Religion & Liberty Online

Can Fraternities Save America?

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There’s a movement afoot to abolish Greek life nationwide. But what if frats are actually great places to form virtue and character in young men and not just reboots of Animal House?

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Dr. Anthony Bradley is on a quest to make fraternities virtuous again. “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever done,” he tells me. “I’m essentially bailing out water on the sinking Titanic.” The problem he’s confronting is well engrained in American culture and media: a quick Google search yields a variety of negative coverage of campus Greek life—accounts of everything from alcoholism and sexual abuse to hazing-related injuries and even deaths.

Yet Dr. Bradley is trying to speak past the stereotypes with his new book, Heroic Fraternities: How College Men Can Save Universities and America, which makes the case for reenvisioning the idea of fraternities—from simple ways to party and network to the formation of men capable of making productive contributions to society. Bradley frames his argument against the backdrop of Abolish Greek Life, a movement calling for the removal of Greek groups from campuses nationwide His is an aspirational case for how fraternities can be so much more than what they often are. Heroic Fraternities includes several lengthy interviews with fraternity members from campuses around the nation, allowing the reader to understand the struggle of Greek life in the words of the participants themselves.

I asked Dr. Bradley, a research fellow at the Acton Institute and professor of religious studies and director of the Center for the Study of Human Flourishing at The King’s College in New York City, to explain the process of writing the book and how the issues he’s addressing connect to broader social concerns.

IW: Let’s start with the question that every author who’s written a book gets: What was the pivotal moment that got you writing this book?

AB: I realized that people had completely misunderstood why guys coming out of high school were so desperate to join fraternities, and I realized I needed to tell a different story about what’s happening, beyond the stereotypes and Zac Efron movies. I realized there was a disparity between what people assumed high schoolers care about in joining fraternities, probably right before the pandemic, and reality. I worked on this book for four years, and it emerged out of a curiosity of why fraternities were getting suspended.

For example, I was teaching a class about masculinity at The King’s College and saw a news story about a fraternity getting suspended. Googling showed me that this is happening every week somewhere in America. As I dug more into the suspensions, I discovered there’s way more going on in American fraternities in terms of why guys join and put themselves in harm’s way to join. There’s more than fun and social status; there’s deep longing for friendship and deep connection and networking. There’s an opportunity to speak into a space on that. Most fraternity books in the past 10 years are almost all anti-fraternity books, particularly the ones written by academics, explaining why fraternities are toxic and need to be removed, and I didn’t see anyone making any proposal for redeeming them. I had this idea, and it’s the craziest idea I’ve ever had for a book project: to pitch fraternities as a potential factory producing men committed to virtue, not vice. What if fraternities were opportunities to produce virtue?

IW: There’s been a distinction between performative and formative institutions, with a lot of misclassifying of institutions as serving performative functions, when in reality they’re designed to form people. Are fraternities performative or formative institutions? And do most people view them that way?

AB: The national organizations view them as formative. If you go to any fraternity national conference, they’re going to pitch the virtue of fraternity life as formative. They’re going to talk about courage, brotherhood, and service. They all promote these formative virtues on the national level. The challenge is how those are appropriated at the campus level, and you’re going to have some variance there. You’ll see some where student leaders are trying to embed those virtues into every aspect of programming; it’s a thread that runs through the entire chapter. There are other chapters where they don’t care.

One of the things I was surprised by is that the men who tend to care the most about the fraternity as a potential place for formation tend to have some religious background of their own, Catholic, Protestant; they’re the ones who tend to care a lot more about the virtue-formation opportunities. It’s very common in a chapter to choose a student who comes from a committed Christian background to be a leader. If a Christian young man joins a frat, it’s assumed he’ll be mocked and persecuted. What I’m finding is the opposite—if he has some self-confidence about his personal faith, he’s actually more likely to rise in the leadership than be mocked and ridiculed. They’re responsible, trustworthy, and have values.

I would be doing an interview with a guy and halfway through find out he was a Christian—I had to completely shift my thinking! Greek life could be completely transformed if all Christian families would put all their sons into Greek life. It would change them overnight. When I speak to a chapter anywhere in the country, and I invite them to a life of virtue, they want it. They’re excited about it. When young men who have virtue have the opportunity, they rise to the occasion.

IW: Let’s look at the Abolish Greek Life movement. You’ve essentially dedicated the book to making a philosophical and practical case for Greek life in an incredibly convincing fashion. On the other hand, what’s the most convincing argument for abolishing it?

AB: The objections that some people have made in the movement are legit: Is there sexual assault and alcohol abuse and have people died and are some chapters racist? Yes. Does it exclude lower-income-class people on some campuses? Yes. But when you look at the number of campuses across the country, the selective few that are the worst get projected onto the masses. The AGL movement is raising not bad objections—some of the pathologies on college campuses are true; the issues they’re raising are real issues. I simply don’t think the solution is abolishment.

IW: You talk about Animal House a lot in the book, and I want to zero in on that. Do you think films like Animal House are reinforcing people’s preexisting negative stereotypes of fraternities or actually changing people’s perceptions?

AB: Both/and. If you look at Animal House and all the fraternity movies since, they’re reinforcing the stereotype and also creating it. Those movies are about college. Who’s the target audience for a movie about college students? High schoolers and middle schoolers. A ninth grader is watching the movie and saying, “I want to go to college and do that.” And then they go off to college and do that—and Hollywood capitalizes on it. It’s a vicious cycle—every fraternity movie since Animal House is a version of that. It creates and reinforces the stereotype at the same time, and it’s a huge force in sustaining the worst parts of Greek life.

Students’ first introduction to Greek life is in high school. Animal House was part of this wave of coming-of-age films in the ’70s and ’80s: Porky’s, Revenge of the Nerds, all of that. It’s so fascinating that, in the ’70s and ’80s, getting drunk and losing your virginity was such a huge part of those movies.

IW: Let’s talk about behavior. It’s no secret that a lot of political candidates are not doing an amazing job of modeling public morality. Do you think that the increasing focus on candidates’ personal indiscretions is part of why Greek institutions can glorify similar kinds of victimizing behavior? Basically, is there a causal relationship between campus trends and broader political trends, and which one is influencing which?

AB: What we tend to find is that whatever morality a person practices in college, they’re going to do it for the rest of their life. What the data show is that men in fraternities are much more likely to end up being leaders in business and politics and elsewhere. When you see some middle-aged guy caught in a scandal, they did the same things in college. Those years are important in embedding the practice of individual morality and virtue. Insofar as chapters are focused on moral formation, they have a chance to work out the kinks in a guy’s moral matrix. A guy can come in with terrible virtues and leave with good ones if the fraternity cares. If the fraternity doesn’t care, it will have no impact—it allows him to practice vice with impunity. If there’s no consequence to immoral behavior in a frat, that can have deleterious effects on the man’s career later on. If you can do this with impunity, you start looking for contexts that lack accountability. You might see a fraternity alumnus doing something horrible—he probably did that in college. The fraternity didn’t create that, but it facilitated opportunities to practice vice.

IW: In one of the interviews in the book, Chad Frick of Clemson notes, “If you know someone in a fraternity who is a terrible person, he was a terrible person before joining the fraternity, and the fraternity didn’t make him that way.” Looking at the interviews in the book, did you curate those? They all seem very positive.

AB: I follow about 2,000 chapters across the country on Instagram, and I see terrible things on campus on the regular. What’s important about Chad’s comment is, in terms of moral commitments, those are set before you enroll in college. Whenever you go to college, whatever’s deep set is going to come out. There are some guys who have really low morals and use the access that fraternities have to practice vice. I’ve had lots of interviews with fraternity guys outside the ones in the book—the guys there to lavish in vice are not interested in making Greek Life virtuous. They joined it specifically to engage in vice.

Those guys are out there—they don’t want it to be anything more than an opportunity for hooking up and networking, and they’re not the type to agree to an interview. I’m trying to put on display that there are fraternity guys who are leaders and want more than you see in some of the movies. They want formation, and they don’t know how. Even the guys who are wild want formation; they just believe that the formation needs to be full of vice. When you give them positive opportunities, however, they rise to the occasion.

IW: You mention very briefly rushing Alpha Phi Alpha during your time at Clemson University. Yet you don’t really talk about it in the book, and I’m curious as to why. It’s a book about fraternities and you were in a frat—why not talk about it?

AB: As an academic, you sort of take yourself out of the project. I wanted to keep it about the narrative and not so much about me. I will say this, though: I was in a black fraternity, and that black fraternity system was different. My own experience wasn’t necessarily what people today are finding objectionable, particularly on predominantly white campuses. Black fraternities on white campuses are small; it’s not the same culture. As a method, I typically don’t include personal narratives in the book, but I wanted to establish some credibility. Greek culture is really suspicious of outsiders—if you’re not Greek, they won’t listen to you at all. I wanted to make sure that I was one of them, not some outsider coming in to try and shame them.

IW: Who is the ideal reader for this book? It doesn’t seem like your message is nearly as simple as “join a frat.”

AB: The ideal reader is a student who is pledging a fraternity and trying to figure out “Why am I doing this? What can my fraternity become once I’m in it? What can my pledge class do to make this better?” In terms of who I had in mind, that central group is college freshmen and sophomores, secondarily upperclassmen in leadership positions with the capacity to reenvision their chapter’s culture, and thirdly parents trying to figure out if their kids should join a frat. Lastly, college administrations are trying to figure out how they should manage fraternities—most admins want them gone, and I’ve encountered this in my talks at various colleges. After talking to a chapter, I’ll talk to the college president and explain that “this is a fraternity you can trust.” I tell fraternities that this is a good book for your pledges to read—when they become brothers, they’ll have appropriate expectations and make their chapters places where men’s lives can be much better than they were when they entered college.

It’s sad that college admins don’t get that! If you really want them to be great men, instead of multiplying punishments, go ask them. They actually want to be great people. From my experience, every audience I speak to, the college students are extremely excited and they accept the challenge. They want to be good men, but they don’t know how. Secondly, they tell me that “no one talks to us like this.” What they mean is, they never get any encouragement to be great from people who believe in them. It’s all shaming and negation, a list of “don’ts.” Inviting them to virtue is really attractive, and they find themselves drawn to it. It’s a happy experiment.

Isaac Willour

Isaac Willour is a journalist currently reporting on American politics and higher education. His work has been published in a plethora of outlets, including the Christian Post, The Dispatch, the Wall Street Journal, and National Review, as well as interviews for New York Times Opinion and the American Enterprise Institute. He studies political science at Grove City College. He can be found on Twitter @IsaacWillour.