Forces of Secularity in the Modern World

Volume 2

by Stephen Strehle (Author)
Monographs VIII, 250 Pages


Stephen Strehle continues his detailed analysis of the secular forces that shape the modern world in this second and final volume to the study, offering a fresh perspective and solid philosophical, theological, and historical conclusions from his years of research. He continues to find forces of secularity embodied in social or political institutions, cultural dispositions or interests, and new or disturbing intellectual realities that challenge former religious perspectives. The present work starts out examining two powerful institutions of culture, the American university and Hollywood, and explains their place in promoting the secular mentality. The study then shows the secular mentality permeating society as the culture starts to accent the materialistic concerns of technology and divorce religion from the practical and social concerns of everyday life. The study completes the analysis with a discussion of intellectual problems that confront the old-time religion or even the very possibility of faith in the modern world, particularly pointing to the rise of biblical criticism and the rejection of all God-talk among critical philosophers. Like the first volume, the present work is accessible to most upper-level and graduate students in a wide-variety of disciplines, keeping technical and foreign words to a minimum and leaving scholarly details or debates to its extensive notes.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • IV The Ascension of the Secular Left to Institutions of Power
  • Chapter Eight The Development of Liberal and Secular Universities
  • Chapter Nine The Entertainment Industry
  • V Worldly and Other-Worldly Secularity
  • Chapter Ten Technology
  • Chapter Eleven Protestantism and New Testament Christianity
  • VI Problems with the Existence, Knowledge, and Revelation of God
  • Chapter Twelve The Challenge of Biblical Criticism for Conservative Christians
  • Chapter Thirteen Pre-Modern Philosophical Skepticism from Ockham to Hume
  • Chapter Fourteen Modern Philosophical Skepticism in Kant and the Post-Kantian World
  • Summary
  • Index
  • Series index

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The present volume is a continuation of the previous work providing a detailed account of those forces of secularity that were mentioned in the introduction and requiring further development. The second volume continues the same typology as the first, which found forces of secularity in the new intellectual realities of the modern world, certain subjective perspectives that appropriate life in a different way, and institutions like the US government that lead or coerce the rest of culture to follow a secular way of thinking. Here the typology starts with a study of institutions like the American university and Hollywood that lead culture in a secular direction, then shows the secular mentality within the subjective experience of the modern technological way of thinking and the Protestant understanding of faith, and finally ends with the new intellectual challenges of modern philosophy and biblical analysis that find the old-time religious categories difficult to defend. The rigorous historical standards remain from the first study and provide the discussion with a more detailed analysis than most previous philosophical and sociological treatments of the subject but carry with the rigor an unavoidable problem in failing to mention many other examples that might illuminate the typology in different areas. Perhaps, the most obvious deficit of this approach might be found in the study’s decision to focus upon America and its basic religious expression and neglect other cultures and their testimony to belief and unbelief. The deficit is unfortunate but finds some compensation through the simple recognition of the ←vii | viii→dominate cultural impact of Americanism and the Christian faith on the world stage representing what is transpiring elsewhere and leading all others in the general drift toward secularism.

Whatever merit the study possesses for the reader the main credit must go to the broad shoulders of scholars in the past who labored over its resources and the many people who provided more direct, personal assistance along the way in the development of the manuscript. Among many others, the study wishes to offer a special thanks to Joseph Prud’homme and Washington College’s Institute for the Study of Religion, Politics, and Culture for sponsoring and supporting the publication of the work. It also wishes to thank Jesse Spencer and the library staff at Christopher Newport University for using their considerable skills in securing the numerous and rare sources necessary to complete the research. After spending decades of visiting archives and sleeping in cars, the new system of interlibrary loan and computerized research is a godsend.

Christopher Newport University
Stephen Strehle
Newport News, VA

←2 | 3→


The Development of
Liberal and Secular

Protestant Colleges

The vast majority of American universities were founded by the church, sometimes with tax support from the state or local community. Most of these schools were the stepchildren of specific Protestant denominations.1 The College of Philadelphia (later University of Pennsylvania) was the sole exception among the nine colleges that were founded prior to the American Revolution. “Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth were Congregationalists; William and Mary and King’s College (later Columbia) were Anglican; the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) was Presbyterian; the College of Rhode Island (later Brown) was Baptist; and Queen’s College (later Rutgers) was Dutch Reformed.”2 Before the Civil War, these and the other colleges that soon developed had mostly ministers serving as presidents, trustees, and faculty, and required students to attend daily chapel and worship services every Sunday.3 Four-fifths of the denominational schools and two-thirds of the state colleges had clergymen presidents, who typically taught a senior course on moral philosophy that served as the capstone course in the program and means of integrating the entire curriculum into a unified Christian vision. The course defended Christian faith through apologetic and philosophical means and applied its principles to the rest of the curriculum affixing subjects like politics, law, psychology, sociology, history, aesthetics, and ethics into an integrated whole.4 As late ←3 | 4→as 1890, “twenty-two of the twenty-four state schools conducted chapel services, at twelve of which attendance was compulsory, and four still required church attendance as well.” Most of the faculty were members of a church.5 According to James B. Angell, around 71% of the faculty were members of churches at state universities, with a “good portion of these teachers superintending Sunday-schools, conducting Bible classes, sometimes supplying pulpits, engaged in every kind of Christian work, and by example and word stimulating their pupils to a Christian life.”6

Harvard represented much of the same spiritual impetus early on as the oldest and most prestigious school in the country, established six years after the Puritan settlement in 1636.7 While it had no specific doctrinal statement, its Board of Overseers consisted of local clergymen and civil magistrates, who forwarded the interests of the Puritan community in spiritual and temporal concerns. Its curriculum balanced daily biblical readings and theological studies on Saturday and Sunday with other courses during the week in mathematics, science, philosophy, history, and geography, emphasizing classical languages and using pagan authors like Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, and Seneca. Just over half of the graduates in the seventeenth century went on to serve the community as ministers, while the rest received much the same biblical and theological instruction, as the school considered the vocations of every student a sacred service to Christ in accordance with the typical Puritan teaching and its Protestant work ethic.8

Of course, eventually Harvard lost its basic relation to orthodox Congregationalism and came to represent a more liberal religious and social posture in the course of time. With the election of Henry Ware in 1805, the Unitarians began “to wrest control of the college from the moderate Calvinists.”9 Much of the original design remained intact, with daily chapel services, classical texts, and clerical leadership, but serious religious confession gave way to vague Unitarian spirituality and a new liberal emphasis upon morality as the essence of religion. A few decades later the Board of Overseers was opened to clergymen from all denominations and then to the laity in 1865. Toward the end of the century, church and chapel became optional, and the seal of the university was changed from Christo et Ecclesiae to Veritas.10 At the beginning of the twentieth century, liberalism was the entrenched orthodoxy of the school. President Charles Eliot was able to denounce the traditional Christian faith of its founders and condemn all sectarian confessions as a form of narrow-minded bigotry, while promoting the typical Hegelian philosophy of the day with its doctrine of liberal progressivism and longing for a new “Religion of the Future.”11

Today Harvard is obsessed with liberal progressivism. It represents mostly the secular left in all its social, political, and religious dimensions. Professor Alan ←4 | 5→Dershowitz, a one-time faculty member at Harvard Law, admits that the school has no real interest in diversity. It has no interest in hiring spokespersons for Evangelical Christianity or right-wing social and political ideology.12 The work of its most distinguished twentieth-century theologian, Harvey Cox, celebrates the secularization of the university, as well as the profanation of American culture in general. In his best known book, The Secular City (1965), Cox joins the secular agenda of atheists: renouncing the need for mythical and metaphysical meaning from the past, hoping to exorcise superstitions that look to the heavens for answers, denouncing traditional and transcendent meaning and values, preferring to place the destiny of the world within the hands of humankind, extolling recent Court decisions to eliminate prayer and Bible reading from the public school system, demythologizing the sacred symbols of the country, and longing for a secular future without any need of divine grace.13 The Divinity School follows a similar left-wing agenda. A famous study found it embracing “religious relativism rather than religious truth” in trying not to offend a “wide diversity of people,” while spewing considerable hatred at Christian Evangelicals, Catholics, and other narrow-minded sectarians.14 “[T];he Div School brand of ultraliberal Christianity did not represent the faith, belief or politics of most Christians in the United States.”15 It fundamentally attacked the authority of the Bible and promoted as its dogma a host of left-wing social causes—militant feminism, gay liberation, black empowerment, and so forth.16 In the summer of 2006, Larry Summers, the president of Harvard University, was forced to resign for merely suggesting the possibility that biological differences between men and women might account for the disparity between the sexes in science departments at elite universities, trying to justify the drop in women receiving tenure in the field during his administration. He was removed basically for offending the left-wing sensibilities of feminists who attribute sexual differences to culture, not for misreading “a large body of neuro-scientific data and opinion” on the subject.17

This same path was followed by Yale, the second oldest and most prestigious institution in the country. The school was founded in 1701 over concerns about Harvard’s theological orthodoxy with the recent ouster of Increase Mather as president of the college.18 In following this spiritual beginning, Yale tended to keep its Christian identity much longer than Harvard and the many other schools that developed afterward in the course of time. Even as late as 1937, President Charles Seymour was able to speak of Yale in his inaugural address as a “Christian institution” and encourage the “maintenance and upbuilding of the Christian religion as a vital part of the university.”19 However, this identity no longer spoke of the true fundamental reality that was developing at the school for some time previously, while the administration remained in denial and protested the opposite to ←5 | 6→parents and alumni. The students and the faculty were clearly drifting away from the faith. In 1941, the Redbook magazine depicted the typical senior as “skeptical of emotional idealism” with “very little interest whatever in organized religion,” adding quite bluntly, “He never goes to church.”20 The church and its clergy were no longer directing the school. The first lay president was elected in 1899 and only four clergy were sitting on the Corporation by 1931. The vast majority of faculty and students were already on record opposing mandatory chapel and causing the Corporation to drop the requirement in 1926, while the administration still tried to keep a Christian façade, arguing to concerned alumni about the fundamental Christian character of the college and promising to bolster the department of religion and strengthen Christian organizations at the school.21 The façade was exposed a few decades later with the publication of William F. Buckley’s best-selling book, God and Man at Yale (1951). Buckley was an undergraduate student at the school from 1946–1951 and found the “institution that derives its moral and financial support from Christian individualists … address[es] itself to the task of persuading the sons of these supporters to be atheistic socialists.”22 The economists were basically Keynesian interventionists or collectivists23; the textbooks advocated a planned welfare state and deficit spending24; the philosophy department was fundamentally secular and antagonistic to religion, with the rest of the humanities and social sciences sharing much of the same attitude25; and the religion department provided no real inspiration to counter the general trend, since only a small percentage of students chose to take one of its courses.26 Yale and its defenders immediately attacked Buckley as a “twisted and ignorant young man” and a “bigoted boy” for the book’s “dishonest … use of facts,” McCarthyite tactics, and desire to limit “academic freedom.”27 The administration tried to continue the ruse, using the term Christian, promoting spirituality, and encouraging some formal religious observance, but it was mostly a performance falling on deaf ears. Religion was mostly about “service” and “morality” at the school, which easily lost connection to the church and proceeded in the course of time to represent the social agenda of the secular left.28

The story of Harvard and Yale represents the typical maturation of American universities in proceeding away from their religious past toward the secular future. Most of the schools moved from “being visibly Christian … to being stridently secular by the late twentieth century.”29 Religion was largely dead at non-Christian colleges and universities, with only a remnant of believers holding on to a faith that most professors were trained to ridicule.30

The process of secularization has its own varying degrees and individual stories to relate among a wide variety of schools but shares many common features that hold true in most cases and find expression in most scholastic works on the subject:

←6 | 7→

One, there was the emphasis upon nonsectarian education. Most American universities were “built on a foundation of evangelical Protestant[ism]” and its many denominations but wanted to attract a large number of students and took a nonsectarian approach to recruitment.31 Eventually the colleges ceded more space on the board to minority denominations and started to inculcate only a general Christian point of view among the faculty.32 This led them to retreat from their religious affiliation and oppose all sectarian dogma, as if serious or specific religious confession was evil and must be treated like the enemy. Religion became more and more a generic or vague concept.33 Any self-identification with a specific denomination was replaced with a general hospitality toward all denominations as the new reigning dogma. The clerical control of boards was replaced by the alumni and the laity. The schools proceeded from a specific denominational identity like “Congregational” to “Christian,” from “Christian” to “religious,” and finally from “religious” to “secular.”34

After World War II, the universities followed the culture and furthered the image of a “melting pot” more than past generations, with its religious expressions melting into an integrated homogenous whole. Maintaining a Christian identity would involve the policy of discrimination against minority groups like Jews, who had suffered considerable hardship from anti-Semitic forces in America and Europe.35 President Dwight Eisenhauer said America was founded upon a “deeply held religious faith, and I don’t care what it is,”36 voicing the ecumenical and multicultural spirit of the times; but eventually the term religion lost much of its meaning as a political slogan under this policy and merged into the secular landscape of American values. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Protestant vision of nonsectarian Christianity basically ran the universities in the country, but now it was asked to lose all its privileges. The liberal Protestant establishment was able to exclude Catholics and traditional Protestants from its ranks, but now the logic of nonsectarianism began to turn on the liberals and eliminate their leading place as the cultural elite of higher education. “Inclusive” ideals must exclude any particular religious perspective from a “mainline” role in academic life. All Christianity had to go. Its leading role and continuing presence and dominance of American culture had to be marginalized.37 The establishment of nonsectarianism found its marching orders within the prospect of blending people together in society and creating a secular American citizenry.38

Two, the multicultural approach was also fueled by the all-too-human need of finding recognition from the now dominate secular establishment in society. “Excellence” motivated many Christian schools to forsake their intellectual and spiritual vision and form a synthesis with secular norms. The schools grew embarrassed about their inferior sectarian identity and laicized the faculty and the board. ←7 | 8→They shunned their sectarian identity to expand the pool of applicants and recruit better students and faculty from a wide variety of prospects, hoping to avoid marginalization in society as a sectarian group and compete for a modicum of recognition from the secular academic elite—all to the continual erosion and eventual destruction of their spiritual foundation.39

Three, extracurricular activities often fostered spiritual growth at universities but were soon curtailed, undermined, and eviscerated in the course of secularizing the schools. Almost all state universities had compulsory chapel services and required church attendance in the nineteenth century. As late as 1890, twenty-two of the twenty-four state schools had chapel services and still required attendance of the students in half of them40; but the administrations soon caved into student and faculty protests about the policy and began to phase out the place and importance of chapel over the next few decades.41 In the typical scenario, chapel services became mixed with other secular purposes, then fewer chapel services were offered during the week, then attendance became optional, and finally the services were scrapped altogether.42 Christian organizations were thought to supply the missing spiritual impetus and had significant influence at one time, serving as the leading student organizations.43 Colleges looked to a “variety of extracurricular organizations designed to foster students’ piety” during the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century.44 In 1921, the YMCA could boast of planting chapters on three quarters of the nation’s campuses, with one of seven students participating in its Bible studies and other activities, but the number of students after that time soon plummeted and gravitated to the modern Greek system. The YMCA and other “Christian” organizations began to undermine the Christian message and move toward a more social or secular gospel, providing little spiritual inspiration in the years to come that the administrations had hoped to instill early on.45

Four, secularization followed the tendency of reducing faith to morality.46 This tendency was found at the very beginning of the universities within the pragmatic spirit of their Puritan and Pietistic forebears and greatly accelerated after the Enlightenment, when Deists and philosophes assailed theological speculations of the old orthodoxy in exchange for the religion of morality.47 By the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century, many state schools were turning away from the broad theological and evangelical consensus of the nonsectarian past and embracing a modern religious progressivism in the spirit of Georg Hegel and the Social Gospel of liberal theology, which discounted the importance of doctrine in order to inculcate moral living and social activity as the essence of faith.48 Henry Louis Smith, Davidson’s first lay president, said, “Character is more important than Education, that Sincerity, Honor, and Purity are more valuable than knowledge.”49 The nonsectarian/nondoctrinal nature of the schools made them breeding grounds ←8 | 9→for liberalism and its rejection of serious religious confession. Today most universities promote the entire spectrum of left-wing political causes, social reform, and social justice, without any reference to God or any theological matrix for their idealism. Most of them made a decisive and ineluctable move from piety to character, from the service of the church to the service of the state and society.50

Five, the universities fell under the spell of the modern scientific revolution, which contained no special interest in metaphysical or religious truth. In the nineteenth century, higher education made a decisive move toward technology and science, transforming the small colleges of the 1870s into the research universities of the 1920s as money poured into the schools from industry and the government. Schools like Chicago, Stanford, Harvard, and Johns Hopkins, old and new schools alike, began to emphasize research as their fundamental mission.51 In 1876, Johns Hopkins was founded for the specific purpose of becoming a science and research institution, designed to serve industrial society.52 The research university destroyed much of the older emphasis upon the liberal arts and the Christian model of an integrated curriculum. Many universities disavowed their religious past to become great research institutions, serving the practical needs of humankind in this present world and sacrificing the soul of the student.53

Six, the need to receive financial aid from public and private sources contained an impetus to secularize the schools.54 External agencies of finance often required a college to renounce its religious past and become a secular or nonsectarian school as its primary mission. Colleges had to demonstrate that their religious commitment exercised little influence over the curriculum if they wished to receive the coveted financing.55 The Carnegie Foundation was one of the most significant avenues of funding and tied its subsidies to the schools disavowing formal denominational connections. Andrew Carnegie preferred a religion without all the accoutrements of man-made dogmatic speculation and sectarian interference.56 This philosophy was also a part of the many states that passed their own versions of the Blaine Amendment, inculcating a severe form of church/state separation and forcing schools to eliminate all vestiges of sectarian affiliation in order to receive the government’s financial support. The “Bundy aid” laws of New York State provided their assistance only to those private colleges that demonstrated the secondary nature of any religious association.57

Seven, money was also a significant factor in shaping the interests of students. Schools often turned away from the former emphasis upon religion and the liberal arts to meet the expressed demands of parents and students for professional programs of vocational training to justify the expense of higher education.58 The universities found it necessary to serve the immediate and practical needs of its constituency and move away from abstruse metaphysical questions or developing ←9 | 10→a cultured graduate and postponing matriculation into a successful career. By the end of the twentieth century, three-quarters of the students said they went to college for the purpose of earning more money and receiving a better paying job.59 The original design of training the clergy was long gone. The clergy were shipped off to separate divinity schools, and the majority of collegians were headed for a wide variety of other professions.60

The faculty embodied the diverse array of professions and lost interest right along with the students in the quest for ultimate truth or an integrated curriculum of a genuine “university.” The faculty forsook the unity for the sake of the diversity of different disciplines, possessing more interest in their specific area of expertise and personal professional career than the overall mission or health of the larger academic community. The university now consisted of different fiefdoms, protecting their separate place and turf within isolated disciplines.61 Only a few scholars protested the diversity and tried to restore some semblance of unity within the overall secular chaos. Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler of the University of Chicago pioneered the most famous approach within the new secular reality, emphasizing the importance of the Great Books of the Western World as a sacred metaphysical tradition and influenced certain schools to proceed in this direction. Allan Bloom wrote a popular book in 1987 entitled The Closing of the American Mind that favored the Great Books approach to the curriculum as a means of seeking truth and combating the current cultural relativity of pragmatism and postmodernism among the nation’s schools.62 But most schools followed the lead of John Dewey, the father of modern American education and patriarch of pragmatism and postmodernism. Dewey rejected the Great Books approach as undermining the new paradigms of the present day, as it looked to the past for wisdom and tried to preserve some “fixed truth,” rather than proceeding to the modern world of pragmatic relativity.63

Modern Protestant colleges showed many of the same tendencies of their older counterparts in proceeding toward a secular worldview.64 Some managed to keep a vital Christ-centered curriculum like Wheaton and Calvin College; others proceeded toward the gray zone of a diluted spirituality like Baylor University; and the rest became basically secular over the course of time.65 A good example of the process of secularity was Davidson College. The school was founded by the Presbyterian Church in 1837, with six ministers and eighteen elders serving on its board. It admitted all students, regardless of their religious background like so many schools before them, but demanded the faculty serve as spiritual mentors to the students and abide by the tenets of the Presbyterian faith.66 This policy slowly changed over a period of several decades: first non-tenured faculty could be any sort of Protestant (1928), then ←10 | 11→all faculty could be just Protestant (1945); then non-tenured faculty could be non-Christian (1972); and then all faculty members could be non-Christian (1996).67 Other steps in the process included Henry Louis Smith, the first lay president from 1901–1912, stressing “character” over education and theology; mandatory chapel and Bible courses ending around 1967; and the commitment to diversity and religious inclusion becoming the reigning shibboleths in the 1980s and 1990s.68 All the constituents shared some responsibility for the religious demise of the school, but much of the blame fell on the Presbyterian Church’s own apathy toward its educational institutes. Basically, the church lost control of its college due to a lack of interest or sufficient financial support. Davidson like so many of these colleges went from “Presbyterian” or “Christian” to “church-related,” and then proceeded all the way to severing ties with the Presbyterian Church during the mid-60s in fundamental ways.69 At that time a polling of students found that only half of them professed to believe in the most basic outline of the Christian faith.70

Catholic Colleges

Catholic higher education lived under the shadow of the Protestant hegemony for much of its history. The Jesuits were the primary force in establishing Catholic colleges throughout the country in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—schools like Georgetown, the oldest Catholic college in America, established in 1789. They provided a much-needed opportunity and space for Catholic intellectual life to develop and flourish in a new country but often stifled the pursuit of academic freedom and excellence at these schools as good soldiers of the Vatican and the hierarchy of the church.71

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the Vatican expressed much concern about modernism or any synthesis between Catholicism and the modern liberal world. The animosity reached its zenith when Leo XIII condemned Americanism in Testem benevolentiae nostrae (1899) and Pius X condemned modernism in Pascendi dominici gregis (1907), officially putting “liberal” schools like Catholic University on notice and establishing the ideological framework for Catholic higher education for the next half century. Leo III admonished the church and its schools to recover human reason from its present plight in Western civilization and return once again to the “golden wisdom” of St. Thomas Aquinas in Aeterni patris (1879). Pius X followed his predecessor and reiterated the need to inculcate Thomism as a means of withstanding the liberalism, skepticism, and agnosticism of the modern world.72 He made Scholastic philosophy the basis of all sacred sciences at Catholic ←11 | 12→schools, exalting it as the verdict of faith and reason, no longer subject to debate among the faculty and students.73

And let it be clearly understood above all things that when We prescribe scholastic philosophy We understand chiefly that which the Angelic Doctor has bequeathed to us, and We, therefore, declare that all the ordinances of Our predecessor [Leo III] on this subject continue fully in force, and, as far as may be necessary, We do decree anew, and confirm, and order that they shall be strictly observed by all. In seminaries where they have been neglected it will be for the Bishops to exact and require their observance in the future; and let this apply to the superiors of religious orders. Further, we admonish professors to bear well in mind that they cannot set aside St. Thomas, especially in metaphysical questions, without grave disadvantage.74

The new Code of Canon Law insisted that professors of sacred sciences “adhere religiously” to “the method, the doctrine, and the principles of the Angelic Doctor.”75 Through this policy, the Vatican was rejecting the inner subjectivity of the post-Kantian world, inculcating the objective truth of Aristotelian and Thomistic conceptions, and forcing scholars to live in the ancient and medieval world of potency and act, substance and accident, natural theology, natural law, and so forth.76

In the first half of the century, Catholic higher education followed the will and spirit of the Vatican for the most part. Thomistic philosophy was implemented as a synthesizing discipline that had a clear theological agenda and presented a complete philosophy of life.77 It was typical of a Catholic college to require around fifteen semester hours of credit in the area of philosophy, which involved courses in ethics, logic, psychology, and physics—all from a Thomistic point of view.78 Thomism served as the integrating core of the curriculum and remained a vital force up until the 1950s when cracks began to develop and soon precipitated into a massive exodus in the subsequent decade. Catholics remained medieval in their fundamental mentality, while modern reorganization was already underway and poised to undermine the Thomistic synthesis for the next generation.79

The 1960s substantially altered the character of Catholic colleges. Vatican II brought the conflict between liberals and conservatives to a head as the church yielded ground to modernism and struck a more conciliatory tone. Catholic educators were more radical than the church and went almost immediately from challenging modernity to embracing it.80 Catholic administrators chose to follow the liberal trend for the sake of gaining institutional recognition from the modern secular world.81 The faculty also wanted academic respectability and freedom and no longer saw their substantial mission within the matrix of the Catholic Church. Theological dissent became normative, and most schools began to lose contact with their Catholic identity, with the Vatican no longer able to control the ←12 | 13→situation.82 Catholic identity became an ongoing problem for many of the schools after the turbulent times of the 1960s and left many wondering about the spiritual nature of their institutions.83

Jesuits yielded much of their control after Vatican II. Their manpower was shrinking and unable to fill academic posts or keep up with the burgeoning student population. They were shifting their focus toward helping the poor and social activism and away from academic work, with many of the bright young recruits becoming anti-intellectual. By the mid-1990s, Jesuits represented “only 4 percent of college and university faculties.”84 The decrease answered to the unrest on campus after Vatican II, as the universities sought to wrest control away from the Catholic hierarchy regardless of Jesuit concessions or the depletion of their ranks. At Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin, Catholic educators and religious leaders met together in 1967 and demanded “true autonomy and academic freedom” from ecclesiastical and clerical control.85 The AJCU proceeded to strip their colleges of Jesuit supervision, only promising to continue a basic Jesuit texture at the schools in the future.86 Between 1962 and 1972, the boards of Catholic institutions were laicized; the faculty were laicized and afforded more power; required courses in theology/philosophy were reduced; and student life was freed from numerous regulations.87 The schools wanted academic respectability and found it necessary to sacrifice Catholic identity and ecclesiastical control.88 In the early 1960s, Catholic scholarship and research were inferior to their secular counterparts,89 and the schools were willing to sacrifice their spiritual nature and gain the world of accreditation, federal dollars, vocational and professional success, and whatever was necessary for the pursuit of “excellence.”90 In spurning ecclesiastical authority, it was no longer possible to preserve the spiritual nature of the schools—especially within the Catholic faith of traditional orthodoxy, which found the Spirit and its truth working within the hierarchical and corporate structure of the church.

Today many Catholic schools live in the gray zone of a quasi-religious texture that is gradually eroding over time. Notre Dame is a good example of this present trend. Under the leadership of Theodore Hesburgh, Notre Dame aspired to become a great research institution. In 1961, the school conducted a self-study and found that the desire to integrate the curriculum around a set core of Neo-Scholastic courses conflicted with the goal of academic excellence, which depended in their mind upon greater departmental authority and specialized disciplines.91 Within a few years, the philosophy department replaced the Thomism of the mid-fifties with a “pluralistic” approach to the discipline and lost much of its central role in the curriculum.92 In 1967, a sizable number of lay persons were added to the board of trustees, seizing ultimate authority over the school and obtaining autonomy from its religious sponsor and founder, the Congregation of the Holy Cross. In ←13 | 14→making this move, the school was moving toward secular respectability, but the religious heritage remained too strong among the Catholic majority that still dominated the board to commit complete apostacy.93 The faculty was becoming more and more non-Catholic and the board decided to apply some affirmative action to try and stop the secularizing process. The student body remained overwhelmingly Catholic, and the board wanted to continue regulating their spiritual life with the presence of rectors (often priests or nuns) in the dorms and small chapels, offering mass on a daily basis.94 Like many Catholic schools in the 1980s, a Center for Social Concerns was erected, promoting the typical Catholic interest in peace and social justice and producing idealism among the students, who often volunteered for a year of service after graduation.95 Much of the move seemed positive, but also tended to ignore a latent problem that these programs have in inculcating a left-wing agenda, reducing religion to morality, and promoting secularism in the end.96 Justice-and-Peace Programs like the one at Notre Dame have gained a reputation around the nation for inculcating a “value-oriented” agenda that is “anti-war, antiviolence, antinuclear, antiauthoritarian, antiestablishment, proenvironment, pro-human rights, pro-social justice, pro-peace and politically progressive”97—some of which might possess genuine spiritual inspiration but much of it typically turns against religious beliefs in the end.

Religion Departments

Up until the middle of the twentieth century, Protestantism dominated much of the religious instruction at institutions in the country, bringing some spiritual unification and inspiration to the curriculum, with its emphasis upon biblical and theological courses.98 However, its theology was becoming more and more liberal and critical of traditional doctrines of the church by the 1880s and was losing ground to secular interests that tended to overwhelm whatever inspiration was left in its teachings.99 Protestant schools lost most of their substantive connection with their denominations and churches through the process of laicizing the boards, the faculties, and the administrations and eliminating biblical and theological courses—or, at least marginalizing their place and relevancy in the lives of the students. Public schools were dominated by much the same liberal Protestant establishment, although fewer students were taking the necessary religious courses for it to matter and secularism was becoming more aggressive throughout the era and finally coming to the forefront with its new gospel of multiculturalism in the 1960s.100 Already religion departments were beginning to break from the liberal Protestant heritage a few decades earlier and started to renounce all avenues of the ←14 | 15→former spiritual mission, hoping to gain secular respectability from the world of academia as a new “scientific” study.101

Modern religion departments began to spring up in America after World War I and became a real growth industry from 1945 to 1970, expanding from twenty to thirty-eight and covering about a third of public colleges and two-thirds of the private.102 By the end of the 1960s, colleges were offering courses in religious studies, with a third of the state schools offering a major in the subject.103 Their focus was increasingly non-Western, non-Christian, and pluralistic in answering to the new liberal demand for “diversity” on campus.104


VIII, 250
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (October)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. VIII, 250 pp.

Biographical notes

Stephen Strehle (Author)

Stephen Strehle has doctoral degrees from the Universität Basel and Dallas Theological Seminary in Church History and Systematic Theology. He is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Christopher Newport University, director of its Program in Judeo-Christian Studies, and author of many books and articles on the Reformation and church/state issues.


Title: Forces of Secularity in the Modern World