The Costs of Secularism

Janine Giordano Drake

To follow up on my story from a few weeks ago, the University of Illinois' Faculty Senate responded to the poor media attention and spontaneous protest among alumni and students about the firing of our adjunct professor, Kenneth Howell. They decided to re-hire him. The Faculty Senate resolved that it was the relationship with Newman that was the problem. Said Professor John Prussing of the faculty senate, "We thought the basic problem was a structural one, having nothing to do with Mr. Howell per se. When one has two employers, the missions of each may not always agree." Prussing went on to say the relationship was "pretty much an anachronism that goes back 40 years." Howell will be hired by the university as an adjunct in Catholic Studies, and paid $10,000 per semester to teach one course in Catholic Thought. The local newspaper article does not consider whether he will be issued any other courses, because Newman supported him to teach more than the one class. It doesn't sound to me like a professor with two PhDs, seminary training, and over two decades of teaching experience and publications would want to take an adjunct position with the option of teaching only one class. What I learn from this story is not how magnanimous the University turned out to be but how hard it must be to get work when you are a theologian interested in engaging with public school students about big ideas.

I am glad that not only our university community but people all over the country have been discussing this story as a philosophical question of secularism in higher education, and surely this firestorm was partially generated by our blog. Inside Higher Ed put together an excellent story about this which came out the same day as my piece in Religion Dispatches. My point a few weeks ago was that theology (even confessional theology) is an important, worthwhile area of study, but it is extremely expensive when not subsidized by either religious institutions or public schools. As I complete my dissertation at the boundaries of US political history, "lived religion," and the history of theology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I find myself wishing every day that I had more access to theology courses taught by theologians. I study belief in the working class Religious Left of late nineteenth and early twentieth century--how, why, and to what extent, working class Catholic and Protestants changed the way they understood wealth accretion and the sin of materialism within the practice of Christianity. I do not believe that the history of theology has all the answers to my historical questions, but my project is deeply enriched by studies in theological history. This area of intellectual history, though made popular again by scholars like George Marsden and Mark Noll, is so rarely touched by public school historians. Many of us public school historians are probably like me--never trained in the subject because we attended militantly secular public schools all our lives. (My high school did not allow the mention of Christmas.)

And yet, this version of secularism that has prevented schools from providing courses in theology has been changing, even noticeably, over the course of my 27-year lifetime. Contrary to the sentiments of our Faculty senator, it is quite the opposite of "anachronistic" for public school funds to support religious institutions. It is true that this practice is old. According to Andrea Turpin, historian of secularism in higher education who commented on my Religion Dispatches article,

"The plan of inviting diverse theological institutions to offer classes on public university grounds dates back to Thomas Jefferson’s original design for the University of Virginia—a self-consciously secular institution. He believed this plan would maintain the neutrality of the state institution while providing the services desired by students. In my own research I have encountered the same plan pursued in the past to varying degrees at the University of Michigan, the University of Toronto, and the University of California, the latter of which touted its secularism very highly. Other examples may exist as well."

But on top of the fact this system has been around since the inception of American liberal arts education, recent constitutional debates over school vouchers affirm that religious institutions can be educators in a liberal democracy. As of 2002 in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the courts established that public funds could be invested in private, religious institutions as long as those institutions' aim was education and passed a particular set of guidelines. As Stanley Fish said in his op-ed, "Is Religion Special?" for the New York Times this past Monday, the establishment clause has been "pretty much rendered null" in areas of public education. Religion is now understood as one set of perspectives on the world--“just another discourse, no different from any other.” Fish challenges us to consider whether this is a fair category to place what is sometimes a totalizing belief system that affirms “a fidelity to an authority and to a set of imperatives that exceed, and sometimes clash with, what is required by the state.” His points here are excellent and the article could serve as a very useful launching pad for discussions about what religion is.

However, I would still argue that theological studies courses, even those taught by confessional theologians and sponsored by religious institutions, can do a lot of good in fostering a pluralistic model of cultural, philosophical and religious literacy. As the scholarship in US Religious History trends more toward "lived religion," those of us training at public schools stand to suffer an incalculable loss. This country is profoundly religious and Glenn Beck's popularity should remind us that there is a profound ignorance about what, exactly, religious people believe. The University of Illinois just invested $10,000 into one course called the Introduction to Catholic Thought. It's a shame we cannot do better than that.


David said…
Great post. I couldn't agree more. I was fortunate to spend time at the University of Toledo which has long had a quite productive relationship between the school and the Newman Center (which runs rather of left-of-center, so would be far less likely to produce a situation as happened at Illinois). Nevertheless, doing a dissertation on religious topic (not at Toledo) at public institution left me with similar gaps in my knowledge (and more to the point, faculty who would be able to help fix that situation).
Kathryn Lofton said…
Again, Janine, thank you. You have been a great steward of this story for our community.