In light of the current politicization of education, we can probably fairly consider schemes like this countercultural. Given the striking suspicion with which many people regard all things religious (see, for example, the ambivalence in an article announcing "A Downtown Revival-ization" in Knoxville1), I would like to suggest that the Lilly Endowment's efforts, if successful, will benefit not just the Church but society at large (even its irreligious elements).
The benefits of programs like this for the church are obvious. I don't mean simply the higher visibility of religious and theological programs, especially to students who have other and more lucrative options. But if I may speak stereotypically, the current ethos of American evangelicalism does a better job of attracting students who have an emotive (or otherwise nebulous) interest in ministry, theology, or biblical studies. Though exceptions are easy to find, the typical student in my experience prefers inspirational rather than intellectual readings. While this approach to ministerial education has its positive contributions to make,2 the Church becomes captive to cultural fads and slogan theology when it suffers a dearth of men and women who can participate in and advance intellectual discourse about God, the Bible, the Church, and the world. If the Lilly Endowment (and similar organizations) can attract young, capable students into religious education, the Church will find its roots strengthened and nourished.
But this will also benefit society at large. I'm not suggesting that the world is a better place when the Church's influence is expanded (history itself denies this link, at least as simplistically formulated here). But the current cultural climate reveals clearly the wider negative consequences (political and otherwise) when the Church becomes shallow and yet finds its public voice. The lack of sensitive Christian voices contributing (on either or both sides of the political spectrum) to American cultural discourse has polarized a number of contemporary discussions in desperate need of nuance. The recent volleys between Barack Obama and James Dobson are a prime example. But genuine and thoughtful discussion between intelligent Christian (and other religious) perspectives and similarly intelligent irreligious perspectives has the potential (as yet unrealized) to positively impact both American and global culture. Perhaps the increase in "top students" reported in the Chronicle will help prepare at least one side of that dialogue for the challenges facing us in the coming years.
One last point: This article is yet another challenge to the popular Christian (or, rather, premillennial Christian) view that the world is steadily devolving morally and sinking into ever deepening pits of sin (the language here is only minimally dramatic). As I have suggested elsewhere, there are plenty of examples of genuine advance being made in twenty-first century American morality, spirituality, religion, and so on. But though I would reject the idea that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, neither is it going in the other direction. There will always be wars and rumors of wars. The world will always need the dialogue I hope is on America's horizon. The Church will always have its work to do.