Six students at Cornell University, one at the University of Pennsylvania, and one at Yale took their own lives during the past academic year. One was a noted football player, almost certain to be elected captain. Another was a jokester, great student and kind soul. Two others were from notably affluent communities, Chevy Chase, MD and Boca Raton, FL. So, is this the end result of an academic culture that encourages a nihilistic questioning of all values, a rejection of God, and a moral permissiveness that leads to despair?
Since our parish focus this year on “the hurting coast” (from Richmond to Maine) it’s worth pondering the great influence that our well-known public and private academic institutions in the northeast have upon our culture. We will soon have an “All-Ivy Supreme Court”, with seven of the nine justices having degrees from Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Columbia, and Princeton. And guess how many U.S. presidents have had degrees from these same institutions in the 20th century? If you exclude Nixon and Carter, Warren Harding and William Howard Taft, nearly every president of the past century had a degree from one of them – or in a couple of cases from other similar colleges like Amherst and Stanford.
That is both impressive – and troubling. It’s impressive because it signals the ability of these colleges to attract some of the best students. It’s troubling because of the disproportionate influence these institutions have upon the nation.
It’s been generations since any of these colleges are in the least way connected to the Christian vision out of which most were founded. William Buckley’s 1951 book God and Man at Yale was a sensation at the time, and it earned him enough money to start the National Review. Furthermore, those who attended these institutions during the 1950’s, including myself, knew that much of what Buckley wrote was true. One reviewer, Gary North, said: “The fact that theological liberalism was being used by certain professors as a cover for their agnosticism and even atheism also was not big news. Had Yale’s religion department been filled with Bible-believing professors with Ph.D.’s… this would have warranted a front-page story in the New York Times.”
So, just how godless are these institutions these days? Will parents eager to find safe havens for their children not send them to small Christian colleges? Undoubtedly they will. It’s a fact that our well-known and well-endowed regional colleges, even in the Southeast, are no more likely to espouse Judeo-Christian values in any official way than their thoroughly secularized cousins to the north. George Marsden’s excellent 1994 work, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief chronicles how nearly all of our well-known liberal arts colleges shed their connection with any religious organization or ideology sometime in the early 20th Century.
This does not mean, however, that a Christian student, going to one of these colleges, will find no support. However, the support they find will most likely be from other students rather than from the faculty or the administration. Back in the 1950’s very few incoming freshmen were willing to identify themselves as convinced, orthodox Christians. And a good many of those who did lost their faith during their college years. By contrast, today, with larger minority enrollments, and significant ethnic diversity, these colleges host many more students expressing strong Christian belief, even fervent evangelistic zeal. I remember visiting a Korean Presbyterian Church adjacent to the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, when our daughter was a student there. It was filled with deeply dedicated Korean students, most of who were attending Penn or Drexel University nearby.
Today on these campuses one can find local expressions of many of the large inter-denominational evangelical student fellowships: Inter-Varsity, Campus Crusade, Navigators, F.C.A., and many ethnic spin-offs such as African-American fellowships too. Some of the denominational ministries also are rooted in the Gospel, such as R.U.F. (Reformed University Fellowship). And at least at the University of Virginia students can join a vibrant Episcopal fellowship that is very sound. It emanates from the evangelically-oriented Christ Church, Charlottesville. But most of the small Protestant denominational fellowships still reflect the dying theological liberalism that Buckley so ably exposed.
What is new, and noteworthy, is a concerted effort to establish a beachhead for thoughtful Christianity within the Ivy League. Targeting just these eight universities (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Brown, and Penn) is a new thrust masterminded by a creative entrepreneur named Matt Bennett. Entitled “Christian Union” it cooperates with a wide variety of campus ministries while at the same time opening its own initiatives in evangelism, service projects, pro-life efforts, conferences and a vigorous publication entitled The Ivy League Christian Observer. The magazine contains testimonies of students who have come to faith, articles by graduates who are “making hay for the Gospel”, and reportage on the activities of Christian groups on these campuses.
There is an interesting critique of “Sex Week at Yale” by a male student who believes that the week-long celebration of pornography (replete with porn stars showing explicit clips from their adult films) encourages addiction, the demeaning of women, and even sexual violence. While the university did not officially sponsor the week it helps pay for the publicity!
If you wish to subscribe to The Ivy League Christian Observer go to www.christian-union.org. One article I found most interesting in the summer 2010 issue that just arrived in my mailbox is a review of a new book by S. E. Cupp, a graduate of Cornell in 2000. Cupp, a self-described atheist, takes Christians to task for not standing up to the mainline media for their irresponsible, biased approach to truth. Yes, her word was “not.” In Losing our Religion, Cupp states that Christians have not stood strong enough against the secular bias in the media, especially when it expresses that bias against Christians. “Liberals can say ‘my faith compels me to combat global warming,” but they cannot say “my faith compels me to oppose abortion.” In other words, religion is OK if it’s used for political purposes; but not OK if used for strictly moral ones. The media, she says, “is advancing its own secular revolution against you loudly, quickly, haphazardly, viciously, impolitely, duplicitously, and openly.” Now I’ll celebrate that. I’ll even sing Bright College Years with it’s closing words: “Oh, let us strive that ever we: May let these words our watch-cry be, where’er upon life’s sea we sail: “For God, for Country and for Yale!”
~ Peter C. Moore, Yale, ‘58