A savvier breed of missionary student

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's possible that, by the next presidential election, graduates of America's more than 700 religious colleges will have begun to blur the much-ballyhooed demarcation between red states and blue.

She calls them "the missionary generation." And "God on the Quad" author Naomi Schaefer Riley believes that as these 1.3 million young people move into the secular world, many will gravitate toward big cities in blue states - New York, Boston, Los Angeles - where their influence may exceed their number.

In 2001 and 2002, while researching her book, Ms. Riley visited 20 schools, including the University of Notre Dame (Catholic) in Indiana, Yeshiva University (Jewish) in New York, and Soka University (Buddhist) in California.

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She was shocked that of all the people she met, only two tried to convert her.

"You get this idea that if you ... deal with seriously religious communities, they're going to look at you - a nice Jewish girl - as a sitting duck," Riley says over a bagel at the Tatnuck Bookseller here in her hometown.

One student at Brigham Young University in Utah quietly handed her an inscribed copy of the Book of Mormon.

At Bob Jones University, the fundamental Christian school in South Carolina, where Republican presidential nominees, including George W. Bush, have for years stopped to stump, the sell was a bit harder. Still, she says, it was a far cry from "hellfire and brimstone."

This movement, away from overt proselytizing and toward "leading by example," is one of the ways in which the new missionary generation stand apart from their parents. It's a savvy shift that Riley believes will serve them well in secular society.

Back in her hometown to speak at Holy Cross College, where her father is a political science professor, the author was also scheduled to read at the Tatnuck Bookseller later in the week.

At the entrance to Tatnuck Bookseller, housed in a former factory and now the largest independent bookstore in New England, pyramids of books crowd pieces of ancient machinery. "God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America" is stacked off to the left. Riley seems at ease here, in a spot that was once one of her high school haunts.

She says the students she encountered in her reporting were, for the most part, thoughtful and motivated, immersed in a rigorous and demanding education. Their teachers were qualified. And learning and faith were elevated in equal measure.

"There's a common idea that religion waters down the curriculum," says Riley, who admits she herself must have set out with this preconception.

But that's not what she found at schools such as Wheaton College (Christian Evangelical) in Illinois or at California's Roman Catholic Thomas Aquinas College.

Today, the faculty and administrators of religious colleges are intent on turning out "young professionals who will transform the broader secular culture from within," Riley writes in her book, published earlier this year. They are determined to place students in top professional and graduate schools - and to guide them as they deepen a faith they hope will inform all aspects of their lives, including their work.

Riley reports that even as total enrollment at religious colleges has remained level, attendance at the most intently religious, including many she visited, has soared in the past decade. Enrollment grew by 60 percent from 1990 to 2002 at the 105 dogmatically Christian US schools comprising the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities.

Some lesser-known and newer religious schools are struggling to prove themselves, weighed down by their sectarian affiliation. But others have been extremely successful in their mission.

Brigham Young sends an impressive number of graduates on to the Ivy League each year, Riley says, and counts Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts - a blue state - among its alumni. Ranked 11th of 925 liberal arts colleges in a 1994 study of students who pursued PhDs, Wheaton claims House Speaker Dennis Hastert - and US District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow, whose tragic loss of husband and mother has lately filled the news.

In a time of high-profile business scandals like the Enron and Tyco cases, Riley writes that "religious colleges and universities have a tremendous opportunity to provide hospitals, law firms, businesses, and political organizations with the kind of ethically aware professionals that they desperately need today."

Yet even after an election said to have been decided on values, and a president who speaks proudly of his conversion, many students Riley met shied away from "the idea of faith as just something that's in your gut." Instead, they and their teachers are intent on fostering "a solid intellectual grounding for their faith."

As these young people leave the fold - spreading from inland, rural states, whose residents are thought to be religious conservatives, to urban, coastal regions seen as populated by secular liberals - the blue tint on the political map may begin to skew toward purple, a blend of blue and red.

Riley says "the divide is being bridged because these people are perfectly comfortable in secular culture." Like all young people, the missionary generation wants "to move to where the action is."

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