Can Evangelicals and Intellectuals Coexist?
The Great Awakenings are over. The religious tradition that created the Ivy League now faces near-extinction in the academic halls its followers once built. Statistics agree: a study of university faculty found that more than half of college professors have a negative view of Evangelicalism. 1 While 35 percent 2of Americans call themselves “born-again Christians,” only 1 percent of the country’s elite college professors claim that title. 3 In other words, if the numbers hold, a Columbia student taking five classes per semester could take a course from an Evangelical instructor once every ten years. Evangelicals and this country’s Intellectuals are not exactly the best of friends.
Still, you didn’t need numbers to believe me, especially if you study at one of these high-ranking schools or attend an Evangelical church. Post a status on Facebook mocking Evangelicals and watch your classmates shower it with likes. Or, if you feel especially brave, say something in class that could be construed as a defense of the belief system and endure the withering glares your classmates aim at you. Born-again millennial minister John Dickerson wrote in a 2012 New York Times piece that “Evangelicals are increasingly typecast as angry and repressed bigots.” 4 And the disdain goes both ways: visit a Sunday morning service at a Southern Baptist church and see what happens if the preacher brings up the term “mainstream media.” The culture wars of the past five years – and a recent election result that called their outcome into question – have done little to keep the two sides on speaking terms. Can anything bridge the gap between Evangelicalism and Intellectualism? Does anyone even want to bother trying to bridge it?
Conventional wisdom would seem to answer “no” to both those questions. After all, Evangelicals worship a Jesus who promises them difficulty in the secular world, 5 and many Intellectuals believe that the element of the supernatural has no place whatsoever in their conversations. But take a closer look at the beliefs of these two people-groups. Hidden in the muck and mire of mutual disdain is a common ground between Evangelicals and Intellectuals that is much broader than you think. Both deeply value justice, and Evangelicalism has a clear moral framework to explain why justice matters.
Much of the backlash to Evangelicalism comes from false perceptions of it – writing off an entire faith community as arcane homophobes is hardly an honest attempt to understand what people believe. Instead of relying on negative preconceived notions, let us quickly define Evangelicalism based on the writings of scholar Thomas S. Kidd, a rare Intellectual-Evangelical hybrids. Kidd notes four “pillars” of Evangelicalism: “Conversionism (‘the belief that lives need to be changed”), activism (‘the expression of the gospel in effort’), biblicism (‘a particular regard for the Bible’), and crucicentrism (‘a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross’).” He then adds the element of the Holy Spirit, a third divine character in the Bible who appears to aid the early church in their efforts to grow and survive in the anti-Christian first-century world. 6
In fewer words, Kidd describes Evangelicalism as far more interested in the life of Jesus Christ – from His Bible-affirming life 7 to His death on the cross 8 to His commission of His disciples to proselytize 9 – than in anything that has happened since, save the 70 or so years after Christ’s death when His apostles wrote the letters that eventually comprised the New Testament. While other Christian denominations may incorporate centuries of tradition or celebrate the values of modernity, Evangelicals claim to only follow Jesus as they interpret him in the Bible. When one draws from such a small bank of resources, everything—including morality—can be very concrete.
What is the modern secular landscape without some basis for morality? Cries from the oppressed in this country—”we are disadvantaged and that’s not acceptable”—presume that we should all find disadvantages unacceptable. But who gets to decide what is and isn’t okay? Perhaps more importantly, how is that deciding entity lording any sort of authority over a banker with a fortune and some greed, or a president with power and some prejudices? A naturalist worldview, which many (if not most) Intellectuals hold, makes the idea of morality tenuous. If we side with the naturalist and say that morality is relative, social justice is nothing but cultural convention, like wearing a belt that matches your shoes. A moral relativist who risks arrest and persecution to fight systemic inequities is doing so for the same reasons your mother wants you to keep your elbows off the dinner table.
But we inherently recoil at the absurdity of this comparison. Of course equal pay is more important than table manners! Make no mistake: even the most ardent moral relativist in your philosophy class knows this full well. Justice is not some human invention inspired by an evolved “selfish gene.” Thumb through a history book and see people, like animal species, building themselves up by pushing others down. We are repulsed by Leopold’s Congo and Stalin’s Soviet Union because we do not share the predatory programming of the lion or the bear, and we (rightly) believe that only the basest, most barbaric people can act so horribly. And humans respond this way to the pain those most barbaric people cause because we know a fundamental truth in our hearts: that we exist on a higher level than the animals, one where morality matters and conscience motivates us to do justly by everyone.
Enter Evangelicalism. While its God has no issue doling out punishment to the gang-rapists of Sodom 10 or the child-sacrificers 11 of Canaan, Jesus is sharp and biting to the oppressive one-percenters of his time, calling them “sons of hell” 12 at one point and “hypocrites” 13 at another. A modern intellectual might call Christ “woke.” After being sentenced to death by the angry ruling-class, 14 Jesus’ final commands to His disciples encourage them to embrace diversity in their Bible-based, conversion-minded faith. He tells them to spread His name and His moral teachings to every corner of the globe, 15 spawning a belief system that bridges cultural divides, crosses ethnic boundaries, and leads people from all kinds of religious backgrounds alike to a single morality.
Centuries later, that same morality has proven firm and relevant, perhaps more so in today’s intersectional, justice-driven Intellectual atmosphere than ever before. The biblical moral standard permeates every boundary humans create and provides a timeless guide for behavior. When the moral relativist Intellectual demands justice, ambiguous remarks like “It’s 2017” or “I think this is problematic” are not sufficient to hold them up philosophically. Evangelicals can stand on the sturdy branches of a tree whose seed was planted 2,000 years ago and still holds them up today.
Perhaps the Intellectual would interrupt me here, and for good reason. “No moral standard that tolerates racism or homophobia is okay in my book!” he might say. I agree with that sentiment, and would argue against the idea of any Evangelical holding racial biases. Ultimately, the Bible leaves no room for racism, between Christ’s universal call to evangelism and Paul’s assertion that “there is no Jew or Greek” in the kingdom of God. 16 Any white Evangelical who has prejudices against racial minorities is not an Evangelical at all. 17 Fortunately, the vast majority of Evangelicalism’s leading ministers are vocal opponents of racism in all its forms. 18 Most of their congregations follow suit, and those that do not should either change their hearts or change their religious affiliation.
The issue of homophobia is a bit more complicated. Evangelicals have spent the last decade provoking the ire of Intellectuals for their stance on homosexuality, especially as many misuse Leviticus and call the lifestyle an “abomination.” 19 There are genuine disagreements that Christians hold on the issue from a biblical perspective, but the Bible certainly does not justify the insufferable responses many Evangelicals have to gay rights. Jesus had a ministry based around prostitutes, foul-mouthed liars, and money-launderers who changed their lives to model His. Condemnation is not a winsome answer. Dickerson said it well:
The core Evangelical belief is that love and forgiveness are freely available to all who trust in Jesus Christ. … Instead of offering hope, many Evangelicals have claimed the role of moral gatekeeper, judge and jury. If we continue in that posture, we will continue to invite opposition and obscure the ‘good news’ we are called to proclaim. 20
Evangelicalism can earn more respect from Intellectuals if its people are less disrespectful to those around them, and vice versa. Both groups should promote an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding. If you identify as a member of either community—or both of them—do not let this single point of disagreement spoil your entire relationship with those who see it differently. Work together to fight systemic oppression, combat human trafficking, and help those with addictions. And certainly don’t let scholarly debates about the metaphysical realm distract you while children suffer and nations go hungry.
Are there legitimate disagreements between Evangelicals and secular Intellectuals? Without a doubt. As an Evangelical who fancies himself Intellectual, I deal with these tensions on a daily basis. I felt them most in the voting booth this past November, when I had to cast an identity-defining vote for president. The Intellectual in me rejected Donald Trump, an anti-science rube, and the Evangelical in me pushed away Hillary Clinton, who said 21 in 2015 that my religious beliefs “had to be changed.” 22 Most Intellectuals pulled the lever for Clinton; most Evangelicals went with Trump. I chose neither and felt terrible about it anyway.
Things ought to improve. Instead of accentuating divisions, Evangelicals and Intellectuals should be willing to give each other a chance. Philosophically, this partnership seems incredibly important, as Evangelicals and their concrete morality are sorely needed in the justice-minded but morally-relativistic Intellectual conversation. And their symbiosis has positive pragmatic effects as well: Evangelicals and Intellectuals should absolutely combine their sizable cultural influences to battle many of the unjust, immoral disasters we face today. They are powerful forces in this world when they are apart, but only together can Evangelicalism and Intellectualism flourish as they should.
Titus Willis (CC ’18) is the Editor-in-Chief of Crown & Cross. He hopes to show his readers love, truth and life of Christ with everything he writes.
- Tobin, Gary, and Aryeh Weinberg. Institute for Jewish & Community Research. “Religious Beliefs & Behavior of College Faculty.” Accessed February 5, 2017. http://jewishresearch.org/PDFs2/FacultyReligion07.pdf. (See p. 12) ↩
- Pew Research Center. “Chapter 1: The Changing Religious Composition of the U.S.” Accessed February 5, 2017. http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/chapter-1-the-changing-religious-composition-of-the-u-s/. Access PDF and advance to page 32 for this statistic. ↩
- Gross, Neil, and Solon Simmons. “The Religiosity of American College and University Professors.” Oxford University Press Association for the Sociology of Religion 70, no. 2 (2009): 118. Accessed February 5, 2017. https://oup.silverchair-cdn.com/oup/backfile/Content_public/Journal/socrel/70/2/10.1093/socrel/srp026/2/srp026.pdf?Expires=1486626362&Signature=RuYh5W1naY1VHWu0smF1a7sTqYvVbIBrfKrZ7H-JaSOtjKvbXFbDW8fN.
- Dickerson, John. “The Decline of Evangelical America.” New York Times. Accessed February 5, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/16/opinion/sunday/the-decline-of-evangelical-america.html. ↩
- John 16:33. ↩
- Kidd, Thomas S. The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. xiv. ↩
- Matthew 5:15. ↩
- Matthew 27. ↩
- Matthew 28:19-20. ↩
- Genesis 19:4-5. ↩
- Molech, an ancient Middle-Eastern pagan God, was not to be trifled with in the Torah (cf. Leviticus 18:21; Leviticus 20:3; et al.). ↩
- Matthew 23:15. ↩
- Matthew 23:13. ↩
- Luke 23. ↩
- Acts 1:8. ↩
- Galatians 3:28. ↩
- Contrary to what you may have heard, not all Evangelicals are white. The tradition of black Evangelicalism in the United States is rich and centuries-long, and has been critically engaged with by religious scholars such as William Bentley, Richard Tristano, and Dwight Perry, among others. ↩
- Like New York’s Tim Keller and Dallas’ Matt Chandler, for example. ↩
- Leviticus 18:22 ESV. ↩
- Dickerson, 2012. ↩
- Theissen, Mark A. “Hillary Clinton is a Threat to Religious Liberty.” The Washington Post. Accessed 5 February 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/amphtml/opinions/hillary-clinton-is-a-threat-to-religious-liberty/2016/10/13/878cdc36-9150-11e6-a6a3-d50061aa9fae_story.html?client=safari
- There were obviously more flaws with both of these candidates, certainly too many for me to cover in any detail here. ↩