One of the most notable developments in American academic life of the past sixty years has been intellectual renewal where it might have been least expected: among evangelical Christians. Because public discussion in America is so dominated by politics, where “evangelical” has been reduced to mean white Republicans who say they are “born again,” this renewal is easily overlooked. Evangelical Christianity, which comes in many varieties in this country and around the world, features an emphasis on personal conversion to Christ and loyalty to the Bible as the Word of God. In American history, evangelicals have often been criticized, including from within their own numbers, for anti-intellectualism. As late as the 1950s, there was hardly an evangelical intellectual community outside of a few theological seminaries, a number of smaller undistinguished colleges, and some Bible institutes – and these were dedicated largely to the defense of the faith and to winning converts.
Viewed from that perspective, recent changes have been remarkable. Today the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) numbers well over one hundred member schools. Many of these schools have strong liberal arts curricula and well-credentialed faculties, with quite a few of their professors trained at some of the nation’s best graduate programs. It has been a buyer’s market for these schools, especially over the past quarter century. Because young evangelical scholars have been flooding into graduate programs, colleges and universities often have scores of qualified applicants for any single opening. Beyond the CCCU, the numbers of scholars of broadly evangelical convictions have also increased at non-religious colleges and universities.
Two factors have been primarily responsible for this resurgence of evangelical intellectual life. The first is sociological. A wide range of evangelical churches and movements has prospered in recent generations, often in suburban and high-tech regions. Large percentages of the young people in these areas have been going to colleges or universities, both to religious and non-religious institutions. Along with that demographic development a substantial sub-movement within evangelicalism itself now perceives intellectual life as a worthy calling. A few older leaders and many of the rising generation have been urging churches with anti-intellectual tendencies to recover historical traditions of sophisticated Christian thought. Inspired in college or perhaps by a university campus ministry, an increasing number of evangelicals has not only gone on to graduate school, but has done so from distinctly religious motives. Their hope is to serve humanity through engaging significant dimensions of the liberal arts, the sciences, technology, and the professions.
Although the self-consciously “Christian” scholars of the CCCU and their many fellow travelers in non-religious colleges and universities by no means constitute a large proportion of the American professoriate, they now make up a significant minority whose very presence marks a major change for their own religious communities. Although strong anti-intellectual tendencies can still be found in these communities, active nurturing of intellectual life has also become more common. As that encouragement grows, it connects readily with theologically conservative Christian traditions where intellectual life has always enjoyed support. Leadership in America for developing evangelical life has come especially from Reformed communities, which trace their roots to the formidable intellectual heritage generated by the Calvinist Reformation. As intellectual life in evangelical circles continues to develop, other influences have also expanded, including guidance on some questions from Catholic scholars and others from those in mainline Protestant churches who would not be comfortable with the “evangelical” designation.
For most major liberal arts disciplines today, a “Christian” sub-organization arranges conferences for its members and publishes a peer-reviewed academic journal. For instance, in my field of history, the Conference on Faith and History, founded in 1968, publishes Fides et Historia. Similarly, the Conference on Christianity and Literature, founded in 1956, has Christianity and Literature as its journal. The Society of Christian Philosophers, founded in 1978, is probably the most notable of such organizations. Its membership includes Catholics and mainline Protestants as well as evangelicals, and it cooperates closely with the older American Catholic Philosophical Association. At least a half dozen of these self-identified Christian philosophers have served as the presidents of the American Philosophical Association and a similar number have been elected as Fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. One of the major motifs in the work of such Christian philosophers has been to show that, considered with strict philosophical criteria, traditional Christian belief is as rational as any other belief system and (contrary to what was commonly held in the early twentieth century) does not inherently conflict with modern scientific outlooks.
Although the emergence of such societies as well as the intellectual maturation of CCCU schools represent a significant intellectual development, evangelical intellectual life continues to encounter real challenges. CCCU institutions face the difficulties confronted by almost all smaller private colleges. Particularly in the liberal arts, where distinctly Christian efforts have been most evident, the schools must deal with the same pressures that others face as higher education turns increasingly to technical training. Evangelical colleges also must keep the trust of their constituencies, which tend to be more politically conservative than their faculty members. The challenge also remains of assuring evangelical constituencies that participation in higher learning does not mean compromising Christian faith.
Despite these challenges, evangelical intellectual renewal is making a difference. Evangelicals from the CCCU colleges or who were nurtured by religious groups at secular universities are now active in many professions, even as they contribute as thoughtful laypeople to their local churches. Scholars from such church communities, alongside a good many British counterparts, annually publish hundreds of books and articles on theological topics and on all aspects of modern life, including the sciences and the creative arts. Publishers like Baylor University Press, Eerdmans, Baker Academic, Brazos, InterVarsity Press, and Zondervan offer lengthy lists of academic works, and increasing numbers of evangelical scholars are publishing with mainstream university presses. Moreover, as the center of worldwide Christianity continues to shift away from the former centers of Christendom toward Africa, South America, and Asia, Christian intellectual life and self-consciously evangelical universities have spread into those regions. In this country, evangelical colleges and especially theological seminaries have become strikingly diverse internationally. Despite racial, ethnic, and national differences, common beliefs and concerns foster a sense of cross-cultural unity. Similarly, because evangelical and other sorts of Christian scholars share common concerns with those not in their own fields, they have larger interdisciplinary interests and communication than in much of academia today, plagued as it is by the isolation of narrow specialization.
Thus, despite the widespread public image, a surprisingly vital intellectual sub-community flourishes within the American and worldwide “evangelical” movements. As an identifiably “evangelical” phenomenon, most of this intellectual vitality is relatively new. At the same time, this recent development draws on the rich resources of older traditions of Christian thought, including Catholic and Orthodox, that stretch back over two millennia. In the contemporary setting, such thoughtful modes of religious expression will continue to be challenged both by the populist elements in their evangelical constituencies and by some in the larger academy who question the compatibility of traditional religious belief with mainstream academic standards.
George M. Marsden is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016.
© 2017 by George M. Marsden