How Religion Is Making a Comeback on College Campuses

How Religion Is Making a Comeback on College Campuses

By  Douglas and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen

Dec 23, 2012 4:45 AM EST

A dramatic shift in the global landscape has made religion a pressing issue on college campuses again. Douglas and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen, authors of  No Longer Invisible: Religion in University Education.

  • One in three Americans under the age of 30 reports being religiously unaffiliated, so it may be a surprise to learn that religion is making a comeback on American campuses. It’s not that campuses have become holy places, and religious zealots are not calling the shots. But religion is no longer marginalized from campus life as it was in the late 20th century. A generation ago, many Americans and most colleges and universities could live with the myth that religion was a purely private matter, but today no one questions that religion can have powerful effects on individuals and societies.
Student Praying Over Supreme Court Decision
Amber Henry, 19, a student at Catholic University who is from Miami, prays during an event led by Christian faith organizations at the Supreme Court as part of “Encircle the Court in Prayer,” on the eve of the Supreme Court arguments on President Obama’s health care legislation, in Washington, on Sunday, March 25, 2012. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
During the last four years, we crisscrossed the country visiting more than 50 colleges and universities as directors of Religion in the Academy project. We spoke with hundreds of faculty, administrators, and students about all the ways they are now engaging religion, and we came away from those conversations with a new sense that adding religion to the mix—in the form of new student life programming, but also in the curriculum, in study centers and programs of research, and in community engagement—can be a net educational gain for everyone.

Today’s interest in religion comes from the bottom up—a significant change from the past. From the colonial days through the 19th century, religion was typically imposed on students from the top down. Now, students themselves are driving a re-engagement with religion. Religion, for them, is not necessarily the old-fashioned “organized” religion handed down to them by their elders, but rather a personal exploration of meaning, purpose, values, and global diversity—something that many of them would call “spirituality” rather than “religion.”


Air Force Academy Campus Chapel
Cadets at the Air Force Academy in Colorado are seen walking past the Chapel at the academy. 
Some institutions are excited about this new engagement; others are worried. We found that younger professors are almost always more interested in the topic of religion than their more senior colleagues who completed academic training in the secular heyday of the late 20th century. This does not mean that younger faculty members are necessarily more favorably disposed to religion, but they are more comfortable discussing it. They have grown up in a world where religion is part of everyday news, and where the influences of religion in public and personal life seem obvious.
We also found that elite schools tend to be less open to reengaging religion than non-elite schools. When the general education review committee at Harvard recently suggested adding a course on “faith and reason” to graduation requirements, the university backed off after resistance from some faculty members. By contrast, community colleges often welcome engagement with religion, in part because they serve so many students who still live at home, embedded in their own local faith communities, and who naturally bring religious questions into the learning process.

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