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God Goes To Harvard

Students everywhere are heading back to school. But is school the way you remember it? In the post below D. Michael Lindsay, author of Faith In The Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined The American Elite, blogs about how faith has changed on campus, specifically evangelical faith. Read Lindsay’s other posts here.

Today, thousands of students will begin another year at Harvard, which begins its 369th year of classes. Since its founding, Harvard has been home to all kinds of religious believers, people of various faiths and of no faith at all. In recent decades, though, the nation’s leading university has diversified its student body geographically, ethnically, and racially. What’s surprising is how that diversity has changed Harvard’s religious makeup.

9780195326666.jpgFor my book about faith among the nation’s elite, I interviewed dozens of leaders who went to Harvard as undergraduate or graduate students. Those who were on campus during the 1960s and 1970s talk about how little “God talk” could be heard on campus. One leader told me the evangelicals on campus were “running scared intellectually.” Campus ministry groups were small, and evangelicals rarely sponsored campus-wide events. Sure, there were evangelical students, but they were not prominent as a group. And evangelicals everywhere had a reputation for being anti-intellectual.

Times have changed. The Reverend Peter Gomes, Minister of Harvard’s Memorial Church, says, “There are probably more evangelicals [on Harvard’s campus today] than at any time since the seventeenth century.” The Ivy League’s desire for diversity opened new doors for religious students. Evangelical groups today sponsor campus-wide forums, Bible studies, and debates about the relevance of faith to everything from science to international affairs.

In part, this can be attributed to the growing number of Asian-American students. On many Ivy League campuses, they have come to dominate evangelical groups. At Yale, 90 percent of the Campus Crusade for Christ members are Asian American; in the 1980s, the same chapter was 100 percent white. In fact, the growing presence of Asian-Americans on elite campuses may be the single largest demographic factor in evangelicalism’s ascent at places like Yale and Harvard.

Regional diversity has also been important. Harvard made a concerted push to recruit talented students from all over the country, and it now draws students from parts of the country where evangelicalism is vibrant—the South and Midwest. This, coupled with the fact that evangelicals are less likely than other religious groups to abandon their faith when they head off to college, has created an upsurge of evangelicals on campus.

But the story is not all explained by demographic change. Evangelicals have launched a series of initiatives aimed at creating more evangelical influence at Harvard. These have included special scholarship programs for students, support for evangelical ministries, and even an endowed chair in evangelical theological studies at the Harvard Divinity School. I talked with one evangelical philanthropist who has supported initiatives like these, programs that have led to what Alan Wolfe has termed “the opening of the evangelical mind.” I asked what she would do, if she had her wish, to make the evangelical community more thoughtful and intellectually respectable. She replied directly: “what we’re doing.”

Recent Comments

  1. Chris Smith

    This book makes interesting reading. From my own experience with students at Cambridge University I can speak of the vibrancy of evangelical campus faith. I didn’t realise this was a global phenomena. Great book Michael. Go for a world-wide elite next!

  2. mck

    Does this really represent a change? There are more Asian-Americans at Harvard than there were 20 years ago; they are religious; they were religious when they came in; and they will convert all of zero of Harvard’s Jews to evangelical christianity, just like 20 years ago.

    With all of the self-segregation by race and religion at Harvard, does this even matter?

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