Many academics have a blind spot about the integral role of religion in America. Until fairly recently, I did, too. I didn’t think of the United States as a particularly religious country, probably because I spent most of my life living on the coasts, where religion wasn’t overt.
Even when I went to college in Atlanta, as a Jew I rarely talked about religion with anyone aside from my own Jewish friends. I doubt that I ever asked my freshman-year roommates about their religious upbringing, even though they were both from the South. I did not know how to inquire about religion in a thoughtful way, and I didn’t think it was important to do so. In retrospect, that was a mistake, because I left college with a myopic view of America.
It was not until 13 years later that I saw a map of religious adherence rates in America. I was flabbergasted. I didn’t realize that I live in the most devout country among rich Western democracies. If you’re also surprised about this, here are a few other facts about the religious nature of the United States: six in 10 adults report praying at least daily. Three in 10 believe the Bible is the literal word of God. And more than 22,000 people fill the pews of a megachurch like Saddleback on any given Sunday. Although average rates of religious adherence in America are declining and people are increasingly identifying as religiously unaffiliated, the percentage of Americans who are deeply religious has not budged.
The fact that so many Americans are intensely religious matters because it has created polarization. As Robert Putnam and David Campbell put it, “Americans have become polarized along religious lines. Americans are increasingly concentrated at opposite ends of the religious spectrum -- the highly religious at one pole and the avowedly secular at the other.” But intensely religious people are not the only ones to blame for this divide. Nonreligious individuals have also contributed to this by dismissing and even disparaging those who are religious. And college campuses, especially elite nonsectarian ones, may be perpetuating this problem.
I know this because I study the relationship between religion and education. In one of my projects, my colleagues and I have been annually interviewing about 150 Stanford University students since they arrived about various issues, including their views on race, ethnicity, social class, gender and religion. Listening to students has helped me understand why religion is not a prevalent part of the diversity discourse.
On many, if not most, nonsectarian college campuses, religion is generally a personal matter -- something that students think about when making personal choices about their religious commitments and beliefs. When we think about religious identity development, we think about students finding a place in their own religious community. But by spending years talking with college students, I have found that many of them make decisions about religion based on how they think they’ll be perceived by peers outside their religious community. Frequently, religious identity is socially constructed, just like race, class and gender.
Consider this story. Ashley, a white evangelical Christian, intentionally came to Stanford instead of attending a Christian college. At Stanford, she thought she would be able to “have open conversations about her faith.” But Ashley learned that being open about faith could come with social costs: “People tend to have pretty negative views towards religion and religiosity here, especially towards Christianity because of the history of oppression associated with Christianity and missions.” At a place like Stanford, a politically liberal campus where issues of social justice and antiracism loom large, the last thing a student wants to be thought of by their peers as is politically conservative and part of the white hegemony. Ashley works extra hard to convince her peers that despite common views of white evangelicals as racist, her faith is deeply rooted in beliefs about social justice.
Evangelicals are not the only ones who fear being stigmatized or stereotyped for their religious identity. Students whose religious traditions require physical markings, such as wearing a hijab or a kippah, wrestle with how much these markers “out them.” Take Jeremy, who was raised Jewish but now thinks twice about wearing a Star of David necklace or a kippah on campus. It’s not because he is worried about anti-Semitism, but rather because religious expression feels so conspicuous: “When I have worn my yarmulke, I feel very visible -- like there are people watching me as I walk by,” Jeremy says. In college, students generally want to feel a sense of belonging, not a sense of alienation.
Swept Under the Rug
Why should we care that students like Ashley and Jeremy feel self-conscious about their religious backgrounds? Because their anxiety is a sign of a larger issue that reflects a reality in our citizenry. Jeremy and Ashley don’t want to be seen as religious because they reside in a politically liberal and secular environment that disparages the Christian/religious right, which they link with advocacy of socially conservative positions on issues such as creationism, embryonic stem cell research, homosexuality, contraception, sex education and abortion. Students don’t want to be labeled religious, lest they be thought of as socially conservative, against same-sex marriage and abortion, and even pro-Trump.
Other Stanford students tell me that religion is not sufficiently “intellectual,” and therefore does not belong within the dialogues that take place in universities. In the words of one student, “Talking about religion feels antithetical to Stanford’s educational mission.” For many students, it’s easier to stay in the closet. And so religion is largely swept under the rug. As some students say, it’s just too difficult to discuss. Instead, students prefer to talk about issues of politics, race, class and gender, which are deemed appropriate topics for an elite college setting.
What is the consequence of sweeping religion under the rug? Students leave college no better equipped to talk about religious differences than when they got there. The stereotypes they carry with them when entering freshman year are probably the same ones they leave with upon graduation. Or perhaps even worse, students graduate thinking that religion is not a significant part of the modern American experience. That mind-set leads to a myopic view that contributes to deeply religious students feeling like “strangers in their own land.”
Sociologist Arlie Hochschild argues that one of the four steps progressives can take to fix American democracy is to take religious Americans more seriously: “Those of us in liberal enclaves need to reach out to people who grew up in geographic regions, classes, or religious groups very different from our own. However much we disagree with them, it is important to know them and foolish to thoughtlessly disparage them.”
Although college campuses have several student organizations and community centers for people of different religious groups, students end up mostly engaging with people from their own religious tradition. What they miss is the opportunity to learn about other people’s perspectives about religion, including atheism. Here we can learn from research on cross-racial interaction, which suggests that it is not enough to bring students of different racial/ethnic backgrounds to campus and expect the benefits associated with diversity to accrue. To reap the educational and civic benefits of racial diversity, institutions must cultivate a learning environment where students meaningfully engage with one another. The same can be said of religious diversity.
As the Interfaith Youth Core puts it, “Campus is where educators and students engage the complex ideas that will shape our country’s future. It’s where young people learn to be citizens and leaders. It’s where issues of diversity and difference are explored intellectually and experienced personally and up-close. Campuses are environments that model the highest ideals of civil society alongside some of the most divisive conflicts that we’re grappling with as a nation.”
So what can colleges and universities do to make religion part of the diversity dialogue and normalize the concept that one can be religious and intellectual? And that one can be religious and committed to social justice? Here are some tangible ideas based on my conversations with students as well as higher education scholars and administrators including Thomas Ehrlich, a former president of Indiana University.
- Center religion in diversity efforts, programming and communication early in students’ career. If your college or university has an event that introduces incoming students to the diversity of your campus community by having upperclassmen share personal narratives, make sure to feature someone who talks about religion.
- Train staff members to facilitate “deliberative dialogues” in residence halls to foster a greater openness among students in exploring religion and spirituality, and aid in preventing and addressing religious intolerance. I am not just referring to interfaith dialogues. I am encouraging more conversations between people who are religious and those are aren’t religious, as this is where the polarization appears to be most prevalent.
- Encourage students, both undergraduate and graduate, to pursue research topics that help us better understand religion in society.
I wish my university had better prepared me to think about the role religion plays in the lives of individuals and in society. Now I hope to better prepare the next generation of college students and ameliorate the religious polarization that plagues our country. If higher education institutions truly want to teach students to appreciate the diversity of ideas, perspectives and cultures, we cannot let religion fall by the wayside.