confer a benefit (such as exemption from taxation) or define permissible activities (such as employment practices for the operation of a community-based agency—say a day care center) must be drawn and applied as generally and as consistently as possible. In general, Christian organizations and institutions are treated by law and regulation as a segment of a larger class, namely, all those agencies and institutions, whether professedly religious in orientation or not, that are assumed to contribute to the general improvement of society’s well being. Providing an exception or some other sort of special treatment for Christian organizations of any sort would breach, by definition the separation of church and state. The Supreme Court has spoken clearly and repeatedly to this point through most of this century. Thus, the principle appears to be settled.

Therefore, Christian organizations that share in the benefits conferred by law upon all organizations of their same class are also subject to the constraints and restrictions imposed by law generally upon organizations in that same class. Thus, for example, nondiscrimination in hiring requirements could be applied eventually to Christian colleges. And that application could, in time, undermine efforts to retain doctrinal consistency among the faculty—one of the long-maintained distinctives of many Christian colleges and universities.

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Christian institutions cannot hope to escape all government intrusion into their operations by forgoing government benefits (such as tax exemption) conferred on the larger class. Certain types of government intrusion occur simply because the Christian institution exists and functions in the larger society. For instance, Christian institutions generally must comply with municipal building codes, zoning restrictions, fire regulations, and so on, just as do commercial and industrial enterprises in their area. And lower court rulings thus far have held that a claim of special privilege cannot be used to exempt religious institutions from compliance with OSHA requirements (and similar building and construction safety standards) or from the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board in dealing with efforts to organize their employees into a union.

The question is not if government will intrude into the operation of Christian institutions; it already has and still does. The only issues where Christian institutions have any real choice are those of how and to what extent.

One approach is that of Grove City College in Pennsylvania. Grove City declined to participate in federal subsidy programs for its students and challenged federal attempts to increase its intrusion into the college’s operations. Evangelicals who claim to be committed to the independence of Christian colleges could rally behind Grove City and other colleges that take this stand.

Another approach is to claim that all colleges and universities (whether secular or religious, public or private) and their faculties should be exempt from compliance with the constraints and restrictions associated with the government standards mentioned earlier. That stand, however, is under serious attack in the courts. (The recent federal court citing of a University of Georgia faculty member for contempt in his refusal to testify about his role in tenure proceedings is just one more battle in what promises to be a long war.) Furthermore, pressing such a claim calls for concerted action in alliance with secular and religious institutions that share little or nothing else in common with evangelical colleges and universities.

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The approach of some evangelicals is to engage cooperation of secular allies in an effort to find some way to provide federal government funds for Christian colleges and universities that would withstand challenge in the federal courts. Success of such an effort appears doubtful in light of the history of similar efforts. And whether or not this effort succeeds, such an alliance implies a reciprocal obligation on the part of evangelicals who join it. As a consequence, those evangelicals could find themselves part of a group supporting causes that are not in their own best interests. Further, the public in general could easily perceive evangelical colleges and universities as simply one more special interest group trying to advance its own cause using public funds. The overall impact of evangelical witness could thus suffer, and the “penetration of society” called for by Carl Henry (CT, Jan. 4, 1980, p. 18) could become more difficult—if not impossible—to achieve.

Finding ways to finance and strengthen Christian colleges and universities is but a part of a larger concern. That concern is to provide a strong Christian impact on society through higher education. In this context, there are several courses of action that deserve prayerful and careful consideration and thorough analysis by evangelicals.

Here are four possibilities worth considering.

1. Convince legislative and regulatory bodies and the courts that humanism is a religion and that the introduction of its tenets into textbooks and classrooms violates the separation of church and state.

Secular education’s dominant religion is humanism. Though humanism’s proponents deny that it is a religion, one of its longtime exponents has published a book of “humanist rituals” for weddings, funerals, and the like. The legislative and regulatory norm in the United States has long been to rely on a group’s self-definition to determine what is—and what is not—a religion. Thus, in the United States, if a group calls itself a religion, it is treated by the government as a religion, no matter what its beliefs or practices may be. Humanists refuse to admit that they are members of a religious body, and the federal government will not take the initiative in classifying the practice of humanism and the espousing of its beliefs as “religious activities.” Still, humanist principles and practices pervade textbooks and classrooms of secular institutions.

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2. Increase encouragement and support for those evangelicals who feel called to a Christian teaching ministry in a secular college or university.

At present, the typical evangelical who publicly testifies to such a call gets a response from his or her church that is something less than enthusiastic. Yet there is a growing community of solid Christian individuals among the faculty members at secular instutitions that is penetrating some segments of secular higher education with a strong, positive witness supported by exceptional intellectual attainments. The Lord could want more of that.

3. Continue and broaden the current efforts to reassess Christian higher education needs and strategies, and the future role of existing Christian colleges and universities.

The dramatic changes occurring during most of this century can be expected to continue, probably at an accelerating pace, during its closing decades. Good use of the church’s investment in Christian higher education resources could call for a reshaping of some colleges, the merger of others, closing of still others, or even the establishing of new ones.

4. Weigh carefully the potential of new communication technologies to reduce escalating operating costs and carry educational opportunities beyond the campus walls.

Fuel costs, building maintenance costs, new construction costs, staff salaries, and other operating costs are all rising rapidly. There is only so much cost cutting that can be done in any institution. Means for providing Christian education that are not tied to buildings and their related costs ought to be explored. These same means could be used to provide Christian higher education for people who desire it but who cannot for various reasons spend long periods on campus. Computer-assisted instruction (CAI) capabilities are becoming more sophisticated and less expensive to operate. By contrast, college-level teleconferencing networks provide at a distance the advantages of person-to-person contact. These and other developments are real, they are at work, and Christians might as well benefit from them.

Right now prospects for Christian higher education appear brighter than for higher education in general. However, in order to realize that bright promise, Christian colleges and universities will need to proceed wisely, resolving difficult financial problems without compromising their special qualities and Christian witness.

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