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Academic Freedom and the Teaching of Religion in America: A Christian College Interpretation

With respect to the status of religion, the ideal Christian college begins with an institutional commitment to a Christian worldview and then invites into its community of learning those scholars who, already of their own volition, have chosen this worldview as the framework through which they can best find truth. Then to assure that their students receive a fair understanding of the major worldviews, they employ charitable, fair-minded, no less than Christian, instructors, and regularly provide campus forums that present a variety of perspectives on primary issues. By contrast the ideal public university neither privileges nor disprivileges a specific worldview but presents each of the major ones, at least, clearly, respectfully, and fairly.

See Also: The Christian College and the Meaning of Academic Freedom (New York: Palgrave McMillian, 2016).

By William Ringenberg
Professor of History
Taylor University
October 2016

1. Research Overview

Christian college leaders long have held mixed thoughts about the concept of academic freedom. They have embraced the idea in general; in fact they have believed that in a holistic sense they come closer to realizing its ideals than do the secular institutions. Their hesitancy stems from the manner in which the general academy has defined and measured academic freedom during the past century. Thus the Christian college view of academic freedom both overlaps with and stands in contrast to the secular concept of academic freedom.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) arose in the early twentieth century when the secular mode of higher education was eclipsing the traditional Christian model as the dominant force in the academy. Most of the leadership of the AAUP then and since has reflected a naturalistic philosophy of education. The primary specific incident which led to the formation of the AAUP in 1915 was the dismissal of Stanford economist and sociologist Edward Ross because of trustee Mrs. Leland Stanford’s objections to his outspoken advocacy of eugenics theory and criticism of the railroad industry. While early AAUP leaders such as Arthur Lovejoy of Johns Hopkins and John Dewey of Colombia wanted to protect the right of professors to speak freely on political, economic, and social issues, they also were aware of the not-too-distant past when the instruction in most colleges operated from a Christian frame of reference, a situation they did not wish to see return.

Over the years the AAUP has established itself as the watchdog and arbiter of faculty free speech issues in the academy. As such it has served the Christian colleges well by insisting that religious institutions explicitly identify to prospective faculty members the religious conditions for an instructional appointment and also that they give careful attention to operating with well-developed due process procedures for use when there is reason to believe that a faculty member may have violated an original agreement. By contrast, the AAUP has served the Christian colleges poorly—even prejudicially—by the disdain with which it has viewed those institutions that wished to continue to operate with a Christian worldview after the Secular Revolution in higher education. Prior to that revolution when the locus of power in academe lay with the religious interests, the latter were reluctant to share it with the secularists, even those in the state universities. When the situation reversed after World War I, the secularists, often without completely realizing it, became as illiberal as they thought their rivals had been in their quest for control. Alas, in the long history of American higher education, the search for intellectual openness and fairness often has been honored more as stated ideal than by regular practice.

Today the secular institutions understand the Christian institutions less well than the Christian institutions understand them. This is so largely because the Christian colleges depend heavily upon the secular universities to provide the graduate training for their faculty. One of the major purposes of this essay then is to help explain the ethos of modern Christian higher education—including especially its approach to truth-seeking—to those in the academy who know the Christian college only vaguely. A second major purpose of the essay is to discuss the long history of how the Christian college has attempted, with varying degrees of success, to realize its lofty goals of intellectual honesty in truth-seeking within the context of Christian theism. A third goal is to show how academic freedom aims of both secular and Christian universities can and should be complementary, how each has recently improved in the effort to realize these aims, and to encourage each type in their continuing quest for intellectual integrity.

The primary difference between a Christian and secular institution is less that of methodology than that of worldview. At their best both institutions are intellectually open in the search for truth. At its worst, the Christian college is not fair in its consideration of alternative world views, while the secular institution at its worst, formally or informally, excludes from classroom consideration the spiritual dimension of the human condition even while subtly promoting a naturalist way of thinking. A public institution, by definition must not institutionally favor nor disfavor a specific religion or interpretive mode, although individual professors may and probably should share, in an even-handed manner, their best personal conclusions on the subject under consideration. Methodologically, there need be no difference between the Christian college instructors and the secular university instructors. Ideally both seek the truth and present their best insights with integrity, fairness, and humility.

The worldview of the public institution is that institutionally there should be no worldview—thus it might better be called a multiversity than a university. While, as an institution for the citizenry in general, it may not formally hold a religious test for hiring, for the sake of exposing its students to a variety of perspectives it must be diligent to assure that its hiring policy results in a teaching staff that is ideologically pluralistic. The suspicion of the Christian college community is that this does not sufficiently happen in the state school, particularly with regard to instruction in the religious and moral domain. Private secular colleges, of course, are not legally so obligated.

A second major difference between a secular institution and a Christian university lies in their respective understandings of freedom. The secular institution thinks primarily in terms of individual freedom for professors while the Christian College thinks in terms of institutional freedom to hire professors who have freely chosen to seek the freedom that comes from uniting their minds and entire personas with the mind and purpose of the Creator. The one is a “freedom from” (outside human restraints); the other is “freedom to” something greater and wiser than the best human understanding. The “freedom from” and “freedom to” emphases are not necessarily in conflict, but in practice they often are.[1]

One relationship in which a Christian college sometimes wishes that it possessed greater “freedom from” is its partnership with the sponsoring domination. Many denominational officials lack sufficient understanding of the differences between a Christian church and a Christian college. The college president together with the governing board have as one of their most important responsibilities that of educating the leadership and even the laity of the sponsoring denomination on the vitally complementary roles of the Christian church and Christian college. The church has an educational program although of necessity operates at a narrowly focused and elementary or intermediate level. The college has a worship program but that is not its primary activity. The purpose of the church is to catechize the children and celebrate the good news of the gospel with all, while the purpose of the college is to explore all of creation and to seek the mind of the Author of Truth in all things. The one focuses upon loving God with the heart and the other upon loving God with the mind. The church proclaims the truth that it has found, while the college assumes that there is more truth to be found and seeks it. The church sometimes needs to watch the orthodoxy of the college, while the college sometimes needs to speak prophetically to the church. Each needs to listen to the other; neither should seek to dominate the other.

A major question in this discussion is this: does defining an institution as a Christian college in and of itself place limits on the search for truth? It need not; indeed it should not. An individual in a free society must be able to seek truth wherever it leads him or her. Some individuals who on their own reach the conclusion that the key to understanding the human condition is the incarnational idea that God has come to us in Christ are free to assemble themselves together into an educational community to engage in further truth-seeking. Should any such individuals decide to no longer believe the central premise of the Christian faith, then they are free to leave the voluntary educational community; indeed that would be the natural thing to do.

When I have mentioned to my scholar friends that I was working on this project on the Christian college and academic freedom, a typical response has been, “Oh, there is a need for that?” If such is the case, why is it so? The reasons are several.

More than any time since the Secular Revolution, Christian colleges encourage and even expect their faculty to conduct research and publish their findings. Publishing more than teaching alone places faculty members at a greater risk of receiving challenges to their academic freedom. Also, the nature of the scholarship coming from the continuing Christian colleges, with their major emphasis on faith and learning integration subjects, gives more emphasis, directly or indirectly, to religious themes—the very subjects most sensitive to those in the larger college constituency who most closely watch the continuing orthodoxy of the faculty.

Continuing Christian Protestant colleges tend to produce more ideologically oriented academic freedom cases than do historically Christian mainline schools.[2] The primary umbrella organization of the evangelical colleges, the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), lists academic freedom (“How is academic freedom negotiated in the context of institutional commitment at CCCU schools?”) as one of the16 items on its research agenda. Former CCCU director of research Ronald Mahurin states that the member schools are showing greater interest in academic freedom. The parallel organization for Bible colleges, the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE), identifies the development and publication of an institutional statement of academic freedom as a condition for membership.[3]

Then there is the still widespread belief in the academy that Christian colleges do not practice academic freedom. Here is an illustrative anecdote that is all too representative. A long-time colleague in our Christian college told me recently of his experience at a conference of English scholars. In an informal conversation a professor in a secular college upon learning of his institutional identity remarked, “So you teach in a college that doesn’t practice academic freedom?” His response was, “I have never had anyone tell me what books I could assign. Furthermore, I have a freedom to discuss the religious dimensions of the subject matter, even talking about God. You, as I understand, in your public institutions don’t possess the same degree of liberty. So who has the most academic freedom?” His English colleague responded, “I never thought of it that way,”[4] This scenario nicely illustrates two points, namely (1) the aforementioned need for the secular academy to better understand the Christian college and (2) the truism that the optimum practice of academic freedom is heavily dependent upon achieving a good fit between institution and scholar. While my friend possesses greater freedom in our college than he would have possessed in a public institution, just the opposite would likely be true for his interlocutor. Hiring for fit is so important! The college must hire as if its future depended on it—for it does; and the scholars must work as hard as possible to find a place where they can most fully and freely act out who they are—a place where there can be harmony between inner thoughts and the public expression of those inner thoughts.

A very practical reason for Christian colleges to be increasingly sensitive to operate with well-developed and implemented academic freedom procedures is that this is the age of the Internet, with both careful journalists and less careful bloggers and chat room commentators easily and quickly disseminating accurate and erroneous stories about what professors do and say. Christian colleges are heavily financed by tuition and constituency contributions, and thus are dependent upon a continual flow of positive public reports. There is no better defense from external attack for a Christian college than the mutual commitment and goodwill displayed by the several components of its internal community. A strong and equitable academic freedom statement should be a vital part of this commitment.

Fortunately, both the secular institutions and the Christian colleges in the twenty-first century have made progress in remedying their worst academic freedom violations of the previous century. Secular scholars “have begun to recognize that secular rationalism itself is not a neutral, absolute position, rising above all faith commitments,” notes C. John Sommerville is his major study, The Decline of the Secular University. “Secularism is seeming more and more like a stage within history, rather than its final goal. We can see it as one way of thinking among others…. The secularism that looked vital and self-sufficient in 1900 has exhausted itself before reaching its goals of offering wisdom and leadership to American life.” In recognition of their previously dismissive and even discriminatory attitude toward religion, some of the secular institutions have begun to again accept religion as a legitimate area of academic inquiry. Douglas and Rhonda Jacobson over a five-year period visited over 50 colleges of various types to find how higher educational institutions were engaging religion in the post-secular age. What they found was a slow but steady reversal of the earlier dominant secularization model. Arguably it will be pluralism rather than secularism that will characterize the future of higher education. All of this is not to say that the academy in general and its professors in particular do not continue to be considerably more secular than does society in general, but the tide has turned. Meanwhile the Christian colleges have become more moderate in tone, spirit, and practice as they move toward the academic mainstream. Bible colleges are becoming more like Christian liberal arts colleges, and the most conservative colleges are deemphasizing their earlier separationist rhetoric and anti-intellectualism.[5]

2. Specific Conclusions

As scholars do their work best when they seek to present data objectively and then offer their conclusions openly and humbly, let me here present in summary form my major views on the subject of this research.

  1. All colleges—public and private, secular and religious—do academic freedom imperfectly. Academic freedom is the ideal, but we are finite and even flawed in the purity with which we seek truth ourselves and allow freedom to others to do the same. Nevertheless, we must ever strive toward the noble vision.
  2. Freedom is not an end in itself. Truth is. Freedom does not exist in a vacuum; it always exists in context. Absolute freedom, if it were to exist, would be absolute anarchy, even absolute tyranny. We are born with the freedom—and the need—to choose to connect with the Ultimate.
  3. Do not fear truth. Fear bad theology or bad science or bad sociology. Do not fear truth; fear missing the truth. For where truth is, there is God. God is light, and God is truth.
  4. A Christian college is a community. Community (people who have something in common) by definition involves mutual commitment to a common vision or purpose or experience.
  5. Christian community by definition involves mutual commitment to the central idea that God has come to us in Christ to redeem us to himself.
  6. A Christian college is a voluntary community of those who on their own have embraced the incarnational idea and who on their own choose to join like-minded believers in an ongoing, unfettered search for and understanding of the Creator and the Creation. As the members freely join the community, so also are they free to leave the community, intellectually and physically.
  7. Some Christian colleges will choose to add to the central Christian idea a set of secondary convictions as a basis of membership. This is not necessary to be a Christian college, and may be counterproductive to Christian unity, academic collegiality, and an unfettered search for truth.
  8. If a college does identify secondary conditions for membership in its community, it must do so clearly and at the time of original employment.
  9. The Christian college in the United States celebrates the value placed by the Constitutional framers in their very First Amendment, upon the freedom of private assembly and the freedom of openly expressing oral and written thought, especially in the religious domain.
  10. Academic freedom is, in itself, central to the educational process and thus should be viewed positively and embraced heartily by the Christian college community. The purpose of positional power—in academe or elsewhere—is not to dominate others but to empower others.
  11. The Christian colleges should identify as much as possible with the major academic freedom statements of the general academy but confidently and graciously critique these statements when they are partial or incomplete.
  12. The Christian colleges tend to focus primarily upon institutional academic freedom. The secular institutions tend to focus largely upon individual academic freedom for the professors. The best colleges and universities seek to integrate both and also show deep respect for the academic freedom and rights of students.
  13. The secular academic community best acknowledges the concept of freedom when, among other things, it seeks to understand the mind of the Christian college scholarly community and how not all in academia view the concept of freedom in the same manner. The Christian college academic community best acknowledges the concept of freedom when it, together with its constituency, seeks to understand the difference between a college and a church and how their spheres can be complementary and cooperative rather than competitive.
  14. In a Christian college, everything stems from institutional mission. An institution must identify its mission first and then liberally provide academic freedom within that context.
  15. The subject of religion engenders fear in much of the academy. Some secular institutions directly or indirectly discourage its consideration. Some Christian colleges directly or indirectly discourage a fair hearing for religious or secular views other than their own. The result is a “chilling effect” upon many professors and students alike, in both types of institutions, who would prefer to rigorously examine all topics related to the human condition.
  16. With respect to the status of religion, the ideal Christian college begins with an institutional commitment to a Christian worldview and then invites into its community of learning those scholars who, already of their own volition, have chosen this worldview as the framework through which they can best find truth. Then to assure that their students receive a fair understanding of the major worldviews, they employ charitable, fair-minded, no less than Christian, instructors, and regularly provide campus forums that present a variety of perspectives on primary issues. By contrast the ideal public university neither privileges nor disprivileges a specific worldview but presents each of the major ones, at least, clearly, respectfully, and fairly.
  17. Multi-position books on issues over which Christians differ is one way in which Christian publishing houses contribute to academic freedom. Christian colleges do well to structure similarly open-ended learning experiences (e.g., multi-position forums, team-taught courses with philosophically differing instructors, and pro and con lectures by individual professors.
  18. Of the major academic freedom issues of focus in Christian higher education, macro-evolution is one of the longest standing, homosexuality is the greatest current controversy in part because of how it may threaten continuing government aid and tax benefit policy, while the most important one is due process because of how it lies at the heart of the sense of Christian community (“By this all will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another,” John 13: 35).
  19. The current social debate on homosexuality and the pressure that it may exert on public policy may well force some or many Christian colleges to modify current policies or to find different ways of operating to make them less dependent on the present favorable aid and tax policy. Whether of economic necessity or a desire to provide less expensive models of Christian higher education to serve the less affluent, the Christian colleges—or some of them—need to plan seriously and creatively for a broader variety of variously priced delivery systems.
  20. The Christian church in general and the Christian college in particular have long sought to maintain a constructive balance between purity and unity—between giving vigilance to adhering faithfully to the central principles that define them and celebrating those principles with grace, tolerance, and oneness of spirit. During the early twentieth century, orthodox Protestantism was on the defensive and its colleges faced the challenges of the movement toward secularization. Much of the Fundamentalist response may have been necessary at the time, but the extent to which it created a permanent mind-set of suspicion was unhealthy. As a norm, the Christian church and the Christian colleges should be known by what they are for rather than what they are against.

3. The Practice of Academic Freedom: Higher Education Models

The table below identifies four classic models of how colleges and universities practice academic freedom. Two are religious and two are secular. Two are extreme and two are moderate. Two are presented as desirable and two as not. Obviously there are many intermediate models. The moderate secular model is the ideal for a public institution which is under Constitutional mandate to neither favor nor disfavor religion. The moderate religious model is the ideal for a Christian institution of learning which operates from the principle that all truth is God’s truth and that a scholar should seek truth wherever it may be found, even in secular sources and those of other religions.

  Religious college no. 1 Religious college no. 2 Secular college no. 1 Secular college no. 2
  Polar Moderate Moderate Polar
Religious orientation of campus membership Favorable to a specific religion Favorable to a specific religion Widely diverse Skeptical
Campus intellectual mind-set toward religion Defender of the faith Seeker of the truth Seeker of the truth Discourager of the faith
Openness to discussing religion Open to one religion; either avoid or discuss other religions so as to “know the enemy” Open; privileging one religion but fair to all; seeking truth where it may be found Open; fair to all Limited but discouraging especially of traditional religion
Orientation toward the general academy Skeptical Sympathetic but discerning Sympathetic but discerning Sympathetic but not discerning
Religious curriculum Extensive; heavily oriented toward study of one faith Extensive; considerably oriented toward the study of one faith but with a fair amount of breadth Proportionate recognition of the importance of religion in a study of human history and the human condition Limited, even ignoring
Teaching ethos Considerable indoctrination Intellectually open Intellectually open Considerable indoctrination, even if not recognizing it as such

Here, at the end, then, let us celebrate the uninhibited and broad-based pursuit of truth by individuals working in all types of institutions—and none—with the faith that those who “seek with all their hearts” find the essence of that which they are pursuing.


[1] Lee Hardy, “The Value of Limitations: Is Religion an Academic Liability?” Academe: Bulletin of the AAUP 92, no. 1 (2006): 23-27; Todd C. Ream and Perry L. Ganzer, Christian Faith and Scholarship: An Exploration of Contemporary Developments (Hoboken: Wiley, 2007), 87, 94, 100; Douglas V. Henry, “Can Baptist Theology Sustain the Life of the Mind? The Quest for a Vital Baptist Academy,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 33, no. 2 (Summer 2006): 203-226.

[2] Melissa Steffan, “Crisis of Faith Statements,” Christianity Today 56, no. 10 (Nov. 2012): 16; Kina Mallard and Michele Atkins, “Changing Academic Cultures and Expanding Expectations: Motivational Factors Influencing Scholarship at Small Christian Colleges and Universities,” Christian Higher Education 3, no. 4 (2004): 373-389; Martin E. Marty, Church Related Higher Education and the Common Good (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000).

[3] Ronald Mahurin in conversation with the author, Spring, 2013; “The CCCU Research Agenda,” The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, April, 2012,; Ralph Enlow, letter to author, October, 31, 2013.

[4] Kenneth Swan in conversation with the author, December 12, 2013.

[5] Neil Gross and Solon Simmons, “How Religious Are America’s College and University Professors?” Social Science Research Council,; C.John Sommerville, The Decline of the Secular University (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 85-85, 121; Douglas and Rhonda Jacobsen, No Longer Invisible: Religion in University Education (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 3-9, 104; Tyler O’Neil, “Secularism: A Dying Faith,” Hillsdale National Law Review (blog), November 10, 2011,; Quentin Schulze, “The Two Faces of Fundamentalist Higher Education,” in Fundamentalism and Society eds. Martin E. Marty, R. Scott Appleby, and Jose Casanova (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 490-494; D. Michael Lindsay, “Evangelical Rebounds in Academe,” Chronicle of Higher Education 54, no. 31 (May 9, 2008): B12-B14.

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