As documented in the two previous articles in this series, simple appeals to academic freedom soon find themselves mired in disputes about the purpose and limits of such freedom. This dispute expands inevitably to disagreements about the nature of the teaching profession, the academic ideal, and the place of the university in society. Even in secular colleges, the idea is a bone of contention. Not surprisingly, the nature of academic freedom is also disputed among Christian colleges and between Christian and secular colleges.
Diversity Among “Christian” Colleges
Great diversity reigns among “Christian” colleges. Some church-related colleges have so assimilated to the national culture that only vestiges of Christianity remain. Perhaps they require a course or two in religion, maintain a chapel on campus, and employ a chaplain, but otherwise, they differ little from their secular counterparts. Their religious studies departments are very progressive, and there are no confessional requirements for students or faculty. The scope of academic freedom in these colleges tracks perfectly with secular schools.
At the other end of the spectrum are colleges that require administrators, board members, faculty, and students to adhere to a list of orthodox beliefs. Christian symbols permeate the campus, occasions for worship are numerous, attendance is mandatory, and faith-affirming classes in Bible and theology are required. Expressions of faith and prayer in the classroom are encouraged. Strict moral conduct by students and faculty is expected. Continued employment is contingent on abiding by these rules in life, teaching, and research. Confessional boundaries determine the limits of academic freedom.
Between these two extremes lies a spectrum of self-designated “Christian” colleges, Pepperdine University among them. Whether or not a particular college really is Christian is always open for debate. I am willing to admit that various models of the Christian college are possible, just as I am willing to accept some flexibility of belief among churches and individual believers. But there are limits. Outright denial or malicious neglect of core Christian doctrine or abandonment of Christian morality belie claims to Christian character. A college that designates itself as Christian should maintain a constant internal debate about the meaning of that designation.
When a person claims to be a Christian it is reasonable to assume that they sincerely hold the central beliefs proclaimed in the New Testament and wish to be an active and faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. Likewise, when an institution advertises itself as “Christian” it should embody this very same confession in its institutional mission, policies, and code of conduct. The Christian faith encompasses every dimension of life. It is a way of thinking, feeling, and living. Compatibility with the Christian mission should be a determining factor—equal to technical competence—in administrative, faculty, and staff hiring, and in retention, tenure, and promotion decisions. It is relevant to curriculum, co-curriculum, teaching, and research. (For a fuller description of the idea of a Christian college, see my Beacon article “What Makes a University Christian?” from April 2021).
Christian Colleges Contrasted with Secular Colleges
If a college adheres to the above essential marks of a Christian college, its concept of academic freedom will differ markedly from that employed in secular, or nominally Christian colleges. To grasp those differences let’s examine some ways Christian and secular colleges differ.
The Reason to Exist
As a matter of historical record, at least from 1900 onward, Christian colleges were founded as alternatives to secular colleges and universities. The older private colleges and newly established state schools had come first to tolerate and then to promote agnosticism, secular humanism, atheism, social Darwinism, pantheism, and religious indifferentism. The founders of Christian colleges rejected as laughable the claim that these secular colleges were “nonsectarian” or neutral on matters of religion. Christian colleges aimed to protect young minds from being led astray by persuasive presentations of these anti-Christian ideologies. William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) expressed this sentiment clearly in a speech at Taylor University in Upland, IN:
Parents all over this nation are asking me where they can send their sons and daughters to school knowing that their faith in God and in morality will not be destroyed. I find that this is a college where they teach you the Bible instead of apologizing for it, and I shall for this reason recommend Taylor University to inquiring Christian parents [Quoted in William Ringenberg, The Christian College: A History of Protestant Higher Education in America (Baker, 1984, 2006) p. 171].
A few years later, George Pepperdine expressed the same sentiments in this excerpt from his 1937 Dedicatory Address:
…What I mean by the statement “guided by the Hand of God,” is that God’s spirit working through his Holy Word, the Bible, shall influence and control the lives of each and every member of the faculty to such extent that he will spread Christian influence among the students… If we educate a man’s mind and improve his intellect with all the scientific knowledge men have discovered and do not educate the heart by bringing it under the influence of God’s Word, the man is dangerous…. All instruction is to be under conservative, Fundamental Christian supervision with stress upon the importance of strict Christian living….[you faculty] shall conduct your lives in such a manner as to be noble examples of Christian living in the presence of the students who are likely to be influenced more by what you do than by what you say…In this way, we shall do our small bit to glorify the name of God in the earth and extend His Kingdom among the children of men.
For Bryan, Pepperdine, and the founders of scores of other Christian colleges, the Christian worldview served as the intellectual and moral framework to give coherence to institutional policies, curriculum, and co-curriculum.
Christian colleges were not founded as research universities or as instruments to serve the national interest in agriculture, industry, and defense. It was not their purpose to change or preserve the national culture. Their aim was much less grandiose, being a direct extension of the aspirations of churches and Christian parents. It was to educate young people to live as Christians in their chosen vocations, as ministers, missionaries, teachers, and other professions. Christian colleges transforming themselves into research universities and touting their service to the nation is a recent development. Unhappily, this transformation seems always to be accompanied by a loss of Christian identity.
As we learned in previous articles in this series, founding the American Association of University Professors (1915) was part of an effort by leading professors at America’s top research universities to consolidate the growing demand for the professionalization of the professorate. Among their goals were creating nationwide, academic standards for higher education and cultivating an elite culture for the teaching profession. Not surprisingly, their standards and culture were those most congenial to the secular research university and the self-interests of the professors who teach there. They wished to nationalize and standardize the image of professors as secular saints devoted to discovering truth; they are courageous, unbiased, and free from all external loyalties.
Teachers who embrace fully the founding purpose and mission of the Christian college do not fit the image of the professor whose highest loyalty is to the profession as secular universities understand it. Ideally, Christian college professors would possess a technical mastery of their subject area equal to that of professors in secular universities. Yet they would remain critical of ways in which secular professors sometimes import alien frameworks and anti-Christian philosophical, moral, and political beliefs into their research and teaching. However, because holding such views seems to be required to maintain standing in these fields, Christian professors may feel like strangers within the profession.
The Academic Ideal
As we learned in previous articles, even secular colleges debate the nature and purpose of academia: Should academia be driven by the cool, objective search for truth? Or, should it aim to reform society in a mood of urgency and advocacy? Champions of the truth-seeking approach accuse the cause-advocating group of abandoning reason for political advocacy. In response to this charge, the cause-advocating group accuses the truth-seeking group of hypocrisy. According to activist professors, the high-flown rhetoric of disinterested science hides its intellectual assumptions and socioeconomic agenda.
Perhaps these two alternatives are not mutually exclusive. Even so, thoughtful Christian academics will not combine them in the same way that secular academics do. Christian professors value reason and truth-seeking highly and they prize fairness in critical evaluations. In this, they resemble the truth-seeking ideal. But they do not pretend to take a neutral attitude toward the Christian understanding of God, the world, humanity, and morality. This stance of advocacy they have in common with the cause-advocating secular academics.
The real difference, then, between Christian academics and truth-seeking secular academics is not that one group values reason and truth and the other does not. They differ, rather, in the assumptions they make and the boundaries they respect. Likewise, Christian academics and cause-advocating secular academics do not differ in that one serves non-academic causes, and the other refrains from serving any cause outside of academia. They differ in the causes they serve.
Academic freedom is about the freedom to teach and learn within limits clearly defined by an academic institution. This description applies both to secular and Christian colleges. The limits on academic freedom differ according to the ways each type understands the mission of the college, the character of the profession, and the nature of academia. Secular colleges grant professors the freedom to advocate agnostic, atheist, immoralist/libertine, and other views incompatible with the Christian faith but deny them the freedom to teach and advocate Christianity. In contrast, Christian colleges deny (or should deny!) professors freedom to advocate atheist, agnostic, immoralist/libertine, or any other view it regards as anti-Christian.
Understandably, professors want maximum freedom and secure employment. But there is no college that allows unlimited academic freedom and unconditional tenure. If a professor wants the freedom to teach unbelief and immorality and recruit students for those causes, they should seek employment where they have the freedom to do this. Similarly, if a professor wants freedom to argue that Christianity is true, good, and beautiful, they may be happier in a Christian college, which allows and encourages such advocacy. If secular colleges wish to teach anti-Christian views, this is a decision for those institutions and their stakeholders to make. And if Christian colleges and their stakeholders decide that anti-Christian views and values must not be taught and practiced, this is their prerogative. There is no rationally self-evident or divinely revealed law of academic freedom, and there is no academic supreme court to settle disputes among different views. Institutions must discover through dialogue and debate among the interested parties a balance that works best for them. I offer this Beacon series on academic freedom as a contribution to this discussion at Pepperdine University.
Ron Highfield, Professor
Religion and Philosophy Division