This is a story of religious and democratic covenants and controversies in the foundations of the American nation and in the soul of its colleges and universities. Its powers are religion and politics in America, the creeds and convictions constituting the beliefs and theologies of citizens and religious people. Critically overlapping and entangled democratic beliefs and convictions distinctly define the American body politic and are in the foundation of the nation and its colleges and universities. In that story, an unmistakable feature and idea is that the religion of the Republic in America is intertwined with and parallel to a symbiotic religion of the academy in its colleges and universities.
The nation and its colleges share the same space, history, and religious and democratic heralds and heroes. Democratic and political theories and philosophies, and competing and cooperating religious faiths and impulses, have been reflected both the Republic and in battles waged about the essential nature of the American nation and its colleges and universities. These traits constitute how America, its public and its citizens, in and outside the gates of the academy, have wrestled with the aspirations and ideals that define civic duty, the commons, and the common good.
Stephen J. Nelson is professor of education and educational Leadership at Bridgewater State University, and senior scholar in the Leadership Alliance at Brown University.
Chapter One: Religion in the American College: The Landscape and Saga
Chapter Two: The Religion of the Republic and the American Enlightenment: Foundations of the Nation and the Academy
Chapter Three: John Witherspoon and Princeton: Political Theology and Theological Politics
Chapter Four: Four Score and Seven: The March from the Founding of the Republic to Civil War and Beyond
Chapter Five: The Watershed of the Civil War and What it Wrought: Gazing Backward and Forward
Chapter Six: Religious Underpinnings of Liberal and Social Democracy: The Bridge to the Twentieth Century
Chapter Seven: The Curses and Blessings of Religious and Democratic Pluralism: Twentieth Century Quandaries and Controversies
Chapter Eight: The Puzzle of Pluralism and An “Almost Chosen People”: Religion and Democracy in the Academy and Nation in the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
Chapter Nine: The Contemporary Religion of the Republic: Religious and Ideological Conscience and the Quest for E Pluribus Unum
Epilogue: The Soul of the College and University: Is the Past Prologue?
About the Author
Professor Nelson has produced an engaging and provocative exploration of how religious influences have shaped the core values of American higher education. He traces an arc from the founding of Harvard College to the realities of the modern university, arguing that the fundamentals have long endured. For presidents, trustees, and other higher education leaders navigating today’s cross-cutting political pressures, the book is a worthy read that offers a powerful case for importance of remaining faithful to those fundamentals.
With Searching the Soul of the College and University in America, Stephen J. Nelson caps his career-long scholarly examination of the nation’s higher education institutions and their leadership with a comprehensive assessment of the complex role religion has played in nurturing our unique academic traditions. The crucial aspect of that role, he argues, has not been the maintenance of particular confessional identities that informed so many early American colleges, but rather a lasting commitment to a much broader “religion of the Republic,” whose transcendent moral principles of fairness, equality, rights, and reason have defined America’s colleges and universities since colonial times. He presents this interpretation through an historical tour-de-force that engages virtually every major American educational leader as well as a host of modern theorists of religion in American culture. And his message for our own troubled times in the university is clear: stay the course—we have faced worse challenges than today’s, and will continue to meet them only by holding fast to our national faith in seeking truth e pluribus unum.
In this volume Stephen Nelson provides a wide ranging survey of the development of the intertwining of religion, democracy, and enlightenment ideals in America through the lens of higher education institutions in preserving and promoting those values. At the heart of this book is an impassioned case for a generous democratic pluralism as the foundation of American society, with roots reaching back to the Reformation era and beyond. Moving well beyond the usual cast of institutional characters, Nelson's sprawling analysis includes representative universities and colleges from all regions of the country to show the shifts and responses to historical events like the Civil War as well as wider cultural currents in the twentieth and twenty-first century. Rather than a narrative of secularization, Nelson's nuanced retelling depicts an educational world of religious and democratic pluralism, tracing a through-line of core values and ideals from the Reformation to our own modern era. This poses important questions not just about the past, but also about our own present, and who we as Americans can and should be.
Professor Stephen Nelson’s latest work, Searching the Soul of the College and University in America: Religious and Democratic Covenants and Controversies, is an important book for anyone looking to understand the evolution and intersectionality of religion, political covenants and higher education in America. Beginning with the founding of the first college in the American colonies and continuing up through the present day, Professor Nelson examines and critiques the academic approaches and beliefs of some of our nation’s most influential college and university presidents, as well as some of the leading religious historians. Dr. Nelson also raises some interesting and controversial academic and philosophical questions that all modern leaders in the academy must confront if their institutions are going to not only carry out their missions, but also thrive. Some of these more recent leaders have echoed Professor Nelson’s call for the need to have far greater diversity in American higher education. Indeed, there needs to be a clarion call among all leaders in the academy to work towards creating more inclusive, equitable and accessible cultures on all of our campuses.