What’s the Most Christian College?

If I want my child to have her faith protected at college (and I don’t), where should I send her? Sometimes the answer can be surprising, as new evidence keeps reminding us. Maybe the environment at “secular” colleges isn’t so hostile after all.

As my current research is hammering home to me, one of the most powerful themes among conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists in the twentieth century has been that mainstream education can be dangerous. Children, conservatives have believed, will learn evolution, secularism, and loose morals at most schools and colleges.

As a result, conservative evangelicals have founded and protected a network of explicitly fundamentalist colleges, schools such as Wheaton College, Bob Jones University, Biola University, and many others.

As a professor at a large public university, though, I can’t help but wonder if our “secular” universities are really such hostile places for conservative Christians. Don’t get me wrong: I am likely one of the secular, skeptical, left-leaning academic types many conservatives worry about. But are folks like me the only sorts of professors allowed at big research universities?

A new talk by Jeff Hardin of the University of Wisconsin—Madison helps shatter that stereotype. Hardin spoke with journalists a few weeks back at the Ethics and Public Policy Center about the proper way to talk about creation, evolution, and evangelical religion.

[Full disclosure: I am a Madison graduate myself, and I love the school dearly. My graduate work with Bill Reese and Ron Numbers began my continuing interest in the tangled history of education and conservative religion in these United States.]

C'mon back, Christians!

C’mon back, Christians!

Hardin’s academic credentials are impeccable. He is a biophysicist at a leading research university. He has a PhD from Berkeley. He has published widely, including authoring a mainstream textbook. He now chairs Madison’s zoology department. And he is an evangelical Christian.

The main thrust of Hardin’s talk was the many differences between and among “creationists.” One can be a young-earth creationist like Ken Ham, or one can be an evolutionary creationist like Hardin himself. There are intelligent design folks, progressive creationists, and even run-of-the-mill unreflective creationists. Hardin wanted his audience of prominent journalists to be more aware of these nuances. He wanted them to avoid talking about “creationists” as an undifferentiated mass of young-earth believers. Certainly, an important point.

For our purposes, Hardin himself presents a more interesting idea. For many conservative evangelicals, mainstream colleges represent an onslaught of secularist ideas. Conservative religious students at such schools, evangelicals have assumed, must prepare themselves to be battered by hostile skeptical professors and an amoral campus culture.

Don't know much about religion...

Don’t know much about religion…

And of course there is some truth to such stereotypes. As sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund has argued, elite academics at schools like Madison tend to be ignorant or even hostile to conservative religious faith. Like all stereotypes, though, there are important exceptions. In his talk, Hardin tells a story of his work at Madison. An evangelical graduate student came to him one day. As Hardin tells the story,

he spilled his heart out in this meeting, and he explained that he was very close to jettisoning his Christian faith when he came to the university because he realized what he had been told about science didn’t square with what he learned at the university, and so he felt that he was pushed into an impossible position:  either accept his Christian faith and jettison what he was learning about science or, conversely, accept was he was learning about science and cut loose his Christian faith.  He seemed to be in an impossible situation. And so we talked about options and I helped him think through a lot of these issues.

For this student, at least, attending a leading “secular” college did not mean his faith was battered and attacked. This student found an evangelical mentor at a school that has been infamous among fundamentalists since the start of the twentieth century, as I recount in my 1920s book.

So what is the most “Christian” college out there? Is it a staunchly evangelical school that insists all faculty conform to a fundamentalist statement of faith? Or it is a pluralist school that offers young scholars a range of mentors and intellectual futures?

Hardin helps demonstrate that our so-called secular universities are not quite so secular. A better word to describe them might be “pluralist,” since they include students and faculty members of a variety of religious backgrounds.

Leave a comment


  1. Agellius

     /  January 8, 2015

    They’re pluralist in that they allow students and faculty from a variety of religious backgrounds. But officially they’re not neutral, but rather atheistic.

    I realize that there’s no university policy that says, “We believe God does not exist”. But in practice they must act as though no God exists, since they may not take God’s existence or any kind of divine revelation into account in making decisions and policies.

    In other words you can be a Christian at a secular university, but only as a private matter. Your Christianity is tolerated, but is not in any way encouraged or edified by the university. In short, you’re a Christian despite the university, which does not in any way encourage or help you to be a Christian. The result is that you feel like a tolerated minority.

    Parents and students choose overtly Christian colleges because they want an environment in which the truth of Christianity is taken for granted, and not merely tolerated but promoted. Just as liberal atheist/agnostics prefer universities in which the truth of liberalism is taken for granted, and not merely tolerated but promoted.

    • Good points. The university certainly does not encourage or even recognize any religion as part of an academic credential. But in this case, Professor Hardin described a very non-private encounter with a student. Professor Hardin did not only privately hold his religious beliefs, he shared them in a mentoring way with a student of similar beliefs. To my mind, that changes the story. In a case like this, an evangelical student found an evangelical professor with whom he could discuss evangelical ideas as evangelicals. That’s more than just a private affair for Professor Hardin, that becomes part and parcel of his work as a teacher and scholar.
      Don’t get me wrong; I’m not engaging in a crusade against religious professors at public universities, a la Eric Hedin or Emerson McMullen. I’m only pointing out that part of Professor Hardin’s paid work at the “secular” university apparently included religious counseling.

  2. Agellius

     /  January 8, 2015

    “The university certainly does not encourage or even recognize any religion as part of an academic credential.”

    Or in any other way.

    “I’m only pointing out that part of Professor Hardin’s paid work at the ‘secular’ university apparently included religious counseling.”

    He said that “we talked about options and I helped him think through a lot of these issues.” Does that necessarily fit the description of ‘religious counseling’?

    But granting that religious counseling was what he did, I get your point that it’s not impossible to find religious faculty, and that they can be supportive to religious students in the course of doing their jobs. My point is that as you said, incidents like these are exceptional. At best they indicate a tolerance of religion and religious students and faculty. But there is just as much tolerance of things that religious people find gravely sinful. So in a sense, they find their religion placed on the same level as recreational drug and alcohol use, premarital sex, etc. (i.e. not endorsed but tolerated); on a lower level than college sports; and morality given less emphasis than things like gender and race sensitivity.

    In this sense, conservatives are right when they say that students will learn “secularism and loose morals at most schools and colleges”. Premarital sex, explicitly forbidden by most major religions, is not only tolerated but “taught” in the sense that kids are told where to obtain and how to properly use contraceptives while committing fornication; whereas things like gender and race sensitivity are relentlessly pounded into their heads. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in favor of teaching kids to be racially and genderly (?) sensitive. But this is a corollary of the virtues of charity (love your neighbor as yourself) and respect for God-given human dignity; whereas secular schools hammer on “equality” as if it’s a virtue in its own right. The message conveyed to our impressionable young people is that equality is infinitely more important than (among other things) chastity.

    Don’t get me wrong. I did send one of my sons to a strictly Catholic college, but the other is attending a big state school (mainly because the strict Catholic college doesn’t have a Computer Science major). So personally, I don’t necessarily find the environment at secular schools intolerable to Christian students. I’m just trying to point out where I think you might be missing the conservative Christians’ point.

  3. Mark

     /  January 9, 2015

    I am an evangelical Christian and have only went to large public schools – University of California, Irvine for my undergrad and PhD and California State University, Long Beach for my Masters. While a PhD student I was admitted into UCIMC were I was abused. The quality of treatment was deplorable and a part of it was illegal, unjust, and dishonest (they tried to cover it up). This is a recurring theme at UCIMC and UCD have also had problems. My concern about public universities is not just about the above mentioned but that they
    (1) Actually care about people and treat patients / students as humans
    (2) respect the laws that exist
    (3) have a suficient degree of decency to not use public money for shoddy, illegal medical treatment.

    If, and only if these are taken care of then we can talk about the finer points.

    • Mark,
      Thanks for sharing your story; I’m so sorry you went through that. Your comment points out a key fact about all of our “which college” debates: Any college that doesn’t live up to its responsibilities to protect its students is a terrible place. Here at ILYBYGTH, we’ve debated whether authoritarian fundamentalist colleges are worse than secular colleges at this, see here, here, or here for examples.

  4. Mark

     /  January 10, 2015

    Typical academic, not man enough to see the elephant in the room that renders what you do and you yourself a pathetic joke. I’ll leave you alone, you disgust me.

  5. Nice Christian response Mark. I would like to add that most secular state universities such as CU Boulder have organizations that assist students in their spiritual lives. CU hosts the Religious Campus Organizations website and on-campus office that helps students connect with the 30+ student-focused ministries: http://www.colorado.edu/studentgroups/rco/ and InterVarsity has a strong undergraduate and graduate presence at CU Boulder


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