Selling Salvation

The College Magazine/October 1997

By all accounts, groups like Campus Crusade and InterVarsity are on the up and up, though, as Lundberg cautions, "They can have ' cultish tendencies ' depending on the campus and the regional leader." But for many of the same reasons college students crave religion, they can also be susceptible to the call of less-than-savory religious groups -- groups that seem to offer only goodwill, good times and the good word, but often use manipulative recruiting tactics. Though campus administrators and chaplains are no longer wary about students being unduly influenced by, say, The " Moonies ," est, or the Hare Krishnas , they do worry about aggressively evangelical Christian organizations.

One group creating great concern is the International Churches of Christ , (ICC) which uses heavy recruiting drives and allegedly preys on young, confused students. ICC has about 120,000 members internationally, and takes evangelism to the extreme: It believes that to be a true disciples one must bring God's word to everyone one encounters -- and it does this, seemingly, with a vengeance.

"They try to pull students and young people in with a sort of family type appeal," says Everett Shropshire, president of TruthQuest , an organization based in Sacramento, Calif., which educates Christian groups on the distinctions between evangelizing and brainwashing, and identifies which sects are abusive. "A lot of times students are far away from their parents, and these guys come along and have something to offer them, a place where they can be accepted and loved. Many times these groups target people who are going through some kind of crisis -- and a lot of students are in some kind of crisis."

The line between "cult" and "legitimate" religious organization isn't always clear . After all, a group that insists you dress like them, celebrate with them, give them money and go through a painful initiation could be a fraternity or sorority. Yet Shropshire feels ICC unquestionably falls on the dubious side of this line.

"[They are] very concerned with the details of your life," says Shropshire. "They want control of your relationships, your time, your money." Reportedly, members give 10 percent of their income to the church, without knowing specifically where the money goes.

Churches of Christ wouldn't return phone calls, but in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education , Jack Armstrong, an evangelist for the Greater Pittsburgh Church of Christ (each city has its own branch -- like a sports team), who joined 10 years ago during his first year at the University of Georgia, said he wasn't surprised that people would consider the church a cult . He also said that campuses were obvious places to seek members.

"If IBM wanted to recruit, they would go to a college campus, because that's where new, idealistic, educated people are going to come from, and you can take those people and implement their talents," he said. "We reach out to students because that's when people have been most prone to be open to new ideas."

To watchdog groups like TruthQuest, the groups' fervency and focus on students draws concern. "The [ Boston Church of Christ ] is based on duplicity, and duplicitous love," says B.U.'s Thornburg, who's been monitoring the Church's activities for decades. "They come at vulnerable and susceptible people....They harass the hell out of kids, put notes under their doors, follow them to class." As a result of these tactics, B.U. has forbidden all campus organizations from going into residence halls in search of new members. At least 20 other colleges have banned the ICC from their campuses as well.

Controversies: In the name of The Father It's not just "cults" who threaten the relative harmony on college campuses. As one might expect, the blossoming of religious zeal has caused a significant amount of conflict. Universities, noted for their protection of free speech, religion and the right to assembly, have been instrumental in facilitating the rise of religious groups on campus. As with most campus groups -- from glee clubs to chess clubs -- these religious organizations are supported largely by the Student Activities Fees and appreciated for the depth and diversity they add to the campus fabric. However, as groups and individuals espousing traditional or fundamentalist visions have become better established and more influential, they have also begun to challenge the secular status quo. In light of this religious awakening, some campuses are wondering how far they have to bend in order to offer students a "sufficiently" religious environment without compromising the tolerance which has historically allowed students of all religions, beliefs and value systems to flourish.

This past semester, for example, five Orthodox Jewish students at Yale University , in New Haven, Conn., asked to be excused from the school's requirement that all unmarried first- and second-year students under the age of 21 reside on-campus.

"We cannot, in good conscience, live in a place where women are permitted to stay overnight in men's rooms, and where visiting men can t raipse through the common halls on the women's floors -- in various stages of undress& -- in the middle of the night," one of the students, Elisha Dov Hack, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece.

Yale refused to comply with their demands, claiming that the students were aware of university policy when they applied. The students ended up paying for a room, but living off-campus. A lawsuit has been filed .

Then there was the situation last year between Grinnell College and InterVarsity -- the latter of which requires all of its student leaders to follow the Scripture word for word. They're so emphatic on this point that InterVarsity student leaders must sign a waiver expressing their full belief in the Scripture's authority . This posed a problem when Rebecca Harms, one of five InterVarsity campus leaders, publicly expressed a tolerance for homosexuality, though she herself is straight.

"The bible says explicitly -- seven times in the Scripture -- that homosexuality is wrong, that anyone who is a homosexual is not living their lives in accordance with the scripture," says Chris Pallas. "We would no sooner admit the student who was cohabiting with his or her boyfriend, or someone who regularly cheated on tests and didn't see anything wrong with that. We welcome people of all sexual orientations and backgrounds; we've had at various points gay and bisexual members. And though they're not eligible for leadership, they're still very valued and loved. ... But you can't lead a biblical community if you're not totally committed to the authority of the Scripture ."

The group voted on it, and ultimately decided it was best for Harms to step down. Grinnell, however, felt InterVarsity's decision violated the schools' non-discrimination policy, and amid pressure from campus organizations -- including gay rights activists -- Grinnell ended up revoking InterVarsity's status as a recognized campus organization. (Read: They stopped giving them cash.)

The situation at Grinnell brings into relief the subtext to these and other controversies: Who determines policy in the gray area between a school's right to enforce its guidelines and a religious organization's right to adhere to its beliefs.

So what does this all mean? Ultimately, though this religious resurgence may be new, its occurrence makes sense within the college atmosphere. One thing is clear: Students will continue to seek meaning and truth, whether it's by pledging a fraternity or sorority, volunteering in a soup kitchen, joining a sports team or attending a religious service. As it is said in Proverbs 23: "Buy the truth, and sell it not; also wisdom, and instruction and understanding." Amen.

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