Prejudice in the University

by Ed Harrell
Christianity Magazine, Volume 11, #7, August 1994

In a recent book entitled The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief, George M. Marsden of Notre Dame, an evangelical historian, let the cat out of the bag — the only minority in a university that is not free to proclaim its heritage and identity is Christians. Feminists, gays, Marxists, and members of scores of other minority groups belligerently defend their turf on the multicultural American landscape. And they claim the right to teach from their cultural perspective.

Postmodernist theorists, especially feminists, argue that one’s biography is an inevitable and relevant part of his or her scholarship. In spite of this avant-garde emphasis on the subjective nature of all knowledge, any scholar who confessed that his or her scholarship was informed by a religious perspective would be in deep trouble.

Most religious people agree, I think, that a secular university classroom is not the place to proselyte. People hired to teach mathematics, or history, should not use their positions to propagate their religious beliefs. I am sure that has occurred in the past, but I think that one would be hard-pressed to find many examples of such a thing happening in recent years.

What troubles evangelical scholars like Marsden is not that university teaching has become objective and religiously neutral. Rather, universities have become dogmatically secular and overtly anti-Christian.

Furthermore, there is a new missionary spirit in the universities. The new missionaries are not Christians; they are anti-religious secularists with a grudge against Christianity. In classrooms all over the nation, traditional belief is ridiculed and belittled, and young people are urged to embrace a secular philosophy of life and often an alternate lifestyle. Of course, most such proselyting is disguised as objective, scientific truth. Much university teaching is conversion-oriented, but very little of it has to do with teaching young people that they should be Christians.

Much has been said in recent months about making the government look more like America — meaning that women and minorities should be visible in positions of influence and power. Nowhere has the effort to create this multicultural diversity been taken more seriously than in the university.

Ironically, universities look very little like the nation as a whole when it comes to religion. Most polls indicate that more than 90 percent of Americans believe in God and that around 60 percent claim some religious affiliation. Those percentages would probably be reversed in universities. Universities are insulated enclaves of antireligious prejudice in the midst of the most religious nation in the developed world.

I do not believe that religious belief is a precise parallel to gender, ethnicity, class, and race in defining minority communities—indeed, each of those categories has distinctive characteristics. But at times in American history, religion has been the most important hyphenated identification for most Americans, and it remains the critical sub-identification in the lives of millions of Americans.
In most places in the world, religion is the most critical element in multicultural definitions. In virtually every area of Indian politics and society—university admissions, government service, bank loans—quotas are assigned to Muslims, Sikhs, and other religious and ethnic minorities. If Alabama were to adopt the India model of multiculturalism, at least half of the professors and students at all state universities would be Southern Baptists.

Obviously, assigning quotas to religious communities causes many problems in India—and even more in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, and much of the Middle East. I remain convinced that every person in a society must be given equal opportunity, but that competence should be the standard by which all are judged. But the quotas in India do mean that the country’s institutions look like the society —even the universities. And to some extent that means that they are in touch with the people.

Most American scholars simply do not take religion seriously. As past generations of historians wrote African Americans, women, and other minorities out of the nation’s history, recent historians have written the religious majority out of American history. In the words of historian R. Laurence Moore, “proponents of secularization theory” judged traditional evangelical Protestantism not to be “helpful to a rational political order.” “Given all of the other troubles that stood in the way of the political enlightenment of Americans,” Moore concluded, “historians wanted to write Americans beyond their religious backwardness as quickly as possible.”

So, the history that students are taught in most universities seems to many of them to be someone else’s history offered in a hostile environment. Furthermore, scholarship flawed by anti-religious bias leaves us open to repeated surprises. The conservative religion that intellectuals have written out of the twentieth-century American story has reappeared over and over in the form of Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, the religious right, and in countless other incarnations. An education biased against religion does little to help students understand the present or predict the future.

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