When I was a freshman at Lehigh University, more years ago than I care to admit, my fellow frosh and I took a survey that the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) has been administering to first-year students since 1966. It’s a useful tool for studying how students at American colleges and universities have changed over the decades — not only in terms of income levels, ethnic and racial backgrounds, and similar measurements, but also in terms of attitudes, aspirations, and aptitudes.
Among the dozens of questions, the survey always includes one about religious preference. My only recollection about my freshman class in this regard is that one student checked the box beside “Other” and wrote in “Druid — Reformed.”
I’ve been thinking of this in light of Emory’s United Methodist affiliation and the latest data on religious affiliation of Emory students.
The Methodist trustees who wrote the University bylaws in 1915 said that Emory “was founded . . . for the promotion of the broadest intellectual culture in harmony with the democratic institutions of our country and permeated by the principles and influences of the Christian religion. It is designed to be a profoundly religious institution without being narrowly sectarian. It proposes to encourage freedom of thought as liberal as the limitations of truth.”
Such language neatly fit the vision of John and Charles Wesley, who sought to blend “knowledge and vital piety.” Methodism launched scores of colleges in the United States out of a faith that education would improve the soul as well as the mind.
In many ways, of course, the founders in 1915 understood our “democratic institutions” differently than we do today. Jim Crow laws still prevailed in the South, and women would not have the right to vote in federal elections for another twenty years.
Similarly, what it means to be “profoundly religious . . . without being narrowly sectarian” has changed. In those days, it meant that this Methodist university would admit students without regard to whether they were Presbyterian, Baptist, Episcopalian, or even Catholic or Jewish. It would be a long time, however, before the Emory Christian Association, formed by students in the 1930s, would be renamed the Emory Religious Association to reflect the growing religious diversity of the university.
Nowadays, a very vibrant interfaith program run by the Office of Spiritual and Religious Life brings together students from dozens of religious persuasions. Cannon Chapel is the scene of Muslim Jumah prayers on Friday afternoons, Jewish observances on high holy days, Catholic masses on Sunday mornings and evenings, and ecumenical Protestant worship.
The latest data for Emory undergraduates — from the fall of 2017 — indicate that Methodism no longer outnumbers other religions on campus, and in fact Methodist students are not even the most numerous among Protestant Christians. The chart below tells the story.
As matters of religious conviction continue to infuse our national and international politics and determine the worldviews of most of the world’s people, it’s a fair question to ask whether Emory continues to present itself as a place of scholarship and inquiry where the study and practice of religion also matter. Emory is not a Methodist Notre Dame or Georgetown or Brandeis, where the institution’s religious identity is as well known as its scholarship and teaching.
Still, the Candler School of Theology (the world’s largest United Methodist seminary), the groundbreaking Center for the Study of Law and Religion, and pioneering efforts like the Interfaith Health Program in the Rollins School of Public Health and the Journeys of Reconciliation sponsored by the Office of Spiritual and Religious Life go a long way toward that blend of scholarship and faith imagined by Emory’s founders.
The most recent CIRP survey turned up no sign of Reformed Druids at Emory, but I plan to keep my eye out. One is likely to be along any time, and I suspect that I’ll have much to learn in our conversation.