As the Greater Twin Cities Billy Graham Crusade prepares for overflow crowds at the Metrodome this week, one University student participating in the evangelical event has raised questions about the role of evangelism and Christianity in a secular academic institution.
Matt Curry, a junior studying agricultural business management, will talk, answer questions and pray with those who want to accept Christ as their savior at the Billy Graham crusade, which begins tonight and runs through Sunday. “There exists a hostile atmosphere against religion in general and Christ specifically,” said Curry, describing the role of evangelism in what he termed the University’s secular academic environment.
Evangelism, the spreading of one’s religious beliefs to others, has traditionally been a controversial topic at universities, as its emphasis on the conversion of non-believers runs counter to principles of church-state separation. Even with these principles in mind, however, Curry isn’t the only one questioning the way religion is taught at the University. Others debate how and where evangelism and modern Christianity should be addressed at the University.
Graham, widely regarded as the most popular evangelist of all time, has spoken to more than 210 million people in more than 185 countries and territories, according to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Despite the popularity of Graham and other evangelists and the influence of evangelism on American society, the University offers no courses that study social and cultural phenomena of the evangelical movement in this century.
William Malandra, a professor of Sanskrit and chairman of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies, said the University’s religious studies program was reconfigured two years ago by the College of Liberal Arts. Although courses in contemporary religious studies were once offered on a regular basis, the current religious studies program only offers classes that cover religions of the ancient world, including early Christianity and Judaism as well as Greek and Roman religions, he said.
Roland Delattre, an American studies professor, said the evangelical movement is a topic worthy of academic inquiry, even in a secular institution such as the University.
“A secular institution needs to investigate the life of people … and that includes religion,” Delattre said. “Religion is among the most popular things that people (participate in), and religion is the only subject that is politically correct to ignore.”
Delattre said that evangelism’s popularity has a long history in American culture. “It’s just been around for a long time. It’s woven into the pattern of American life and politics,” he said.
Sarah Pike, an assistant professor of religious studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, said the evangelical movement is worth examination because of its large numbers and political power, particularly with regards to abortion and education issues. Pike teaches a course at Macalester called “Religions in America,” which examines the contemporary movement from its roots in early 20th century fundamentalist Christianity.
“It’s a huge movement in this country,” Pike said. “It’s important to try and understand how, in such a scientific and rational culture like ours, a movement that takes the Bible literally rather than historically is so popular.”
Curry said he does not believe the University has suppressed evangelism. But he said he does object to the way the existence of God is often viewed by some academics.
“Something I’ve noticed is that the institution as a whole is not receptive to God at all,” Curry said, “A lot of science classes, like anthropology and biology and even philosophy, work on a basis assuming that there is no God at all.”
Associate professor John Beatty, who teaches an introduction to biology course, said that a biology course is the wrong place to discuss religion, referring to debates over the teaching of the biblical account of creation in public schools.
“To complain that creationism receives insufficient coverage in a biology course is like complaining that biological theories of the origin and evolution of life receive insufficient attention in a course on the Old Testament,” Beatty said.
Although religion in the classroom continues to be debated, religion outside the classroom and in American culture continues to make its presence felt, both in the Graham crusades and through the efforts of students like Curry. “I’d love to have a revival on this campus with hundreds — no, thousands — of people,” Curry said.