evangelicalism and anti-intellectualism: blame the leaders

evangelicalism and anti-intellectualism: blame the leaders November 3, 2013

I received in the mail yesterday a copy of Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. Despite a very heavy football and couch-potato schedule this weekend, I am am nevertheless more than half done with it and I want to throw out a few quotes now and then–beginning today.

In her closing comments of the introduction, Worthen talks about “The Problem of Anti-Intellectualism” in evangelicalism (pp. 8-11). For her the matter is more complicated that a sweeping and simplistic accusation. Evangelical anti-intellectualism is part of the “larger narrative of Western intellectual history” (p. 7), which contains an uneasy marriage between Pietism (religion is a matter of the heart) and the Enlightenment (rebirth of reason and its many challenges to traditional thinking). She calls these two ideals evangelicalism’s “estranged parents” (p. 7; which implies, among other things, that evangelicalism’s existence is tied to the Enlightenment, even as it tries to keep its distance from it, a point some future quotes will draw out further).

So, concerning Evangelical anti-intellectualism, Worthen remarks,

The evolution of the evangelical community–and whether, and why, it might be called anti-intellectual–is best traced through the lives of the elites: the preachers, teachers, writers, and institution-builders in the business of creating and disseminating ideas. When critics describe evangelicalism as anti-intellectual, usually they are not blaming ordinary laypeople. A casual glance at the latest Amazon.com best-seller list, chock full of celebrity memoirs and pulpy novels, or the amateur talent shows and dating competitions that top the television rating, demonstrates that when it comes to intellectual shallowness evangelicals have no advantage on the rest of America. When critics condemn the “evangelical mind,” they are talking about the people who ought to know better, who bear some responsibility for the Darwin-bashing and history-hashing that pollsters hear when they survey evangelical America. They are comparing evangelical elites with the nonevangelical intelligentsia. They are asking how it can be that college professors believe in creationism, or that educated activists deny evidence of global warming. They are wondering how evangelicals define the purpose of higher education (for which they have long shown great zeal) when they so regularly demean the fruits of critical inquiry, and how they can reconcile their fervor for evangelism with American pluralism. (pp. 9-10)

Do you experiences confirm or deny Worthen’s observations?

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  • John

    Very important and informative book – explains a lot about the current situation, and indeed the “crisis of authority” in evangelicalism.

  • I think these observations are accurate. I think it is obvious, however, that for a long time now there has been an ever-widening gap between the creationist/right-wing-religionist/anti-intellectual evangelicals and those who value the current scientific inquiry. Leading the way in the latter group, at least at the popular level, are the likes of N.T. Wright and those involved with the “Willardian” Spiritual Formation Movement–both of whom (Wright and Willard) work from the framework of philosophical (critical) realism.

    Interestingly, philosophical realism allows a remarriage pietism and scientific inquiry, a marriage which modern positivism and postmodern pessimism have not allowed. Most of Willard’s writing, many are surprised to learn, can be found in academic journals on the philosophy of mind, and a great deal of Wright’s historical work is respected by both secular and believing communities alike. This marriage of Lady Piety and Lord Science is a happy thing for young evangelicals like myself.

    Willard on academic work:
    “Do work that you would think God had to help you with to get you there, and then do some more. Just stay at it. That’s the only strategy I’ve had is to work in that way. My view is that, if you are in a good field, you must work on the things that are really central and essential to that field. And you ought to believe that God will enable you to do work in that field that will be a benefit and challenge to everyone. And going back to some things that Calvin (Edwards) said so well earlier — what we as Christians want to do — we want to get to the point where people scattered around the academic world are worried about what we are doing. They sit up at night and think about us. They get on the internet, and they chase our work down. I really challenge you to believe that about yourself, whatever your area of work is. Not because you are so good, but because God is so great” (http://www.dwillard.org/biography/tenure.asp).

    Perhaps I got off track a bit. I hope this helps.

  • This reminds me of the Israelites in Deut 5—they didn’t want God to talk directly to him because he was SCARY—and the Israelites’ request for a king. Many people love to be under authority so they don’t have to think for themselves. Some people love being in authority so they can shape their followers in their own image—becoming gods of a degenerate sort. Jesus, on the other hand, made his rules for the Kingdom of Heaven clear: Mt 20:20-28.

    Sadly, there isn’t so much Kingdom of Heaven around, these days. 🙁

  • Susan_G1

    “They are comparing evangelical elites with the nonevangelical intelligentsia.”

    I’m glad this lets me off the hook. However, I think labreuer has something here. I think we are all a bit to blame. I don’t know exactly how little religious ghettos are formed. Why do we, the body of Christ, accept leaders coming out of them as trustworthy in fields they have not studied at all? We are supporting anti-intellectualism when we should be demanding discourse.

  • Preston Garrison

    Love it when a typo has unintended meaning. I think I’ve seen some of those coach potatoes on the sidelines.

    • peteenns

      I’ve done a lot of coaching on the sidelines, but–ask my kids–I was never a potato about it 🙂 Thanks for the catch.

  • Ann Gingrow Corbett

    One more typo–I think that “dissiminating” should be “disseminating.”

    • peteenns

      I need to hire new monkeys to do my typing for me. Or have them not do it at 5 a.m.

  • I thought it was very good and the second half better than the first.

    I think there are those in the Evangelical elite that are misrepresenting their own beliefs publicly because they are either afraid for their positions or because they are trying to protect those that are under their care. But I do think that many more are trying to down play the more serious disagreements out of a desire for Christian unity. But this ends up being a false unity.

    Her screed against Francis Schaeffer toward the end of the book is a good example of the problem. I appreciate some of the books of Schaeffer’s I have read. But it does seem that there is an inability for many Evangelicals to deal with their work objectively. If Mark Noll had written me about my inappropriate historical examples, I would pay attention. Instead Schaeffer rales against Noll and (a very young Noll) apologizes. (According to the account in this book.)

    How can we ever be taken seriously if we are lead by leaders that are unwilling to be corrected. And in my experience there are far more Evangelical leaders in that category than is healthy.

  • Rick

    And it does not have to be this way. As the testimony of well-known journalist Kirsten Powers shows, in regards to her acceptance of Christianity:

    “I had never heard a pastor talk about the things he did. Tim Keller’s sermon was intellectually rigorous, weaving in art and history and philosophy. I decided to come back to hear him again. Soon, hearing Keller speak on Sunday became the highlight of my week.”

    It is almost as if we have two “Evangelicalisms”. One that listens to the more contemporary voices the like of Wright, Willard, McGrath, Keller, McKnight, etc…, and the other that listens to-…well…I don’t want to go into names on that side.

  • James White

    Thanks, Peter. Loved the interview. Ordered the book.

  • John W. Morehead

    Thanks for tackling this book, and providing the quote as to inconsistencies the author and other Americans see in various facets of evangelicalism, and I agree with one exception. Near the end of the quote the author writes about critics and how they wonder “…how they can reconcile their fervor for evangelism with American pluralism.” That’s a great question. While it may be an inconsistency for many evangelicals, it’s not for me. I take the call of Jesus seriously as a disciple, which includes sharing his message of the Kingdom that is to be shared with everyone. It is to be done in ethical ways and without coercion. But not everyone will embrace this message. So the disciple of Christ is called not only to present the message of the Gospel, but also live faithfully in the midst of religious pluralism as they love their neighbors. So there is a tension, but not an inconsistency or contradiction for those evangelicals engaging in a reflective form of faith in our pluralistic world.

  • dangjin

    This arena is too limited to really discuss what she is saying and where she goes wrong. Here and in laces where I come across the pro-intellectual argument people who support it seem to want to blindly embrace it and bring into the church the secular version with all of its sinful teaching in tow.

    There is a good and a sinful intellectualism, there is a right and a wrong intellectualism and it is the latter of each pair that the church needs to exclude. We do need Christian intellectuals but only if they spot the lies of their secular counterparts and warn the other members of the flock.

    Bringing false and sinful teaching into the church under the guise of being ‘intellectual’ is wrong and disobedience to God. Where that quoted person and all other pro-intellectualism people make their mistake is their confusing stopping false teaching and lies with anti-intellectualism.

    That is a big error on their part. The church isn’t about being intellectual or not, it is about receiving true and rejecting false teaching. Doesn’t matter what educational level the teaching is at, if it is true then it is to be accepted by the church if it isn’t then it is to be rejected.

    Being classified as intellectual doesn’t make the teaching good or true. If it disagrees with the Bible then it is wrong and needs to be removed from the church and the believer’s lives.

  • Jim V

    “When critics condemn the “evangelical mind,” they are talking about the people who ought to know better, who bear some responsibility for the Darwin-bashing and history-hashing that pollsters hear when they survey evangelical America. They are comparing evangelical elites with the nonevangelical intelligentsia. They are asking how it can be that college professors believe in creationism, or that educated activists deny evidence of global warming.”
    Ah, yes, because being “intellectual” means accepting the progressive version of history (all history, mind you, not just ANE history) and not denying “evidence of global warming.” Any other progressive wish list items we should add here? How about gay marriage and abortion on demand. Yeah, we should add those as well, lest we risk being thought of as anti-intellectual. Socialism? Check. We all know that capitalism is the force of death and evil. Rejection of American exceptionalism? Check. We must be “citizens of the world” with no trace of patriotism. Let’s see, what else – oh, yes, we should learn to love the Democratic Party, never question anything that comes out of a university professor’s mouth or from his or her pen, and basically adopt every progressive idea that comes down the pike.
    THIS type of conclusion is why I lose all respect for these types of books and their supporters. While I’ll admit that US evangelical leaders can be ham-handed with their presentation of ideas and philosophies, the thing that kills me with books like this is the assumption that our supposed intellectuals betters are actually any better. I realize I’m posting to a blog of a university professor who has no limit of faith and trust in his academic colleagues and the purity of academic thought, but to deny that evangelicals are often presented as anti-intellectual in our popular media even when they are not presenting “anti-intellectual ideas” is naïve at best. I also realize that Dr. Enns has a bit of an axe to grind against his former brothers and sisters in evangelicalism, but it is pretty “anti-intellectual” to present this topic in such a black and white fashion. I prefer George Marsden – he does a better job of balancing this topic.

    • lol, don’t you love it when someone comes along to prove the author’s point?

      • Jim V

        Ryan, it wouldn’t matter what I said. I’ve read your posts here and in other places. Unless I’m willing to abandon any aspect of orthodox faith, you would view me “anti-intellectual.” I don’t believe for a second that someone like you would suddenly change your opinion of me if I told you I thought the entire OT was a later monarchial period writing and should be abandoned as primitive writings of barbaric people. Until I’ve declared that Jesus was a good teacher but certainly not divine, you would declare me anti-intellectual. Anything short of Bart Erhman and one is still a Neanderthal – right? So, I didn’t “prove her point” – I just pointed out that she is painting with broad brush-strokes. Your reaction actually proves my point – that unless someone adopts all progressive talking points, your still going to declare that person dumber than yourself. How very “intellectual” of you.

    • ctrace

      I was going to comment, but you’ve said it very well indeed.

  • SpyPlus

    I disagree the anti intellectual stance at least in the reformed circles can be traced from presuppositional apologetics. Which seems to have surpassed in popularity to evidence base apologetics.

    • Randy Everist

      Presuppositionalism is emphatically *not* more popular. The best-selling apologetics authors and largest conferences either do not headline, or, many times, do not even contain a single presuppositional adherent. There’s a really good reason for that: it’s not as popular.

  • Brian P.

    What this doesn’t really capture of the zeitgeist of Evangelicalism is that ***there are no leaders***. The system is fully democratized. Anyone, regardless of theological training, can and does start ecclesiologically detached non-denominational churches. Statements of faith vary widely. Practically much of Evangelicalism is populist in nature with little ecclesial oversight. The leaders are of the people, “voted in” with their tithes. If you’re referring to people who know better rather than just *ought* to know better perhaps a better label than “leaders” is “elites.” The bias in this context isn’t perhaps as much framed as anti-intellectual but anti-elite. The early Reformers cast off hierarchy and everything “man made.” This, in some ways, has transpired into being democratically populist and left us with a church with anthropology and theology of the people, by the people, and for the people. Joseph de Maistre said, “Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite.” The quote is often misattributed to Alexis de Tocqueville and Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps a more fitting misapplication in our individualized American landscape of individualized and commercialized church-going would be to say, “Every church has the leadership it deserves.” Caveat emptor. Let the tither beware. If we each stopped giving money to (even the well-intended) people who have know idea what they’re talking about, much will be fixed. Oh wait, that’s what’s happening. You’ll find plenty of laments here on Patheos and elsewhere on why the young are leaving the Church in droves.

  • David A Booth


    I don’t see this problem as being unique or even distinctive to evangelicalism. For reasons beyond the scope of your article, modern Americans are distinguished far more for technological skills than critical thinking. Here are three thoughts on why I don’t think it is particularly helpful to link the anti-intellectualism to evangelicalism:

    1. I talk with plenty of secular people as well as those in mainline Protestant denominations. In general I find evangelicals to be at least as engaged in critical thinking as those in these other two categories. When I have talked about evolution, for example, with people in both groups the top responses can be summed up as: “I believe in evolution because that is what my High School biology teacher taught me.:” Or they simply want to avoid being criticized for not going along with the consensus. Neither of these positions cries “Intellectual rigor.”

    2. In your own field of OT studies you are well aware that many evangelicals are busily challenging received wisdom and pursuing better answers to old questions (e.g. John Walton and Bruce Waltke) while some of your more liberal colleagues are simply recycling old critical theories (names withheld to protect the guilty). Yes, you could reverse that assertion – but that’s my point. Anti-intellectualism is a problem in the modern Western Church and not just among evangelicals.

    3. Liberal seminaries have been rapidly abandoning the requirement for students to study the Biblical languages while many conservative/evangelical schools still require them. Why would this lead us to think that the latter are more anti-intellectual than the former?

    Best wishes,


  • Jeff Y

    Late in the game here so probably won’t be read 😉 but will throw in $.02. I have experienced this very observation – having attended a small evangelical/fundamentalist college (they really are split that way). Some in the college and some “elites” (even one accomplished scholar) are very anti-intellectual when it comes to their approach to the Bible and their views on the democratic perspicuity of Scripture (ironic, imo, given what they are ‘on the job’).

  • Steve Ranney

    You mention the relation to the enlightenment – A book I read called ‘Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers’ by Christopher A. Hall. It talked about the fathers of dispensationalism (a tradition I grew up in) who believed you could study the Bible just like you could study a rock, and gain concrete conclusions, in this case, about the end times scenario that they had. So they did have a tie to the enlightenment, in this devotion to what they would have thought of as the ‘scientific method,’ in this case applying to scripture.

  • Leah

    Evangelicals are nothing than ignorant book burning savages