The Way Forward for Religious Institutions

Faith-based colleges can resist the heavy hand of government—if they dare.

Traditional religion in this country has never been more under attack than it is today, with the recent passage of the 2022 “Respect for Marriage Act.” Despite its half-hearted nod to religious liberty, the law, as Sen. Mike Lee (R, UT) and others have argued, is actually a vehicle for undermining faith-based institutions under the guise of promoting “LGBTQ rights.”

The specific institutions in the crosshairs clearly include religiously affiliated colleges and universities, which are being pressured to compromise their core beliefs in the name of “progress.” Examples abound, but Exhibit A would be Yeshiva University, an orthodox Jewish institution in New York City.

Religiously affiliated colleges and universities are being pressured to compromise their core beliefs in the name of “progress.”In 2021, the “YU Pride Alliance” sued the university after campus officials refused to formally recognize the group because its beliefs conflict with the Torah. A New York state court ruled, in September 2022, that Yeshiva had to grant recognition, and later that month the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block the ruling, sending the case back to the state courts. (SCOTUS did leave open the possibility of taking up the issue once it has worked its way through the lower courts.)

Meanwhile, the Biden administration announced last May that it is investigating six other faith-based institutions for violating the rights of “LGBTQ+” students, among them Liberty University in Virginia, Azusa Pacific University in California, and Colorado Christian College. The investigations, which according to the Department of Education’s website are ongoing, were launched in response to complaints from students who claimed the universities had discriminated against them based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

How can religious universities survive in such a hostile environment? Will they simply, over time, cease to exist—or cease to be religious? Eventually, many of them may indeed cease to be religious in any meaningful way; I have no doubt that is the Left’s goal. But in the meantime, there are specific steps religious institutions can take to prolong their ministries while remaining true to their founding principles.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have never worked at a religious college, although I attended one for a year as an undergraduate. However, my four children have all graduated from such institutions, as have their spouses, where they received an excellent education as well as, in my view, unparalleled preparation for life beyond college. I’m grateful for their experiences and would hate to see those institutions, and others like them, die out.

Fortunately, I believe campuses that are willing to adopt the following strategies will be able to survive and even thrive.

Don’t compromise. If religious institutions wish to maintain their integrity and remain vital forces for good, they must refuse to compromise their core beliefs and standards. I understand that, given the external (and sometimes internal) pressures, the temptation is ever-present to give a little here and a little there; but in that direction lie loss of identity and mission shift, at best, dissolution and failure at worst.

The higher-education landscape is littered with private universities that used to be religiously affiliated.If an institution refuses to condone, say, “transgenderism” or same-sex relationships, many won’t like it. If they require students and faculty to abide by some sort of honor code or statement of faith that expressly forbids such things, there will be howls from every quarter.

Witness Seattle Pacific University, currently embroiled in an ugly lawsuit over its policy prohibiting “sexual behavior … inconsistent with the University’s understanding of Biblical standards, including cohabitation, extramarital sexual activity, and same-sex sexual activity.” A group of 16 students, faculty, and alumni have accused the board of “upholding whiteness,” “homophobia,” and promoting “White Christian supremacy.” 

But any religious institution that capitulates to this kind of pressure, abandoning its beliefs just because some vehemently disagree, ceases to be a religious institution. Depending on its size, it may cease to exist altogether. What does it now have to offer, after all, that other similarly-sized schools do not? At the very least, it will no longer be religious, even if it maintains that façade for years. Indeed, the higher-education landscape is littered with private universities that used to be religiously affiliated but are now as secular as any land-grant.

That includes places like Harvard, Yale, and Emory, all of which began as religious institutions but are so no longer. But it also includes schools like Notre Dame and Baylor, which today are Catholic and Baptist, respectively, in name only. That’s fine if a university wishes to move beyond its theological roots and become fully secular; but if it wants to be identified with a denomination, it must continue to openly embrace and promote that denomination’s doctrine.

Rethink funding. One of the main reasons so many religious institutions have moved away from their founding principles over the years has been their increased dependence on government funding. That comes primarily in the form of federal student aid but may also include grants and other subsidies. Once reliant on this form of revenue, institutions—just like individuals—are loathe to relinquish it.

The problem is, government funds come with definite strings attached. To qualify, and to continue qualifying, schools must meet certain guidelines with respect to “equity” (read: racial quotas) and “inclusion” (read: adherence to the “LGBTQ+” agenda). The mere threat of losing those federal dollars is enough, in many cases, to keep schools in line—to make them, in the bureaucratic parlance, “compliant”—even if the guidelines contradict their core religious beliefs.

Riding the government gravy train makes religious colleges and universities more susceptible to legal scrutiny.Riding the government gravy train also makes institutions more susceptible to legal scrutiny, both from the government itself and from private parties. Note that all six of the schools mentioned above, which have come under the Biden administration’s baleful eye, accept federal funds, as does Yeshiva. Indeed, in the case of Seattle Pacific, that is one of the issues plaintiffs mention specifically.

The solution is simple but not easy: Authentically religious institutions must find a way to operate without federal funds, following what we might call the Hillsdale Model. Hillsdale College is a highly-ranked, Christian, liberal-arts institution in Michigan whose growth has “skyrocketed” in recent years, according to the Detroit Free Press. The college’s website states the following: “As a matter of principle, Hillsdale doesn’t accept any federal or state subsidy to fund its operations, not even indirectly in the form of federal student aid. Instead, we provide for student aid with our own private funds.”

No doubt, this would be difficult for many institutions. It would require a great deal of fundraising from private sources, along with more support from the sponsoring denomination and/or affiliated congregations, and perhaps even a tuition increase. It could have a negative impact on faculty recruiting, as some academics—even if they share the institution’s beliefs—might be reluctant to come aboard if they can’t apply for federal grants. (That would be especially true in STEM fields.)

The upside, however, is freedom—religious freedom, perhaps in its purest form. If the government can’t deny or strip funding due to some perceived non-compliance with the latest “progressive” bureaucratic whim, then the college is free to, well, not comply. The government has one less tool for coercing campus leaders to compromise or abandon their values in pursuit of the almighty dollar. And while this might not spare institutions completely from private lawsuits, it puts them on firmer legal ground.

Choose you this day. Rejecting government largesse will require a significant reordering of priorities—which is exactly, in my view, what most faith-based universities need. Just as many religious individuals have allowed their pursuit of worldly success and acclaim to blunt the edge of their faith, many institutions have done the same.

For far too long, religious institutions in this country have tried to serve two masters.That cannot continue—not if those institutions wish to maintain their integrity. They must, in the words of Joshua, “choose … this day whom [they] will serve” (Joshua 1:9). As Jesus put it, in his Sermon on the Mount, “No man can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”

For far too long, religious institutions in this country have tried to serve two masters. They have attempted to maintain their religious identities while at the same time bowing to the woke gods of higher education in pursuit of money and status. This is clearly unsustainable.

Now they must ask themselves whether it’s more important to be a highly ranked research university, to play sports in a major Division I conference, and to rake in federal grants—or to remain true to their core beliefs, perhaps at the sacrifice of all those other “honors.”

If they choose the former, as I noted above, they essentially cease to be religious institutions or at best become religious in name only. If they choose the latter, many challenges await. But loss of identity is not one of them, nor is loss of faith.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia State University-Perimeter College. The views expressed here are his own.