A recent Collegian survey found that Hillsdale College has an unusual mix of religious affiliations, and that the majority of students underestimate the number of Protestants and overestimate the number of Catholics on campus.
Protestants make up 58.7 percent of the student body and Catholics 26.1 percent, according to the poll. The Collegian received a total of 185 responses, which is about 12 percent of the student body, after publishing an online link last month. After the top two results on religious demographics, 8.1 percent of respondents said they are “not religious,” and another 7.1 percent claimed “other religious affiliation.”
Several faculty and staff members at the college, as well as scholars from outside Hillsdale, said the college’s mixed religious demographics are unusual, as many other Christian colleges are either vastly Protestant or vastly Catholic. They and many students concluded that the large representation of both traditions on Hillsdale’s campus fosters healthy and vibrant discourse about the Christian faith.
College Chaplain Adam Rick, who also serves as rector at Holy Trinity Anglican Parish, said that compared with other schools like Patrick Henry College, which is largely Protestant, and Franciscan University of Steubenville, which is largely Catholic, the religious demographics at Hillsdale are somewhat unique.
“The institution didn’t re-emphasize its commitments to Christianity until more recently, and so that might have created this interesting sort of demographic spread across multiple traditions that you don’t see at other schools that are founded to be Catholic or reformed or whatever,” he said, adding that Hillsdale is “certainly unique” with regard to the high level of devotion among both Protestants and Catholics on campus.
Survey respondents underestimated the percentage of Protestants and overestimated the percentage of Catholics on campus. When asked what percent of the Hillsdale College student body they think is Protestant, the majority of respondents, 63, said they think 46 to 55 percent of the student body is Protestant, and another 55 respondents said they think 36 to 45 percent of the student body is Protestant. In estimating the percentage of Catholic students, 65 respondents selected the 36 to 45 percent range, and another 56 selected the 46 to 55 percent range.
Adam Laats, professor of education and history at Binghamton University in New York and author of “Fundamentalist U,” a study of the history of conservative evangelical colleges and universities in the 20th century, pointed out that many interdenominational evangelical schools tend to be fastidious about theological commitments, but are less unified than Hillsdale in terms of political conservatism.
“Hillsdale is one of the few places that is very loud and proud about its conservatism, and though it historically was Protestant, that’s not as heavy an emphasis as it is at other schools like, for example, Calvin College, a reformed school,” Laats told The Collegian. “I don’t mean Hillsdale’s not serious about its religious commitments — I don’t mean that at all. It’s a sort of cultural conservative package that certainly does include important and serious religious ideas, but those religious ideas are part of a package — all different types of conservatism wrapped up into a sort of very unified cultural kind of conservatism. Hillsdale certainly is and has been a Christian school.”
Laats also said even though the college was founded by Free Will Baptists, he’s not surprised Hillsdale also has a large number of Catholics, based on the past several decades of America’s political history.
“It makes perfect sense because, since the ’50s, there’s been this closer and closer connection between conservative Catholics and conservative evangelicals,” he said. “And then in the ’70s it really took off with the pro-life movement, politically.”
Statistics from various other Christian schools show less-mixed religious demographics than those at Hillsdale. A University of Dallas survey found that 80 percent of its freshmen are Catholic, as are about 81 percent of freshmen at Notre Dame, 96 percent of students at Thomas Aquinas College, and 97 percent of students at Franciscan University in Steubenville.
A Grove City College report found that out of the students who responded, 79 percent identified with a Protestant denomination or as non-denominational and 6 percent identified as Catholic. Additionally, a Church Representation survey of 2018 enrollees at Hope College found that 63 percent of enrollees fell into various Protestant denominational categories and another 18 percent fell into the Catholic category. Patrick Henry College reports that 100 percent of students affirm its statement of faith, and the top five religious groups are non-denominational, followed by Baptist, Presbyterian, Assembly of God, and Lutheran.
Christian Smith, professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame, agreed that many other Christian college student bodies are either vastly Protestant or vastly Catholic, not mixed.
“That is because those colleges are themselves institutionally Catholic or Protestant, and so attract their kind,” Smith said in an email. “Hillsdale is uniquely not denominational but known as conservative broadly, so attracts a greater religious mix.”
Wheaton College could not release information about the religious affiliations of its student body. Professor of History Darryl Hart, an elder at Orthodox Presbyterian Church who started his career at Wheaton, said the school was largely Protestant when he was there, and he finds Hillsdale’s environment to be more open to religious debate and discussion. He noted a particular, widely reported case from 2006, in which a Wheaton professor was fired after he converted to Catholicism.
“Here, we’re Christian in some way, but we have this spectrum of Protestants and Roman Catholics and Orthodox, and we even have some Muslims here, and Jews,” he said. “So it gives you the opportunity to explain yourself more than at other places where people might just assume, ‘Oh because you’re at Wheaton, well then you’re one of those kinds of Protestants.’ Here, no one can necessarily assume what you are. And then if they find out that you are something, then that invites discussion, argument, debate.”
Professor of Religion Donald Westblade, who serves as an elder at College Baptist Church, said that the college can not be defined as a “strictly secular liberal arts institution” nor as a “confessionally Christian” institution.
“We may confess that we are Christian, but we are not Christian with a view to the particular confessional tradition. So we’re not a Protestant school, we’re not a Catholic school,” he said. “I think it’s a healthy thing for students to come and find out that there are Christians of other denominations, whether it’s another Protestant denomination, or whether it’s Protestants and Catholics, to learn that there are Christians of goodwill across those denominational boundaries and that we can learn from them.”
Director of Health and Wellness Brock Lutz also noted the particular wording of the college’s mission statement, which states that the college is a “nonsectarian Christian institution,” and that it “maintains ‘by precept and example’ the immemorial teachings and practices of the Christian faith.”
“Because we have a fairly broad mission statement, there are many different denominations that are attracted to Hillsdale and comfortable with the religious atmosphere at Hillsdale,” Lutz said in an email.
Senior Sammy Roberts, who served as president of the Catholic Society last year, said the Catholic Society made a “concerted effort” throughout the year to foster relationships between denominations. He said that last year’s lecture series, “This Far By Faith: The Reformation at 500,” which was co-sponsored last year by the Catholic Society and Hillsdale’s Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, was “indicative of the experience that Catholics and Protestants can have at Hillsdale.”
“There were Catholic speakers, Lutheran speakers, evangelical speakers,” he said. “And Father Rick’s point was, this wasn’t a celebration of the Reformation, but it was a discussion which everyone should have, whether they like it or not.”
Roberts said during his college search, he was originally deciding between Hillsdale and the University of Dallas, but he said he does not think he would have grown as much in his faith if he had gone to an institutionally Catholic school.
“You have Mass, the chaplain’s Catholic, you have opening and closing Mass for the school year, everything is so readily available that, as a Catholic, you can just kind of atrophy and take everything for granted,” Roberts said. “At Hillsdale, it’s not like you have to defend your faith here, but with the Catholic community here, you do kind of have to search it out. I mean, nobody was forcing me to get out of bed in the morning, and Mass wasn’t a five-minute walk away from my dorm like it is at Notre Dame. And so it really put the onus on me to do that; it made me grow up in a way.”
Greek Intervarsity staff member Josh Brooks ’18 noted that in addition to the Reformation lecture series, Catholics and Protestants collaborate in other ways, including in a 12/5 prayer routine in which 12 people per day pray for campus 12 hours out of the day for five days a week. Intervarsity also hosts prayer breakfasts that are open to students of all traditions, and that Brooks has known both Catholics and Protestants on Intervarsity staff.
“The only way that I’ve seen tension is if individuals choose to create tension, and if they choose to let their differences override their commonalities,” he said. “I’ve seen many students come together who are able to say, we celebrate our tradition, but we also celebrate Christ.”
Junior Brigid Majmudar, head of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship on campus and one of eight students who regularly attend Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Albion, said that despite sometimes observing “tension in the air” on campus, particularly on Reformation Day, she said she finds Hillsdale to be a great place to have conversations about religion.
“That’s what I really respect about people on this campus: if people know me, they’re not going to fight with me. And people who I want to talk with are not going to even bring anything up unless they know me, or if they do, it’s going to be in a spirit of civility,” she said, adding that this dynamic is “not necessarily true of people who come in, because that’s just not how they’re taught to be, and here, we’re learning how to do that. You grow into your ability to have those conversations.”
Professor of Philosophy Lee Cole attended graduate school at Villanova University, a Catholic university with over 10,000 students. While there were a lot of Protestants there, he said it lacked the same kind of “common conversation” about the relationship between Protestantism and Catholicism that one experiences at Hillsdale.
“If you’re at a school like Villanova or Georgetown or Boston College, you’re generally less interested in asking that kind of question,” Cole said. “At Hillsdale we’re likely more aware of these differences because there isn’t a default denominational setting, and many are attracted to Hillsdale for just that reason; if I’m studying and living alongside of other Christians, especially if I count them as friends, I’m naturally interested in knowing what Christianity looks like for them.”
Professor of English Dwight Lindley, who is also Catholic, agreed.
“Somehow Hillsdale fosters the attitude of, on the one hand, deepening your own faith that you come with, but also concern and interest for the others’ faith, which is a really beautiful thing actually,” Lindley said. “I’ve had a lot of students I’ve talked to who have grown a great deal because of that. I just feel like there’s a general environment of love, you know, mutual trust and friendship, where you can do that without feeling threatened, for the most part.”
Roberts said the small Knorr Center chapel has always encapsulated for him the nonsectarian nature of Hillsdale’s religious environment.
“I have soft spot in my heart for the little chapel over there [in the Knorr Center],” Roberts said. “It’s from the ’70s, it’s got that red carpet in there, it’s a nice spot to go and pray. But it just recognizes that, whether you like it or not, Hillsdale is a Christian school in its identity. It was founded as that. It’s non-sectarian nature means we can be Christian, all Christians can come to us, and we can all reason and debate what we believe.”