Random Notes From What I’m Reading

The story of my life is the story of my faith…

Christians at the Top of the Class

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“Most Americans assume that smart people are rarely devout and that devout Christians rarely scale the academic heights. While there certainly are reasons for this perception, we have to remember that throughout the church history, learning and piety have been closely wedded. Practically every university in the Ivy League was founded to serve the church, and for most of their history, these institutions have been places where faith and knowledge support one another. In truth, Christian anti-intellectualism was an anomaly for the twentieth century. For the majority of the time, it has been a part of the church’s past, and developments today suggest it will not be a part of the church’s future.The Reverend Peter Gomes – who taught at Harvard for the last forty years – says, “There are probably more evangelicals (on Harvard’s campus today) than at any time since the seventeenth century.” Indeed, Christian groups are thriving on college campuses around the country, including those at some of the country’s top schools. At Princeton alone, close to 10 percent of the student body is regularly involved in one or more of the Christian groups on campus. And the number of students involved with the Harvard chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ has increased fivefold over the last two decades. Similar developments can be seen at Stanford, Duke and Yale.Student enrollment at Christian colleges and universities has grown 60 percent since 1990, while the general college student population has barely changed. The percentages of evangelicals earning at least a college degree has increased by 133 percent, which is much more than any other religious tradition. Indeed, the rise of evangelicals on America’s elite campuses is one of the most notable developments in higher education over the last thirty years. As highly selective universities have sought to diversity their student bodies by race, gender and ethnicity, they have also unintentionally diversified their campuses religious makeup. As Gomes said, “A lot of Midwestern white-bread Protestant Christian evangelicals at whom Harvard would have never looked in the past, and who would have never looked at Harvard, suddenly became members of the university.”

It is not merely students who are bringing their faith to bear on the life of the mind. A growing number of devout professors have been recognized for their academic excellence. Outspoken Christians are tenured faculty members at places like Berkeley, Virginia, Emory and Dartmouth. Harvard Divinity School now has an endowed professorship in evangelical theological studies. It is funded by the family of Alonzo McDonald, a senior white house staffer under President Carter and the former worldwide managing partner for McKinsey & Company. In many ways, McDonald embodies this upsurge of smart Christianity. A Harvard alumnus himself, McDonald has sponsored several initiatives surrounding the life of the mind, including programs at Emory.

A growing number of graduate students are also engaging their faith in various ways. The Harvey Fellows program, sponsored by Dennis and Eileen Bakke, provide significant financial support for graduate students enrolled in top academic programs like Yale Law School, Harvard Business School and PhD programs around the country. Modeled in part on the White House Fellows Program, the program has supported approximately 250 fellows worldwide in everything from the art, humanities, and social sciences to law, medicine, business, science, and engineering. Each summer, new fellows participate in a week long seminar. From being hosted at the Supreme Court by an associate justice to interacting with the Librarian of Congress, Harvey Fellows are offered educational experiences that rival those held for Rhodes, Marshall, and Gates scholars. Applicants have to sign a statement of faith and discuss the relevance of their spiritual lives for their chosen vocations. They also must demonstrate the top ranking of their academic department, which ensures that only very talented students are selected. Initiatives like these have contributed to what others have called “an expanding beachhead” for people of faith at America’s most selective universities.

Throughout history, the church, in both Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions, has supported the scientific research of Newton to the literary contributions of Chesterton. Developments in recent years have enabled a growing number of faithful Christ followers to shed their cultural insularity of Christianity’s past. If events of the last few years continue, outspoken Christians will come to occupy even more important roles within the intellectual mainstream. Indeed, they are already well on their way.”

D. Michael Lindsay, professor of sociology, Rice University

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Written by Ryan

February 6, 2008 at 12:49 pm

Posted in Books, Christian, Religion

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