The Vocation of the Christian Scholar: How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind

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Weisman is a wonderful case to use in undergraduate political-science classes, because it presents two passionately argued, and utterly contrasting, views of America. I recently visited such a class, at a four-year liberal-arts college in the Midwest, in which the question of the day was whether the case had been correctly decided.

Defying every stereotype of apathetic students and indifferent professors, the discussion was vigorous, intelligent, and informed. As one might expect from a generation taught to believe that tolerance is the highest moral value, the overwhelming response of the students was to endorse Kennedy's opinion.

Scalia's dissent, said a third, was "inflammatory. These students understood, as if instinctively, the fundamental principle of liberalism hammered home by philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and John Rawls: A just policy is one to which we would agree if we could not know whether it would benefit us personally or not. Although Lee v. Weisman involved a Jewish student and a rabbi, none of the students in this political-science class were Jewish. Wheaton College, in Illinois, where the class was held, is an evangelical-Protestant institution.

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Wheaton takes its doctrinal statement seriously, I was informed by the college's president, Duane Litfin. All prospective faculty members must take the pledge, and as Stanton L. Jones, Wheaton's provost, told me, they are considered to have reaffirmed it when they sign their annual salary letter. Indeed, to obtain tenure at Wheaton, faculty members not only must teach and do research but also must write, and have approved, a thirty- to fifty-page paper demonstrating that they can approach their academic discipline from a Christian perspective.

Because its doctrinal statement is so heavily committed to an evangelical-Protestant understanding of God, Wheaton excludes Jews and most Catholics. There are a few Catholic students at the college fourteen out of 2, last fall , some of whom converted in college and others who see no contradiction between their faith and the statement. But there are no Catholics on the faculty, and except for four "Jewish Christians," as the college calls Jews for Jesus, no Jews at all.

What would the college do, I asked Litfin, if a faculty member decided to convert to Catholicism? He would be asked if he would not be more comfortable working elsewhere. OF all America's religious traditions, evangelical Protestantism, at least in its twentieth-century conservative forms, ranks dead last in intellectual stature.


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High-church Protestants established most of those universities we now call Ivy League. Methodism, with strong evangelical roots in England, came to America, eventually lost its revivalist spirit, and produced Northwestern, Boston University, and Emory. Three Catholic universities -- Georgetown, Notre Dame, and Boston College -- are now ranked in the top fifty of America's research universities. If there are only one or two great universities that are distinctively Jewish, that is because Jews have been so successful throughout American academic and intellectual life.

No comparable legacy has come from those fundamentalist sects that have flourished in the American heartland. Fundamentalism emerged in the United States toward the end of the nineteenth century, as a reaction against the increasing cosmopolitanism of most American Protestant denominations. Convinced that the United States was living through a period that threatened the disintegration of Christian civilization, fundamentalists believed that a return to strict principles was America's only salvation.

Published as The Fundamentals, a twelve-volume paperback series issued from to , those principles insisted on the literal truth of the Bible, outlined the ways in which Jesus would return to earth, and attacked competing religions, including Mormonism and Catholicism. While the rest of American religion accepted modernity, and with it freedom of thought, fundamentalists moved backward.

So hostile were they to the life of the mind that they managed during the Scopes "monkey" trial, in July of , to transform the bigoted H. Mencken, who was immortalized in Inherit the Wind, into a paragon of liberal tolerance. When Sinclair Lewis, the most celebrated American novelist never to have written a great work of literature, created the improbable Elmer Gantry, the behavior of one conservative preacher after another seemed to make him, of all things, lifelike. Searching for roots in American culture, fundamentalists looked back to the revivalism that flourished throughout the nineteenth century, a religious outlook usually characterized as evangelical.

The terms "fundamentalist" and "evangelical" are sometimes conflated, because the movements have common origins. But beginning in the s some conservative Protestants began to distance themselves from the extreme anti-modernism of more-vocal fundamentalists, and adopted the term "neo-evangelical" to describe themselves.

Since then it has been possible to describe evangelicals as Christians who are conservative in their theology and usually, although not necessarily, conservative in their politics. Wheaton College was in the middle of these debates over the form that conservative Protestantism would take. When its second president, Charles Blanchard, died, in , the college adopted as its creed a set of principles that Blanchard had helped to draft for the World's Christian Fundamentals Association. From then to now Wheaton has been an institution committed to a strict interpretation of Christian principles.

Yet at the same time Wheaton is an interdenominational school and sufficiently open to the world to be characterized as evangelical. Its most famous graduate, Billy Graham , played a crucial role in moving American fundamentalism away from its self-imposed rejection of the larger world in which it existed. Wheaton thus bears little resemblance to Elmer Gantry's Terwillinger College, with its "standard of scholarship equal to the best high-schools," but it does retain legacies from its fundamentalist years.

No college is likely to attract a world-class faculty if it peremptorily eliminates members of most of the world's religions. Students at Wheaton sign their own pledge, vowing to desist from smoking, drinking, and dancing. Required attendance at chapel patrolling monitors note any vacant seats is not the way to appeal to student consumers who expect their colleges to respond to their every whim.

And yet the class I attended was fascinating, both because the students understood and accepted the arguments behind the First Amendment and because they were so intellectually curious. In its own way, campus life at Wheaton College resembles that of the s, when students and a few professors, convinced that they had embarked on a mission of eternal importance, debated ideas as if life really depended on the answers they came up with.

Students at Wheaton, moreover, are as outstanding as any students in America. Wheaton's rejection rate last year was higher than the University of Chicago's.

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Its class of includes sixty-one National Merit Scholars. One political-science major I met had just been accepted for the doctoral program at Yale, another for the one at the University of California at San Diego. Wheaton does even better in the hard sciences than in the social sciences, ranking among the nation's leading colleges in the percentage of its graduates who go on to earn doctorates.

Surprisingly, for a college deriving from a religious tradition that was hostile to Darwinism, Wheaton managed to recruit the chairman of its biology department -- the first place where conservative alumni are likely to look for insistence on the Bible's inerrancy -- from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. And Lyman Kellstedt, the professor who led the discussion of Lee v. Weisman, was no slouch. At Wheaton he took a deep salary cut, saw his teaching load expand from four courses a year to six, and gave up his tenure, because Wheaton grants no immediate tenure to faculty members, not even those who have already earned it at other institutions.

Why did he do it? Kellstedt is about to retire, but his family's relationship with political science goes on: his son teaches that subject at the decidedly non-evangelical Brown University. Wheaton College is part of a determined effort by evangelical-Christian institutions to create a life of the mind. At Calvin College, in Michigan; Fuller Theological Seminary and Pepperdine University , in California; Baylor University, in Texas; Valparaiso University, in Indiana; and even the Catholic Notre Dame, also in Indiana, evangelical scholars are writing the books, publishing the journals, teaching the students, and sustaining the networks necessary to establish a presence in American academic life.

Should they fail, the reaction of most secular academics -- those who bother to notice -- will be "I told you so.

Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, relying on a survey, concluded that 29 percent of Americans could be described as conservative Protestants, with roughly equal numbers of evangelicals and fundamentalists, making them the largest religious group in America. Even if a relatively small number of them want to participate in the wider world to which a good education has always provided entree, the rest of America cannot continue to write off conservative Christians as hopelessly out of touch with modern American values.

FIRST published in , when liberals were beginning to recognize the growing power of what was then called the radical right, Richard Hofstadter's recounted the hostility of fundamentalists such as Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday to anything resembling a complicated idea. Yet fundamentalism is a cross that evangelicals, not liberals, have to bear. For if it is true, as the historian Mark Noll has written, that "fundamentalist intellectual habits In Noll published Although he wrote that Hofstadter's analysis was too simple, Noll went even further than Hofstadter in categorizing what he called "the intellectual disaster of fundamentalism.

Noll's book was meant as a charge to evangelical intellectuals to avoid creation science and similar embarrassments. His was not the first such effort. Fuller wanted to create a "Cal Tech of the evangelical world," and he used his entrepreneurial energy to buy prime land in Pasadena, not far from Caltech. Founded in , Fuller Theological Seminary, as the historian George Marsden has shown in Reforming Fundamentalism , began to attract a faculty unlikely to be satisfied with providing the kind of education offered at, for instance, the Moody Bible Institute.

Any effort to create an academically respectable seminary for evangelical Christians was bound to arouse the suspicions of fundamentalist leaders such as Bob Jones, who founded his eponymous college in , and the Reverend Carl McIntire, one of the most militantly sectarian of all the early fundamentalists.

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Charles Fuller also ran the risk of losing financial support and facing a boycott of his radio program should anyone on the faculty at the seminary take an unpopular position. The matter was resolved after Fuller adopted a credal statement that was to be adhered to "without mental reservation" -- a formulation that Vassady, who believed that only God could truly lack mental reservations, was unwilling to sign. The Vassady case defined the conflict the seminary would face: would it really become a Caltech, determined to hire the best people it could find, or would it conform to the certainties of the religious base from which it grew?

For the first quarter century of its existence that question was easily answered: Fuller could never be stronger than the religious movement that defined its identity.

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Only two institutions in conservative-Christian America had any academic credibility during those years, and neither was of much help to Fuller. Wheaton was one.

Many members of Fuller's original faculty had been Wheaton undergraduates in the s, and Billy Graham, who was widely trusted in fundamentalist circles in the late s and later became a Fuller board member, was sympathetic to the move toward evangelicalism. But J. Oliver Buswell Jr. The other source of intellectual strength in conservative-Protestant circles was the Christian Reformed Church, founded in America in by immigrants from the Netherlands.

Abraham Kuyper, the Church's leading theologian and from to the Prime Minister of Holland , believed that one of God's greatest creations was the human mind; much in the spirit of Saint Augustine, he urged his followers to engage in philosophical reflection. His legacy in America includes Calvin College, which from the s to the s left its mark on an extraordinary number of well-known philosophers, including O.