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Classroom Christianity

Education | A unique minor in Christianity and culture highlights the challenges and opportunities for Christian students at secular universities

Issue: "Faith-based campaigning," Jan. 27, 2007

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."

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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."

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