Evangelicalism and the anti-intellectual cult of the “Christian worldview”

At least that’s how Molly Worthen sees it.

In the final few pages of her recent book Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, Worthen focuses on the strategic, persistent, and anti-intellectual use of “Christian worldview” language within evangelicalism.

From my perspective, in addition to being probing and insightful, these quotes summarize a main line of the book’s overall argument.

The quotes below are from pp. 261-62.

Evangelicals are idealists, yes. They are also pragmatists. They talk so much of the “Christian worldview” because they believe in it–but also because it is a powerful rhetorical strategy. It curtails debate, justifies hardline politics, and discourages sympathetic voters from entertaining thoughts of moderation or compromise….

The anti-intellectual inclinations in evangelical culture stem not from wholehearted and confident obedience to scripture, or the assurance that God will eventually corral all nonbelievers, but from deep disagreements over what the Bible means, a sincere desire to uphold standards of modern reason alongside God’s word–and the defensive reflexes that outsiders’ skepticism provokes. The cult of the Christian worldview is one symptom of the effort by many evangelical leaders to fold competing sources of authority into one, to merge inference with assumptions. The evangelicals who adopt this soft presuppositionalism hope that it might prove to be a viable political currency, one that can buy cultural capital where proof texts and personal testimony fail.

These habits of mind have crippled evangelicals in their pursuit of what secular thinkers take to be the aims of intellectual life: the tasks of discovering new knowledge, creating original and provocative art, and puzzling out the path toward a more human civilization. When the neo-evangelicals set out to resuscitate the evangelical mind seventy years ago they shared these goals, but they also harbored another set of ambitions. The purpose of Christianity Today or the Evangelical Theological Society was not to unite conservative Protestants and earn secular intellectuals’ respect for the sake of unity and respect alone. Cultural influence was a means to an end: the ultimate end of converting the world–in heart, mind, and action–to Christ.

I think these thoughts express well at least some of the systemic reasons why intellectual pursuits–outside of apologetic agendas–can be so difficult to negotiate within evangelicalism.

As I’ve been saying, Worthen’s largely critical but also fair assessment of evangelicalism is a great read for anyone interested in evangelicalism’s roots and current struggles. As Mark Noll blurbs, “Apostles of Reason brings a new level of sophistication, as well as sparkling prose, to the study of modern American evangelicals….”


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