Late in 1994, as Scott Jaschik reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education (November 2, 1994), the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that will test current policies regarding church-state separation at public universities. In 1991, Wide Awake, a student-run newspaper with a Christian orientation, founded at the University of Virginia in the previous year, applied to the university for student-activity funding. The university denied the request on the grounds of church-state separation. As a result, the paper sued the university. In 1993, a federal district court found in favor of the university—a decision upheld on appeal in 1994, leading to a final appeal to the Supreme Court.
In upholding the original decision, the appeals court contended that subsidizing the paper, with its “avowedly Christian theological perspective,” would “send an unmistakably clear signal that the University of Virginia supports Christian values and wishes to promote the wide promulgation of such values.” Many observers, however, believe that the university’s case is vulnerable at exactly this point, for at the University of Virginia, as at colleges and universities throughout the United States, student-activity funds are given to a wide variety of groups, ranging from Islamic and Jewish student associations (deemed “cultural” rather than “religious” by the university) to gay and lesbian groups. Many such groups are clearly committed to the promulgation of certain values. Does university support then imply endorsement of the values of these various groups (values which, in many cases, are mutually exclusive)? Why should a Christian newspaper be denied the same privileges?
Whatever the final determination of the case, it has served to draw attention to the anomalous status of religious perspectives in the contemporary university, and has thereby contributed to the growing debate over the practice of pluralism not only in American higher education but in every sphere of public life. The double standard apparent in student-activity funding is even more pronounced in the classroom, where explicitly religious viewpoints are largely excluded. As historian George Marsden observes, “Tolerance, one might think, ought to include tolerance of religious viewpoints, including religious viewpoints in academic life. Pluralism, one might likewise suppose, would encourage first-class citizenship within universities for the widest feasible variety of cultural expressions. Since religion is integral to most cultures, one might expect that a commitment to diversity would entail the encouragement of intellectual expressions of a variety of religious perspectives.”
So it would seem—and yet such is emphatically not the case. Only at religious institutions is expression of such perspectives genuinely encouraged—and even those institutions, astonishingly, are under attack by the forces of “pluralism.” By threats to withhold accreditation and by many other means, religious institutions are being pressured to drop hiring requirements that allow them to preserve their distinctive identity. That a Christian college, for example, might hire only Christians hardly seems open to objection, yet increasingly such requirements are being labeled “discriminatory.”
How did Americans arrive at this peculiar state of affairs? In The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief, Marsden supplies the definitive answer. While he writes from the viewpoint of “a fairly traditional Protestant of the Reformed...
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