Is college bad for religion? Do students who arrive at college with their faith intact leave four years later brainwashed by a politically correct, leftist ideology? Are college students so impressionable and unthinking that they are "Tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine," (Ephesians 4: 14)?
As someone who has been a college chaplain at one of the most notably secular colleges in the United States, I take issue with Rick Santorum's claim that "62 percent of kids who go into college with a faith commitment leave without it." In fact over past five years surprising information about the spiritual practices of college students and young adults indicates that the spiritual and religious commitments of this generation of young adults is surprisingly robust. According to "Spirituality in Higher Education: Students' Search for Meaning and Purpose," a study conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, religious commitment, that is an "internal" quality through which the student seeks to follow religious teachings in everyday life...by trusting in a higher power plays a central role in the student's life. "Students' average level of Religious Commitment changes very little during college," the survey results state.
As experts in college and university religious life, chaplains and deans of religious life know the spiritual and religious territory of our students. We tirelessly work with our colleagues to prepare leaders for the global commons. We realize that our students are expected to think deeply, to critically examine the world they will inherit, to find inner resources, spiritual, emotional, psychological, that will enable them to sustain a commitment to mending the world. College and university chaplains serve the very campuses that Rick Santorum and others decry as some form of liberal brainwashing. We know our campuses well, we weep with this generation of students many of whom are at a loss, trying to make sense of the world and their place within it and often disappointed by popular religious voices that give tried and threadbare answers to complex problems.
I'm not sure what someone like Rick Santorum is speaking about when he implies that college is not good for religiously convicted young people. Never in my lifetime as a college chaplain have students been so earnest, so convicted, so ready to step into a cultural crossfire between absolutes and steady their eye on cleaning up the mess.
Never in my lifetime as a college chaplain have young adults who are graduating from college been as worried, as upset, as wondering about whether they can indeed change a rip tide of political, social and religious, yes religious fanaticism. Never in my lifetime as a college chaplain have students challenged the assumed ideology of both liberalism and conservatism for a more spacious vision of radical hospitality and justice for all people and the planet as a whole.
We shrink the constellations of goodwill, hope, justice and spiritual fortitude that is planted in the hearts of young adults when any of us, including myself, tries to discourage the questions, the challenges, the wake up calls of this generation as prepare to feed themselves, their families, their aspirations, their spirits.
Rather, those of us who tend to the soul of institutions of higher learning, lean close and often find that they carry deep hunger for the vision of Jesus and Moses and Mohammed and the Buddha, that looks into the face of the world with unflinching curiosity and marvelous joy. Is this not good for religiously convicted young people? I think those of us who labor in their midst as chaplains, deans of religious life, campus pastors, will do everything in our power to make certain that they are ready in all manner of their spirit to bring to birth a world that awaits them.