Public Religion Religious Education University

The Resilience of Religion in American Higher Education – Virtual Conference Recording

On November 06, 2020, the Religion and Public University Research Collaborative at the University of Minnesota hosted a virtual colloquium, presented by John Schmalzbauer (Missouri State U) Kathleen A. Mahoney (GHR Foundation).

Description of event: For decades the secularization narrative dominated discussions of religion on campus. While capturing important trends, it underestimated the resilience of religion in higher education. Reflecting the diversity of American religious life, today’s university is a spiritual marketplace, where sacred and secular cross paths on the campus green. Drawing on their recent book, John Schmalzbauer and Kathleen Mahoney will provide an overview of the changing role of religion in student life.

The event was sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Study, the Religious Studies Program, Institute for Diversity, Equity, and Advocacy.

Law Religion Religious Practice

Religion, Religions, Religious: The Problem of Definition and Why Freedom of Religion is Illusory — Part I

As director of the Religious Studies Program at the premier public university in the state, I am frequently the first point of contact for inquiries related to the role of religion in public life and the relationship between religion and government – precisely the relationship governed by the first clause of the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. 

The questions run the gamut:

  • •   From a county sheriff:  Is wearing a headscarf “really” a necessity for Muslim women?  Do we need to provide them for incarcerated Muslim women?
  • •   From attorneys seeking expert witnesses:  Who could serve as an expert witness in a case involving cannabis possession and whether smoking marijuana is “really” a sacrament in Rastafarianism?  Who could serve as an expert witness in a case involving accommodating Muslim prayers in the workplace?
  • •   From the press:  Is Qur’an burning legal? Is it covered by the free speech clause or the freedom of religion clauses? 
  • •.  From ordinary citizens:  Is Scientology really a religion?  Can the police get my child out of it?
  • •.  From students:  Can I the class I took at Bethel University on Christ’s saving grace transfer to the UofM? 
  • •.  And from fellow staff members: What legitimate holidays for Buddhism should be included in the list we provide to faculty for accommodating student religious observances?  

Such questions all fall under the purview of the first two clauses of the First Amendment:

The US Congress shall make no laws respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.  

Taken together, these clauses are understood as foundational for separating church and state: in creating a nation in which religion is not an arm of the state (or vice versa) and in which individuals are free to practice their religion as they wish. 

At least that’s the theory. Although the first clause of the First Amendment seems straightforward, in practice the religious freedom clause is highly ambiguous, and that ambiguity rests on the very term “religion.” This post explores a few of the challenges that face U.S. courts and ordinary Americans in understanding what “religion” is in the abstract and in deciding what activities are legitimately religious and thus eligible for protection under the First Amendment.  

To enforce the First Amendment, we need to know what “religion” is and what practices are legitimately “religious.”   And there’s the rub.  Typically, we all know what religions are – if I asked you to name some religions we could come up with a long list: Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, etc. But what qualifies as “religion”—in the abstract, as a general category?  Does any specific characteristic unite all of these separate traditions?  And who decides? Must religion, for instance, be about a belief in spiritual beings? Probably not, as this definition leaves out many Buddhists. Must religions have a long history? Or can they be of recent origin like Mormonism or Christian Science?  Must it have texts or scriptures? Or do indigenous, non-written practices count?

The definition of “religion” matters because depending on how we definite it, some groups will inevitably fall outside of that definition—and declared non-religions they are not eligible for protection under the free exercise clause.    

And the problems do not stop there, for even within traditions that we agree are religions, we then must ask what constitutes “legitimate” religious practice?  What actions or practices qualify as truly “religious” under the free exercise clause?  And what ones do not?  And who decides? 

At the time the Bill of Rights was written (1789-91), the answers seemed relatively straightforward.  Christianity and Judaism were pretty much the only “religions” of concern by the western, enlightenment-inspired political thinkers who famed the Constitution. Many groups we now understand as “religions” and many practices we see as “religious” were not originally included in that category:  Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, indigenous societies, for instance, were not necessarily seen as “religions,” as Christianity was understood as one, until the turn of the twentieth century. The consequences of this exclusion were dire for some. Native Americans, for instance, understood by Western Christians as “heathen” –that is, not having “religion” –were not only forcibly deprived of practices and materials that we now clearly consider religious, but also of other cultural traditions, their land, their children, and in many cases life itself.

Things changed over the course of the twentieth century, however, particularly as immigration expanded the U.S. population of Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Christian Orthodox, Muslims, and others. In addition, a host of alternative religious groups with Protestant roots expanded –Mormons, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Spiritualists, and so forth. The practices of all of these religious groups—their buildings, prayer practices, foodways, sartorial preferences, proselytizing efforts, refusal of medical treatment, even seances and tarot readings–all claimed a place in the public sphere, and reshaped how American thought about “religion.” 

What was “religious” now posed challenges to the former Protestant hegemony, challenging the way businesses were conducted, the way Americans understood time and the days of the week, and the relationship between individuals and the state.  Jews wanted Saturdays off as the sabbath rather than Sundays; Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to take oaths,  to say the pledge of allegiance, to allow blood transfusions; Mennonites fought for conscientious objector status in the military; Jewish men in the US military petitioned to wear kippahs, and so forth.  Accommodation of religious practices grew as religious diversity expanded, particularly after 1965 when US immigration quotas were relaxed for some parts of the world.  Requests for accommodation of religious practices – in the workplace, schools, and other public arenas – has grown apace in the past few decades: Muslims seek accommodations for prayer; Sikhs for carrying their traditional ceremonial knife or kirpan; Jewish students for holiday observance. Christian Scientists, Amish, and others have fought for the right to refuse medical treatment — including refusing treatment for their children.  Many such situations end up in the legal system, requiring courts to decide which practices are authentically “religious” and thus must be accommodated, and which ones are not.

When accommodations do occur, conflicts and contentions can arise as others feel slighted or resentful. Such feelings often align with other social and cultural narratives about certain religions themselves, resulting in efforts to keep some groups out of the category of “real” religion:  Should Scientology have the same tax exempt status that other religions enjoy, some people ask, arguing that  it is “not a real religion.” Aren’t Wiccans just a cult and “not a real religion”?  Islam is frequently targeted as being not a religion but a political system, prompting the US Attorneys General Office has stepped in to curtail local efforts to declare Islam not a religion in law. Nevertheless, efforts to prohibit Islamic religious practices remain common. Some 20 states have enacted legislative bans and restrictions on the practice of Islamic religious law. Efforts like these to de-legitimize traditions and communities spring from a variety of motivations, political, xenophobic, and economic.  They provide excuses for discrimination against individuals and for exclusion from legal protections that members of “legitimate religions” enjoy.  

Given this history of what counts as a “real religion”—and is thus protected by the First Amendment—how we define the term “religion” carries high stakes.  But the problem of definition does not stop here, for even when there is agreement that a particular tradition is, in fact a “religion,” what counts as “religious” can also be quite slippery. I will address this topic in my next entry. 

This post is condensed from a talk given at the Minnesota Daily’s First Amendment Celebration, September 24, 2019 

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the RPUC as a whole or the University of Minnesota.


Catholicism Religious Education Secular University

Borlaug, McLuhan, and an Inclusive Land Grant University

The first secular educational setting I attended was as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota.  I spent grades K-8 in Catholic parochial schools, 9-12 in a Jesuit high school and my undergraduate years at a Jesuit university, Marquette in Milwaukee.  Nearly every classroom I sat in, from age 6 to 22, had a cross or a crucifix in it, usually hanging near the clock, over the door.  Every time I wanted to see how many minutes were left to class, I saw the cross1.

Norman Statue

Norman E. Borlaug statue by sculptor Benjamin Victor. University of Minnesota, St. Paul, campus

As I found myself drifting toward agnosticism, I still associated Jesuits with erudition and intellectual rigor.  I still do, which is why, last year, I nearly fainted when I was one of twenty to have breakfast with the Vatican astronomer, Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ.  It was a bit like having breakfast with Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sister Wendy Mary Beckett, and Harlan Ellison, except it was one man.  

Being a student at a land grant university2 meant replacing the imagery of the cross and of the Jesuit intellectual with the statue of Norman Borlaug.  

Borlaug was a scrapper — someone whose family wasn’t college-bound and who had to fight for his education.  And Borlaug is now described as the man who “saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived.”  I wasn’t sure whether I could be like Brother Consolmagno, but Borlaug.  If I could follow him one-thousandth of the way down his path, I would lead an amazing life.

Reflections on Access and Inclusivity

So much of our interest in the place of religion in the public university is about access and inclusivity3.  For 22-year-old me, the statue of Borlaug was a symbol of access and inclusivity.  At the time, I didn’t think much about the fact that Borlaug was white and male (and so that inclusivity resonated with me in ways that it didn’t resonate with others).  I didn’t think about whether claiming a commonplace about Borlaug, that he saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived, would have rubbed a younger, more Catholic me the wrong way.

I hadn’t considered, in other words, whether a land grant university manages, in its claims to inclusivity, to extend that inclusivity to the religious among us.  My interests in religious inclusivity extend in two directions in this collaborative.

How can a secular context welcome a religious student?

In our Collaborative, we’ve read about the complexities of addressing the whole student.  For example, in “(Inadvertently) Instructing Missionaries in (Public University) World Religions Courses: Examining a Pedagogical Dilemma, its Dimensions, and a Course Section Solution,” Nicole Karapanagiotis invites discussion of whether pedagogies or even learning outcomes should change when teaching religious students in religious studies courses in a state university context4.  Of course, we adjust our teaching to the starting points of our students — but do we consider their religious identity as part of that starting point?

What we enact in the public university has consequences for the quality of dialogue in the public sphere. In “Talking with Students who Already Know the Answer: Navigating Ethical Certainty in Democratic Dialogue,” Robert Kunzman reminds us that “it is important to recognize that the deliberative obligations of democratic citizenship require thoughtful engagement with a broad array of values and priorities. We cannot judge fairly among competing visions of the good society— and the laws and policies that come with such visions— if we are not willing to listen carefully to our fellow citizens about what matters to them and why.”5 A climate of inclusivity, including religion, is necessary not just for the classroom, but also for the public life that we claim, as a land grant university, to be preparing our students to enter.

How can a secular context welcome a religious faculty member?

My questions are not only about students.  In a thrift shop in Duluth, the location of the UM branch campus where I teach, I found a copy of Professors who Believe, edited by Paul M. Anderson, an emeritus professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the School of Medicine at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.  

I have no idea how many of my colleagues at UMD are religious. 

In 2013, David Gore and I began writing a pair of articles (in God and Popular Culture and in Finding McLuhan) about Marshall McLuhan which essentially argue that McLuhan was recrafted as a secular thinker for safe consumption in popular culture and in media studies.  But McLuhan wasn’t a secular thinker.  He was a deeply Catholic thinker, especially given that he came to Catholicism by choice, in an adult conversion.  It’s impossible to fully understand what McLuhan means when he says “the medium is the message” unless you consider that he claimed, too, that “In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message.”  

To understand McLuhan without understanding his Catholicism is to come to an impoverished understanding of McLuhan. 

As an employee of a state university, I wonder whether my understanding of my colleagues’ work is impoverished because I do not recognize their intellectual/faith commitments.  I wonder whether the climate of inclusivity we want to create for students might also create a climate of inclusivity for faculty and staff. 

I’m excited to continue these thoughts with my colleagues across the UM System and from other institutions in the region.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the RPUC as a whole or the University of Minnesota.


  1. The presence of the cross was not always noncontroversial.  See “MU Prof Who Covered Crucifix with Backpack Apologizes,” Milwaukee Journal, Sept. 2, 1994, section Al. []
  2. I am now a faculty member at a branch campus of that same university. []
  3. Borlaug began in the open-admissions unit of the University, because his test scores were too low for admission into the University directly.  He is literally a symbol of one path of access to one of the finest universities in the world, now lost since the General College was dissolved in 2005. []
  4. Karapanagiotis, N. ( 2017) (Inadvertently) Instructing Missionaries in (Public University) World Religions Courses: Examining a Pedagogical Dilemma, its Dimensions, and a Course Section Solution. Teaching Theology & Religion, 20: 46– 65. doi: 10.1111/teth.12364. []
  5. In Religion in the Classroom: Dilemmas for Democratic Education, edited by Jennifer Hauver James; Keith C Barton.  New York: Routledge, 2015. []