New Ways of Shaping Society

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.

Nonetheless, evangelicals are doing a better job of reaching the highest standards of education and performing at higher levels. That will generate the respect of the rest of higher education. It doesn't help the evangelical cause to claim outright bias, or march in protest against particular policies. Evangelicals cannot be part of the center of the institution if they are outside it. Outsiders never change institutions in significant ways; they only secure nominal assent from the power players within the organization. So if evangelicals want to fundamentally influence American higher education, they have to be players on the inside. They have to be scholars, administrators, presidents, and board members at the major institutions in the country. It is only when they are in those roles that they will actually be able to wield significant influence.

Sometimes that influence comes in very small ways, but over time it can make a real difference -- shaping, for example, curricular decisions or research trajectories in higher education, or in implementing forms of corporate policy in the business world. Those decisions are made by the people who have spent decades working within those organizations and institutions. So if evangelicals want to be that counter-culture for the common good, they have to be a part of the community of the institutions that they are trying to change.

I hate to ask you to prognosticate, but where do you think these trends -- becoming involved in the transformation of major American institutions at the centers of power -- might lead us ten or twenty years from now?

Demographically, American evangelicalism is going to look less white, as Asian-Americans and people born outside the United States come to be a part of the American evangelical community and have greater leadership roles. Those will be some of the key players, people who have learned how to assimilate into elite cultural life while retaining a distinctive identity. I'm not surprised, for example, that campus ministries today on major university campuses are dominated by students from China and India and Africa. Those voices will continue to have a large role. What we'll find is that evangelical institutions will be headed by more non-whites than they ever have been in the past. That will begin to adjust the tenor of evangelicalism.

The political landscape is also going to change considerably. Ten years from now, the issue of same-sex marriage will probably no longer be on the table. I think there will be some recognition of some form of civil union in all fifty states, and evangelicals will not win that particular cultural debate. The real test will be whether evangelicals are able to retain their rights, as religious institutions, to exclude practicing homosexuals from being hired by their institutions. That's not just going to affect the church, but it will affect a whole range of church-based institutions -- like colleges and universities, hospitals, and social service agencies. That will be the real test for evangelicals in public policy over the next decade.

8/4/2010 4:00:00 AM
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  • Timothy Dalrymple
    About Timothy Dalrymple
    Timothy Dalrymple is the CEO and Chief Creative Officer of Polymath Innovations, a strategic storytelling agency that advances the good with visionary organizations and brands. He leads a unique team of communicators from around North America and across the creative spectrum, serving mission-driven businesses and nonprofits who need a partner to amplify their voice and good works. Once a world-class gymnast whose career ended with a broken neck, Tim channeled his passions for faith and storytelling into his role as VP of Business Development for Patheos, helping to launch and grow the network into the world's largest religion website. He holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Tim blogs at Philosophical Fragments.