When Chris Gruener moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to begin graduate school, he looked forward to experiencing the region’s renowned tolerance of all people and lifestyles.
Mr. Gruener was raised in a devout Christian family near Seattle and attended a Baptist high school and a Christian college, where he studied business. His passion, however, was literature, and so he was excited to begin a master’s program in English at Sonoma State University. But during his first semester, a classroom incident put a damper on Gruener’s ardor.
While lecturing on James Joyce’s rejection of the church, a professor drew two mountains with a valley between them on the chalkboard, explaining that Joyce’s church believed one mountain was man and the other mountain was God.
Next he drew a cross in the valley, touching both peaks – a visual metaphor Gruener knew from childhood – and explained that this was Christ on the cross connecting man to God. Then the professor broke into peals of mocking laughter. The rest of the class joined in.
"My heart stopped," says Gruener. "If this were any other religion, the professor wouldn’t get away with his remarks – it would be politically incorrect. But in the Bay Area, it is OK to laugh at Christianity and its God."
Today, on college campuses throughout the United States, great stress is placed on the importance of treating divergent views with sensitivity. And there are many religious students who say they appreciate the respect with which their beliefs are received.
Yet complaints like Gruener’s are not uncommon and, ironically, they are sometimes heard at schools that particularly pride themselves on being open-minded and tolerant. Christians, from conservative to liberal, say that on a college campus they not infrequently experience overt disrespect – and sometimes even discrimination.
Liz Howlson, a senior majoring in American Cultures at the University of Michigan, is a member of the school’s InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In a religion class she took, she says, "They talked all about how Christianity has ruined so many things, and I kind of felt embarrassed to be a Christian."
Tension between faith and academics is, of course, nothing new. But the role of religion at US colleges and universities – many of which were originally founded by churches – has become more complicated over the past several decades as most schools have become more secular.
Once upon a time, it was primarily non-Christians who expressed concerns about religious discrimination. They faced the challenge of keeping their traditions in a Christian-centric environment, where their belief systems could easily be misunderstood or overlooked, and where exams might be scheduled during holy days such as Judaism’s Yom Kippur or activities planned during Muslim prayer periods.
But today, it is just as likely to be America’s majority faith group – Christians – who complain of discrimination or plead for more tolerance on campus.
"There’s no way for diverging views [in classes] to be disclosed in an intelligent way," says Nika Elguardo, a devout Christian who, last year, completed a master’s degree at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. She found the professors there generally very respectful of her religious views. But the students, she says, were another matter.
At Harvard, Ms. Elguardo says, secular humanism is the mainstream view. "There are ways of thinking that went against mainstream views … and students in class were shut down by others" when they expressed those views.
Ann Carter, a junior majoring in psychology at Sonoma State and a Christian active in her church, has also felt disrespected in class.
As a freshman, she took a "multiculturalism" class focused on debating topics as diverse as gun control, Hindu theology, and vegetarianism. Part of her grade rested on speaking up and sharing her views.
"I’d say God, and talk about Christ. People would laugh at me and [the professor] did nothing to stop it," says Ms. Carter. "But any other opinion at which students disagreed or laughed she’d stop the class and say, ‘We need to be sensitive!’ "
In a liberal stronghold like the Bay Area, Christians are often stereotyped, says the Rev. Adam Blons, a member of the University Religious Council at the University of California at Berkeley and head of that city’s First Congregational Church. People are quick to assume that all Christians are humorless fundamentalists bent on converting others, he says. "I can confirm that it isn’t easy to be ‘out’ as a Christian."
That experience is not limited to elite schools on the coasts.
"You find it at a lot of state universities," says Dan Myers, chairman of the Department of Sociology at Notre Dame University. "There’s an issue, kind of ironic, that those who are attempting to be so open-minded are relatively close-minded about the religion piece of the thing."
Professor Myers attributes this attitude in part to overzealous Christians who tell others they are wrong not to accept Jesus. He also sees it as a reaction to religion’s long history of suppressing free thought, though he says he experiences full academic freedom at his Catholic university.
"My take is that Notre Dame has some confidence that its religious commitments can stand up to some scrutiny, challenges, and critical thinking," Myers says of the classes he teaches that cover both sides of the abortion and gay rights movements.
But that’s not always the case at more secular schools, others charge.
"The attitude here is if you’re of faith, then you are intellectually inferior," says Gruener.
Critical thinking is core to American higher education, says Edward Ochoa, provost and vice president of academic affairs at Sonoma State University. But so is the idea of the moral development of the young, a value inherited from the English tradition of religious colleges.
"What survives of the religious college model is the liberal arts paradigm of trying to develop the whole person, but it has become more secular," says Dr. Ochoa. He notes that the Sonoma professor who mocked religion is not the norm, and that his school – like most – has a policy of respecting diversity.
In a strange twist, however, sometimes the very policies designed to respect diversity end up working against campus religious groups.
"What you have is basically an institutionalized policy that says an organization that believes in certain absolutes that conflict with very broad nondiscrimination policy have no place on campus," says David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in Philadelphia, a nonprofit that defends academic freedom.
He cites a case brought to FIRE in 2000. A lesbian at Tufts University who’d long been a member of an InterVarsity-affiliated Christian group said she no longer agreed with the group’s stand on sexual morality. Despite this, she wanted to be part of the group’s leadership.
The group welcomed her as a member but said its leadership must share their core beliefs, in addition to meeting certain training requirements.
The woman filed a complaint with Tufts for religious and sexual discrimination and a student judicial panel threw the group off campus. The university administration, however, felt the decision had been hasty and asked for a review.
On review, the judicial panel ruled the woman had not met training requirements but also said the group exhibited sexual discrimination. The woman, independently, withdrew her complaint and the group had to rewrite its constitution, rephrasing its statements on sexuality.
Gay rights are a flash point on many campuses, often creating an awkward collision between ideals of religious freedom and charges of discrimination, says French.
When such cases arise, he adds, the response from college administrators is often ‘Oh, we had no idea that would infringe on First Amendment rights.’ "
Bruce Reitman, dean of students at Tufts, disagrees. "It’s a clash of values of two groups that we hold dearly," he says of school discomfort in being asked to choose between religious and gay rights.
FIRE acknowledges that a school has the right to take a stand and say that it dislikes a certain religious group’s stand against homosexuality.
But he adds, "The problem we have is when the state, even secular liberal arts colleges, takes official action to extinguish that point of view and shut down the marketplace of ideas. The problem on campuses again and again is that the notion of religious liberty and free association must bow before the dominant ideology … and the dominant ideology is a particular brand of secularism … that says faith has no place at the table."
Minority religious groups file far fewer discrimination complaints with FIRE, says French. He speculates that these non-Christian groups are often deemed desirable on campuses eager to appear multicultural, and that it is the large size and prevalence of the Christian groups that lead to actions against them.
Since the Tufts case in 2000, FIRE has represented more than 30 Christian groups on similar issues.
Still, some students say they find good in these challenges.
"As a Christian I know for myself I’ve grown so much within my own faith because people are saying all these things to me," says Howison. "It makes you dig down and search even deeper into the Word of why I do believe, and that’s been real positive for me."