Recently, an academic administrator informed me that passing judgment on others’ sexual orientation or religious beliefs was grounds for exclusion from partnership with the university office she represents.
This was hardly a surprise. As Richard John Neuhaus pointed out in The Naked Public Square, in order to enter public life in America, one had to remove one’s religious garb, that is, to withhold religious ideas and assumptions about reality. In the naked public (and private) university, notwithstanding its commitment to open inquiry, the same restriction holds. But how did we get here? At one time, religion played a prominent, even central, role in the university. What changed?
At the end of the nineteenth century, academics began to shift control of higher knowledge away from clerics and to professionals like themselves. This broad secularization was accompanied by a kind of privatization where churches retreated from public space, abandoning knowledge claims in political and cultural affairs. According to Neuhaus, this withdrawal fit with broader tendencies in American life: American individualism, America’s constitutional stricture against the establishment of religious institutions, and our free market in religion where religious energies are devoted to growing religious institutions. Campus ministries became little more than auxiliaries to student affairs offices.
Needless to say, students suffer in the naked public university, as I found in my doctoral research. When I asked them about their religious experiences, Muslim and Christian international students invariably reported frustration that their professors will not or cannot discuss religious questions, issues, or concerns with them.
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