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‘Overt and covert secularization’ called cause for colleges’ concern

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (BP)–Southern Baptist colleges and universities must protect themselves from the overt and covert attacks of secularism occurring within the academic ranks at many of America’s Christian institutions, Robert Benne of Roanoke College told the annual meeting of the Association of Southern Baptist Colleges and Schools.

Benne, professor of religion and director of Roanoke College’s Center for Religion and Society and author of the book “Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Christian Traditions,” delivered the 2002 Hester Lectures during the association’s June 1-4 sessions in Panama City, Fla.

The “glue that provided a coherent vision for education — in America a heady amalgam of Christian, American and moderate Enlightenment perspectives — has weakened under the pressure of specialization and competing worldviews in each special field [of academic study],” Benne said.

“Our colleges are reflecting the fragmentation of our so-called universities,” he said. “This postmodern world has produced faculty and students uninterested in the ‘big picture,’ the comprehensive view of life and education that the Christian tradition can provide.”

In his three-part address, titled “Keeping the Faith in Christian Higher Education,” Benne charged that the covert secularization of many Christian colleges and universities is difficult to overcome since its influence on academia has been in place at several institutions for years.

Institutional characteristics that harbor a covert secularism include a Christian college or university defining itself as being more secular than Christian, not actively promoting its church affiliation, having a weakened relation to its church constituency and those, as Benne put it, practicing “partial Christianity.”

“These people don’t even bring ‘Jesus in their hearts’ to work at the college because they keep Jesus confined to Sunday,” he said. “I’m sorry to say this, but this seems to be the case with a goodly number of [Christian educators] I know. They are active members of their congregations, but leave their Christianity to Sundays.

“They have no inkling that Christianity might be relevant to education, to politics or to business life, for that matter. Their faith relates to the private life of church and family, but it has no crossover to college, they contend. Partial Christians simply do not work out the comprehensiveness of the Christian account in their lives.”

Benne also charged that perhaps most common is the secular problem of Christian educators refusing to publicly articulate their Christian convictions in the face of “serious secularization.”

“This refusal can sometimes be attributed to a lack of courage — cowardice. Some Christians are simply ‘ashamed of the gospel.’ They don’t want to appear as the narrow-minded, dogmatic Christians that secularists depict them to be if they get public about their convictions. Rather than contest that stereotype and step forward, they recede.”

After presenting stark examples of secularization taking place at one non-Baptist college where, in some cases, faculty had “bolted” at the idea of promoting their church relatedness, Benne said it is unlikely Baptist schools have experienced this “sort of overt secularist uprising, but I doubt they are free of more covert forms of secularism.”

Too many Christian college faculties have accepted Enlightenment prejudices, Benne said, in that “great research universities, professional guilds and accrediting agencies have created the powerful assumption that the only reliable knowledge is rational-based and scientific. Religion is simply opinion; the quest for meaning in exploring great traditions is also subjective and arbitrary.

“Christianity, intellectuals claim, is fit only for the private life, not for public discourse in a respectable educational institution.”

Overt and covert secularization on Christian campuses can lead to the loss of several forms of Christian awareness, Benne said.

“Covert forces of secularization have eroded the institutional habits that once supported community worship, classroom prayer, spiritual counseling and mentoring and the in loco parentis role that the college once played. For example, worship services can become very peripheral to the life of the [Christian] college or university. Even devout Christians cannot integrate chapel into their busy lives at a [secularized] college. Once lost, these habits are very difficult to reconstitute.

“Perhaps Baptist colleges do not face much overt secularization, but I would wager that the more covert forms are much with you,” he said. “Distressingly enough, the covert forms are deep within the Christian persons themselves. As Pogo says, ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us!'”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: ROBERT BENNE.

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  • Marc C. Whitt