This week presidential candidate Rick Santorum made a fairly audacious claim, were it true: President Obama wants to send more kids to college because he wants to indoctrinate them against faith. Santorum:

“I understand why Barack Obama wants to send every kid to college, because of their indoctrination mills, absolutely … The indoctrination that is going on at the university level is a harm to our country… 62 percent of kids who go into college with a faith commitment leave without it.”

One of my enduring frustrations driving the invention of The Village Square concept is the all-too-human tendency to assume we know the malevolent motivation of another individual we don’t agree with. Of course we don’t. Usually people at least consciously exercise good will, even if it’s shot-full of distortion, rationalization and self-interest (again, alas, all human).

Likely the determinative factor in Santorum’s decision to blurt this particular bit of hostile mind-reading out there is that he was on the Glenn Beck show… we’ve covered the subject of how like-minded company can twist and torque rational thinking (click here for C.S. Lewis on the topic). In this particular case this is – of course – just making stuff up, whether Glenn Beck was nodding his head at the time or not (studies show like-minded groups make stuff up too).

A corollary human tendency on the cognitive distortion front is imbuing one’s different-thinking foes with nearly superhuman powers to accomplish the evil end you firmly inserted into their brain (more Lewis). The two together can be really dangerous and have resulted in much human suffering over history.

I say we need to be factually accurate in our assessment of our opposition. Overreaction can feel like a validation of our righteousness, but there can be terrible (and meaningless) human cost if we’re wrong. Until there is evidence that Obama is really thinking what Santorum accused him of, I’m going to give the president the benefit of the doubt that he sees advantage to young people in getting educated, becoming more employable and America presumably benefiting from more innovation. (On a side note, I had an interesting conversation with someone this week who said that the overemphasis on obtaining a college education is damaging the ranks of our tradesmen and craftsmen of yesteryear, which I do think is a valid point…)

I have to admit that I like Rick Santorum, despite the fact that he’s unlikely to get my vote. He largely steers clear of the standard political eye-roll-producing double-talk, and I expect he’s probably an amazingly decent husband and father. I think he’s sincere in his beliefs and generally tries to be fair and act consistent with his Christian faith. He’s pretty brave too because he says things like our prenatal testing leads to abortions and while everyone is getting apoplectic about it (“Santorum wants to end prenatal testing”), I think we really ought to just admit he’s – of course – right. He’s suggesting we ought to be honest with ourselves about the choices we make and he’s probably right.

And for a moment, let’s imagine that Rick Santorum really is the decent man I suspect he is… He’s suffered some pretty putrid treatment at the hands of the political left. You suppose that makes him more or less likely to imagine Obama’s ulterior motive? Things tend to go and come around…

I started sleuthing out where Santorum got his college-indoctrination statistic, turns out someone beat me to it. Their guess: A 2006 survey by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government which found that 62% of college Republicans said “religion was losing its influence on American life.” If that is the case, that number has a very different meaning than the one Santorum tried to give it (and suggests a far different – and possibly more self-reflective prescription – than attacking the president).

Turns out the factual picture on faith and college may be far more promising from a faith perspective than Santorum imagines. From the same Harvard report:

“Seven in ten college students today say religion is important or very important in their lives. What’s more, a quarter of students (25%) say they have become more spiritual since entering college, as opposed to only seven percent (7%) who say they have become less spiritual.”

Yet it is an enduring theme among conservatives that they feel hostility coming at them from America’s universities. We’re welcoming Dr. Byron Johnson – author of “More God, Less Crime” to Faith, Food, Friday this week. He calls prejudice again people of faith the last remaining acceptable prejudice. While I’m personally skeptical of any kind of widespread prejudice against the faithful, Johnson told a pretty convincing story that he had been the victim of it. To the extent liberals – and academics – ignore this fairly widespread sense among conservatives, perhaps they’re becoming part of the problem? How can you know if you don’t even listen? And for their part (and to improve their argument), conservatives need to get their facts straight (rather than straight from Rush Limbaugh).

Perhaps on this first Sunday of Lent we can give up thinking the very worst of each other?

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(Photo credit.) The photo is of the courtyard at Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (where I was baptized) – on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill (where I graduated from college). Inside this courtyard are plaques to memorialize my grandmother, faithful Episcopalian Elizabeth Dunnells Greulach, and her (admittedly less frequently attending) college professor and scientist husband Victor August Greulach. Their ashes lie under the big magnolia in front of the church.