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Do students’ opinions of people with different beliefs really change on campus? AP Photo/Darron Cummings

Matthew J. Mayhew, The Ohio State University; Christa Winker, Mississippi State Universityand Musbah Shaheen, The Ohio State University

Our research team studied student attitudes toward evangelicals, a topic that tends to elicit strong reactions.

Some liberals don’t see the subject as worthy of discussion – why study whether Americans value a privileged group with a strong influence on society? Meanwhile, many conservatives are adamant that evangelical perspectives are not tolerated, let alone welcome, on American college campuses.

Yet our findings on student attitudes point to important lessons about fostering tolerance and appreciation on campus for any group. The views of evangelicals are particularly interesting because they highlight the complexities of social privilege: how individuals can feel discriminated against, even when their community as a whole is influential.

Survey the students

The Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey, or IDEALS, surveyed 9,470 students at 122 institutions across the country at three points in time: the start of their freshman year, the end of their freshman year, and the end of their senior year, which ended in the spring of 2019. As part of this project, led by a team of researchers from The Ohio State University, the University of North Carolina and the nonprofit organization nonprofit Interfaith America, we asked students about their attitudes toward religious, spiritual, and secular groups, including but not limited to. atheists, Jews, Muslims and evangelicals.

We asked students to indicate their responses to four statements on a scale of 1, or “strongly disagree”, to 5, or “strongly agree”:

1) In general, people in this group make positive contributions to society.

2) In general, individuals in this group are ethical people.

3) I have things in common with the people in this group.

4) In general, I have a positive attitude towards people in this group.

Our analysis controlled for other variables—such as institution type, selectivity, and size, as well as student race, gender, sexual orientation, major, and political affiliation—to focus on the specific ways in which the campus learning environment related to students’ opinions of different religious groups.

Compared to their attitudes toward other religious groups on campus, students’ appreciation for evangelicals grew at a slower rate, but grew nonetheless. On average, student responses showed a more than 40% increase in their appreciation of evangelicals by the end of their freshman year. By the time the students graduated, they demonstrated another 30% increase from the end of their freshman year to their fourth year of college.

Campus Climate

After seeing that student opinion of evangelicals was improving on average, we wanted to better understand why.

First, we looked at the experiences students reported related to their earnings, such as whether they took a religious studies course. Next, we conducted 18 case studies at institutions of varying sizes and affiliations to learn about campus culture and hear from hundreds of students in focus groups. In these groups, we showed students data on gains reported by their peers on campus and asked them why they thought these gains were made.

We have found that students’ appreciation on campuses that they see as committed to the inclusion of people of faith and people of no faith has increased, whether the institutions are public or private, large or small, selective or not.

Some students spoke of the impact of simply living and studying alongside people from different backgrounds. Many cited the influence of interfaith and multifaith centers, spaces dedicated to bringing people of different faiths together.

For example, a student from a Protestant-affiliated institution who identified as agnostic noted that she had “experience[ed] a lot of toxic Christianity” growing up. She credited her interactions with a “progressive Christian” chaplain at her campus’ interfaith center for helping her understand that Christian beliefs and identities are diverse and not limited to the type of faith to which she was presented as a child.

A crowd of students in a classroom, many with their hands raised in worship, facing two singers at the front.
Members of a California State University Long Beach Christian group worship in a lecture hall in 2014. Scott Varley/Digital First Media/Torrance Daily Breeze via Getty Images

The survey data also suggests that, on average, students whose views of evangelicals improved reported having at least two religion-related school experiences. This included many types of activities: for example, enrolling in a course specifically designed to enhance knowledge of different religious traditions; reflect on one’s own religion in relation to other perspectives within a course; and discuss the religious or non-religious backgrounds of other students in class.

Personal relationships

The relationship between students was another important theme that came up often in discussions of the views of evangelicals.

Evangelicals must negotiate an apparent paradox: as Protestant Christians, who have long exerted influence on American culture and politics, they belong to a privileged group. Yet many evangelical students say they feel unwelcome and misunderstood because of their beliefs.

Many non-Christian students who feel themselves marginalized because of their identity struggle to make their evangelical peers aware of their relative privilege and how their beliefs and actions might affect other students.

For example, a student who identifies as an atheist at a small secular college recalled a Christmas tree put on his doorstep by another student. “The person literally has no idea it could be upsetting,” they said, but added that it was “a very sweet thing to do.” In other words, they thought the other student probably didn’t know why the Christmas tree might bother the other students, but was acting out of good intentions, tempering their anger at the unwelcome decoration.

Many students discussed developing empathy and humility. A Catholic student attending a Catholic college summed up: “Myself being a more liberal Christian, I don’t accept the closed-minded evangelical Christian so much…but it’s kind of a closed-minded myself .. So I have to look at myself and say, ‘I’m okay with them being them, even if I don’t agree with them.’ They say, ‘All these people say let’s accept everyone, but you don’t accept me.’ And I said, ‘That’s absolutely true.’ … Even in political areas too, I don’t agree with you, but I have to agree with you.”

Finally, gains in student appreciation also seemed to come from recognizing that evangelicals are diverse, not a homogenous group—as with the student who enjoyed her conversations with the Christian chaplain at her campus’ interfaith center.

As a research team, we found that the findings of this project left us envisioning ways to resolve the deep divisions in the United States today. Certain principles apply to promoting respect in many other situations beyond religion and beyond academia, from our offices at work to the halls of Congress: intentionally yet empathically engaging with differences of each one.

The conversation

Matthew J. Mayhew, Professor of Higher Education, The Ohio State University; Christa Winkler, Assistant Professor of Higher Education Leadership, Mississippi State Universityand Musbah Shaheen, PhD student in higher education and student affairs, The Ohio State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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