See the  Web Resources page for further reading

Read the essays in the SSRC Forum on The Religious Engagements of American Undergraduates

SSRC Guide: Religious Engagement Among American Undergraduates

7. Student Commitments

Photo: Ed Kashi

Evangelical Students on College Campuses

“Among both scholarly and religious observers, the university has long been regarded as secular territory,” notes John Schmalzbauer, a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Missouri State University. “In books like How to Stay Christian in College, evangelicals have portrayed higher education as a threat to religious faith. In a more academic vein, historians have chronicled the exclusion of religion from campus life.”

But the growing visibility of conservative religious students on liberal college campuses has called that familiar narrative into question. Even schools that are typically considered antipathetic to religion, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have a noticeable evangelical presence – MIT’s campus sports at least eight Christian fellowship groups.

According to North Carolina State University professor Alyssa Bryant, this visibility merits some attention. “As an increasingly viable and vocal evangelical presence has taken shape in higher education,” Bryant says, “efforts to understand evangelical Christian students, their subculture, and the contribution they make to the pluralistic college environment are vital in promoting a healthy campus climate for students from multiple backgrounds and traditions.”

Bryant says one of the first tasks is to undo the stereotypes many have of evangelical students. The evangelical student today may be traditional when it comes to dress, personal relationships and gender roles, but traditionalism “falls by the wayside” in other categories. For example, though evangelical students are predictably in favor of a pro-life agenda, “their liberal inclinations emphasize the importance of providing for the welfare of economically disadvantaged people, protecting the environment, implementing gun control, and abolishing the death penalty.”

Today’s evangelical students are also non-traditional when it comes to practicing their faith. New forms of worship in casual settings with multimedia technology defy the conventional image of a joyless, narrowly conscripted religious adherence. No longer are evangelicals confined to Bible studies and worship gatherings. Instead campus ministries now offer everything from pizza parties to amusement park trips to mountain retreats.  

Bryant coined the expression, “countercultural conservative,” to emphasize the ways in which evangelicals increasingly straddle both liberal and conservative views.

An article in the Los Angeles Times Magazine describes this generation of evangelicals as one that “reconciles science and the Bible, body and soul; opposes both war and abortion;…and leapfrogs the two-party political divide. All the while refusing to renounce its conservative-evangelical tag.”

Pepperdine University professor Rebecca Kim writes that Asian-American evangelicals are also “changing the face of campus evangelicalism.” Though Asian-Americans make up approximately 4% of the U.S. population, they comprise over 25% of evangelical college students at New York City colleges and universities. An enormous proportion of Asian-Americans are found in on-campus Christian fellowships at Ivy League schools across the nation.

Some recent research shows that evangelical students are not always comfortable in liberal college environments. Confronted with critical views that do not mesh with their own, some evangelical students “sell out” – hide their true beliefs – to get good grades. Others attend “countercourses”– off-campus classes held by local clergy to realign faiths possibly shaken by the standard curriculum. Still others defend their religious views in class, which makes it hard for them to integrate socially with other students who do not share their beliefs.

“The experience for the majority [of Christian students], I would venture, can best be summarized in one word: Unease,” says Bryant. “A sentiment that is understandable, given the negative stereotypes evangelical students absorb about Christians from those around them.”

As Perry and Armstrong put it, “[evangelical college students] define their values in opposition to typical college students.” Moreover, “confronting the stereotypes of peers and professors who don’t understand them is part of life on a secular campus.”

Anxious to redraw the caricature of evangelicals as traditional or single-minded, some research tends to draw non-evangelicals using the same broad strokes. Often, secular college life is portrayed as self-serving, hedonistic, or immature. While this may be the case for some, it is not every student’s experience. Rather than setting up oppositions between evangelical students and their less religious peers, or citing irreconciliable world views, studies of evangelical commitment – and commitment of students more generally – could show how increased religious diversity on campus alters worldviews, levels of engagement, or identities among different evangelical groups.

 

Further Reading:

Bramadat, P. A. 2000. The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bryant, A. N. 2004. “Campus Religious Communities and the College Student Experience.” Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles.

Bryant, A. N. 2005. “Evangelicals on Campus: An Exploration of Culture, Faith, and College Life.” Religion and Education 32, 1-30.

Bryant, A. N. 2006. “Assessing the Gender Climate of an Evangelical Student Subculture in the United States.” Gender and Education 18(6): 613-634.

Hammond, P. E. and J. D. Hunter. 1984. “On Maintaining Plausibility: The Worldview of Evangelical College Students.” Journal for the Social Scientific Study of Religion 23: 221-238.

Hunt, K. and G. Hunt. 1991. For Christ and the University: The Story of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship of the U.S.A. 1940-1990. Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity.

Hunter, J. D. 1987. Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kim, R. Y. 2004. “Second-Generation Korean American Evangelicals: Ethnic, Multiethnic, or White Campus Ministries?Sociology of Religion 65(1):19-34.

Kim, R. Y. 2006. God’s New Whiz Kids? Korean American Evangelicals on Campus. New York: NYU Press.

Penning, J. and C. Smidt. 2002. Evangelicalism: The Next Generation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.

Smith, C. 1998. American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.