God's Politics

I found Mark C. Taylor’s New York Times op-ed, “The Devoted Student,” interesting but off-base. Students exist who wouldn’t know how to handle a serious intellectual engagement with ideas seemingly hostile to faith. However, though these students exist, I am bothered by Taylor’s inference that he is up against a sort of “religious correctness.” Anyone familiar with the world of higher education is kidding themselves if they think the academy is anything but hostile to organized religion – fundamentalist, liberal, or otherwise. This perceived animosity between what is often crudely framed as “faith” versus “science” does a disservice to both.

While I am not defending fundamentalist students who push for extreme censorship and who cannot grapple with the “difficult sayings” of science, I am not sympathetic to the professors who start crying “victim” because folks of faith are turning up again. Thus, a step toward the center – where belief in religion doesn’t get one laughed off the academic stage – seems warranted, and it won’t hurt my feelings if a few academic toes get stepped on in the process.

That said, I am sympathetic to Taylor’s critique that the church – at least in some corners – might be raising a generation of young people who can’t think their way out of a paper bag and whose first response to something contrary to their fundy roots is to go running to the First Amendment or the administration instead of to the library (see Mark Noll’s classic, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, for more on this).

Personally, I enjoy the works of Nietzsche, Freud, Durkheim, Marx, Berger, and Darwin (among many others), and I agree with them on many things. I love my identity as a social scientist, and in the particular instance Taylor recalls in his article, I actually side with him. I would be equally frustrated and put out.

However, I wonder if these narrow-minded students – who have never been taught to think critically by their churches or high schools – would be less prone to yell “religious correctness” if higher education were a safer place for people of faith and if – at least from time to time – they were taught by actual people who didn’t think religion was only a socially-constructed reality, a psychological crutch, nuanced totemism, a projection of our society, etc. In this sense, I am thankful for my time at one of those “evangelical colleges” because I learned from liberally educated and credentialed professors who were real flesh-and-blood Christians at the same time. For the most part, they didn’t spoon feed me fundamentalist propaganda (which certainly happens in some places, but not the good ones), but my professors believed that “all truth is God’s,” so studying rigorously in all fields (whether one is a Christian or not) should lead us closer to God in some way, not further away.

I am not advocating a “Christian academy” any more than a “Christian America,” but just as faith shouldn’t be privatized and driven from the public square in politics, it shouldn’t be marginalized in the academy. The academy needs to make space again for the scholar of faith to be taken seriously (as long as their scholarship is sound, of course), but the church needs to stop turning out drones who have all “right” answers down pat and can only go running when confronted with the challenge of truly thinking critically.

Bob Francis is the policy and organizing assistant for Sojourners/Call to Renewal. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Theology at Wheaton College and his master’s degree in Social Science at the University of Chicago.

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