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George Marsden

The Naked Public Classroom

Then one commentator remarked recently in the New York Times Book Review that religion was being "driven from campus," an executive of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) responded with some vigor. "The academic study of religion" she argued, ". . . has enjoyed something of a renaissance during the last 30 years." The AAR includes 7,000 members, the executive pointed out, and "a healthy blend of teachers who approach religion from both theological and secular perspectives." So, she concluded, "religion remains a vital component of the humanities curriculum in colleges and universities across the United States and abroad."

Whether one calculates the changing state of religion in university classrooms during the past generation as progress or regress depends on what counts. It is true that neither the study of religion nor all religious perspectives have been banished from university classrooms. And voluntary religion on campus is flourishing, which is another and more important issue. With respect to the academic role of religion, however, evangelical and traditionalist Christians are likely to view the expansion of religious studies somewhat differently than will religious liberals or secularists.

The discipline of religious studies developed in the middle of this century under the auspices of liberal Protestantism. Evangelical and traditionalist Christian views were never well represented in mainstream religion programs. Today, although the AAR does include many who teach from theological perspectives, including some conservative ones, such teachers are far more likely to be found at church-related institutions or theological seminaries than in the academic mainstream. The trend in mainstream religious studies has increasingly been toward study exclusively about religion. Academics today typically subordinate religion to a supposedly higher standard of truth, whether cultural criticism or science. "Religion" becomes a category abstracted from particular religions, ...

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