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Religious upsurge brings culture clash to college campuses

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"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.

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"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."