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Since 2016, a cottage industry of books written by professional historians has routinely blamed evangelicals for everything from Donald Trump’s presidency to climate change, the rise of Russian authoritarianism, moral corruption, and much more. The guild of evangelical historians has not offered any real pushback. Instead, they seem more concerned not to ruffle the feathers of their fellow historians, even when the historical work is specious or superficial.
A high number of evangelical critics in the academy are former evangelicals who seem intent on sociologically scapegoating their former coreligionists as a vehicle for their own advancement, both sociologically and vocationally. This is not perhaps always intentional, but it is worrisome nonetheless. Why do evangelical academics seem to loathe a religious group they once identified with?
Christian and non-Christian institutions alike have bred a raft of academics intent on cataloging the sins of evangelicalism. Most of those “sins” appear to be based on evangelicals’ deviation from supposed neoliberal policies, particularly on issues of gender and sexuality. But evangelicals, defined broadly as socially conservative Protestants, have not changed all that much in the last half-century. Since 1980, they have generally voted for Republicans and have been conservative regarding sexuality, and they have made strides toward racial equity commensurate with the rest of the country.
Why, then, are so many scholars, especially academics from evangelical schools, so likely to censure American evangelicals for upholding beliefs they’ve always held? Because modern colleges and universities in the United States have become the primary institutional vehicles for an ideology of inclusion that is openly at war with historic Western and Christian understandings of natural law, gender roles, and definitions of marriage.
Religious institutions have not been spared from this ideology. Mickey Mattox, a prominent religious scholar at Marquette University, an officially Roman Catholic institution, rightly noted that the “problem with the new inclusion, of course, is that it’s not inclusive, nor can it be. It is simply a new way of defining sexual morality that masquerades as a bureaucratic, therapeutic project of ‘inclusion.’” More importantly, Mattox argued, it is clear “that this project seeks to displace traditional Catholic accounts of sexual morality.”
The same thing is happening among evangelicals. Evangelical institutions have been slow to recognize ideological threats to the very essence of intellectual life in the West. Academic prestige and vocational attainment understandably motivate evangelical intellectuals. While neither is problematic in its own right, Christian academics and Christian colleges have tended to ape their secular counterparts in the search for secular affirmation. Louis Markos, an English professor at Houston Baptist University, rightly noted that “for too long now, evangelical academics like myself have been reactive when we should have been proactive.” Instead of forging “a uniquely Christian vision based on the central tenets of the historic creeds and the rich tradition of Christian higher education,” he said Christian academics “have tended to imitate and then lightly ‘Christianize’ whatever the secular schools of pedagogy have deemed fashionable.” While that practice might have been sufficient in an era before the radical ideological takeover of higher education, it is utterly insufficient now.
The evangelical tendency to adopt the suppositions of secular academic life led it to be unprepared for the rapid ideological collapse of intellectual life in the United States. Aaron Renn has argued that until 2014, society at large took a neutral stance toward Christianity. Christianity no longer had privileged status but was not actively “disfavored.” Publicly identifying as a Christian did not have a positive or a negative “impact on one’s social status.” Christianity was a “valid option within a pluralistic public square. Christian moral norms retain some residual effect.” Likewise, Christian identity did not help you in secular and state universities, but it might not harm you either. Things changed, however, and Renn argues that now “society has come to have a negative view of Christianity. Being known as a Christian is a social negative, particularly in the elite domains of society.”
In society’s elite institutions—governmental bureaucracy, the arts, and particularly academia, Christianity is expressly repudiated and seen as a threat to the public good and the new public moral order. Subscribing to Christian moral views or violating the secular moral order brings negative consequences.” Put simply, being a committed evangelical is no longer helpful for a Christian’s academic aspirations. Being a committed evangelical is now a problem.
The quickest way to confirm your adherence to the new ideological regime is to signal that you do not share evangelicals’ commitments that oppose society’s new commitments on gender, sexuality, and politics in general. A Christian academic whose highest aspiration is the affirmation of the academy, rather than a commitment to timeless and transcendent Christian doctrine, understandably knows where his or her bread will be buttered.
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Miles Smith is a lecturer in history at Hillsdale College. His area of interest is the intellectual and religious history of the 19th-century United States and the Atlantic World.
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