Pod people: Decoding "Christian college"

Greetings from the mountains of North Carolina, where the big news is that the library is closed. Thus, this "Pod people" update comes to you care of the free wifi in the wonderful Hilltop Restaurant in beautiful downtown Burnsville. Let's hear it for diners with wifi AND multiple items the Orthodox can eat in Nativity Lent! This week's Crossroads podcast combined elements of my recent GetReligion post on that hard-to-define label "Christian college" and a recent Scripps Howard column of mine about some headlines down in Georgia linked to the same topic.

The bottom line is that no one knows what "Christian college" means because no one knows what the word "Christian" means. No one knows what "Catholic college" means for the same reason, which is why the Vatican -- led by the late Pope John Paul II -- has tried to set a few standards on that subject, in the face of withering criticism from Western academia.

The bottom line: Everyone likes to use that "Christian" adjective (especially trustees) when it comes time to raise money and woo parents. However, professors have trouble deciding what that term means in the classroom and it's also hard to decide what "Christian" means inside campus dorms and apartments on the weekends.

As a wise Catholic priest once told me, few students lose their faith in classrooms. They lose their faith on weekends and learn to justify their new behaviors in philosophy classes during the school week. There's some truth in that statement.

The bottom line from the podcast is a warning to consumers, especially young people and parents: Buyer beware.

The quickest way to know what a religious college really stands for is to look in two places -- (1) the core curriculum (look for required courses in church history and basic Bible knowledge) and (2) the student handbook. The goal is to see if the college's lawyers have decided that centuries of Christian tradition have relevance in the moral chaos of postmodern education.

These pages are easier to produce in some religious traditions than in others. Take the Baptists, for example. It's crucial for journalists to remember that Bill Clinton is a Baptist and so is Pat Robertson. Ditto for Bill Moyers and, oh, the late Jerry Falwell. Needless to say, these gentlemen would struggle to agree with one another on the meaning of "Christian education."

Thus, down in Georgia, Mercer University -- a "moderate" Baptist campus -- recently made a few headlines by endorsing (medical benefits were the pivot point) sexual partnerships, gay or straight, outside of marriage. Meanwhile, the more conservative Shorter University ignited a media firestorm by requiring its faculty and staff to endorse the doctrine that sex outside of marriage is sin. The local Rome News-Tribune produced an editorial that, essentially, urged readers to challenge the private, repeat private, university's accreditation because it had adopted a lifestyle covenant and doctrinal statement similar to those on many other "Christian" university campuses from coast to coast.

However, it's hard for Baptists to agree on anything, other than that they agreement that Baptists should not be forced to agree on anything (and there are millions of Baptists who disagree with that, of course). Thus, I noted, with the help of scholar Robert Benne:

The problem for many Baptist academics, stressed Benne, is that they place such a strong emphasis on “soul freedom” and the “priesthood of every believer” that they struggle to find ways to separate themselves from the “lukewarm people who are not really committed to the their school’s vision.”

The result is a perfect Baptist Catch 22.

“How do you defend specific doctrines and convictions,” he said, “without daring to list these specifics, which means you have committed the sin of having a creed?”

The question, readers, is NOT what you think of that. The question is whether you think journalists understand that side of Baptist life and are managing to cover it accurately. Please note that this is not a liberal or conservative issue, because there are Baptist institutions on both sides of that line.

Enjoy the podcast.

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