Why the Media Bungled Monica Goodling’s Background
| Richard T. Hughes is Distinguished Professor and Senior Fellow in the Ernest L. Boyer Center at Messiah College. He is the author of How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind (Eerdmans) and Myths America Lives By (University of Illinois Press, forthcoming).
Sunday, May 06, 2007
Op-Ed/RICHARD T. HUGHES
If there’s one topic journalists have difficulty getting right, it's religion. It came as no surprise, then, that in their attempts to explain the Monica Goodling story, most journalists badly misunderstood—and misreported—the implications of her undergraduate education at Messiah College, a Christian liberal arts institution near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Goodling is the former senior counsel and White House liaison for U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez.
When she took the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify regarding the termination of eight U.S. Attorneys, and Congress then compelled her to testify anyway, the media clearly had an important story.
But neither reporters nor pundits knew quite what to make of Goodling’s background in Christian higher education. Their comments ranged from bewilderment to biting sarcasm.
Jonathan Last, writing for the "Philadelphia Inquirer," thought Goodling's training at Messiah College was “curious.”
And why was it so “curious?”
Bill Maher, on HBO’s “Real Time,” substituted sarcasm for a serious explanation.
“How do you get to be such a top dog at 33?” Maher asked. “By acing Harvard, or winning scholarship prizes? No, Goodling did her undergraduate work at Messiah College — home of the Fighting Christies.”
On the "Daily Show," Jon Stewart joked that Goodling did her undergraduate work at “a place called Messiah College which, everyone in the God-business knows, is a savior school.”
Alan Cooperman of the "Washington Post" characterized Messiah College simply as a place that “does not have co-ed dorms or allow alcohol on campus.” Apparently, he knew nothing else to say about a very good private college not all that far from his base in Washington, D.C.
The assumption reigned that Messiah College—and Christian colleges in general—are inevitably inferior to their secular counterparts.
At one level, it's understandable why the media would get this story so wrong, for the dominant public face of American Christianity for the past 25 years has been highly ideological and largely unreflective—just the opposite of what one expects of a first-class institution of higher learning.
No one has defined that face more than Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, both of whom sought political power for their particular version—the fundamentalist version—of the Christian religion.
To that end, both men established universities: Falwell’s Liberty University in 1971 and Robertson’s Regent University in 1978.
Messiah College, founded in 1909, and most other Christian institutions of higher learning, however, reject the promotion of an unreflective, ideological message, just as they reject political power for the Christian religion.
But when Goodling graduated from both Messiah College and Regent University School of Law—and then when she became front-page news—it was inevitable that the media would confuse both the purposes and the academic quality of the two institutions.
If one wishes to understand mainstream Christian higher education in the United States, two facts are crucial to bear in mind.
First, many Christian colleges and universities offer first-rate academic programs. Messiah College is a case in point.
In head-to-head comparison with public and private colleges and universities, Messiah College consistently ranks among the top five comprehensive institutions in the northeastern United States, according to "U.S. News and World Report."
Messiah’s accounting students rank seventh nationally and first in Pennsylvania—ahead even of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania—for passing the certified public accountant exam.
And Messiah’s international programs consistently rank among the top 20 in the nation.
With achievements like these, it’s no surprise to learn that in the past 10 years, Messiah has graduated Rhodes, Fulbright, Carnegie, and Truman scholars.
But Messiah is hardly alone. Wheaton College in Illinois ranks in "The National Review College Guide" as among the top fifty liberal arts institutions in the country. According to "U.S. News & World Report," Michigan’s Calvin College ranks second among Midwest comprehensive colleges. And that same publication singled out Nyack College (NY) and North Park University (IL) for excelling in racial diversity.
The second truth about Christian colleges and universities is this: many have taken up valuable educational tasks in sync with their sponsoring denominations or traditions.
Catholic schools like Notre Dame stand in the forefront of institutions that educate for social justice.
Lutheran schools, as heirs to Luther’s theology, are especially equipped to teach critical thinking.
Reformed institutions like Calvin College help students understand the power of worldviews.
And Messiah College, with roots in the Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan traditions, not only teaches critical thinking, it also teaches students to build community, to serve as agents for peace and reconciliation, and to champion the rights of the poor and the dispossessed.
Christian colleges and universities are a richly diverse group. Most of them offer an excellent education and contribute in meaningful ways to the communities and constituencies they serve, not to mention to the nation at large. They therefore deserve more accurate coverage from the national media.
Richard T. Hughes is Distinguished Professor and Senior Fellow in the Ernest L. Boyer Center at Messiah College. He is the author of How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind (Eerdmans) and Myths America Lives By (University of Illinois Press, forthcoming).
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