The Once and Future Mainline College

Paul W. Gleason reviews Robert Benne’s Keeping the Soul in Christian Higher Education

Robert Benne, Keeping the Soul in Christian Higher Education: A History of Roanoke College, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017, 302pp., $28.00.

By now, the demographic decline of the Protestant mainline churches is unmistakable. The grim details appear in one survey after another, and running underneath these statistics are powerful cultural currents, such as low birth rates and the end of the old WASP hegemony in American government, business, and academia. Schools like Harvard and Yale were founded with Protestant identities and missions, which have all but disappeared. This process of secularization is the subject of Robert Benne’s Keeping the Soul in Christian Higher Education. Although primarily concerned with the history of one school, Roanoke College (a small Lutheran school in Virginia), this book inevitably raises questions about other mainline institutions’ future and purpose. How can schools like Roanoke best serve their churches? Or even more essentially, should they keep their old denominational ties at all?

Benne’s book offers us a chance to ask these questions and venture answers, and not only about Roanoke. In Roanoke, where Benne has taught for 35 years, he finds “a microcosm of Christian higher education, at least for those schools of the Protestant mainline.” At the time of its founding in 1854, it too had an explicit Protestant mission. Today it remains affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), but a student tour guide, asked whether the college had a religious affiliation, could reply: “Yes, but it doesn’t make any difference.” Benne sets out to understand what happened and what (if anything) can be done about it.

The book ends on a note of cautious optimism, arguing that Roanoke can still pursue every part of its old mission at once: scholarly rigor, service to community and nation, and a special place for the Lutheran faith. He calls his solution for Roanoke “intentional pluralism.” Whether or not it’s a workable solution requires a closer look at the history of religious higher education in America, and especially at the unintended consequences and ironies that have made secularization so hard for a college like Roanoke to avoid. If anything Benne might be too optimistic. His school’s identity is in some tension, to say the least, with several of the most important axioms of higher education today.   

Roanoke’s first president was a minister named David Bittle. Although he was born and remained a Lutheran all his life, his faith was a uniquely American blend of evangelical Protestantism, liberal and republican moral thought, and “common sense” philosophy. Politically, men like Bittle believed that the interests of their church and nation were complementary, if not identical. Building one, you inevitably built the other. Intellectually, they trusted that the truths of faith, science, and morality were all available to “common sense” inquiry. Their faith spread across the nation on waves of revivalist fervor, commonly known as the great awakenings, and became the dominant Protestant culture of the nation.

Besides preaching, men like Bittle also founded colleges. The 19th century was a boom period for religious education. By the 1860s around 160 denominational colleges dotted the American landscape, and they accounted for more than 80% of the nation’s institutes of higher learning. Their curriculums were logical extensions of their founders’ beliefs. Bittle laid out the college’s three-fold mission in his inaugural lecture. It must fearlessly pursue truth, both in the liberal arts and in the natural sciences. It must produce students of good character, so that the graduates would be both good Christians and upright citizens, in a position to serve or even lead the nation. And it must be broadly Christian, welcoming all those who trusted in “the Word of God, the atoning merits of Jesus Christ, and the renovating power of the Holy Spirit.” This curriculum rested on a deep foundational premise: the unity of truth. According to the historian George Marsden, “it was a widely shared article of faith that science, common sense, morality, and true religion were firmly allied.” With its joint moral and intellectual mission, Roanoke resembled colleges from Harvard and Yale to the Midwestern frontier.

Bittles’ ideals guided Roanoke College long after his death. His successors like Julius Dreher and Charles Smith reaffirmed the college’s commitment to the liberal arts, service to the nation, and a broad Christian identity. Even if, as Benne notes, the college’s presidents sometimes traded Bittles’ full-throated evangelism with something closer to a “protoliberal, Unitarian version of the faith,” they could assume that most of Roanoke’s students, administration, and faculty belonged to the same broadly Protestant intellectual and moral culture. As late as its 1945 mission statement, Roanoke College was “an atmosphere dominated by Christian ideals of service and conduct.”

Yet by 1945, as Benne is aware, the unity of Protestant moral and intellectual culture was falling apart. In fact, it had been fracturing for some time.

First to go was the unity of Christianity and scholarship. In the late 19th century, Darwinism and historical-critical approaches to the Bible challenged many traditional doctrines, but perhaps even more consequential for higher education was the adoption of what Benne calls “the methods and models of the German research university.” As understood by their American counterparts, German academics’ work was specialized, disinterested, and radically open to questioning and discarding old theories and paradigms. Most American academics did not consider the German approach hostile to faith. On the contrary, confident in the unity of truth, they believed that open-ended inquiry would confirm Christianity, or at least place a modernized version on firmer ground. At first, the German model only edged out more doctrinally conservative Protestants. But over time it had unintended consequences for liberal-minded Protestants, too. First, as scholarly inquiry became narrower, its moral and religious relevance became unclear, undermining the unity of truth. Second, because free inquiry became the supreme scholarly value, religious faith became irrelevant to research, if not actually harmful. It could all too easily prejudice academic inquiry. Unintentionally but steadily, Christianity lost its place in the intellectual life of the academy.

Roanoke College did not follow these trends immediately. During the first decades of the 20th century, as the German university model was sweeping the upper echelons of the American academy, president John Morehead still affirmed the “old-style liberal arts” curriculum. But Roanoke was not immune for long. Once faculty at places like Harvard and the University of Michigan adopted new scholarly standards and practices, they passed those techniques and values on to their graduate students, who then got jobs not only at research universities but also at liberal arts and teaching colleges. This is precisely what happened at Roanoke. During the tenure of president Sherman Oberly (the fifties and early sixties) departments started to hire more on the basis of academic credentials than “affinity” with the college’s Christian mission. The new faculty raised the school’s academic reputation, but as Benne points out, some “were apathetic and perhaps even hostile to the Christian base of the college’s republican tradition.” 

Even as Christianity was moving to the margins of Roanoke’s intellectual life, it retained an important place in the college’s moral life. This was also the case at most institutions around the nation. Elite colleges and universities were as committed as ever to serving the nation by training its leaders, and that meant teaching students good Protestant, liberal, and republican values. But not for long. As Jews and Catholics pointed out, these institutions’ self-described inclusiveness left a lot of Americans out. Taking these criticisms to heart, more and more university leaders decided that living up to their institutions’ republican and liberal principles meant downplaying their religious missions, or even ending them. After all, wouldn’t it be better to base the college’s moral mission on broad American principles, shared by almost everyone? In Harvard’s 1945 report on General Education in a Free Society, the authors denied that religious instruction had a place in the undergraduate curriculum, “given the American scene with its variety of faiths and even of unfaith.”

After the Second World War, religion on many campuses became almost entirely an extracurricular, voluntary affair. Roanoke followed the trend, as is evident from its evolving mission statement. The 1963 statement promised “a Christian atmosphere.” In the mid-70’s, Roanoke became a “setting in which Christian experience is available.” And in a statement that stood until the year 2000, the school honored “its Christian heritage” while also “welcoming and reflecting a variety of religious traditions.” Once again, it would be a mistake to think that Roanoke had simply rejected its old values. Rather, serving the church and the national interest became two different things, and in an ironic twist, the college’s liberal Protestant ideals undermined its Protestant character.

Which is not to say that Roanoke became completely secular. As Benne wrote in a previous book, colleges can be Christian in a variety of ways. Schools can be “orthodox,” requiring a specific faith statement; “critical mass,” with a large and deliberate denominational presence; “intentional pluralist,” open to all but with a special and guaranteed place for Christianity; or “accidental pluralist,” with Christianity as just one voice among many. Today Roanoke fits into the intentional pluralist category, and Benne himself has done much to make that happen. Hired by president Norman Fintel in the 1980’s to reverse or at least stymie the trend of secularization, he helped to revitalize the religion and philosophy department, led a new center for “Church and society,” and brought the college closer to its Lutheran roots, for instance through endowed chairs in Lutheran studies. In the final pages of the book, he claims that “this ‘modest privileging’ of the intentional pluralist strategy seems reasonable and nonthreatening. Most fair-minded persons would assent to it.”   

Yet if the history of secularization in American higher education (and Benne’s own experience) is any guide, even a modest “intentional pluralism” will be hard to maintain. On the intellectual side, “hiring for mission” – seeking out Lutherans or other mainliners – contravenes the principle that academic credentials are the only criteria by which scholars should judge each other. Outside the faculty, Roanoke’s human resources department discouraged departmental chairs from asking potential hires about their faiths. Legal counsel persuaded the college to drop its requirement that the president be a Lutheran. On the moral side, programs for Christian formation within the college may also meet stiff opposition. Take Benne’s efforts to win a Lily grant for “Theological Exploration of Vocation.” He hoped to implement it across the curriculum and thereby “re-center the college’s basic identity and mission around the grand Lutheran concept of vocation,” but a group of “secularist” faculty objected furiously. They perceived “a threat to academic freedom and faculty control.” They even argued against recruiting more Lutheran students. Why seek them out specifically when the social goal of the school is to form leaders for a pluralistic republic? Even a “modest privileging” of Christianity goes against long-standing secularizing currents in American higher education: value-free inquiry, strict neutrality with regards to religion, and service to the nation as a whole.

Consequently, a college like Roanoke will have to swim against those currents if it wants to keep its “soul.” That won’t be easy, but it would be worthwhile. In the last pages of his book Benne urges Roanoke to keep faith with its past, but what’s most important about these colleges is the role they could play in their churches’ futures.

The fate of mainline educational institutions in part reflects the fate of their denominations. Mid-century mainline leaders rightly saw that they could not hold a monopoly on power in American life, academic or otherwise, in an increasingly diverse society, but they left their descendants without a clear plan for becoming, in the words of Martin Marty, a “creative minority.” As they stand today, mainline churches need new self-conceptions. They need to sit and think. Fortunately, that’s precisely what colleges and universities are good for. Schools like Roanoke have a rare chance to shape the identities, and therefore the futures, of their churches.

To be clear, these schools would not have to adopt strict faith statements. Nor would they have to bar people of different faiths, or none. But they would have to recognize that serving the nation and church are now different things, and be at least as committed to the latter as they are to the former. They would have to allow and even encourage (though never require) scholarship that was not disinterested but engaged—with the past, present, and future intellectual life of their sponsoring churches. In short, they would have to live at odds with some of the reigning assumptions in academia.

Once again, this would make them more like their parent churches. Mainline Protestantism is no longer mainstream, in higher education or in the nation. That’s scary for these institutions, because it’s uncharted territory in American history. But it should also be exciting. It opens up big questions: if a church like Roanoke’s ELCA is no longer a bulwark in the post-war, liberal consensus, then what will it be? The answer might be nothing at all. But then again it might be something new under the sun. Colleges like Roanoke have an opportunity to look for answers and have some say in what happens next.

Paul W. Gleason is a PhD candidate in the University of Virginia’s Religious Studies department and was recently named one of the nation’s “emerging critics” by the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Los Angeles and teaches at California Lutheran University.

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