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The secularization of campus religion


Guest post by Carol M. Swain, Professor of Political Science and of Law at Vanderbilt University

Colleges and universities pride themselves as being vanguards of pluralism.  Nevertheless, in the past decade, more and more institutions have been quietly, but systematically, restricting freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly under the guise of non-discrimination.

The Supreme Court has only added to the confusion.  In a 5-4 decision, the Court allowed a public law school to require all student groups to accept any and all student-comers, not just for membership, but for leadership positions, regardless of whether the students agreed with the groups' goals and purposes; however, the Court carefully pointed out that the policy applied to all groups, not just religious groups.  Nevertheless the impetus and target for these policies is always religious groups, in particular, orthodox-believing Christian groups. A few of the universities who have already been embroiled in this challenge include Tufts, Hastings Law, Southern Illinois, Arizona State, Montana Law School, Miami University, San Diego State, Rutgers, and the University of North Carolina.

Vanderbilt University is seeking to lead the latest of these challenges. It has removed from its anti-discrimination policy language that would protect religious groups and it has gone so far as to challenge the practice of having leaders of Christian organizations lead Bible studies.  In a letter to the President of the Christian Legal Society, the acting director of religious life explains that requiring leaders to lead Bible Studies “would seem to indicate that officers are expected to hold certain beliefs.” What an idea!  The president of The Democratic Club does not need to know, believe, and promote the principles of the Party?

Carried to its logical extension, the policy means that no organization can maintain integrity of beliefs.  Christians can seek to lead Muslim organizations, Muslims can seek to lead Jewish ones, and Wiccans can lead Catholic fellowships.  The policy now allows for, and is most likely designed to encourage negative activism where students holding views antithetical to an organization use Alinsky-esque techniques of deception, infiltration and manipulation to assume leadership positions in organizations they seek to destroy from the inside.

Mary Poplin, Professor of Education at Claremont Graduate University and author of a new manuscript titled Is Reality Secular: What if Christianity is True, argues that this is one more step in the West’s long march to secularize the world.  Not content with secularizing public life, they have now turned to religious organizations themselves.  These efforts are intended to dilute the beliefs of the religiously minded. Nevertheless, young people are defying the secular trend. The Astins’ annual college survey suggests today’s college students are more committed than ever to pursuing spirituality.

The Obama administration has supported secularization in multiple ways from rescinding aspects of the freedom of conscience to requiring faith based initiatives become multi-faith efforts. This past spring, The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge was sent to thousands of college presidents urging them to create interfaith service projects designed to “build understanding between different communities.” Mark Eddington of Harvard suggests that the campus chapel become an “interfaith laboratory.”

The Obama Administration seemingly believes an unproven but commonly held assumption that it is faith communities that are divisive when in fact, faith communities often fare better together than with secular ones. Filling the campus chapel with interfaith dialogue and projects supports the secular agenda by keeping religious dialogue at the lowest common denominator.

Interfaith work is not new to believing communities and their efforts have never needed secularist prompting. However, interfaith work projects cannot substitute for religious groups on campus because they do not help religious people study and practice their own beliefs.

Clearly, we are witnessing the death of ideological pluralism on campus. The carefully orchestrated assault on religious organizations on college and university campuses contradicts our Constitutional freedoms and it works against the interests of God-fearing students, staff, and faculty.  We must never forget that many of our elite educational institutions, including Harvard, Princeton, and Vanderbilt Universities were started by great men of faith who would turn over in their grave if they could see the march of secular humanism and the advance of atheism at the institutions they founded.

Carol M. Swain is Professor of Political Science and of Law at Vanderbilt University. Her most recent book is Be the People: a Call to Reclaim America’s Faith and Promise. E-mail: carol.swain@vanderbilt.edu, Website: www.carolmswain.net, Twitter: carolmswain

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