College Really IS Bad for Jesus

A century ago, conservative evangelicals rallied around William Jennings Bryan and his warnings that college was bad for students’ evangelical faith. One of the results was the network of evangelical universities I studied in Fundamentalist U. A new poll suggests that Bryan was right all along.

pew college graduates belief in god

Was Bryan right?

In his anti-evolution stump speeches in the early 1920s, Bryan liked to cite the work of Bryn Mawr psychologist James Leuba. According to Leuba, 85% of college freshman believed in god, but only 70% of juniors did, and only 60-65% of graduates did. The evidence seemed clear, Bryan reported: College kills religion.

Bryan also liked to tell personal anecdotes about the deleterious spiritual effects of college attendance. As he put it in 1921,

There is a professor in Yale of whom it is said that no one leaves his class a believer in God. . . . A father (a Congressman) tells me that a daughter on her return from Wellesley told him that nobody believed in the Bible stories now.  Another father (a Congressman) tells me of a son whose faith was undermined by this doctrine in a Divinity School.

Was it true? Who knows. Bryan was famous for rhetorical excellence and factual carelessness. A new Pew survey, though, finds that college graduates, as a group, tend to be less literal about their religious beliefs than the rest of America.

As the Pewsters report, about two-thirds of respondents with a high-school diploma or less believe in the God of the Bible. Among college graduates, that number drops to 45%. College graduates are still plenty religious, with 84% of them saying they believe in God or some sort of higher spiritual power, compared to 94% of high-school grads.

Still, the difference is notable. And we have to ask: Were Bryan and the 1920s fundamentalists right all along? Is college—at least, in its mainstream and elite forms—bad for faith in Jesus?

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Why Aren’t Evangelicals More Embarrassed by This?

Watch out! Sending your evangelical children to non-evangelical colleges puts them in harm’s way. For the past hundred years—as I’m arguing in my new book—that has been the consistent message among conservative evangelicals. We see it again in living color this morning in the pages of the Christian Post. And it puzzles us. Here’s why: Why aren’t evangelical pundits more embarrassed about it? That is, why do so many evangelicals seem unfazed by the notion that their faith is so darn fragile that the merest exposure to mainstream ideas will shatter it?

In its latest incarnation, Christian Post columnist Greg Stier offers four “super effective” ways to keep students’ faith safe in those “tricky college years.” Stier’s suggestions make sense to this non-evangelical reader. If students are involved in evangelical organizations, if they are coached in advance, and if they see their college years as a Christian mission, they will be more likely to remain steadfast in their faith.

Stier also advocates praying for those college students. As a heathen, I can’t see how this will really help. However, if a college student belongs to a home community and knows that his faith is of interest to the folks at home, I agree that it might encourage the student to remain true to his or her childhood faith.

For our purposes, however, the most intriguing part of Stier’s column is not his advice itself. Rather, the most important fact is that Stier takes for granted that a “majority” of high-school graduates will walk away from their religion in college. Once they find out about beer or hear “the Philosophy 101 professor of their secular university,” they will ditch their family faith.

I don’t know if that’s really true, but I do know that it is an assumption shared by conservative evangelicals for the past century.

Back in the 1920s, for example, evangelical celebrity William Jennings Bryan popularized a 1916 study of college religion by Bryn Mawr psychologist James Leuba. Leuba found that 85% of college freshman called themselves Christians, but only 50-55% of graduates did. The upshot? College must be doing something to discourage religious belief.

leuba study

College: Bad for Christianity

Similarly, in 1948, Clarence Mason of the Philadelphia School of the Bible exhorted evangelicals to send their kids to Bible institutes before college. Why? Bible institutes would provide the spiritual armor students needed to protect their faith in the sensitive college years.

In every case, in every decade, the assumption has been the same. Without extraordinary precautions, evangelical youth could be expected to lose their faith in college. This leads us to our difficult question this morning: Why aren’t evangelicals more embarrassed by this? I’m not trying to start a fight or poke fun at evangelical culture. I’m really asking.

To put it another way, why don’t evangelicals assume that their faith has the power to convince children on its own? .  . . that its Truth would be enough to punch holes in the worldly temptations of college life or the cynical ponderings of a secular Philosophy 101 professor?

I have a couple of ideas and I welcome corrections and counterarguments from the SAGLRROILYBYGTH.

Guess #1: Evangelicals like to exaggerate the dangers of non-evangelical higher education in order to energize their listeners. If preachers and pundits said that children were likely to do fine on their own in college, no one would pay attention. In order to mobilize their evangelical public, that is, activists tend to talk in catastrophic terms.

Guess #2: Lots of the people I’m studying were trying to woo students and parents to their evangelical schools. Obviously, such folks would want to tell people that non-evangelical schools were very dangerous. Clarence Mason of the Philly Bible School, for instance, was pleading with parents to send kids to his school. They wouldn’t be likely to do so unless they thought it was absolutely necessary.

Are there other reasons? Reasons why evangelicals would play up the fragility of their faith? To this non-evangelical reader, it seems like such arguments belittle the power of evangelical belief.