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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Fall 2002, Vol. 29 No. 2

Maintaining a Christian Institutional Identity While Embracing Religious Diversity

Dara Wakefield

A great number of private colleges and universities in the United States are the products of the Piety Movement and the Great Awakening during the mid 1700s.1  A review of the histories of the nationís colleges and universities reveals that Christian ministers and missionaries had a tremendous influence on higher education in the United States. Over 70% of U.S. News and World Reportís top 50 national liberal arts colleges have early connections with Christianity.2  To varying degrees, these colleges have had to reconcile their Christian roots to an increasingly pluralistic, diverse and disbelieving society.

Colleges with Christian traditions may face increasing tensions if they adhere to doctrinal mission statements while embracing religious diversity. A review of the websites of U. S. News and World Reportís top 50 liberal arts colleges reveals that all have religious diversity statements. Colleges with Christian ties have historically supported religious and intellectual freedom in higher education. These same colleges now struggle with interpreting their Christian traditions in a culture dominated by religious diversity and skepticism. Many have chosen to exit the struggle, secularize and relegate their Christian heritage to historical footnotes. "Keeping the faith" is increasingly unpopular in the culture of academia. Those with sincerely held religious beliefs in secularized schools hope for the tolerance accorded atheists and agnostics.

Nel Noddings, in Dialogue between Believers and Unbelievers, suggests believers and unbelievers may unite intellectually and even grow together, yet the idealism of faith communities and the realism of intellectual communities often generate friction while traveling down the same road. Christianityís mandate to confront and transform culture is surely at the heart of interfaith conflict.5  The Judeo-Christian tradition teaches social responsibility, condemnation of immorality, and cultural transformation.

If a significant portion of a collegeís student body embraces the notion of Christianity as a cultural transformer, transformation strategies become important to the college. Daniel Schipani encourages Christians to be "bilingual," having the ability to communicate without offending one another and in a culture of disbelief. Those who choose to question the cultural status quo should do so in a way that allows them to continue to live well and rightly among those with other convictions.

[Fall 2002 Issue Contents]