The pressure to relegate God and religion to irrelevancy is one of the pressures pulling at every university in America, said a noted professor of history from Notre Dame in Provo Tuesday.
Those pressures are particularly strong on Brigham Young University because it is owned and operated by the LDS Church. "There is tremendous pressure to conform to the national university culture," said George M. Marsden in a devotional address at BYU.Marsden is a member of the American Historical Association, the American Society of Church History, the Presbyterian Historical Society and Conference on Faith and History.
He holds a bachelor's degree from Harvard College and a master's and doctorate from Yale University. He is the author of "The Soul of the American University."
"There's pressure in all sorts of ways to keep religion to yourself," said Marsden. "Especially at BYU where there's a real effort to integrate God and education."
Marsden said that as differences are eliminated for unity's sake, diversity is sacrificed.
He outlined what has happened to universities and even state institutions since their origin. "Virtually every university in the country started out as a religious institution, with a member of the clergy as president and a chapel class requirement."
Over the years, that religious element has been "not so much absented as trivialized," said Marsden, until religion in most universities is treated like a sort of hobby.
"I can imagine a visitor from another century or from another planet would find it very puzzling," he said, "to find a country where the great majority profess a belief in God and Christian principles but when it comes to education, what we give the next generation, their belief in God should have nothing to do with it. They would find it bizarre."
Marsden said, "There's a dominant culture saying it's screwball to try and reintroduce religion into the higher education system."
Initially, in the late 19th century, said Marsden, the nation's leaders were simply trying to find ways to unify the American society.
"Religion is disruptive," he said. "Look at Yugoslavia."
If ideals were more non-sectarian, it was easier to find ideals all could agree upon, he said. That tended to push God and religious testimony to the periphery of what defined good education.
By the 20th century, the philosophy of natural science pushed God further out of the picture.
By the 1950s, ideals were changing, and religious identities were being dropped altogether.
In the 1960s as the establishment came under attack, diversity became the code word for uniformity, he said. "If you wanted to be regarded as a "real" university, you ought to conform to the pattern."
Marsden said he believes it is possible to steer a middle course and participate in the mainstream educational culture without compromising religious commitment.
He suggested following a "courtroomlike" set of rules that treats all the same without forcing anyone to give up their personal beliefs, much like everyone agreeing to a set of game rules that are superseded by a higher allegiance.
"A religious perspective won't change everything you do but it lays the framework for what you are hoping to accomplish."
It's helpful to avoid narrow ways of thinking and to be self-critical, he said. Marsden said BYU's goal should be to arrive at a point where observers can say, "I don't always agree with the Mormons but they sure know how to develop a fine university."