Define "religious campus," please

If I have learned anything in my two decades as a professor in Christian higher education, it is this. There is no one approach to "Christian" higher education. There are Catholic schools, for example, and then there are schools that inspired -- or words to that effect -- by the "Catholic tradition." There are Baptist schools and there are schools founded by Baptists that now honor "Baptist principles" or Judeo-Christian principles or something like that. Soon, I imagine, there will be evangelical schools and then there will be competing schools that honor the fervent evangelical faith of their founders, etc., etc.

Want to play along? Then dig into this somewhat recent (I'm afraid that it's been at the top of the tmatt folder of GetReligion guilt for some time now) Religion News Service story about the academic war that some atheists have been waging as of late to build official, campus-recognized groups for nonbelievers on "Christian" campuses.

The problem, of course, is that the story is full of apples and oranges, in terms of the various faith commitment levels of the schools that are all clumped under the "religious school" umbrella.

Late one night over pizza, University of Dayton students Branden King and Nick Haynes discovered neither of them believed in God.

Surely, they thought, they couldn’t be the only unbelievers at the Roman Catholic college.

Last year, King and Haynes and a couple of other like-minded students applied to the administration to form the Society of Freethinkers, a student club based on matters of unbelief. The university rejected their application -- and rejected them again in September. Without university approval, the group cannot meet on campus, tap a student activities fund, participate in campus events or use campus media.

That sound you hear is conservative Catholics chuckling about Dayton be identified as some kind of strict Roman Catholic college.

Later in the story, there is this interesting snippet of hard, factual material.

The Secular Student Alliance, a national organization of nontheistic students with 320 campus chapters, reports at least two other religious universities -- Notre Dame and Baylor -- have rejected clubs for atheist, agnostic, humanist and other nontheistic students. Students at Duquesne, a Catholic school, say they have little hope of approval on their first application this year.

All the schools say they rejected the clubs because they conflict with their Christian mission -- which perplexes some students who note that Duquesne, Dayton and Notre Dame approved Muslim and Jewish student clubs. Dayton and Duquesne have also approved gay student groups. ...

The Rev. James Fitz, Dayton’s vice president, said the school can support a gay student club without condoning the members’ sexual orientation. Approving non-Catholic religious clubs is acceptable, too, because faith in God is involved.

“As a Marianist university we aspire ‘to educate for formation in faith,' ” he wrote in an email, quoting Marianist principles.

Ah, Marianist principles. Do the math.

Actually, I believe that some of these atheistic groups may be on solid ground with their protests. The key is whether these so-called religious schools -- as voluntary educational associations -- have made their doctrinal and religious rules explicit to incoming students. Did their students knowingly sign a covenant of any kind in which they pledged to honor, or at least not to attack, their school's defining beliefs? In effect, did the school practice truth in advertising?

When reporters dig into affairs on these kinds of campuses, they need to explore the official campus websites carefully (look for a .pdf of the student handbook and look for moral codes about sex and alcohol, or language specifically saying that students must respect a certain set of beliefs).

For example, this feature package included a sidebar that made it clear that nonbelievers were thriving at California Lutheran University -- a school in the heritage of the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Thus, in the school's campus ministry pages, incoming students read (in the only specific issue doctrinal issue given a page of its own in this context):

California Lutheran University is an intentionally diverse community committed to inclusivity and respect for the dignity of each individual. As such, we seek to be a place of welcome for students, faculty and staff who are or come to know themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons.

And the Lutheran identity page notes:

Simply put, everyone is welcome here. CLU’s students come from more than 20 countries and 30 different denominations and faith backgrounds. So no one is an outsider. That is one of the most deeply held values in the Lutheran tradition and nowhere more evident than on our campus. As a student at CLU, your personal convictions and beliefs will be respected and honored.

That's pretty clear. Also, I cannot find a student moral code or covenant on the site. Clearly, the atheists are on safe territory here.

The question for journalists, quite frankly, is whether many conservative schools have been just as explicit and honest. They need to be.

Happy hunting. There are plenty of good stories our there in this terrain.

IMAGE: The chapel at California Lutheran University.

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