N O V E M B E R 1 9 9 5
by Harvey Cox
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.
Articles on religion and the university from The Atlantic archives:
"What College Did to My Religion," by Philip E. Wentworth (June, 1932)
"Universities and Religious Indifference," by Bernard Iddings Bell (September, 1932)
"Conscience and the Undergraduate," by John Sloan Dickey (April, 1955)
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.
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.
As I chatted with people at punch hour (no sherry), strolled the campus, and ate dinner with some faculty members, it became evident that the atmosphere at Regent University is not that of a backwater fundamentalist Bible school. Regent is proud of its accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which also certifies schools like William and Mary and the University of Virginia. "We do not want to be another Bob Jones University," one faculty member told me, referring to the famous fundamentalist college, which shuns accreditation as a sign of compromise with a sinful world. Regent's catalogue includes a passage describing its philosophy of education, which is phrased in conventional evangelical language. It speaks of the "authority" of the Nicene Creed that Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopalians repeat every week. Immediately following in the catalogue is a "Statement of Academic Freedom," which says that every faculty member "is free to pursue truth within his or her discipline by research, discussion and other forms of inquiry," and has a responsibility to "truth [and] scholarly integrity." The faculty members I talked with uniformly insisted that they were not fundamentalists, and some made a decided effort--even when I had not asked--to dissociate themselves from various items on the agenda of the Christian Coalition. But I was still not sure whether Regent was a cause or a college or a little of both.
Regent, it appears, is not so much a boot camp for rightist cadres as a microcosm of the theological and intellectual turbulence within what is often mistakenly seen as a monolithic "religious right" in America. Regent's energetic young president, Terry Lindvall, likes to compare the student body to the "motley collection of pilgrims in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales." I think he is right, up to a point. For example, although "born-again" Christians, evangelicals, fundamentalists, and Pentecostals are often lumped together in media reports, they represent distinct (though sometimes overlapping) tendencies that are frequently at odds with one another. Some explanation of these terms might be helpful. All of them designate Christians who take their religion seriously--but in different ways.
Someone at Regent told me that more than half its students are either Pentecostals or charismatics. As such, they bridle at being subsumed under the umbrella of evangelicalism, which some consider cold, rigid, and insufficiently spontaneous. Theologically conservative evangelicals, on the other hand, who take their Calvin straight, are leery of the sometimes chaotic and unpredictable spirituality of Pentecostals and of their belief in direct revelation--through dreams and visions--from God.
Politically, too, the students and faculty members I met represented a somewhat wider spectrum than I had anticipated. There are some boundaries, of course. I doubt that a pro-choice bumper sticker would go unremarked in the parking lot, or that a gay-pride demonstration would draw many marchers. But the Regent student newspaper carried an opinion piece by the well-known politically liberal evangelical (and "friend of Bill") Tony Campolo, a professor at Eastern College, who has publicly confronted Jerry Falwell about his attacks on President Clinton. Ralph Reed, of the Christian Coalition, has persuaded students at the school of government to run for office. But one student told me with obvious satisfaction that he had worked hard to defeat Oliver North in the Virginia senatorial contest last fall. If there is a "line" at Regent, which would presumably be a mirror image of the political correctness that is allegedly enforced at elite liberal universities, it is not easy to locate.
MONG the many issues that roil the waters at Regent is the question of relations with Roman Catholics. The debate is both political and theological, and there is much to argue about. Two years ago the archdiocese of New York, under Cardinal John O'Connor's leadership, in an unusual demonstration of Catholic-evangelical cooperation, distributed hundreds of thousands of Christian Coalition voters' guides in Catholic parishes just before the school-board elections. Then, in March of last year, a group of forty evangelical and Roman Catholic leaders issued a public statement, "Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium." The document was initiated by Father Richard John Neuhaus, a neoconservative writer who had joined the Catholic Church after serving for many years as a Lutheran pastor, and the former White House aide Charles Colson, now a widely read evangelical columnist. Pat Robertson was one of the signers. When the statement was issued, news of it, under a banner headline, dominated the front page of the Regent student newspaper. Nationally the document came under attack almost immediately from various quarters. Theologically conservative evangelicals claimed that it blurred the legacy of the Reformation by not insisting on the Reformation's central doctrinal bequest:justification by grace alone. Politically liberal evangelicals and Catholics contended that it was merely a Trojan horse for right-wing politics.
The letters-to-the-editor page of the Regent student newspaper illustrates the uneasiness many conservative Protestants still feel about cuddling up too close to the Pope, whom their parents' generation identified as the beast of the apocalypse. Student letter writers argue with impressive theological earnestness about whether the doctrinal "deviations" of the Catholic Church are sufficiently serious to prevent cooperation and dialogue. One student complained about the "errors" she had been taught in Catholic catechism class before becoming a born-again Christian. Others responded that her experience was not typical but a "perversion of Catholicism." Catholics are welcomed at Regent, but I wondered what the faculty or the Bible Belt financial supporters of the university might make of a letter from another Regent student, who insisted that the teaching she was receiving in a Catholic instruction class "has not been theologically off-base," and that she would soon leave Protestantism "to enter into the fullness of Truth found in the Catholic Church." I was astonished to find that the only book review--albeit a very critical one--in that same issue of the paper was of a controversial book titled Dancing Alone, by Frank Schaeffer. Once a prominent evangelical writer, Schaeffer has recently joined the Greek Orthodox Church, complaining that Protestantism is spiritually bankrupt and unable to make a significant impact on modern society because, he says, it has become "a hybrid composed of fragments of the ancient Christian faith and thoroughly modern, anti-traditional, materialist, and often utopian ideas."
I did not meet Chancellor Robertson himself at Regent, although he maintains a handsome residence there. Faculty members told me they rarely see him--that he does not "hover," and has delegated the leadership of the university to the president. Still, I wondered how much the criticism recently directed at Robertson for his alleged anti-Semitism, especially in his book The New World Order (1991), was being discussed among the faculty. It turned out that it was being talked about quite a bit, but in a way that I had hardly expected. "Pat's no anti-Semite," one faculty member told me. "The problem is he doesn't write all his own books, and the guys he gets to ghost them are just not that dependable."
But the issue still rankles, and not only at Regent. Since the American Jewish community is itself severely divided between its neoconservative and liberal wings over how to respond to the religious right, any hint of anti-Semitism becomes particularly poisonous and volatile. Robertson has repeatedly pointed to his unswerving support of Israel as proof positive that he is not anti-Semitic. But the problem goes deeper. There has always been a large wing of conservative Protestant Christianity that vigorously supports the state of Israel. However, much of the support is based on an end-time theological scenario according to which the return of the Jews to the Holy Land is a prelude to the Battle of Armageddon, the Second Coming, and the subsequent conversion of Jews to Christ. No wonder this all elicits such confusion and alarm in the Jewish community.
N visiting other universities, I have often found that snack-bar gossip, casual conversations, and notices on kiosks provide more useful hints about the campus atmosphere than official publications do. Regent University is no exception. It was clear to me that despite the differences among them, Regent students tend to think of themselves as a distinct, sometimes set-upon minority, very much at odds with what they believe is the current misdirection of American life. Saint Paul's advice to "come ye out and be ye separate" seems to obtain. Special "Christian-oriented" counseling and twelve-step programs are offered. In the student newspaper a real-estate dealer advertises, "If you need to buy or sell, I would be blessed to serve you." In ads or on posted notices I saw Christian CDs, a Christian coffeehouse, a pro-life walkathon, a Christian singles dance, and a Christian aerobics class. One can even buy a Christian screen-saver for a computer. Religion-oriented musical groups, such as The Walter Eugenes and Justo Almario and Abraham Laboriel, get rave notices from the paper's music critic, who commends the band called Glad because even though they have "a polished pop sound," they "don't compromise their message to appeal to the mainstream."
This constant focus on Christian distinctives could give the impression of a walled and moated subculture. Yet law-school faculty members are busily conferring with congressional aides a few hours north in Washington. And, as Robertson says, Regent is designed to "sharpen your skills and prepare you to transform the world through Christian leadership." President Lindvall, who came to his office from the film-studies division of the university, believes that the real frontier today is not politics but the arts. Still, it seemed evident to me that the recurrent historical tension in evangelical Protestantism between storming the bastions of the secular world and leaving it to sink in its own sinfulness has not been completely resolved even at Regent.
The underlying sources of this and many other tensions at Regent University, and in the conservative Christian community it so accurately reflects, are theological. To these people, theology matters. It is neither a quaint heirloom of the past nor a mere epiphenomenon of underlying economic and social forces. It is the Science of the Big Questions, mining the past in order to shape the future. Part of the ambivalence they feel about to what extent Christians should enter the seductive corridors of worldly power stems from continuing disputes about eschatology. Eschatology is that branch of theology that treats the "last things"--the question of how history will end. This subject continues to fascinate even the most secular minds, but secular culture has handed it over to Trekkies and deep ecologists.
Still, beliefs about how it will all come out in the end continue to be integral to religion. Any churchgoer who recites the Nicene Creed (and millions do every week) must wonder on occasion just what the words "And he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end" are really supposed to mean. Most theologically conservative Christians not only accept this doctrine but believe it quite literally. This is where the hottest debate begins, for when this return will occur and what Christians who anticipate it should be doing in the meantime are matters of sharp disagreement.
Since the rise of fundamentalism, in the early years of the twentieth century, the favored eschatology among its adherents has been that Jesus Christ will actually return before the establishment of his millennial Kingdom, and in the meantime things will get progressively worse on earth. There will be wars and rumors of wars as we spiral downward. This is the so-called pre-millennial view, popularized in Hal Lindsey's paperback broadside The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), which has sold more than 12 million copies. In that book Lindsey analyzed the Cold War, the role of Israel, and the moral decline of America in the light of his own inventive reading of the Books of Daniel and Revelation, and announced that the final great battle of Armageddon was about to begin.
This somewhat overheated "living-in-the-last-days" mentality is, however, vociferously opposed by another school of conservative Christian eschatology, which is called postmillennialism. A considerably more upbeat view, it holds that through the faithfulness of individuals and the influence they bring to bear on societies, righteousness and justice will gradually spread and increase. Consequently, when Christ comes again, the earth will be prepared for his appearance. The postmillennial idea reigned virtually uncontested in American Protestantism from the time of Jonathan Edwards until the appearance of fundamentalism, around 1900. Since then the two parties have been feuding, but in the past decade the postmillennial view has staged a comeback. It is clearly dominant at Regent.
Pre-millennial and postmillennial eschatologies generate opposing visions of what believers should be doing in a fallen world. If conditions are inevitably to degenerate until the return of Christ (as in Lindsey's view), there is little point to political activism. But if the persistent efforts of the faithful can help to hasten the coming of the reign of God, there is some reason to lobby Congress or run for office.
Pat Robertson apparently started out in his earlier years with the pre-millennial view about the imminent approach of the last days that then held sway among most fundamentalists. It seems, however, that he has since altered his opinions. He now subscribes to a postmillennial eschatology in which Christians--at least the ones who share his views--are called upon to try to assume positions of power wherever they can in order to build a more righteous and God-fearing society.
UT just how are Christians to exert influence? This brings up what has undoubtedly been the most contentious issue at Regent. It has to do with something called "dominion theology." A subset within postmillennial theology, the dominion school holds that Christians (and, some would add, religious Jews) have inherited all the Old Testament mandates, one of the most fundamental of which is in Genesis 1:28, where God says to Adam and Eve, "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth" (emphasis added). Dominion theologians interpret this passage to mean that believers are entitled to "dominion" over all the world's major institutions. They should rule the earth until Christ comes again, no matter what the duration of their interim reign. Some of Robertson's critics believe that such a vision--an entire nation run at all levels by the faithful--is what inspired Robertson to rename his university "Regent," and they find this frightening.
Their concerns, it would seem, are not entirely groundless. At times Robertson has written, in what gives a strong impression of being a dominion-theology voice, that Regent is to be a "Kingdom institution," in which people will be taught how to "enter into the privilege they have as God's representatives on earth." In The New World Order, the book that brought the issue of possible anti-Semitism freshly to the fore, Robertson presents a summary of his political theology, writing that only those "who believe the Judeo-Christian values" are qualified to rule, and then goes on to spell out this doctrine.
There will never be world peace until God's house and God's people are given their rightful place of leadership at the top of the world. How can there be peace when drunkards,communists, atheists, New Age worshipers of Satan, secular humanists, oppressive dictators, greedy moneychangers, revolutionary assassins, adulterers, and homosexuals are on top?
It is not surprising that someone who falls into one of the categories listed should feel some disquietude about the political positions staked out here. But if--as strict dominion theology holds--all Old Testament laws are currently applicable, and not only to so-called Christian nations but to all nations and to every institution within those nations, then such ideas emerge naturally.
thought it was important, if awkward, to bring up these questions with Regent faculty members. And I did so. The answer was very clear. Regent, they insisted, is absolutely not a dominion-theology school, and Robertson himself had demonstrated this recently by getting rid of the dean of the law school, Herbert Titus, because Titus was leaning in the dominion direction. (Titus, who was a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union before his conversion to evangelical Christianity, is currently suing the school for about $70 million.) I did not wave quotations from Robertson's books in front of anyone, because by this time I thought I might hear once again that he just doesn't choose his ghostwriters carefully enough. Also, Terry Lindvall sounded persuasive when he told me that whatever might have been the case in the past, the battle over Herbert Titus had really been a "struggle for the soul of the university" in which the dominion-theology party had decisively lost. "This is no Masada," he said. "We just want the evangelical voice to be heard and to make a positive contribution." In his mind, the matter was settled once and for all.
By the time I left Virginia Beach, I was somewhat--but not completely--satisfied by the answers the faculty had given me. I had to put together those reassurances with what Ihad previously learned in Heaven on Earth?, an excellent book on the subject of dominion theology by the American historian Bruce Barron. As I have pointed out in my book Fire From Heaven, Barron suggests that the faculty members of Regent University are a moderating influence in the dominion-theology movement. They are pragmatists who accept religious pluralism and do not insist on the universal applicability of Old Testament law. They prefer to be called "constitutionalists," a label that refers to their belief that current legal practice has drifted away from the principles outlined in the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence--principles they believe are deeply rooted in biblical law.
Still, my doubts remained. Not only did I suffer momentary cognitive dissonance in thinking of Pat Robertson as a moderating influence but I found myself disturbed by the influential ideas of another figure in the postmillennial movement: Rousas John Rushdoony. Rushdoony is a theologian who writes prolifically, albeit for a somewhat small audience, and his 1,124-page The Roots of Reconstruction includes a proposal that the death penalty be enforced today for adulterers, homosexuals, blasphemers, astrologers, witches, and teachers of false doctrine. The thought of Rushdoony's disciples gaining governmental power qualifies as the real nightmare scenario presented by the religious right. What surprised me, however, was that his ideas have gained acceptance among some Pentecostals, because Rushdoony clearly does not care for Pentecostals. He takes a jab at them in another of his books, The Institutes of Biblical Law, when, in repeatedly making the case for the present validity of Old Testament law, he says, "If the law is denied as the means of sanctification, then, logically, the only alternative [for believers] is Pentecostalism, with its antinomian and unbiblical doctrine of the Spirit." Somehow I did not think that Rushdoony would have enjoyed the warm-up sing-along in the Regent mock courtroom.
When I reflected on my visit to Regent, it occurred to me that given the present uncontested global hegemony of the market mentality and consumer values, Regent may in fact be an even more intriguing place to visit than Cairo. In a sometimes confused and internally conflicted way it represents an alternative world view in an age when such alternatives are hard to come by. I also had a sense of historical déjà vu. When the visionaries who founded Harvard and the Massachusetts Bay Colony tried to prepare young men to shape the values of the new commonwealth, the principal difficulty they ran into was religious pluralism. Baptists like Roger Williams were exiled to the "cesspool of New England," in Rhode Island. Quakers were whipped or hanged. Unwilling to sort through the thicket of conflicting theologies, Harvard eventually solved the problem by discarding the explicitly religious basis of its mission. But now, as it, along with other universities, seeks to reinstate moral values in the curriculum, questions about where such values come from and about the spiritual traditions that have nourished them over the millennia will have to be engaged. As this happens, it will no longer be sufficient simply to study religion from the comparative and historical perspectives. Values are rooted in narrative; so the historical religious traditions, including Christianity and Judaism, along with secular philosophies of life, will have to be studied as viable life options. Without roots, disembodied "values" become mere preferences and eventually dissolve into the ether.
Like the people I met at Regent, I look forward to continuing this vital dialogue. I also agree that for too long evangelicals and more-liberal Protestants, Catholics, Pentecostals, and people of other religious traditions have huddled in compounds of their own making rather than asking what they can do together to encourage the spiritual renaissance they all believe America needs. And I think we need to remember the past in order to shape the future. At the same time, I harbor some deep reservations about both the theological and the political motifs I encountered at Regent. If Colonial Harvard could not handle Baptists and Quakers, can Regent's theology speak to an America that has more Buddhist and Muslim and Hindu citizens every day? How diverse could Regent become? Could the "motley collection of pilgrims" on the way to Canterbury ever include gay Christians who also want to be part of the procession? After all, the Wife of Bath and her ribald traveling companions were hardly models of family values.
Y far the most striking discovery I made at Regent was the remarkable similarity between the rhetoric I encountered there and that of liberation theology. Both focus on continuing the ministry and work of Jesus. Both place the concept of the Kingdom of God, albeit interpreted quite differently, at the center of their respective theologies. And both stress the importance of institutional change rather than simple individual conversion. But why, then, does liberation theology usually produce a more progressive expression of religious activism, while Regent's theology usually engenders conservative public policy? Why does so much evangelical social theology slide so easily over Jesus' harsh warnings to the rich and the powerful, so that one rarely hears any criticism of corporations that close their factories to help the bottom line, or of congressmen who pour more money into the military than the Pentagon itself asks for?
The crucial difference is the "preferential option for the poor" that liberation theology has so eloquently championed and that was so central to the ministry of Jesus. Liberation theology aims to work for institutions that are responsive to the poor and disinherited of any society, and placing Christians in positions of power is not among its goals. That said, however, it can still be unsettling to hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Pat Robertson both employing a political rhetoric that is rich in "Kingdom principles" and the application of biblical values to society.
What understandably flusters liberal Christians about Regent University's (and Pat Robertson's) ambitious project, which is now quite possibly on the verge of some actual political success, is that for years the so-called mainline churches have chided Pentecostals and evangelicals for promising people pie in the sky while turning their backs on the suffering and injustice of the present world. But now this is no longer the case. Since movements like the Christian Coalition have swung into energetic participation in the political realm, religious liberals seem to be hoist on their own petard. They can hardly criticize Robertson or the jurists and theologians at Regent for jumping into politics. But if they differ as to goals and methods, they will have to argue the case on theological grounds, and come up with a different but equally convincing interpretation of the Bible and of Christian history. There are many historical sources they could draw on--not just liberation theology but also such traditions as British Christian socialism (which the Labour Party leader, Tony Blair, now espouses), the American Social Gospel, and Reinhold Niebuhr. The problem is that many politically liberal Christian theologians have become so enchanted by deconstruction, postmodernism, and secular political philosophies that they find it hard to engage people like the Regent faculty members at the theological level on which the argument has to proceed.
When I asked Terry Lindvall about his personal hopes for Regent, he told me that he is still a film maker at heart, and that he believes the next century will be shaped by the people who can tell the best stories. Later I remembered that The Canterbury Tales itself is about a traveling storytelling contest, in which the Wife of Bath, the Friar, the Merchant, the Monk, and the Knight all have a go, and nobody censors anybody else. It could be a fascinating journey.
Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.