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Mission to Blue America

INTERVIEW: Naomi Schaefer Riley on the growing importance of religious colleges

Issue: "Big mouth on campus," March 12, 2005

Naomi Schaefer Riley, an adjunct fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., visited 20 religious institutions in the course of writing her new book, God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America (St. Martin's, 2005). Among them were seven Catholic, two Mormon, two Jewish, one Buddhist, and eight Protestant schools (Baylor, Bob Jones, Calvin, Gordon, Patrick Henry, Regent, Westmont, and Wheaton).

WORLD: Sociologist James Davison Hunter has argued that "contemporary Christian higher education produces individual Christians who are either less certain of their attachments to the traditions of their faith or altogether disaffected from them." What did you find in your campus visits?

NSR: After talking to hundreds of students on these campuses, I can say this didn't seem to be the case. Rather, religious colleges seem to be intellectually deepening students' faith, thereby giving them a more durable attachment to the faith, one that can last after the excitement of a youth group experience might wear off. Moreover, these schools are making young people better prepared psychologically for living in a secular community. They seem comfortable with their faith, perhaps the result of not having been attacked constantly during those formative years.

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WORLD: Students at secular universities tend to be to the right of their professors. How do students and professors at the religious colleges you visited compare?

NSR: At most of the schools I visited, I didn't see a clear political dividing line between students and faculty. At BYU and many of the small traditional Catholic colleges, for instance, almost everyone is a Republican. At the evangelical colleges, there is more of a range, but it's coming from both faculty and students. The same is true at Notre Dame.

WORLD: A New York Times reviewer sniffed that your book "offers no real evidence that these schools 'are changing America.'" What kind of change do you see the religious colleges effecting?

NSR: I think it's true that there are not enough of these graduates-in terms of raw numbers-to transform the culture. Though the enrollment of these schools is growing rapidly-evangelical schools grew 60 percent between 1990 and 2002-that alone would not be sufficient for me to predict any kind of sea change. Rather, it's where these graduates are going. As the academic rigor of religious colleges grows and they attract more and more of America's most talented and purposeful youth, these schools are able to send graduates into the highest levels of medicine, government, journalism, law, and business.

The initial signs of this cultural shift are everywhere. A Brigham Young graduate was elected governor of Massachusetts. House Speaker Dennis Hastert is an alumnus of the evangelical Wheaton College, which ranks 11th in the nation in the percentage of graduates who go on to receive Ph.D.s. Yeshiva University recently graduated its first Rhodes Scholar. The Ave Maria School of Law in Michigan just had a higher percentage of its graduates pass the bar than any other school in the state.

And the young graduates of religious colleges are determined to move to the centers of Blue America, changing the culture from within. Where secular America seems to have little interest in "flyover country," these young people feel it is part of their mission to bring, not just the religious message, but their ethical message to a secular culture they feel is, at best, drifting aimlessly.

WORLD: What are the most important two or three questions parents should ask before sending students to a religious college?

NSR: (1) Is faith an aspect of academic life, not just an extracurricular activity? Some religious colleges offer chapel or community-service groups but ultimately they see faith as either intellectually backward or too exclusive for a "diverse" college campus, and it is thus relegated to a secondary position on campus.

(2) What are the rules of the school? With the exception of Bob Jones University, all of the schools I visited were very forthcoming about what regulations they expected students to adhere to. Students and parents should know what they're getting into and want to adhere to the behavioral codes.

(3) What are the students' and the faculty's attitudes toward the secular world? A couple of the schools I visited made students so fearful of people who were not of their faith that I tend to doubt those students will have any effect on the rest of the culture. - Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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