Saturday, August 19, 2006

Reading General Opposition as an Ideology

The American Family Association published an article detailing the findings of a recent study, claiming that, depending upon the type of college or university attended, up to 51% of freshmen who identify as born-again Christians will cease to identify as such four years later at graduation.

While questioning the reasons for such a decline in religious affiliation among college students is certainly an apt activity for the religous-minded members of our society, the AFA makes the mistake of framing the decline as a battle between competing ideologies. The AFA points to the spectre of "liberalism" on college campuses, claiming that ideological indoctrination and curbs on free expression are to largely to blame, citing cases from several university campuses. In the end, the article places religious faith on one side of the debate, with an amalgamation of secular atheism and so-called "liberalism" diametrically opposed, creating a patently false dichotomy.

From the article:

With memories of high school graduation still fresh on their minds, millions of parents will send their children off to college in the coming weeks. For parents, the time is a bitter-sweet milestone. For students, it marks the beginning of a quest for freedom.

But what students and parents don’t realize is that today’s campuses are functioning as an indoctrination into the realm of liberalism. As early as the 1790s, Yale college students were openly disavowing Christ. Despite periods of revival, the denial of Christian beliefs and the acceptance of secularism have persisted and gained strength through the years.

Though the AFA and the article's author might believe otherwise, secularism and a disavowal of the divinity of Christ are not one and the same. The problem lies greatly with individual preferences for the line between the public and private spheres, defined in this instance as the simple difference between behavior when acting as a private individual and behavior when acting in some sort of official capacity, respectively. While many born-gain Christians may regard a delineation between religion and everyday life as antithetical to their beliefs, such a notion is certainly not universal. The AFA treats clashes between such competing notions of public and private behavior as evidence of a sort of persecution of Christians on campuses, and points to the case of Noah Riner as evidence of such problems:

Budziszewski’s claims ring true for Noah Riner, who was the 2005-2006 student body president at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire – a college founded in 1769 to provide Native Americans with a Christian-based education.

Riner delivered the university’s convocation speech last fall. In it, he named Jesus as the solution to flawed humanity and as the ultimate example of character based on His sacrificial love. Riner intended to challenge students to think about what kind of people they would become.

Using a personal story to illustrate a concept for a speech is certainly popular and effective, but it is here that Riner crossed the lines between speech acceptable in a private capcity and speech acceptable in a public capacity. Mentioning personal faith can be a tricky subject, but depending upon the context personal beliefs are quite acceptable for a speech. Unfortunately, Riner decided to blunder straight into a minefield.

“So in talking about that I couldn’t help but talk about Christ. … [and] living for Him and knowing what our purpose as humans is,” he explained. “[After all], what is the purpose of education, if not to use it for Him?”

Bingo. By deciding to not only mention his personal faith, but also use the podium to explain his belief that education is only useful in service to his particular brand of faith, Riner crossed the line between spheres. Riner should have been aware that he wasn't preaching to the faithful crowd at his hometown church, but to a group of people with many different religious preferences, many of whom might take offense at his use of the convocation and his position as student body president to evangelize to the crowd. While Dartmouth might have been founded to evangelize to the native inhabitants of New England, as an Ivy League institution the school is bound to attract students and faculty from all areas of society and virtually all religions.

And his reaction the fallout:

“I definitely knew that a lot of people would disagree with me in terms of calling Jesus the best example of character and also claiming Him as Savior,” Riner admitted. “I didn’t anticipate the reaction being … as passionately opposed to me as it was, though.

“[I]t was hard [for people] to believe that somebody, some educated, intelligent person believed in God, believed in Jesus Christ and was willing to talk about it,” he explained. “I think it represents [that] a lot of people haven’t heard the Gospel – even in our country.”

Riner's explanation shows the how he sees the debate. On one hand sits Riner, who only attempted to speak about his beliefs, and on the other hand sits the university crowd, who so obviously questions his intelligence for having any religious beliefs at all, much less for his willingness to speak openly about them. Given that the article fails to dispute Riner's viewpoint and presses forward with the case for a persistant bias against Christianity, one could quite easily conclude that the AFA and the author of the article must agree on some level.

And his reason for attending Dartmouth:

The need for evangelism in addition to the school’s superior academic reputation is the reason this Kentucky-raised, Baptist-bred home schooler attended Dartmouth – a campus where religion is not taken seriously and where humanism is perceived as the predominant worldview.

“[I] just believed that I could make a difference there,” Riner said. “I think that … our calling that Jesus has mandated is to go into all the world and preach the Gospel. So I think it’s pretty sad when Christians abandon entire areas of our culture, and … I think it’s pretty dangerous to let bad ideas go unchallenged.”

Riner selected Dartmouth because he felt an evangelizing presence was needed on the campus, as required by his personal beliefs. In and of itself, that desire is perfectly acceptable. Dartmouth would have no problem with anyone who peaceably attempts to spread religious beliefs, as would virtually any other institution of higher learning in the United States. When Riner decided to further his goals using the school's podium during a school event, and using his elected position as president, however, he found himself at odds with the Dartmouth community, a community which he knew to hold opinions different than his own. At the end of the day, he and the AFA put the opposition down to some sort of ideological hatred of religion, rather than attributing the outcry against his speech as anger over crossed community standards.

That is not to say that college and university campuses are not bastions of factions normally associated with the generic American Left. All stripes of the left half of the American political spectrum are still thriving in the halls of academia, from various brands of Marxism and Socialism to the numerous groups that make up the Democratic Party. Such vitality, however, doesn't translate into indoctrination, much less a hatred for all things religious. To say that religion is dead in the American left is to ignore large voting blocs who have historically voted for so-called liberal candidates and political positions.

While the AFA has every right to wonder about the decline in religious beliefs among born-again Christian students, looking at the issue as a battle between religion and "liberalism" is not only a waste of time, but a detriment to any person attempting to understand the issue at all.

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