Religious upsurge brings culture clash to college campuses

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's a rainy Thursday night, a few days before finals, and Northwestern University's campus is deserted. But students can hear the raucous music emanating from one old stone building long before they step inside.

"Blessed be Your glorious name!" sings a throng of 100-plus students, led by amped-up guitarists, a drummer, and backup singers on stage.

It would take more than rain or exams to keep them away from these Thursday nights of singing, praising God, and sharing their relationships with Jesus.

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Religion on campus - particularly evangelical groups like this one - is thriving these days, but it doesn't always find an easy home in the intellectual, secular world of higher education. For instance, Campus Crusade for Christ, which sponsors the Thursday gatherings, has butted heads with the administration here over a questionnaire on religious interest that the group gives to freshmen. Other schools are dropping the college chaplaincy, seeing it as an outdated tradition.

The notion of the university as developer of the whole person - the life of the spirit as well as the life of the mind - has faded since the days of mandatory chapel attendance. Even colleges with religious ties are often reluctant to step into the highly sensitive terrain of spirituality. But as students express more interest in questions of values and faith - and a frustration with how little those ideas are explored in the classroom - it's clear that college culture, at least for students, isn't quite as secular as some assume.

"Higher education is kind of founded on that maxim of 'Know thyself,' " says Jennifer Lindholm, director for a recent survey on spirituality at UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute (HERI). "It's nice to see that students are so ... interested in these intangible aspects of themselves."

The survey she directed is the first step in a multi-year study of spirituality in higher education. And its findings are surprising. Of 3,700 college juniors surveyed, 77 percent say they pray, 71 percent consider religion personally helpful, and 73 percent say religious or spiritual beliefs have helped develop their identity.

Fewer - just 55 percent - said they were satisfied with how their college experience provided "opportunities for religious/spiritual development," and 62 percent say their professors never encourage discussions of spiritual issues.

The survey is more a snapshot than a measure of change, but those on campuses say the trend is noticeable. "The pendulum continues to swing up," says the Rev. Alison Boden at the University of Chicago. "It was a very different scene in 1991."

Part of the interest may be simple curiosity, particularly among students who weren't raised with a lot of religion. "They start experimenting with everything from hair, to what they're going to major in, to not wanting to be a CPA like Dad," explains Ms. Boden. Other students, she says, crave religion's structure and guidance - a desire that often leads them to more conservative practices. Those who grew up as Reform Jews, for instance, might try Orthodox Judaism.

And then there are the Christian evangelical groups, like Campus Crusade and InterVarsity, which emphasize conservative Christian values and a personal relationship with God and Jesus - and which seem to be flourishing just about everywhere.

"God taught me more this quarter than I learned in any of my other classes," enthuses one young woman in a typical testimony at Northwestern.

"I was really encouraged to see there were so many believers," says Lauren Parnell, a cheerful freshman in a denim jacket and multicolored scarf, afterwards. "It wasn't what I was expecting."

That fundamentalist groups are thriving at schools known for intellectual vigor may be surprising, but the appeal goes beyond the tenets themselves: part of the draw, students say, is fellowship, opportunities to volunteer, even the lack of denominational ties or hierarchical structures.

"People are eager to look at the Bible and study it, and aren't offended that you're inviting them" to meetings, says Terry Erickson, InterVarsity's director of evangelism. "If you invite them to church, it's a different story."

Cameron Anderson, the group's director of graduate and faculty ministries, agrees: "Spirituality is in and religion is out."

It's a trend that helps groups like InterVarsity and Campus Crusade, which promote the idea of a personal relationship with God. When students here speak of God and their faith, it often sounds as if they're talking about a best friend; even public prayer is spoken in the second person.

But if students flock to evangelical groups, many are uncomfortable with the organizations. Evangelism, intolerance of homosexuality and other lifestyles, and the "our way is the only way" version of Christianity can be awkward fits in secular higher education, with its increasingly inclusive culture.

At the University of Chicago, the school was so nervous about an evangelical speaker that it called in the campus police. And a few years ago, Tufts University derecognized the local InterVarsity chapter - though the group was later reinstated - after a very public dispute when a lesbian student filed a discrimination charge against InterVarsity.

It's a tension that's led evangelical groups to complain that schools are tolerant of everyone but them. "They're supportive of 'religious diversity,' but not of Christian organizations," says Anna Studenny, a leader at Northwestern's Campus Crusade.

But those less tied to specific agendas acknowledge that finding a way to support religion without promoting it can be tricky. The HERI survey may show a desire for discussion, says Ms. Lindholm, but "I'd really think twice about my role in that context."

Still, some argue that professors can - and should - be more open to allowing their classes to encompass spiritual questions.

"Faculty are understandably reluctant - they don't want to indoctrinate students,'" says Larry Braskamp, a professor of higher education at Loyola University in Chicago. "But if faculty don't engage students in helping them develop their reasoning abilities, how are they going to learn?"

Recently, adds Mr. Braskamp, he's seen some evidence that the old idea of educating the whole student is returning, with a more modern appreciation for diverse beliefs and backgrounds.

"It's not a matter of indoctrination," he explains. "A person's growth in faith doesn't have to be anti-intellectual."

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