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‘Values vacuum’ unsuited to colleges (Malibu Daily News) September 29, 1994

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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A couple of years ago, I found a book with an intriguing title: “Why Americans Hate Politics.” I have a love-hate relationship with politics, so I read the book with interest and even assigned it to my political science students. Its thesis is simple, yet profound: Americans are sick of politicians who gobble up headlines during election years to slug it out over narrow ideological issues that have little bearing on most of our lives.

I’ve found since then that the same is happening to religion in America, and it’s bound to become much worse in the next general election. Surveys show that Americans consider themselves religious, yet our leaders — politicians, professors, pundits — cannot seem to find a chord in which religion is not either a sour note, or absent altogether.

Americans who do not live their lives on the fringes of public policy want the family values and moral guidelines of religion, but leaders give us only polarizing extremes. So, many of us in the great big middle are left without a voice, and religion becomes the taboo subject we don’t discuss in mainstream America.

Our emerging love-hate dichotomy for religion is evident in every bookstore and newsstand. From Bill Bennett’s best-selling “Book of Virtues” to U.S. News Editor Mortimer Zuckerman’s recent column titled “Where have our values gone?” our nation is awakening to the fact that values, which historically have been grounded in religion, need to be rediscovered or restored. Parents I know (and as a university president, I know a lot of them) feel that they’re in a constant battle to raise their own children with some sense of spiritual and moral grounding.

But religion, as defined by our media, our politics and our education, is defined only as a narrow ideological battleground. On one side of the battlements is the “religious right” beating its war drums in ways that turn people off. On the other side, the cultural “elites” steadily shove religion out of the mainstream of public life — off the front page to the Saturday religion page, off network prime time to cable, and out of the schools altogether.

As president of a Christian university (the descriptive term is itself an oxymoron to many of my colleagues), I’ve struggled with this conundrum for years. Academe — in some ways a mirror of society — has walled off religion so completely from day-to-day life as to make it invisible. In most universities, talk of Christianity is taboo, unless it is discussed in purely historical terms — the Dead Sea Scrolls are truly dead in the academy. Almost all mainstream university long ago shed their Christian affiliations and now we see they have thrown out the baby — values — with the bath water.

As a result, religion becomes an either-or proposition, even in private colleges and universities. When I was a high school student, I considered two choices about what kind of college I would attend. I thought about attending what is popularly referred to as a Bible college or what folks would consider a good university. I could choose academic quality or values, but I could not have both.

I’ve tried for years to find a blend. However, let me tell you, the job is hard because of the schizophrenia we have about religion. My Christian college colleagues suspect my devotion. My “mainstream” colleagues suspect my Christianity taints my scholarship. Enough already.

There are markets for both the Bible colleges and the nonsectarian universities where students will never be exposed to religion of any kind. But for those of us who want some blend in our lives, perhaps educators — and others — should think about experimenting a little more.

For example:

– Could we not challenge our faculty, as we do on my campus, to raise the ethical, moral and even spiritual dimensions of their subjects? Most of our professions are suffering today from folks whose education taught them some nuts and bolts but not the values in their own fields. I’m not suggesting we brainwash, but that, like Socrates, we ask them questions. The college years, when kids are making many key life decisions, is not the time to create a values vacuum.

– Admission offices should be encouraged to outline, describe and market the religious aspects of their schools. Many admissions offices mumble through this part of their presentation, if they mention it at all.

– Presidents of universities must address this aspect of their domain in public utterances. Presidents are notoriously taciturn about religious or spiritual matters, possibly because of fear of offending any group, especially audiences with deep pockets. However, few changes occur at any university without the president first placing his or her imprimatur upon it.

– Mainstream publications and programs should not ignore religious concerns. Colleges should invite speakers to campus who reflect on religious and spiritual, or even Christian subjects.

An old saw says that if we continue in the direction we’re going, we’re likely to end up where we’re headed. If we continue to allow our public conversations about religion to be limited to the fringes, we are not likely to see the rebirth of values and character which I find to be a matter of deep concern to most Americans.

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