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James M. Penning and Corwin E. Smidt

The Decline That Wasn't

A widely cited 1987 study by James Davison Hunter claimed that students at evangelical colleges were becoming increasingly secularized and abandoning their orthodox faith commitments—and predicted that this trend would continue. A new study reviews the ev

Nearly two decades have passed since James D. Hunter published his groundbreaking book, Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, which deals primarily with the theological, political, and social attitudes of students attending nine evangelical colleges.1 Hunter's findings proved to be exceedingly disturbing to supporters of Christian higher education because they suggested, among other things, that evangelical college students were becoming more secularized and that quite likely Christian colleges were contributing to secularization and the loss of faith commitment among their students. In other words, a new, more "secular" generation of evangelicals was emerging due in part to the fact that Christian colleges were having precisely the opposite effect intended by their supporters.

Although Hunter contended that "one can only be amazed by the resilience of Protestant orthodoxy in its long encounter with the modern world order," his examination of students attending evangelical colleges raised disturbing questions not only about Christian higher education but about the future of American evangelicalism as well. Like Dean Kelley,2 Hunter suggested that for religious orthodoxy to retain its vitality, it must provide people with cognitive and normative boundaries that contribute to group solidarity and help people to make sense of their lives. The presence of these boundaries is the source of religion's ability to stimulate loyalty and promote action. Religious orthodoxies that fail to maintain boundaries and provide such meaning, which some believe happened to liberal Protestantism in the post-World War II period, risk alienating people, suffering a loss in membership, and experiencing a decline in institutional rigor.

According to Hunter, during the 1960s and 1970s, American evangelicalism witnessed "an erosion of precisely the sort of symbolic boundaries that Kelley and others have argued are necessary for the growth if not maintenance of its institutions and constituencies." ...

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