Do Christian Colleges Undermine Orthodoxy?

Evangelicalism, the Coming Generation, by James Davison Hunter (University of Chicago Press, 1987, 302 pp.; $19.95). Reviewed by David K. Winter, president of Westmont College, Santa Barbara, California, who holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology and Sociology from Michigan State University.

James Hunter’s book Evangelicalism, the Coming Generation, is an excellent example of both the value and the limitations of examining the body of Christ through the eyes of a sociologist.

The study was based on questionnaires completed by some 2,000 students from nine colleges within the Christian College Consortium, 850 questionnaires completed by students at seven evangelical seminaries, and several other smaller surveys. Most of the surveys took place in 1982.

The book’s subject is evangelicalism as a religious or cultural system. For Hunter, a University of Virginia sociologist, the term “evangelicals” refers to theologically conservative Protestants, and includes a wide range of people from fundamentalists to “neo-evangelicals.” Sociologists understand the significant role of beliefs and behavior in maintaining the viability of groups. Thus by learning the attitudes of students toward the symbols and rules of the evangelical heritage, Hunter believes we can learn something about the possible future of evangelicalism.

In comparison with “evangelical spokesmen” quoted in the book, Hunter finds there is a significant liberal trend among the students, which he sees as an accommodation to the secular world. The beliefs and behavioral expectations that earlier set conservative evangelicals apart from our society are less strongly believed in and practiced by college and seminary students today.

For example, students do not strongly oppose, at least on religious grounds, some of the practices that were formerly taboo, such as drinking and smoking. Virtually all of the students believe that social justice should be a major concern of evangelicals. Some 30 percent are not absolutely sure that people who have never heard the gospel will go to hell. The same number believe the Bible should not always be taken literally in its statements concerning matters of science or history. And roughly half of the students do not believe that evolution is a denial of God’s creation.

Yet in other areas the students remain remarkably conservative. Virtually all believe that sexual relations outside of marriage are morally wrong all of the time. Eighty percent believe that God created Adam and Eve, which was the start of human life. Thirty percent believe the world was created in six 24-hour days. Ninety percent believe the Devil is a personal being who directs evil forces and influences people to do wrong. And in comparison with a control group of public university students, the Christian college students were “stoutly conservative” on traditional family values and women’s roles.

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Fundamentalist Or Evangelical?

From a sociological standpoint, there are some problems with this study. The “evangelical spokesmen” used to represent the earlier evangelical heritage reflect the fundamentalist wing that developed in the late nineteenth century and became a distinct faction in the 1940s. In contrast, none of the colleges and seminaries used in this study are generally considered fundamentalist. Thus the difference may represent these two groupings within evangelicalism rather than a change over time.

It is interesting that the faculty members are less “orthodox” than the students. If the faculty represent an earlier generation, we might conclude that evangelicalism is becoming more conservative.

Some within Christian higher education have observed that in the last few years the students have become more conservative in many areas. Also, college students regularly go through an idealistic stage that they modify in a conservative direction when they enter the adult world of work.

One contribution of this book is to suggest that the viability of our churches, parachurch organizations, and organized efforts to promote the gospel may depend on our ability to maintain the codes, symbols, and expected behavior patterns that define us in relationship to the secular world. In part, our history as a sociological phenomenon has resulted from these cultural boundaries that separate us from the larger society. To the extent that we value our religious organizations, we must ponder the effect of a general weakening of the commitment of Christians to many of these distinctive beliefs and behavior patterns.

Different Goals

But there is a fundamental error in Hunter’s assumption that the purpose of evangelical colleges and seminaries is merely to perpetuate the sociological phenomenon of evangelicalism. Those of us in leadership within these institutions understand that our purpose is not only to enable students to appreciate our evangelical cultural heritage, but to encourage the biblical understanding and spiritual commitment that allow them to critique cultural expressions of the Christian faith. In other words, our purpose is to produce “world Christians,” who express their faith effectively in a wide variety of cultures around the world, emphasizing our unity in Jesus Christ and the authority of Scripture, while appreciating the significant differences in behavioral patterns that characterize Christian people and denominations.

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This study does not resolve the question whether today’s evangelical students are less or more influenced by society than, say, 50 years ago when both the larger culture and evangelicalism were more conservative. In any case, the contrast with the world we desire is not primarily seen in certain traditional cultural codes, but in integrity, compassion, justice, the love of Christ, and the power of the Spirit.

Because Hunter believes our goal is to maintain an unchanging world view, he concludes that evangelical education is “counterproductive to its own objectives.” But for those of us who are committed only to Jesus Christ and Holy Scripture, his evidence of failure is our evidence of success.

Christianity Today Talks To James Davison Hunter

What are the most important theological changes in the evangelical student world?

How they view the Bible, how they understand salvation, and their approach to Christian social responsibility.

Changes in soteriology are the most dramatic changes. The classic position of conservative Protestantism on salvation has been that there is no hope for heaven except through faith in Jesus.

There was little, if any, equivocation on that point. But now, among a significant minority, there seems to be tremendous doubt—that is, an unwillingness to accept classic orthodoxy. For an even larger number, there is the conviction that God has an alternate plan for the unevangelized to receive eternal salvation. The “aborigines” will somehow have a “second chance.”

How would you describe the shift on the doctrine of Scripture?

There seems to be increasing difficulty in accepting the Bible as totally inerrant.

To be sure, a large number among the coming generation hold on to the classic notion of inerrancy. As for the rest, they hold the Bible in high regard—as an authority on spiritual and religious matters, but they are reluctant to accept the authority of the Bible when it speaks to matters of history and science. They don’t see it measuring up to twentieth-century standards of accuracy. Of course, from the Catholic or mainline Protestant perspective, these shifts would seem unremarkable. But to evangelicals, the changes are extremely important.

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We need to make another important qualification: the doctrine of inerrancy derives from a nineteenth-and early twentieth-century reaction to modernist impulses, whereas the classic view of salvation has a much longer history. Thus, change in the former may be less significant than change in the latter.

You state that we are observing an expansion of the meaning of cultural orthodoxy. What do you mean by this?

Let me give an example: The word worldly has long had special symbolic meaning in the evangelical community. It defined all of what was unacceptable to the evangelical community. What formerly qualified as “worldly” no longer qualifies. Indeed the term is virtually obsolete.

In your data, there was a change of only one percentage point in the proportion of students who thought extramarital intercourse was wrong, but there was a tremendous relaxation of attitudes on many other matters.

That’s right. On the issues of homosexuality, extramarital sexual relations, and even premarital sexual relations, the majority continue to hold to traditional norms; but when it comes to marijuana, heavy petting, smoking, dancing—the prohibitions that generations of evangelicals took seriously are considered ridiculous or passe. This illustrates nicely how “sin” or “worldliness” means less than what it used to mean.

What is at the root of that?

This relates to a larger cultural dynamic that has always been prominent within religious communities of an orthodox nature. At the heart of moral purity is an ethic of rejection. The importance of the prohibition against smoking cigarettes, for example, was not that it protected Christian orthodoxy in an ultimate sense; but that it provided a clear source of collective identity. By adhering to that prohibition, a person signified his or her willingness to identify with the aspirations and policies of the community.

Is there a new set of community norms?

Personally, I don’t think so. Some suggest, however, that opposition to abortion is a new definition of who’s in and who’s out of evangelicalism—and yet there is wide diversity of opinion on this.

You seem to hold up the past as an ideal.

I certainly don’t want to present the late nineteenth century as the eternal standard against which we measure orthodoxy. It does provide a point of reference, though. It shows how what one generation considers absolutely essential to true Christian living is considered superfluous or irrelevant to another. Curiously, most evangelicals operate on the assumption that the faith they live is entirely the same as the faith lived by previous generations.

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What is the key to evangelical resilience in an often hostile culture?

The resilience of evangelicalism is born out of the institutional strategy of establishing parallel institutions to the general culture—publishing houses, magazines and periodicals, universities, colleges, think tanks, evangelistic organizations, international relief agencies. These have provided a social context within which many evangelicals can organize their lives, almost never having to engage the secular culture.

This structure of parallel institutions is born out of a historic commitment to remain distinct. In some respects, the future of evangelicalism can be investigated by pursuing the future of these parallel institutions.

You argue that evangelical higher education has been partially responsible for liberalizing student beliefs and lifestyles. But would evangelical students have been even more worldly without these institutions? Have they limited student worldliness?

It is hard to say. Evangelical higher education has been extremely important to the preservation of the evangelical tradition in American life. It successfully trained many generations of evangelical leaders. It continues to do so.

The problem with evangelical education now, ironically, is that it is improving in quality. The more it is committed to genuine intellectual inquiry, where everything is open for examination—as opposed to indoctrination—there will be certain kinds of “contaminating” effects. To put it briefly, we all know that secular higher education secularizes, but there is strong evidence to suggest evangelical higher education secularizes as well.

There has been a laudable tendency on the part of evangelical higher education to move out of indoctrination and into trying to credential individuals to be good citizens and good evangelicals; to move toward genuine academic, intellectual, and rigorous training. This reflects the desire for these institutions to compete effectively with secular institutions.

Do you think the ethical and doctrinal thinking of evangelical students in secular universities would mirror their counterparts at Christian colleges?

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The one major difference between evangelical students who attend public universities and those who attend colleges like Wheaton and Gordon is the awareness of their own minority status. They recognize that secular public education represents a challenge for them. And they have taken steps in order to insure their own religious and spiritual survival: they participate in such groups as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ. Evangelical students in these situations, in other words, create their own subcultures, which provide something of a fortress or refuge for them.

On the secular campus, the hostility is very direct. The students go to classes in which their beliefs are tested in ways that are not tested in a Christian college environment. A lot of students attending evangelical colleges, on the other hand, consider their institutions safe; thus, their guard is down. So in some respects evangelical students at public universities are more conscious of how their faith interacts with their environment, and of how undermining the process of higher education can be to their own faith.

By David Neff and Beth Spring.

Higher Education’s Shuttered Soul

The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, by Allan Bloom (Simon and Schuster, 392 pp.; $18.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Glenn N. Schram, former associate professor of political science, Marquette University.

The thesis of this much-discussed book is by now fairly well known: Although the contemporary American university purports to foster openness, in the sense of tolerance for diverse cultures and lifestyles, this openness is nothing but value relativism by a different name; the universities fail to turn out graduates whose minds are truly open to the wisdom of the ages.

More particularly, students leave our universities without having learned to seek, like Plato and Aristotle, to know through reason what is by nature right—what is right in all times and places, and not just what is thought to be right by one or another culture.

Bloom is a member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and a student of the late Leo Strauss, who, in a distinguished career at that university, trained almost a whole generation of scholars in political philosophy. Strauss and his students generally praise Plato and Aristotle, and view modern thinkers, from Machiavelli to the present, with disdain. And Bloom is no exception, although he is friendlier toward Rousseau than was Strauss himself.

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Spiritual Malaise

Bloom’s critique of our universities seems incontrovertible, but whether his proposed solutions are adequate is questionable. He wants to see the classics of literature restored to centrality in a liberal education and the core-curriculum requirements (which the universities abandoned during the student unrest of the sixties) rehabilitated.

But Bloom himself questions whether the universities, in their present spiritual malaise, have the wherewithal to undertake even such modest reforms. And it is here that we come to the heart of the problem: Bloom recognizes the roles of religion and the Bible in a liberal education, but he attaches relatively little importance to them.

It is difficult to know whence the motivation for Bloom’s reforms is to come if not from a spiritual renaissance among faculty; nor is it clear what form a spiritual renaissance could take if it is not to be Christian—Christianity being the religion with which most of us are most familiar. It is also, I believe, true.

The issue extends far beyond the nature of liberal education. Bloom says that, after Nietzsche, we have to speak of “the decline of the West.” And he suggests “that the overpowering visions of German philosophers are preparing the tyranny of the future.” He writes: “The crisis of liberal education is a reflection of a crisis at the peaks of learning, an incoherence and incompatibility among the first principles with which we interpret the world, an intellectual crisis of the greatest magnitude, which constitutes the crisis of our civilization.”

Unfortunately, Bloom fails to develop these points sufficiently. As a translator of Plato’s Republic, he of all persons should know that, according to Plato, when a society becomes dominated by “democratic men” it will sooner or later give way to tyranny.

A country’s having a democratic form of government does not automatically mean that the socially dominant persons have “democratic characters,” marked by the predominance of insolence, anarchy, and sensuality.

But if, as I believe, “democratic men” are emerging in greater numbers in positions of power—including positions in entertainment and the mass media—there is cause for concern, and the only thing that could deflect us from our course toward tyranny would be a religious renaissance, first among our teachers and then among their students.

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