Why So Few Christian Intellectuals? A Response to Alan Jacobs

PrincetonAlan Jacobs has just responded to my piece over at the Center for Public Theology, “Where’s Niebuhr? On Alan Jacobs’s Essay on Christian Intellectuals,” with one of his own. It’s called “A Response to Owen Strachan,” and you should read it. Typical Jacobs: very thoughtful, funny, and challenging on a personal level.

In my piece, I made the case that Carl Henry, Harold Ockenga, E. J. Carnell, George Eldon Ladd, and others wanted quite badly to engage their culture, not retreat from it. You can read my brief argument along these lines, and you can also read the fuller treatment. But this assertion did not cut the mustard with Jacobs. It is his contention that evangelicals do not do good enough work to merit inclusion in the big bad secular academy, and that the neo-evangelicals whom I referenced were not themselves trying after all to enter the secular citadel, but sought to build staging grounds by which future generations would do so. To complete the narrative, in Jacobs’s view we have by and large failed to make good on these hopes. We are isolated, without much cultural influence, and we have no one but ourselves to blame.

As stated in my earlier piece, Jacobs has a point. Evangelicals do not always want to do the heavy lifting necessary to enter the high towers of the secular citadel. But I continue to think that Jacobs underplays the bias Christians face in secular American intellectual life. Perhaps he and I are both working from biography. I went to Bowdoin College and was one of around 20 students (out of 1600) who would show up to the weekly Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship gathering. We tried hard but could not find a single faculty member out of about 160 to sponsor our fellowship. We persevered, and excellent evangelical work is being done at Bowdoin today, but–spoiler alert–it is being done from the margins.

As was covered in the national press (A1 of the New York Times), the Bowdoin administration took the momentous step of “derecognizing” IVCF’s chapter. Thanks to the heroic efforts of Rob Gregory and his wife, Sim, the chapter is brimming with life. It now operates in a location near campus and has no official role at Bowdoin. This little personal nugget may help to show why I personally am not convinced that evangelicals are the major reason to blame for a lack of campus presence. Most academically tough New England schools I knew had similarly small Christian fellowship groups, and a similar lack of faculty buy-in.

This all makes sense to me. I read the story of the neo-evangelicals, and I see in their narrative the seeds of this Bowdoin experience. They had to create their own institutions because their forebears were in many cases removed, forcibly, from the American mainstream. Exhibit A of the grand neo-evangelical intellectual project is what Henry and Billy Graham called Crusade University. They wanted it to be a mega-Wheaton, the proverbial “Christian Harvard.” As my book shows in some detail, the effort faltered for several reasons (Hello, branding!). They wanted a place at the table, but could not pull off the project that might have eventually helped them earn it.

This last phrase will perk the ears of alert readers (Dave Barry term) of religious history. John D’Elia’s incisive study of the career of Ladd, A Place at the Table, chronicles just how difficult a task Ladd faced in being taken seriously by the non-evangelical academy. But let’s say Ladd did win a place at the table; would an evangelical New Testament scholar of our time be able to advance far beyond him, and land a coveted teaching spot in the Ivy League, and become CBS News’s go-to voice for religious coverage, and publish reviews of scholarly New Testament studies for the New York Review of Books? This is really the heart of the issue that Jacobs raises.

Perhaps we should agree on the Purple Dinosaur Rule. Sure, maybe one or two, perhaps even a few, such figures could maneuver in this world. I actually do know that we have a sprinkling of evangelicals in top schools–James Davison Hunter, Troy Van Voorhis, Peter Feaver, and so on. But I for one am doubtful that a mass of evangelicals, even those playing their cards just right, could gain a great deal of traction in our elite centers of power. I am particularly doubtful that they could do so while writing openly, say, about Christian sexual ethics. It’s one thing to be very shrewd and wise and land a spot, in other words; it’s another thing entirely to be a bold, convictional Christian clearly declaring the riches of the biblical worldview in the midst of the elite academy, and retain one’s job (though it may be easier to do so, to a degree, at some state schools and smaller colleges).

Maybe this question will sharpen the matter: if a young, very gifted job candidate had written his PhD thesis on Christian sexual ethics, and had explicitly landed on the traditional, plainly biblical position (so not accepting homosexuality or transgender as a viable personal identity, e. g.), do we really think he stands a great chance of getting a job teaching ethics or philosophy at Bowdoin, or Stanford, or Vanderbilt? I have to conclude he doesn’t. (If skeptical here, see Rod Dreher’s interaction with an anonymous professor along these lines–it is quite telling; see also this stunning Christianity Today narrative of the incredible odyssey one expert faced in getting a pro-missions article published in a mainstream journal.)

Of course, this all-too-real thought-experiment does not apply to minimalistic evangelicalism, the kind that softens every biblical edge. But that, in my view, is not really meaningful evangelicalism anyway. It’s certainly not what Henry and the Cambridge evangelicals sought to nurture–not by a thousand miles. That kind of posture comes close to morphing into secularism with an evangelical sheen, and it produces intellectuals who never spend their capital, who avoid every tough issue, and who march at the precise tempo of the modern academy’s time signature.

To close, then: You can be an evangelical in the halls of power today, but usually, in most cases, you have to be a certain type of one–a very, very careful one. This has serious ramifications for Niebuhrian cultural influence. The major reason why there are so few bona-fide evangelical cultural influencers is not primarily the absence of a climate of excellence in evangelicalism. The major reason why is the secularization of the American academy and the chilling of American public life. It is a very difficult thing indeed to be a boldly biblical Christian in elite culture today.

Of course, it always has been. The Bible features numerous Christians who end up in influential positions because of God-ordained happenstance–Joseph, Esther, Daniel–and far fewer who get there by calculation and strategy. Perhaps there’s a word of caution, and a certain framing of expectations, in those high-flown examples.

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(Image: John Phelan, Nassau Hall at Princeton University, 2013, from Wikimedia Commons)

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