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Christian Colleges are Losers in the Culture Wars
The tension between market and political purity
Early last month, my friend Bob Smietana — former editor of Religion News Service and author of the new book Reorganized Religion — reached out on social media in search of parents sending their kids to Christian colleges. While my kids are long past college age, I responded that I have both personal and research interests in the topic. He put me in touch with Kathryn Post, the reporter who was working on the story. I had a delightful conversation with Kathryn on the 9th while waiting to in the pickup line to get my granddaughter.
I mentioned in an earlier newsletter that the conversation was so energizing that I got out my shelved Fearless Christian University book project and reworked its entire structure. I’m writing on the days when I’m not putting out these newsletters.
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I’ve been waiting (rather impatiently) for Kathryn’s story to drop. Yesterday, my waiting came to an end. Here’s her story.
What I found particularly interesting about the story was its focus on parents who were unhappy with Culture War positions taken by many Christian Colleges. They are unhappy because they want the best possible education for their children within the context of a Christian community. They fear that the college’s political posture in terms of “Wokeness” or LGBTQIA+ inclusion or republican talking points would interfere with that desired education.
My contribution to the story, in addition to what I hope was useful background, was this:
John Hawthorne, a retired sociologist who studies religion, politics and higher education, predicts that as younger generations become less religious, prospective students will be more likely to avoid Christian colleges due to perceived political conservatism rather than perceived liberalism.
“There are not enough conservative parents out there to support all the conservative schools who want to show how conservative they are,” said Hawthorne. “Especially among Gen Z, smaller and smaller percentages every year are into those harder, more narrow, right-wing stances.”
I want to unpack those two paragraphs here (it’s my newsletter, after all). The history of Christian Higher Education shows the dominance of an oppositional stance to the rest of higher education and society as a whole. It is supported by the well-documented sense of perceived oppression against people of faith.Five years ago, the Public Religious Research Institute (PRRI) found that 57% of white evangelicals believed that there was a lot of discrimination against Christians compared to a third of all those surveyed.
Such a belief creates a defensiveness against the imagined threats. Christian colleges respond to the fears of the threats by attempting to create ironclad Worldviewsthat provide appropriate apologetics against the outsiders. Those Worldviews, while positioned as “Biblical defenses”, were still essentially fear-based. They argue that we cannot address certain topics because of what that might do to the superstructure that was created. An earlier book project of mine, abandoned a couple of years ago, had a chapter on how millennial evangelical memoirists who knew their Worldview very well found it crumbling in the face of lived experience in the larger world.
Where my project focused on millennials (born 1981 to 1995), the generation behind them has grown up in a very different world. As I’ve written before, today’s 18 year old freshman in Christian College was not alive on 9/11. She was ten when Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson and eleven when Obergefell was decided. She was twelve when Donald Trump was elected president. She was thirteen when the Harvey Weinstein case broke and fourteen when the Southern Baptist Church abuse patterns became news. And all of those events happened, not in some far away place reported on the evening news, but on the daily social media feeds that were ubiquitous in her life.
Not only that, but Gen Z is proving to be less religious than prior generations. My friend Ryan Burge showed today that just under a quarter attend church weekly. In another piece from 2021, he reported that only 22% of Gen Z define themselves as Protestants. Data from PRRI collected in 2016 found that only 8% of people 18-29 identified as White Evangelicals. It’s quite reasonable to assume that subsequent studies of Gen Z will show that white evangelical population shrinking rapidly.
These shifting demographics create real challenges for Christian Colleges even before we consider the Culture War fights. As these institutions have relied on a particular slice of the religious world from which to compete for students, the overall universe they draw from is shrinking. It’s why so many Christian institutions are engaged in department downsizingin response to those declining enrollments.
The declining enrollments create an incentive for schools to take a hard line on Culture War issues. Perhaps by being the “Least Woke”, they will attract a larger share of the shrinking Gen Z evangelical market.
But if I’m right about the lived experience of today’s Christian College students, veering to the right will alienate nearly as many students as it attracts. There may still be a vital market for the staunchly conservative schools with a national reputation like Grove City or Liberty or College of the Ozarks. They will dominate among students looking for Worldview certainty, leaving the also-rans struggling to be conservative enough to avoid complaints from pastors or denominational leaders but unwilling to moderate to capture a larger market.
My philosophy (as its developing in the new book) is that we must begin with students where they are and on the issues they are trying to make sense of. This will require more diversity of thought and more grace as we deal with that diversity.
As I’ve argued for years, this is a battle between The Market and The Worldview. If Christian Colleges cannot figure out how to manage the latter to support the former, the sheer realities of precarious college finance will solve the matter for them.
To be fair, the story does include a parent whose son moved from a private liberal arts institution to Liberty.
Sociologists Christian Smith nailed this 25 years ago when he subtitled his book on evangelicals “embattled and thriving”.
It’s interesting to me that those present at the early stages of the Worldview conversation, like former Union University philosopher (and later The Kings College president) Greg Thornbury have come to regret the introduction of the term.
The only Gen Zs represented in the PRRI data would be 18-20 year olds.
Through the euphemism of “academic prioritization”
I remain absolutely convinced that the Christian College with the courage to tackle the existing diversity in an open environment will be wildly successful financially. To date, nobody has taken my up on this.