William F. Buckley Jr.’s 1951 book God and Man at Yale popularized a view of higher education as hostile to faith. A new book, however, The Resilience of Religion in American Higher Education (Baylor University Press), finds faith alive and well in American higher education. The authors find that resilience evident both at public and private institutions. And they find it at religious institutions with varying ideas about their missions.
To be sure, the book does not present issues of religion in American higher education as simple or without tensions. But they find “a surprising openness” to religion in academe.
The authors are John Schmalzbauer, a professor of religious studies at Missouri State University and the author of People of Faith: Religious Conviction in American Journalism and Higher Education, and Kathleen A. Mahoney, a senior staff member at the GHR Foundation and author of Catholic Higher Education in Protestant America: The Jesuits and Harvard in the Age of the University. They responded via email to questions about their new book.
Q: Many people think of religion and higher education as a topic related to religious colleges. Your book also discusses student religious life at secular institutions, many of them public. What do you see as the major trends in student religious life at these colleges?
A: Public and nonsectarian private universities are some of the most religiously diverse places in America. Since the ’60s, they have witnessed an increase in the sheer variety of religious activity, reflecting the rise of campus evangelicalism, the revitalization of Jewish student life, a surge in new immigrant religions and the emergence of alternative forms of spirituality. At the same public university where Coach John Wooden and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar forged an interfaith friendship, religious diversity flourishes. Today the University of California, Los Angeles, is home to nearly 50 religious groups, including the first Campus Crusade chapter, the first Chabad House, a large Hillel building, a 54-year-old Muslim Student Association, a Coptic Orthodox Christian club, a Methodist cafe and a University Buddhist Association. Across the country, private philanthropy has supported dozens of ventures at secular institutions, including the Lilly Endowment’s recent vocation initiative and Yale University’s $75 million Roman Catholic center.
Responding to this diversity, the field of student affairs is rediscovering a more holistic understanding of student development that recognizes religious, secular and spiritual identities (the focus of two recent NASPA gatherings). A growing number of secular institutions have constructed multifaith chapels and meditation spaces, catering to both people of faith and the spiritual but not religious. A burgeoning interfaith movement has tried to connect these diverse communities, though recent findings from the IDEALS survey suggest that universities could do more to foster an inclusive climate.
Q: What is your sense about the directions of scholarship about religion at secular institutions?
A: Over the past 50 years, religion departments have proliferated at public and nonsectarian private institutions. Religion-oriented centers and institutes can be found at Columbia, Colorado, Indiana, New York University, Princeton and the University of Southern California. Most of these centers focus on “religion and” topics, exploring the role of faith in politics, health care and popular media. In the wake of the 2016 election, scholars in history, sociology and political science have investigated the roots of religious nationalism in America and around the world. While some religion scholarship is a version of “knowing your enemies” (Peter Berger’s apt expression), others have cultivated a more empathetic approach, though the current political climate has strained this capacity for scholarly empathy. In the face of resurgent racism, sexism and xenophobia, religion scholars are taking a stand.
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