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Photo of Alan Wolfe
Though politically powerful, 20th-century Conservative Protestants have been also-rans in the American intellectual sweepstakes. Not any longer, says political scientist Alan Wolfe in a recent Atlantic Monthly cover story.

AN INTERVIEW BY BEN BIRNBAUM

. What are the origins of fundamentalist anti-intellectualism?
When American conservative Christianity originated early in the 20th century, it was a movement in protest against the emergence of liberal Protestantism, Methodism, and so on. Those denominations had created successful institutions of higher learning. Methodism, for example, created Emory, Northwestern, Boston University, and Southern Methodist. But the fundamentalists were dead set against that kind of development, particularly in the 1920s, defining themselves in opposition to modernity, which meant in opposition to the life of the mind. They had theological seminaries that aspired to their own standards of intellectual rigor and that would produce an occasional theologian, but their colleges reflected their distrust of modernity and Enlightenment culture. This attitude is captured in a quote from Billy Sunday, the fundamentalist preacher, who said, "When the word of God says one thing and scholarship says another, scholarship can go to hell."

In your article, you term the colleges you studied evangelical, not fundamentalist. Most of us use the terms interchangeably, but clearly to you they mean two different modes of Protestant Christianity.
The original founders of the colleges I studied were fundamentalists, essentially the originators of the 20th-century brand of American conservative Christianity. The first two presidents of Wheaton College in Illinois, for example--which I describe in my Atlantic Monthly article as an evangelical institution--clearly thought of themselves as fundamentalists. It was Billy Graham, himself a Wheaton graduate, who in the 1930s played the major role in defining what we know as the neo-evangelical movement. Of course, the term evangelical has a very long history in Christianity, taking its meaning from the word "gospel"--"good news." But people like Graham, who wanted to retain their strong commitment to conservative Protestantism but to be less antimodern, redefined it. They wanted to move out into the world, to be taken seriously by the rest of America. Those are the people that I call evangelical. A well-known example of a fundamentalist who specifically opposed the evangelical project was Bob Jones Senior, who founded Bob Jones University, where George W. Bush got into trouble during the primaries.

What are evangelical colleges like?
The ones I know best, because I visited them, are Baylor, Pepperdine, and Wheaton. I also visited Fuller Theological Seminary, which is not an undergraduate college. There are many other evangelical colleges. In the Boston area, we have Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Gordon College, both of which are highly regarded in evangelical and fundamentalist circles. These colleges are small, for the most part, financially healthy, and generally located in towns and cities that are out of the mainstream. The student bodies are predominately middle class or better, and at most of these colleges, you have to be a confessing member of the appropriate church in order to teach or study there. If you happen to be moved to take up another faith while you're there--Catholicism, for example--it's soon made plain to you that you need to leave.

What's the evidence that the Billy Sunday view no longer obtains--that there's a sense of intellectual purpose and seriousness at evangelical colleges?
There are two main pieces of evidence. The first is that in recent years these evangelical colleges have hired excellent scholars who also happen to be evangelicals--often luring them away from secular institutions. These are people like Mark Noll, whose The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994) is probably the toughest critique of fundamentalism as an intellectual exercise--far tougher than some critiques that have come from liberal scholars. Or the literary scholar Roger Lundin at Wheaton, or George Marsden at Notre Dame, who six years ago wrote The Soul of the American University on the decline of religious commitment in America's universities. These scholars are not only producing good research, but they are producing research that is inspired by their religious beliefs.

The second piece of evidence is the students. I sat in on classes everywhere I visited, and I was extremely impressed with the students' seriousness of purpose and the tone of classroom discussion. They had done their reading and they took ideas seriously. Their discussion could stand against the best kind of student conversation at any select institution I've ever taught at.

So how came this revolution?
Money, of course. You can't have an unfunded revolution, and in this case the funds have come from private foundations. It's interesting that some of these colleges do not accept federal money. Wheaton, for example, has very strong science departments and has never accepted a National Science Foundation grant. They get corporations to fund their labs, and they rely on the incredible dedication of the faculty.
In the main, the money to raise the intellectual standing of these colleges has come from the Pew Charitable Trust and the Lilly Endowment. These are very well-off foundations, which incidentally fund some of my work as well. Lilly briefly became the largest philanthropic foundation in America a few years ago. Today it's in the top six, but it surpassed the Ford Foundation a couple of years ago. I think their vision has been to use the money to drive the professorate into respectability rather than the university, and that's a lot cheaper to accomplish. So we're not talking about building stadiums for football. We're talking about English professors, we're talking about setting up financial aid scholarships.

But something else was at work here, too. You can have a vision and money, but you also need demand. And this has come from the students themselves and, one presumes, from their parents. There is absolutely no denying, for example, that the students at Wheaton College are upper-middle- class Americans right down to their 1,300 SAT scores, just like the vast majority of students at Boston College or Duke or Brown. And this is evidence of a sociological transformation of evangelical Protestants in America.

It's very similar, in fact, to the sociological transformation of American Catholics that took place a generation earlier. The students are just not going to put up with intellectually mediocre institutions. They will go to secular institutions if that is the only way they can get a respectable education.

Tell me something that surprised you when you visited these colleges for the Atlantic. A number of things surprised me. I mean, I wasn't surprised that there was a strong intellectual current at these places. I knew that had been happening, and that's why I wanted to do the story. But sitting in classrooms, I was very impressed by how excited faculty were about ideas.

I had a chance to hear Roger Lundin speak. Lundin is a great scholar of Emily Dickinson. And I said to myself: What's this guy going to say that I'd be interested in? And he got up, and he just grabbed us all right from the beginning, speaking in this revivalist kind of rhythm. It was brilliant. Everyone just sat there and listened with open mouth and was immediately into Emily Dickinson's writing. It's fantastic and quite striking how completely uncynical these people are about being scholars and teachers.

And if you think about it, it makes sense. Because ideas are new in their tradition. This was very nice for me to see because in the circles I travel in you often find people who are very blasˇ about ideas. Whatever you can say about the evangelical colleges--they're limited in scope; they're anti-Catholic to some degree--you can't say they're cynical. And cynicism is a big disease of the secular university.

What do you mean when you say that these colleges are limited in their scope?
The arts, primarily. Wheaton College was having an art exhibit when I was there, and the paintings were the worst I'd ever seen in a college-sponsored exhibit in my life. It occurred to me that evangelical Protestants don't have a tradition of painting. Music is another tradition where these places are not strong. The evangelical Protestant tradition hasn't created great music since the glory days of Bach.

In a similar way, religious literature is either Russian Orthodox or Catholic: Dostoyevsky or Flannery O'Connor. You certainly can't find much of an evangelical equivalent. For fundamentalists and evangelicals, the Bible is the only theology, so when they need to teach religious ideas--particularly in their seminaries--they tend to borrow Catholic writers. They read Walker Percy in literature classes. Wheaton houses important collections of C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton.

But at the same time, Catholics can't teach on the faculties.
Yes. Wheaton has no Catholics on its faculty. And when you won't allow on your faculty the same authors whose letters are welcome in your archives, you've got a problem.

Over the years, certain creedal requirements regarding faculty have been relaxed at some of these colleges. For example Calvin College used to require its faculty to be members of the Christian Reformed Church. But you can't build a good faculty--or maybe any faculty at all--just from members of the Christian Reformed Church, so they changed the requirement to allow faculty members to belong to other churches that are in communion with the Christian Reformed Church. Where you apparently can't expand this creedal umbrella is to the kind of Christians called Catholics.

Historically, of course, American evangelicalism meant opposition to Catholicism, an extension of the Reformation. At the same time, American Catholics seem to have dropped the Counter Reformation, so to speak. Nathan Hatch, the provost of Notre Dame, for example, is not only an evangelical Christian but one of the great scholars of the movement. It's fascinating that Notre Dame, a Catholic university, had no problem with the idea of an evangelical Protestant as its chief academic officer, but Wheaton doesn't have a single Catholic on the faculty.

Can a college be great when it deliberately excludes not just Catholics, but anyone else who isn't an evangelical Protestant? My own view is that ultimately it can't. I think it's difficult in two ways. First, you cut yourself off not just from other people and ideas, but potentially from other great people and important ideas. Second, education becomes a much less challenging or satisfying proposition for a teacher or a student when everyone you encounter pretty much agrees with you, and the only arguments you have are with a text.

Moreover, I think the residual anti-Catholicism of these colleges stands as an absolute block to intellectual greatness--not simply because it keeps Catholics out but because it manifests a closed mind toward people whose ideas the schools may disagree with.

But while you critique evangelical colleges--and while you yourself, as a Jew, couldn't teach at any of them--it's clear that you do admire their effort. And not simply because they're trying to create an intellectual tradition. You write that "evangelicals are trying to create a life of the mind at a time when secular scholars question whether a life of the mind is worth having."
Yes. It's one of the things I appreciated about visiting these places. In a culture in which the main attractions are violent videos and rap music, I'll take the Bible, thank you, over that stuff. At least you have to read it. And you have to confront the word and take it seriously. At most universities we talk a lot about being critical of everything. Well, in that context, maybe having one text, the Bible, that you're not critical of, opens you to other texts.

And what about forbidden texts? Is a typical evangelical curriculum a bowdlerized "great books" program?
Not at all. Well, certainly not at Fuller Theological Seminary, where Freud is taught in psychology, and Jung even more so. Some of the students at Wheaton were a little uncomfortable with the sex in Walker Percy, and the teacher had to go through an explanation of why they were reading it. But even Foucault is not forbidden.

Talk about that, if you would. Postmodernism is very much in favor at these colleges, is it not? It's well received because it stands in basic agreement with what Protestant conservatives have preached for a long time--that in the end you can't rely on your own mind, on rational thought or science. In the end, you believe. You may believe in quantum mechanics. You may believe in the Bible as divine revelation. But you make a choice to believe, to decide what is truth.

Does this movement say anything about the country right now? Are there any larger lessons to be drawn than this immediate phenomenon?
I think it's significant in itself that there is such a large movement in America. Don't forget that Conservative Protestants make up 29 percent of the population. But I also think the story shows the incredible power of what we call modernity. All other religious groups have gone through this process, and one might admire fundamentalists for resisting it, but they can't. To me it's a testimony to how powerful these Enlightenment ideas are. For these people to really succeed, they need to meet and deal with their lives on their own terms. It doesn't mean that they have to become secular humanists or nihilists, but I think the Enlightenment was a pretty good idea, overall, and that people's lives are enriched when they deal with it in some way. It was bad for America and for conservative Protestants when fundamentalists withdrew from the rest of society. It corrupted them because it gave them a paranoid outlook on the world that produced an ugly politics of suspicion in the United States; and it was bad for America because the rest of America could ignore these people. And so the idea of their participating more in the culture can benefit both.


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Q&A
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  »  Visit the evangelical
schools mentioned
in the interview


Baylor University

Fuller Theological
Seminary


Pepperdine University

Wheaton College
     
  »  Read Alan Wolfe's
article in the Atlantic
     
  »  Read the review in
Christianity Today


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