All Is Not Lost: An Early Look at the Class of '96

By Hunt, Michael J. | Commonweal, April 9, 1993 | Go to article overview

All Is Not Lost: An Early Look at the Class of '96


Hunt, Michael J., Commonweal


"The strongest signal yet of the passing of the decade of greed--and a hint that the '60s-style social activism is on the rise"; the Boston Globe's education reporter, Anthony Flint, had been sifting through a statistical treasure house. It is the annual study of college freshmen that has been compiled for the last twenty-seven years by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles. This year's study of college freshmen provides us with a snapshot of attitudes, plans, backgrounds, and opinions based on a survey of 213,630 entering freshmen, statistically adjusted to represent the 1.7 million young people who entered college in the fall of 1992. Flint, along with other commentators, noted a growing social awareness among this year's freshmen. For example, when asked if they agree with the statement that "racial discrimination is no longer a major problem in America," 85.1 percent disagree, up from 79.1 percent of last year's freshman class.

For those of us serving in the church's ministries to higher education, the UCLA study also suggests that we may have a much more receptive audience among college students than we have imagined.

A closer took at the study (The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 13, 1993), yields some very interesting, if less publicized, insights into the religious identity and religious values of today's freshmen. When asked to name their current religious preference (italics mine), 30.5 percent identify themselves as Roman Catholic, indicating that Catholics, usually estimated at 22 per cent of the U.S. population, are over-represented. What makes that 30.5 percent noteworthy is that students themselves, and not their parents, were asked. In other words, they're self-identified Catholics. They also form the largest religious group among freshmen, followed by Baptists at 19.3 percent. "None" ranks third as a religious preference, with Methodists in fourth place (8.8 percent).

A major and frequently neglected religious demographic emerges in response to another question: "Are you a born-again Christian?" Almost a third, 31.7 percent, say they are. While little ambiguity was permitted by this question with its direct yes or no answer, the numbers suggest that the appeal of born-again Christianity cannot be treated as a transitory fad in American religious life.

That such a large number would claim affiliation with either Catholicism or born-again Christianity--the two most controversial and certainly the least politically correct religious groups in America today---constitutes a first point of reflection: Religious groups that offer a countercultural alternative to the dominant, highly seculanzed culture are exactly those religious options which attract the largest numbers and the greatest participation. The numbers in this study of college freshmen are yet another indication of the superficiality of seculanst analysis that holds that the role of religion is in great decline and that the future belongs to those religious traditions that make the greatest accommodations to the prevailing culture.

Born-again Christianity and Catholicism arrive at their encounters with modernity from different histories and employ largely incompatible theological methods. Even so, both are at odds with some aspects of American society, propelling them into the center of several current controversies, some of them considered beyond the need of argument: complete personal privacy and freedom, the divorce of public law from the reach of traditional morality, tolerance of all manner of diversity (except that which questions the dominant culture), and the relegation of most individual or personal morality to a private, and irrelevant, sphere.

Abortion alone illustrates the substance and climate of current controversy. It would be both foolish and inaccurate to assume that every freshman who identifies as a born-again Christian or as a Catholic fully subscribes to that tradition's stance on abortion. …

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