Evangelical Colleges Tackle Divorce, Homosexuality

One midwestern college has made a radical commitment to "green." All the paper towels in the lavatories are from recycled materials. Campus police drive hybrids. Prairie grasses have been planted to cut down on mowing. There's hormone-free milk and local fruit in the cafeteria. Is this Oberlin College, a small, lefty liberal-arts school? No, it's Wheaton College, alma mater of the evangelist Billy Graham, a school whose motto is "For Christ and His Kingdom."

Things are getting complicated for the nation's 300 or so evangelical-Christian colleges. As the evangelical world continues to fracture, schools once known mainly for their conservative politics and their no-sex-before-marriage policies are adapting to a generation of students who see the world in a more subtle way. As conservative as their parents on abortion, and still mostly committed to premarital chastity, these young evangelicals want to talk about formerly touchy subjects: race, divorce, homosexuality, single parenthood. And they want a school that supports their commitment to social-justice causes.

During the first gulf war, "there was very little conversation, as if the war wasn't going on," says Wheaton's chaplain, Stephen Kellough. Now "there's much more activism. Sometimes it's hard to keep students on campus when news breaks about disasters like tsunamis." Even though only about a quarter of the students at Christian colleges are nonwhite, Christian students are clamoring for engagement on racial issues in a new way. Christian colleges have always put an emphasis on doing good works in the local community, says Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of "God on the Quad," but "when they go out into communities now, they're trying to make sure they don't adopt a 'white man's burden' toward the projects they're doing." That's why, since 2000, Azusa Pacific University in California has offered its Los Angeles Term Program, in which the school's mostly Caucasian students live crossculturally with families in L.A. In 2005, the school started an ethnic-studies major. In 2008, APU's board of trustees asked administrators to identify what actions have been taken to address social-justice issues.

Like their secular counterparts, students at Christian colleges want to go out and engage the world. At Atlanta Christian College, the administration decided in 2007 to cancel classes for one day each semester so all students could spend time "ministering," as they put it, to the local community. All the students work for City of Refuge, a Georgia aid program. At Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., social-work majors must do internships with local agencies to complete their degree; many help out at the South Peoria Neighborhood House's after-school program. At Eastern University in Pennsylvania, Mike Wilson, now a junior, in 2007 founded Run for Kenya, a group that raises money for displaced Kenyan families. Twenty Eastern students are participating in the Philadelphia marathon. Every $3,000 of sponsorship money goes to buying a Kenyan family a home, land and a water tank.

Old hot-button issues are cooling, somewhat. Young evangelicals are far more accepting of gay and lesbian lifestyles than their parents are: 34 percent of evangelicals between 18 and 29 think homosexuality "should be accepted," compared with 24 percent of those from 50 to 64, according to the Pew Forum. While abortion remains a bright line for most evangelicals, some Christian-college students admit there's even a bit of wiggle room there. Hillary Waters graduated in 2008 from Wheaton with a political science degree and spent six months in Zambia. She didn't grow up as a Christian, though she considers herself one now. "I don't really have an opinion on abortion. I just can't imagine if you were a single mother of four kids and got pregnant," she says. "I can't really justify forcing someone to raise a child in that circumstance." Christian colleges, it seems, are making room for everybody.