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
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
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
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
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
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.