Omaha, Nebraska
Spring 1995
Volume 6, Number 2

Religion's Place Lost--and Regained?

A Review of George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

John W. Carlson
Professor of Philosophy

Thoroughly researched and elegantly written, this study documents the intertwining of American religion and higher education from the founding of Harvard College in the 1630's through the turbulent and--for the Protestant establishment--climactic decade of the 1960's. The author, George Marsden, is a historian in the Reformed tradition who holds a chair at the University of Notre Dame. The "American university" whose soul is plumbed is primarily exemplified by the flagship private schools (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Chicago, Duke, et al.) founded under various denominational auspices, plus major state institutions (Michigan, Illinois, North Carolina, California at Berkeley) which themselves, the reader learns, originated in religious-cum-cultural visions.

Marsden's subtitle, "From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief," reflects both the range and the thesis of this lengthy (444 pp. plus index) volume. The focus is on the mainline Protestant traditions; this is understandable in light of their relative influence, as well as the educational establishment's efforts--well documented by the author--to marginalize such groups as Fundamentalists and Roman Catholics. The result of Nonbelief was not, of course, an explicit aim of the university leaders here studied. Rather, it stemmed from their attempting to embrace both Biblicist religion and the assumptions of the Enlightenment.

A crucial period was the first half of the 19th Century, during which time, according to Marsden, the Protestant establishment typically followed the lead of Scottish intellectuals such as Thomas Reid, William Paley, and Bishop Joseph Butler. They constructed elaborate "defens(es) of traditional interpretations of Scripture on the grounds of a science built on universal common sense" (p. 92). While in the short run this appeared to mark an intellectual triumph, in the long run it put these Christian leaders in a most vulnerable position: for while they controlled much of America's academic and cultural life, they also confidently proclaimed that they would follow the scientific consensus wherever it would lead. Yet the Western European intellectual community was fast moving in reaction to the hegemony of Christian establishments (p. 93).

In the ensuing years, movements as diverse as Darwinism and higher criticism of the Bible swept onto the American intellectual scene. When combined with the nation's traditional aversion to sectarianism, such movements led progressively and nearly inevitably to "a standardized secular national academic culture" (p. 265), one in which the highest values were "tolerance" and, later, "pluralism"--restricted, however, by modern naturalist and historicist assumptions. By the middle of the present century, mainline Protestantism "found its own Christian identity an embarrassment" on America's elite campuses; at that point, "nothing stood in the way of the elimination of almost all religious perspectives from dominant academia" (p. 266).

The above summary glosses over a wealth of detail, the marshalling and assembling of which is The Soul of the American University's greatest achievement. In these pages we discover an array of distinctive institutional histories, as well colorful personalities. To cite an episode which exemplifies both: By the 1880's Harvard, under President Charles Eliot, had become more or less thoroughly secularized, its liberal Christianity giving way to a "religion of humanity." Princeton, on the other hand, under President Tames McCosh, was determined to maintain its identity as a "Christian university, in a traditional sense." The two leaders squared off in a pair of highly publicized debates during 1885-86. Harvard's Eliot championed tolerance of all religion but the teaching of none, insisting that "this did not imply indifference." McCosh of Princeton retorted that at places like Harvard the official motto should read "All knowledge imparted here except religious" (pp.199-200).

The final chapter of Marsden's book discusses what he takes to be a fine historical irony: that "traditional rationality"--which sent religion to the sidelines--"itself has been under attack;" and that in light of "postmodern ideals" the "conventional standards of objectivity based on scientific models no longer have any prospect for claiming universal authority" (pp. 423-24). Here, surprisingly, there is a total absence of scholarly citation to justify the author's sweeping claim. This is, in the present reviewer's judgment, the book's single glaring weakness.

There is appended what the author calls, with an obvious nod to Kierkegaard, a "Concluding Unscientific Postscript." Marsden argues constructively that the present intellectual situation no longer justifies a marginalization of religious belief. He allows that certain rules of "procedural rationality" are still necessary, and that "claims to private revelations or other religious attitudes that preempt intellectual inquiry are particularly problematic." Beyond this, however, there is no longer any valid reason to support a rule that "no religious viewpoint shall receive serious consideration" (p. 431). Indeed, Marsden envisions a new and more genuine pluralism, in which a variety of types of "religiously committed scholarship and institutions" might flourish (p. 439).

As noted earlier, Marsden documents historical efforts of the American educational establishment to limit the influence of the Roman Catholic church. Although a professor at Notre Dame, he himself holds no brief for what he calls "repressive Catholic authoritarianism" (p. 439). It is clear, however, that he believes Catholic universities can have a place within his institutional pluralism. Those who labor in and love such universities will agree. In fact, we might seek to deepen and extend the author's analysis. To conclude with a single example which will be familiar to readers at the present institution: In the inaugural Markoe-DePorres Social Justice Lecture, presented at Creighton in October 1994, David Hollenbach, S.J. sounded themes similar to Marsden's, then pointed out that Catholicism possesses "some distinctive intellectual resources," chief among which is "a commitment to intellectual solidarity." By this he meant an attitude which goes beyond mere tolerance and pluralism to seek a dialogue about the human good--dialogue in which one recognizes one's own intellectual commitments, and respects the intellectual commitments of others, but at the same time pursues genuine engagement. It is, perhaps, through the persistent application of insights such as this that Catholic institutions might best contribute to religion's regaining a position of prominence in higher education.