Catherine Guiles/Medill

From left, Kimberly Hathaway and Megan Bontrager are active in the College Republicans at Anderson University in Indiana.

by Catherine Guiles
Nov 03, 2008

The 2008 presidential campaign will be remembered for feeling like one of the longest in history.

But it may also be remembered for the visible role that Christian colleges played, going back at least to June 2007.

That’s when Eastern University outside Philadelphia co-sponsored a forum with Sojourners for Democratic candidates to discuss faith, values and politics.

Ten months later, in April 2008, Messiah College outside Harrisburg hosted and co-sponsored the Compassion Forum with Faith in Public Life. Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain were all invited to discuss issues such as genocide and HIV/AIDS.

Only the Democrats attended the event, which occurred right before the Pennsylvania primary.

“Messiah hosting this forum would have been inconceivable 20 years ago,” associate professor of history John Fea said, because of its affiliation with the Brethren in Christ, an Anabaptist denomination that has historically been apolitical.

However, things have changed – among Anabaptists, other Christians and politicians.

A few months after the Compassion Forum, the president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, to which Eastern and Messiah belong, attended Obama’s meeting with evangelical leaders in Chicago.

The CCCU is “a tiny, tiny slice of evangelical college students,” Fea said. But “Christian colleges do serve as a place where you have a lot of thoughtful Christian intellectuals all in one place.”

Journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of “God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation are Changing America,” said that despite their small size, Christian colleges are worth paying attention to.

Students are “very likely to remain active in their churches and their communities after they graduate,” said Riley, deputy taste page editor for The Wall Street Journal.

CCCU spokesman Mike Plunkett said, “Colleges want to shape students’ worldviews, which includes politics.”

However, “we don’t really have a specific policy” about visits by candidates, Plunkett said. “There’s not really a sense of dictating to our institutions.”

Since colleges are nonprofit organizations, “you’re not going to see our schools take a stance” in favor of one candidate or another, he said.

Several Messiah students who attended the forum said they enjoyed it but wished McCain had come.

“It was very difficult for Messiah to host just the Democrats,” student body president Christine Lohne said. The college made it clear that both sides were invited, but “there’s only so much Messiah can do to persuade a candidate to come.”

Marlys Popma, McCain’s evangelical outreach coordinator, said, “We were kind of done” in Pennsylvania by that point.

However, she said she was glad McCain attended a forum along with Obama at Saddleback Church in California, hosted by pastor Rick Warren.

Popma and other surrogates from the McCain and Obama campaigns participated in an event at Christian Life Assembly in Camp Hill, Pa., last Wednesday.

“Blue Like Jazz” author Don Miller was on the Obama side. He has visited several Christian campuses on the campaign’s behalf and spoke at Messiah earlier that day.

Miller was joined by Shaun Casey, the Obama campaign’s national evangelical coordinator, and Paul Monteiro, national deputy director of religious affairs.

There’s a “passion for social justice among Christian college students,” Monteiro said. “Once we knew they were there, we worked with them.”

On the McCain side, Popma joined David Barton, founder and president of WallBuilders, and Renee Amoore, deputy chairwoman of the state Republican Party.

“The things on campus are so good,” Popma said, such as “getting to answer in depth how [a candidate’s] worldview is framed.”

Campaign visits might be deterred or encouraged more by individual colleges’ policies and the desire to get those in-depth answers. That was the case at Wheaton College in February, when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, wanted to visit the campus late on a Sunday morning.

“The college has policies on when spaces can be used,” Wheaton spokeswoman Sarah Clark said. The Romney visit would have taken place “during most normally scheduled church services” that students are strongly encouraged to attend and when only church groups are allowed to use campus facilities.

Events on Sunday evenings, however – like the forum at Messiah – “generally would not be a problem.”

Also, the Romney campaign didn’t want a question-and-answer period, Clark said, and that made it less of an educational opportunity.

In April, Anderson University in Indiana rented space for a campaign speech by Michelle Obama, although “it was announced at the last minute,” senior Kayla Dunkman, 22, said. “The school said they didn’t want to overpublicize it.”

Michael Kellermeyer, 21, president of Anderson’s College Democrats, said he felt more comfortable with the event because “it was community-supported, not Anderson University-supported. They just provided the location.”

College Republicans president Kimberly Hathaway didn’t go because she had to attend class.

“I personally do not have a problem with Anderson hosting campaign events, especially since it was open to the community,” said Hathaway, 19. “I think it’s a great way to try to involve students in the political process.”

Anderson sophomore Megan Bontrager, 20, noted that “the next president should care about all colleges, both Christian and secular. We are the up-and-coming leaders, and it is up to us to see America thrive and succeed.”


Catherine Guiles/Medill

Messiah College in Pennsylvania hosted the Compassion Forum in April.


Catherine Guiles/Medill

Michelle Obama gave a campaign speech at Anderson University in April.

©2001 – 2013 Medill Reports – Chicago, Northwestern University. A publication of the Medill School.