The Warring Visions of the Religious Right

Regent University is the intellectual and theological center of the Christian Coalition. What is it like there? Does an inverse political correctness rule? What theology is taught, and what are its political implications? On a recent visit the author, a noted Harvard theologian, found some surprising answers -- among them, that the "Christian right" is no monolith

IN the fall of 1978 the television evangelist and eventual presidential candidate M. G. (Pat) Robertson, the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, fulfilled a long-standing dream. He opened a new graduate-level educational institution in Virginia Beach, Virginia, whose purpose, as Robertson describes it, was to "train mature young men and women for the challenge of representing Christ in their professions."

The entering class in the makeshift rented facilities of what was then called the Christian Broadcasting Network University consisted of seventy-seven students--hardly a blip on the screen of American higher education. When I visited earlier this year, the school had grown into a graduate university, enrolling more than 1,400 students; it now includes faculties of law, divinity, business, education, counseling, government, and communication, composed of professors with doctoral degrees from Yale, Emory, Oxford, and Cornell, among other institutions. Faculty members of Regent's law school now prepare drafts of legislation and constitutional amendments that are introduced in Congress. Cinema majors make films for the Special Olympics. Students from the school of education do fieldwork with at-risk children in the black ghetto of nearby Chesapeake. Regent is no longer merely a blip.

But just what is it? More than half a century ago Kemper Fullerton wrote an article about Oberlin College, in Ohio, which was founded by zealous New England abolitionists, titled "Oberlin, Cause or College?" Similar questions have been raised about Regent University, which was given its present name in 1990, because its board thought that "CBN University" no longer described it accurately. A "regent," the catalogue explains, is one who represents the sovereign in his absence, and "for us at Regent University, a regent is one who represents Christ, our Sovereign, in whatever sphere of life he or she may be called to serve Him."

This is just what gives many people the jitters. Pat Robertson is both founder and chancellor of Regent, and both founder and president of the 1.7-million-member Christian Coalition; so it is understandable that the idea of a university designed to dispatch waves of ardent young graduates into all professional spheres might sound ominous to those who harbor reservations about the coalition's potent mixture of old-time religion and up-to-date conservative politics.

The concept behind Regent is hardly a new one. The idea of preparing an elite of religiously trained professionals to exert a spiritual influence on the secular realm has a venerable lineage. Shortly after the founding of the Catholic Society of Jesus, in 1540, its members began to study theology in combination with law, literature, history, and the natural sciences. Jesuits quickly became advisers to kings and tutors to princes, and they founded universities all over the world. Many Jesuits achieved an impressive degree of eminence in various secular fields. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, for example, was widely respected for his research in paleontology before his theological writings made any impact. Protestants employed the same strategy. The original purpose of Harvard College was to steep young men in Puritan theology and the classical disciplines so that they could steer the new Massachusetts Bay Colony in a godly direction. Today the debate in universities about how to reintroduce "moral values" into professional education, after many decades of almost exclusive emphasis on technical competence, recalls an earlier age in which the theological, ethical, and professional disciplines were not so separate as they usually are at present.

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Given my reputation as a liberal Protestant theologian, and given the wide publicity devoted to the political clout of the Christian Coalition, I was both surprised and curious when Vinson Synan, the dean of Regent University's School of Divinity, invited me to deliver a lecture about my recent work on the worldwide Pentecostal movement. Harvard Divinity School, where I have taught theology for thirty years, might be thought to epitomize the opposite end of the theological spectrum. The two universities' schools of law and of government are widely depicted as representing comparably polar perspectives on many issues. But that only piqued my curiosity. I may also have been tempted by what Thomas Aquinas called the sin of vainglory. My colleagues at Harvard are used to giving guest lectures, so to remark at lunch that one has just returned from speaking at Bologna or the Sorbonne or Cairo hardly elicits a murmur. But I knew that a casual mention at sherry hour of my visit to Regent, which has been called the Harvard of the Religious Right, was sure to elicit at least a flicker of interest from even the most jaded of my faculty-club associates. It was an invitation I could not refuse.

Academic Freedom

I arrived on a balmy day in April. The students I saw wandering among the colonial buildings of brick and white clapboard, wearing cutoffs, T-shirts, and Teva sandals and carrying canvas book bags, could very well have been the ones I had just left behind in Harvard Yard. I was greeted warmly by several faculty members, shown my comfortable room (one of 233) at The Founders Inn, and after a short rest conducted to the law school's elegant mock courtroom to give my lecture. Here the first notable difference between the two Harvards appeared. As I sat reading over my notes and waiting to be introduced, a quartet equipped with a keyboard and an amplified guitar led the audience in singing lively gospel choruses. Some people clapped and swayed as they sang. I found it hard to imagine this happening in the mock courtroom of Harvard Law School. In my lecture I attributed the astonishing global growth of Pentecostalism to its emphasis on experience rather than doctrine and to its capacity to absorb such local spiritual practices as ancestor veneration in Africa, folk healing in South America, and shamanic trance in Korea. After I spoke, both J. Rodman Williams, a professor of theology, who proudly told me that he had once studied at Union Theological Seminary with Reinhold Niebuhr, and Peter Prosser, who has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Montreal, responded briefly. Their remarks were critical but thoughtful, appropriate, and collegial. Several people in the largely white audience asked questions. Everyone expressed enthusiasm about the value of this kind of dialogue between liberal and conservative Christians.

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