California Lutheran University may have a Lutheran title in its name, but students, faculty and staff may be interested to know that when it comes to religious affiliation, the majority of students are not Lutheran.
According to Cal Lutheran’s records, 33 percent of the student body are undeclared or unknown about their religious affiliation. This includes undergraduates, graduates and the students in the Bachelor’s Degree for Professionals program – an eight percent increase from 2000.
According to Pastor Scott Maxwell-Doherty, a pastor who has served the Cal Lutheran community for 15 years, students are not mandated to tell the university their religious affiliation. It is only volunteer-based.
“One of the things I hope for at CLU is that you get to figure out what kind of relationship you’re going to articulate with the God you know or don’t know,” Maxwell-Doherty said. “I’d rather have you figure that out than a university that says you have to declare one.”
Dr. Colleen Windham-Hughes, assistant professor of religion, said we are presently living in a climate where it’s assumed that religion is private, and students may feel it’s an invasion of privacy to be asked what their religious affiliation is.
“Often coming into college is a time of real questioning and seeking for a lot of students,” Windham-Hughes said. “It often includes the big questions of life that religions aim to try and answer and so even if students have strong commitments they sometimes decline to state, almost as a permission-giving device for themselves to enter into a time of asking questions and wondering.”
Aside from the unprofessed students, Catholics hold the next highest percentage of attendance at Cal Lutheran totaling 23 percent, nearly a quarter of the student body, and only a two percent increase from 2000 according to statistics from Institutional Research Officer Cathy Stanton at the Office of Educational Effectiveness and Institutional Research.
“The Roman Catholic community is robust in Ventura County,” Maxwell-Doherty said.
He said attending Cal Lutheran works for the local Catholic community due to the university’s values, culture and small class size.
The university ensures accommodation to the large Catholic population by working with St. John’s Seminary and coordinating with a local priest to hold mass every Thursday evening.
Lutherans make up only 10 percent of the student population, which is an eight percent decrease from 2000 according to Stanton.
Students that practice Jewish tradition make up two percent of the community. Recognizing a need for a rabbi, part of the regular Campus Ministry staff includes a rabbi who has been working for Cal Lutheran the last four years.
Anna Berg, a sophomore and Lutheran on campus, said in an email interview that she think it’s nice Cal Lutheran is a Lutheran school.
“Part of what draws me to Cal Lutheran is its openness to all faiths and traditions and its hope to grow that aspect of the student body,” Berg said.
Part of the openness Berg refers to is the increase in Muslim population and other diverse religions not affiliated with Christianity. The Muslim populace accounts for only one percent of the total student-body, but in 2000 there were merely five students. Currently there are 48 students.
“It’s our desire to hold hands with lots of faith traditions. Not to lose our own, but to be intentional in holding hands with lots of faith traditions or no faith traditions or atheists or agnostics,” Maxwell-Doherty said.
Shireen Ismail, a senior and Muslim at Cal Lutheran, defines her religion as a lifestyle that influences all sectors of her life.
Ismail and Berg both participate in the Interfaith Allies movement on campus. According to the Cal Lutheran website, “This campus promotes the interaction of religious, nonreligious and philosophical traditions. Interfaith Allies call this campus at all levels—students, staff, faculty—to voice each individual’s deepest values, engage with others to understand the different perspectives and act on those values in shared space. We work to eradicate religious violence and seek instead to understand and work alongside each other for a better world.”
Ismail said she knew coming to Cal Lutheran she would not have the opportunity to assimilate with many Muslims like she would have had she gone to a larger state school.
“Looking back at my college career, I feel like if I had gone to a school that had a huge Muslim population, I could have very easily missed out on some really great friendships. I could have really easily missed out on some life-changing opportunities that changed my perspective,” Ismail said.
Even though Cal Lutheran is predominantly Christian, the school is open to all walks of faith and works to accommodate different beliefs.
“We don’t hold up an exclusivity stick and say ‘the only way to get this done is a Lutheran way,’” Maxwell-Doherty said. “Lutherans understand, like lots of other religious traditions, that they are far stronger when they are in partnership with others, than standing there doing a solo act.”
One of the most powerful experiences Windham-Hughes had as a faculty member was when she spoke to two graduates that told her they had become more confident in their religious or nonreligious identity, and they were attributing it to the openness of Lutheran higher education. Both had experienced a lot of discrimination before attending Cal Lutheran, but what both of them found at school were students and faculty interested in them as people, in their ideas and what they had to offer.
“One thing I really like about Cal Lutheran is that those in search of a faith community will find one, and those that aren’t don’t feel any pressure to,” Berg said in an email interview. “I like that nothing is forced. Its there if you want it.”
In an effort to bring religious pluralism to the forefront and embrace religious diversity on campus, Windham-Hughes encourages people to be willing to engage in conversation with one another about their religious and nonreligious values. To look at what they hold personally as not always private and that some of it is relevant to what their studying and how they’re acting with people in every day life.
“Here at Cal Lu comes a moment to be able to say ‘yes we have Muslim, Baptist, atheist, agnostic, Secular Humanist, Catholics,’ and then start having a conversation about it. Why? Because the moment you walk across the stage and walk off this property this is the world in which you’re going to inherit,” Maxwell-Doherty said.
Published April 15th, 2015