The Opening of the Evangelical Mind

Of all America's religious traditions, the author writes, evangelical Protestantism, at least in the twentieth-century conservative forms, has long ranked "dead last in intellectual stature." Now evangelical thinkers are trying to revitalize their tradition. Can they turn an intellectual backwater into an intellectual beacon?

ON June 29, 1989, in Providence, Rhode Island, Deborah Weisman graduated from Nathan Bishop Middle School. "God of the free, hope of the brave," Rabbi Leslie Gutterman offered in the graduation's ceremonial prayer, "for the legacy of America where diversity is celebrated and the rights of minorities are protected, we thank you. May these young men and women grow up to enrich it." Deborah's father, who had objected to the inclusion of the prayer, sued the school's principal, Robert E. Lee. By the now familiar margin of 5-4, in 1992 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Weismans.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy applied the First Amendment's prohibition of an established religion. The prayer was nonsectarian, Kennedy acknowledged, and anything but an effort by Christians to impose their faith on religious minorities. Nonetheless, he said, government was involved in all its aspects. Not only was the prayer delivered at an official school function but its very inclusiveness was the result of guidelines supplied to all clergy by school authorities. "The undeniable fact," Kennedy continued, "is that the school district's supervision and control of a ... school graduation ceremony places public pressure, as well as peer pressure, on attending students to stand as a group.... This pressure, though subtle and indirect, can be as real as any overt compulsion." America is a society committed to the principle of individual freedom, and by forcing Deborah Weisman to participate in a ritual that violated her conscience, the prayer interfered with her rights.

All this was too much for Justice Antonin Scalia. Morality has always played a role in the public life of America, he argued in dissent, and because religion is the traditional source of that morality, the Court's decision represented one more step away from the faith of the Founders. In Scalia's view, the majority had succumbed to a kind of coercion inflation, equating something as harmless as a nondenominational prayer with "coercion of religious orthodoxy ... by force of law and threat of penalty." In words seemingly designed to be provoking, Scalia wrote that the Court's opinion treated religion as a "purely personal avocation that can be indulged entirely in secret, like pornography, in the privacy of one's room."

v. Weisman is a wonderful case to use in undergraduate political-science classes, because it presents two passionately argued, and utterly contrasting, views of America. I recently visited such a class, at a four-year liberal-arts college in the Midwest, in which the question of the day was whether the case had been correctly decided. Defying every stereotype of apathetic students and indifferent professors, the discussion was vigorous, intelligent, and informed. As one might expect from a generation taught to believe that tolerance is the highest moral value, the overwhelming response of the students was to endorse Kennedy's opinion. "I may be a Christian," one said, "but Christians may not be in the majority forever." Another said that he had grown up Christian in a Jewish community, so he understood what it meant to be in the minority. Scalia's dissent, said a third, was "inflammatory." When a fourth student tried to criticize the majority decision, the others laughingly disagreed. These students understood, as if instinctively, the fundamental principle of liberalism hammered home by philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and John Rawls: A just policy is one to which we would agree if we could not know whether it would benefit us personally or not.

Although Lee v. Weisman involved a Jewish student and a rabbi, none of the students in this political-science class were Jewish. Wheaton College, in Illinois, where the class was held, is an evangelical-Protestant institution. "We believe that God has revealed Himself and His truth in the created order, in the Scriptures, and supremely in Jesus Christ; and that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are verbally inspired by God and inerrant in the original writing, so that they are fully trustworthy and of supreme and final authority in all they say," reads the doctrinal statement of Wheaton, prominently printed in the college catalogue. Wheaton takes its doctrinal statement seriously, I was informed by the college's president, Duane Litfin. All prospective faculty members must take the pledge, and as Stanton L. Jones, Wheaton's provost, told me, they are considered to have reaffirmed it when they sign their annual salary letter. Indeed, to obtain tenure at Wheaton, faculty members not only must teach and do research but also must write, and have approved, a thirty- to fifty-page paper demonstrating that they can approach their academic discipline from a Christian perspective.

Because its doctrinal statement is so heavily committed to an evangelical-Protestant understanding of God, Wheaton excludes Jews and most Catholics. There are a few Catholic students at the college (fourteen out of 2,732 last fall), some of whom converted in college and others who see no contradiction between their faith and the statement. But there are no Catholics on the faculty, and except for four "Jewish Christians," as the college calls Jews for Jesus, no Jews at all. What would the college do, I asked Litfin, if a faculty member decided to convert to Catholicism? He would be asked if he would not be more comfortable working elsewhere.

OF all America's religious traditions, evangelical Protestantism, at least in its twentieth-century conservative forms, ranks dead last in intellectual stature. High-church Protestants established most of those universities we now call Ivy League. Methodism, with strong evangelical roots in England, came to America, eventually lost its revivalist spirit, and produced Northwestern, Boston University, and Emory. Three Catholic universities -- Georgetown, Notre Dame, and Boston College -- are now ranked in the top fifty of America's research universities. If there are only one or two great universities that are distinctively Jewish, that is because Jews have been so successful throughout American academic and intellectual life. No comparable legacy has come from those fundamentalist sects that have flourished in the American heartland. Fundamentalism emerged in the United States toward the end of the nineteenth century, as a reaction against the increasing cosmopolitanism of most American Protestant denominations. Convinced that the United States was living through a period that threatened the disintegration of Christian civilization, fundamentalists believed that a return to strict principles was America's only salvation. Published as The Fundamentals, a twelve-volume paperback series issued from 1910 to 1915, those principles insisted on the literal truth of the Bible, outlined the ways in which Jesus would return to earth, and attacked competing religions, including Mormonism and Catholicism. While the rest of American religion accepted modernity, and with it freedom of thought, fundamentalists moved backward. So hostile were they to the life of the mind that they managed during the Scopes "monkey" trial, in July of 1925, to transform the bigoted H. L. Mencken, who was immortalized in Inherit the Wind, into a paragon of liberal tolerance. When Sinclair Lewis, the most celebrated American novelist never to have written a great work of literature, created the improbable Elmer Gantry, the behavior of one conservative preacher after another seemed to make him, of all things, lifelike.

Searching for roots in American culture, fundamentalists looked back to the revivalism that flourished throughout the nineteenth century, a religious outlook usually characterized as evangelical. The terms "fundamentalist" and "evangelical" are sometimes conflated, because the movements have common origins. But beginning in the 1930s some conservative Protestants began to distance themselves from the extreme anti-modernism of more-vocal fundamentalists, and adopted the term "neo-evangelical" to describe themselves. Since then it has been possible to describe evangelicals as Christians who are conservative in their theology and usually, although not necessarily, conservative in their politics.

Wheaton College was in the middle of these debates over the form that conservative Protestantism would take. When its second president, Charles Blanchard, died, in 1925, the college adopted as its creed a set of principles that Blanchard had helped to draft for the World's Christian Fundamentals Association. From then to now Wheaton has been an institution committed to a strict interpretation of Christian principles. Yet at the same time Wheaton is an interdenominational school and sufficiently open to the world to be characterized as evangelical. Its most famous graduate, Billy Graham, played a crucial role in moving American fundamentalism away from its self-imposed rejection of the larger world in which it existed.

Wheaton thus bears little resemblance to Elmer Gantry's Terwillinger College, with its "standard of scholarship equal to the best high-schools," but it does retain legacies from its fundamentalist years. No college is likely to attract a world-class faculty if it peremptorily eliminates members of most of the world's religions. Students at Wheaton sign their own pledge, vowing to desist from smoking, drinking, and dancing. Required attendance at chapel (patrolling monitors note any vacant seats) is not the way to appeal to student consumers who expect their colleges to respond to their every whim.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Alan Wolfe is the director of The Center for Religion and American Public Life, at Boston College.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Is the Greatest Story Ever Told?

A panel of storytellers share their favorite tales, from the Bible to Charlotte's Web.

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.


How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe


A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.


I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."


Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion


More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In