Of all the spokesmen for godlessness to emerge during 2007, the "year of the atheist," Christopher Hitchens is perhaps the most prominent. He is a prolific journalist and television pundit, selected by voters in Prospect magazine's 2008 poll as the #5 most important public intellectual. His 2007 treatise, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, continues to sell briskly, and he has built a sideline career debating any willing opponent from any church or creed, from Al Sharpton to Dinesh D'Souza. There is one man, however, who has sparred with Hitchens more than anyone: a relatively unknown Idaho pastor named Douglas Wilson.
In 2007, Wilson, 55, fired his first salvo against the celebrity atheists with Letter from a Christian Citizen, a short reply to Sam Harris's best-selling Letter to a Christian Nation. The tone was irenic, its arguments largely familiar to readers of C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer. That spring, at the invitation of Christianity Today, Wilson wrangled with Hitchens in a six-part debate entitled "Is Christianity Good for the World?" on CT's website. American Vision published Wilson's side of the argument as God Is. How Christianity Explains Everything, as well as The Deluded Atheist, his response to Richard Dawkins.
In early 2008, Wilson's agent approached Hitchens to suggest a series of public debates at various East Coast locations, to be recorded by a professional film crew for a documentary, Collision, released this March. Between bouts of arguing over the morality of substitutionary atonement or the possibility of rational thought in a universe without God, the cameramen caught Hitchens in a revealing offstage moment. One asked him what he knew about Wilson. "He has a ministry on the Washington-Idaho border, I believe," Hitchens said. "I don't know of what Christian denomination he precisely describes himself … I try not to do too much homework on people."
Who is this self-appointed defender of the faith? Until last year, those who had heard of Doug Wilson most likely knew him in his other roles: pastor provocateur in a liberal university town; polarizing leader in the classical Christian education movement; nonconforming Calvinist who has made so many enemies in Reformed circles that no denomination will have him. These people would be surprised at—and skeptical of—the new, "mainstream" Wilson who purports to debate atheists on behalf of all Christians. "Given my temperament, my conservatism, the radicalism of some of my views … sectarianism is going to be my temptation, not bonhomie ecumenicity," Wilson says. He seems an unlikely spokesman for the average American evangelical. Yet in a strange way, his career has prepared him to be just that.
'The Great Unpleasantness'
Doug's father, Jim Wilson, a career evangelist, moved his family to Moscow, Idaho, in 1971. Home to the University of Idaho and just across the state border from Washington State University, the sleepy town seemed the perfect base from which to convert new Christians, particularly students. While his father proselytized through his network of Christian bookstores, Doug helped found a Baptist-leaning, "hippie, Jesus People church," as his younger brother Evan puts it, planted by the Evangelical Free Church.
When they weren't strumming the guitar or preaching, both brothers were discerning their own theology. They met with friends one morning a week to debate ideas in Evan's living room, calling themselves the Drones, after the idle gentlemen's club in P. G. Wodehouse's novels. Then, "through a series of unfortunate events … my brother got interested in Calvinist theology," says Evan, 54, a soft-spoken man with a graying beard and a penchant for fiddling with his pipe. Evan embraced a form of openness theology, arguing that God could not know or absolutely control the future.