I have been known to refer to myself as a church brat. I grew up in a parsonage in the near west suburbs of Chicago, and, as a late child whose teenage siblings soon left home, the church next door felt to me like an annex to our house. Indeed, my parents’ active involvement in church affairs beyond our own congregation contributed to my growing interest in all things religious.
Preachers’ kids can be like that. John Roth, an eminent Holocaust scholar with whom I had the privilege to study one summer and another preacher’s kid, told me he thought the experience marked us. In my case, that childhood interest led me to attend a church-related college, pursue a field in religious studies in graduate school, and later to assume academic positions at two religiously-affiliated universities. It also led to my work as historian of the church body in which I grew up. When teaching American history, I often made the case to students that religion played a much more significant role in the nation’s history than they knew, largely because their teachers were afraid to discuss religion.
Thomas Jefferson’s famous dictum on the wall of separation between church and state has contributed to a fundamental misunderstanding of what can be taught about religion in public schools, from the tender years through higher education. Teachers used to fear retribution if they talked about religion. Now they fear it if they fail to include reference to the diversity of religions when talking about one.
Before the Morrill Act established land-grant universities, most colleges in the United States were started as religious institutions meant to train clergy. Over time, many of those schools lost or shed affiliation with their founding church bodies, and the academic study of religion fell from grace as a defining feature of the undergraduate curriculum. Only within the last 50 years have departments of religion or religious studies appeared on public, nonsectarian campuses.
Yet in that relatively short period, growth in the field of religious studies has been remarkable. Today the American Academy of Religion, the professional association for scholars of religion, is the world’s largest association of academics who research or teach topics related to religion. Its annual meeting is one of the largest gatherings of college and university faculty among the professional organizations, with most of its 9,000 members attending the conference regularly.
America has been known for high levels of religiosity since its earliest days, and Americans continue to rank high in their identification with religious traditions. Religion, often defined as a source of meaning-making that addresses the human quest to understand the individual’s place and purpose in the larger narrative, is a primary source of identity to a significant portion of the population, despite the new category of “nones” who identify with no tradition.
College students reflect similar levels of spiritual engagement as older generations do, according to a seven-year study conducted by Alexander Astin, Helen Astin, and Jennifer A. Lindholm of the Higher Education Research Institute at ULCA. Reported in 2010, the scholars summarized the results of their longitudinal study: “It is our shared belief that the findings provide a powerful argument for the proposition that higher education should attend more to students’ spiritual development, because spirituality is essential to students’ lives. Assisting students’ spiritual growth will help create a new generation who are more caring, more globally aware, and more committed to social justice than previous generations, while also enabling students to respond to the many stresses and tensions of our rapidly changing technological society with a greater sense of equanimity.”
Given these trends — the growth of religious studies in higher education and the findings regarding undergraduates’ spirituality — and given how deeply embedded religion is in our national culture, it is fitting that Phi Kappa Phi devote an issue of the Forum to matters of faith. As the Society advances its strategic initiative to gain an increased presence and voice in the national conversation on higher education, it is interesting to note that, of our 325 chapters, very few exist on religiously-affiliated campuses. While our founding mission was directed to public and land-grant campuses, we are beginning to hear interest in starting chapters from private institutions, both sectarian and secular. Phi Kappa Phi’s mission to recognize and promote academic excellence extends across those campuses as well. We welcome their interest.
First published in the Spring 2014 edition of Phi Kappa Phi Forum.