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The Banner has a subscription to republish articles from Religion News Service. This story by Kathyrn Post was published on Oct. 7, 2022. It has been edited for length.

These days, politics can influence everything from the dairy products you consume (Ben & Jerry’s? Chick-fil-A milkshake?) to whether you drink Pepsi or Coke. For some Christian families, politics are also revamping the college decision process, swaying them away from colleges marked “too liberal” or “too conservative.”

Though there are Protestant colleges that welcome political labels, others strive to remain as apolitical as possible. For the latter, it’s an increasing challenge to preserve their religious identity—which invariably has political implications in today’s supercharged environment—while welcoming students of all political backgrounds.

“I think Christians are discipled by political debates sometimes more than they are really discipled by Christ or Christianity,” said Ruth Curran Neild, whose son recently withdrew from Grove City College in Grove City, Penn., over concerns about the school’s politics.  

Last year, the college was mired in a culture war debate over whether the conservative school had promoted critical race theory. A highly contentious board-approved report ruled it had.

“I saw the report come back from sub-committee, and I was gobsmacked,” said Neild, whose son had committed to the college in early November 2021. “I thought they failed to want to listen to genuine cries of pain from marginalized communities,” said Neild. “It (the report) wasn’t grounded in shared Christian beliefs—it was at the level of politics.”

Neild, who lives in New Jersey and belongs to a Presbyterian Church in America congregation, told Religion News Service that initially Grove City’s location, Christian identity, and strong computer science program made it seem like an easy choice. But the board’s decision led to a family conversation in May, and, after much thought, Neild said her son opted for Messiah College, a school in Mechanicsburg, Penn., which the family perceived as more politically neutral.

While several parents who spoke to RNS for this story said they’d tried to steer students away from Christian schools that “embrace MAGA,” as one mother put it, other parents voiced an opposing concern: They worried about what they saw as an encroachment of liberal values on traditional religious beliefs.

Amy Miller, who lives near Philadelphia and also attends a PCA church, told Religion News Service her son transferred to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., this year from Muhlenberg College, a liberal arts college in Allentown, Penn..

Miller said the switch was related to Liberty’s reserve officers’ training corps program and its “conservative, Bible believing” Christian culture. She described Liberty as “refreshing” and as an “oasis,” where students can be bolstered in their Christ-centered beliefs before being daily bombarded by opposing worldviews.

“That’s why I would definitely push all the rest of my kids to Christian colleges,” said Miller, who expressed concern for how the broader culture approached questions related to gender and sexuality. 

John Fea, professor of American history at Messiah College, believes there’s a widening rift in the Christian college landscape between evangelical colleges open to political and, in some cases, theological diversity and those that embrace a uniformly conservative identity.  

“I think it’s going to create a split,” he said.

It’s not surprising that politics have become a factor in some Christians’ college calculations, given their growing influence on social interactions. An August NBC survey of over 1,000 American college sophomores found that 62% of Democrats (and 28% of Republicans) said they would not room with someone who supported the opposite 2020 presidential candidate. More than half of all students said they either definitely or probably would not go on a date with a person who supported the opposing candidate.

Political issues can also earn Christian colleges national media attention. This past year, Seattle Pacific University, Calvin University, and Samford University made headlines for internal clashes over LGBTQ rights, while Grove City and Cornerstone University drew attention for approaches to race and racism.

At Seattle Pacific University in Seattle, Wash., students staged sit-ins outside the president’s office in response to a board vote that upheld the school’s hiring policy requiring employees to “reflect a traditional view on Biblical marriage and sexuality.”

“We have lost a number of students over that,” Michelle McFarland, director of enrollment services at Seattle Pacific, told Religion News Service. “There are lots of welcoming spaces here for students, but it was the representation of faculty and staff where they were hoping to see the lived experience of being gay and being a follower of Jesus.”

McFarland added that this year, prospective students and their families were more likely to ask about the school’s policies around LGBTQ rights.

According to Brianna Deters, a freshman nursing major at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Mich., politics are sometimes one of the first things students consider.

“It’s definitely a factor you look at in the college-decision process. You see it’s a Christian college, and then immediately ask, what kind of Christian college is it?” said Deters.

Though she’s only been at Calvin a short while, she said she already appreciates how Calvin engages with “hot topics” from both sides in chapels and other events.

Some scholars argue that while political divisions feel new, older iterations have always been part of the Christian college landscape—rifts over evolution and biblical inerrancy, for example, rather than over vaccines or critical race theory.

Admissions counselors from most of the seven Christian colleges RNS connected with for this story maintained that affordability remains prospective students’ top priority, not politics. And while some admissions representatives said they’d seen an increase in political questions from prospective students, others, like Mary Herridge at Baylor University, said politics still don’t seem to be a major factor.

At Wheaton College, an evangelical school in the Chicago suburbs, chief enrollment management officer Silvio Vazquez said he does often encounter folks who assume Wheaton is liberal or conservative. But he hopes students won’t draw too many conclusions without experiencing the school firsthand.

Amanda Staggenborg, chief communications officer for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, a global association of more than 180 Christian higher education institutions, told Religion News Service that when students and their families make snap decisions based on a school’s perceived political identity, they miss the big picture.

“A university is made of so many different things, not just a label of conservative or progressive. You have many different layers of academics, social clubs, and student life. You can’t label an entire university in that respect, because everyone’s experience could be different.”

Isaac Willour, a junior political science major at Grove City, told RNS that students and parents have a right to find colleges that mirror their values. The problem arises, Willour said, when colleges allow political ideology to guide academic inquiry and become “citadels” and “training camps” for creating “good little conservatives and good little liberals to go out and fight the culture wars.”

“That’s not what college is supposed to be.”

© 2022 Religion News Service


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