Uneasy Partners: The College and the Church

By Merrimon Cuninggim
Nashville : Abingdon (1994). 201 Pages.

Reviewed by
10.2 (Fall 1999) : 288-290

In his standard reference work on the early history of American higher education, Donald Tewksbury noted, “We might go through the whole list of American colleges, and show that, with here and there an exception, they were founded by religious men, and mainly with an eye to the interests of the Church” (Donald G. Tewksbury, The Founding of American Colleges and Universities before the Civil War, with Particular Reference to the Religious Influences Bearing Upon the College Movement [Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1956] 56). The influence of religion, and notably Protestant Christianity, on American higher education is recognized in the broad corpus of historical literature. However, this relationship has been less than cordial, frequently divisive, and in this century, openly hostile.

Merrimon Cuninggim’s Uneasy Partners: The College and the Church offers a survey of the status of church-college relationships in the waning years of the twentieth century, and a prognosis of future association in the new millennium. It offers some historical perspective, brief analysis and assessment of the status quo, and prescriptions for new directions in church-college relationships. Cuninggim brings both faculty and administrative perspective to the discussion.

His book is personal and reflective rather than a rigorous historical or policy-analysis treatment of the subject. After a brief summary of the history of the church’s role of the church in American higher education, Cuninggim offers three changes of relationship, roughly following the standard shift in the nineteenth century from the liberal arts college to the research university, and accompanying shifts in academic secularization. He draws comparisons between advocates of secularization (the “secularists”) and the opposing “neoconservatives” or what might be considered the evangelical avant garde. Definitional tensions exist within the treatment. At times, the term “church-related” college might better be “religiously-oriented,” although historical realities of Protestant influence dictate the former phrase. To achieve broader appeal, terminology utilized in the book tends towards inclusive dialogue rather than carefully formulated definitions based upon theological or ecclesiastical categories. Though the author recognizes the tension of his subject and attempts some definitional qualification (42-45), perimeters are generic enough to be inclusive.

Uneasy Partners recognizes the value of the church-related college within American higher education, particularly in an age of increased, and at times militant, secularization. The author extends an apologetic for honest recognition of the contributions that these institutions make to the American educational system, a contribution that is often overlooked in an age of government-funded research and expansive state “multi-versities.” Institutions that have a religious mission do contribute to the higher education community socially, educationally, and culturally.

Unfortunately, the author resorts to unnecessary pejorative commentary when he draws conclusions concerning the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). He observes that (1) most of the Coalition’s colleges are not strong in academics, (2) most of those outside that self-anointed group [emphasis added] are not apostate, and (3) most of the church-related colleges do strive for excellence and faithfulness (119). Such undocumented and unqualified assertions betray authorial bias, seriously reduce the scholastic credibility of the book, and cultivate inaccurate generalizations. Such derogatory commentary used by an acknowledged scholar is unfortunate.

Recent trends within the Southern Baptist Convention to reassert denominational control over its colleges illustrate the tensions raised in Uneasy Partners. A future edition should address the reassertion of the church within its own academic institutions. Issues of theological and denominational integrity are often argued at the price of academic freedom, frequently pitting clerics with academics. The issue of academic freedom in juxtaposition with theological and denominational integrity is a major issue that lurks in the muddy waters of this hotly contested area. The title of the work, Uneasy Partners, is appropriate.

A future edition might also address the role of nondenominational colleges and universities in American higher education. When Cuninggim speaks of the “Church,” he apparently means some sense of formally sponsored organizational or denominational tie that defines his usage of the term. Numerous American church-related colleges fail to have formal denominational partners, yet provide academic services to existing religious constituencies.

The relationship between the church and college has historically been a dynamic one. Cuninggim’s Uneasy Partners: The College and the Church adds to the existing corpus of literature on the subject. Apart from occasional pejorative commentary and the non-cognitive musings of the author, the book addresses a neglected though worthy aspect of American higher education: the church-related college.