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Wingspread Declaration on Religion and Public Life: Engaging Higher Education


In July 2005, scholars from public and private colleges and universities—representing diverse disciplines, geographic regions, and faith perspectives—came together at the historic Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, Wisconsin. The purpose of this gathering, entitled Religion and Public Life: Engaging Higher Education, was to discuss the growing awareness of and concern over the intersection between religion and public life and to define the role that higher education must play in response to those concerns. In an animated and sometimes difficult conversation, conference participants narrowed and defined the areas of focus. At the end of the gathering, participants agreed that the points of concern raised at the Wingspread conference call for study, dialogue, critique, and action. The academy must examine how it teaches about religion; how it welcomes students’ diverse religious views and spiritual interests; and how it factors religion into its educational programs and initiatives to strengthen deliberative democracy, all the while preserving standards of intellectual inquiry, public reason, and academic freedom.


This document is a result of a collaborative effort by the conference participants while at Wingspread and through remote consultation in the months that followed. Each section begins with critical questions that scholars might ask themselves and their institutions. Following the questions are specific observations and suggestions that are intended to foster conversation rather than to serve as final or definitive answers to the questions.


1. Religious Literacy

What do graduates need to know about religion in a diverse democracy and global society?

How well are we educating students for a religiously pluralistic democracy?


2. Standards of Intellectual Inquiry, Reason, and Academic Freedom

How do academics preserve standards of intellectual inquiry, public reason, and academic freedom when faced with religiously grounded assertions?

How can the classroom be open to religious insights without promoting or denigrating specific religious beliefs?

What are the ground rules for civic discourse on matters of religion and public life? How do we encourage civility, candor, and diversity of perspectives through our educational programs?


3. Students Seeking Purpose and Spiritual Meaning

What is the responsibility of colleges and universities to respond to growing spiritual concerns among students?

To the extent that a college or university enables students’ search for purpose or spiritual quest, how does it simultaneously hold to standards of intellectual inquiry and academic excellence?

If an institution’s mission includes a commitment to educating students for personal and social responsibility, is a spiritual framework an appropriate template for student development?


Please click here to link to the Declaration for the Overview, details about these questions, and Conclusion arrived at by the following participants:

Ann Marie B. Bahr, Professor Dept of Philosophy and Religion, South Dakota State University.

Christopher Beem, Program Officer, Democracy, Community, and Family, The Johnson Foundation

Joel Carpenter, Provost, Calvin College.

Douglas F. Challenger, Professor of Sociology, Franklin Pierce College.

Tony C. Chambers, Assoc. Vice Provost and Asst Professor of Theory and Policy Studies, University of Toronto

Arthur Chickering, Office of the President, Goddard College.

Marion Danis, Head Section on Ethics and Health Policy, National Institute of Health.

Allen Dunn, Editor, Soundings, SVHE; Professor, Dept. of English, University of Tennessee.

Karyn Halmstad, Student at Mount Mary College.

David A. Hoekema, Professor of Philosophy, Calvin College; former President, SVHE.

Marvin A. Kaiser, Executive Director, SVHE; Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Science, Portland State University.

Edward T. Linenthal, Professor of History, Editor, Journal of American History, University of Indiana.

Stephen L. Macedo, Professor of Politics, University Center for Human Values, Princeton University.

Richard B. Miller, Professor, Dept. of Religious Studies, Director, The Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions, Indiana University.

R. Eugene Rice, Senior Scholar, Assoc. of American Colleges & Universities.

Carol Geary Schneider, President, Assoc. of American Colleges & Universities.

Mark Silk, Director and Assoc. Professor Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, Trinity College.

Robert A. Spivey, President of SVHE.

William M. Sullivan, Senior Scholar, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Convener/Facilitator Nancy L. Thomas, Director, Democracy Project, SVHE.