While there are social conservatives who are not religiously affiliated, many of us are. For those of us who are Christians, faith in Jesus Christ and his message shapes our convictions and is fundamental to who we are. That is why I was pleased and encouraged to find a vibrant Christian community when I arrived at Princeton University. I joined and have remained active in the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship, which has been a Christian ministry on Princeton’s campus for over 75 years.
My involvement with PEF (as we call it) has been a great blessing in my life. Its strong theological witness and commitment to Christian faith and the biblical worldview has helped me to grow in my spiritual life, to develop close ties with other Christians, and to strengthen my commitment to Christ. PEF is actually like a family that supports and ministers to students in their spiritual and moral lives and shows them what it means to live in obedience to Christ.
Reactions to my membership in an Evangelical Christian fellowship have been mixed. I’ve sometimes encountered the unfriendly question: “You’re a Christian? How can you believe that?” What this is, of course, is a prime opportunity to explain to a skeptic why I believe what I believe. More often, my openly Christian faith is simply accepted without comment. At Princeton there is such a thriving Christian community, with numerous and strong Evangelical fellowships and a flourishing Catholic ministry, that it is hardly strange to find someone who is involved with one. The truth is that we are blessed at Princeton to have a thriving religious life in general on campus, with active Jewish, Muslim, and Mormon communities in addition to the Catholic and Protestant ministries. I have not generally found there to be hostile or malicious attention paid to Christians, though there are times when Christian beliefs are ridiculed, which I will address in a moment. By and large, unbelieving students have no problem interacting with students who are religious, and will treat them with civility and respect.
There are times, however, when Christianity, and religious beliefs in general, do come under attack. When conversations about religious doctrine come up, some people will try to shut them down with the claim that such conversations are nothing but pretexts for attempts at conversion. Other times, and this actually happens quite often, people will demand that students “keep religion out of it” and automatically discount any argument that has a basis in religious faith. “You need faith to believe such things,” they say, and “faith-based arguments are no arguments at all.” The funny thing is, of course, that every argument requires a certain kind of faith; everyone relies on faith at some level. The faith could be placed in God, or the Bible, or another religious text, but it can also be placed in science, in the self, in the senses, in reason, and so on. The demand to use “only empirically verifiable data” is a claim to faith in the ultimate measurability and sensibility of the physical world—and that the physical world is all that there is to reality. (It is also a self-refuting claim, since it cannot itself be empirically verified!) Of course empirical analysis has an important part to play in finding reasons for beliefs, but it should be recognized that it requires just as much faith as a well-grounded religious belief.
Some things that we, as Christians, believe to be revealed as true are at the same time knowable even apart from special revelation. Some propositions that can be defended on theological grounds can also be shown to be true via historical, sociological, scientific, and philosophical investigation and argument. The social conservative movement at Princeton has flourished because students have learned to complement and support theological arguments with arguments drawn from other intellectual disciplines.
At Princeton, the social conservative movement is truly ecumenical. Most (though not all) members are active in religious communities. However, a wide variety of faiths are represented in our ranks. Early on, the movement was mainly Catholic, but in recent years the number of Evangelicals involved in the pro-life and pro-family causes on campus has risen dramatically. We also have members who belong to the Eastern Orthodox and Mormon faiths. There have always been a number of Jewish social conservatives at Princeton and recently some Muslim students have become involved. All of us recognize that although we differ on important theological points, we can nevertheless come together to advance our shared beliefs in the sanctity of human life and the dignity of marriage and the family. Across the historic lines of religion division, we realize that there are profound reasons, accessible to all, for honoring human life in all stages and conditions, and in promoting a vision of sexuality that does justice to the dignity of the human person.
For social conservatives, there are always challenges to be faced on a university campus. And for faithful Christians and other religious students, there are some particular challenges. We are minority (though not a small one at Princeton), and we have only a handful of faculty supporters. Still, we are flourishing at Princeton. Even many students and faculty who do not share our views have paid tribute to the depth of our commitment to rational discourse and the free and civil engagement of ideas. The time when a socially conservative student at Princeton would feel it necessary to hide his or her views is long past. It is more than possible for openly pro-life and pro-family students to thrive at Princeton. If you need evidence, just consider these facts: In the past two years, Princeton has produced four American Rhodes Scholars: three have been outspoken social conservatives. So are many winners of Princeton’s highest honors and accolades. Princeton is a great place to be a social conservative—even a Christian one.
Jonathan Hwang is a senior at Princeton University, and is majoring in Politics with a certificate in Political Theory. He is President of the Anscombe Society, Communications Chair of the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship, and a Junior Fellow with the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. More information can be found about the Anscombe Society at www.princeton.edu/~anscombe, and about the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship at www.princeton.edu/~pef.