Thanks to all those who came out Wednesday to participate in my talk at Binghamton University about fundamentalist colleges in the 1930s. Not only was a good time had by all, but the conversation made clear that even at this, our most “secular” of colleges, religion is thriving. Despite the ignorant nostrums of elite secular academics and fuming fundamentalists, conservative religious students and faculty seem to thrive at pluralist schools like ours.
For those who are just tuning in, this talk was part of our series in “Religion in the Modern University.” I shared my current research into conservative evangelical colleges. The conversation after the formal talk revealed that both students and faculty at our beloved public university come from all sorts of religious backgrounds, including conservative evangelical Protestantism.
Unlike the schools I’m studying, our “secular” college does not actively encourage any specific sort of religious belief. Nevertheless, our school proves a congenial home for students and faculty who hold conservative evangelical beliefs.
This flies in the face of some common assumptions about secularism and higher education. As sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund found in her study of elite secular academics, many of them have absolutely no idea of the high level of religious belief at their own non-religious elite universities.
Fundamentalists, too, have long assumed that “secular” colleges were hostile to their sort of religious belief. As fundamentalist college founder Bob Jones Sr. was fond of saying in the 1920s, he would
just about as lief [sic] send a child to school in hell as to put him in one of those institutions.
At Bob Jones University, as at other fundamentalist universities, this notion that only a truly fundamentalist school can protect students’ faith remained central throughout the twentieth century, as this 1956 advertisement demonstrated.
More recently, too, creationist leader Ken Ham took me to task for questioning his insistence that creationist families must send their children to young-earth-friendly colleges. As Ham concludes,
at the very minimum I do urge parents to ensure they do all they can to equip their children to be able to defend the Christian faith against the attacks of our day, and to stand uncompromisingly on the authority of the Word of God.
Does that mean that religious students need to go to schools that share their faith? I don’t think so.
I certainly understand the many differences between a pluralist school like our beloved Binghamton University and schools with a unified religious message. But we need to remember that so-called “secular” colleges like ours are often very friendly places to creationists and fundamentalists.