God Goes to College

You can live in the same dorm as Him now, kids! I wonder how He keeps his room?

In four years of college, I had, among others, the following roommates and suitemates:

• An Ohioan prima donna who pledged a sorority as soon as it was humanly possible and took to her bed for an entire week each time she got her period;

• An amazingly naive Catholic schoolgirl from Northern Jersey;

• An exotic, neurotic New Yorker;

• Miss North Carolina;

• A midget;

• A radical feminist; and

• A lesbian activist.

That doesn’t count the household of guys I lived with off-campus one summer, who included a botany major who married the neurotic New Yorker, a theater-loving gay man, and a depressive loner who would later commit suicide.

I thought about this strange roster of folks who heard me snore and got to see me in my jammies when I read a recent story about a new trend on college campuses: religious dorms. Even at public colleges, “faith-based residence halls” are springing up, many of them funded by Catholic ministries. In recent years, such new halls have opened at, among others, Troy University, Texas A&M, Florida Institute of Technology and the University of Nebraska. The new dorms are modeled after St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois, which dates all the way back to 1926. The idea, according to Father Douglas Bailey, the chaplain at FIT, is to accommodate students “who want to live with similar-minded people.”

The notion that “similar-minded people” want to room together isn’t a new one, but it seems to be growing. Just about every residential college these days has a “substance-free” dorm for kids who don’t want to be exposed to drugs or alcohol, and a “green” dorm, with amped-up recycling policies and tree-hugging activities. When you come right down to it, nothing is more aimed at “similar minds” than a fraternity or sorority, where potential candidates for residency have to run a gauntlet of tests to prove their like-mindedness. But something about these “faith-based residence halls” gives me qualms.

Such dorms aren’t unusual, obviously, at small, private religious colleges. But the trend now is for large-scale religious dorms at public schools. A spokesman for the Newman Student Housing Fund, the private development company behind several of these new dorms, says it plans to open one or two more per year across the country.

To live in Troy University’s new dorm, students will have to hold onto a certain GPA, eschew alcohol and drugs, participate in community service, and “maintain an active engagement in a campus faith-based organization.” The dorm contains a chapel, and has an office for an on-site Catholic priest. There’s a reason Catholics are pushing these dorms; more than any other faith, they’re losing the next generation at a headlong clip. A study last year found that 59 percent of Americans stop attending church regularly as children or teenagers. A third of all young people under 30 have no religious affiliation. A lot of those young people fall away during the college years, when they leave the cozy home nest and are exposed to more of the big bad world. There’s another goal, though, for some of these faith-based houses: At the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana’s Newman-modeled dorm, 84 residents in the past 10 years have taken religious orders. As the Newman Student Housing Fund’s website gloats, “Imagine what can be cultivated if we are able to take this concept around the country!”

Imagine. Of course, those new nuns and priests may only be becoming nuns and priests because they’ve stayed so, um, cloistered. The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has taken issue with Troy’s new dorm, claiming it violates Alabama’s Fair Housing Act as well as the First Amendment. When it first opened, the dorm prioritized Christians over non-Christians; that has now, the school says, been addressed. But questions remain about the propriety of government-supported colleges offering such housing. Beyond that, there’s a bigger question. As Andrew Seidel of the Freedom From Religion Foundation puts it, “College is not about maintaining a small circle of people who believe the exact same thing you do. College is about getting out there and experiencing new things and doing things that challenge you.” (The comments section on an article about faith-based housing on the website Inside Higher Ed gives a sample of how heated debate over the concept can be.) The chancellor at Troy, Jack Hawkins Jr., says the new dorm there is even more exciting for parents than for students: “They want their children to live in a safe place, in a place where academics are first and foremost, but values are also important.”

I was a callow, sheltered, religious kid from Doylestown when I went to college. There was exactly one black person in my high-school class. I didn’t know what a homosexual was. I’d never met a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Muslim. Four years later, I’d encountered a staggering number of different lifestyles, value systems and beliefs. I’m sure my parents wouldn’t have been happy about some of what I was exposed to. But they were wise enough to encourage me to stretch and grow and explore. They weren’t bound by fear.

So what’s next on campus? Colleges segregated by social class? Oh, wait—we already have that. Democrat-only dorms? Dorms for Muggles? Werewolves and vampires? Left-handed kids?

Great. Just what this polarized nation needs: less exposure of our young people to other ways of living, thinking, worshiping and believing. How marvelous, Mom and Dad. Sheesh, even the Amish know it’s only worth keeping the young folk down on the farm after they’ve seen the world.