College Christians Strike Back

Do evangelical Protestants need to boycott pluralist universities? That’s the plan this morning from Joe Carter at the Acton Institute.  To those aware of the longer history of conservative Christianity and higher education, this sounds like déjà vu all over again.

Carter is reacting to the latest round of de-recognition of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. This time, the campuses of the California State University system will no longer accept IVCF as a full member of their communities.  At issue is the system’s newly enforced policy of non-discrimination.  No student organization will be allowed if it does not open its leadership ranks to all comers.  For IVCF, that’s a no go.  The organization insists that leaders must agree with its evangelical statement of faith.

This higher-education controversy has been going on for a while. Most prominently, as we noted in these pages, Tufts University de-recognized its campus IVCF chapter.  Other schools have followed suit.

De-recognition has consequences, but it doesn’t mean the organization is banned. Rather, a de-recognized group is not allowed free use of campus facilities for its meetings.  It is not allowed to take part in campus-wide recruitment fairs.  Perhaps most significantly, de-recognition sends a symbolic message that an organization is no longer part of a campus community.

How should evangelicals react? Joe Carter says they should go their own way.  As Carter puts it,

Colleges and universities are businesses that exist in a competitive educational market. A free market solution is to refuse to support the business’ “product.” In other words, Christians should refuse to attend schools in which their beliefs are “derecognized.” Similarly, alumni should refuse to provide donations to support a college or university that considers our faith not welcome on the campus.

We’ve seen this argument before. As I argued in my 1920s book, the first generation of fundamentalist leaders worried about the state of higher education.  At both pluralist and religious schools, fundamentalists charged, anti-Christian teaching and attitudes threatened the faith of young Christians.

Some leaders insisted that the only answer lay in the boycott. Evangelist Bob Jones Sr., for instance, opened his own college in order to offer fundamentalist parents an alternative.  As Jones remembered decades later in a private letter,

Going about over America in my evangelistic work, I ran into so many people who had lost their faith in schools, some of which were supposed to be Christian schools and that had at least been built with Christian money but that had compromised and brought religious liberals into the school; and young people had lost their faith. I kept one fellow from committing suicide because of what happened to him in a certain school that had been built with sacrificial gifts of Christian people but an institution that had gone modernistic.  I made up my mind there ought to be a certain type school somewhere in America, but I did not want to build it.  I was at the height of my evangelistic career and had open doors all over the world. . . . I went on to tell [his wife] that there is an idea going around that if you have old-time religion you have to have a greasy nose, dirty fingernails, baggy pants, and you must not shine your shoes.  And I told her that religious liberals were putting that over.  I said, ‘I want to build a school that will have high cultural and academic standards and at the same time a school that will keep in use an old-time, country, mourner’s bench where folks can get right with God.’

As a result, conservatives who agree with Joe Carter have a place to go. A network of evangelical colleges and universities offer alternatives to schools that might de-recognize Christian student groups.  Whatever one’s theology and preferences, from fundamentalist Bob Jones University deep in the heart of Dixie to evangelical Wheaton College just outside of Chicago; from Manhattan’s aggressive The King’s College to LA’s laid back academic Biola vibe.

If evangelicals really feel a need to boycott pluralist campuses, they have no shortage of Christian options.

Leave a comment


  1. myonlyissue

     /  September 16, 2014

    Bob Jones k-12 curriculum is common core. They send Achieve Inc surveys to parents, that’s North Central (radical change makers in education since 1895 and most likely UNESCO influenced). Nothing Christian about that.

  2. Donna

     /  September 26, 2014

    Dr. Laats, If a college is not considered a religious college, do you automatically consider it to be pluralistic? It seems like you are saying it is one or the other.

    • Good point. I try to use “pluralistic” instead of “secular” to describe colleges with no religious affiliation. That’s because, obviously, many schools like the one I work at are vibrantly religious, but the school itself has no religious affiliation. As you say, “pluralistic” contrasted with “religious” doesn’t really work either, since many religious schools are pluralistic. Any ideas for better terminology? I’m all ears…

  3. Donna

     /  September 28, 2014

    Ah! I pushed post comment only to find our wifi went out. Let me see if I can recreate it.

    I can’t think of a better term than secular. For my undergraduate degree I went to a secular university, and for my graduate degree I went to Catholic University of America. One university had a religious affiliation, one did not. I think that basic distinction has to be made first. Either a university is secular (not pertaining to or connected to a religion), or religious. Once that distinction is made, then more nuanced statements can be added. I think when trying to come up with a basic term like pluralistic to describe places that are more or less pluralistic, then the term becomes less accurate, particularly since it can’t be contrasted with religious. Secular can. What do you think?

    • I think my problem with “secular” as a label came when I read Elaine Howard Ecklund’s Science vs. Religion. In that study, Ecklund studied academics at a bunch of elite colleges. Many of the secular folks thought that their campuses were also secular. That is, they didn’t have any idea how much religion was going on right under their noses. And I think it mischaracterizes non-religious schools to be called “secular.” There is lots of religion, just no sponsored religion. It works in the sense of Charles Taylor‘s “secularity 3,” but that is not what most normal people mean when they say “secular.”

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