West Palm Beach, FL. In 1994, Bill Clinton was our saxophone-playing president. The Cold War was over and the US and Russia signed the Kremlin Accords. Cool teenagers carried a Walkman and a lot of them were also wearing overalls. Michael Jordan was still in the NBA. Nancy Kerrigan was attacked on behalf of Tonya Harding. Kurt Cobain committed suicide and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died from cancer. Amazon was founded, Friends aired for the first time, O.J. Simpson was chased on national TV, and the World Series didn’t happen because of a player strike. 1994 was also the year that George Marsden published The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief.

In 2021, we sometimes seem to be caught in a time loop from the 1990s. We are still figuring out our relationship to Russia. People still talk about Michael Jordan all the time. Movies and miniseries keep being made about Tonya Harding and O.J. Simpson. A whole new generation is obsessed with Friends. Some young people are trying to bring back overalls. And, this year, Oxford has published George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University Revisited: From Protestant to Postsecular. But Marsden’s newest edition is not another retread. It is a timely return to a perennially-important subject, with some additional insights gleaned from the intervening years.

The Soul of the American University is a thorough examination of the relationship between Christianity and higher education in the U.S. Marsden’s “primary inquiries concern how Christian perspectives were related to the intellectual inquiries that were essential to the enterprise.” His detailed chapters chronicle the rise and fall of various philosophies and university presidents, textbooks, and trustees at some of the schools that have most shaped the culture of higher education in America. In the beginning, nearly all colleges and universities were religious, intended primarily for the education of clergy, and often directed by clergy (as presidents or board members, etc.). But by the end of the twentieth century, the most prestigious and best-known schools were considered closely aligned with religious skepticism. What happened?

Not only do the oldest universities in Europe have church origins, the earliest American universities were shaped by Puritan sensibilities and intended to educate clergy. In the seventeenth century, Harvard’s motto was “Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae.” As the Enlightenment advanced in the eighteenth century, most universities did not perceive an immediate conflict between Christianity and new learning. Many scholars and presidents believed that the doctrine of common grace allowed for sources of knowledge outside the Bible and believed that the truths of science and Christianity would be proven compatible.

While many cultural commentators today seem to think that colleges changed their tune on Christianity quite recently, Marsden marshals facts to show a more nuanced history. The relationship between Christianity and colleges began to shift quite dramatically in the nineteenth century, as fault lines emerged around particular topics and methods of scientific learning (like evolution and methodological naturalism) and as universities reimagined their own role in the country and reflected changing notions of Christianity. Colleges were not just educating the clergy any longer, they were educating Christian gentlemen and seeing their own purpose as a service to the nation. Simultaneously, the cultural dominance of Protestantism meant that its distinctiveness from culture was sometimes unclear and, in many circles, “democratic morality” blended with “informal ethical Christianity” to produce a Christianity not that different from a form of citizenship which included following ethical teachings drawn from the Bible but not much in the way of biblical literacy or meaningful personal theology. This happened both on college quads and in many mainstream churches. The more Christianity became a form of responsible citizenship, the less essential it was to the pursuit of new knowledge (or to university hiring qualifications). It shaped the environment of higher education, but it did not direct academic inquiry.

The era of higher education for Christian gentlemen and citizens superseded the era of education for Christian clergy, but it did not last either. The late nineteenth century transition from colleges to universities both expanded knowledge and gave life to the idea of academic freedom. That freedom allowed more expression and exploration of ideas incompatible with Christianity or even hostile to it. Not only could professors more freely choose their textbooks, students could more freely use their time as mandatory chapel services became rarer. In the twentieth century, Christianity became part of campus life, not necessarily campus learning. Simultaneously, the rise of fundamentalism in the twentieth century challenged mainstream Christianity and posited the incompatibility of Christianity with many types of learning. Marsden’s work on this subject parallels well with Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. The simultaneous shifts in cultural understandings of Christianity and college understandings of academic inquiry are why by the mid-twentieth century many people started to think that Christianity and higher education were opposed and William F. Buckley Jr. could launch his career with God and Man at Yale.

By 1994, when Marsden’s book was first published, many Christians and conservatives were wary of America’s top-ranked universities. Universities were likewise often wary of fundamentalism and unwilling to privilege religious views on campus. And even within Christian circles, there was recognition that there was perhaps too often a disconnect between serious inquiry and serious faith. In 1994, Os Guinness’s Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do About it came out in paperback. Christian colleges were growing, but they were often still emerging from being Bible colleges or being founded to counter counterculture more than to discover new knowledge and expand understanding of the world.

What has changed since the first edition of this book was released in 1994? Many important things. If the trajectory of Christianity in higher education during the first part of the twentieth century was through a losing battle with secularization and increasing inability to compete with empirical truth claims, the end of the twentieth century included a plot twist. As Marsden points out, society today is better understood as “postsecular” than secular. There is more space for more vantage points, which includes Christianity. This is reminiscent of an observation made by Crystal Downing in How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith. Christians often fear postmodernism because it does not affirm the Christian metanarrative, but its hostility to singular and overarching narratives also limits the ability of naturalistic science to define the world, which creates space in culture for a variety of views, including Christianity. Postmodernism may not give a warm reception to all Christian truth claims, but it has allowed Christianity to reenter the conversation. In higher education, this has been very beneficial.

The nature of Christian higher education has also change dramatically since this book was first published. In his epilogue, “An Unexpected Sequel: A Renaissance of Christian Academia,” Marsden charts the ascent of Christian higher education in research, reputation, and recognition of its scholars. If Christian colleges were once not taken seriously academically, that is no longer automatically true. Christian scholars not only earn PhDs, they publish. More Christian universities than ever have good reputations. While there remains work to be done to advance academic inquiry at Christian universities, Marsden observed that while Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind rang true in 1994, his 2011 sequel, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, is “more optimistic.” Things have been happening. Alongside individual scholars, the CCCU and the Lilly Foundation have been fostering serious academic learning and beginning a fruitful legacy. The last twenty years have shown that Christian higher ed is not just a place for contesting cultural values, it can also be a place for competing in the academic arena.

Though offering a very comprehensive historical narrative, The Soul of the American University does have its limitations. The twentieth century does not get as much attention as the nineteenth. There is a tendency to focus primarily on elite schools. This is unavoidable in the earlier history of American higher education, which is justified by the origins and purposes of elite and less elite schools, but a bit more information on state schools and community colleges would be interesting. There could also be some more exploration of late twentieth century religious campus life. However, none of that detracts from the strengths of the book. Though not written in an overly academic style, this book will not likely be as widely read outside academic circles as it should be.

The Soul of the American University was and is an excellent work of history for anyone who wants to know about the role of religion in American higher education. But Marsden’s historical narrative also contains timely cultural observations, about Christianity in our country and about the purpose of college. So many of the current political and cultural divides are over the past and attempts to reclaim or rehabilitate the past, but the warring factions can be slow to take a historical approach to the past. Likewise, many of the debates about the future of higher education fail to appreciate the forces that have shaped the present.

The politically conservative side of American Christianity, often evangelical, is partly animated by a sense of loss. The efforts to “reclaim” the country assume a previous era of cultural dominance and presume that it was good. Marsden’s book is a necessary warning against such a simplistic view. When American culture was indistinguishable from Protestantism, Protestantism received nearly as much influence from the culture as it gave. Marsden writes:

True, Protestant leaders might help shape mainstream American culture, and it seems laudable enough that they saw it as their duty to do so. In fact, mainstream Protestantism, dependent as it was on the voluntary assent of its constituents, needed some accommodations to prevailing values if it was to continue to thrive. Yet at the same time, the values, assumptions, economic pressures, and national aspirations of middle-class capitalist and enlightened America were reshaping Protestant outlooks at least as much as distinctly Christian concerns were infusing American growth.

Being too closely allied with the dominant culture can be detrimental. While Russell Moore’s Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel is a good exploration of that topic broadly, Marsden’s book is a good, detailed example of it. The power that Protestantism wielded in the past did not always bear good fruit. Too much cultural acceptance also led to too much acceptance of culture. In Onward, Russell Moore writes that “A Christianity that is without friction in the culture is a Christianity that dies. Such religion absorbs the ambient culture until it is indistinguishable from it, until, eventually, a culture asks what the point is of the whole thing.” This is exactly what happened with Christianity in higher education and with a number of Christian student organizations. Moore advocates “engaged alienation”—embracing an outsider status and engaging mainstream culture at the same time. Marsden recommends something similar for Christian colleges. He thinks they should embrace their position as a “minority enterprise in a richly diverse society. As such, it will not be able to impose its will on others, but, rather, its challenge will be to make itself so attractive in its practices and outlooks that, despite its inevitable imperfection, others will admire it and want to emulate it.” Christian perspectives in our society will succeed through their appeal, not their access to power. Hopefully works like Marsden’s can decrease the temptations of revanchist narratives in Christian circles.

At the same time, The Soul of the American University points us to greater consideration of the “soul” of the university. Before Christianity became the cultural milieu of higher education, it was also part of enthusiasm for learning and new knowledge. What is the relationship between Christianity and learning now, apart from control of cultural institutions? What should it be? Marsden’s revised book is an excellent opportunity for Christians to consider these questions, because the nature of higher education, in general, is currently contested.

Higher education in our country today is in troubled waters. Politicians debate funding it, the liberal arts are always in danger, parents don’t trust professors, and students are suspicious of the high cost. We hear weekly both that “cancel culture” is rampant on campuses and that outrageous things are taught—too dangerous to be tolerated. Why do colleges exist? In the beginning, they were intended to educate clergy. In the nineteenth century, universities imagined themselves in service to the nation, but service to the nation soon came to include service to business interests. In the twentieth century, universities were are also supposed to be places of unfettered inquiry and, especially in our century, launching pads for personal financial success. Marsden sums up some of the expectations, writing that universities are supposed to “expose students to a variety of viewpoints while fostering critical perspectives that could help them sort out truth and error.” This will benefit the students and help society “by seeking both to understand common humanity and to appreciate difference in a context oriented toward seeking justice and cultivating virtues.” This is a heavy burden when students want climbing walls and starter jobs and campus labs are also supposed to be churning out scientific discoveries.

As our society considers higher education in the twenty-first century, the best way to decide what universities should be is not to gaze into the future which we cannot know, but to study the past for what universities have been and what they have been able to do. The Soul of the American University is a good source of information about that past. Marsden’s thoughtful and thorough historical narrative is not burdened by either nostalgia nor progressivism, and it raises a helpful signpost for our society.

Image: Harvard University’s current motto

Photographer: Nathan Forget

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