Universities and Christian Right

Many on the Christian Right claim that American universities teach all sorts of esoteric things, from Pacific Islander cultures to gay and lesbian studies, but don’t teach Christianity. That is not true. Every major university has a theology department, and a student who wants to deepen his understanding of Christianity can do so by taking theology classes. But if the Christian believer feels that the universities do not pay enough attention to Christianity, there is a very simple reason for that.

Christianity is taught all over America in churches, Sunday schools and Christian community programs. An American student has very little to gain from hearing at the college level the same thing that has been the substance of his upbringing. Whereas the university may be the only place where an American college student may learn about the ways of people who are outside the tradition in which he’s been raised. For this reason anthropology and comparative religion are of interest to many American students. They find out about the ways of life other than theirs, which gives them a fuller understanding of the world.

There is very little sense in teaching students at university level what they already know from their childhood. One might as well be teaching them Algebra I. Whereas ways of life that are practiced by people whom one knows nothing about are both interesting and informative, and the university, being a center of learning, is exactly the place where such things should be taught.

If a student takes a class in gay and lesbian studies, that does not mean that he wants to be homosexual, nor does it mean that he is being trained to be a homosexual. He simply wants to find out about people who are not like him. If a student takes a class in anthropology and studies the ways of Native Americans, that does not mean that he wants to be a Native American nor that he is being trained to be a Native American. Once again, he wants to find out about people who are not like him. In a huge country, where there is (or is supposed to be) liberty, knowing about people who are not like oneself is necessary for dealing with people who are not like oneself. And the more the student finds out about people who are not like himself, the more grows his understanding and the greater becomes his ability to get along with people who are unlike himself.

Which means that the knowledge that comes from anthropology departments, comparative religion classes, and other aspects of education that deal with other ways of living and thinking, is in fact good for informed and responsible citizenship. The student finds out about people who are not like himself; and the more he does so, the more he can get along with people who are not like himself. The skills and perspective that are learned in the process can then translate into dealing with people in one’s own community or in the neighborhood on the other side of town. There are few more valuable ways to prepare people for life in democracy than to teach them about people who differ from them, and the service provided to American democracy by professors in these fields is priceless.