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Campus Christians: not always at ease

All divergent views are accepted on campus - except Christianity, complain some who embrace the faith.

By Toni WeingartenContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / January 25, 2005

When Chris Gruener moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to begin graduate school, he looked forward to experiencing the region's renowned tolerance of all people and lifestyles.

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Mr. Gruener was raised in a devout Christian family near Seattle and attended a Baptist high school and a Christian college, where he studied business. His passion, however, was literature, and so he was excited to begin a master's program in English at Sonoma State University. But during his first semester, a classroom incident put a damper on Gruener's ardor.

While lecturing on James Joyce's rejection of the church, a professor drew two mountains with a valley between them on the chalkboard, explaining that Joyce's church believed one mountain was man and the other mountain was God.

Next he drew a cross in the valley, touching both peaks - a visual metaphor Gruener knew from childhood - and explained that this was Christ on the cross connecting man to God. Then the professor broke into peals of mocking laughter. The rest of the class joined in.

"My heart stopped," says Gruener. "If this were any other religion, the professor wouldn't get away with his remarks - it would be politically incorrect. But in the Bay Area, it is OK to laugh at Christianity and its God."

Today, on college campuses throughout the United States, great stress is placed on the importance of treating divergent views with sensitivity. And there are many religious students who say they appreciate the respect with which their beliefs are received.

Yet complaints like Gruener's are not uncommon and, ironically, they are sometimes heard at schools that particularly pride themselves on being open-minded and tolerant. Christians, from conservative to liberal, say that on a college campus they not infrequently experience overt disrespect - and sometimes even discrimination.

Liz Howlson, a senior majoring in American Cultures at the University of Michigan, is a member of the school's InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In a religion class she took, she says, "They talked all about how Christianity has ruined so many things, and I kind of felt embarrassed to be a Christian."

Tension between faith and academics is, of course, nothing new. But the role of religion at US colleges and universities - many of which were originally founded by churches - has become more complicated over the past several decades as most schools have become more secular.

Once upon a time, it was primarily non-Christians who expressed concerns about religious discrimination. They faced the challenge of keeping their traditions in a Christian-centric environment, where their belief systems could easily be misunderstood or overlooked, and where exams might be scheduled during holy days such as Judaism's Yom Kippur or activities planned during Muslim prayer periods.

But today, it is just as likely to be America's majority faith group - Christians - who complain of discrimination or plead for more tolerance on campus.

"There's no way for diverging views [in classes] to be disclosed in an intelligent way," says Nika Elguardo, a devout Christian who, last year, completed a master's degree at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. She found the professors there generally very respectful of her religious views. But the students, she says, were another matter.

At Harvard, Ms. Elguardo says, secular humanism is the mainstream view. "There are ways of thinking that went against mainstream views ... and students in class were shut down by others" when they expressed those views.

Ann Carter, a junior majoring in psychology at Sonoma State and a Christian active in her church, has also felt disrespected in class.

As a freshman, she took a "multiculturalism" class focused on debating topics as diverse as gun control, Hindu theology, and vegetarianism. Part of her grade rested on speaking up and sharing her views.

"I'd say God, and talk about Christ. People would laugh at me and [the professor] did nothing to stop it," says Ms. Carter. "But any other opinion at which students disagreed or laughed she'd stop the class and say, 'We need to be sensitive!' "

In a liberal stronghold like the Bay Area, Christians are often stereotyped, says the Rev. Adam Blons, a member of the University Religious Council at the University of California at Berkeley and head of that city's First Congregational Church. People are quick to assume that all Christians are humorless fundamentalists bent on converting others, he says. "I can confirm that it isn't easy to be 'out' as a Christian."

That experience is not limited to elite schools on the coasts.