The campus culture war is a religious war, a so-far largely peaceful counterpart to the violent purges and revolutions of jihad. One faith has been expunged, relegated to the margins of the academy, and now another fills the vacuum. Out with the Christianity that spawned American higher education, in with a ferocious new faith — a social-justice progressivism unrestrained by humility and consumed with righteous zeal.
Contemporary Americans — educated in the kind of revisionist history that dominates our educational system from top to bottom — forget that higher education was initially a thoroughly Christian enterprise, in keeping with the spirit of a thoroughly Christian people. By some accounts, up to 106 of the first 108 American colleges were Christian, and even as late as the Civil War, Christian institutions were by far dominant in both numbers and enrollment. Christian thinkers understood the power of higher education, not only its vital ability to transmit knowledge but also its role in building character, in molding the next generation of national and religious leaders.
As higher education secularized — sometimes in conscious imitation of German universities — it faced a challenge. What transcendent purpose can replace the clear purpose and spirit of explicitly Christian education? The answer — at least initially — was the marketplace of ideas, a place where “academic freedom” served as both means and ends. Scholars could be free to study, inquire, and challenge, to pursue truth no matter whom it offended.
But freedom is messy. People make poor choices, the rough and tumble of the marketplace can yield bad outcomes, and entire institutions can lurch into error, captured by morally bankrupt intellectual fashions. Unless there is an underlying dedication to freedom of inquiry as the purpose of the university — including a tolerance for mistakes — it is all too easy for ideologues to see freedom as the means to a specific end. Freedom is useful to put the right people in power. After that, it’s a threat.
And thus the same secular-progressive movement that fought for free speech in the Sixties wrote the first speech codes in the late Eighties and then raised the Millennial social-justice warriors who now are turning on their parents’ generation as insufficiently faithful to the cause.
The revolutionaries had to take down their competitors, those with competing transcendent ideas. Their easiest target was Christianity.
At each step in the process, the revolutionaries had to take down their competitors, those with competing transcendent ideas. Their easiest target was Christianity. It was a simple matter to unite the academic-freedom Left and the social-justice Left in common cause against the traditionalist faithful. While secular civil libertarians rebelled against outright censorship of Christians, they enthusiastically participated in the mockery and malice aimed at Christian expression, with the goal of stigmatizing it and relegating it to the margins of university discourse.
And so when the true purge began — when Christians faced systematic discrimination in hiring and more than 100 universities either ejected Christian groups from campus or threatened to do so —allies were hard to find, and the general public, sadly, remained largely ignorant of campus developments. The plight of campus Christians was lost in the background noise of the larger culture war.
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Few realities illustrate the power of the new social-justice religion more than the fact that vocal dissenters are so rare that we can actually list them by name — people such as Robert George at Princeton, Harvey Mansfield at Harvard, and David Gelernter at Yale — that students tend to know the one or two conservatives who stand out from the featureless plain of leftist faculty conformity. Has America ever been cursed with a more thoughtless class of so-called intellectuals?If there is any silver lining in this dark cloud, it’s that the social-justice faith is so grim, so angry, and so arrogant that it can prosper only through intimidation and coercion. Yet we are still a free people — or at least enough of us are still free — that intimidation and coercion have their limits, especially when exercised against those people who possess real courage, whose eyes are set on a different God, a true God who has protected his church from foes far more formidable than gangs of Millennials and their middle-aged enablers.
Universities were religious once, and they’re religious again, but this new faith is fragile and angry — and it is ripe for a fall.
— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.