Coddling in American Universities and Churches

I recently read a very insightful book called The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. The subtitle is How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. Their thesis is that there are three “untruths” that have permeated American colleges and universities, resulting in further coddling of young adults–further because for the average recent high-school graduate, the coddling has been going on their whole lives.

What is coddling? If you look at various dictionaries, the most common definition is overprotecting; another good definition is pampering. A common way to refer to this when it comes to childrearing is helicopter parenting; universities, whether intentional or not, often perpetuate this overprotection. So-called “safe spaces” on university campuses have become common. In addition, students have increasingly, and successfully, prevented outside speakers whose views they disagree with–most often conservatives–from coming on campus. In some cases, speakers have begun to speak but have been shouted down. In extreme cases, such as at UC Berkeley on February 1, 2017, violence and vandalism have erupted. In addition to the intimidation of speakers from outside the university, professors have also been intimidated into not feeling free to share conservative views.

At the outset, I referred to three untruths in this book; the first one I have found to be especially insightful. You have probably heard the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” The untruth of fragility turns this on its head: “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.” In other words: failures, insults, and painful–even potentially challenging–experiences will do lasting damage; therefore, they are to be avoided no matter what. There is some truth to this, of course: we can all remember negative experiences and hurtful words that have impacted us. However, training our kids to attempt to avoid these at all costs is actually harmful. As Lukianoff and Haidt write, “Human beings need physical and mental challenges and stressors or we deteriorate.” The truth is, no one can completely avoid negative experiences and hurtful words anyway, so parents need to teach their kids how to deal with them. And by extension, when universities coddle their recent high-school graduates by giving them safe spaces and canceling lectures by conservative speakers, they only perpetuate the problem.

You may have noticed that the title of this post includes the phrase “and churches.” As I was reading the Lukianoff/Haidt book, I found myself thinking about the American church; are American pastors coddling their congregants? Let me begin to answer this by saying that I’m 61 years old; that I’ve been in a good number of churches, in two different countries, over the course of my life (including young childhood); and that I’ve listened to a good number of pastors over the radio and, more recently, the Internet. Let me also say that there is a wide variety of pastors and other church leaders. However, there are some definite changes I have noticed over the decades, especially since I returned to the U.S. in 1992 after five years overseas.

One word that I noticed with increasing frequency from fellow churchgoers in the early 1990s was “comfortable,” as in statements like these: “I want to go to a church where I feel comfortable.” “I feel comfortable here.” (No, they weren’t referring to the pews they were sitting in!) Is there anything wrong with feeling comfortable in a church? Insofar as people are referring to other people being friendly, for example, of course not; quite the opposite. However, when they refer to a pastor’s preaching, I believe that’s another matter. For example, pastors commonly preach, in one way or another, about the love of God–as well they should! However, have you heard a pastor speak about the justice of God recently? How about sin? Have you even heard the words “sin,” “sinner,” or “sinful” in the past year? What I have heard more and more are substitute words like “mistake” or even “wrong choice.” Speaking of sin: is your pastor becoming more general in his preaching? For example, have you heard a pastor speak against homosexuality recently? How about abortion? How about Biblical teaching regarding divorce and remarriage?

People like to talk about the promises of God. How about this one: suffering for your faith? I Timothy 3:12 says, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” This also reminds me of an extended section in Luke 14:25-33, where Jesus talks about the cost of being a disciple, or follower; you can read it here: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%2014%3A25-33&version=NIV. And when is the last time you heard a pastor warn about the ultimate destination of unbelievers: hell? I heard plenty about hell as a child, and it was one of the reasons, among many others, that I came to saving faith.

It seems to me that there are some pastors who are coddling, or overprotecting, their congregants. These pastors seem reluctant to risk offending them; perhaps they think, even subconsciously, that their churches will grow if they somehow make the Gospel more palatable to those outside the church. (How’s that working out?) This has also infiltrated children’s Sunday school. If your church, for example, uses the Orange Curriculum, I urge you to speak to whoever is in charge. The creators of this curriculum think that the purpose of Sunday school for kids is to try to make them laugh, and it has sunk to the level of irreverence. As for the overriding message: it is basically “be nice to everyone.” This curriculum, and the leadership’s refusal to abandon it, is one reason, along with several others, that my wife and I had to leave a church.

I am not advocating “hell-and-brimstone” preaching, but when specific sins, warnings, and topics like hell are avoided, pastors are putting people in spiritual, and even eternal, danger. The same applies to us who are not in church leadership when we are talking to people. Wise parents raise their children, in age-appropriate ways, to be increasingly mature. In the same way, understanding a person’s spiritual maturity will help determine how we talk to them. I have a neighbor that I’ve gotten to know who’s a non-Christian; sometimes I have an open door to talk to him about the Lord in some way, whether directly or indirectly. God’s love is part of it, but not all of it.

In the end, coddling does no one any good and in fact brings harm, whether you’re talking about home, university, or church. May we all give appropriate levels of protection, but not overprotection, to those we love.

6 thoughts on “Coddling in American Universities and Churches

  1. Hey Keith… I have to say, you’ve addressed a subject that’s near and dear to my heart – the abandonment of preaching sin, repentance, heaven and hell.

    I do believe that some hellfire and brimstone preaching is appropriate at times. In times of old, when people respected God and the Church – this type of preachin’ was convicting to unbelievers, to get some of that “fire insurance” … and believe.

    Pastors in general are indeed coddling their people today, to their eternal damnation. I think you know by now, I’m not one of one of these pastors.

    Thank you for an insightful piece.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, as I mentioned, hearing plenty about hell as a child was one reason that I came to saving faith, although it didn’t happen till I was twenty. Thankfully, and to the glory of God, you are not one of those coddling pastors! That was one of the things that I noticed immediately when I first looked at your blog last year.

      Liked by 1 person

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