The New York Times' "Investigation" into Religion at Universities

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I find some of the best moments for understanding America — its challenges, virtues, and opportunities — come from reading mainstream secular media reports about religion and spirituality.

Last week, The New York Times featured an article titled,“Matters of Faith Find a New Prominence on Campus.” The author wrote a decent and honest piece about increased religious sensitivity of American university students, in comparison to their parents’ generation and to students of 15 years ago. But to a university student, and to those of us who work with them, the article came off as a bit out of touch.

The header on every edition of The New York Times boasts, “all the news that’s fit to print.” The information in this article was, by all accounts, perfectly fit for public consumption — but what’s not so clear in my mind, and quite honestly is rather worrisome, is why the editors considered the prominence of faith on campus to be news of any kind.

The author points to a 2004 survey on the spiritual lives of college students by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. The results show that more than two-thirds of 112,000 freshmen surveyed said they prayed, and that almost 80 percent believed in God. Nearly half of the freshmen said they were seeking opportunities to grow spiritually.

For anyone living in the mainstream, the fact that matters of faith really do matter to young people should be old news at best. Not so, it seems. I can picture the goings-on in the mainstream newsroom. “Guys, look at this. You’ll never believe what my in-depth, investigative journalism revealed. Young people in America believe in God, they pray, and they want more, not fewer opportunities for spiritual growth.” Gasps all around. “Breathtaking!” “Take it to print.”

If the mainstream media would like to make a news contribution in relation to faith matters on campus, I suggest they take a different approach. They should break the story that college students, who care more about their faith than previous generations, are living in an environment of genuine religious intolerance, promoted by an aging generation of secular humanists who are understandably fearful of their own extinction.

From 1998 to 2002, I worked with American university students from campuses throughout the country. Not only did I encounter a raging hunger among a significant portion of the student body for straight talk about God, religion, and morality, but surprisingly and very sadly, I also found a pervasive militancy on the part of many faculty members and administrators (and even some chaplaincies) aimed at opposing any attempt by their students to return to traditional sources of religious nourishment.

For these older people in power, it would be fine, and indeed admirable, for students to explore spiritual novelties, the likes of New Age, Buddhism, or Reiki, but they shouldn’t dare have a student-run Bible Study where they just study the Bible, or expect their theology professor to actually explain ancient doctrine instead of blindly dismissing it as passé.

While The New York Times hints at a happenstance generational disconnect, what I saw on campus was a conscientious effort by grown adults to undermine the more orthodox religious tendencies of the young people in their care. This loosely linked network of frustrated intellectuals ironically took great pride in being tolerant of all people … who agreed with them.

An exposé of the widespread religious intolerance on college campuses would certainly be news, and I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be fit to print.

Now that would be mainstream.

God bless, Father Jonathan
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