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Richard J. MouwMay 05, 2008

One of the best homilies I ever heard was based on the first chapter of the Book of Jonah. The preacher described the situation on board a ship that had run into a terrible storm on the way to Tarshish and a confrontation that ensued between some pagan sailors and a prophet of the true God. Surely, the preacher observed, we would all put our money on the prophet of God, but this prophet was running away from God, and the sailors had figured that out. In that confrontation, said the preacher, an unbelieving world preached an important message to the church.

I have often thought of those words as the writings on the new atheism have appeared. Many of my fellow evangelicals have joined Christians from other traditions in going into attack mode, responding to the case being made against religious belief and practice. On many key issues Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and their like are fairly easy targets. Regardless of how other Christian groups might respond, however, evangelicals have much to think about, since we loom large in the new atheists’ scenarios about the dangers of religious conviction. Specifically, they criticize the ways evangelicals have led the charge against the teaching of evolution in public schools and the larger influence of the religious right in public life.

Beyond Anti-Intellectualism

In both cases, the underlying problems have to do with a streak of anti-intellectualism that has long plagued the evangelical movement. Historically, we evangelicals have found good reasons to be worried about the intellectual life. Evangelicalism is a loose coalition of groups that have their origins in various branches of Protestant pietism, a movement that emphasized the experiential dimensions of the Christian faith. European pietism had its beginnings in a reaction against a highly intellectualized orthodoxy that had come to characterize many Lutheran and Reformed churches in the century or so after the Reformation. The early pietists protested the way “head knowledge” often crowded out “heart knowledge.” The present-day evangelical movement includes groups whose histories can be directly traced back to these pietists, as well as to Wesleyans, Pentecostals and sectarian primitivists, who emphasized similar experiential motifs.

The pietist project of taming the intellect took on a new significance in subsequent centuries, when a second battle was waged, this time not primarily against orthodox intellectualizers, but against the inroads of Enlightenment thought into the Christian community. The 20th-century evangelical struggle against modernism was a continuation of this second battle.

Indeed, evangelical worries about the intellectual life have had some legitimacy when they have aimed at keeping the intellectual quest in tune with a vibrant experiential faith, or when they have addressed the dangers of a worldview that disparages religious convictions as such. But recent evangelicalism has also been influenced by a brand of anti-intellectualism fostered by frontier revivalism, a phenomenon chronicled in some detail in Richard Hofstadter’s classic, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Here a serious engagement with the important issues of life gives way to clichés, slogans and biblical proof texts.

During last year’s controversies over Supreme Court appointments, Franklin Foer commented in The New Republic that we seldom hear about possible evangelical candidates for the nation’s highest court. Evangelicals speak up loudly about the need for conservative justices, he wrote, but when conservative nominations are forthcoming the candidates are typically Catholics. On issues of public policy, Foer observed, Catholics have “intellectual heft” and evangelicals do not. Foer is right about evangelicalism as a popular movement. This lack of heft has made them an especially easy target for the new atheists. They would not attack evangelicals with such passion if it were not for the noise factor. As a force in the public square, evangelical Christians have been hard to ignore in recent years.

What has led us to be so noisy? It was not always so. In my youth it was not uncommon for the more liberal types to complain that evangelicals were much too quiet about issues of social concern. My guess is that nowadays those people—the ones who are still around—are looking back wistfully to the good old days.

Evolution played a big role in silencing us in earlier decades. The historian George Mardsen once observed that moving from the 19th to the 20th century was for North American evangelicals an immigrant experience of sorts. The migration was not geographic but cultural. Most of the 19th-century evangelicals were active in public life, even playing a key role in promoting abolition and women’s suffrage. Entering into a new century, however, evangelicals found themselves defending the fundamentals of their faith against an emerging Protestant liberal movement. The battle did not go well for the evangelicals, who lost control of the major Northern denominations and theological faculties. Soon they lost again, in the battle against evolutionism that came to a head with the famous Scopes trial. This time their defeat brought with it much public ridicule. The evangelicals retreated to the margins of culture, adopting a theological perspective that emphasized their status as a “true remnant” and viewed the flow of history in apocalyptic terms.

From Minority to Majority Consciousness

A sense of cultural marginalization characterized American evangelicalism well into the 1970s. Then suddenly in 1979 a movement that had for a half-century defined itself as a cognitive minority in a society headed toward Armageddon now proclaimed itself to be the Moral Majority. Evangelicals had once again become a noisy presence in the public square.

The shift from minority to majority status took place without much theological reflection. Not long after Jerry Falwell appeared on the public scene, for example, he confessed that he had once preached a sermon denouncing Martin Luther King Jr., on the grounds that preachers ought not to be involved in politics. Now he was ready to admit that King had been right. Unfortunately, Falwell never offered much of an explanation as to the theological basis for his change of heart. Had he now embraced a different understanding of “Bible prophecy” from the dispensationalism that had shaped his previous ministry? Did he have a new doctrine of the church? What was his theological grasp now of the common good, public justice and the relationship between church and state? Answers to these questions were not forthcoming.

My own take is that for the past two centuries evangelicals have gone back and forth between two eschatological perspectives. Typically we have done so without much theological awareness. Thus, in the late 1970s, when the prospects for cultural influence suddenly looked good, the evangelicals switched back to a more hopeful eschatology. Once again America was a chosen nation that could serve God’s revealed purposes, if only the faithful would restore the nation to its founding vision.

If this new activism was not generated by a new theological discovery, what did account for the enthusiasm for public policy issues? One factor was a shift in class. By the 1980s, many evangelical Pentecostal and holiness congregations, which had once resided on the wrong side of the tracks, had become flourishing megachurches sitting on the best real estate in town. This turnabout nurtured a sense of cultural leverage.

What motivated evangelicals to use their leverage aggressively to bring about change was a concern about the rearing of children. In large part the religious right has arisen as a response to the sexual revolution that was sparked in the 1960s. The increasing visibility of pornography, the gay rights movement, the promiscuity that came with the availability of the pill—all of these made evangelical parents very nervous about the introduction of sex education in the public schools. Many early initiatives by the religious right were directed against school boards.

That was also the case with creation science, a crusade that had much to do with parental concern about schools. While the “young earth” adherents have presented their views as an alternative science, there has not been much careful, give-and-take dialogue about the nature of scientific inquiry and the relationship between the Bible and science. Much of the rhetoric has been fueled by conspiracy theories, relying heavily on sloganeering and the use of biblical materials as proof-texts.

A New Openness Among Evangelicals

The irony is that while grass-roots evangelicals have been embarrassing themselves in public life, many of their sons and daughters have gained a significant voice in the American academy. The cover story of The Atlantic for October 2000 boldly announced, “The Opening of the Evangelical Mind.” Alan Wolfe, who wrote the story, not only chronicled the scholarly contributions of evangelical schools like Calvin College, Wheaton College and Fuller Seminary, but he also pointed out that the history and theology departments at the University of Notre Dame have become a home for many evangelical professors and graduate students. Just recently Mark Noll left Wheaton to assume the professorship at Notre Dame previously held by George Mardsen, who had moved to Notre Dame from Calvin College after making his mark in American religious history there. Harvard Divinity School has established an endowed chair in evangelical thought. And evangelical scholars have been instrumental in forming an array of faith-based associations in several disciplines, like literature, history, philosophy and the natural and social sciences.

The problem is not that evangelical Christianity lacks the intellectual resources to remedy the much-publicized defects of popular evangelicalism. Rather, the challenge is to find some way of repairing the disconnection between grass-roots evangelicals and evangelical academics who have been making their marks in the scholarly disciplines.

Surely there is much to criticize in the freewheeling attacks on the faith that have been launched by the new atheists, and evangelical scholars have a contribution to make to those debates. It is also an opportune time for evangelicals to speak clearly to our own community of faith. Popular evangelicalism is at a vulnerable point: many of our former heroes have embarrassed us. There may be more receptivity now to new thoughts about what it means to work for the common good.

We academics will need pastoral support in making such a case to our own people. We can take encouragement from the fact that some wise evangelical pastors have emerged as public leaders during the past decade. Bill Hybels, Joel Hunter and Rick Warren, for example, have not only taken on different issues (AIDS, global warming, economic justice) than the religious right traditionally did, but have done so with a sense of kinship with the evangelical scholarly community and a spirit of civility toward those whom the religious right often identified as enemies of the faith.

This may be the right time for evangelicals to reflect on how people whom we have identified as our enemies may actually be speaking some truths to us. Perhaps in the mysterious ways of providence the new atheists have been raised up as unwitting servants of the Lord for such a time as this.

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