The Christian University in Trump’s America

The Christian university has a unique ability to explore deep questions that is not possible in today’s polarized and value-free secular university. The support of Christians for President Trump, however, risks marginalizing the Christian voice in the public sphere by affiliating the faith with a polarizing political figure. Instead, the Christian university should provide the intellectual diversity and vigorous debate that is often lacking at secular institutions. This means serving as a true marketplace of ideas and reaffirming the importance of a religious voice in the public square.

The Christian University and the Search for Truth

Over 20 years ago, Richard John Neuhaus argued that the Christian University attempts to articulate a “comprehensive account of reality” and to investigate “the hard questions about what it all means.” Secular institutions have largely absconded from this role. Yet the current political environment of polarized politics, concerns over “fake news”, and growing inequality calls for asking the hard questions about the status of the American polity. Therefore, the Christian University is more vitally needed today than ever.

The heart of the Christian University is the conviction that faith and truth are ultimately compatible. The faith that animates the Christian University declares that the truth is not only real, but seeks to be known and to know us. Truth in the Christian perspective is not merely objective- existing “out there” and beyond us- nor is it subjective, existing only within ourselves. Rather, truth is relational and interpersonal, rooted in Christ and His declaration that He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (KJV John 14:6).

This vision of truth is at odds with the convictions that have come to dominate on the secular campus. Many universities have seemingly chosen social justice as their overriding goal or telos rather than pursuing truth, as argued by Jonathan Haidt.  There is also a startling lack of intellectual diversity among faculty at secular institutions. Samuel J. Adams at Sarah Lawrence College finds that liberals outnumber conservatives across all universities by a ratio of 6 to 1, while another study shows the ratio increasing to 11.5 to 1 in the social sciences and 33.5 to 1 in history. The changing telos of the secular university mixed with the lack of intellectual diversity means that pursuing the “hard questions about what it all means” has become even more difficult.

Can the Christian University provide the intellectual service of asking the hard questions that secular institutions can or will not? I believe so, yet the lack of political diversity within American Christianity may undermine the credibility of its prophetic witness.

An Echo Chamber for Conservative Politics

The most recent election illustrates the challenge. During the 2016 election, now-President Trump received an over-whelming level of support from evangelical Christians. Influential Christian leaders such as Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University and Dr. Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church in Dallas were staunch supporters of President Trump, and this support paid off among Christians: Exit polls analyzed by the Pew Research Center showed that 81% of white evangelical Christians and 60% of white Catholics voted for Trump. Indeed, the support of evangelical Christians and Catholics were pivotal for Trump’s electoral success.

In many ways, the support for Trump is consistent with trends in American Christianity that reach back to the formation of the Moral Majority in the 1970s. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 and George W. Bush after the 2000 election brought not only evangelical Christians to power, but evangelical conservatives, who now had sympathetic presidents to whom they could voice policy demands. After eight years of living in the proverbial political wilderness under President Barack Obama, evangelical conservatives were likely to back any Republican candidate who could credibly promise to pursue policies that they favored.

Many of the Trump administration’s policies are attractive to conservative-leaning Christians, including:  The appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, the selection of Mike Pence as vice president, the recent executive orders on reducing limits on political speech by churches, repealing of the Obama administration executive orders on transgender bathrooms, and the possibility of rolling back the limits on due process rights for those accused of sexual assault in the university.

Other policies positions by the Trump administration are more challenging for evangelical Christians and Catholics to support. Trump’s particular brand of nationalism is possibly idolatrous, as noted by Stanley Hauerwas. His (stalled) executive orders on refugees and immigration have been condemned by many religious organizations, including the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Even if many of the policy choices of the current administration are popular with conservative Christians, the affiliation of the faith with Trump may water down its prophetic witness. Divisive policy announcements, such as the recent effort to ban transgender troops from serving in the military, have been interpreted as concessions made to boost support among conservative Christians, implying that the faith is willing to marginalize and ostracize the most vulnerable groups in society. The image of Christianity that threatens to emerge from this affiliation is strikingly similar to the image of the secular university painted above: Lacking intellectual and political diversity. Affiliation with Trump's policies may water down prophetic witness. Click To Tweet

How the Christian University Can Be A Prophetic Witness

The Christian University should resist the trends within both the secular campus and American Christianity by modeling real debate and intellectual diversity on public issues. Modeling real intellectual diversity means not reflexively and emotionally condemning the policies of the Trump administration, but critically engaging with the arguments supporting and opposing those policies.

The Christian University can model intellectual diversity by inviting speakers of all ideological positions and affiliations, and letting the merits of their ideas speak for themselves.

The Christian University can perform this role because it has a stated end that goes beyond political activity. Politics, in a Christian perspective, is not the final word on a topic or issue. Rather, there is a higher end towards which we are all striving, and in light of that end, our transitory political disputes can appear in a clearer perspective. The concept of original sin reminds us that it is not within our means to create a perfect world, and so we can affirm with Immanuel Kant that “out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight is ever built.”

The Christian University therefore has a peculiar witness that it can provide to the secular world: Far from being dogmatic institutions that train their students to conform to particular ideological persuasions, the Christian University can model John Stuart Mill’s marketplace of ideas. The Christian University can do so because of its motivating conviction that faith and truth are ultimately compatible. Truth may be difficult to grasp- as in the inimitable words of the Apostle Paul, “we see through a glass, darkly”- and the pursuit of it may lead to dead ends and false summits along the way, yet truth is real and therefore knowable. Our faith compels us to seek the truth, and in seeking the truth, we deepen our faith. Christian Universities can address merits & faults in American Christianity Click To Tweet

In particular, the Christian University can and needs to address the merits and faults of the political and intellectual trends in American Christianity over the past several decades in a spirit of true inquiry. Such a debate need not exaggerate the faults of any political philosophy, nor need it exonerate a political philosophy of those faults. Yet the debate may serve to remind evangelical Christians and Catholics, in the words of the Psalmist that Richard John Neuhaus was fond of quoting, to “put not your trust in princes…in whom there is no help.” In so doing, the Christian University will provide a service to the faithful that is currently unmet. More importantly, it will help to reaffirm the importance for an intellectually diverse religious voice in the public square. To this end, there are several steps that Christian Universities and the faculty and staff employed at them can take.

  • Model real debate and dialogue on controversial issues. Show how reasonable people can reasonably disagree on complex issues that are not amenable to simplistic solutions. At Campbellsville University, my colleague Shawn Williams is organizing panel discussions on contemporary issues to model for students how real debate can take place, rather than the shouting matches on cable news networks and online forums that often substitute for discussion. During the coming academic year, faculty and invited members from other institutions will apply both their religious faith and academic training to the discussion of contemporary social and political issues. In April of 2018, we will organize a symposium dedicated to addressing the topic of this essay, to further the discussion of how the Christian University can survive and thrive in the contemporary political environment.
  • Find areas of commonality on both sides of the political aisle. No party or political affiliation has a lock on truth or even on all good policy ideas. Where good ideas exist, acknowledge them. Where bad ideas are prevalent, call them out. Challenge simplistic rhetoric that demeans and divides people of good will who nevertheless have differing political persuasions.
  • Hold any Christian leader accountable for substituting the faith for access to power. Remind Christian leaders that Christ sided with the marginalized and ostracized, and so any administration that seeks to use the power of the state to marginalize the weak and vulnerable should be reminded of the value of charity. Many Christian leaders are aware of this, of course, but others may be tempted by the political access a friendly-seeming administration can offer. But such access can come at the cost of making the faith a subsidiary of a contemporary political party rather than a vehicle of prophetic witness that speaks truth to power and serves as a refuge for those in need.





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