Future of Evangelicalism
New Ways of Shaping Society
This focus on the institution is directing a lot of energy toward things that have been around for a long time. There have always been evangelicals at Harvard, there have always been evangelicals in Hollywood, but I find that they are much more willing now to give up their money, time, and energy to these major institutions in American public life in ways that we have not seen amongst evangelicals, say, in the 1950s and 1960s.
When I was an undergraduate student at Stanford, a charismatic pastor who was passing through the area gave a talk to the evangelical students. He described standing in Harvard Yard and sensing a greater spiritual darkness than he had ever experienced before. That kind of oppositional attitude, in which evangelicals are in a pitched spiritual battle against major American cultural institutions -- do you see that changing? Is there still an "infiltrate and conquer" attitude, or is there a more participatory and engaging attitude among evangelicals now?
This is probably where we're seeing the biggest shift. There still remains an infiltration mindset among some evangelicals. The rhetoric of being a stealth Christian in Hollywood or in higher education remains an effective rhetoric for fundraising and mobilizing. What I am finding, though, is that it's far less prominent than it was in recent decades, because frankly there are more evangelicals in these gate-keeping institutions.
Also, the campus ministries and local churches are doing a better job of embracing their communities instead of creating separatist enclaves. They are more a part of the community and want to be meaningful contributors to the common work that those institutions are about. That is a very healthy development in evangelicalism's engagement with wider American society.
Francis Collins, for example, is emblematic of a much wider trend. Here you have a leading research scientist who is not iconoclastic against the scientific establishment. Indeed, he stands at the pinnacle of it. But he is also willing to be public about his evangelical faith. In the process, he has created space for more evangelicals to follow in his footsteps, and he has also made it much harder for some of his non-believing colleagues to caricature evangelicals in quite the same way. It's much harder to parody a group when you are friends with one of their constituents.
Many evangelicals feel that they face special challenges, if they are open about their evangelicalism, in gaining admission to elite educational institutions and then successfully obtaining their degree. Relative to their proportions in the general populace, white evangelicals and Catholics appear to be quite underrepresented in the elite levels of academia. How do you hold, on the one hand, a non-oppositional attitude, a more cooperative and engaging attitude toward academia, and on the other hand deal with what are some very real tensions and obstacles that evangelicals confront when they are trying to enter into positions of influence in these places?
It's a similar dynamic you see for any underrepresented group. We've seen many cases in which African-Americans or women or Latinos have had to prove that they're better at what they do in order to prove that they are equal.
So let's say that evangelical scholars are indeed having to prove their mettle and show that they have the academic rigor and the track record of excellent scholarship that merits a fair evaluation of their record. All of these elite institutions make decisions by fuzzy measures. How do you determine what a well-rounded student is? How do you determine how good a colleague a scholar will be? These are all imprecise indicators. So a variety of different factors becomes a part of the equation when you're deciding whom to admit as a graduate student or whom to hire as a faculty member.
Dr. Timothy Dalrymple is the Associate Director of Content at Patheos, and writes weekly on faith, politics, and culture for Patheos' Evangelical Portal. Follow him at his blog, Philosophical Fragments, on Facebook or on Twitter.