Most defenses of evangelical colleges miss the point-rigid orthodoxy does not go well with the quest for knowledge.
Christian colleges have been with us since Harvard and Princeton universities were founded several centuries ago for religious reasons. Recently, such institutions have achieved phenomenal, though quiet, growth. Writing in the June 22, 2005, issue of USA Today, Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of God on the Quad, points to a 67 percent jump in enrollment at evangelical colleges from 1992 to 2002. Noting that they do not fit the caricature imagined by many secularists, Riley extols their students' strong moral beliefs and argues that they have become more tolerant and willing to accept modern science than in the past. To be sure, religious colleges exist on a continuum, from the barely affiliated to the ultraorthodox. Still, Riley overlooks a troubling constraint that many of these schools impose on their faculty: the requirement that faculty members subscribe to statements of religious faith as a condition of employment.
Statements of faith differ from institution to institution but often ask faculty members to profess to believe in the literal truth of the Bible. These statements have teeth; violation of them through pedagogy, research, or activism can be grounds for punitive action, including termination, at some institutions. Several high-profile cases of such dismissals have brought attention to statements of faith and stirred some debate as to their propriety. (see, for example, "Do Professors Lose Academic Freedom by Signing Statements of Faith?" in the May 24, 2002, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education.) In 1999, the AAUP's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure published a report titled The "Limitations" Clause in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure: Some Operating Guidelines, which recommends ways to apply the Association's "limitations" clause to religious institutions.1 The guidelines do not, however, address whether such statements are appropriate at all.
Supporters of restrictions on academic freedom in religious colleges make four arguments as to their appropriateness: that such institutions reflect the pluralism of our nation and contribute to civil society; that complete academic freedom is an impossible and indeed unwanted goal; that religious institutions with their restrictions play a special and better role in producing morally good citizens; and that such restrictions are not restrictions at all since faculty and students choose them voluntarily.
Proponents of dogmatic religious colleges assert that they reflect the beauty and grandeur of American pluralism. In the January-February 2001 issue of Academe, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff claims that religious colleges are a "prime manifestation of the extraordinary vitality of American civil society." According to this thinking, such pluralism is not simply a necessary corollary of freedom of speech and association at a college or university but is instead a crucial part of the fabric of American society.
It sounds like common sense to say that it is good for civil society to have many different institutions operate independently of standardized governmental purview. French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville made this observation as long ago as the nineteenth century. But is it true? In fact, theorists of social capital are unsure whether religious institutions contribute to social capital-an important measure of the strength of civic association developed by Harvard public policy professor Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone. Several studies have documented that theologically conservative associations (those most likely to demand orthodoxy in their institutions of higher education) inhibit the building of social capital and the strengthening of civil society (see, for example, the article by Anne Birgitta Yeung in the September 2004 issue of the Nonprofit and Voluntary sector Quarterly). Perhaps the more common-sense view would be to say: dogmatic separatists are not the model for civic-minded citizens.
Many supporters of religious institutions argue that academic freedom, like many other freedoms, is not and should not be an absolute freedom. Thus Wolterstorff claims in Academe that "every educational institution does and should attach qualifications to that freedom. The issue will always be which qualifications are appropriate." Historian George Mardsen echoes this thinking in The Soul of the American University: "All educational institutions impose limits on what may be said or taught; religious institutions will simply determine those limits somewhat differently than will nonreligious ones."
It is important to concede, sadly, that academic freedom is imperfectly honored in secular institutions. Faculty often feel constrained by de jure restrictions (such as policies on professional standards and inappropriate speech) and numerous de facto limitations (such as unofficial ideological constraints based on "political correctness" or matters of office politics). Although most liberal-minded people lament many of these constraints, few would jettison them all. Some of the restrictions are inevitable in order to foster environments where learning and creative debate can take place (restrictions on racial epithets, for example). Others are the inevitable result of human nature (office politics and unofficial ideological peer pressure). Most would agree, however, that academic freedom does not include the freedom to state that the moon is made of green cheese.
What about restrictions resulting from professional standards of competence? Yes, an astronomer is restricted from stating that the moon is made of green cheese, because this issue has been settled (largely because of academic freedom) by the professionals in the field. Whether the Bible is inerrant or whether the world was created in six days are much more subject to debate. Restrictions on such questions are indeed different in kind, not in degree, from restrictions made through professional standards.
Do religious institutions play a special role in producing morally good citizens? Mardsen, in his defense of religious restrictions on academic freedom, claims that a religious orientation "often makes such colleges better at producing morally responsible citizens than the giant universities." One may concede the debatable point that religious people are more moral than those who are not religious and still ask, Why must the institution adhere to orthodox dogma to produce such morally good citizens? As psychologist Robert Altemeyer pointed out in his 1996 book, The Authoritarian Specter, dogmatic citizens (including those who are religiously dogmatic) have a host of undesirable traits, such as intolerance, undemocratic sympathies, and a lack of appreciation of civil liberties.
Supporters of statements of faith claim that the statements are not restrictions because the students and the faculty voluntarily associate with the institution. Mardsen tries to assuage fears by noting of faculty signatories, "They, after all, have freely chosen to work under such confessional constraints." Recent controversiessuch as those discussed in the Chronicle article cited above, in which popular faculty who have received high evaluations have been dismissed from institutions for violating restrictions on academic freedom-would seem to call this claim into question.
You need have only a basic knowledge of the academic job market to know that many new PhDs take positions with institutions whose values they might not wholly endorse. These faculty members, of course, intend to be competent members of whatever college community offers them work. What of the faculty member who comes to an institution fully subscribing to the statement of faith but who then finds a different view of truth? Must this person either suppress these new ideas or resign?
Academic freedom is an important particular manifestation of the general idea of freedom of speech. As the U.S. Supreme Court noted in Sweezy v. New Hampshire (perhaps the most famous academic freedom case), "Mere unorthodoxy or dissent from prevailing mores is not to be condemned. The absence of such voices would be a symptom of grave illness in our society." Interestingly, many religious institutions bill themselves as little communities or societies. To the extent that they are, the refusal of unorthodox voices would be a grave symptom for these communities, preventing the voices of a future Aquinas, Luther, or Calvin (all of whom found their voices stifled by orthodoxy at one time). Let us hope that these institutions, which would readily agree that the truth shall set them free, can realize that forced dogma will inhibit the search for liberating truth.
1. The "limitations clause" in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure maintains that "limitations on academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of appointment."
Kenneth Wagner is assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Radford University.…