The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies in American Higher Education

By Shattuck, Gardiner H., Jr. | Anglican Theological Review, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies in American Higher Education


Shattuck, Gardiner H., Jr., Anglican Theological Review


The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies in American Higher Education. By D. G. Hart. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. xi + 321 pp. $38.00 (cloth).

A few years ago, I was one of about two hundred people who applied for a position in the religion department of a small state college in the South. Although I was lucky enough to be among the forty or so candidates initially interviewed for the job, it soon became clear that the search committee intended to use the occasion simply as a way to reduce an unwieldy number of applicants to a more workable size. Seeking a suitable reason to disqualify me, several members of the committee expressed concern about my status as an Episcopal priest and asked how I would resist the temptation to use the faculty position as a platform for evangelizing my students. Despite my efforts to explain what I thought was the obvious distinction between proselytism and pedagogy, the search committee insisted that no ordained representative of a Christian denomination was capable of approaching the study of religion with the critical distance necessary to teach in a public institution.

Although I was bothered at the time by the bias of my interviewers, I might not have felt quite so upset if I had been able to read D. G. Hart's excellent and insightful history of the development of religious studies in American higher education. As Hart cogently demonstrates, the fears of that search committee were entirely understandable. Prior to the 1960s the academic study of religion had, in fact, been in the hands of Protestant clergy concerned as much with providing pastoral and spiritual guidance to students as with teaching their subject in an impartial or critical manner. Given what Hart calls "the troubled relationship" (p. xi) between Protestantism and higher education over the past century, it is hardly surprising that many people in academia today would view an Episcopal priest teaching religion at a secular institution with alarm.

This book is divided into three major sections, each of which examines the dominant attitude toward religious studies within successive historical periods: the embrace of the modern research university by mainline Protestants between 1870 and 1925; the triumph of neo-orthodox theology and the establishment of religious studies departments between 1925 and 1965; and the emergence of a postmodern concern for religious and cultural diversity from 1965 through the present day. Hart's narrative begins with a discussion of the ideas of Andrew Dickson White, president of Cornell University and author of The History of the Warfare of Theology with Science in Christendom (1896). Despite the title of his book and his condemnation of sectarian bigotry, White not only believed in the compatibility of science and liberal Protestantism, but he also instituted daily chapel services at Cornell. Thanks to the efforts of reformers like White, American educators gradually substituted "Enlightened Christianity" (p. 23) for the allegedly narrow doctrinal traditions taught at denominational colleges prior to the Civil War-a trend supported by most mainline Protestant leaders. Although the fundamentalistmodernist controversy of the early twentieth century called into question the rapprochement between Protestantism and the modern university, the desire for social stability and the dramatic rise in churchgoing after World War II revived interest in the academic study of religion. Since the liberal Protestants who controlled American higher education in the 1950s thought they could depend on the Bible "to combat both secularism at home and totalitarianism abroad" (p. …

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