The Failure of Evangelical Elites

Published October 15, 2021

First Things

There are times in history when Christianity feels its place in ­society coming under threat. As it finds itself pushed to the margins, two temptations emerge. The first is an angry sense of entitlement, an impulse to denounce the entire world and withdraw into cultural isolation. In the early twentieth century, American Fundamentalism offered a good example of this tendency, renouncing public engagement and defining itself against alcohol, evolution, the ­movies—characteristic productions of the society by which it felt attacked. Arguably, we see something of the same thing today in evangelical support for Donald Trump, though in this case populist Protestantism is contending for ­America’s future rather than retreating from its present. I dare say readers of The Christian Century wish that truculent evangelicals would take the Benedict ­Option.

The second tendency is more subtle and more seductive. While appearing to be valiant for truth, it conforms Christianity to the spirit of the age. If fundamentalist fist-shaking is the temptation of the ragamuffin masses, accommodation appeals to those who seek a seat at the table among ­society’s elite. And these elite aspirants often blame the masses when their invitation to high table fails to materialize.

Over the last few years, America has witnessed plenty of both tendencies. We’ve seen the anger of the evangelicals who think the country is being stolen from them, and we’ve detected the condescension of those who blame their less urbane coreligionists for the woes of the Church and the nation. Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun. As often as Christianity has had its cultured despisers, it has had adherents who respond by warring against the age or by making entreaties to the despisers—often reinterpreting the anti-Christian sentiments of the moment as fulfillments of the true faith.

Today, countless apologists insist that a rejection of Christian sexual morality is actually a fulfillment of the Christian imperative of love, which they gloss as the imperative to “include.” But one of the first of these apologists, and arguably the most sophisticated, was Friedrich Schleiermacher. He is credibly called the father of modern theology, which really means modern liberal Protestant theology. Liberal Protestants pioneered the tactic of labeling critics “anti-modern” rather than engaging their arguments. Only in the last few decades, as liberal Protestantism has declined as a cultural force, have historians recognized that theologies framed to reject modern individualism, subjectivism, and historicism are themselves uniquely modern.

When Schleiermacher was a young man, an older, confessional Protestantism still had ownership of institutional culture in his native Germany. But even then society was in transition, and ­Christianity was losing ground among elites. The first generation of historical critics was shaking old Reformation certainties. Theology, once queen of the sciences and the crown of university education, was subject to fundamental challenges from Enlightenment thinking. The empiricism of thinkers such as David Hume called into question the traditional proofs for God’s existence and the credibility of miracles. Influenced by Hume, Immanuel Kant ruled out-of-bounds any possibility of knowing transcendent realities. In effect, Kantian philosophy, which rapidly came to dominate German intellectual life, made it impossible to sustain classical Christian theism. In the world of Kant and his successors, God was perhaps useful as a presupposition by which to anchor moral duty—what Kant called a “postulate” of practical reason—but theological notions served no substantive purpose. At the same time, Romanticism was placing sentiment or feeling at the heart of what it means to be human. This, too, ran counter to inherited forms of Christianity, with their dogmas and systematic theologies full of close arguments and fine ­distinctions. Christianity was being cordoned off from the influential modes of inquiry that inspired excitement and enjoyed the prestige of the new.

It was in this context that Schleiermacher produced his brilliant work On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. He did not dispute Kant’s strictures against metaphysics, which entailed that we cannot know God’s revelation and thereby denied that Christian doctrine has authority. Instead, he attacked Kant’s reliance on argument and analysis. God, Schleiermacher insisted, is not a postulate. He is rather the object of our most intense emotions. Religion is thus a matter of feelings, not of reason. The purpose of doctrine, therefore, is not to convey knowledge but to evoke intense ­feelings that move our souls. We do not “know” God; rather, we commune with God in an “­immediate feeling.”

One rightly marvels at Schleiermacher’s ability to concede all of Kant’s philosophical points while advancing a passionate case for the enduring relevance of pious emotions. At one point, ­Schleiermacher notes that Christianity is heatedly rejected by those influenced by Enlightenment thought—and the passion of unbelief indicates that religion has great power and significance. Yet it is not so much Schleiermacher’s argument as his strategy that is instructive. Rather than defend Christian orthodoxy, he concedes the ground claimed by religion’s cultured despisers. He redefines Christianity to make it accord with the assumptions of its critics. He argues that ­Christianity is not characterized by irrational credulity, because it is not concerned with beliefs at all, but rather with feelings. By Schleiermacher’s way of thinking, Christian beliefs are symbols, cherished because they evoke the “immediate feeling” that links us to the divine.

With this approach, Schleiermacher was free to partake of the rising criticism of theological systems. He need not defend the authority of doctrine or of those who believed that Christian doctrine made objective claims about reality. By turning the dogmatic faith of previous generations into a religion of feelings and intuitions, he construed Christian doctrines as expressions of religious sentiment rather than as statements of objective truth. For example, predestination was not for him a matter of divine action effecting the eternal decision or decree of God, which divided the human race into elect and reprobate. Rather, it was a conceptual-­poetic expression of the feeling of absolute dependence upon God, which Christianity evokes and Christians experience.

Schleiermacher is long dead, as is the Enlightenment audience he sought to address. But the problem of Christianity and its cultured despisers has not disappeared. It has become increasingly evident in recent decades. Powerful forces of secularism, metaphysical materialism, and scientism, among other factors, have driven religion from its former places of influence. One need only note that very nearly all private universities in the United States were founded by religious groups and were for a long time anchored in a religious tradition, only to become secular in the last two generations. In response to this pressure, Christianity has once again put forward those who seek to persuade its despisers that the faith is not inimical to polite society.

In the mid-1990s, a sustained effort was made to rehabilitate and defend the intellectual and academic integrity of orthodox Christians. The leaders of this movement, the historians Mark Noll and George Marsden, made valiant cases for the Christian mind. In The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Noll argued that American evangelicalism was hamstrung by its commitment to indefensible positions that lacked intellectual credibility. It consequently attracted the scorn of educated people outside the Church. Worse still, the lack of intellectual standards made life hard for thoughtful individuals within the Church. Noll focused on dispensationalism and literal six-day creation, arguing that these commitments were not defensible by the canons of reason, nor were they necessary for a rigorously orthodox Christian faith.

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was a bestseller and named Book of the Year by Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical magazine whose purpose was, in part, to articulate a Christianity that avoided the excesses of fundamentalism while defending orthodox Christianity. Shortly afterward, Marsden argued for what he dubbed “the outrageous idea of Christian scholarship” in a monograph of the same name. The historical portion of his case was based on research he had earlier published on the Christian origins of many of America’s most significant institutions of higher education. Marsden concluded that Christianity’s cultured despisers were simply wrong when they claimed that faith set a person at odds with the life of the mind. In the constructive portion of his case, Marsden argued that Christian scholars could cultivate careful respect for the canons of academic discourse and thoughtful, honest engagement with other academics within the guild without compromising their faith.

Unlike Schleiermacher, Noll and Marsden are careful to sustain full-blooded affirmations of orthodox Christian faith. And unlike ­Schleiermacher’s, I find their arguments convincing. There is nothing about belief in the saving death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ that undermines intellectual rigor or compromises academic standards—­unless, of course, those standards are deemed above criticism from the get-go. But there can be no doubt that the extraordinarily positive reception of Noll’s and Marsden’s ideas came about because university-­educated Evangelicals in the 1990s were anxious to be reassured. The universities they attended increasingly told them that their faith was disqualifying. Noll and ­Marsden argued otherwise, showing that a person of faith who ­engaged in self-criticism and discarded ­untenable beliefs could participate fully in modern ­intellectual life.

Though Marsden and Noll made their ­cases less than thirty years ago, I am struck by the fact that their arguments belong to an age that is long past. The idea that a commitment to honesty and integrity in scholarship might gain a person membership in today’s universities and other leading institutions was, in retrospect, ­naive. Higher education today is largely the land of the woke. One might be a brilliant biochemist or have a profound knowledge of Minoan civilization, but any ­deviation from cultural orthodoxy on race, sexuality, or even pronouns will prove more significant in hiring and tenure processes than considerations such as scholarly competence and careful research.

Noll and Marsden are committed to a thoroughgoing supernatural Christian orthodoxy. Nevertheless, a sociological comparison of their project with Schleiermacher’s is legitimate. Like the great German liberal, these American evangelicals assumed that the problem between their religion and the culture that despised it primarily concerned intellectual integrity and respectability. Schleiermacher accepted the rationality of the cultured despisers. Noll and Marsden adopted a narrower strategy, embracing the scholarly criteria of the academy and making a credible case that religious scholars, if capable, ­deserved respect from the cultural elites. It was also true that these American evangelical intellectuals, like Schleiermacher before them, largely blamed Christians themselves for the scorn heaped on them—for Christians had failed to distinguish between the essential core of faith and its accidental elaborations, which invite unnecessary conflicts with unbelievers.

What Noll and Marsden advocated in the nineties seemed, at least initially, to bear good fruit. Their doctoral students published fine monographs with respected academic presses and obtained positions at colleges and universities. And their idea—that Christians could obtain high intellectual office if they conformed to the expectations of the scholarly guild—had perhaps no better exemplar than Francis Collins.

Collins, a distinguished Evangelical scientist, was appointed by President Obama to the National Institutes of Health. His appointment was hailed in the Washington Post as a signal that evangelicalism was finally maturing—a comment cited with approval by Christianity Today. If ever the “evangelical mind” could be said to have realized its full potential, this was surely the moment. A devout evangelical Christian appointed to a prestigious position in the scientific community by a progressive Democratic president! Collins was proof positive that, yes, a careful adherence to scholarly standards combined with a gracious and thoughtful demeanor can earn a faithful Christian a place in the professional elite. Even in twenty-first-century America, when a presidential candidate can speak of bigoted people who “cling” to religion, Christians can rise to high office and make a difference in the secular world.

Yet in the years since his appointment, Collins has consistently defended the use of fetal tissue from elective abortions. Worse, in recent months details have emerged of an NIH grant supporting research on the remains of aborted babies specially curated from ethnic minorities—an atrocity that has received no comment from Christianity Today. To be sure, Collins may not have approved the grant personally. But it must be legitimate to ask what difference his Christian presence makes at the top of his organization, given that it funds research that legitimates abortion and racism simultaneously. Woke Christians, typically so sensitive to matters of systemic racism, have been rather muted on what would seem to be a clear example of just that.

The hope had been that Collins would be an instance of what James Davison Hunter called “faithful presence”: the idea that Christians should eschew worldly notions of power and influence and not seek to change the world by direct means. Instead, by being faithful disciples pursuing earthly callings in a godly and humble manner, they are to transform the world indirectly—or transform at least those people and institutions with whom they are connected. In principle, this idea is sound, and Collins could have put it into practice. But for faithful presence to be effective, the faithfulness must be at least as important as the presence. That seems not to be the case here.

The problem with Noll and Marsden’s approach, as with Hunter’s related notion of faithful presence, is that modern intellectual culture has never been engaged in a morally neutral exercise of refining the canons of ­intellectual inquiry and debate. The leading figures of the Enlightenment and their intellectual descendants were engaged, with varying degrees of conscious intention, in an attack on the moral significance of orthodox Christianity.

In Revelation and Reconciliation, Stephen ­Williams cautions us not to take modernity at its word: Though the “epistemological challenge to Christianity must be taken seriously,” we must not forget “that it is grafted onto a fundamental resistance to the message of reconciliation.” The Enlightenment did not simply rebel against old ways of thinking about knowledge; it rebelled also against the moral teachings of Christianity. The mainstream of modern thought has deemed doctrines of human sinfulness and Christ’s atonement incompatible with human autonomy and freedom. This moral and political objection to Christianity is the dominant motif of today’s cultured despisers. Unlike the canons of scholarship, the objection that Christianity promotes subservience, injustice, and hatred cannot be accommodated by Christians. Reason is compatible with faith, but the opposite of humility before God and obedience to his commandments is antithetical to it.

Last year I taught a class in historical method at Grove City College. One of our texts was ­Marsden’s The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. The students’ response to the book was striking. Though they saw Marsden as a thoughtful and engaging writer, they considered his argument—that ­Christians could find a place at the academy’s table by being good scholars and treating colleagues with respect—unpersuasive in the present context. No student today thinks that a professor in any discipline at a research university who is polite and respectful to a gay colleague will also be allowed to voice his objections to gay marriage. That is not how the system works anymore.

My students have an accurate view of reality. Today’s cultured despisers of Christianity do not find its teachings to be intellectually implausible; they regard them as morally reprehensible. And that was always at least partially the case. This was the point missed by Noll and Marsden—though it may not have been as obvious at Wheaton College or the University of Notre Dame in the nineties as it is almost everywhere in higher education today. Our postmodern world sees all claims to truth as bids for power, all stable categories as manipulative—and the task of the academy is to catechize students into this orthodoxy. By definition, such a world rejects any notion that scholarly canons, assumptions, and methods can be separated from moral convictions and outcomes. Failure to conform to new orthodoxies on race, morality, sexual orientation, and gender identity is the main reason orthodox Christianity is despised today. These postmodern tenets rest upon cultural theories that cannot accommodate Christianity, precisely because they underwrite today’s academic refusal to discuss and weigh alternative claims. To oppose critical race theory or gender theory is to adopt a moral position that the culture’s panjandrums regard from the outset as immoral. The slightest hint of opposition disqualifies one from admission to polite society.

Here’s the rub: Within Christian circles, particularly those of the leadership class and its associated institutions, the desire to appease religion’s cultured despisers has become a powerful force. Like Schleiermacher, those who hold to this vision think that a winning strategy involves standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the despisers. This no longer means conformity to the canons of academic discourse, the well-­considered position advanced by Noll and Marsden. It means echoing woke outrage. And, where possible, it means laying the blame for Christianity’s failure to meet elite standards on other Christians, typically on those who stand to the right of the “good ­Christians” politically and beneath them economically and socially. Sadly, the Schleiermachian ambition to appease the cultured despisers has reinforced the Menckenite tendency to sneer at the “fundamentalist” masses. The class division in American society between the educated people who count and the “low-information” people who do not appears just where it should never be found: in the body of Christian believers.

In this respect, militant rank-and-file evangelical support for the Trump phenomenon was paradoxically a gift to evangelical elites. It was only too easy for evangelical leaders to adopt the simplistic progressive narrative: Each and every Trump voter is a hardcore ignorant bigot and, if professing Christianity, also a rank hypocrite. The idea that not all who voted for Trump did so with any enthusiasm had no place in the secular elite’s interpretation of 2016; nor did it fit with the therapeutic narrative adopted by many anti-Trump Christians. To concede that Trump’s victory was not an artifact of white Christian nationalism or some similarly simplistic construct would have demanded a painful degree of heart-searching and self-criticism on the part of the officer classes of society at large and Christianity in particular. And that made the two extreme camps, Trump and anti-Trump, similar in the moral clarity with which each believed it understood its opponents. Rhetorically, the language of many of the most prominent figures on either side was nasty in the extreme and incompatible with basic Christian decency. Yet both sides hurled accusations without hesitation because of the obvious (to them) evil of their opponents. Stories of how leading #NeverTrumpers suffered like ­Shakespearean tragic heroes at the hands of Trumpite Twitter mobs merit an equally ­Shakespearean response: A plague on both your houses!

Post-Trump, the political landscape has shifted, but the game is the same. The moral preoccupations of secular progressive America now focus on two basic issues: race and LGBTQ+ rights. ­Christian leaders professing orthodoxy cannot support gay rights in the form of, say, the Equality Act. It is therefore unsurprising that we find so much vocal outrage among members of the Christian establishment on matters surrounding race. This topic provides a perfect opportunity for Christian leaders to place themselves (for once) on the “good” side of a moral debate that is generating turmoil in wider society, and thus to stand with the cultured despisers. It also allows the older generation to assure the young that the Church is not a haven of reactionary bigots, as their secular peers would have them believe. And given America’s legacy of slavery and segregation, the race issue offers ample opportunity for public displays of self-loathing and expressions of shame, the acts of atonement that progressive America encourages and enjoys.

Yet leading anti-racist Christians operate within parameters set by cultural progressives. Police actions in 2018 accounted for the deaths of fewer than three hundred African Americans, while in the same year abortions of African-American babies accounted for more than 117,000 of the same. One would think this extreme difference (390 to one) would make abortion the centerpiece of Christian critiques of racism. But abortion was remarkably unremarked upon in the myriad op-eds and blog posts about George Floyd and critical race theory that dominated establishment Christian websites in 2020. That is not surprising: ­Condemning abortion would not have been to the taste of the cultured despisers.

Let me put it bluntly: Talking in an outraged voice about racism within the boundaries set by the woke culture is an excellent way of not talking about the pressing moral issues on which ­Christianity and the culture are opposed to each other: LGBTQ+ rights and abortion. Even ­Schleiermacher would cringe. Christian elites try to persuade the secular world that they aren’t so bad—no longer in terms of Enlightenment conceptions of reason, but in terms of the disordered moral preoccupations of the day.

For all his brilliance, Schleiermacher did little to mitigate elite cultural contempt for Christianity or preserve Christian orthodoxy for future generations. He conceded too much and failed to see that Christianity is despised not ­simply because of its doctrinal content but because of its moral teachings. I suspect the same will prove true today: Those who seek selective solidarity with our cultured despisers on the woke fixations of the day will find their strategy inherently ­unstable. We cannot pick and choose moral priorities. The Christian gospel is first and foremost a judgment on this world, not a selective affirmation of it in the service of winning friends and ­influencing people.

Christians should not expect to be warmly embraced by the world, nor even to be tolerated. In John 15, Christ tells his disciples:

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.

Harkening to Jesus’s words is not an excuse for sloppy scholarship any more than it is an excuse for indifference to injustice and evil. Nor does it justify treating with contempt those with whom we disagree. Christians who act despicably should not complain when they find themselves despised. But Jesus’s warning surely reminds us that we do not need to take our cultural despisers seriously; still less ought we to side with them against those who actually share our faith. Christianity tells the world what it does not wish to hear. We should not expect to be embraced by those whose thoughts and deeds contradict the truths of our faith. Nor should we seek to make our faith more palatable, lest the salt lose its savor. Accommodating the world’s demands is a fool’s errand, as anyone who reads Schleiermacher should know.

Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Carl R. Trueman is a fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping civic leaders and policy makers better understand the deep roots of our current cultural malaise. In addition to his scholarship on the intellectual foundations of expressive individualism and the sexual revolution, Trueman is also interested in the origins, rise, and current use of critical theory by progressives. He serves as a professor at Grove City College.

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