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The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies in American Higher Education
The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies in American Higher Education
D. G. Hart
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002
336 pp., $29.00

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Douglas A. Sweeney


Skating on Thin Ice

The precarious life and hard times of religion in the university

Religion does not do well in the hands of academics, whether they are sympathetic to it or not." So argues Darryl Hart of Westminster Theological Seminary in his provocative book on religious studies in the university. As a matter of fact, he claims, the field has "failed to produce first-rate scholarship." It has "limped along behind other academic disciplines."

More important, according to Hart, it has been conflicted from the start. Its practitioners have pursued the study of supernaturalist faith communities in a largely secular, indeed naturalistic, way. And they have labored in the service of both the academy and the churches, creating confusion in the general public regarding the nature of their craft, and schizophrenia among one another in the guild.

In The University Gets Religion, Hart jumps right into the recent fray over the secularization of the academy, paying special attention to developments in religious studies.1 His focus is on the arguments used to justify this discipline, its scholarly methods, and its place in the modern American university. Ignoring the intellectual giants whose work gave rise to the secular study of religion (e.g., Hume, Durkheim, Freud, and Weber, Europeans all), Hart suggests that a host of home-grown, largely forgotten, liberal churchmen proved most important in building up the American profession of religious studies, and in defending its legitimacy as a university discipline.

Hart traces the history of this defense through three major phases. In phase one (c. 1870-1925), he avers, leading white Protestant churchmen responded to the rise of new American universities by baptizing their scholarly methods and moral values. They accommodated older orthodoxies to recent scientific findings, and promoted university-based religious scholarship under the aegis of mainline Protestant campus ministries.

In phase two (c. 1925-1965), modernist Protestants emerged victorious from their row with fundamentalists, their leadership in the field ...

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