Sixty years ago, there were about as many serious evangelical scholars as there were stars on the American flag. Today, there are nearly as many societies of Christian scholars who represent a wide spectrum of academic disciplines. Sixty years ago, it would have been difficult to find an evangelical Christian who was a full professor at a major university. Today there are dozens. Back in the 1940s, not even Sherlock Holmes could have found evangelical fingerprints on any field of academic endeavor. Today several academic fields—most notably, sociology of religion, history of Christianity, and several areas of philosophy—are well-developed because of top-drawer scholarship by evangelicals.
How did this happen among evangelicals, who 60 years ago were intensely distrustful of—and unwelcome in—the academic world? The answer is complex, involving rising education levels among all Americans, shifts of attitude toward learning among evangelicals, and the spread of evangelical Christianity through the American population. But an important part of the story comes down to money. It takes a fair chunk of change to support sabbaticals, travel, and research—and evangelical scholars have received a goodly share of such funds in the last few decades. So, who helped fund the resurgence of evangelical scholarship—and why?
America's 50,000 foundations annually give away over $22 billion. This is only 7 percent of all philanthropy—individuals, living and dead, do 88 percent of America's charitable giving. Still, $22 billion is a lot of money, and when doled out in relatively large portions, it has a major influence on the direction of nonprofit organizations. Evangelical scholarship began receiving help from the Lilly Endowment and the Pew Charitable Trusts in the early '80s.
Few other foundations have joined them in encouraging the work of Christian scholars. Evangelical philanthropists have often shied away from scholarship, favoring evangelism, foreign missions, and youth work. Evangelicalism has long been the last place to look for scholars. The story of how this changed begins with drug money and a "conspiracy" among historians.
In 1876 Colonel Eli Lilly started a small pharmaceutical lab in Indianapolis. His son Josiah and grandson Eli, with exclusive marketing rights to penicillin and later insulin, turned the company into a billion-dollar-a-year corporation. Josiah and Eli, now the wealthiest people in Indianapolis, followed the American socioeconomic script of the day and became Episcopalians. Eli the younger also became the family philanthropist, and in 1936 pushed for creation of the family foundation called the Lilly Endowment.
He was serious about Christianity but mainly for its utilitarian role in helping form better character. He was fond of books that repackaged the ethical teachings of Jesus in the psychological ideas of the day. Eli's other interest was archaeology. He supported both scholars writing about character development and archaeologists digging into Indiana's deep past.
Today, the Lilly Endowment's wealth depends largely on the fortunes of the pharmaceutical company. These soared after 1988 when its biochemists invented Prozac, and ever since then, Americans feeling bad have made Endowment officials feel pretty good. By 1997 Lilly supplanted Ford as the richest foundation in the nation (though it was passed by the Gates Foundation in 2002). This meant that the endowment's Religion Division had a lot of money to spend. In order to fulfill their mandate to marshal religious resources to make society more humane, directors Robert Lynn and Craig Dykstra developed a strategy of underwriting scholarship, mainly in theology and in the sociology and history of American religion. Because many evangelical scholars work on these topics, several received support.
It was a cabal of evangelical historians who turned Lilly's interest toward evangelicalism itself. In the 1970s, the late Timothy Smith (professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and a Nazarene pastor) introduced Lynn to a group of young evangelical historians of religion—George Marsden, Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, Grant Wacker, Harry Stout, Joel Carpenter, and others. Lynn was impressed. Not only did he think they were "enormously able," but he especially appreciated the "intimate connections between their own faith and their scholarship." He was struck by "the way that religious awareness often illuminated their scholarship" on a much wider range of Christian faith traditions than he had expected.
In 1979 Lynn arranged a Lilly grant of $15,000 to Noll and Hatch for a conference on the Bible in American history at Wheaton College. The crisis point came early. Harold Lindsell, author of The Battle for the Bible and a Wheaton trustee, objected that some of the invited scholars weren't true evangelicals. The speaker he objected to most was Ernest Sandeen, a Wheaton alumnus and author of the first good history of fundamentalism. But Wheaton vice president Dave Johnston told Lindsell that scholarship did not demand ideological purity, and president Hudson Armerding backed Johnston. The conference went forward.
Lynn was pleased with the outcome and followed up with $200,000 that launched the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE). Noll and Hatch headed the board, and Carpenter became the director. Lynn's primary goal was to make sure this cohort of historians received the support for their work that they "deserved and needed." A secondary goal was to advance scholarly understanding of the evangelical past.
Reviving Pew's Vision
Since then, Lilly has spent over $2 million on the work of the ISAE. The endowment and its agencies have also made several direct grants to evangelical historians, sociologists, and political scientists. But before all this came to pass, Lynn did something else that would dramatically increase the level of foundation support for evangelical scholarship. He felt that the ISAE and the Pew Charitable Trusts were a match made in heaven, so he volunteered his services as matchmaker. He flew to Philadelphia with Wheaton College's vice president for development to recommend the ISAE to Martin Trimble, then a junior program associate working in religious grant-making at Pew.
The Pew trusts were founded between 1948 and 1979 by the wealthy children of J.N. Pew, who made his money in oil. The son who succeeded J.N. as head of Sun Oil Company was J. Howard Pew, a lifelong mainline Presbyterian. J. Howard's main philanthropic interests were supporting free enterprise against big government and supporting America's free-enterprise form of Christianity, evangelicalism. He gave a lot of money to parachurch groups like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, World Vision, and Young Life. He also helped launch a couple of evangelical intellectual enterprises—Christianity Today in 1956 and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 1969.
There are two iron laws of foundation philanthropy. The first law is that while the donor is still living, a foundation's giving patterns will be idiosyncratic. At this stage, the philanthropic vision originates in the donor's personality, passions, and prejudices. This is why most Carnegie library buildings look alike, regardless of the architecture of the neighborhoods in which they were built. The second law is that once the donor and close friends die, the foundation's giving patterns start to resemble those of other foundations near it on the ideological spectrum. At this stage, the vision stems from a professional class of foundation managers who share ideas, personnel, and consultants with each other. Differences between foundations do, of course, persist—conservatives and liberals map out very different routes up the mountain of social progress. But over time these differences owe less to the concerns of their founders and more to the ideology of their staffs and to the need for a distinctive identity in the philanthropy marketplace.
When J. Howard died in 1971, the trusts continued their support for evangelical parachurch groups for a while. But few of the professional staff or board members were enthusiastic. They were not evangelical Christians, and giving money to organizations like Missionary Aviation Fellowship was a bit old-fashioned and déclassé for a large foundation aspiring to a higher national profile. So while Pew's religion budget was increasing, staff members were trying to figure out new ways to spend money that would allow them to keep up with their peers while retaining the identity they had inherited.
Trimble, with religious roots in mainline Protestantism, was surprised to learn that a talented group of evangelical scholars even existed. He suggested that Pew support the ISAE and asked Hatch to design a program for evangelical scholarship that went beyond religious history. Meanwhile, Rebecca Rimel had just become president at Pew. She elevated the Religion Division to stand-alone status and hired Joel Carpenter as program director in 1989. This was a risky move. Carpenter was an evangelical—not part of the usual subculture from which all her other directors came.
Over the next decade Carpenter put together several innovative programs to support evangelical scholars and students, on which Pew has spent over $15 million. He also pioneered partnerships with Pew's other programs, which demonstrated the effectiveness of faith-based agencies in wrestling with social problems. He was driven by the conviction that we cannot have a humane civilization if we assume that God doesn't exist. He believed that evangelical Christians had more promise than any other group for reintroducing God-centered understandings into contemporary scholarship.
A good example of the influence that the Pew programs have had can be seen in the discipline of philosophy, specifically metaphysics. Inspired by the pioneers of this movement—Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, William Alston, Robert Adams—a new generation of exceptionally talented Christians has now moved to the top of the field. One of these is Dean Zimmerman, who as an undergraduate at Mankato State University was diverted from literature when the local InterVarsity chapter brought philosopher Keith Yandell to campus. Yandell's powerful defense of Christianity, and the commotion it caused on campus, convinced Zimmerman that philosophy was an effective language for the Christian faith.
Seeking to focus some of the new metaphysical energy, Zimmerman launched annual Metaphysical Mayhem conferences. No foundation helped—attendees were billeted in homes, and Zimmerman had to beg funds from colleagues to take everyone to dinner. He made sure that both non-Christians (like Ted Sider, son of evangelical theologian and ethicist Ron Sider) and Christians were always part of the mix.
Word got out in the metaphysical community that this was the place to be, and prominent scholars were soon asking for invitations. The result was some of the best metaphysicians in the English-speaking world pushing each other to do better work, and bright Christian philosophers were right in the middle of it.
At this point Pew money accelerated the evangelical recovery of metaphysics. First, Pew supported Plantinga's Center for Philosophy of Religion at Notre Dame, which allowed many young Christian philosophers to spend a year at Notre Dame doing research. Then an unusually young group of Christian philosophers—Zimmerman (then at Notre Dame), Trenton Merricks (then at Virginia Commonwealth), Michael Rae (then at Delaware), Brian Leftow (Fordham), and Timothy O'Connor (Indiana)—all independently received Pew grants for metaphysics projects. One way or another, each project aims to explain why Christian views of God and human beings are more reasonable than the alternatives. For example, most secular philosophers regard human beings as unitary creatures—the physical stuff that makes up our bodies is all there is. But Zimmerman thinks the biblical idea that we are dualistic creatures—body and soul—makes more sense, and one of his projects is to show why. So quickly has this group's star risen that several have already moved to more prestigious appointments.
Like so much of the Eastern intellectual establishment, some at Pew were troubled by the conservative politics and demagogic character of popular evangelical leaders. But they knew that evangelicalism was a movement of many moods. They saw its scholars as more moderate, better behaved, and less threatening to the status quo than the movement's populist leaders. So for some at Pew, strengthening evangelical scholarship was a way to housetrain an unruly arrival in the public square by encouraging its better instincts.
Science Buffs and Social Activists
Other major foundations with mainline Protestant roots, though not specifically targeting evangelicals, have funded the work of evangelical scholars. One is the John Templeton Foundation. Born in 1912 in Tennessee, Templeton was raised a Cumberland Presbyterian. But he was also influenced by the Unity School of Christianity, which teaches that all great religions embody part of ultimate truth and move toward the same goal. He made his fortune as a Wall Street financier, but his deeper interest was trying to get Science and Religion to sit in the same room without throwing things at each other. He set up the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1972. The $1 million-plus prize—by design, always more than the Nobel Prize—has been religiously evenhanded. In good Unity fashion, it has been awarded to preachers, activists, and scholars of many religions, including evangelicals.
Then in 1987 Templeton set out to focus on establishing connections between religion and science, but also to explore the relationship between religion and health and promote character development. Since evangelical scholars by temperament tend to be interested in the kind of "religion-and- " questions Templeton asks, many have received his support. For instance, Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, assistant professor of psychology at Hope College, received Templeton support for her study comparing the physiological effects of forgiving and holding grudges.
While foundations begun by mainline Protestants have supported evangelical scholars, those established by evangelicals have tended to reflect traditional evangelical philanthropic interests. They have seldom believed they could get any religious bang from a buck spent on scholarly research. A few evangelical philanthropists, however, have started to think that scholarship might be an important Christian labor.
Perhaps the most enthusiastic evangelical supporter of scholarship is Fieldstead and Company. Its founders are Roberta and Howard Ahmanson, and the money comes from trusts established by Howard's father at his death in 1968.
Howard's interest in evangelical causes originates in his decision for Christ at age 23 on a youth-retreat bus with his former fraternity brothers. In contrast to her husband, Roberta grew up in strict fundamentalist Baptist circles, but nearly discarded Christianity during her college years. "Rescued," as she puts it, by Christian college professors who pressed into her hands the works of Augustine, John Calvin, C. S. Lewis, and Francis Schaeffer, Roberta came to believe that "Christianity made more sense of reality than any other program out there." One of her heroes is Dorothy Sayers, whose Christianity thoroughly impregnated her brilliant work as a writer. Sayers once said, "The only Christian work is good work, well done," a philosophy Roberta finds enormously attractive.
The Ahmansons try to use their money to pry open the door separating evangelical and secular scholarship. They are attracted to scholars who reconsider secular ideas from a Christian viewpoint and who "demand to be part of setting the terms" of intellectual and cultural debate.
James Davison Hunter meets their criteria perfectly. He's a productive, chaired professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Virginia. Hunter is a committed Christian with perfect evangelical bona fides, being a graduate of Gordon College and a former faculty member at Westmont College. But the Ahmansons are glad he's now at Thomas Jefferson's resolutely secular university. They've pledged $1 million through 2005 to support Hunter's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at UVA, which publishes The Hedgehog Review, the 2000 winner of the Modern Language Association's award for best new academic journal. It is indeed a smart journal, designed to bring secular and Christian scholars into conversation.
Another major Fieldstead project is $2.8 million for "the Wedge"—a strategy to further the ideas of the Intelligent Design movement. Key players in the Wedge project include law professor Philip Johnson, biochemist Michael Behe, philosopher and mathematician William Dembski, and the Discovery Institute of Seattle. In Johnson's words, "The metaphor of the Wedge portrays the modernist scientific and intellectual world, with its materialist assumptions, as a thick and seemingly impenetrable log. Such a log can be split wide open, however, if you can find a crack and pound the sharp edge of a wedge into it."
Other evangelical foundations that support research tend to do so indirectly, by making grants to the research and advocacy organizations commonly known as think tanks. The Stewardship Foundation—established by a former trustee of Fuller Theological Seminary, C. Davis Weyerhaeuser, with his timber company money—makes a few grants like this.
A more significant supporter of think tanks friendly to evangelical Christianity is the Maclellan Foundation. It was organized in 1952 by the heirs of a Scottish immigrant who became wealthy providing insurance to people whom other insurers would not touch—men who worked in mines, sawmills, and blast furnaces. Most of its giving is channeled into traditional projects in evangelism and religious education. But recently the family has started to think that the kingdom of God can be advanced by supporting research-and-advocacy scholarship. The Discovery Institute, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the Barna Research Group, the Rockford Institute, and the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity are just some of Maclellan's beneficiaries.
With that, the list of evangelical foundations supporting scholarly research is just about exhausted. Other philanthropies that support evangelical higher education—Murdock, Mustard Seed, DeVos—have shown little interest in supporting serious scholarship by evangelicals.
Accelerating the Pace
While foundation support has given evangelical scholarship a big boost, it would be a mistake to think that it brought evangelical scholarship into being. Before foundations could fund evangelical scholars, there had to be evangelical scholars. What foundations have done is accelerate the pace of work on a few key topics—philosophy of religion and metaphysics, the history of Christianity, the sociological and political impact of Christianity, and the consequences of Christianity in the non-Western world.
They have also sponsored significant bodies of work on how Christian ideas could improve political thinking—by recovering the Christian contexts in which many of our political ideas originated and by defining how religious ideas ought to influence political thinking. A few foundations—Pew especially—have also sponsored a host of workshops, seminars, and collaborative groups for graduate students and senior scholars. What has made these especially significant are the personal networks between Christian scholars that they've helped establish.
As measured by scholarly productivity, foundations supporting evangelical scholarship have received an unusually high return on their investment. A study by the National Endowment for the Humanities found that 45 percent of their grant recipients had published books within six years of receiving their grants. By contrast, a study of scholars receiving grants from the Pew Evangelical Scholars Program found that 90 percent had finished their books within six years.
Nevertheless, the future of foundation support for evangelical scholarship is uncertain. Wealthy evangelicals may never understand how important scholarly research is, and foundations that sponsor scholarship may lose interest in
evangelicals. But even if it proves to be a passing phenomenon, foundation funding has already been a big help. It has pushed evangelical scholarship to a higher level of quality and visibility. Most important, it has helped bring evangelicals' experiences and perspectives into the marketplace of ideas. That, we like to think, has been good for everybody.
Michael S. Hamilton is a historian of American religion at Seattle Pacific University, and former coordinator of the Pew Evangelical Scholars Program at the University of Notre Dame. Johanna Yngvason, who helped gather data for this article, is a graduate student at the University of Iceland.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Websites for foundations and organizations referenced in the article include:
- Lilly Endowment
- Pew Charitable Trusts
- John Templeton Foundation
- The Maclellan Foundation
- Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals
Michael S. Hamilton wrote "We're in the Money!How did evangelicals get so wealthy, and what has it done to us?" for Christianity Today in 2000.
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