By Rick Plasterer

The recent controversy over the appearance of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at Georgetown University is indicative of a widespread development in the contemporary world, namely, the secularization, by societal and state pressure, of Christian schools. For Catholic universities and colleges such as Georgetown or Notre Dame, the key event in secularization occurred several decades ago, in the Land O’ Lakes Statement (1967), in which the presidents of 26 Catholic institutions declared that academic excellence and academic freedom required autonomy from ecclesiastical authority.

More recently, the Vatican attempted to re-assert Catholic identity in educational institutions through an Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

There continues to be “confusion” however, as the Catholic University of America’s former president Msgr. David O’Connell noted.

Christianity Today’s March issue also discussed the creeping secularization of Christian educational institutions in an interview with two presidents of Evangelical institutions.

The specifically Christian character of an educational institution greatly affects the church or Christian community with which it is associated, because it is a vital link in conveying the Christian faith (in addition to family and the local church) from one generation to the next. The rising young adults will (or should) learn a more sophisticated exposition and defense of the faith than they have often been exposed to, develop their faith in the community of their generational peers, and do all this in the process of deciding and preparing for their life’s work. A strongly committed institution will increase the vitality of its associated Christian church or community, an institution which in practice includes much criticism of its faith tradition tends to be damaging, first affecting the vitality of the associated church, and very reasonably undermining its faithfulness in the long term.

Unhappily, however, as the culture war grows more intense, strongly committed Christian institutions may not have the legal option to remain faithful to the Christian world view to which they are committed. In more liberal jurisdictions, the state, accreditation, or other professional bodies may endeavor to regulate curriculum and/or hiring, effectively secularizing them by force. Recently this threatened to happen with Trinity Western University in Canada, where the Canadian Association of University Teachers essentially said the Christian education is incompatible with academic freedom, as reported by LifeSiteNews.com.

After some controversy, CAUT terminated its investigation.

CAUT’s animosity towards Christian education was well illustrated by its reference to Christian schools as “Fundamentalist,” (regarded by many as a pejorative term) in a contact with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the Obama Administration’s Department of Education has set the stage for similar state interference with its new regulations (finalized in Nov. 2010) that addressed financial aid fraud. As Christianity Today reported at the time, the rule proposes that states develop “substantive” procedures for licensing private educational institutions, which Christian educators worry could involve state interference in curriculum and hiring, very possibly at the behest of interest groups who wish to control ideas presented in educational institutions.

As with the current HHS rule, a “religious exemption” was added, but it is too narrow to cover such institutions as Baylor or Wheaton. An earlier article by Colorado Christian University also details the problems with the rule.

Secularization can be an insidious process in a society, such as contemporary Western society, where a significant part of society views traditional religion with hostility. Seemingly innocuous changes, both developed internally and externally imposed, can turn out to have adverse consequences where the institution or its clientele are unaware of the implications, still thinking as if they were living in an era when religious freedom was generally understood and agreed on. Vigilance and determination are needed to protect religious freedoms once taken for granted.