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Faithful and true?

Special Issue | WORLD kicks off a three-issue "Back to School" series with a panel of experts discussing the state of Christian colleges

Issue: "Katrina: Unnatural disaster," Sept. 10, 2005

She's bright, homeschooled, and devout. She is definitely college material. So her parents, having read about the relativism and debauchery of the nation's secular universities, send her to a Christian college.

After her parents finish hauling boxes into her dorm and drive away, she is thrilled at the chance to study with so many others who share her faith. By the first week of class, she already has made many Christian friends and has joined a good Bible study. Her classes, though, are confusing.

In her Introduction to Bible class, her professor explains that the Bible was written by many different authors over many centuries and so cannot be taken literally. The professor in her psych class, who calls herself a feminist, teaches that "homophobia," not homosexuality, is a mental illness. In English, she has to read a modern novel filled with profanity and graphic sex scenes. Her biology class teaches Darwinian evolution and makes fun of "creationists" who believe in Intelligent Design.

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When she asks her professors about the disconnect between what is going on in the classroom and the college's professed Christian identity, they tell her, "We are just trying to open your mind. That's what a college education is all about. Yes, we are Christians, but we have to challenge our incoming students' narrow fundamentalism in order to broaden their perspectives and make them well-educated." She marvels that these teachers don't seem to recognize that the ideologies they are so impressed with are far narrower than what the Bible teaches. After four years, she graduates, with an education that is little different from that of her friends who went to secular schools.

This scenario plays out over and over again, to the consternation of many students and their parents. As John Mark Reynolds, a professor and director of the honors program at Biola University, observes, "Many profs view their mission as helping poor, right-wing Christian children outgrow their parents' faith."

But not all professors and Christian colleges are like that. In a time when the postmodernist academy is jettisoning truth, reason, and the Western tradition, Christians-with a worldview well suited for education-have a dramatic opportunity to exert intellectual and cultural leadership. In many cases, Christian colleges do give their students a first-rate education, even as they contribute positively to the student's spiritual formation.

Certainly, the demand for what Christian colleges can offer is booming. Between 1990 and 2002, enrollment in the 100 evangelical schools that make up the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities rose by 60 percent.

So to kick off the new academic year, WORLD brought together a panel of distinguished veterans of Christian education: John H. White, president-emeritus of Geneva College; Samuel T. Logan, former president and now chancellor of Westminster Theological Seminary; and Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. As a Christian college English professor for just under 20 years, I also participated in the discussions. What follows represents our common general assessment of the state of Christian colleges.

Conservative Christians tend to value the colleges that were founded by their church bodies or that exist to transmit their particular intellectual and theological heritage. But sometimes those colleges promote theological ideas that undermine that heritage: "the openness of God" movement that denies God's omniscience and omnipotence, "new perspectives on Paul" that deny justification by faith, and feminist theology pushing for the ordination of women.

In The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches (1998), Catholic scholar James Burtchaell studies the history of religiously founded schools, documenting how time and again colleges founded in a specific theological tradition shift to generic Christianity, then to being "church-related," then to holding Christian "values" if not belief, until finally they are as secularized as any public university.

This process is already complete in most institutions founded by mainline Protestants-from Southern Methodist University to Princeton. Catholics held out a little longer, but a study by Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, in The Catholic World Report found that Catholic universities now make their students less Catholic. He found that 45 percent of incoming freshmen at the major Catholic universities believe that abortion should be legal; by the time they are seniors, 57 percent believe in abortion, contrary to church teaching. Fifty-five percent of freshmen believe in homosexual marriage; by the time they graduate, 71 percent do. Only 30 percent of freshmen approve of casual sex, but by the time they are seniors, 50 percent do.

Evangelical colleges tend to resist the tide, but not always. In 1988, sociologist James Davison Hunter, in his book Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, found a similar phenomenon in evangelical institutions. In a survey of students from nine members of the Christian College Consortium (Wheaton, Gordon, Westmont, Bethel, Houghton, Seattle-Pacific, George Fox, Taylor, and Messiah), he found that while 56 percent of incoming students scored high on his "religious orthodoxy" index, that number declined to 42 percent when the students were seniors.

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