Books in Review

The University Gets Religion:
Religious Studies in American Higher Education

Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 109 (January 2001): 37-41.

A Studied Faith

The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies in American Higher Education. By D. G. Hart. Johns Hopkins University Press. 321 pp. $38.

Reviewed by Philip Gleason

D. G. Hart teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary, an institution that serves the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a tiny denomination best known, according to a standard reference work on American religion, for its “vigorous affirmation of the truths of historic Christianity and Reformed orthodoxy.” That influence shows: although Hart does not say so explicitly, his new book on religious studies in American higher education leaves the reader to conclude that such study can be effectively pursued only in places pretty much like Westminster.

Hart’s critique is embedded in a historical narrative that proceeds in three phases, becoming more frankly negative the nearer it comes to the present. The first of these phases, 1875–1925, covers the emergence of the modern university and the place of religious activities and religious studies within it. Here Hart adds depth and detail to a revisionist view of the subject that is now well on its way to becoming the conventional wisdom.

The new scholarship shows that the “university movement” in this country was not nearly so “secular” in motivation as we used to think. Rather, the principal leaders of the movement—men like Charles W. Eliot, Andrew Dixon White, and Daniel Coit Gilman—were earnest Christians who saw the university as advancing the cause of true religion. While religion may not have been their principal motivation, their religious beliefs reinforced their educational ideals and made the new university a congenial place for various forms of religious activity.

The university founders were, of course, liberal Protestants, and they (particularly White) did actively oppose religions that were dogmatic, authoritarian, or, above all, “sectarian.” Hart traces the genealogy of this outlook, linking it to the influence of the Enlightenment, especially Scottish common sense philosophy, and to the stress on private judgment and the spiritual freedom of the individual, which was rooted in the Reformation but was carried to its fullest political and cultural expression in American republicanism.

The continuity—indeed, near identity—between their religious beliefs and civic ideology gave Protestant educators a sense of responsibility for the well–being of the national culture, and encouraged them to equate the progress of civilization (which universities would vastly accelerate) with the realization of genuine Christianity. They found contemporary support for this view from liberal theologians like those of Andover Seminary, whose immanentism blurred the distinction between natural and supernatural, who downplayed traditional doctrines such as the atonement, and who preached that the Christian’s duty was to work for the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth.

Since Hart describes himself facetiously as “a vinegary, rigid Calvinist,” he could hardly endorse this kind of theological liberalism. However, his treatment of the first phase in the evolution of religious studies is relatively benign. Besides exploring the intellectual roots of the movement, he provides a great deal of information about the various forms of pastoral and pedagogical activities carried on, the organizations set up to promote them, and the persons who led them. He also shows how the fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s served as a foil for the promoters of religion in the university, who stressed their nonsectarianism and dedication to academic ideals.

One of Hart’s recurring themes is the tension between the pastoral/ spiritual aims of the religious studies movement and its commitment to academic standards of scientific neutrality in teaching and research. This tension was present from the beginning and provides the framework for later debates. Another such theme is the status of mainline Protestantism. At the beginning of the story it was so hegemonic that most people assum­ ed that, being the American faith, Protestantism furnished the obvious subject matter for religious studies in the university. In fact, when religious studies programs began, they simply imported their curriculum from Protestant seminaries, emphasizing the Bible and ethics while leaving out professional courses such as homiletics.

So long as mainline Protestantism dominated the American religious landscape, its dominant status in religious studies seemed perfectly natu­ ral. That situation continued through the second phase of Hart’s story (1925–1965), which traces the academic maturing of the movement and its more aggressively “religious” note. In these years, educational, theo­ logical, and broader social and political developments combined to enhance the intellectual respectability of religious studies, which became a more or less standard feature of the university scene.

The criticism leveled by Robert M. Hutchins and others at the superficiality of collegiate studies, and the resulting movement to restore the liberal arts and “general education” to their proper place in the curriculum, only helped the religious studies movement. Religion was, after all, central to the understanding of Western Civilization; for that reason, it was likewise indispensable to true humanistic learning. At the same time, the rise of Neoorthodoxy in Protestant theology—especially the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr—demonstrated anew the relevance of religious thought. That added immensely to the self–confidence with which the promoters of religious studies asserted their claims. The case for the eternal verities took on compelling force for a generation that lived through economic collapse, a war of unprecedented destructiveness, and the continuing threat of nuclear cataclysm.

Thanks to this combination of circumstances—and to the prodigious overall expansion of higher education—religious studies enjoyed its golden age in the two decades after World War II. Secure in its niche among “the humanities,” religious studies prospered as the academic version of a society–wide “revival of religion.” Between 1945 and 1960, the number of undergraduate programs jumped from twenty to thirty–eight, and sixteen new Ph.D. programs came into being. In 1953, the Christian Scholar began publication as a high–level journal dedicated to exploring issues of faith and learning in various disciplines.

Hart gives a full account of this era, but argues that a good deal less was going on than met the eye. Rather he detects several kinds of hollowness at its core. True, theology in the university had figuratively ascended in status “from campus minister to assistant professor.” But as an academic field, it was overly dependent on a few Neoorthodox luminaries who dealt mainly in generalities concerning religion and culture, while the mass of its professors failed to build up a solid body of research on questions proper to theology as such. Hart roundly declares that “American Protestant theology at midcentury was a mirage.”

Biblical studies, the curricular mainstay of religious studies, had a firmer scholarly base, but there was no consensus as to whether the Bible should be taught as the “Word of God,” as great literature, or as a founding text of Western Civilization. The pastoral/scholarly tension was particularly marked in this area, as was “the sentimentality so characteristic of liberal Protestant attachments to Jesus,” whose uniqueness as a religious figure was “assumed rather than proved.”

Church history, something of a stepchild in the seminary curriculum and in religious studies, was also thought to be prospering in this golden age, but here too Hart diagnoses a weakness. American church history, he reports, suffered from a species of cultural captivity in that its narrative framework derived from U.S. history rather than being structured by strictly ecclesiastical developments, such as “the introduction of new religious teachings or . . . liturgical practices.”

This last seems more than a little strained. Indeed, Hart’s appraisal of the whole movement at what he considers its zenith is surprisingly critical. Surprising, that is, until we recall that he is probing for weaknesses that help explain why religious studies fell apart in the last phase of its evolution, which he dates from the mid–sixties. By that time it was clear, in Hart’s view, that the movement had failed to meet the mark academically. The scholarship coming out of religious studies departments was second–rate, and the leaders of Protestant divinity schools thought the subject pedagogically unsuitable as an undergraduate major for prospective ministerial candidates. But these were minor issues compared to the crisis brought on by the sudden realization that the whole activity, as hitherto carried on, was “sectarian.” Too Christian! Too Protestant! The tensions that had been there from the outset burst forth, with the result that “religious studies secularized just like many Protestant colleges had a century earlier.”

Unfortunately, repudiation of the Protestantism that had been its tacit foundation robbed the field of its coherence. An early symptom of the resulting hodgepodge was the transformation in 1964 of the National Association of Biblical Instructors into the inclusive, but invertebrate, American Academy of Religion. A few years later, the too–sectarian Christian Scholar renamed itself Soundings and grandiloquently proposed to make “common human concerns” its unifying theme. Curricula seemed designed on the let–a–hundred–flowers–bloom principle, and no consensus existed on the methodology proper to the discipline—or whether it even had a methodology.

The fundamental incoherence at the bottom of the disorder is identified by Hart as follows: religious studies derives its subject matter from the “determinations of faith communities . . . [but rejects] as unscientific the basis upon which those determinations were made.” The conclusion he draws from this shrewd perception, and from the whole of his well–informed analysis, is one that believers may find “idiosyncratic and unsettling” (as Bruce Kuklick puts it in a dust–jacket endorsement): religion cannot rightfully claim a place in the university precisely because it cannot meet Enlightenment standards of rationality and scientific neutrality on which—postmodernists to the contrary notwithstanding—knowledge as the university understands it is based.

Hart is undoubtedly correct in saying that the history of religious studies shows that commitment to this epistemology inevitably dilutes religion to the disappearing point. Yet contrary to what one might expect, he is an academic fundamentalist about the propriety of the university’s adherence to Enlightenment rationality and scientific neutrality—from which it follows logically enough that religion is well–off “without the blessings of the university.” What does not follow so logically is why we should assume religion will do better intellectually at places like Westminster Seminary, where its grounding in faith is accepted. For it is not simply the case that “the university is incapable of evaluating dogmatic claims and supernaturally inspired texts.” The university, rather, rejects the legitimacy of such claims as pathways to knowledge. And so long as the university sets the standard for what constitutes knowledge, faith–based scholarship cannot gain intellectual acceptance regardless of where it is produced.

Historians aren’t very comfortable with matters epistemological, and Hart’s skirting this kind of complication is understandable enough. Similarly, his failure to explain in detail why everything started to come unraveled in the 1960s is understandable, since that would require a book in itself. The book he has given us offers richness of information, astute analysis, and provocative interpretation. That is quite enough.

Philip Gleason is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Notre Dame.