Liberal Education

Religion: A Comeback on Campus

Whither religion on American campuses at the advent of the twenty-first century? Through the 1980s and most of the 1990s the themes of loss and detachment dominated discussion about the role of religion in the American academy. Influential works detailed religion's waning purchase on the intellectual life (Marsden 1994; Reuben 1996; Sloan 1994; Schwehn 1993; Roberts and Turner 2000); others traced growing estrangement between colleges and churches (Burtchaell 1991; Burtchaell 1998, Cuninggim 1995); others reported how Catholic higher education had lost its religious bearings (Gleason 1995; Woodward 1993). Before such accounts of loss and detachment are cast in bronze, forever marking the end of an era and the triumph of secularism, another look at religion in higher education is warranted. A two-year study of religiously affiliated colleges, with a review of the literature on the current state of religion and higher education, charts a significant comeback for religion on campus during the last decade of the twentieth century.1

Given higher education's historic ties to religion, renewed interest in religion on campus marks a turn-around worth noting. It was, according to one of our interviewees, "really sort of stunning" given that the "issue wasn't even on the table ten years ago." Indeed, to the extent that people were talking about religion a decade ago, they were discussing, even lamenting, its apparent disappearance. This once-powerful animating dynamism and organizing force in the world of higher education had been pushed to the very margins of the academic enterprise during the twentieth century. Even in church-related colleges, many wondered whether denominational affiliation signified anything of substance. By all accounts, religion in the American academy had fallen to the secular juggernaut in the twentieth century.

But religion ultimately refused to decamp from the academy, insisting on a place in the world of advanced learning and scholarship. It rallied on campus during the 1990s, as evidenced by increased voluntary religious activity, renewed attention to church-college relations, and growing numbers of scholars looking for ways to integrate their religious and spiritual beliefs into their work in the academy. In tandem these trends have secured for religion a more substantive place in higher education, where it serves as both inspiration and resource, personally and corporately. In this article we describe this revival of religion, point to possible causes, and identify challenges and tensions raised in both religiously affiliated colleges and the academy at large.

Growth of interest
Never completely banished from campus life, voluntary religious activity surged in recent years. Evangelical groups made a particularly strong showing. In five years, membership in Campus Crusade for Christ nearly doubled, increasing from 20,000 members in 1995-96 to 39,000 today (Campus Crusade 2001). InterVarsity Christian Fellowship now reaches 35,000 students and faculty members on more than 560 campuses, while the Fellowship of Christian Athletes runs over 7,700 small group "huddles" at high schools and colleges with over 500,000 participants (IVCF 2001; FCA 2001).

Beyond the orbit of evangelical Christianity, a new religious pluralism is transforming student religious life. Recognizing the changing face of the American religious landscape, schools like Mount Holyoke and M.I.T. have built "multifaith chapels" for remarkably diverse student bodies (McMurtrie 1999, A48). Along the same lines, a 1998 conference on religious diversity at Wellesley College drew 800 faculty, staff, and administrators (including twenty-eight college presidents), where participants took part in programs on classical Indian dance, Tibetan Buddhism, and the spirituality of jazz. According to University of Massachusetts-Amherst Chancellor David Scott, the upsurge of spirituality on campus constitutes a "powerful movement" in American higher education (University of Massachusetts News Office 2000).

Meanwhile, growing numbers of students had recourse to religious colleges and universities, with enrollments in church-affiliated higher education growing more quickly than in secular higher education. After decades of losing ground, the market share of religious institutions rose from 8.3 percent of students in 1980 to 10 percent in 1998, with a total enrollment of 1,485,481 (National Center for Education Statistics 2000). Evangelical colleges made the strongest gains: Between 1990 and 1998 their enrollments soared by 24 percent, while enrollments at other institutions grew by less than 5 percent (Reisberg 1994).

In a similar vein, relations between colleges and their sponsoring denominations and bodies are beginning to warm after decades of attenuation (Cuninggim 1995; McMurtrie 2000). Reflecting this heightened attention to religious identity and heritage, most of the major denominational college associations (e.g., the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities and the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities) have inaugurated projects on mission and identity, such as the Presbyterian Academy of Scholars and Teachers, the Vocation of the Lutheran College, and the magazine Conversations on Jesuit Higher Education.

On individual campuses, dozens of Protestant and Catholic institutions have penned new mission statements, putting in writing religious commitments once taken for granted or occasionally ignored. In the past fifteen years over 150 centers and institutes dedicated to religion sprang up. Hoping to deepen students' understanding of the Catholic faith, more than 10 percent of the nation's 230 Catholic colleges and universities have established Catholic Studies programs. Under the auspices of Lilly Endowment's religion and higher education initiative, over 1,200 faculty and staff working in 177 religiously affiliated institutions participated in programs designed to deepen a sense of commitment to the project of Christian higher education. In our survey of participants in Lilly-funded programs, 58 percent reported "more discussion of religion" on their campuses than a decade ago.

Faculty participation in such programs signals a blurring of the boundaries, once sharply demarcated, between the worlds of faith and knowledge. Increasing numbers of faculty seek ways to integrate their religious beliefs with their academic work. According to our survey, 60 percent perceive a "growing openness toward religious perspectives in American higher education." Over the past two decades, these religiously and spiritually committed scholars have swelled the ranks of forty scholarly and professional associations with a religious focus, ranging from the Christians in Political Science to the Association for Religion and Intellectual Life. Membership in the Society of Christian Philosophers has grown to represent 12 percent of the discipline, while the philosophy of religion has enjoyed an intellectual renaissance (Morris 1994).

Across the disciplines, religion is gaining ground, both as an object of study and, epistemologically, as a way of knowing. While political scientists have been busy "rediscovering the religious factor in American politics," other social scientists have paid more attention to the "faith factor" in American society (Leege and Kellstedt 1993; Miller 1999). During the same period, American religious history has moved from the margins into the "mainstream of historical research," largely because of the efforts of religiously committed scholars (Stout and Taylor 1997, 15). In a recent book, sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke (2000, 15) argue that "the most important factor in creating a truly scientific study of religion was the growing participation in it of persons of faith." Finally, reports Huston Smith (2001, 72-73), the relationship between religion and science has shifted from "warfare to dialogue," as evidenced by the creation of "ten centers devoted to the study of science and religion" and "several hundred courses."

Causes of revival
Given that commentators had all but written off religion in the academy in the 1980s, what accounts for the religious and spiritual vitality of higher education at the advent of the twenty-first century? In large measure the answer lies in the robust state of public religion in American society. Society is, according to sociologist Jose Casanova, "witnessing the 'deprivatization' of religion," as "religious traditions throughout the world are refusing to accept the marginal and privatized role which theories of modernity as well as theories of secularization had reserved for them" (Casanova 2000, 5).

Religion burst onto the U.S. political scene in the late twentieth century, insisting on a voice in the nation's political affairs; by the 2000 presidential campaign, faith-based initiatives had become an everyday part of the national conversation. Simultaneously a "spiritual revival is sweeping across Corporate America," with companies large and small coming to recognize the importance of spirituality in the workplace (Conlin 1999, 150). So, too, with journalism, where a recent study found that "the amount of religion coverage rose to new heights in the 1990s" (Center for Media and Public Affairs 1999). Likewise, religious book publishing has become a multi-billion dollar business, fueled by the "quest culture" of America's baby boomers (Roof 1999).

Driven in large part by the public resurgence of the sacred, religion's academic comeback has also been aided by an epistemological revolution in higher education. For the faculty, the rise of post-modern, post-positivist, feminist, and minority-group scholarship has called into question the ideals of objectivity and value-free scholarship. In "nearly every discipline," write historians Joel Carpenter and Kenneth Shipps (1987, xiii), scholars have acknowledged "that pretheoretical commitments and philosophical assumptions about the nature of reality shape their thought and research." Recognizing these developments, religious scholars "are asserting--alongside others whose scholarship had been marginalized for allegedly lacking objectivity--that they too are entitled to a hearing in academic forums."

Finally, in the 1990s religion in the academy found a powerful ally in philanthropy, with Lilly Endowment, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the John Templeton Foundation and other charitable groups spending tens of millions shoring up Christian higher education and fostering religious scholarship. A red-hot stock market created new wealth that helped underwrite the revitalization of religion on campus, as donors and foundations funded research, faculty development, student programs, centers, institutes, and new universities, all with an eye toward strengthening religion's place in the academy.

Many have welcomed the return of religion to campus (Wolfe 1997), but not all (Hollinger 2001; Rorty 1994). Some dismiss religion with claims that its non-empirical nature vitiates a warrant on the intellectual life of the academy. Others are concerned that colleges and universities seeking to strengthen their religious identity will do so at the expense of academic excellence and intellectual honesty. Even those sympathetic to religion in the academy admit to challenges. Religious pluralism is considered a valuable cultural and intellectual resource in virtually every academic community, yet it has been occasion for identity-politics skirmishes, for example, those pitting the interests of gay and lesbians students against those of evangelicals.

For church-related colleges, religious pluralism creates specific challenges. In a college tied to a particular religious tradition, are all ideas and all people welcome? How can a college honor and express its denominational commitments in a way that does not exclude? Conversely, can it muster sufficient resources to convincingly express a denominational relationship? Though many faculty and staff support the religious mission of the institutions in which they work, not a few wonder whether they are possessed of a deep understanding of the sponsoring denomination or the Christian intellectual tradition in general.

These criticisms, tensions, and challenges notwithstanding, religion staged a comeback on campus. Significantly, it was not achieved by fiat, but from the bottom up. Students arrived on campus spiritually hungry, looking for ways to deepen and express their religious and spiritual commitments (Cherry, et al. 2001). The proliferation of courses, programs, and institutes built upon requisite faculty support and interest. Discounting neither the importance of senior leadership and outside resources, nor religion's academic critics, the revitalization of religion has been, in large measure, a grass-roots movement, suggesting that it might have some staying power.

Claiming its place
At mid-century, conventional wisdom held that society would become less beholden to religion as it became more enamored of modernity, but conventional wisdom missed the mark. In the face of all-things-modern and in the modern academy, religion proved more tenacious than predicted or reported. The winds of secularism did indeed buffet religion in American higher education during the twentieth century, leading some to conclude that the light of faith that burned in the halls of academia since the Middle Ages had finally expired. The evidence suggests otherwise. As the twentieth century closed and the twenty-first opened, religion laid claim to a larger place in the public square of American intellectual life.


Kathleen A. Mahoney is senior vice president at the Humanitas Foundation. At the time of the study, she was assistant professor of education at Boston College. John Schmalzbauer is E.B.Williams fellow and assistant professor of sociology at the College of the Holy Cross. James Youniss is the Wylma R. Curtin & James R. Curtin professor of psychology at the Life Cycle Institute at Catholic University of America.



1. In 1998, Lilly Endowment commissioned the authors to conduct a major external evaluation of its funding in the area of religion and higher education during the 1990s. "Revitalizing Religion in the Academy" is available at


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