Given the flexibility that I have to study any phenomenon related to higher education, I often direct my research efforts to topics that will assist me in my own personal or professional challenges. One such challenge was, and continues to be, determining what it means to be a Christian faculty member at a public institution. What does God expect of me in this role? How can I best be salt and light? How far should I go to express his truth? In an effort to find out how other Christian faculty members express their faith within public colleges and universities, I designed and conducted a qualitative research study involving some of the Christian faculty who attended the 2008 InterVarsity Christian Fellowship Midwest Faculty Conference (Craft, Foubert, & Lane, 2011).
The faculty in the study seemed eager to discuss how they integrated their religious identity with their professional identity. Many spoke of being “called” to their work. Others highlighted challenges involved in overtly embracing and effectively communicating their Christian worldview. These challenges usually led to the faculty members’ use of subtle ways to integrate their religious identity into their teaching and research and being strategic in taking advantage of the opportunities to be a “witness for Christ” with students.
Of the twelve faculty members who participated in the study, three are women. Some of the comments they made were insightful and instructive. For instance, when discussing her religious calling, one female full professor of industrial/organizational psychology said:
I am at peace with the fact that I believe my calling is to be a Christian mentor for the many. . . . I think about how many Christian students are in secular universities and are thirsting and dying for a faculty member they respect who’s clearly intelligent — a thinking faculty member who’s also a Christian.
This same faculty member shared that research ideas can emerge from her religious identity:
With my research, with emotions, it’s such a nice tie to my theological passions, because I can play around with it while I’m reading Scripture and thinking about Jesus. I do get ideas when I think about my faith and my Scripture readings and emotions, and I get ideas that are testable. I’d love to write about Jesus and emotions from an academic standpoint. I’d love to. I’d love to take a look at, for example, anger. I’m fascinated with anger. I think people have horrible misperceptions about it, but anyway, I’d love to trace anger throughout the whole Old and New Testaments . . . and perceptions of it [anger]. And, I’d love to contrast different emotions of Jesus.
Similarly, a female associate professor of counseling psychology discussed how her religious identity influences the lens through which she conceptualizes important phenomena in her research:
One of the areas that I’ve done research in, and continue to be very interested in, is professional ethics. And to me, the most ethical person in the whole wide world is Jesus. How he treated people, how he understood relationships. . . . And then having the broader sense of what it means to treat people from an ethical lens.
What became evident in this study is the perceived lack of worldview fit between the Christian faculty members and the increasingly secularized public higher education environment. Some even mentioned an “open hostility” toward Christianity. How then do Christian faculty members who perceive a lack of a worldview fit integrate their religious and professional identities within such a context? The answer to this question revolves around the concept of identity capital.
Within certain contexts, some identities are more or less valued than others; people who demonstrate the characteristics associated with a valued identity in a specific context gain identity capital (Côté, & Levine, 2002). Acquiring and embodying identity capital usually leads to greater success and more advantages than resisting or failing to exhibit the valued norms (Wortham, 2006).
As the Christian faculty members in this study discussed challenges related to their attempts to integrate their religion into their professional work, they indirectly communicated their belief that the public university environment placed higher value on non-religious perspectives than on religious worldviews. They apparently have come to the belief that their religious identity is not highly valued within the public university atmosphere. In effect, the Christian faculty members in this study recognize their lack of identity capital. Yet, they make a deliberate decision to construct a salient religious identity in spite of its lack of value. The religious calling about which they spoke superseded their desire to maintain and/or to increase their individual identity capital within the workplace.
This study began to identify critical themes for how Christian faculty members integrate their religious and professional lives in public higher education institutions, but there is much room for further research. For instance, the interaction of racial and gender identities with religious and professional identities would be of great interest. Further, what types of situations are particularly challenging to the faith and work of Christian faculty within their campus roles? How do they negotiate these dilemmas? Also, to what extent are faculty members who work in public higher education familiar with the legal freedoms and constraints related to religious expression therein? Interestingly, only one of the faculty participants in this study even alluded to legal issues regarding the expression of religion in public institutions, simply discussing the desire not to “cross the line.”
Furthermore, this study revealed insights related to Christian faculty’s sense of calling, communicating a Christian worldview, and integrating a religious worldview into research and teaching; however, the way in which these things take place is yet to be fully explored. For example, how do faculty members go about integrating their religious identity into their research and teaching? Are there distinctions between faculty members who make this a more overt versus a covert process? Do these distinctions have religious components? Further research might also apply similar questions to faculty from other religious traditions.
In conclusion, the results from this study indicate that Christian faculty members do attempt to integrate their religious and professional identities though this may not advance their standing, and in fact may decrease their “identity capital” within their secular institutions. The study also supports Lindsey’s (2008) assertion that the desire of most Christian faculty is not to ‘‘take back’’ the campus for their faith but simply to have their faith seen as reasonable, genuine, and attractive.
Côté, J. E., & Levine, C. G. (2002). Identity formation, agency, and culture: A social psychological synthesis. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Craft, C. M., Foubert, J. D., & Lane, J. J. (2011). Integrating religious and professional identities: Christian faculty at public institutions of higher education. Religion & Education, 38, 92-110. Online at http://works.bepress.com/christy_moran_craft/14/
Lindholm, J. A., & Astin, H. S. (2008). Spirituality and pedagogy: Faculty’s spirituality and use of student-centered approaches to undergraduate teaching. The Review of Higher Education, 31(2), 185-207.
Lindsey, D. M. (2008, May 9). Evangelicalism rebounds in Academe. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved June 11, 2008, from http://chronicle.com/weekly/v54/i35/35b01201.htm
Wortham, S. (2006). Learning identity: The joint emergence of social identification and academic learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Zohar, D., & Marshall, I. (2004). Spiritual capital: Wealth we can live by. San Francisco: Berett-Koehler Publishers.