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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?

by Alan Wolfe

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.
Discuss this article in a special conference on religion and public life, in Post & Riposte.

More on politics and society in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"The Rise of Jewish Schools," by Peter Beinart (October 1999)
The phenomenon comes at a bad time for the public schools -- and opens up a new debate over the meaning of "integration."

"Welcome to the Next Church," by Charles Trueheart (August 1996)
Seamless multimedia worship, round-the-clock niches of work and service, spiritual guidance, and a place to belong: in communities around the country the old order gives way to the new.

"The Warring Visions of the Religious Right," by Harvey Cox (November 1995)
A prominent liberal theologian visits Pat Robertson's Regent University, which turns out to be a microcosm of the theological and intellectual turbulence within what is often mistakenly seen as a monolithic "religious right" in America.

"Can We Be Good Without God?," by Glenn Tinder (December 1989)
On the political meaning of Christianity.

"Genesis vs. Geology," by Stephen J. Gould (September 1982)
The claim that creationism is a science rests above all on the plausibility of the biblical flood.

"Conscience and the Undergraduate," by John Sloan Dickey (April 1955)
"To create the power of competence without creating a corresponding sense of moral direction to guide the use of that power is bad education."

"What College Did to My Religion," by Philip E. Wentworth (June 1932)
"In these pages I propose to show how higher education reacts upon faith by describing my own religious crisis just as it occurred while I was in college."

"Universities and Religious Indifference," by Bernard Iddings Bell (September 1932)
"Religion as a subject for serious intellectual concern enjoys no vogue among the great majority in university halls. It is rarely a subject for serious study, and the students are conspicuously absent from worship."

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

Baylor University

Calvin College

Fuller Theological Seminary

Pepperdine University

University of Notre Dame

Valparaiso University

Wheaton College

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."

Lee 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.

And yet the class I attended was fascinating, both because the students understood and accepted the arguments behind the First Amendment and because they were so intellectually curious. In its own way, campus life at Wheaton College resembles that of the 1960s, when students and a few professors, convinced that they had embarked on a mission of eternal importance, debated ideas as if life really depended on the answers they came up with. Students at Wheaton, moreover, are as outstanding as any students in America. Wheaton's rejection rate last year was higher than the University of Chicago's. Its class of 2003 includes sixty-one National Merit Scholars. The average SAT score of last year's entering class was 1,310, putting Wheaton in the same range as Oberlin College and the University of Virginia. One political-science major I met had just been accepted for the doctoral program at Yale, another for the one at the University of California at San Diego. Wheaton does even better in the hard sciences than in the social sciences, ranking among the nation's leading colleges in the percentage of its graduates who go on to earn doctorates. Surprisingly, for a college deriving from a religious tradition that was hostile to Darwinism, Wheaton managed to recruit the chairman of its biology department -- the first place where conservative alumni are likely to look for insistence on the Bible's inerrancy -- from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

And Lyman Kellstedt, the professor who led the discussion of Lee v. Weisman, was no slouch. Kellstedt taught at Georgetown, the State University of New York at Buffalo, and the University of Illinois at Chicago before coming to Wheaton. At Wheaton he took a deep salary cut, saw his teaching load expand from four courses a year to six, and gave up his tenure, because Wheaton grants no immediate tenure to faculty members, not even those who have already earned it at other institutions. Why did he do it? "Because I had a calling from God," he told me. Kellstedt is about to retire, but his family's relationship with political science goes on: his son teaches that subject at the decidedly non-evangelical Brown University.

Wheaton College is part of a determined effort by evangelical-Christian institutions to create a life of the mind. At Calvin College, in Michigan; Fuller Theological Seminary and Pepperdine University, in California; Baylor University, in Texas; Valparaiso University, in Indiana; and even the Catholic Notre Dame, also in Indiana, evangelical scholars are writing the books, publishing the journals, teaching the students, and sustaining the networks necessary to establish a presence in American academic life. Should they fail, the reaction of most secular academics -- those who bother to notice -- will be "I told you so." But should they succeed, their efforts will matter. Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, relying on a 1996 survey, concluded that 29 percent of Americans could be described as conservative Protestants, with roughly equal numbers of evangelicals and fundamentalists, making them the largest religious group in America. Even if a relatively small number of them want to participate in the wider world to which a good education has always provided entree, the rest of America cannot continue to write off conservative Christians as hopelessly out of touch with modern American values.

From the archives:

"Richard Hofstadter's Tradition," by David Greenberg (November 1998)
Fifty years ago, amid trying personal circumstances, an audacious young historian wrote a book of lasting merit about American Presidents and their politics.

An "Intellectual Disaster"

FIRST published in 1963, when liberals were beginning to recognize the growing power of what was then called the radical right, Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life recounted the hostility of fundamentalists such as Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday to anything resembling a complicated idea.


"Serious faith ... careful learning"
An e-mail exchange with the historian Mark Noll of Wheaton College, the author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994).

"Ultimately everything holds together"
An e-mail exchange with the philosopher Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary.

"Foucault is in a weird way one of us"
An e-mail exchange with the literary critic Alan Jacobs, professor of English at Wheaton College.

"A truly multicultural society"
An e-mail exchange with the historian George Marsden of the University of Notre Dame, the author of The Soul of the American University (1994) and The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (1997).

"When the word of God says one thing and scholarship says another," Hofstadter quoted Billy Sunday as saying, "scholarship can go to hell." Liberals have long assumed that fundamentalist Christians cannot sustain disinterested inquiry. Yet fundamentalism is a cross that evangelicals, not liberals, have to bear. For if it is true, as the historian Mark Noll has written, that "fundamentalist intellectual habits ... have been more resilient than fundamentalism itself," the impact of fundamentalism will be felt most among those academics whose religious heritage includes such proclivities as biblical literalism, apocalyptic prophecy, and numerology.

Noll, who is the Carolyn and Fred McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton, spent the 1999 spring semester at the Harvard Divinity School. In 1994 Noll published The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Although he wrote that Hofstadter's analysis was too simple, Noll went even further than Hofstadter in categorizing what he called "the intellectual disaster of fundamentalism." Fundamentalists, Noll wrote, had "a weakness for treating the verses of the Bible as pieces in a jigsaw puzzle that needed only to be sorted and then fit together to possess a finished picture of divine truth." They neglected "forces in history that shape perceptions and help define the issues that loom as most important to any particular age." And they had an unwarranted "self-confidence, bordering on hubris, manifested by an extreme antitraditionalism that casually discounted the possibility of wisdom from earlier generations." The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Noll would later say, "came very close to being my letter of resignation from the evangelical movement."

Noll's book was meant as a charge to evangelical intellectuals to avoid creation science and similar embarrassments. His was not the first such effort. In the years immediately after World War II the radio evangelist Charles Fuller, whose Old Fashioned Revival Hour boasted the largest radio audience in America, had a like-minded inclination. Fuller wanted to create a "Cal Tech of the evangelical world," and he used his entrepreneurial energy to buy prime land in Pasadena, not far from Caltech. Founded in 1947, Fuller Theological Seminary, as the historian George Marsden has shown in Reforming Fundamentalism (1987), began to attract a faculty unlikely to be satisfied with providing the kind of education offered at, for instance, the Moody Bible Institute.

Any effort to create an academically respectable seminary for evangelical Christians was bound to arouse the suspicions of fundamentalist leaders such as Bob Jones, who founded his eponymous college in 1927, and the Reverend Carl McIntire, one of the most militantly sectarian of all the early fundamentalists. Charles Fuller also ran the risk of losing financial support and facing a boycott of his radio program should anyone on the faculty at the seminary take an unpopular position. In its second year of existence Fuller's president, Harold Ockenga, tried to hire a European theologian of impeccable conservative credentials, Béla Vassady, but Vassady's lack of familiarity with theological correctness (he once said favorable things about the neo-orthodox, and also foreign, theologian Karl Barth, and applauded ecumenism) aroused furious opposition. The matter was resolved after Fuller adopted a credal statement that was to be adhered to "without mental reservation" -- a formulation that Vassady, who believed that only God could truly lack mental reservations, was unwilling to sign. The Vassady case defined the conflict the seminary would face: would it really become a Caltech, determined to hire the best people it could find, or would it conform to the certainties of the religious base from which it grew?

For the first quarter century of its existence that question was easily answered: Fuller could never be stronger than the religious movement that defined its identity. Only two institutions in conservative-Christian America had any academic credibility during those years, and neither was of much help to Fuller. Wheaton was one. Many members of Fuller's original faculty had been Wheaton undergraduates in the 1930s, and Billy Graham, who was widely trusted in fundamentalist circles in the late 1940s and later became a Fuller board member, was sympathetic to the move toward evangelicalism. But J. Oliver Buswell Jr., the Wheaton president who had built up the institution's reputation, had been fired in 1940 for being, as two historians of the college put it, "too argumentative in temperament and too intellectual in his approach to Christianity." After that, despite the efforts of the philosopher Arthur Holmes, a faculty member who wrote extensively about the necessity for Christian learning, the college went into a period of intellectual somnambulism from which it has only recently awakened.

The other source of intellectual strength in conservative-Protestant circles was the Christian Reformed Church, founded in America in 1857 by immigrants from the Netherlands. Abraham Kuyper, the Church's leading theologian (and from 1901 to 1905 the Prime Minister of Holland), believed that one of God's greatest creations was the human mind; much in the spirit of Saint Augustine, he urged his followers to engage in philosophical reflection. His legacy in America includes Calvin College, which from the 1920s to the 1950s left its mark on an extraordinary number of well-known philosophers, including O. K. Bouwsma, William Frankena, and William Harry Jellema. But Calvin, too, was of little help to the Fuller modernizers in their early years. If anything, Dutch Reformed intellectuals like Cornelius Van Til and Clarence Bouma were on the side of ultra-orthodoxy -- even warning against the appointment of Béla Vassady.

It was not until the 1964-1965 academic year -- when Fuller removed the "without mental reservation" from its statement of faith -- that the institution finally began to leave fundamentalism behind. By the end of the 1960s Fuller had abolished compulsory chapel attendance, officially condemned racism, begun to admit women, and been accepted as a legitimate institution by the Los Angeles Presbytery. Yet it had hardly achieved its founder's goal and become the Caltech of religious scholarship. Enrollment expanded dramatically throughout the 1970s, in part because of a religious revival in the United States. But intellectually speaking, Fuller Theological Seminary remained a marginal institution in American academic life.

By the early 1980s one could find a few distinguished scholars teaching at conservative-Christian institutions, such as the theologian and historian Jaroslav Pelikan at Valparaiso, and the philosophers Alvin Plantinga, Richard Mouw, and Nicholas Wolterstorff and the historian George Marsden at Calvin. In the grand tradition of American academic life, however, most of these scholars would make their institutions famous by leaving them for more-prestigious places -- Pelikan and Wolterstorff for Yale, and Plantinga and Marsden for Notre Dame. (Mouw became the president of Fuller in 1993.) Left behind were a disproportionate number of mediocre faculty members burdened with heavy teaching loads and students not generally known for their intellectual depth. Evangelical Christians hoping to achieve intellectual respectability needed help. That help came from two philanthropic foundations.

The Lilly Endowment, established by the family that founded Eli Lilly and Company, grew dramatically during the 1980s and 1990s, eventually surpassing the Ford Foundation to become the largest philanthropic foundation in America. (Currently, Lilly ranks among the top six.) Religion was one of the endowment's major areas of interest. Although Lilly had an affinity with mainstream Protestant denominations, and although by tradition it focused on the state of Indiana, its grants -- even to Notre Dame and other Catholic institutions -- eventually helped to create a network of evangelical scholars. Because its programs have not been devoted specifically to evangelicals, it is impossible to know how much the endowment has spent on them, but the amount must surely be in the millions of dollars. (The endowment has funded some of my own research, and also a seminar on religion and higher education of which I was a member.)

A more directed effort in the movement to make evangelical scholarship respectable came from the Pew Charitable Trusts. J. Howard Pew, of the Sun Oil Company, was a supporter of Fuller Theological Seminary. The Pew trusts were established in 1948, a year after Fuller's founding, and eventually became a major supporter of evangelical-Christian institutions. Eventually Pew, like many other foundations, moved to the left, but it has never lost its focus on religion. In 1988 Pew commissioned a paper on the status of evangelical scholarship and developed a ten-year plan for overcoming its marginalization. Joel Carpenter, a historian of American fundamentalism, went to Pew from Wheaton College in 1989 to lead the effort. Mark Noll would later identify the scandal of the evangelical mind as the fact that there was not much of one. Carpenter's efforts were dedicated to changing that situation. By century's end Pew had allocated some $14 million to the revitalization of evangelical intellectual life.


(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part two, part three, or part four.)

Alan Wolfe is the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, at Boston College. His next book, Moral Freedom: The Impossible Idea That Defines the Way We Live Now, will be published in the spring.

Illustrations by Theo Rudnak.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 2000; The Opening of the Evangelical Mind - 00.10; Volume 286, No. 4; page 55-76.