The university campus—the bastion of intellectual freedom. Here, any worldview can compete on the strength of its own merits, free from prejudice or discrimination in the marketplace of ideas.
Yeah, right. Talk about Jesus and see just how long it takes before someone tries to kick your worldview out of the market.
Although most of the nation’s early colleges and universities had Christian roots—Yale and Princeton were founded specifically to train young men to be pastors—many today seem intent on stifling Christian expression, whether by students, faculty, campus organizations or even prospective students. In recent years, examples have come in a steady stream:
- A university administrator at Sonoma State University in California asks a student to remove her cross necklace because it might offend others.
- A student at Florida Atlantic University is ordered to write the name Jesus on a piece of paper and stomp on it.
- The Radiation Therapy Program at the Community College of Baltimore County denies two students admission simply because they profess belief in God.
- California’s state universities try to freeze out Christian organizations that want the right to insist that their leaders actually be Christians.
- North Carolina State University informs a registered student group that without a written permit, they are not allowed to approach other students in the student union to engage in religious discussions or invite them to group events—restrictions that reportedly have not been enforced with other campus groups.
- A faculty member at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington is denied a promotion in spite of a stellar record. He believes his application has been rejected because he is no longer an atheist but an outspoken follower of Jesus Christ (eight years later, a federal court agrees that his First Amendment rights have been violated).
Stories of colleges and universities being hostile to religious faith is not new, but few scholars have attempted to study the problem systematically. In 2010, writing in the journal Inside Higher Ed, Wheaton College professor Timothy Larsen called for just that. He invited fellow academics to use surveys, focus groups or other methods to see if claims of religious discrimination are justified.
In the six years since then, what has come of his invitation?
“To my knowledge, not a single secular university has shown the least bit of interest in trying to investigate this on its campus,” Larsen told Decision. “What seems most interesting to me is, increasingly the secular world doesn’t even recognize religion as an identity.”
In other words, he explained, if you were to ask, “Should people show respect for other people’s identities?” most would answer yes. “And yet,” he said, “the idea that their identity might be Christian is not even on the radar.”
And as obvious as it appears to those who have been slammed on campus for their Christian faith, many secular progressives are blind to their own hypocrisy—a point reinforced recently when New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof raised the question of whether universities stigmatize conservatives and undermine intellectual diversity. “The scornful reaction from my fellow liberals proved the point,” Kristof wrote.
“It is not in line with their own principles,” Larsen says. “They think of themselves as people who stand for affirming people’s identities, for tolerance, for diversity, for discussion. … Yet, when in reality they are hoping to marginalize, exclude, silence and ridicule people of faith, then all those values are undermined.”
George Yancey, professor of sociology at the University of North Texas, has studied religious bias in higher education and found that identifying oneself as a conservative Protestant is the characteristic most likely to disqualify a potential faculty member from being hired. “It can be costly to be a conservative Christian faculty member,” Yancey said.
What should a Christian do in an oppressive college environment? Yancey has suggestions for both faculty and students: Make sure that the work you do is excellent. Find support from other believers, both individuals and fellowship groups. And for students specifically, “Protect yourself from being swayed by people who are speaking outside their expertise.”
For example, Yancey said, if a political science professor tells you about the Constitution, it would be wise to listen. But if that person tries to argue that Jesus never existed, don’t be dazzled by the fact that this is a professor speaking. This is not their area of expertise.
Still, how does one stand for Jesus Christ when faith is mocked?
For one thing, don’t back down. “It’s important that Christians are public about their faith,” Larsen said. “The motto for me has always been ‘No offense but the offense of the Gospel.’ Be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.”
Larsen pointed to Revelation 12:11—“They overcame him [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.”
He explained: “The blood of the Lamb is the objective reality of salvation through Jesus Christ that we proclaim; the word of our testimony is how that is embodied in our lives. We have a story to share about what Christ has done for us and how He has changed us. That story is powerful, and it is an overcoming story. It is a story that overcomes prejudices, it overcomes stereotypes, it overcomes assumptions. People need to hear those stories.”
And Christian students should not necessarily seek out schools that seem more welcoming to faith, according to Micah Green, associate professor of chemical engineering at Texas A&M.
“We’re called to be salt and light,” said Green, whose laboratory at the university studies nanomaterials and polymers. “I think there’s a real opportunity in the more secular, more hostile circumstances, to stand out and show people we love them. And if we’re persecuted or made fun of, so be it. Christianity is built for that.”
Worse than being made fun of, Green said, is never having the right discussions with people who need Christ. “The worst case scenario,” he said, “is that a college student would go through their whole college experience and never think about anything eternal, never think about life’s purpose, never think about why they exist or what their identity is based on. And all their conversations are about trivial things like grades and sports.”
Often, it’s at the “harder” campuses—the ones where Christians may face hostility—that those searching conversations are more likely to take place.
And when Christians are obedient to share the Good News of Christ, faith can gain a foothold in some surprising places. For example, universities in Communist Cuba are becoming more open to Christianity, according to two Cuban pastors who recently visited BGEA.
“We are seeing the Gospel preached in the classrooms—not by the professors, but by the students that come to Christ,” said one pastor. “They are sharing their faith in the classrooms, the dormitories and the public areas of these universities.”
He said Christian students often begin to share their faith with other students by saying, “If you are experiencing difficulties, I would like to pray for you.” As people see God answering the prayers of their Christian friends, some put their faith in Christ. The mother of one student reported that when she visited her son’s campus, she was surprised to see posters in the common area for a campus ministry, as well as Bible verses that various students had posted.
And it’s not just students. About 20 university professors are attending a church in one city—this in addition to 900 students also attending the church. One of the pastors added that in the classroom, if a professor discovers that a student is a follower of Christ, he or she might very well ask for prayer rather than denigrate the student or the Christian faith.
So living for Christ on campus may not be easy; it probably won’t be. But the same God who sent His Son to be scorned and crucified calls His people to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Christ (Luke 9:23). And when we are obedient to His call, lives are changed for eternity. ©2016 BGEA
Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version.