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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Spring 2007
Vol. 34 No. 2

Addressing the Identity-Relevance Dilemma:

Religious Particularity and Pluralism at

Presbyterian Church-Related Colleges


Robert C. Spach


In February 2005, the Board of Trustees of Davidson College, a liberal arts college in North Carolina related to the Presbyterian Church (USA), approved a controversial change to the institution’s by-laws that opened membership of 20% of the board to individuals who are not Christians. This decision altered a policy instituted in the 1960s which, in the face of rising secularism and diversity in the United States, had specified that only "active members of a Christian church" could serve as trustees. The 2005 decision, approved by a margin of 31 to 5, had been proposed by an Ad Hoc Committee charged with studying the Reformed theological tradition that has shaped the life of the college since its founding. In a letter dated 23 September 2004, the Ad Hoc Committee asserted that including non-Christians in the governance of the college was consistent with the Reformed tradition and therefore a faithful expression of the college’s religious heritage in its current context.

Reaction to the trustees’ decision was strong. Two trustees resigned from the board in protest. Writing in The Charlotte Observer on 24 March 2005, one commentator claimed that Davidson had "voted to worship diversity ahead of worshiping Jesus Christ." Dozens of disapproving letters and emails, many from loyal alumni, arrived at the office of the college president and of the clergy who had guided the trustees through their reflections on the Reformed tradition. On the other hand, many letters of approval for the change also arrived on the desks of college officials from supportive alumni and others interested in the college. Current students, faculty and staff overwhelmingly applauded the new policy.

The case of Davidson College is an instance of a larger debate about the identities of church-related colleges and universities that has simmered on the American higher-education scene for decades. George Marsden and others have chronicled how higher education became increasingly secularized throughout the twentieth century. Church-related colleges responded to the growing secularism in varied ways. Some embraced the trend, maintaining "historical" ties to their tradition of origin. Others sought to hold 

secularism at bay by becoming more explicitly (and even exclusively) Christian communities. Still others maintained intentional church ties while welcoming growing diversity, asserting that the Christian claims and principles that were the basis of their vision and ethos compelled them to have institutional loyalty and educational goals that extended beyond the Christian community to the wider human community.

As we enter the twenty-first century, all of these institutions exist in shifting conditions characterized by globalism, multiculturalism and postmodernism. They find the plurality of the wider society represented among their own students, faculty and staff, some of whom have little respect for church-relatedness. Among the questions facing these colleges is how to embody their Christian identity meaningfully in a context where Christianity is but one among the diverse religious and non-religious perspectives represented on campus.

Church-related colleges therefore confront a pair of crises identified by Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann: the crisis of relevance and the crisis of identity. He writes:


These two crises are complementary. The more theology and the church attempt to become relevant to the problems of the present day, the more deeply they are drawn into the crisis of their own Christian identity. The more they attempt to assert their identity in traditional dogmas, rights and moral notions [or, one might add, Christian-specific institutional policies and practices], the more irrelevant and unbelievable they become.


Contemporary theologian Shirley Guthrie articulates the question posed by this identity-relevance dilemma as follows: "whether and how we can maintain Christian identity and faithfulness in a pluralistic … society without becoming exclusive, intolerant, and irrelevant; and whether and how we can be an open, inclusive, relevant community … without losing our Christian identity and authenticity."

This essay explores how the identity-relevance crisis can be addressed by colleges within the Reformed tradition. The first part examines the post-Enlightenment context of higher education and the contributions that the Reformed theological tradition can make to how church-related colleges might embody their distinctive educational vision. The second, qualitative part investigates how two Presbyterian colleges in the Southeast – Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC and Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC – are addressing religious particularity and diversity on their campuses.

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