The sterling New York Times reporting team of Laurie Goodstein and David D. Kirkpatrick served up a fine story idea this past weekend under the headline "On a Christian Mission to the Top." The basic question: What happens when very traditional Christians attempt to reestablish a base in what was once a haven for high-level discourse about faith -- the Ivy League schools?
And the Times report about the "Christian Union" organization -- which is reported in a very calm and fair manner -- delivers the goods, at least at first. Here is a solid chunk of that, focusing on missionary Tim Havens and his work at Brown University:
Like most of the Ivy League universities, Brown was founded by Protestant ministers as an expressly Christian college. But over the years it gradually shed its religious affiliation and became a secular institution, as did the other Ivies. In addition to Buddhists, the Brown chaplain's office now recognizes "heathen/pagan" as a "faith community."
But these days evangelical students like those in Mr. Havens's prayer group are becoming a conspicuous presence at Brown. Of a student body of 5,700, about 400 participate in one of three evangelical student groups -- more than the number of active mainline Protestants, the campus chaplain says. And these students are in the vanguard of a larger social shift not just on campuses but also at golf resorts and in boardrooms; they are part of an expanding beachhead of evangelicals in the American elite.
There you have the problem, slipping in there at the end of these summary paragraphs. Instead of focusing on a truly interesting trend -- evangelicals trying to engage elite academic culture, rather than flee it -- the story veers off into ultra-familiar territory about evangelical niches and the movement's rising clout in other areas of American life, business and, of course, politics.
Yes, those subjects are connected to the Ivy League story. But the Times report dedicates so much attention there that -- quite literally -- the story never delivers the goods on the subject in the lead. It seems that the story gets hijacked a third of the way in and it never recovers.
Here is another glimpse of what could have been:
Now a few affluent evangelicals are directing their attention and money at some of the tallest citadels of the secular elite: Ivy League universities. Three years ago a group of evangelical Ivy League alumni formed the Christian Union, an organization intended to "reclaim the Ivy League for Christ," according to its fund-raising materials, and to "shape the hearts and minds of many thousands who graduate from these schools and who become the elites in other American cultural institutions."
The Christian Union has bought and maintains new evangelical student centers at Brown, Princeton and Cornell, and has plans to establish a center on every Ivy League campus. In April, 450 students, alumni and supporters met in Princeton for an "Ivy League Congress on Faith and Action."
I hope this is the start of a series of articles, but I doubt that is the case.
In the end, it seems that anything linked to religious believers has to get hooked to the true religion in the Times newsroom -- politics. That is, after all, what life is all about.