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The academic tyranny of religious liberalism

My excellent American adventure continues with George M. Marsden’s The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief—not the whole book, but enough to get the picture.

In Marsden’s telling, American colleges were originally designed to serve both a public and a religious purpose. That worked well enough: the social order was understood to have a religious basis, so it seemed proper for the accepted religious outlook to determine public understandings.

Roles eventually got reversed, and the accepted public outlook came to determine religious understandings. As the former became more purely pragmatic the latter had to get with the program and lost all content. Those who didn’t go along got edged out. Inclusiveness stopped including them.

Religion started off defining the American Way. The American Way ended up defining religion. That outcome seems inevitable for any religious outlook that doesn’t include a definite principle of authority that’s distinct from social authority generally.

Marsden is a Protestant who’s absorbed the outlook of mainstream academia in most ways (he talks about “white boys” and says the Puritan emphasis on an educated clergy propped up the patriarchy). He seems to think the answer is to include religion in the glorious tapestry of academic diversity and multiculturalism. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. Religion has to do with ultimate reality and stops being what it is if it’s included in someone else’s tapestry.

He observes that at least through the ’50s acceptance of their own principle of authority enabled Catholic colleges to avoid the tyranny of Americanism. He also says that their scholarly achievements were quite modest, although he notes that they labored under other disadvantages, and high achievement was common among European Catholics.

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