Sunday, September 6, 2009

Religion Off Campus? LDS Institutes of Religion

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently issued a somewhat generic press release describing the back-to-school experience of "hundreds of thousands" of college-age students who attend institute. There are some interesting factoids hidden in there (Did you know that there are 55,000 more institute students outside the US than in?), but I found the press release much more interesting because of a book I'm currently reading: Religion on Campus, by Conrad Cherry, Betty A. Deberg, and Amanda Porterfield.

The book is an in-depth examination of the religious culture at four different universities (whose identities are made anonymous), and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is conspicuously absent from its pages. I understand why the Church might not be a robust presence at three of these colleges; you are unlikely to find an overabundance of LDS students at "a Lutheran liberal arts college, ... a Roman Catholic school" or a traditionally black college that was once "a denominational institution but now defines itself as a private, non-denominational school with Presbyterian roots" (6). I understand why the church would not be an important part of the religious culture at these institutions. But the fourth university picked for study was "a large, public state university" set in the west (6).

I looked at USC as a representative school, and the Los Angeles institute currently has 183 students enrolled. Other public universities in California--CSU Long Beach, CSU Fullerton--have enrollments well over 300, and the Spokane Institute that serves Washington State has more than 500 registered students. It seems highly unlikely that the public western university studied by Deberg lacked an institute of religion, but the only mention of the Church in the entire book describes a religion class "into which [Schyller, the teacher,] invited practitioners of several religious groups. These religious groups--Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--are considered exotic or misguided by many more traditional Protestants and Roman Catholics. Schyller gave religious leaders from these communities a chance to present their religious beliefs and practices in their own way, and he gave students a chance to encounter these religious 'others' and ask them questions" (64). That's it. That's the entire presence of the church at a large, public, western state university in a book devoted to the study of religion on campus.

I have two problems with this limited description for what I think will be obvious reasons. First, Deberg describes a number of different religious traditions with relatively few religious practitioners, including paganism, Buddhism, and Taoism, whose theology would, I think, be perceived by "Protestants and Roman Catholics" as much more "exotic" or "misguided" than Mormon beliefs without feeling it necessary to attach the same sorts of stigma-inducing labels. Second, Deberg found official representatives of these smaller religious groups, without finding a significant LDS campus presence? I find that hard to believe. At UNC-Chapel Hill, where enrollment at the institute is 133, there is a robust Church presence on campus. There are two full-time missionaries assigned to the UNC campus, and I see them almost every week. Deberg describes other campus preachers; why not the missionaries? There are also fliers advertising Institute events regularly posted in a number of buildings on campus. I think it is unlikely that UNC is an outlier, an exceptionally well-publicized institute program--especially since a number of the Western institute programs are so much larger.

Now that I've had a chance to vent my spleen a little, let me consider the other side of things. What if Deberg is right? What if that brief encounter with the "exotic" Mormons was the only chance a college age kid had of encountering the Church at a time when most students are deciding who they want to be for the rest of their lives? THAT would be sad. It's possible that the Church--or LDS culture--may even be promoting a sort of isolationism on college campuses in order to maintain their independence. I'm not sure about this, but I don't think that Institute is an official college-sponsored activity or "club" on most campuses. I would imagine that the Church maintains some separation in order to preserve its autonomy, but it may sacrifice a more visible place on campus as a result. Alternatively, it might be that the Institute students themselves are simply not enterprising in the same way that other campus organizations are. While I've seen fliers up on campus, I've never seen an Institute table with LDS students sitting behind it in the same way that I've seen tables for every other campus organization. Have we, while trying to shut out the world, also shut out those who are looking for a new church?

I don't know whether the situation in Religion on Campus is a product of Deberg's sloppiness/distaste for the Church or a product of Institute student apathy/isolationism, but I do know that neither scenario is acceptable. The Church needs to be a visible, inviting presence on college campuses, and I'm just not sure that a press release will do the trick.

1 comment:

Jo Jo said...

Well said. We have full time LDS institute missionaries for Marshall. I've told them about a religious building that all denominations can use, and there is a parking space for every religion under the sun except for ours. Why don't they jump on that chance? I've also told the stake president, because the church decided not to renew their lease on the building the institute was using. Sometimes I go crazy with inefficiencies and lack of vision.