Thursday, November 5, 2015

Some Reflections on Religion (and Christians) in the Academy

Some of you may recall our post on a recent Books & Culture article revisiting the "Secularization of the Academy" conference on its twenty-fifth anniversary. 

Over at The Anxious Bench, John Turner of the Religion Department at George Mason University wonders to what degree the academy remains "secularized" today.  As a Christian working at a research university, Turner feels quite comfortable.

Here is a taste:

I mostly agree with Darryl Hart that the secular university — for historians, at least — provides a high degree of academic freedom, though I think many Christian institutions do as well (more so today than in past generations). I’ve never felt unable to say anything I wanted to say in the classroom.
The same is true of my scholarship. When I was attempting to place my dissertation on the history of Campus Crusade for Christ with a university press, I did get questions about whether or not I was “one of them.” It is not an irrelevant question, though probably less likely to arise had the subject been something more ideologically attractive to most academics. Especially with tenure, though, I feel rather unconstrained in terms of research and writing. Moreover, it helps that publishers, as far as I can deduce, are quite interested in religious history topics.
Another reason for my comfort is that I do not feel a need to adhere to a particularly Christian understanding of the discipline of history in my teaching and writing. In other words, although my faith informs my understanding of past events and their connection to the present and future, my faith has far less to do with how I understand the academic discipline of history. The latter rests on a fair-minded interpretation of primary-source evidence coupled with a fair-minded assessment of the historiography. Christian historians, in my view, should be quite content to play by the academic rules of the game.
Finally, it is worth noting that the “academy” and the “campus” are not the same thing, by any means. And if the academy is at least as secular as it was a quarter-century ago, most American colleges and universities are still relatively hospitable environments for religion. That has been changing in recent years, as some administrations and politicians have sought to drive out religious organizations that do not conform to current campus standards of “diversity” or sexuality. Nevertheless, most public universities remain fairly open marketplaces of religion. Which always makes me feel much better about “Sin Awareness” days.
I largely agree with Turner, though I have argued that some Christian historians will approach their work with certain presuppositions about the nature of human beings that stem from a theological outlook.  I would also argue that the study of history could lead to the cultivation of certain virtues that are compatible with Christianity. 
Turner's remarks about being asked "whether or not I was 'one of them'" is interesting.  I have been asked similar questions on job interviews at non-sectarian universities.  At one campus interview at a research university I was grilled about my Christian college and seminary degree over lunch by a member of the search committee and then later faced a similar onslaught of questions from at least four different members of the faculty.  A few of these faculty members wanted to make sure that I had "moved on" from the Christian beliefs that my educational pedigree revealed.  (I should add that this was a mid-career job interview that happened about six years ago. The Way of Improvement Leads Home had already been published). 
At another on-campus job interview at a research university, one of the members of the search committee noticed that I attended Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  He wanted to know why I would ever enroll in such a place.  When I told him that at one point in my life I was considering a career in the ministry he responded, rather abruptly, "so are you are historian or a minister?" (Of course I did have Ph.D in American history from a reputable program).  
On yet another on-campus interview I was driving in a car with three faculty members of a research university history department.  They were showing me potential neighborhoods. During the entire ride they asked me what it was like to attend an evangelical seminary.  I answered their questions politely and even laughed along with them about some of the strange practices of American evangelicalism. Finally one of them said, "Wow, this is so cool.  So you are a Christian?  We need one of you on the faculty."  It was a delightfully postmodern moment.  I turned down the job and accepted an offer at Messiah College.
But these are exceptions to the rule.  Like Turner, I have found the academy to be a welcoming place for Christians. It is much more welcoming today than it was fifteen years ago when I was on the job market. 
It is certainly possible that I have been discriminated against because of my faith and I just don't know about it.  It is also possible that I have not had some opportunities because of the kind of college at which I have spent most of my teaching career.  But I continue to be an idealist who thinks that my academic colleagues will judge my work as a teacher and scholar on its merits. And for the most part, I have not been disappointed on that front. 
Having said that, I have always felt that I had to work twice as hard as the next person in order to win a voice.  Sometimes I wonder if this has less to do with my faith and more to do with the chip on my soldier that comes from my working-class roots.  Whatever the case, I still feel like I operate from the margins. The older I get the less I worry about.  I have even come to embrace it.