25 January 2005

God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America
By Naomi Schaefer Riley
274 pp. St. Martin’s Press.

Reviewed by Jeff Sharlet

If you rely for your understanding of American academe on Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, or William Bennett, you may be inclined to think that today’s colleges and universities are cesspits of numbing drugs, lust, and gross materialism — as it happens, the favored vices of those three pundits, respectively. Naomi Schaefer Riley might be expected to present a more nuanced portrait of college life, since she was only three years removed from Harvard when she set out on a tour of religious colleges and universities in September of 2001. But in God on the Quad, she contrasts these schools – “red through and through,” she gushes, in apparent ignorance of the complexities of theological politics — with a caricature of secular higher education I’ll call “Blue State U.”

Godless administrators at Blue U. promote “promiscuity… as a part of a college education” and sponsor “pornography clubs.” This should come as no surprise, since the “messages” of secular culture are “sexual hedonism, graphic violence, and drug and alcohol use.” The ’60s radicals who dominate secular faculties openly deride faith and encourage empty, “feel-good spirituality,” exemplified for Riley by the Indigo Girls. Despite all this fun, students are afflicted by “ennui.” They “long for something.” How can we tell? Caffeine, suggests Riley. It’s epidemic at Blue State U.

Members of what she dubs the “missionary generation,” meanwhile, “don’t spend their college years experimenting with sex or drugs.” They hold dear the promise of “[wedding] ring before spring” of senior year. Undistracted by leftist protests, they have more time to study. They’re more honest.

Riley, editor of a new journal called In Character, is an adjunct fellow at the Center for Ethics and Public Policy, a center-right think tank that once a year convenes mainstream journalists at some posh digs in Key West to discuss the importance of religion to their stories. EPPC, in other words, is invested in shaping the news. Which is fine, when you do so by putting journalists in touch with genuine scholars. But Riley – who’ll be making a public presentation of her findings at the Center on January 27th – argues not from deep research nor from open politics. Rather, she is rising fast by telling her teachers what they want to hear. Much as Katie Roiphe, author of the 1994 manifesto The Morning After, promised conservatives that there existed a generation of young, elite women who rejected the claims of feminism – and in so doing, helped create such a coterie — Riley reassures worried culture warriors that new troops are coming up through the ranks, a missionary generation of chaste, sober, intellectual conservatives.

Whether or not any of this is actually true remains untested. Riley reports for the most part on official policies and model students. She went looking for the well-behaved, found them, and reports with great satisfaction that they are, indeed, well-behaved. And yet, she’s no church lady. First of all, she’s Jewish. Secondly, she “grew up with a sense that religion… was not true.” Which may explain the other weakness of God on the Quad: Riley doesn’t seem interested in God.

She investigates Baylor University’s attempts to balance secular knowledge with a Christian mission, but she neglects Baylor’s theological distinctiveness. At one point, she refers to students’ “parishes,” a peculiar term in reference to Baptists. She describes the students of Catholic, conservative Thomas Aquinas College as “orthodox,” despite the fact that many attended Protestant, evangelical high schools rather than Catholic schools run by Jesuits, prone, she writes, to “subversiveness.”

A chapter on Bob Jones University is more perceptive, perhaps because the school’s quaint fundamentalism – and, until recently, stubborn insistence on racial dating rules – make it something of an embarrasment even to most evangelical conservatives. Riley favorably quotes a Bob Jones professor who speculates that the school clung to its ban on inter-race dating long after most of the faculty and administration recognized it as “cultural” rather than “biblical” because fundamentalist identity hinges on the belief that “nothing has changed.” If what worked during Jim Crow doesn’t work now, the thinking goes, then what else is open to question?

Fear of moral relativism pervades the schools profiled by Riley. It’s also the central concern of her book. The nation’s faculties, she contends, are dominated by ’60s radicals who spurn “traditional values” in favor of a value-less ideology in which nothing is really true. She offers as examples Yeshiva University professors whom she deems overly-critical of Israel, and a questionable study by two Orthodox Jewish students at Harvard who claim that officially-sponsored pornography clubs are part of the “atmosphere at secular schools.”

In the second half of God on the Quad, Riley looks at “feminism” (the varieties of which she ignores), “diversity” (too often, she thinks, synonomous with “disunity”), and “morality” (defined by that which one does not do). Her conclusions are conservative boilerplate, presented as disinterested journalism. If Riley is less vitriolic than some of her fellow contributors to The National Review and The American Enterprise, she is also less witty. This is a book for earnest college administrators to buy and not read.

What makes it remarkable is the enthusiasm with which the conservative elite – and a few amiable centrists – endorse it. Riley has won four pages worth of blurbs, in advance of publication. God on the Quad is clearly meant to be An Important Book on “moral values.” In her conclusion, Riley suggests that a new kind of integration – that of religion into secular intellectual pursuits — “may even help the bridge the recent divide between Red and Blue America.”

Perhaps, but God on the Quad is not the book with which to set that bridge’s anchors. Riley’s god is neither transcendent nor almighty; he’s “socially beneficial,” and that just so long as you share Riley’s distaste for what she calls the “moral slip-ups” of sex, drugs, and academic freedom.