Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Are Christian School Graduates World-Changers?

Ray Pennings


May 20, 2011
by Ray Pennings

A few decades ago, Mark Noll wrote The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind as an “epistle from a wounded lover,” lamenting that “there is not much of an evangelical mind.”  Christians have largely abandoned universities, the arts, and other realms of “high culture,” he argued. A decade later, Michael Lindsay reported the evangelical movement, usually thought of as belonging to the “disadvantaged ranks of the stratification system” had advanced in recent years so that “it now wields power in just about every segment of American society.”  

These divergent perspectives, together with the current debate regarding how Christians might live out their calling to change the world come to mind as Cardus prepares to release the results of its comprehensive study of Christian education in North America.   For the past two years, our research team has worked with the most reliable and representative sample of religious-schoolers in the United States (ages 24-39), administering surveys aimed to better understand the spiritual, social, and educational outcomes of religious schools.  We have also sampled over 150 Catholic and Protestant Christian school administrators in Canada and the U.S. We were able to assess the aspirations of Christian schools currently in operation. In this way, we are able to determine the impact of Christian schools on adults in today’s society as well as understand how Christian schools are attempting to define themselves in today’s socio-cultural and economic landscape.

The picture the data paint is that Christian schools are having a significant effect in the lives of their graduates, but not in a world-changing way that some might aspire them to.   Compared to their public school, Catholic school, and non-religious private school peers, Protestant Christian school graduates have been found to be uniquely compliant, generous, outwardly focused individuals who stabilize their communities by their uncommon commitment to their families, their churches, and larger society.  This study found that graduates of Christian schools donate money significantly more than graduates of other schools, despite having a lower household income than graduates of other private schools. Similarly, graduates of Christian schools are more generous with their time, participating in far more relief and development service trips than their peers. 

Administrators of Catholic and Protestant Christian schools both reported emphasizing family as one of the most important values in their schools.  This emphasis seems to be taking hold in Protestant Christian graduates, who are having more children and divorcing less than their peers from public and Catholic schools.  In addition, the stereotypical picture of the highly political right-wing Christian was found to be false. Graduates of Christian schools were found to be talking about politics less, participating in campaigns less, and donating to political causes less than their peers. 

Christian schools seem to be producing “salt of the earth” citizens who provide the backbone of communities, are the pillars of their churches, and are living lives of purpose and hope.  Fears that religious schools are the incubators of social unrest, producing a generation of culture warriors, seem to be largely unfounded.

The findings of the Cardus Education Survey will provide a significant challenge to those in the Christian school community and to those in society at large. Given that the study finds the outcomes of Christian education align quite closely with the motivations and aspirations of the schools, the question emerges: What is Christian education for?  Is part of the reason we are not changing the world or having limited social impact because we really don’t want to? The positive impact of Christian school graduates on society is measurable in all sorts of ways, suggesting that public policies which encourage educational diversity and celebrate their contribution are more suitable for our present times.

In the context of an increased polarization between religious conservatives and secular liberals—as documented by Robert Putnam and David Campbell—our study raises significant questions about the role of Christian schools in community building.  The data are complex and nuanced but the argument certainly can be made that Christian schools are playing a very constructive role for both their direct constituencies and for society at large, although their potential contribution is presently very modest compared to what might be realized.

—Ray Pennings is a Senior Fellow with Cardus and has headed the Cardus Education Survey. The results will be discussed at separate events, one for media and policy-industry leaders, one for Christian education leaders, both to be held in Washington on May 25-26th.   Anyone interested in more information or possibly attending these by-invitation events can contact Ray at

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”