CHAPEL HILL, N.C.- During the first week of the spring semester at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), teaching assistant Chad Seales asked students in an afternoon class what they knew about Jerry Falwell. After a brief pause, a young woman near the front of the classroom spoke up: "He's the guy that thought the Teletubbies were gay."
Other students in Seales' "Evangelical Traditions in America" class knew that Falwell was also the founder of the Moral Majority and Liberty University. By the end of the semester, they should know more about a slew of other American evangelicals. Seales told the class they would learn that not all evangelicals are alike: "They are actually diverse, and their beliefs and practices are many."
A serious look at evangelicalism could be helpful on a campus with a bookstore that prominently displays A Field Guide to Evangelicals and Their Habitat, a spoof manual that crassly lampoons evangelical beliefs and practices. Secular universities often don't have a reputation for taking Christianity seriously, but sociology professor Christian Smith hopes to change that at UNC with a new minor called "Christianity and Culture."
Smith talked about the program he helped craft on a winter afternoon while sipping a root beer in UNC's food court. Plenty of universities offer majors in religious studies and minors in Jewish or Islamic studies, Smith told WORLD, but he hasn't found another public university that offers a minor in Christianity and Culture: "How can you understand anything in the West without understanding Christianity?"
The minor recognizes Christianity's contributions across the cultural spectrum, packaging together courses the university has long offered. Students may choose from classes like Early Christian Art, English Literature of the Middle Ages, History of the Reformation, and Introduction to New Testament Literature. The program is neither "devotional nor antagonistic" toward Christianity, according to Smith.
Smith said establishing the minor at UNC helps establish the academic legitimacy of studying Christianity at secular colleges: "It basically says, Yes, Christianity exists and it's an important part of human life and human history. . . . It recognizes the elephant in the room." He hopes other universities will follow UNC's example.
But as the minor raises the profile of Christianity at UNC, it also raises questions for Christian students grappling with the content of religious courses at a secular school: How should Christians approach a program with courses that might directly conflict with their faith? Is it a dangerous or worthwhile exercise?
Smith grows earnest when asked these questions. He acknowledges that professors teaching in the minor range from "complete atheists to hopeful believers to mainline Protestants" but says Christian students will become "better citizens and better neighbors" if they understand what others believe. He adds that they might also become better Christians who better understand their own beliefs.
Smith's desire to develop the minor sprang from his discovery that many evangelical teenagers know little about Christianity. Smith, an Anglican who recently accepted a position at the University of Notre Dame, is the primary investigator on an expansive project called the National Study of Youth and Religion.
In the summer of 2003, Smith and 16 other researchers traveled to 45 states to conduct in-depth interviews with some 267 teenagers involved in the study. What Smith found shocked him: The majority of teenagers who identified themselves as evangelicals were "incredibly inarticulate" about their religious beliefs. "They were well-trained in the dangers of drunk driving and STDs," he said, but they fumbled on basic questions about Christianity.
Smith came back to Chapel Hill wanting to give students a way to systematically take courses that would fill in gaps about Christianity's impact on history and culture. He found an intriguing ally in Peter Kaufman, a religious studies professor who has taught at UNC since 1978. The pair convinced the administration to approve the minor last year.
On a recent Thursday evening, Kaufman bustled past student war protesters and into Jack Spratt's, a popular coffee shop across the street from campus. Wearing a plaid shirt and blue jeans, Kaufman removed his faded baseball cap and plopped down a pile of papers from his last class.
Over a tall coffee with whipped cream, Kaufman talked about his love for Christian history and Christian students. Kaufman grew up Jewish and is loosely affiliated with the Unitarian Church, but he is a vigorous defender of evangelicals: "They are among my brightest students."
Kaufman, who teaches Christian history courses, says evangelical students give him a glimpse of great Christians from the past: "They are my windows to Martin Luther. . . . They have an admirable faith that gives their life the kind of meaning I envy."
But while evangelicals "know their Bible better than me," Kaufman says they often have a weak grasp on history: "I want to help them build a bridge from their head to their heart." When Smith asked Kaufman to help craft the Christianity and Culture minor, he was eager.
Kaufman says he is well aware of the antipathy towards Christianity that exists at many secular universities, and he says UNC is not immune: "There is a Euro-phobia and a general antagonism towards Christianity in academia." He hopes the minor will create an environment in which Christianity is appreciated: "I'm interested in taking faith seriously instead of dismantling it."
Kaufman acknowledges that the content in religious studies courses at UNC is a mixed bag and concedes the risks for vulnerable students. "If your faith is strong, it's going to strengthen it," he says. "If you have doubts, it may capsize it. . . . But a more mature faith comes with risks."
Taking a class from Bart Ehrman, for example, could come with risks. Ehrman, a popular professor who teaches New Testament studies at UNC, recently authored Misquoting Jesus, a textual criticism of the New Testament that denies the Bible's inerrancy and casts doubts on Jesus' divinity. The book was a New York Times bestseller. Ehrman, a former evangelical who graduated from the Wheaton College, abandoned his Christian beliefs after studying at Princeton Theological Seminary.
"Sometimes Christian apologists say there are only three options to who Jesus was: a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord," Ehrman told an audience at UNC last year. "But there could be a fourth option-legend."
Ben Inman, UNC's campus minister for the evangelical Reformed University Fellowship (RUF), runs a parallel recitation to Ehrman's courses each semester, helping students sort through the class material from a traditional Christian perspective.
Inman graduated from UNC 20 years ago and studied under Kaufman, finding him "very encouraging and affirming of evangelicals." And while Inman is wary of religious studies classes at the university, he doesn't discount the value of Christian students learning about perspectives like Ehrman's.
"They need to be exposed to this and learn to interact with it because these are going to be some of the reigning assumptions about Christianity," Inman told WORLD. "This gives them a focused way to grapple with many things they need to grapple with to become more mature Christians."
Still, Inman says he counsels students to form a well-grounded, biblical worldview before taking such courses, and he tells some students: "You're not up for this." Inman says Christian students often aren't up for the challenges to their beliefs that inevitably arise at a secular university.
"Parents don't want their kids going away to college and getting drunk, pregnant, or Democratic," Inman says, but they're often not as concerned about their spiritual welfare. Parents and churches need to do a better job of preparing Christian children for the secular world, he says.
Christian Smith agrees and conceded that "particular Christians at a particular phase of life could be particularly vulnerable, and parents should be aware of that." But he points out that a secular university setting offers other challenges: "The stuff that's going to challenge their faith isn't just going to be in this minor."
As students filed out of Seales' "Evangelical Traditions in America" class, Drew Andrews, a junior from Dalton, Ga., said he signed up for the minor for its academic value. Andrews, an evangelical Christian who is active in RUF, says he knows the content of some classes will clash with his Christian beliefs but says he can handle it: "I'll filter it through what I know the Bible says. . . . I'm not going to let it affect my beliefs."
What's on the menu at your kid's college? Students attending both private and public institutions will likely be offered heaping helpings of leftist ideology ranging from anti-war and anti-white courses to those that give Karl Marx a second chance.
The conservative Young Americas Foundation (YAF) in December released its "Dirty Dozen," an annual list of "the worst of the worst" college courses, most of which proceed from the worldview that societal evil is the product of race, gender, and class discrimination. For example, Mount Holyoke students may enroll in "Whiteness," a class that purports to answer the questions, "What is whiteness?" "How is it related to racism?" and "How is whiteness enacted in everyday practice?"
Occidental College offers "Blackness," which examines such concepts as "critical blackness," "post-blackness," and an "unforgivable blackness," (all of which combine to produce a "feminist New Black Man"). Meanwhile, the Swarthmore College catalog lists "Nonviolent Responses to Terrorism," a course that holds up the nonviolent struggle of blacks against racism in the 1960s as a model for the current world struggle against Islamic suicide bombers.
YAF's Jason Mattera notes that liberal professors' fixation on equalizing human interaction by sublimating whites, males, and Christians has resulted in a knowledge vacuum. The Washington Post reports that only 31 percent of college grads could read and comprehend complex books, while The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that 40 percent of college students need remedial work in math and English.
Part of the problem may be post-secondary institutions' emphasis on titillation-as-education. For example, University of Pennsylvania students may take "Adultery Novel," a study of books and films that "place adultery into its aesthetic, social and cultural context" (bonus material: Marxist and feminist deconstructions of "family"). Hollins University offers "Drag: Theories of Transgenderism and Performance," while Occidental, a multiple offender, offers "The Phallus." The class covers "the lesbian phallus, the Jewish phallus, the Latino phallus, and the relation of the phallus and fetishism."
When WORLD published the results of YAF's "Dirty Dozen" in its online weblog (worldmagblog.com), several commenters pointed out that the value of a course is in the eye of the beholder, and that, in a free society, young adults should be able to study all subjects of interest, even those outside the mainstream. Mattera would agree, he said, if public universities were providing a balanced education. "That's not happening. The bizarre classes included in the 'Dirty Dozen' start out from a leftist assumption, whether it be affirming Marxism, homosexuality, or Ted Kennedy's talking points. There's not a thirst in the market place for studying 'Queer Musicology' or 'Sex, Rugs, Salt, & Coal.'"
Or for a course in "Stupidity." But Occidental offers one. The class is based on the premise that stupidity itself has been "dumbed down" by psychometric psychology and "has returned in the postmodern discourse against Nation, Self, and Truth and makes itself felt in political life ranging from the presidency to Beevis and Butthead."
And, apparently, in many college classrooms.