DATE May 23, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: David Kirkpatrick discusses his New York Times article
on the presence of evangelism on Ivy League campuses
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
As part of The New York Times series on Class in America, yesterday the paper
ran an article about the growing wealth, education and influence of
evangelical Christians. To illustrate the point, the reporters, Laurie
Goodstein and David Kirkpatrick, focused on the presence of evangelicals on
Ivy League campuses, which the article described as `part of an expanding
beachhead of evangelicals in the American elite.' These changes defy the old
stereotypes of evangelicals of less well off, more rural and concentrated in
the South and West. A little later we'll hear from the founder and a student
member of the Christian Union, an evangelical group for Ivy League students.
And we'll talk with Princeton University's dean of religious life.
My first guest is David Kirkpatrick, co-author of The Times article. After
covering the conservative movement in the US, he recently became a
congressional correspondent for The Times.
For your article on class in The New York Times, why did you decide to focus
on the growing evangelical population on Ivy League campuses?
Dr. DAVID KIRKPATRICK (The New York Times): We were attracted to the subject
of evangelical Christianity on the Ivy League because there are two images in
the popular mind, both of which are changing. On the one hand, there's an
image of evangelical Protestants as, by and large, in the South, less
educated, less affluent and less inclined towards intellectual activities.
And, on the other hand, there's an image of the Ivy League as rich,
Northeastern, elitist, secular and liberal. And it seems like sort of
collision of opposites because both of those things are changing.
On the one hand, evangelical Christians are much more likely to be educated
and affluent and sophisticated and inclined to get involved and change the
broader culture than they were certainly four years ago. On the other hand,
partly because of that, the Ivy League campuses are much more culturally
diverse than they were and religiously diverse than they were even a few
decades ago, with a much stronger and more visible presence of evangelical
Christians. And I think that's going to surprise a lot of people.
GROSS: You write that pollsters agree that the proportion of evangelicals in
America hasn't changed for decades, about 25 percent of the population. But
what has changed is the class status of a lot of evangelicals. How has that
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Evangelical Christians historically differed from mainline
Protestants, people who were in the Episcopal Church or the Presbyterian
Church or the Methodist Church, for example, in their level of affluence and
education. And that continues to a certain extent, but they're converging.
There's been a dramatic convergence. Evangelical Christians aren't as likely
to be less well-off, aren't as likely to be less educated in terms of formal
college education or advanced degrees than they were 10 years ago, 20 years
ago, 30 years ago.
GROSS: What's changed that's responsible for that demographic change?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Well, that's a good question. It's impossible to draw an
exact cause and effect there, but a couple things come to mind right away. If
you speak to evangelical Christians, from time to time you'll hear people say
that, `The will is God is obviously a factor in this kind of a thing,' and
there's no arguing against that possibility. It's also--some people say that
the GI Bill sort of kicked this off. There's some significant overlap between
conservative Christian culture and the military, and I think that enabled a lot
of people from those backgrounds to go to college and climb the ladder.
Another explanation is that the Sun Belt boom in the South and the West meant
a lot of money and population flowing into the parts of the country where
evangelical Protestant was always strongest. And that helped lift the level
of affluence and general education of people in those areas, including a lot
of evangelical Protestants.
GROSS: What are some of the ways that the change in class of evangelicals is
affecting the Christian culture in the United States and the business culture
in the United States?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Well, here again, it's impossible to draw an exact cause and
effect, but it seems natural enough to me that, given that the population
that--the percentage of the population that holds these religious views hasn't
changed, but their visibility and their influence has expanded enormously,
that it's a natural enough explanation that the change in social class status
of evangelical Christians as a group has a lot to do with it. And you can see
it manifest, you know, in the markets of popular culture, in the book market,
in the growth of Christian bookstores, in the audience for Christian movies,
in the donations to Christian philanthropies, in the money that's gone into
building enormous, theologically conservative mega churches around the
country. And what we wrote about, which is the growing presence of
theologically conservative Christians in the Ivy League schools, which were
always regarded as--somewhat justifiably, as sort of citadels of secular
GROSS: The specific organization that you looked at is a group, group called
the Christian Union, that is a group of evangelicals on Ivy League campuses.
Would you describe this relatively new group?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Christian Union's about three years old. It was founded by
a gentleman named Matt Bennett, who had worked for Campus Crusade for Christ
at Princeton. And he saw a need for a special organization that would help
nurture and develop evangelical Christianity on the Ivy League campuses. He
knew that most of the Ivy League schools were initially founded by Protestant
ministers with an explicitly Christian purpose. And I think he was, frankly,
dismayed to see that today they've become much more liberal, much more secular
and, in the eyes of many evangelical Christians, almost hostile to their brand
of faith. And he wanted to change that.
And so he went about trying to reach out to affluent conservative Christians,
alumni of these schools, to say, `Hey, you know, Catholics have Newman
Centers. Jews have Hillel Houses on these campuses. We should get together,
raise some money and establish a foothold for evangelical Christianity on
these campuses, so that we can try and encourage the Christian students who go
there in their faith and maybe even attract some other students to our brand
GROSS: So the founder of the Christian Union had been a member of the Campus
Crusade for Christ. Can you talk a little bit more about how those two groups
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Campus Crusade for Christ is a national organization that
tries to support and foster evangelical Christianity on campuses around the
country. And it is strongest at schools in the South and the West and the big
state schools, and I think it's had a more difficult time in the Northeast,
where evangelical Christianity in general is not as strong. And Matt Bennett,
the founder of Christian Union, felt that Campus Crusade was struggling in the
Ivy League schools, partly because it was having trouble recruiting workers,
staff, who wanted to be in that environment and who could relate to the
students there--you know, who were ready and able to make the case for that
brand of faith in a way that was going to be compelling to the students of Ivy
GROSS: What are the goals of the Christian Union?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Well, I think their short-term goal is to try to make the
Ivy League campuses a more hospitable place for evangelical Protestants, for
people who hold a very conservative view of theology. Beyond that, I think
they would like to spread that faith to other students, to faculty, to
graduate students, to the campus at large. And, even beyond that, I think
they are hoping to change the broader culture, and they consider the Ivy
League schools to play an important role in that. They realize that a lot of
influential people in every field, in business and law, in education and
politics, come through those schools. And if they can change the culture of
those schools, they think they can make an impact on the broader culture from
the to down.
The culture of the Ivy League schools today is the culture of the rest of the
country in 20 years. And so by turning those schools in a more traditionalist
theologically conservative direction, they can have a much broader impact,
beyond what they could accomplish at another school, beyond their numbers
GROSS: Are there any guidelines on Ivy League campuses about missionizing,
trying to convert on the campus?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Not that I know of. I think anybody is allowed to
articulate any point of view they want to, if they do it respectfully. And
I'm quite certain that all of these evangelical Christian groups are very
respectful when they go out and try to spread their point of view, very
polite, very cordial.
GROSS: Do you know if the Christian Union plans to try to influence the
curriculum on Ivy League campuses, specifically in the areas that evangelists
most object to, like evolution, stem cell research or any kind of workshops on
women's health that would include information about abortion?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: I don't think so. I think that would be a tall order. But
I think it's--you know, I just think that the people who are writing up the
curriculums and running these campuses are a long way from being persuaded by
the relatively small group of students who like to hang out at a Bible study
on Friday night and talk about the Bible, talk about evangelical Christianity.
But I do think that what they're trying to do is to set up a kind of
counterbalance, so that--you're an evangelical student from an evangelical
background or you've come to an evangelical faith later in life, and you find
yourself at Brown or Yale or Princeton, and your professors are saying things
that are troubling to you that are about evolution, that are about, you know,
the history of biblical times and, you know, what the people who were writing
these texts might have been and--who these people who were writing these texts
might have been and what they might have been thinking. And you find--as a
student, you think, `Wait a second. How do I make this jive with what I've
been taught in Bible study or what I was taught in Sunday school before I got
So these evangelical groups are trying to set up a kind of a shelter, where
other students who feel this way can come together and try to support each
other in their own views, which may mean resisting the views that they're
taught in the classroom.
GROSS: Does it...
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: You know, they get together and they say, `You know, we can
come here at our Bible study and encourage each other that when Professor
So-and-So laughs at our faith, we know, you know, back home there are plenty
of other smart people who agree with us, that we're still right.'
GROSS: How are the gay groups on campus or just the gay students on campus
co-existing with the evangelical groups and the evangelical students on
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Boy, that's an interesting question because whenever you go
and meet with an evangelical student group on one of these campuses, it turns
out that, you know, one or two of the students found themselves in the
position where they were rooming with a gay or lesbian student. And I think,
by and large, people respect each other. What you hear a lot of is, `Hate the
sin and love the sinner.' I don't think that the gay student groups
particularly admire the evangelical groups. I don't think they celebrate what
the evangelical groups are trying to do on the campus. But right now, on most
of these campuses, the gay groups are a lot more visible and probably a lot
bigger force than the evangelical student groups, at least if we're talking
about the Ivy League campuses.
GROSS: How big would you say the evangelical groups on the Ivy League
campuses are now?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: I think it's going to vary from school to school. At Brown
University, where I spent a lot of time, in part, because it has a reputation
as the most secular and most liberal of the Ivies, the chaplain estimates that
out of a student body of 5,700 or so, students at any given time--about 400
will be participating in one of the evangelical fellowship groups or another,
which she says is more than the number of mainline Protestants who are active
in those groups.
GROSS: What else did the chaplain of Brown have to say about the Christian
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: The chaplain at Brown was of a perspective that these
evangelical student groups are, by and large, a kind of a transitional phase
for theologically conservative students who get to Brown and find it a little
bit dizzying; you know, who want some support, who come from a different
background and want to be kind of bolstered while they adjust to this new
atmosphere. And her own perspective was that as they get exposed to more
ideas and more confident in themselves, they will gradually move away and
adopt a more pluralistic outlook. Now the evangelical students find that
point of view condescending.
GROSS: David, you've been covering the conservative movement in America for
The New York Times, and as part of that, you've been covering the evangelical
movement and culture. And I'm wondering, do you think the growing evangelical
culture is a culture of people who want the freedom to live the way they want
to live and have the values they want to have, or do you think it's a culture
that not only wants the freedom to do that but wants to change the rest of the
culture to conform to its vision of values?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Well, I don't think that there are many evangelical
Christians who would use the word `conform.' I think that evangelical
Christianity, by definition, includes a desire to spread the faith, to share
the faith, to teach others what they consider to be the `good news' of the
Gospel. And I think in the last 30 years there has been a sense among many
evangelical Protestants that the broader culture has become hostile to them
and to their point of view; that--especially since, for example, the prayer in
the school decision in the Supreme Court, the culture is making it harder for
them to transmit their own values to the next generation. So from their point
of view, it's not that they want the rest of the world to conform to their
outlook. It's just that they want a fair chance to pass on their outlook and
to spread it respectfully to others.
But the question you ask really gets at the tension there because if you're
someone who holds that there is a single, absolute truth--there's only one way
to be saved, for example--you know, there's going to be a little bit a
collision with a broader culture that emphasizes a plurality of perspectives
on those kinds of matters.
GROSS: David Kirkpatrick, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Thanks.
GROSS: David Kirkpatrick co-wrote the article in yesterday's New York Times
about evangelical Christians and Ivy League campuses. It's part of The Times'
series on Class in America. We'll hear from the founder of the Christian
Union, an evangelical group for Ivy League students, after a break. This is
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Matt Bennett and Rachel Blair discuss the purpose and
goals of their organization, Christian Union
TERRY GROSS, host:
We just heard from David Kirkpatrick, who co-wrote yesterday's New York Times
article on evangelicals and the Ivy League. The article focused on how a few
affluent evangelicals are directing their attention and money at the Ivy
League universities. One example the article offered was the Christian Union,
which has centers for students from Brown, Cornell and Princeton universities
and plans to establish centers at the five other Ivy League campuses. My
guest, Matt Bennett, founded the group three years ago and is its president.
He's the former director of the Campus Crusade for Christ at Princeton. He
received his BS and MDA from Cornell and his master's of divinity from Trinity
Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago. The Christian Union's Web site
describes the group as a `ministry with a mission of bringing honor to Jesus
Christ at the eight Ivy League universities.'
Why did you create this group?
Mr. MATT BENNETT (President, Christian Union): Having gone to Cornell myself
and spending a lot of time at Princeton with Campus Crusade for Christ, first
of all, I developed such a heart for these people and such a car for them,
that they would understand and know how to know God and follow him and walk
with him. And another reason is the influence of these campuses. They're
extraordinarily influential in our culture. Yet they don't have the sort of
Christian witness that other parts of the country do. Even though the
campuses were founded by people with whom theologically I would be in absolute
agreement with, the campuses now don't have much of that thought or
representation on campus. And it makes me sort of sad, but it also makes me
hopeful for what could be in the future.
I think in some people's minds, they see evangelicalism as separate from
intellectualism, but it wasn't--hasn't been like that historically in the
United States and doesn't have to be that way moving forward.
GROSS: Do you want to change the campuses? Do you want to change the
curriculum to more reflect your values as a Christian?
Mr. BENNETT: Well, I would say, perhaps in part, a lot of the curriculum that
happens doesn't directly hit Christian faith. Take engineering or these other
things. There's not such an overlap there. So, no, I would love to see more
professors who are friendly to the Christian world view and who would present
it as a viable option in their classes. And in a number of situations, the
view is so dismissed out of hand it's not even considered. So we would like
to see on these campuses, in the relevant fields, an openness and a discussion
of the Christian world view.
GROSS: In a lot of public school systems now, there's a debate about whether
evolution should be taught, whether it should be taught alongside what's been
called now intelligent design...
Mr. BENNETT: Right.
GROSS: ...or creationism. Do you think there should be a similar debate on
the Ivy League campuses now?
Mr. BENNETT: I think the beauty in the ideal of any college campus is to have
a variety of views to discuss and debate and go back through that. Our
ministry doesn't have a particular view on that issue, and students and staff
who work with us have a variety of views from evolution to six-day creationism
to intelligent design. But it needs to be taught and thought about. Now,
unfortunately, at universities that are, in many ways, very liberal and open
to a variety of opinions, some opinions are closed off, and that doesn't help
anyone. The whole purpose of these is to pursue what's true and to find that
out, and so we need an environment that allows for that.
GROSS: I'm interested in hearing whether your larger goal would be to create,
through groups like the Christian Union, an environment in which you and
fellow Christians can talk about issues, ask each other questions, share
experiences, all of that, or do you want the Christian Union and other
Christian groups--but we'll talk specifically about the Christian Union and
its relationship to Ivy League campuses--to change others around you, so that
the world more conforms to your view of what it should be?
Mr. BENNETT: Oh, oh, yeah. I mean, both. Absolutely both. We want to see
both happen. We want to--and it always has to be done with a sense of
humility because while we believe these things to be true--and I think the
more society and a person knows who Jesus is, why he came and how to know him
and his teachings--and I think everyone just agrees he was the most amazing
man who ever lived--that the better our world is: more love and more
solutions to social problems. But how that gets worked out, well, there's a
lot of complexities to that. And some things can be clear and some not. But
we definitely want to have that influence, and we definitely want people to
have different views. But part of that is understanding that it's a Christian
view to allow freedom of conscience on these things.
GROSS: Do the members of the Christian Union proselytize on campus? And I
don't mean have an open house and people are welcome to come; I mean hand out
literature or stop people to talk about your faith.
Mr. BENNETT: Well, we--you know, even that word I don't like using,
proselytize, because it has such a pejorative connotation. We do want to
GROSS: Do you prefer the word `evangelize'?
Mr. BENNETT: Yeah, evangelizing or share your beliefs or make it known or
these sorts of things. The ways we do it are the ones we mentioned: the
Alpha Course, the full-page advertisements in the newspaper, the handing out
books on campus, Christian books and stuff like that.
GROSS: Matt Bennett is the founder of the Christian Union. He'll be back in
the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with Matt Bennett, founder of
the Christian Union, an evangelical group for Ivy League students. We'll also
be joined by Rachel Blair, a student at Princeton University who's a member of
the group. Then we'll hear from Thomas Breidenthal, dean of religious life at
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
When we left off, we were talking with Matt Bennett, the founder of the
Christian Union, an evangelical group that plans to establish centers at each
of the Ivy League universities. Bennett lives in Princeton. His group
currently has centers for students attending Princeton, Cornell and Brown
Universities. Also joining us is Rachel Blair, a member of the Christian
Union and a junior at Princeton University studying engineering and business.
Earlier in our program, David Kirkpatrick talked about the article he co-wrote
in yesterday's New York Times about the growing wealth and power of
evangelical Christians and how a few affluent evangelicals are directing their
attention and money at the Ivy League universities.
Why did you want to join the Christian Union?
Ms. RACHEL BLAIR (Christian Union): Well, before I came to Princeton, I had
already developed a faith in Jesus Christ. And when I came, I became involved
with a number of different groups on campus. But I also became involved in my
schoolwork, joined the crew team, was involved in ROTC, eventually joined at
eating club, which is like a co-ed fraternity or sorority at Princeton. And I
became concerned with developing a Christian worldview and sort of what it
meant to be in the world but not of it, so to speak. And Christian Union
really seemed like the type of place that was interested in helping students
develop that worldview and supporting them in doing all the various things on
campus while being a Christian. It seemed to be unique in that way. And I
was very encouraged by it. Also, our Bible studies were just another reason
why I wanted to be a part of what was going on.
GROSS: When you talk about being a part of the world but not of it...
Ms. BLAIR: In the world but not of it.
GROSS: In the world but not of it. What do you mean by that?
Ms. BLAIR: I mean that I don't want to only have Christian friends. I don't
want to, you know, close myself off from all the activities that are going on
in the secular world. I want to be on a team, a sports team; I want to be in
my eating club; I want to be engaged in my classes. Even though I may not
necessarily agree with all the things that are being expressed in those
environments, I still want to--you know, the idea of being a witness, of being
a Christian and maintaining the same values that you have while being in the
GROSS: Are there certain things on the campus that make you uncomfortable
because they conflict with your values, but they're taken for granted as
business as usual on campus?
Ms. BLAIR: There are a number of things. I'd say first, just to look at the
mentality of success and what it means to have success, especially at an Ivy
League campus--I know at Princeton you're either driven to succeed
financially, I'd say is the highest pressure, or to become the head of a
non-profit organization. And I have, you know, at times thought maybe I
wanted to go into Christian youth ministry. And I'm not exactly sure what I
want to do after I graduate, but I know that I don't want to be driven just by
making a lot of money or gaining a high position in something. I would like
my life to have more of a spiritual aspect in that.
Also think that being in an eating club or, you know, part of the social scene
at Princeton is challenging. I know for myself and for a lot of
Christians--and I'm sure this is the same for Christians all across
universities and colleges--just because of the culture, the youth culture,
you're sort of called to act differently.
I also think academically that I've noticed a bit of hostility towards--a
range of reactions from professors and teaching assistants. But oftentimes if
you express a view in believing in God and especially faith in Jesus Christ
that somehow you're feebleminded, that you're not intellectual. The most
common label I get is being closed-minded, but I sort of, you know, come back
with the response that it's not that I'm being closed-minded; I recognize the
other views out there and I've evaluated them all, but I just find what I
believe to be the truth.
GROSS: Campuses are very multicultural. You have people of every race,
religion, many different countries represented, and with the help of grants,
different socioeconomic groups, even at the very expensive colleges like the
Mr. BENNETT: Right.
GROSS: And, you know, as I say, very multicultural. And as part of that
diversity, there's gay groups on campus, probably a lot of gay students, but
specifically gay groups. What is it like coexisting on a campus with probably
a pretty sizable gay population who is probably pretty out, and with gay
groups that are founded around gay activity, gay culture, gay themes?
Mr. BENNETT: You know, I want to comment that. Maybe you would like to, too.
But I--you know, the view from the Bible is that sex between same-sex people
is wrong, and so is sex between anyone outside a context of marriage. And if
you look at a college campus, the bigger issues are obviously the heterosexual
sex between people who are not married. And so when we look at that and that
our values are different, we have to kind of interact in that in a way where
we advocate our views, explain why, respect when people disagree, and
hopefully that'll be done the same back.
GROSS: Rachel, what's your reaction been to being in a multicultural campus,
interacting in a campus where I assume there's gay groups and a large gay
Ms. BLAIR: Well, I sort of have a unique experience, I feel, in that I have
multiple friends who are gay. And they know my beliefs, but they also know
that I don't believe in sex before marriage, period. They know that I don't
think that there's--I'm not afraid to be friends with them. You know, we have
dinner together, we hang out. It's not something that prevents me from being
friends with them because, you know, I have a lot of friends who believe
things that I don't. And it hasn't really proved a problem for me.
The larger problem is just that there is a pressure to admit that, you know,
you have to profess that homosexuality, you know, is fine and that, you know,
the tolerance that's promoted on Ivy League campuses--I'd say that's the
hardest thing, is just being comfortable saying, `Well, I don't think the
practice of it is right, but that doesn't affect my view of people and who
GROSS: My guests are Matt Bennett, founder of the Christian Union, an
evangelical group for Ivy League students, and Rachel Blair, a member of the
group who's a student at Princeton University.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guests are Matt Bennett, founder of the Christian Union, an
evangelical group for Ivy League students, and Rachel Blair, a member of the
group who's a student at Princeton University.
You know, I think a lot of people grow up with stereotypes about people who
are unlike them, about people who don't live in their neighborhood. And then
you go to college or you go into the Army, or you move to another city, and
suddenly you meet the people who aren't like you, who you had stereotypes
about, and you are usually forced to rechange your opinion based on the
reality. For some people, that means doing away with the image they had
before, being more open-minded about those people and less hostile, less
prejudicial. And I'm wondering if you feel like being on a campus--you'll
probably disagree with what you think is the assumption here, which is, you
know, a prejudice against homosexuality, but I'm wondering if, like, having
gay friends, for instance, Rachel, does it make you really think, well, maybe
this--I have friends who are decent people and engaging in gay relationships;
maybe it's really not so horrible...
Ms. BLAIR: I mean...
GROSS: ...you know, maybe it's a really human, decent expression of love and
Ms. BLAIR: Yes. I have thought those things. I've considered all the
options. You know, it has made me, especially a couple friendships--it's been
really challenging for me. But ultimately, what I've had to come back to is I
sort of take the Bible for what it is; I can't pick and choose what I believe
from it because then it becomes meaningless. So I have to just believe that
this, God's plan, is intended between marriage for a man and a woman. So that
is ultimately what I believe. And then I am able to reconcile that with, you
know, having gay friends because I believe that we're all sinners and that
Jesus Christ is the answer.
GROSS: Rachel, how do you, as a Christian student, and Matt, how do you as
the head of the Christian Union, deal with drinking on campus, sexual
relations on campus? I mean, obviously, you don't have to partake in that,
but it's something that's just kind of in the atmosphere. It's, for a lot of
people, part of what college is about. So what do you do?
Ms. BLAIR: Well, I know that it can be really challenging. Well, it was
really challenging for me my freshman year. You know, I drank and partied and
just wanted to have a good time, and this is what college is about. But after
about six or seven months, I just realized that it wasn't fulfilling for me
and that there was something more out there, and that it made me feel bad
about myself. And that's maybe why the Bible said we shouldn't do it, because
it's not good for us. And I sort of had to come to that realization the hard
But there's a couple of different ways in which I deal with it. I think that
I'm pretty honest with some of my Christian friends about, if I disagree with
their behavior, I sort of tell them that I don't think what they're doing is
right, as many friends have done for me, and I would hope that they would do
for me, that would point out things that they don't think is in line with what
I say I believe. And in terms of my non-Christian friends, you know, they
think it's kind of fun, actually. They think it's kind of fun when I don't
drink, and they kind of make a joke out of it. And, you know, I'm their
designated driver. So...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BLAIR: ...I have a useful function for them. But that's sort of how I
GROSS: Rachel, within the larger Christian evangelical movement, there are
groups that had felt very strongly, and I don't know if they're still at the
forefront of the movement or not, but they had been at the forefront of the
movement, who felt that, like, a woman's place is in the home; women should be
traditional mothers, homemakers; the man is the head of the household.
Hearing you speak, my guess would be that you don't agree with that, but has
that made you--has that put you at odds with part of the Christian evangelical
movement in the present or historically? Has it made you think about things
Ms. BLAIR: You know, I have been thinking about--especially recently, have
been thinking about those things, and as I'm thinking about going off and
graduating and getting a job and maybe starting a family eventually, what it
would look like, what my role would be as a wife and mother. There's the
passages in the Bible, and we have to figure out what that means. And sort of
the conclusion that I've come to is that it means that we do have different
roles. Like, I, you know, am meant for childbearing.
But I don't think that it means that I'm not supposed to have a career or that
I'm supposed to stay at home, or that I'm supposed to, you know, strictly
serve my husband. I think that I'm supposed to serve my husband, and that
he's also supposed to serve me, but just in different ways. It's a matter of
And, you know, being at Princeton, it hasn't been too much of a problem for
me. If anything, I've been more on the conservative side of things because
there is, you know, a strong feminist movement. But, you know, I don't see
myself--I think that God has a plan for me and for all women and that he wants
do to amazing things and, you know, I'm willing to accept if that means just
being a mother. But I foresee having a career and being a mother.
GROSS: Matt, how would you compare the Christian Union with Jewish, Catholic
and liberal Protestant groups on campus?
Mr. BENNETT: I would say we--you know, the heart of the difference, of
course, is our theological beliefs--I mean, not so different from the
Catholics, very similar, but from the other groups--who Jesus is, why he came
and the implications of that for our lives and teaching that. That's the
heart of what we do and the difference is. I'd say we're probably also more
interested in spreading those views among people. Some organizations are
content to have--kind of nurture their own, if you know what I mean. We do
that, but also want to make the message of Christ known to everyone.
GROSS: Do you think that that bothers other students? For instance, do you
think Jewish students see somebody from the Christian Union walking by and
think, `Yeah, if they had their way, they'd convert me. They think that I'm
wrong in my faith and that I can't possibly, you know, go to heaven or
whatever because I'm not born again, that only born-again people have the one
way or the right way and the path to heaven'?
Mr. BENNETT: Yes, I think it bothers some people. And I think part of our
challenge to communicate what we think is true, that Jesus Christ is the way
to heaven and the only way to heaven, but in a way that they don't feel that
way 'cause we don't look down on them; we love them.
GROSS: But that gets to the question again of living in a multicultural
environment like a campus, to be in a multicultural environment and to believe
so strongly that you have the right way, not only for yourself but for
everybody, and that if everybody else were wiser, they'd be following your
way, and in the meantime they are living in an imperfect and wrong religion or
an imperfect and wrong view of the world because they're secular.
Mr. BENNETT: True, but if you think about applying that not just the aspect
of religion or evangelical Christianity, that's what we do in every aspect of
our lives. Let's say, for instance, you are an avid Democrat or you believe
in some sort of child programs that'll help relieve, you know, poverty. Well,
the reason you believe it is that you want--you think it's a good thing and
you want everyone to believe it, not that they're evil people if they don't
believe it. We think society's better; people will be benefited because of
it. But every belief we have, just about, with people is--we think is the
right one--and this always needs to be held in a spirit of humility--but to do
society better and to help others.
GROSS: I want to thank you both very much for talking with us.
Mr. BENNETT: Thank you very much, Terry.
Ms. BLAIR: Thank you.
Mr. BENNETT: It's been an honor.
GROSS Matt Bennett is the founder of the Christian Union, an evangelical group
for Ivy League students. He lives in Princeton. Rachel Blair is a junior at
Princeton University and a member of the Christian Union.
Coming up, we'll hear from Princeton University's dean of religious life,
Thomas Breidenthal. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Thomas Breidenthal discusses the growing evangelical
Christian presence on Ivy League campuses
TERRY GROSS, host:
Earlier today we heard from New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick about an
article he co-wrote in yesterday's New York Times examining the growing wealth
and influence of evangelicals as demonstrated by their presence on Ivy League
campuses. Then we heard from the founder of the Christian Union, whose goal
is to, quote, "bring honor to Jesus Christ at the eight Ivy League
universities"; he lives in Princeton. We also met a Princeton University
student who's a member of the group.
Joining us by phone is Thomas Breidenthal, the dean of religious life and the
chapel at Princeton University.
Would you agree with the basic premise of the New York Times article by David
Kirkpatrick and Laurie Goodstein that there's a growing evangelical presence
on Ivy League campuses?
Reverend THOMAS BREIDENTHAL (Dean of Religious Life, Princeton University):
Yes, I would. I'm not sure whether it's growing or whether it's just more
visible. Certainly at Princeton there has always historically been a vibrant
and vigorous evangelical community which in many ways goes back to the
founding of the university. So from my perspective, I would say that
community has gained in confidence and increasingly gained a public voice and
has entered more and more confidently into the general sort of conversation
about religion and politics and morals that's part of our life at the
GROSS: Many evangelicals today are very politically engaged and very oriented
toward--to evangelizing, to spreading their faith. And I'm wondering how that
plays out on the Princeton University campus and how you think it fits in with
the multicultural and ecumenical spirit of the campus.
Rev. BREIDENTHAL: Well, the evangelical chaplains work very closely with this
office, the office of religious life, and with the other chaplaincies on
campus in a very cooperative manner. And they are very clear that their
witness to their own faith needs to go hand in hand with a recognition of the
pluralism of our campus and of the freedom of students to embrace or not
embrace certain points of view. So in my experience, the evangelical
chaplaincies have--extremely responsible in the way in which they promote
their own events, the way in which they reach out to students. They work
closely with the administrators of the undergraduate residential colleges and
are well aware of the need the respect student privacy.
So I have--I actually can only say good things about the way in which the
evangelical community of Princeton models a clear, open, public statement of
its own goals and its own agenda and in a way that really honors a multifaith
community of which they are a part.
GROSS: Is there any policy on campus about evangelizing on campus? And by
that, I don't mean just about speaking of your faith, but rather actively
trying to convert somebody to your faith. And I'm not speaking just of
evangelical Christians here.
Rev. BREIDENTHAL: Princeton does not have any explicit prohibition to
proselytizing. Its rights, rules and responsibilities, however, make it very
clear that students are to be free from any form of harassment and also that
student privacy is to be respected at all times. So implicitly, any kind of
sort of aggressive attempt to convert people is not allowable or permissible
here. And I should add that our own recognition policy for campus ministers,
for chaplains, is very clear that we expect that campus chaplains will model
the kind of respect for pluralism and the kind of commitment to cooperation
that we expect of students here.
GROSS: So how would you say the role of religion on campus has changed?
Rev. BREIDENTHAL: I've seen a real change over the last few years, primarily
in this: that increasingly, students feel that they have permission from each
other and, I think, from faculty and from administrators to ask religious
questions, to bring religion into the classroom, to engage in conversations
both in the classroom and in other venues around personal, vocational moral
and religious questions. I think that 9/11 had a huge impact on the student
body of Princeton and elsewhere, and part of that impact was a loss of a sense
of security on the part of young people--security about their own safety,
about their own future--and also a realization that the role of religion in
world politics is extremely important, both for good and for ill.
I think students themselves are well aware that they will be exercising
positions of leadership in the world after they graduate and are well aware
that a fluency in religious matters and an ability to navigate religious
differences is a crucial element of being able to forge a society in this
country and internationally where differences can be handled peacefully and
GROSS: Now let me ask you, I was recently on a campus--this was not an Ivy
League campus; it was a small school, and it wasn't in the Northeast--and it
had a large fundamentalist population of students. And the teachers were
telling me--several of the teachers were telling me that students, in a way
they hadn't before, were going to the dean to complain if there were
references to abortion or violence or aspects of science that they objected to
in the curriculum, and that teachers were afraid that the students were
reporting them, you know, for teaching things that didn't jibe with the
students' literal reading of the Bible and the worldview that's based on that,
and that also they feel like they were losing the students, that even when the
students returned to class after that, that they just were kind of switched
off if you were teaching something in class that didn't agree with their
worldview based on a fundamentalist reading of the Bible. And I'm wondering
if anything like that has happened at Princeton.
Rev. BREIDENTHAL: I have heard stories about that happening years ago, but I
have not experienced that again in the time that I have been here. The whole
question of the sort of rating of courses for students by campus ministers has
actually come up as a topic of discussion in the United Campus Ministers, and
the evangelical chaplains have all said that, you know, they were completely
committed to encouraging their students to take anything they wanted to take
while they were at Princeton. The reason they were at Princeton was to be
able to be nourished intellectually at a great intellectual, academic
I do teach at Princeton, and I have not in any way experienced any indication
from students that there was anything that wasn't OK to talk about. I think,
you know, the usual--I was approached about two weeks ago by a student who's
very involved in the pro-life movement here who was coming not to complain
about anything to do with the curriculum, but to ask if there was some way in
which this office could provide the setting for a safe and respectful debate
about abortion, which I hope that we will be able to do in the fall. So
that's, I think, an indication of the tack that students take here and that
chaplains take here, which is that nobody is interested in shutting
conversation down. What people are interested in is being able to open
GROSS: Dean Breidenthal, thank you very much for talking with us.
Rev. BREIDENTHAL: You're very welcome. It's a pleasure.
GROSS: Thomas Breidenthal is the dean of religious life and the chapel at
Princeton University. Earlier we heard from Matt Bennett, the founder of the
Christian Union, a group for Ivy League students; Rachel Blair, a member of
the group and a student at Princeton University; and David Kirkpatrick, who
co-wrote yesterday's New York Times article about the evangelical movement on
Ivy League campuses.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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