Christian colleges in a post-Roe world

January 20, 2024
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As antiabortion demonstrators pour into Washington, D.C., today for the annual March for Life, some Christian colleges will likely be well represented among those marching. The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and Christendom College, a Catholic institution in Virginia, are both sponsors of this year’s event. Franciscan University of Steubenville, in Ohio, canceled classes so students could attend, and Liberty University’s Standing for Freedom Center is bringing students from the southwestern Virginia campus to the event.

Leaders of those universities and some of their students are undoubtedly excited to be attending the march after the 2022 Supreme Court decision that overturned the nationwide right to a legal abortion. But some scholars and campus leaders say the Dobbs decision has complicated already difficult conversations about abortion on Christian college campuses and focused attention on the ideological diversity among students, professors and administrators at some of the institutions. Some observers believe viewpoint diversity on the issue has grown or become more apparent on these campuses, which is a cause for concern for some and a heartening development to others.

More Complex Conversations

Those colleges are now confronting their own unique tensions in the wake of the ruling. At some institutions, already divided student bodies and staffs are wrestling anew with the intricacies of their positions as state bans shift from hypothetical to reality. Some scholars say the result has been more complex, nuanced discussions on these campuses.

Ziad Munson, a sociology professor and chair of the sociology and anthropology department at Lehigh University, said his research on religion and abortion shows that often when Americans who identify as pro-life are asked about that identity, “they haven’t really thought through what it means,” and they might have diverse views, or no fixed view, on whether they believe abortion should be legal and under what circumstances. Labels like “pro-choice” and “pro-life” have become “tribal flags in the culture wars” and have “always been … more complicated and deeper in some ways than we commonly accept.”

However, as abortion re-enters the national conversation, “college students and more Americans are being confronted with having to actually formulate an opinion about the underlying issue” and its complexities, Munson said. He emphasized that young adults often take a harder look at and potentially change their views during their college years. He believes Christian college students who identify as pro-life are thinking more deeply and urgently about their views.

Vickie Langohr, a political science professor and director of the gender, sexuality and women’s studies program at College of the Holy Cross, a Catholic institution in Massachusetts, said she’s watching that dynamic play out at her college. Her program has hosted multiple well-attended abortion-related panel events, including one with panelists from different religious backgrounds discussing how their faith traditions relate to abortion. She said, post-Roe, students are asking themselves different kinds of questions and have “had to complicate their understanding” of their own stances.

For example, students are forced to wrestle with whether they believe in medical exceptions to state abortion bans and under what scenarios. One example is the much-publicized case of Kate Cox, a woman who unsuccessfully sued the state of Texas to allow her terminate her pregnancy after learning that her fetus wouldn’t survive and continuing the pregnancy could threaten her health and fertility. Langohr also noted that legal challenges to abortion on the basis of religious freedom put students’ values at odds on questions such as how they feel about whether exceptions should exist for Jews, Muslims or other Christian denominations that may have different doctrines on when life begins.

Mixed Views

As the nature of these campus debates changes, some antiabortion activists believe support for abortion rights at Christian colleges has become more visible and are pressuring campus leaders to change that.

A recent report by Students for Life of America, a Christian antiabortion organization, concluded that institutional support for abortion rights at Christian campuses has increased 10 percent since the Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling. That conclusion is based on whether 767 Christian-affiliated colleges committed various “infractions,” including mentions of Planned Parenthood or other abortion providers on their websites as health resources, campus speakers or featured internship and career opportunities.

Students for Life staff members have been scouring college websites and formulating reports that grade colleges based on these measures since 2019. This year, the organization added statements in support of abortion by universities or academic departments as an “infraction” category in light of the Supreme Court decision. The organization also contacts institutions slated to get bad grades and asks them to take down mentions of abortion providers to improve their ratings.

“Our goal is that students would be aware of what their university is willing to sacrifice when it comes to biblical values,” said Michele Hendrickson, director of the organization’s strategic initiatives team and head researcher for the report. “We hope that parents of students will become aware. We want to make sure alumni and donors are aware.”

Hendrickson noted that it’s unclear whether support for legal abortion at these colleges is actually growing or if the addition of a new “infraction” category shifted the results. Her “gut instinct” is that administrators and professors who already supported abortion rights may have offered more internships or hosted more speaker events featuring abortion providers in reaction to the Supreme Court decision.

“It kind of makes you wonder if these opinions were there the whole time, and this conversation just sort of brought that to light,” she said.

The report was met with mixed reactions by some professors and administrators at the campuses cited. Some noted that views on abortion at Christian colleges vary because denominations differ.

Bryon Grigsby, president of Moravian University in Pennsylvania, said many denominations have a hard-line antiabortion stance, but that’s not the case for the Moravian Church, which believes in individual choice on the issue. The report calls out Moravian for offering students a counseling internship at Planned Parenthood through its psychology department and gives the university a D grade.

“I don’t think we make the world any better by pretending that Planned Parenthood doesn’t exist,” Grigsby said. The internship isn’t “to brainwash people into being abortionists” but aims to provide them with “tools and mechanisms to be better counselors as they’re dealing with women’s health issues.”

“I wish they could see that there is great diversity in Christian schools,” he said of Students for Life.

Hendrickson disagreed that denominational variation should make a difference.

“If you’re going to claim on your website and seek credit as being a Christian faith-based organization, you’re ultimately accountable to God’s word,” she said.

Langohr’s program put out a statement in support of abortion rights after the decision reversing Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which is highlighted in the Students for Life report. The organization asked the college to take down the statement to improve its rating, but the college’s administration stood by the program’s right to share its opinion, Langohr said. The college’s grade dropped from an A-plus in 2021 to a B.

“People at all ends of the spectrum on this issue can and do sponsor events, bring in outside speakers, publish statements, articles,” Langohr said. “That’s kind of what colleges do.”

Munson, of Lehigh, said colleges, including Christian colleges, are supposed to “push students to question their pre-existing beliefs and commitments.” He added that Christian colleges are having to figure out how much to espouse their values versus giving students room to explore different ideas, but that’s true of all universities.

“There are big fights about how active universities should be in advocating particular positions on the Gaza war, for example, or Black Lives Matter, or any number of things,” he said.

Christina Littlefield, associate professor of journalism and religion at Pepperdine University, an institution in Los Angeles associated with the Church of Christ, said she teaches students who fiercely believe abortion is wrong, students who believe it’s a fundamental right and students with “deep ambivalence.”

That diversity was on display in September 2021, ahead of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, when the Pepperdine College Republicans put up scores of small black crosses on the university’s “Freedom Wall” representing “lives taken by abortion,” according to an accompanying poster. Not long after the crosses went up, other posters appeared on the wall with opposing messages: “My body, my choice.”

Littlefield continues to see vocal debates in her class. She introduced a section on religious and secular arguments for and against abortion in her Christianity and Culture course in fall 2022 after Roe v. Wade was struck down. She said she’s grateful Pepperdine administrators didn’t come out with a formal statement on the Supreme Court decision because it allowed for “more nuanced conversations in the classroom.”

“I think it is hard, though, on an issue where there’s very strong belief,” she said. “I don’t know that that’s the right decision for every Christian college.”



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