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

Networks of Modernizers

A COMBINATION of generous financial support and awakened intellectual activity has transformed the landscape of evangelical scholarship. Here are some of its notable features:

• Because of the work of historians such as Noll, Marsden, Carpenter, and Nathan Hatch, the provost of Notre Dame, no serious student of American history can any longer dismiss evangelical Christianity as little more than a backward reaction against modernity. In particular, the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, at Wheaton College, currently directed by Edith Blumhofer, has sponsored scholarship exploring the contributions of evangelicals to American democracy, music, race relations, and popular culture.

• At a time when humanities departments at American universities are obsessed with theory, conservative Christian scholars have kept alive a humanistic tradition of writing about poetry and fiction for the informed lay reader. That tradition is best represented by Books &Culture, a magazine modeled on The New York Review of Books. With close ties to Wheaton College, Books & Culture, edited by a polymath named John Wilson, publishes articles by evangelical scholars on topics ranging from Jean Jacques Rousseau to popular film. In addition to evangelicals, figures as diverse as the economist Glenn C. Loury; the historian Eugene Genovese; Richard Bernstein, of New School University; and the novelist Larry Woiwode have written for the magazine, which has featured interviews with Stanley Crouch, Adam Michnik, and Francis Fukuyama.

• It may well be true that many Americans, their attention span shortened by television and the Internet, no longer read books, but evangelical scholars continue to publish them in overwhelming numbers. The publishing company Eerdmans, another offshoot of the Dutch migration to America, is a main source of serious religious literature in the United States. It performs a service for all scholars of religion by undertaking such projects as the five-volume Encyclopedia of Christianity, the Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, and The New International Commentary on the New Testament.

• Reflecting some of the confidence that stems from finding a scholarly voice, a number of evangelical scholars, and those sympathetic to them, have begun to participate actively in public debate. Eerdmans recently published Who Are We?, by Jean Bethke Elshtain, a political philosopher at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, and Judgment Day at the White House, a collection of essays commenting on the Clinton scandal and the President's efforts to ask for forgiveness from Christian ministers. The latter book demonstrated the increasing diversity of evangelical voices; although most were critical of the President, an essay by Nicholas Wolterstorff argued that "one cannot determine a person's moral standards just from observing what he or she does." The President's sins, if such they were, concerned only him and his God.

• Considering that their votes tipped the balance in favor of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, evangelical Christians were long the most important group of Americans about whom we knew little. That deficit has been made up with the help of Lyman Kellstedt, the political scientist whose class I visited at Wheaton. Together with three colleagues at other universities, Kellstedt insisted that the University of Michigan's National Election Studies, the main source of voting data in America, take religion more seriously as an analytic category, with results that have benefited all students of American political life.

• During the past half century, as Anglo-American academic philosophy has become excessively technical and abstract, Christians have participated in a major effort to return philosophy to its historical preoccupation with metaphysical questions. Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, both of whom have delivered the Gifford Lectures (the same lectures that gave rise to William James's classic The Varieties of Religious Experience), use all the tools of modern philosophy to argue that belief in God is, in Plantinga's term, "warranted" even under contemporary assumptions of rationality. Both men have served as president of the Society of Christian Philosophers, founded in 1978 to promote discussion of the relationship between Christianity and philosophy. With more than a thousand members, the SCP is one of the largest groups of professional philosophers in America.

• Michael McConnell, a member of the Evangelical Free Church of Salt Lake City, Utah, has emerged as one of America's leading constitutional scholars. Best known for his insistence that a strict interpretation of the First Amendment's separation of Church and State clause deprives religious Americans of equality before the law, McConnell was instrumental in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, a 1995 case that overturned the university's refusal to allow student fees to be used to publish a conservative-Christian newspaper. Christian Perspectives on Legal Thought, a book McConnell edited with two colleagues, was recently accepted for publication by Yale University Press. He remains the Presidential Professor of Law at the University of Utah even as Harvard -- whose law school has already hired another evangelical Christian, William Stuntz -- is aggressively trying to recruit him.

From the archives:

"The Nitrous Oxide Philosopher," by Dmitri Tymoczko (May 1996)
Do drugs make religious experience possible? They did for James and for other philosopher-mystics of his day. James's experiments with psychoactive drugs raise difficult questions about belief and its conditions.

• As William James famously recognized, psychology and religion inevitably interact. Stanton Jones, Wheaton's provost, published a paper in the March, 1994, issue of American Psychologist that reviews the evidence establishing a "mildly positive relationship" between mental health and religious faith and explores the ways in which belief interacts with psychology's clinical and scientific sides. Along similar lines, some mental-health professionals are persuaded that a capacity to forgive can have therapeutic benefits, and few scholars have devoted more attention to the paradoxes and conditions of forgiveness than two members of the Fuller faculty: the theologian Lewis Smedes and the pastoral counselor David Augsburger.

Evangelical scholars see all this activity as an indication that they have finally made it in American academic life. One of Joel Carpenter's objectives in going to work for Pew, he told me recently, was "to help the religious community to which Pew is closest -- Christianity generally and evangelical Protestantism specifically -- make a difference." Looking back on its initiatives, the staff of the Pew religion program, in a paper published last October, concluded that Carpenter (who is now the provost at Calvin College) and his successors had made "a major contribution" toward rectifying the lack of serious intellectual work that Mark Noll had identified in the fundamentalist and evangelical traditions. Heartened by these developments, Noll reconsidered his thoughts of leaving the evangelical movement. "Prospects for Christian scholarship," he wrote in 1997, "now seem to me better than even five or six years ago."

Are these conclusions justified? It seems to me that, with some qualification, they are. Conservative Christians have enlivened and enriched the humanities, political and social theory, and even empirical social science. At the same time, their success is uneven. There are not, and in all likelihood there never will be, similar developments in the natural sciences, and whereas there may be such a thing as Christian economists, there is no serious effort to create a Christian economics. Still, since the early 1960s, when Hofstadter wrote his book, conservative Christians with roots in American fundamentalism have indeed created a life of the mind broader and more imaginative than anything previously found in their tradition. The big question is whether they can maintain it.

A Visit to Fuller Theological Seminary

ALTHOUGH it is something of a well-kept secret, fundamentalism has had strengths as well as weaknesses, none greater than its populist appeal to ordinary people. In his award-winning book The Democratization of American Christianity (1989), Nathan Hatch explains the growth of revivalist sects in the early nineteenth century as part of the same forces that produced Jacksonian democracy. Suspicious of gentility, hierarchical authority, and ties of tradition, evangelicals in their religious energy unleashed democratic impulses that took the form of popular pamphlets, mass rallies, and the spontaneous expression of emotions. In Hatch's view, the vitality of American evangelicalism is as important to the success of American democracy as the ideas of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.

Hatch himself warns against taking his argument too far. He points out that Alexander Campbell, an early revivalist leader, "championed the interests of simple Christians and insignificant congregations against concentrated ecclesiastical privilege, yet he became one of the wealthiest men in western Virginia and ruled with an iron hand." One can see legacies of that authoritarianism at many evangelical colleges, and particularly at Baylor. Despite his determination to make Baylor the Notre Dame of the Baptist world, Robert Sloan, the university's president, has found himself continually criticized for such actions as creating a center on religion and science without consulting the faculty and firing two psychologists (who later married) after rumors of what he felt was an improper relationship began to surface. (The Chronicle of Higher Education has quoted Sloan as saying that the pair's failure to "exercise good judgment was certainly a factor" in his decision.)

Still, the democratic character of early evangelicalism has its contemporary counterparts. In contrast to Sloan, the evangelical scholars with whom I have spoken are democratic to a fault. They tend to see good in nearly everyone. Ruthless meritocracy is as foreign to their sensibility as it is to that of their counterparts in liberal secular academies. Hierarchies make them uncomfortable. Hating to see anyone hurt, they do not like rejecting younger people for tenure. Wanting to ensure that everyone succeeds, they spawn a multiplicity of journals and publishing houses so that anyone can publish anything. They are as insistent on multicultural diversity as any good leftist. Evangelicals have created institutions as sensitive and caring as any in America. The downside of all this is that evangelicals sometimes find themselves with no adequate way of distinguishing between ideas that are pathbreaking and those that are gibberish.

The sensitivity of the evangelical mind is perhaps best illustrated by developments at Fuller Theological Seminary. Like Wheaton, Fuller has been transformed by the arrival of serious scholars who are widely respected in the academic world. Its president, Richard Mouw, has none of those authoritarian proclivities that have alienated accomplished faculty members at Baylor. Nancey Murphy, a highly regarded philosopher, and Marianne Meye Thompson, a biblical scholar, are among Fuller's stars. By any criterion, including comparison with the divinity schools at Harvard and Duke, Fuller has become an institution of higher learning in the best sense of the term.

Reflecting such recruiting, Fuller is no longer just a theological seminary. In the 1960s it created a school of psychology that was accredited by the American Psychological Association a few years later and began to offer doctoral degrees in clinical psychology, thereby embarking on a course that would bring it closer to Freud and Jung than to Jonathan Edwards. All students in the Fuller School of Psychology are required to take theology courses, because the mission of the program is "to train qualified Christian persons to function as competent practitioners in the field of mental health." At the same time, Fuller's psychology program covers subjects one would expect to find in any clinical program, such as human sexuality and child abuse.

God only knows what Charles Fuller would have made of his institution's turn toward psychology; introspection has never been one of fundamentalism's noteworthy features. But populist democracy has; and psychology, at least in the therapeutic form practiced at Fuller, is the most populist of the disciplines. Hard-science topics such as psychometrics and psychopharmacology are taught at Fuller, but the program does not emphasize them. Fuller's psychology is meant not to divide and classify but to unite and heal. Enter the School of Psychology, turn right, and look immediately to your left: you will see a bookcase devoted to the writings of M. Scott Peck, one of America's best-known New Age psychologists. That exhibit, I later learned, is only a small part of Peck's relationship with Fuller. Peck has donated his personal papers to the seminary's library, and during my visit I attended one class in a semester-long course devoted to his writing.

Leading the class was James D. Guy, the product of as pure an evangelical background as one could find. Guy is a Wheaton graduate with a doctorate from Fuller who spent most of his career at Biola University (formerly the Bible Institute of Los Angeles). The dean of Fuller's School of Psychology when I visited, Guy, like just about everyone else I met at Fuller, was gracious and welcoming. He and the class were discussing Peck's most famous book, The Road Less Traveled (1978). This is not a book that would seem at first glance to appeal to the evangelical mind. Peck, a psychiatrist, grew up in a high-church Episcopalian environment; his book, reflecting his sympathy for a wide variety of Eastern religions, argues for a capacious understanding of religion that need not even include belief in God. No wonder the PsychoHeresy Awareness Ministries, of Santa Barbara, California, which exists to warn Christians against psychologizing the faith, finds that Peck's theology "clashes with Christianity at every crucial point."

But Peck's writings did not clash with Christianity in Jim Guy's class. Guy resonated with Peck's criticism of science, his belief in miracles, and his flirtation with mysticism. Twenty-five years ago, Guy explained to his class, we were convinced that science could allow us to know everything. Now, attracted to postmodernism, we think we cannot know anything. Peck stands right in the middle, the proper place to be. Guy proudly informed his students that they would have a chance to talk to Peck themselves -- for although Peck's retirement and declining health prevent him from giving lectures, Guy had arranged for him to place a conference call to the class the week after my visit. "This is one powerful guy," he said. "Throw him anything." In anticipation of the event, the rest of the class time was devoted to a discussion of what questions the students ought to pose.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interview: "America the Irrational?" (November 3, 1999)
Wendy Kaminer, the author of Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials, sees a disturbing decline of reason in our public life, and warns of the consequences.

To a certain kind of skeptical liberal, M. Scott Peck is the very embodiment of mindless twelve-step recovery. "Even Peck's most avid readers," Wendy Kaminer wrote in I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional (1992), "would probably have trouble explaining his ideas." If Guy's class is any indication, Kaminer is right; the discussion rarely moved beyond an exchange of clichιs. But the class environment was as warm and caring as Peck's reassuring text. Every student's comment, no matter how trivial, was taken as a serious reflection on the human condition. (My impression, based on what I admit is an unrepresentative sample of classes, is that the ethos of Fuller makes it inconceivable that any professor would ever say that a student's comment was simply wrong.) No one wanted to reject any of the students' suggestions for questions to ask Peck during the conference call, and when one suggestion was received lukewarmly (Would Peck be as sympathetic today to sometimes breaking the rules of therapeutic treatment as he was in The Road Less Traveled?), considerable time was spent revising the wording to make it acceptable. The students I spoke to after class, all of whom planned to become either ministers or mental-health professionals, loved the class and loved Guy. Their jobs will require them to maintain an optimistic outlook on the world, and Peck's spiritualism will come in handy when they are plagued by doubts.


(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part one, 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 (Part Two); Volume 286, No. 4; page 55-76.