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Students headed to the Billy Graham Center on Wheaton College’s campus in Wheaton, Ill. Graham, a graduate, inspires many to avoid secular student behavior.
Students headed to the Billy Graham Center on Wheaton College’s campus in Wheaton, Ill. Graham, a graduate, inspires many to avoid secular student behavior. (Joe Tabacca for the Boston Globe)

On Christian campus, an all-embracing framework

College in Illinois shows value trend

WHEATON, Ill. -- The chapel at Wheaton College is jammed with all its 2,400 students for a compulsory midweek gathering.

Baseball caps are turned backward, and sweatshirts, jeans, and denim make these collegians 30 miles west of Chicago indistinguishable from most of their peers across the country.

But there is a distinction: The bowed heads, the silent prayers, and the robust Christian songs are an accepted part of campus life.

This is the college routine at Wheaton, the Rev. Billy Graham's alma mater, where students are banned from on-campus drinking, smoking, gambling, or engaging in premarital sex.

Open displays of affection are rare, and dancing is strongly discouraged outside a few school-sponsored events.

That code of conduct, Wheaton officials say, is a big part of the reason that ''intentionally Christ-centered" colleges and universities are thriving. Just as religion plays a greater role in politics, more students are being drawn to what Wheaton calls the ''integration of faith and learning."

The numbers are dramatic. At the 102 members of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, primarily Protestant and largely evangelical, enrollment surged 70.6 percent from 1990 to 2004. That compares with 28 percent for all independent four-year schools, and 12.8 percent for all public, four-year campuses, according to data from the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

''There is definitely something going on here," said Duane Litfin, president of Wheaton, an interdenominational college founded in 1860. Enrollment has remained relatively steady, but the number of applications it receives has doubled, to 2,873 in 2005 from 1,427 in 1990.

The larger group of 900 independent four-year colleges with a religious affiliation -- such as Boston College, with its Roman Catholic perspective, and Pepperdine University, a California campus linked with the Churches of Christ -- showed a 27.5 percent enrollment increase over that period.

But part of what sets the 102 members of the Christian college council apart from many accredited religious schools, said a council spokesman, Ryan Moede, is that biblical teachings shape course work ranging from literature to business to computer science.

''Students truly are able to learn how to integrate their Christian faith with their chosen discipline," said Wheaton's chaplain, Stephen Kellough. ''They learn how to look at the world ethically, whether it's in business, medicine, or teaching."

It is an environment, Litfin said, in which stereotypes applied to the religious right do not necessarily apply. When asked about recent comments by the televangelist Pat Robertson that the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, should be assassinated, Litfin shook his head in dismay. ''It was disastrous," Litfin said of Robertson's statement. ''Not only that, but profoundly un-Christian."

The Christian colleges council, which extends from Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., to Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., includes a wide array of denominations, ranging from Baptist to Nazarene to Wesleyan.

But unlike some religious colleges that have a reputation for being doctrinally and behaviorally inflexible, said Silvio Vazquez, vice president for enrollment and marketing at Gordon, the Christian college council's members seek to spark intellectual curiosity and welcome students from all religious denominations.

''We use the language at Gordon: 'Freedom within a framework of faith,' " Vazquez said. ''We want . . . to educate our students, not indoctrinate them."

A religious framework, however, supports the core of Wheaton's mission, where students cannot be admitted unless they show a Christian commitment, and the sciences are taught by faculty who believe God created the world.

In Wheaton's classrooms, the evolutionary origin of humans is discussed as a dissenting theory.

Often described as the flagship of US evangelical colleges, Wheaton ranks 55th among liberal-arts colleges in the latest US News & World Report survey.

Tuition and room and board cost $26,466 per year, considerably less than at top-rated private colleges. The undergraduate student body of 2,400 is overwhelmingly white, at 86 percent. Asians make up 7 percent; Hispanics, 3 percent; and African-Americans, 2 percent. That minority presence is smaller than at many elite secular colleges.

Leila Noelliste, 20, a senior from Kingston, Jamaica, said she would like the college to place a greater emphasis on recruiting black students like herself. But Noelliste said she feels welcomed.

''At times it's been frustrating because it's a different culture" from her native Jamaica, Noelliste said. ''But if you look at the social transition, diversity is gradually increasing, and not just in numbers, but in terms of openness."

Across the racial spectrum, Litfin says, he sees a greater longing for spiritual fulfillment among today's college students, who he believes are seeking an alternative to the quick gratifications of popular culture. ''For someone working out of the typical radical individualism" of modern American society, Litfin said, the environment at Wheaton ''looks restrictive to people from that mindset. Christians work out of a different mindset of what it means to be free."

As recently as two years ago, Wheaton allowed only square dancing for its students. Now, the institution sponsors a variety of dances, such as swing, that allow more interaction between the sexes without relaxing its prohibition against sensual forms of dancing.

That decision, a break with 143 years of tradition at Wheaton, attracted the attention of the national media as little else had done at the college. That surge of interest still rankles Litfin, who believes the college's self-proclaimed mission -- ''For Christ and his kingdom" -- was overlooked in a knee-jerk rush to group Wheaton and similar colleges in a 1950s stereotype of unyielding rigidity and discrimination.

At Wheaton, college officials like to assert that Wheaton offers an academic challenge filled with the kind of intellectual curiosity and questioning typical of a top-flight education anywhere in the United States. ''Students are exposed to anything and everything. This is a genuine liberal-arts institution," Litfin said.

To Phillip Denby, 21, a senior, a sense of like-minded community is why he chose Wheaton, despite a social landscape in which board games and impromptu debates replace alcohol-lubricated frat parties and sexual romps common at most secular colleges.

''This is a time of preparation for when we are out in the quote-unquote real world," said Denby, a member of the swimming team from Simi Valley, Calif. To Denby, the environment at Wheaton contrasts sharply with the time that he spent last fall in a program at secular American University in Washington, D.C.

''There wasn't a community there that shared the same values that I do," Denby said. ''I found that I couldn't wait to get back here. On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, even Thursdays, they would all go out to the clubs. I felt left out and stayed in my room."

''Today's student body seems to be more interested in matters of faith than a generation ago," said Robert Andrigna, president of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. ''Kids today are coming out of families whose parents went to school after the '60s," Andrigna said. ''And I think there's a little bit of reaction to the post-modernism of what goes, goes, and whatever you believe is fine."

Students interviewed at Wheaton said it is not difficult for them to adhere to the ''Community Covenant," which outlines the code of conduct and the college's mission. The convenant holds them to a standard far more rigorous than behavioral guidelines at secular institutions.

''This is something that I wanted to do," said Emily Batman, 21, a senior from Plymouth, Ind. ''It's not for everyone."

Jill Hanson, a 1982 graduate of Wheaton, said the college was exactly what she needed at that time in her life. But now, the marriage and family therapist from Burlington, Conn., said she has a broader appreciation for the benefits of religious lessons outside the evangelical umbrella.

''I absolutely have felt that I got a quality education there and was well-prepared for life. I went there for healthy alternatives to sex and drugs," as well as an emphasis on social justice and service, Hanson said. At this stage of her life, Hanson added, ''the evangelical piece is too restrictive to me spiritually, and I think too patriarchal, and so it wouldn't be a current choice."

A political science professor, Corwin Smidt, of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., executive director of the Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics, has compared the attitudes of evangelical students from surveys distributed in the early 1980s with questionnaires from the late 1990s.

What he saw, in addition to swelling enrollments, is a more liberal attitude on many issues, even though today's students are more willing to describe themselves as conservatives.

''In religious beliefs, there is no change," Smidt said There has been ''minimal change," he said, in such areas as R-rated movies or smoking cigarettes. Premarital sex is still considered wrong.

But in the political realm, although today's students generally consider themselves conservative, attitudes on social issues such as allowing homosexuals to teach in public schools, or how much should be spent on the military, have drifted closer to the liberal end of the spectrum, Smidt said.

When asked about issues such as abortion or homosexuality, Wheaton students interviewed for this report offered nuanced answers, including some who agreed with abortion when a mother's life is in danger and others who opposed a federal constitutional amendment against gay marriage.

Batman bristled when asked her opinion on those issues, arguing that the topics are too complex for simple answers. ''These are buzzwords. It's not fair," Batman said. Later, she added, ''There's no one on our campus who's going to bomb abortion clinics."

Noelliste said some students struggle with the prohibitions on sex and drinking, and show a tension-generating tendency toward perfectionism. ''We have our own pathologies," she said. ''We try to hold everything together when we're at an age where it's tough to hold everything together."

For Neolliste, the ban on conduct that is typical at secular universities is not daunting. ''The parts that I struggle with are the admonitions against jealousy, anger, or frustration," she said. ''It's a higher calling. If you're in a community with 2,400 other people every day, it is difficult . . . to respect people, and love them, and forgive them."

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