The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies in American Higher Education

By Law, Ishmael | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2001 | Go to article overview
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The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies in American Higher Education


Law, Ishmael, The Catholic Historical Review


The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies in American Higher Education. By D. G. Hart. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1999. Pp. xiv, 321. $38.00.)

Darryl Hart of Westminster Seminary reconstructs the Liberal Protestant establishment's efforts to gain a subdued presence on campuses in the United States. Conforming initially to the Enlightenment dogma that only empirical evidence verifies scientific (the only worthwhile) understanding, they were left with little to offer but morality and piety. And in the "First Age," 1870-1925, Liberal Protestants conceded that not even morality could be purveyed by a "sect" (church), which dealt only in private, unverifiable, claims. They saw no difficulty, however, in its being purveyed by a nation. Faith thus repressed became a vague moral earnestness in service of "the Power in the Universe which makes for righteousness," or "whatever in human sensibility is of finer texture." Indeed.

So Religion hid in chapel. At the turn of the century, churches began funding a miscellany of campus programs: Sunday schools, campus ministers, and endowed chairs of Bible study. Then in the 1920's foundations began to endow schools of religion, lecture series, chaplaincies, and campus congregations. And they saw that it was Good: verifiably Good. "Jesus was scientific, Christianity was tolerant and generous, science was fundamentally ethical" (p. 89).

Early in the second "Age of the Protestant Establishment," 1925-1965, mainline Protestant efforts enjoyed a new access: broad course requirements in General Education or Western Civilization, where their Bible or ethics courses were accepted for credit as "developing a sense of values." The National Association of Biblical Instructors (NABI) was founded in 1909 to provide academic respectability.

The Neo-Orthodoxy of the thirties was impatient with all this reductionism, and called instead for scholarly biblical studies and theology-on their own terms.

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