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Religion In Higher Education: Recent Historical Trends And Today

May 9, 2007

The New York Times‘ Alan Finder recently wrote an article titled “Matters of Faith Find a New Prominence on Campus.” The piece surveys campus officials across the country to gain a sense of the growing religious interest in higher education, especially at schools not previously known for religious study or religious student bodies. What follows are some excerpts from the article and commentary:

– “Peter J. Gomes has been at Harvard University for 37 years, and says he remembers when religious people on campus felt under siege. To be seen as religious often meant being dismissed as not very bright, he said. No longer. At Harvard these days, said Professor Gomes, the university preacher, ‘There is probably more active religious life now than there has been in 100 years.’ “

TL: This says more about Harvard in particular and what has been generally termed the “Fourth Great Awakening” in the United States. This passage really doesn’t say much about higher education in general. If I’m remembering my history of higher education well, Harvard hasn’t been particularly Christian since after the Civil War. And if it wasn’t Christian in the context of U.S. culture, it consequently hasn’t been religious.

– “Across the country, on secular campuses as varied as Colgate University, the University of Wisconsin and the University of California, Berkeley, chaplains, professors and administrators say students are drawn to religion and spirituality with more fervor than at any time they can remember. More students are enrolling in religion courses, even majoring in religion; more are living in dormitories or houses where matters of faith and spirituality are a part of daily conversation; and discussion groups are being created for students to grapple with questions like what happens after death, dozens of university officials said in interviews.”

TL: This certainly correlates with my experience in higher education – at the University of Missouri-Columbia and Loyola University Chicago – over the past 15 years or so.

– “A survey on the spiritual lives of college students, the first of its kind, showed in 2004 that more than two-thirds of 112,000 freshmen surveyed said they prayed, and that almost 80 percent believed in God. Nearly half of the freshmen said they were seeking opportunities to grow spiritually, according to the survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.”

TL: Wow. These are astounding numbers. 2/3 praying, and 4/5 confessing belief in God. [Note: Here’s a link to the project at UCLA.]

– “Compared with 10 or 15 years ago, ‘there is a greater interest in religion on campus, both intellectually and spiritually,’ said Charles L. Cohen, a professor of history and religious studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who for a number of years ran an interdisciplinary major in religious studies. The program was created seven years ago and has 70 to 75 majors each year.”
– “University officials explained the surge of interest in religion as partly a result of the rise of the religious right in politics, which they said has made questions of faith more talked about generally. In addition, they said, the attacks of Sept. 11 underscored for many the influence of religion on world affairs. And an influx of evangelical students at secular universities, along with an increasing number of international students, means students arrive with a broader array of religious experiences.”

TL: Most recent history books I’ve read addressing the increased presence of religion in U.S. life, such as those by Patterson, Schulman, and Carroll, date the phenomena to the 1970s. Think Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth (1970, Zondervan). Since the 1970s, U.S. citizens have increasingly turned to religion for emotional support, self improvement, and for answers to non-material questions about living (i.e. ethics). Appearances in political rhetoric and the events of Sept. 11 only confirmed prior trends.

Side research question: Who are these “university officials”? Are they the UCLA team?

– “Professor Gomes (pronounced like “homes”) said a more diverse student body at Harvard had meant that ‘the place is more representative of mainstream America.’ ‘That provides a group of people who don’t leave their religion at home,’ he said.”

TL: Incorrect. It’s more a reflection that religion has permeated the upper class students able to gain entry into Harvard. As has been reported in a number of recent works (see here and here), the “increased diversity” of Harvard and other Ivy League students is a kind of fraud, at least in terms of economic class.

– “At Berkeley, a vast number of undergraduates are Asian-American, with many coming from observant Christian homes, said the Rev. Randy Bare, the Presbyterian campus pastor. ‘That’s new, and it’s a remarkable shift,’ Mr. Bare said. There are 50 to 60 Christian groups on campus, and student attendance at Catholic and Presbyterian churches near campus has picked up significantly, he said. On many other campuses, though, the renewed interest in faith and spirituality has not necessarily translated into increased attendance at religious services.”
– “The Rev. Lloyd Steffen, the chaplain at Lehigh University, is among those who think the war in Iraq has contributed to the interest in religion among students. ‘I suspect a lot of that has to do with uncertainty over the war,’ Mr. Steffen said. ‘My theory is that the baby boomers decided they weren’t going to impose their religious life on their children the way their parents imposed it on them,’ Mr. Steffen continued. ‘The idea was to let them come to it themselves. And then they get to campus and things happen; someone dies, a suicide occurs. Real issues arise for them, and they sometimes feel that they don’t have resources to deal with them. And sometimes they turn to religion and courses in religion.'”

TL: Rev. Steffen is on to something with his second point. I’ve seen this non-imposition phenomenon up close in my family.

– “Some sociologists who study religion are skeptical that students’ attitudes have changed significantly, citing a lack of data to compare current students with those of previous generations. But even some of those concerned about the data say something has shifted. ‘All I hear from everybody is yes, there is growing interest in religion and spirituality and an openness on college campuses,’ said Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame. ‘Everybody who is talking about it says something seems to be going on.’ “

TL: I can understand the sociologists’ concerns. But that has more to do with the research prejudices and inclinations of prior sociologists. Basically, the lack of historical data doesn’t matter: the phenomena is occurring.

– “David D. Burhans, who retired after 33 years as chaplain at the University of Richmond, said many students ‘are really exploring, they are really interested in trying things out, in attending one another’s services.’ Lesleigh Cushing, an assistant professor of religion and Jewish studies at Colgate, said: ‘I can fill basically any class on the Bible. I wasn’t expecting that.’ When Benjamin Wright, chairman of the department of religion studies at Lehigh, arrived 17 years ago, two students chose to major in religion. This year there are 18 religion majors, and there were 30 two and three years ago.”

TL: These anecdotal stories from emeriti and long-time professors pretty much say it all.

– “Presbyterian ministries at Berkeley and Wisconsin have built dormitories to offer spiritual services to students and encourage discussion among different faiths. The seven-story building on the Wisconsin campus, which will house 280 students, is to open in August. At Colgate, five Buddhist and Hindu students received permission to live in a new apartment complex on the edge of campus this year. They call their apartment Asian Spirituality House and they use it for meetings and occasional religious events.”

TL: This is a very interesting turn of events. It used to be the case that fraternities and sororities might’ve filled this void. Many of them have mottos and teachings that correspond with denominational Christianity. Perhaps we’ve found the new trend in fraternal-communal organizations? I doubt it. Those old-line fraternities and sororities will simply adopt to the current norm: post 1970s Evangelical Christianity (Billy Graham style).

There’s more in Finder’s article. Do check it out.


What does all this mean? Nothing, I believe, that we can’t already know. We’re in the middle of a Fourth Great Awakening, analogous to those three prior noteworthy events in the mid-eighteenth, early nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. As an historian with a more-than-mild interest in U.S. religion, it’s my lot to observe – to look for major trends and signs of the decline. Count these happenings in higher education as evidence of one of the Fourth Great Awakening’s major themes. – TL


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  1. Though I have yet to read his book, “Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform,” historian William G. McLoughlin cites the Fourth Great Awakening as having begun in 1960. Whereas other Awakenings last roughly thirty years, this one seems to have no sign of stopping after 47 years. Does anyone think that perhaps as historians we should avoid labeling periods as religious awakenings, implying some sort of cyclical history? I think it might be more accurate to simply avoid the social scientific tendency to label and state that religion, particularly Christianity, has had a continuous influence on American life. And, Tim, I don't think you should discount the force of Christian student organizations on campuses. From my perspective as an undergraduate at a large public university, it would be difficult to overestimate the extent to which these organizations fill voids to which fraternities and sororities don't necessarily speak.


  2. Thomas:

    Thanks for coming by.

    While I agree that Christianity's influence in the U.S. has been relatively continuous, it does experience periods of extraordinary fervor. Because of this the cyclical “awakening” trope seems most useful.

    I do fully agree, however, that this 4th awakening has been quite strong, perhaps the strongest yet. Yet I believe it too will diminish some, returning the country to its less fervent – if continuous – status of past years.

    I'd have to read McLoughlin's book to argue against it in a ~completely~ informed fashion, but my reading and study leads me to believe that Lindsey's book and the rise of televangelism give real evidence of the beginnings of this Evangelical-ly inspired period of awakening.

    If I were to go further back than the 1970s, I'd probably return to the rise of Billy Graham in the 1950s. Graham's influence in that period is covered in Whitfield's Culture of the Cold War and Patterson's Grand Expectations. But to me the 1960s were a lull period, at least in terms of the Evangelical character of this current awakening period and no matter the civic importance of the teachings and activism of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    – TL


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