Religious Upsurge Brings Culture Clash to College Campuses

Article excerpt

It's a rainy Thursday night, a few days before finals, and Northwestern University's campus is deserted. But students can hear the raucous music emanating from one old stone building long before they step inside.

"Blessed be Your glorious name!" sings a throng of 100-plus students, led by amped-up guitarists, a drummer, and backup singers on stage.

It would take more than rain or exams to keep them away from these Thursday nights of singing, praising God, and sharing their relationships with Jesus.

Religion on campus - particularly evangelical groups like this one - is thriving these days, but it doesn't always find an easy home in the intellectual, secular world of higher education. For instance, Campus Crusade for Christ, which sponsors the Thursday gatherings, has butted heads with the administration here over a questionnaire on religious interest that the group gives to freshmen. Other schools are dropping the college chaplaincy, seeing it as an outdated tradition.

The notion of the university as developer of the whole person - the life of the spirit as well as the life of the mind - has faded since the days of mandatory chapel attendance. Even colleges with religious ties are often reluctant to step into the highly sensitive terrain of spirituality. But as students express more interest in questions of values and faith - and a frustration with how little those ideas are explored in the classroom - it's clear that college culture, at least for students, isn't quite as secular as some assume.

"Higher education is kind of founded on that maxim of 'Know thyself,' " says Jennifer Lindholm, director for a recent survey on spirituality at UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute (HERI). "It's nice to see that students are so ... interested in these intangible aspects of themselves."

The survey she directed is the first step in a multi-year study of spirituality in higher education. And its findings are surprising. Of 3,700 college juniors surveyed, 77 percent say they pray, 71 percent consider religion personally helpful, and 73 percent say religious or spiritual beliefs have helped develop their identity.

Fewer - just 55 percent - said they were satisfied with how their college experience provided "opportunities for religious/spiritual development," and 62 percent say their professors never encourage discussions of spiritual issues.

The survey is more a snapshot than a measure of change, but those on campuses say the trend is noticeable. "The pendulum continues to swing up," says the Rev. Alison Boden at the University of Chicago. "It was a very different scene in 1991."

Part of the interest may be simple curiosity, particularly among students who weren't raised with a lot of religion. "They start experimenting with everything from hair, to what they're going to major in, to not wanting to be a CPA like Dad," explains Ms. Boden. Other students, she says, crave religion's structure and guidance - a desire that often leads them to more conservative practices. Those who grew up as Reform Jews, for instance, might try Orthodox Judaism.

And then there are the Christian evangelical groups, like Campus Crusade and InterVarsity, which emphasize conservative Christian values and a personal relationship with God and Jesus - and which seem to be flourishing just about everywhere. …