The Resilience of Religion in American Higher Education

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John Schmalzbauer, Kathleen Mahoney
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , September
     295 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The mid-1990s produced an unprecedented explosion of historical scholarship on religion in American higher education, with four prominent works being George Marsden and Bradley Longfield’s edited volume, The Secularization of the Academy (Oxford University Press, 1992); Marsden’s Soul of the American University (Oxford University Press, 1994); Philip Gleason’s Contending with Modernity (Oxford University Press, 1995); and Julie Reuben’s Making of the Modern University (University of Chicago Press, 1996). These scholars put forward a cluster of qualified declension narratives which, though with varying emphases, cumulatively detailed the secularization of American colleges and universities between the late-19th century and the middle of the 20th century.

Now, some twenty-five years after that wave of scholarship, John Schmalzbauer and Kathleen A. Mahoney offer an interdisciplinary study of religion’s place in American higher education since the 1970s, one which challenges the continuing explanatory power of the old secularization thesis. These authors have their subject cornered: Schmalzbauer is a sociologist by training yet works in a religious studies department, while Mahoney received her doctorate from a school of education yet is also an accomplished historian. Merging the methods of their diverse disciplines, these two authors find that religion has made a comeback in American colleges and universities. Rather than being “secular,” they say the present-day academy “is better described as post-secular, a set of intellectual and social institutions where the sacred and secular coexist” (2). Religion’s revival in American higher education may be a complicated affair, a product of “competing movements with different aims and grievances,” but it is a real one all the same (11).

Schmalzbauer and Mahoney’s introductory chapter (chapter 1) argues that academic secularization did indeed come to college campuses through the gradual “differentiation” and “privatization” of religion, but it also argues that the last half-century has seen a diverse cohort of players reverse this trend (6). The authors suggest that religion’s renewal was prompted by three major forces: “organizations and networks,” “religious philanthropy,” and “cultural opportunities,” with such opportunities spanning everything from an increased interdisciplinarity in academia to an increased diversity of religious beliefs on American college campuses (12–18). 

The next three chapters detail three distinct areas of academia in which religion has had an apparent resurgence: 1) the academic disciplines themselves; 2) church-related institutions and their unique academic world; and 3) student religious life. Each of these topical chapters begins with a detailed historical overview and then sets into a sweeping survey of more recent events—together they form the core of Schmalzbauer and Mahoney’s narrative. 

As for the disciplines (chapter 2), the authors note that religious topics have become more prevalent in a variety of academic journals, that numerous professional organizations have created sections or affinity groups for scholars studying religion, and that educational institutions themselves have fostered departments, institutes, and centers devoted to renewed consideration of religion. With regard to church-related higher education (chapter 3), Schmalzbauer and Mahoney describe an end-of-century movement toward institutional self-examination, which, together with serendipitous social and economic conditions, primed religious colleges for an era of remarkable expansion. Such colleges have put up spirited defenses of their distinctiveness, adapted their missions to the changing times, and participated in a variety of new national and denominational programs, notably including those sponsored by philanthropies such as the Lilly Endowment. Finally, in relation to student religion (chapter 4), the authors compare the earliest student religious organizations—Christian parachurch groups like the Young Men’s Christian Association—to the broad array of options now available on American college and university campuses, including everything from Christian groups, such as InterVarsity and Cru, to nascent associations for Muslim, Hindu, neo-pagan, and atheist students. In each of these chapters, Schmalzbauer and Mahoney argue that this resurgence of religion’s study and practice has not been a product of unified efforts, and instead has been motivated by diverse and sometimes clashing constituencies.

The book’s two concluding chapters look out from these educational developments into the wider context of the present and into the future, respectively. Chapter 5 demonstrates the impact of religion’s academic comeback on American society by examining its role in civic education, art, and intellectual life. Chapter 6 turns to the future and concludes that, even in light of current prognostications about the declines of American religion and higher education writ large, there is probably a future for religion on American college campuses. “It is hazardous to predict the future,” the authors write, but the outlook may not be so grim (175). Indeed, they suggest that shifts in religious adherence, technological developments, and globalization may actually increase these already-developing ties between American higher education and religion.

This study is carefully argued and exhaustively researched. Schmalzbauer and Mahoney make their claims clear, provide ample theoretical grounding (particularly in sociological terms), and assemble an impressive array of evidence. Fully one-third of this short monograph—just less than one hundred pages—is devoted to endnotes. Its argument, moreover, is convincing. The story of religion’s resurgence in American higher education is one that needed to be told. 

Finally, this book also creates a path forward for future research, which may help provide clearer answers to a lingering question: if the academy is not secularized, then what exactly is its current religious state and shape? While Schmalzbauer and Mahoney outline a new “campus religious marketplace” or “spiritual supermarket,” future studies may bring a fuller understanding of the American college campus’s actual religious economy (99, 149). Likewise, though philanthropies like the John Templeton Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts have undoubtedly pushed American academia in generally religious directions, time (and additional scholarship) will tell whether these and other on-campus efforts result in broader social changes, including shifts in adherence to particular religious viewpoints. In the end, Schmalzbauer and Mahoney’s account is more than compelling, and it opens the door to a new generation of scholarship on religion in American higher education.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Benjamin P. Leavitt is a doctoral student in the Department of History at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
May 13, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Schmalzbauer teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Missouri State University where he holds the Blanche Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies. He is the author of People of Faith: Religious Conviction in American Journalism and Higher Education.

Kathleen A. Mahoney is Senior Staff Member at the GHR Foundation and author of Catholic Higher Education in Protestant America: The Jesuits and Harvard in the Age of the University.


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