Calling Evil Good and Good Evil

Is there hope for the morally upside-down world of America's universities?

Calling Evil Good and Good Evil

Is there hope for the morally upside-down world of America's universities?

Above: Claudine Gay, then-president of Harvard University; Liz Magill, then-president of University of Pennsylvania; and (far right) Sally Kornbluth, president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, testify before the House Education and Workforce Committee on Dec. 5 in Washington, D.C.

On Dec. 5, when the presidents of three of America’s most prestigious universities appeared before Congress during a hearing on rising antisemitism, they refused to state clearly whether or not calls for the genocide of Jews on their campuses would constitute bullying or harassment. Across the country, jaws dropped.

More than one political pundit noted that the presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania appeared to have been coached by lawyers to speak cautiously. The result: They came off as morally detached from the world in which most Americans live. Or perhaps, as conservative author Rod Dreher put it, “They hemmed, they hawed, they tried to ‘contextualize’ the outbursts from left-wing students, so that they could stay on the right side of the woke narrative.”

Their inability to heartily condemn the idea of genocidal, antisemitic speech at their schools left many Americans to wonder: What in the world is happening on college campuses?

But those who have watched the state of higher education deteriorate to a level where left-wing activism is valued as much as critical thinking weren’t shocked. In fact, at many colleges there are whole courses on activism.

The spectacle of rising antisemitism on campus, and these college presidents’ tepid response to it, is but a symptom of a more fundamental problem: Faulty philosophical foundations, which have been built over decades, have led to a culture at most schools where traditional, Judeo-Christian beliefs are not only dismissed but are vilified and often disallowed.

The examples are plentiful.

  • When former University of Kentucky standout swimmer Riley Gaines, a critic of biological males competing against females in women’s sports, tried to speak at San Francisco State University last April, radical activists held her in a room against her will for more than three hours—even demanding a monetary ransom at one point.
  • At Virginia Commonwealth University, the campus chapter of Students for Life sponsored an event that was supposed to be a dialogue between Kristan Hawkins (president of Students for Life of America/Students for Life Action) and another pro-life advocate. But when protesters showed up carrying signs and shouting obscenities to drown out the speakers, the event had to be canceled.
  • At the State University of New York at Albany, the Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter was among those who were able to prevent a conservative proponent of free speech from speaking on campus because he opposes the transgender movement. The disrupters said it was all in the name of “joy, positivity and support for LGBTQ+ students.”

For Christian believers, not only is it wise to understand the distressed culture at universities, it’s vital for effectively offering Gospel hope to a generation for which despair and disenchantment is their logical landing place.

John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview and host of the syndicated Breakpoint commentary, remembers a Christian speaker stating that the 9/11 terror attacks would prove to be the nail in the coffin for those who reject the existence of absolute truth. The attacks were so heinous, he reasoned, people would see the clear divide between good and evil and return to a belief in objective right and wrong.

“Obviously, he was proven to be wrong,” Stonestreet recalls. “He thought relativism had been refuted in front of everyone. But the relativists looked at the events of 9/11 and essentially said, ‘People who believe in moral absolutes are the kinds of people who do these things.’ He underestimated how deep-seated cultural relativism was.”

Two decades later, Stonestreet says, the postmodernists—with their claims that moral absolutes don’t exist—have become more “absolutist” in their demands and more culturally Marxist. On college campuses, this manifests as strictly enforced speech codes, safe zones where “triggering” ideas are disallowed, and an authoritarian approach to what constitutes correct thinking, dialogue and manners. 

In short, a revised Marxism has bloomed on America’s campuses in the last two decades, even if most students wouldn’t wear the label. 

Instead of the economic struggle prescribed by classical Marxism, today’s Marxists pit classes perceived as oppressed—LGBTQ+ people, racial minorities, women, the irreligious, illegal immigrants, “pregnant persons”—against perceived oppressors in a struggle for cultural power. And the idea of a transcendent God, especially the God of Biblical Christianity, is anathema. 

The challenge for those few professors who are committed to a truth-seeking, classical education is that a majority of new students arrive on campus already immersed in the prevailing “woke-ism,” secular progressivism, social justice activism, revisionist Marxism—whatever label adherents are willing to wear. 

Professor Robert P. George sees it firsthand in teaching both undergraduate and graduate students at Princeton University. As the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, George has observed the changes in the philosophical assumptions his students bring to class.

“In most cases,” George says, “students come in believing these doctrines or dogmas because they’ve been taught that they are true.” As he puts it, they’ve been “catechized” for a religious-like adherence to cultural relativism. 

“The problem is that they haven’t been given a set of alternative beliefs and encouraged to confront the best arguments for and against the various alternatives,” George says, “so that they can decide for themselves where they think the truth lies or what they view as closest to the truth or the fullness of the truth, and then embrace that.”

There are exceptions, George notes—brave students who challenge prevailing groupthink—but they are rare.

“I say ‘brave’ because this is a very hard thing to do these days,” he says. “There is genuine vilification, and often practical consequences, if you publicly dissent from these woke orthodoxies.”

A survey cited by the American Enterprise Institute says that by a margin of 71% to 57%, students with no religious faith are more likely to feel OK about shouting down a speaker with whom they disagree than those who identify as having a religious faith.

“That certainly squares with my experience,” says George, adding that his “religiously well-formed students” tend to have a sense of their own fallibility, which provides some margin for learning from mistakes.

Demonstrators hold placards and banners during a pro-Palestine rally at Penn State Nov. 29. Photo: Paul Weaver / Zuma Press / Newscom


Many people point to the radicalism of the ’60s as a significant marker on the road to our current culture, with the sexual revolution taking center stage as a wedge between Judeo-Christian beliefs and the call for sexual freedom. The rise of liberal theology in the 19th and 20th centuries certainly played a role in the decline of mainline Christian denominations, which contributed to the conditions that manifested in the 1960s. 

A German Marxist named Rudi Dutschke wrote in 1967 that the success of the new Marxism would require “the long march through the institutions” of cultural power. The idea stuck with the cultural relativists; the college campus became a breeding ground as ’60s radicals eventually became tenured professors.

Paraphrasing sociologist Todd Gitlin, Stonestreet says that in the 1960s the right marched on the Capitol while the left marched through the English departments. They each got what they wanted for a time. But decades later, the left had gained control of both political and cultural institutions.

Alex McFarland, a Christian apologist and director of Biblical Worldview at Charis Bible College, says he believes there is a connection between the decline of religious belief among the young and the rise of cultural Marxism. Nearly 50% of Gen Z  is either agnostic, atheist or ‘nothing in particular,’ according to religion demographer Ryan Burge. And the trends are even more pronounced on the typical college campus.

“There was a time when Christianity and Judeo-Christian morals were like our national immune system, and our ability to fend off toxic ideologies like socialism were rooted in those convictions,” McFarland says.

Amid this truth crisis, McFarland says the church must train young people to respond to bad ideas with the best of Christian apologetics and a thorough grasp of God’s Word as inspired and authoritative. And pastors must confront controversy with a “Thus sayeth the Lord” from the Scripture, he says.

“The left thought if they got rid of the constraints of religion, they would make it a better world,” McFarland says. “But better compared to what? Without God, their utopia is no better than a pigpen.” Sadly, he says, the silence and lack of authoritative preaching in many pulpits has created a cultural vacuum for erroneous ideas to thrive.

Stonestreet says the empty promises of the Marxist, secular-progressive, relativistic, ‘woke’ view of the world will eventually leave its adherents disillusioned. Judging by the mental health crisis among the young—“It’s not only wider among this generation but their problems are deeper,” he says—the church has an opportunity to offer hope, meaning, identity and belonging.

In the economy of radicalism, “there’s absolutely no forgiveness and no redemption,” remarks Stonestreet, who quickly notes how the lack of these virtues contrasts with the Christian message.

“These are not necessarily aspirations our political allies would appreciate, but when Christians encounter these disillusioned people, we have to figure out how to marshal our ability to be gracious and forgiving—to bear people’s burdens and show grace. When we do, there will be an opportunity for a profound future witness to the message of Christ.”  ©2024 BGEA

Photo: Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images North America / AFP

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