Naomi Riley’s ‘God on the Quad’

In God on the Quad, Naomi Schaefer Riley attempts to paint a picture of a changing trend in American higher education, a trend that is drawing a new contingent of religious young students to highlight their spiritual beliefs in a public way. According to Riley, these religious beliefs, stemming from a religious higher academic curriculum, highlight a positive aspect of American youth that has often been protested throughout secularized versions of American higher education. For Naomi Riley, these religiously-based institutions of higher learning provide a educational and moralistic mindset that cannot be adequately accomplished at secular schools, a claim that manifests itself throughout the various discussions of the religious schools and how they have evolved on important contemporary issues in politics such as racial equality, feminism, and the role of religion as it relates to matters of the state.

Riley constructs for the reader a contemporary student thrown out into a wide world with very little spiritual direction. She coins students of our generation as ‘souls of longing’, young people who lack some essential spiritual or moral connection within the framework of the traditional public or secular American University (3). However, she goes on to describe the ‘Missionary Generation’, a group of nearly 1.3 million young Christians and religious youth who are attempting to not only live their lives in a scholarly way through their faith but to also bring their beliefs into the ‘mainstream’. Among this group, Riley attempts to answer four overarching questions; why have students chosen these specific schools, how is the curriculum different than that of secular schools, what is life outside of the classroom like, and how will these colleges affect students’ post-graduation success?

Naomi Riley, rightly or not, makes the case that this sect of American youth are perfectly poised to tackle many of the issues that bog down the political system and our cultural institutions at large. She espouses the highest of civic and moral virtues and traits to these specific students, that of integrity, loyalty, courage, charity, and self-restraint (262). She credits this to a variety of factors, including the strong moralistic codes of the various universities mentioned and the spiritual direction that a curriculum steeped in religious under and overtones can provide for students. Riley goes through a variety of both controversial and standard religious institutions, including Bob Jones University, Notre Dame, Brigham Young, Yeshiva University, and more. The author consistently uses interviews with faculty students as the primary ‘meat’ of the book, attempting to show an individualistic analysis of these institutions that would otherwise not be available. She touts the ‘calm pragmatism’ of this young generation of religious advocates, attempting to show the ability of religious students to seek meaning and answers in a world that is often muddled by problematic methods and belief systems within traditional secular institutions of higher learning. She concludes her book by asserting that these religious students, though commonly viewed as ‘intellectual backward’ by the ‘left’, have something vital to offer that could not only benefit the realm of higher education but also American society as a whole.

As the readers make their way through the beginning parts of the book, one could be led to assume that this is a thoughtful, methodological, and insightful look into the intersection of religion and higher education. We’re left grappling, however, with a thin-layered piece of anecdotal comments and biased and pedantic takes on the state of contemporary American politics.

One of the biggest and earliest flaws within the book is the categorization and construction of subsections that Riley consistently employs. She separates the various religious institutions among their respective religious camps, attempting to give the reader a basic understanding of the variety of religions and separate sects as they relate to the development of higher education. However, this construction of the ‘facts’ is flawed in that it relies so heavily on anecdotal evidence that quantitative data, which could be very beneficial in this overall study, is lacking. These anecdotal interviews with students, though maybe eye-opening at first, give the reader a biased look at the religious institution of higher academics as Naomi Riley wants us to see it. Another deep flaw within the methodology and construction of this book is the usage of verifiable sources and footnotes, which are almost invisible throughout this work. This is incredibly problematic regarding some of the claims made by Naomi Riley, claims that rely almost unilaterally on verifiable sources to back them up. This leads her to make large and problematic claims such as the one that religious students had a more profound and meaningful response to the 9/11 attacks than the secular left (249) and that religious students are somehow harder-working than secular students. The latter claim is made on the basis of ‘discussions of professors at religious schools’, a ridiculous way to come to a conclusion that highlights the absurdity of Riley’s methodology and academic prowess.

The anecdotal evidence aims to show the ‘good’ nature of these religious students, but what happens when these interviews show the ‘bad’ instead? To put it bluntly, they’re almost entirely ignored in the conclusion-based discussion made by Riley. On the issue of race on campus, she quotes a student saying that they wish not to get involved in race politics primarily because “… we should look forward to how it will be in heaven… no biases or racism.” (163). Such a terrifying comment, completely removing the responsibility of action and political agency away from the living to an afterlife, an afterlife that may or may not exist, doesn’t visually trouble the author when she’s writing and critiquing these schools. That’s because, save for a few brief mentions of the most absurd dynamics of these institutions, there is almost virtually no critical analysis of these schools or their students. Even in the case of Bob Jones University, a University known for banning interracial dating and other punitive measures, she draws away attention to the University’s blossoming art museum and discussions of the religiosity of the students in order to diminish the impact of the institution’s absurdity. She even uses comments from African American students claiming that they have no problem not being able to date white people, a claim that is not even remotely put under the lens of scrutiny. Naomi Riley allows the words of the students to fly, yet only allows the ones that she likes to pervade through the wrapping-up of her thesis during the conclusion. This, once again, highlights the severe lack of credibility that we’re faced with when reading this piece.

All of this aside, the most blatant disregard for the original aim of the book and this project has to be the author’s continual seeping of her own political bias into the crevices of this work. She binds up any gray areas with her varied views, halting any ‘challenge’ of the material and instead defining this work as merely a political ‘hit piece’ that is aimed at taking barbs with what she describes as the secular left. Her ultimately beneficial values of integrity, loyalty, courage, charity, and self-restraint are consistently touted as the ultimate ‘vanguards’ of the American civil system, but any fairly keen student of politics can recognize right away that these are universally verifiable traits only for political Conservatives. The field of political psychology, though young and blooming, would highlight many other desirable traits for ‘liberals’: open-mindedness, empathy, and individualism to name a few. When we analyze the thesis of the book in this lens, it runs counter to the entire proposition that Riley makes; that rigidly conservative religious students, many unwilling to hear dissenting views even within their own religious sects, lead a new kind of ‘pragmatism’ that she says is needed in American politics. While she touts this younger generation as ‘emphatic’, she shows the hypocrisy of this empathy, saying that “…while still regard homosexual behavior as sinful, this does not entail personal contempt for gays (among religious students)’ (261). So, basically, we’re left with a generation of political leaders who believe that the opposition is ‘destined for hellfire’, yet they’re, as persons, ‘not all that bad’. And her own political biases, backwards and blatantly old-age in their own right, continue to highlight this divide that Riley has with reality. She mentions at the end her failure to highlight a Muslim college in the work, a failure that is a huge loss to the book and further highlights her ineptitude. However, she frames the rationale behind the belief that Muslim colleges are specifically prone for radicalization, and that Christian fundamentalists, though unique in their own way, are not nearly as dangerous as fundamentalist Muslims (258). Yet this pedantic and biased claim ignores centuries of American racism, terror, and violence that has existed among all various religious majorities and minorities throughout American history.

This malpractice of analysis and blatant disregard of history highlights another crucial flaw with Naomi Riley; she simply is not cut out for this work. As she wades into the discussion of Catholicism, she quietly admits that she had had no prior notion of the broad conflicts between Catholicism and Evangelism (she made a crucial historical error in not describing it as a conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism). How can anyone who wishes to write about religion in America not have any conception about the centuries’ long conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism? Such a basic baseline of knowledge is required to understand even a fraction of broad Western history, so such a failure to combine the big-picture aspects of that history hurts the book. Riley fails to even take a step back into American history, instead painting the American religious college as merely a modern phenomenon when it is clearly not. How can studies of modern day religious students hold-up without some analysis of American religious students in the past? And how can an analysis on the civic worth of these religious institutions be held up without a similar analysis of ‘secular’ colleges and their impact upon the cultural and political nature of the United States? Such an omission leads the author to think that Riley is positing to us a secular or public school system that is entirely void of moral or spiritual meaning, a void that is blatantly false and a disservice to the merits of this overall study.

There is no gentle way to say this. Naomi Riley’s work, though potentially well meaning, doesn’t come close to a well-balanced and insightful look into religious America and its contribution to American life. Riley digs the reader a big ditch at the beginning; a ditch claiming that America is in trouble, and that a new generation is going to be required to pull it out. But this colossal ditch is only dug deeper, filled in with terrible writing, repetitive arguments, bad sources, and a blatant disregard for American and religious history. This book was the perfect Conservative hit-piece for post 9/11 America, but it no longer holds up in a country that is growing more diverse and accepting of different people, belief systems, and ways of living life in America. Riley’s work will probably be lost in the annals of irrelevant literature, save for the history students and professors who want to look at a work, a work that should serve as the baseline of what a scholar ‘ought not to do’.

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