Fundamentalists Were Right

For a hundred years, conservative evangelicals have told themselves that college is a dangerous place. As I argue in my new book about evangelical higher ed, the threat posed by mainstream schools pushed fundamentalists in the 1920s to invest in their own network of interdenominational schools, safe colleges for fundamentalist youth. A new study suggests that fundamentalist fears are still well founded.

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How today’s fundamentalists view college…

Back in the 1920s, fundamentalists loved to recount horror stories of college gone bad. As evangelist Bob Jones like to tell revival crowds in the 1920s, one Christian family he knew scrimped and saved to send their beloved daughter to a fancy college. What happened?

At the end of nine months she came home with her faith shattered. She laughed at God and the old time religion. She broke the hearts of her father and mother. They wept over her. They prayed over her. It availed nothing. At last they chided her. She rushed upstairs, stood in front of a mirror, took a gun and blew out her brains.

Other fundamentalist pundits shared an apocryphal letter from a damned college graduate. This letter, from 1921, told the folks at home,

My soul is a starving skeleton; my heart a petrified rock; my mind is poisoned and fickle as the wind, and my faith is as unstable as water. . . . I wish that I had never seen a college.

Back then, fundamentalists didn’t just rely on anecdotal evidence. They shared social-science evidence of the dangers of mainstream higher education, especially psychologist James Leuba’s 1916 study of college-student religiosity. The students he interviewed tended to grow less religious during their college years. The takeaway? College must be doing something to strip students’ faith.

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Those darn college professors…

These days, conservative evangelicals are just as nervous as ever about college. On my recent trip to Answers In Genesis’s Ark Encounter in Kentucky, I was surprised to find a huge walk-through comic book illustrating the dangers of higher education.

And, over a hundred years after Leuba’s book, new research seems to suggest that mainstream colleges really do tend to water down student religiosity. The survey by the Interfaith Youth Core was most interested in the ways college students reacted to religious diversity. Along the way, they found that among 7,194 students at 122 colleges, religious activities as a whole tended to drop during the first year of college.

Forty-three percent of the freshman respondents said they had talked about religious ideas in high school, while only a quarter said they did in college. When it came to religious diversity, the numbers are even starker. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they had attended a religious service of a different faith than their own in high school, but only 20% did in college.

College students also reported friendlier attitudes toward liberal ideas after a year of college, from 55% up to 63%. And a majority said they felt some pressure to change their religious ideas and that they tended to keep their religious ideas to themselves.

So while people like me might worry that students are not getting enough exposure to religious diversity, fundamentalists will likely worry more. Even if college students are shying away from other religions, they are also shying away from their own.

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  1. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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