“Everybody turn to the person on your right and massage their shoulders!” shouts a tall young man standing at the front of an auditorium. The students, who are virtually all Korean or Korean American, turn awkwardly and laugh, then launch into shoulder rubs. This stress release is a preface to the remainder of the meeting, which focuses on something more serious: being a good Christian in an increasingly materialistic society.
In sync with a nationwide phenomenon, the Campus Crusade for Christ at Columbia is growing. Membership in conservative Christian groups at colleges and universities is rising, while other religious groups are rapidly dwindling, largely because of financial difficulties. The national organization— based in Florida— loosely arranges itself around students at the college level and defines its mission as “turn[ing] lost students into Christ-centered laborers.“ Reflecting its current success, interest in Campus Crusade is particularly conspicuous on Ivy League campuses. Campus Crusade’s appeal seems to cross both class and racial barriers, making it difficult to pin down a typical member. It has more than tripled its programs and budgets over the past five years, and since 1992 has popped up on some 800 U.S. campuses. Leftist scholars watch this development with increasing wariness, as the values that conservative Christianity endorses, such as strict limitations for women and their role in family life, and ever stronger efforts to outlaw abortion, are often dramatically counter to many of the liberal triumphs of the past 30 years.
Campus Crusade was founded in 1951 at UCLA by Bill Bright, a businessman who experienced a call to preach in 1948. At its inception, Bright imitated communist recruitment tactics, and promoted his ministry as a revolutionary movement. In the ’70s, Bright described his group as a “conspiracy to overthrow the world.” Sara Diamond, an authority on right-wing movements, asserts that “Bright’s goal was to recruit young people away from the Left and into a conservative brand of Christianity.“ In 1975, Bright fronted a group of businessmen in the purchase of a mansion in Washington, D.C. Calling it the “Christian Embassy,” he staffed it with Campus Crusaders who offered religious guidance to pols. Bright’s goal is evidenced today in part by the group’s financial success. Plans for a new center in Orlando, Florida will cost at least $56 million, $44.3 million of which it has already been raised.
But today, between Bible study, Campus Crusade meetings, and schoolwork, Columbia senior Kristy Kim hardly has political leanings on her mind. This articulate social science student stands at a meeting and calmly reads a Bible verse to the large group. She offers a prayer in support of students who are traveling to Honduras to help build a hospital— and possibly do some missionary work if the occasion arises. “There’s not a political side to it,“ she insists about Campus Crusade. “We don’t necessarily promote certain political issues or sides.“
Sandy Corbitt, the Northeast Regional Director for Campus Crusade, says that no political candidates are ever endorsed by Campus Crusade. She is quick to note that while Campus Crusade has “gone through cycles“ within the Ivy League, there has been a growth in particular at these schools.
She is not the only one to notice the group’s increase in popularity. Kelly Moore, a sociology professor at Barnard College, says she has definitely observed a development over the past five years. Moore is part of a research project studying the impact of religion in American life. She notes that religion itself is not the problem. “Protestant Christians, leftist Jews, and leftist Catholics have been important sources of political activism in American history,” she says. “With a turn towards conservatism in many religious denominations in the United States, it also means there is less space for leftist political activism out of those traditions.”
Moore theorizes that students are joining now as a way to find guidelines for ‘‘how to choose a ‘good life’ that involves more than acquisition of goods, upward mobility, and raising a family. I think this is especially true of the Ivy League kids. . . . [Campus Crusade] has been around for a very long time and has been really great at finding ways to recruit people.“
Kim remembers clearly what inspired her to join Campus Crusade. “I became interested during orientation week, even before school started. I was attracted by the kindness that I saw in people, and the genuine faith. As an incoming freshman who was really scared and nervous, the fact that someone would remember my name and say hello was a big deal to me.“
The first few days at school are terrifying for everybody, and any club can serve as a buffer for nervous new students. But conservative Christianity may be on the upswing for reasons that have deeper roots. According to Moore,“the general rightward turn of the country encourages religiosity as a solution to problems: if we were all just more moral, all our social and personal problems would go away.“ She also points out that these groups aren’t perfect; one of the students who committed suicide at Columbia last year was a member of Jubilation!, an evangelical singing group.
As for Kim, right now she is simply grateful to have a “reason“ to go to school. “It makes life so beautiful to know that it has an eternal purpose, not just ‘Oh, I’m going to take a test just to take a test.’ I know that I’m taking a test and that somehow through my studies God can be glorified.”