(RNS) — These days, politics can influence everything from the dairy products you consume (Ben & Jerry’s? Chick-fil-A milkshake?) to whether you drink Pepsi or Coke. For some Christian families, politics are also revamping the college decision process, swaying them away from colleges marked “too liberal” or “too conservative.”
Though there are Protestant colleges that welcome political labels, others strive to remain as apolitical as possible. For the latter, it’s an increasing challenge to preserve their religious identity — which invariably has political implications in today’s supercharged environment — while welcoming students of all political backgrounds.
“I think Christians are discipled by political debates sometimes more than they are really discipled by Christ or Christianity,” said Ruth Curran Neild, whose son recently withdrew from Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania, over concerns about the school’s politics.
Last year, the college was mired in a culture war debate over whether the conservative school had promoted critical race theory. A highly contentious board-approved report ruled it had.
“I saw the report come back from sub-committee, and I was gob smacked” said Neild, whose son had committed to the college in early November 2021. In her view, the board had taken the bait and engaged what she saw as a manufactured crisis over an ultra-conservative boogeyman.
“I thought they failed to want to listen to genuine cries of pain from marginalized communities,” said Neild. “It wasn’t grounded in shared Christian beliefs — it was at the level of politics.”
Neild, who lives in New Jersey and belongs to a Presbyterian Church in America congregation, told RNS that initially Grove City’s location, Christian identity and strong computer science program made it seem like an easy fit. But the board’s decision led to a family conversation in May, and, after much thought, Neild said her son opted for Messiah College, a school in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, the family perceived as more politically neutral.
While several parents who spoke to RNS for this story said they’d tried to steer students away from Christian schools that “embrace MAGA,” as one mother put it, other parents voiced an opposing concern: They worried about what they saw as an encroachment of liberal values on traditional religious beliefs.
Amy Miller, who lives near Philadelphia and also attends a PCA church, told RNS her son transferred to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, this year from Muhlenberg College, a liberal arts college in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Miller said the switch was related to Liberty’s reserve officers’ training corps program and its “conservative, Bible believing” Christian culture. She described Liberty as “refreshing” and as an “oasis,” where students can be bolstered in their Christ-centered beliefs before being daily bombarded by opposing worldviews.
“That’s why I would definitely push all the rest of my kids to Christian colleges,” said Miller, who expressed concern for how the broader culture approached questions related to gender and sexuality. Miller also noted not all Christian colleges would be a good fit for her family. “I think Wheaton College, my husband would say our kids cannot go there because he thinks that they’re a little bit more liberal.”