Evangelicals arise on campus

Des Moines Sunday Register/November 26, 1978

Ames, Iowa - A group of youthful born-again Christians - or evangelicals as they call themselves - are competing with professors for attention in some Iowa State University classrooms.

Some professors view the religious activity as an imposition and question whether religion has a place in state university classrooms. The evangelical students, however, insist it is their right to express religious opinions during class discussions. They resent being censored by instructors.

Says journalism major Craig Coria of Ames, "A university is supposed to be a free marketplace of ideas. Everybody benefits from hearing all sides of an issue. Shouldn't the Christian perspective be part of that?

"As evangelicals we take every opportunity to tell others about Christ and our personal relationship with him."

According to administrators, the main impetus for the evangelical activity on campus comes from the ISU Bible Study group, an organization registered with the university. It holds daily Bible studies in the Memorial Union and sponsors Friday night rallies that regularly draw 400 students.

It's this group that some professors and administrators voice the most concern about.

"They're hard to pin down - it's like trying to put a rope around a cloud," says David Lendt, assistant to the vice president for information and development.

We don't know much about their leadership or their structure. We do know that most of their leaders, or 'elders,' as they call them, are not students. They mostly come from outside of Ames and have no connection with the university. That, of course, concerns us."

Last year, Lendt received complaints from several parents whose children were involved with ISU Bible Study. "Most said their youngsters had become estranged from them after joining this particular group," Lendt says.

"They questioned why the university couldn't do something about the kind of pressure they felt was being exerted on their children. They voiced fears about mind control and a blind allegiance to this group and its leaders."

Several Ames clergymen, including the Rev. Harry Strong, pastor of the Collegiate Presbyterian Church, and the Rev. Paul Goodland, pastor of the Episcopal Parish of Ames, also have dealt with parents who are distraught over changes in their sons' and daughters' lives after the students affiliated with ISU Bible Study.

Says Strong, "It's alarming when every parent who comes to me names the same group and voices the same kind of fears. They're concerned about manipulation and a kind of brainwashing that drives the young people away from their parents' religious beliefs and the mainline churches in town."

Goodland describes the organizational structure of ISU Bible Study as "unidentifiable, like a giant octopus, but I can't tell where the head is."

He describes members of the group he has talked with as "joyful Christians. They are active and excited, but they have a tendency to see only their point of view. I'm concerned that all of a sudden this new-found religious fervor becomes an all-consuming passion - often to the detriment of their studies, their jobs and their families."

But Jon Dalton, dean of student life, says ISU Bible Study is "taking the heat because they are the largest and most visible evangelical group on campus.

"Last year, I had several complaints from faculty members and parents about students involved with this group, but that hardly amounts to any massive concern about them. There aren't enough documented cases to lead me to believe there's anything dangerous here."

The controversy over the role of religion in the classroom confuses some instructors. Sociology professor Gary Hansen admits, "A lot of us don't know how to handle it. A student in my class raised her hand as if to ask a question. When I called on her, she started reading from the Bible.

"It's hard to know what to do in a case like that. I could tell the other students were as uncomfortable as I was," Hansen says. "There aren't many students like that, though - maybe two or three out of a class of 35."

Ed Blinn of the journalism faculty describes some of the evangelical students he's dealt with as "narrow-minded, with a tunnel vision view of life. They're nice kids, but they are persistent. They tend to reject anything that doesn't agree with their religious views.

"A lot of professors are guarded when they talk about this. They're somewhat intimidated because these students use God as a weapon. They take the attitude, 'If you're against our movement, you're against God.' Nobody wants to be labeled an anti-Christ."

The classroom intrusions professors speak of generally occur when students present religious opinions or quote Biblical passages during classes. Some request time to "witness" to classmates about their faith; a few distribute pamphlets telling of their born again experiences.

Last spring, a group of evangelical students picketed biology department lectures on evolution because the topics being discussed did not agree with their Biblical interpretations.

According to Coria, thousands of students are involved with individual Bible study in the dormitories. Some of these belong to evangelical groups like Campus Crusade for Christ, Navigators or ISU Bible Study.

"Personally, I believe Christianity relates to every aspect of life. I don't feel it's at all unusual to relate my spiritual feelings to classroom issues," Coria says.

"A lot of times, teachers interject religious comments or criticisms in the midst of a discussion. If I have evidence to the contrary, I feel obligated to present it."

Ted J. Solomon, a philosophy professor, says he welcomes the evangelical students in his classroom. "But I don't always feel they're as open as I would like for them to be. I feel they are too rigid; they tend to be uncritical and naive at times," Solomon says.

"I have high respect for these youngsters, even though I might not agree with their interpretation of Christianity. And I feel it's all right for them to witness for their faith as long as they don't ram it down people's throats.

"I know, however, that some of our students feel their privacy is invaded by those who proselytize on campus. I am critical of that kind of pressure.

To students like Jeff Newburn of Eagle Grove in his third year as president of ISU Bible Study ties to the group are "a real life saver."

"My life is much better and I have more direction now that I know Christ personally," says Newburn, a senior. "A few times, I have raised my hand and asked a professor if I could give the Christian perspective on something. There have been times when professors have spoken directly against Christianity. I raise my hand and ask, 'How does that relate?'

"Once, a professor quoted the Bible out of context. I felt a responsibility to the rest of the class to let them know what it really said." Several ISU Bible Study members echoed Newburn's views. Ruth Genskow, an ISU graduate who resides in Ames, calls the group "the best thing that ever happened here."

But some students describe their association with the group as a nightmare. They talk of being pressured into public testimony and into giving up girlfriends and boyfriends in order to devote more time to "witnessing" and "saving souls for Christ."

A senior, who asked that his name not be used, relates this story:

"I attended ISU Bible Study meetings every week for four months. I was lonely. My roommate went, so I tagged along. I'm ashamed at how I let myself get sucked in.

"The speakers referred to us as sinners. They insisted we turn our minds over to Christ and let him rule our lives. Whenever I challenged something they said, 'You think too much. You're not letting Christ lead you.' They left absolutely no room for debate.

"When they pressured me to make a public testimony on campus, I bailed out. When I told my roommate I was quitting, he yelled, 'Satan, get out of this room. You have touched my brother.' His reaction really freaked me out. I changed roommates the next week.

"It's been a year now and I'm still de-programming. For me, it turned out to be a horrible guilt trip."

And it's the "guilt trip" that concerns some clergymen, like the Rev. Strong.

"I'm concerned about the finger-pointing and judgmental approach to other Christians this group takes. They don't view you as a 'true' Christian unless you believe exactly the way they want you to," Strong says.

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