Religion is Not a Monolith: Civic Engagement

Reverend J. Cody Nielsen

October 5, 2016

So often, religious groups on a college campus appear to be focused on a singular form of service: conversion.  For evangelical Christian groups, their offering to the world is that of helping to “save” others from the fates they believe will become of them should they not accept Christianity and its tenants.  But this form of religion on campus is becoming less and less prevalent, especially as other traditions grow their voice and progressive Christianity and secular identities become more identified on campus. 

What has emerged over the last twenty years is a realization that religiously practicing individuals on campus have higher civic engagement than that of so many other groups on campus (Astin & Astin, 2011). This is important and serves as a gateway for how higher education may help students to find ways to experience the needs of their communities and connect their learning with the challenges the world requires them to help solve.  This also helps universities to become more connected themselves to the larger communities they are a part of with the very students they are preparing.

Before we get to what civic engagement looks like for these groups, it is important that we broaden the umbrella, including the secular student groups that are most connected with these religious groups as well.  Humanists, free thinker, and atheist groups are also often involved in their local communities.  Teaming them up with religious groups can create opportunities for interfaith dialogue and better understanding.  In essence, this is the model of the Interfaith Youth Core and its endeavor to help create interfaith leaders across our campuses.

How civic engagement may work with this umbrella of groups will look differently on each campus, but essentially can begin by partnering with any religious life council of students or staff that exist and hearing their interests.  Most universities will have some form of civic or public engagement office which can reach out to this council.  Once information about a group's intentions or current projects is obtained, alignment with previous plans or ideas that university may have can begin to take shape.  New ideas will likely come out of these discussions, and as long as the university office is not pushing any specific religious tradition but rather simply catalyzing the engagement of these students, much can be accomplished.  In fact, this may spur on other individuals and groups.

One of the most likely scenarios of these discussions is the creation of large scale actions of civic engagement, as the numbers of students associated with these groups are likely to help all parties to try things never dreamed of before.  This could include a day of civic engagement throughout the town or city the school is in, large-scale initiatives like bone marrow drives, community cleanups, and alternative break trips.  It may also include advocacy on behalf of certain marginalized groups on campus, though this can be a tricky subject depending on how the office for civic/public engagement is organized within the structure of the university.

Overall, these religious and secular groups are often an untapped and underappreciated set of student groups on campus.  Because there is often staff, because the students are naturally more inclined to be engaged, and because the campus is deeply looking for students who wants to be involved in their communities, the opportunity that exists should not be overlooked.  On the contrary, this area of work reminds us once again that religion is not a monolith: instead, it is an untapped wealth of opportunity.


Astin, A. W., Astin, H. S., & Lindholm, J. A. (2011). Cultivating the spirit: How college can enhance students' inner lives. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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