Not Whether, but Which

On the Civilizational Nature of the Confessional Christian College

Can a college be both confessionally Christian and civilizational in its emphasis? This question lies at the heart of a recent essay by Jay Green, Professor of History at Covenant College, which caused a stir among pastors serving in the college’s sponsoring denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Green warns of the rise of “civilizational” colleges “lurking in the background” of the sacred/secular divide, places that use Christian faith to attract Christian families but don’t actually embody a Christian identity. The singular example he cites is Hillsdale College, where “faith is ‘honored’ rather than necessarily believed” and where “less time and attention are given to using Christian insights to critique things like Western Civilization and the American Founding.” In Green’s telling, Hillsdale essentially uses Christianity as both an enrollment marketing tool and a curricular garnish to achieve its real mission—advancing a decidedly conservative political agenda.

Now, it is true that Hillsdale does not fit the traditional definition of an evangelical Christian college. That descriptor has been historically reserved for colleges and universities like Green’s employer, Covenant College, that hire only professing Christians as full-time faculty members and senior administrators. This hiring policy is a baseline requirement for membership in the two national associations that serve Christian postsecondary institutions, the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) and the International Alliance for Christian Education (IACE).

Yet it is impossible to ignore the dramatic reassertion of faith that has occurred at Hillsdale over the last decade, a renaissance made all the more remarkable when placed against the backdrop of secularization that has afflicted most American colleges originally founded by Protestant denominations. In recent years, as many Christian colleges softened the edges of their identities in an attempt to appeal to a broader pool of prospective students, Hillsdale took the opposite approach by more emphatically embracing its institutional mission as a “nonsectarian Christian institution” that “maintains ‘by precept and example’ the immemorial teachings and practices of the Christian faith.” The most striking example of this reassertion was the 2019 opening of Christ Chapel, which was placed in the heart of Hillsdale’s campus as a visible—and costly—marker of the college’s identity. The last decade has also witnessed the expansion of the college’s free online course catalogue, the topics of which—Genesis, Exodus, King David, Ancient Christianity, the Western Theological Tradition, and C. S. Lewis, among others—also testify to the institution’s renewed emphasis on its Christian identity.

On their own, an aesthetically impressive chapel and faith-based public curriculum do not a Christian college make. They do, however, represent the sorts of investments one would expect from an institution serious about its faith-based mission, particularly because both require significant resources and swimming against the cultural tide. Their existence also suggests an educational environment where Christian students and faculty can thrive. To his credit, Green acknowledged this reality in a follow-up piece that walked back some of his most egregious assertions while simultaneously doubling down on his original “distinction between ‘confessional’ and ‘civilizational’ ideas of a Christian college.” 

Green’s distinction fundamentally misunderstands both the societal function of higher education and the unique mission of the Christian college. Indeed, attempting to separate the civilizational from the confessional would strike many throughout our nation’s history as exceedingly odd. Although the character of the American university has shifted over time, what has remained constant are the perennial justifications for higher education: to produce citizens and professionals to serve the needs of society. These justifications assume normative—or shall we say, confessional—claims about the nature of the academy, such that it is impossible to separate school from society.

A brief survey of key turning points in the development of American higher education illustrates this fact. The founders of the colonial colleges sought to build institutions that could educate the next generation of leaders to maintain and advance civilization in the New World. As the population expanded westward, Protestant denominations raised new colleges to meet the societal needs of the burgeoning nation. The Industrial Revolution demanded greater national capacity in the applied fields; in response, the Morrill Land-Grant Acts provided the means for states to create agricultural and mechanical colleges to train workers for the new economy. Decades later, based on the persistent belief that higher education was a social good, the G.I. Bill established a tuition assistance program for servicemen returning from World War II. Today, a whole range of state and federal investments are routinely made to support colleges and universities, both indirectly through financial aid to students and directly through grants to the institutions themselves. 

So the question is not whether a college or university should be civilizational, but rather which sort of civilization it ought to cultivate and how that project can be pursued most effectively. Although the cultural fragmentation of our age has rendered these questions highly contested within the secular academy, the answers are far more straightforward in the Christian college context. In fact, the Christian intellectual tradition provides a storehouse of resources for defining the true, the good, and the beautiful in clear and compelling ways, and then applying those judgments to the pressing issues of our day. This requires, however, that Christian colleges be staffed with faculty who are confident enough in the Christian vision to make those applications amidst a hostile culture.

That hostility may be foreign to ivory tower types who spend much of their time debating the finer points of faithful presence from the comfort of their academic posts, but it is all too familiar to rank-and-file believers who are regularly forced to confront the most pernicious elements of secular culture in order to earn a living. Consequently, these brothers and sisters viscerally grasp a truth that eludes many in the Christian academy: confessional colleges grew out of—and are dependent upon—a particular civilizational context. Moreover, the people in the pews understand that asserting confessional truths without defending civilizational structures is a fool’s errand, one that initially results in institutional irrelevance but eventually leads to institutional demise.

It is little surprise, then, to see Christian families reward institutions that have recognized and responded to our present cultural turn by reasserting both confessional and civilizational claims. In Hillsdale’s case, this recognition and response appears to have begun in 2015, just as we entered what Aaron Renn has termed the negative world, an emergent era of American life that is far less hospitable to people who subscribe to orthodox Christianity. By the time many awakened to this reality during the visible and often violent cultural convulsions of 2020, Hillsdale had already anticipated the coming threats and staked out a considered position. Thus, while many of the more “confessional” Christian colleges buckled under the pressures of the woke mob, Hillsdale resolutely stood firm on its longstanding mission and identity. This principled action endeared many in the evangelical world to the college, whose standardized test scores and admission selectivity skyrocketed post-2020.

The same could be said for a subset of confessional colleges that have recently experienced a surge in student demand. These institutions have focused less on the freedom Green describes “to speak critically of [Christianity’s] mixed legacies” and more on a counter-cultural embrace of historic Christian doctrine and its real-world implications. The resulting campus environment is far more conducive to learning and personal development than what’s typically on offer at most universities, such that this environment attracts even those who may not share all the institution’s beliefs but are confident that it will provide a quality education in a civil manner. Although the contours of campus life at these colleges differ according to their respective theological traditions, the broader lesson for campus leaders is this: a civilizational emphasis is not only compatible with confessional identity, but it may hold the key to institutional survival in the negative world.

Image Credit: Hillsdale College Chapel. Photography by Matrix Consulting Engineers who planned the mechanical and electrical engineering work on the project.

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P. Jesse Rine

P. Jesse Rine is Executive Director of the Center for Academic Faithfulness & Flourishing (CAFF). An award-winning professor and nationally recognized expert on Christian higher education, Jesse has served in faculty and administrative roles on three faith-based campuses: Grove City College, Duquesne University, and North Greenville University. He previously directed the research programs of two national higher education associations, the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) and the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC). Jesse’s scholarship has been published in numerous edited volumes and academic journals, and he was recently appointed Editor-in-Chief of Christian Higher Education: An International Journal of Research, Theory, and Practice.

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