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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Soaping the slippery slope

Back to School | Two books document the decline of once-Christian colleges into bastions of unbelief

Issue: "School choice," Aug. 25, 2012

What happened to so many once-Christian colleges in the United States? Two fine books describe the decline. George Marsden's 462-page The Soul of the American University shows how once-Protestant universities became secular look-alikes. James Burtchaell's The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches uses 868 pages to show not only how schools moved from liberal theism to secularism but how, before that, they moved from theologically conservative to liberal stances.

I'll try to give the high points of 1,330 pages in fewer than 1,330 words: Three central messages are (1) Follow the money, (2) Watch the college president, (3) See what the college does with Darwin.

Follow the money: Andrew Carnegie, antagonistic toward Christianity, established in 1905 the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which the following year began giving matching grants to fund the retirement of professors-but it excluded colleges and universities under denominational control. During the first four years of Carnegie grant-making, 20 schools changed their boards, statement of faith requirements, or hiring requirements so as to get Carnegie money for professors who might otherwise fall into poverty.

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For example, Beloit College quickly sent Carnegie a message that suggested the board's resolve to have trustees from any denomination or no denomination. In the 1920s the trustees selected as Beloit's new president Irving Maurer, who said in one talk, "What does God mean to me? He means doing my duty, being good, allying myself with the right things." Maurer decried "the doctrine of the Virgin birth" and said, "I believe in the divinity of Jesus because I believe in the divinity of man. I believe that man and Christ have the moral characteristics of God."

Occasionally college leaders pushed back. Syracuse University chancellor James Day defended his Methodist school in 1910 and said, "Other colleges may do as they please. If they wish to crawl in the dirt for such a price, that is their privilege. But no university can teach young people lofty ideals of manhood and forget itself respect and honor, or sell its loyalty and faith for money that Judas flung away when in remorse he went out and hung himself. It is an insult for such a proposition to be made to a Christian institution." Most colleges, Carnegie found out, welcomed such insult-and Syracuse eventually succumbed to other blandishments.

The love of money was the root of all kinds of evil. New presidents loved to find new money sources but often in the process abandoned a biblical focus-because no money came without strings of some sort. Burtchaell shows how the Lafayette College board with its Presbyterian trustees, "terrified of a sudden insolvency," hired a president who objected, "as all right-minded people do, to being thought sectarian." Boards at Millsaps, Davidson, and Wake Forest moved away from denominational influence upon receiving "a sudden, large benefaction."

Watch the college president. Burtchaell shows that many college presidents cared more about respectability in the eyes of materialists than they did about Christ. These presidents were "attractive, and trusted," but at critical moments they helped their colleges gain money and students by abandoning the original Christian mission. Some were not even conscious of what they were doing: "All change was supposed to be gain, without a sense of loss." But losses there were: In college after college "the critical turn away from Christian accountability was taken under the clear initiative of a single president."

Marsden shows how decade by decade, college after college, presidents led trustees in making small accommodations, often with little understanding of the ultimate import of such moves. Boards of trustees assumed that Christian principles and objectives, often encrusted like fossils in mission statements, were still operative, but in practice they were increasingly marginalized.

Burtchaell shows how the presidents often got their way because the colleges were tired of being poor and often tired of "doctrinal preoccupations that spoiled the religious, devotional, and behavioral commonplaces which the modernists took as cultural lozenges." For example, James Kirkland, who became chancellor of Vanderbilt in 1893, spoke less about the Bible and more about the "'upbuilding of Christ's kingdom,' a phrase that could encompass everything constructive in modern civilization." Kirkland spent 20 years reducing the role of Southern Methodist leaders on his board of trustees.

The largest Northern Methodist university, Northwestern, dismissed in 1902 an English professor who attacked biblical inerrancy in a local newspaper. The firing brought some negative national publicity, and Northwestern's new president told its board in 1908 that Northwestern should offend neither "the denomination which gave it birth or the great community which is becoming interested in it without respect to denominational considerations." No school can serve two masters, and Northwestern was soon playing to the "great community."

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