The Unlikely Crackup of Evangelicalism

The problems are real—but exaggerated.
The Unlikely Crackup of Evangelicalism
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As a supplement to the ongoing series on evangelical distinctives, we’re including other voices in the conversation on what it means to be an evangelical Christian today. This contribution comes from Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Theological Seminary.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has written recently about what he sees as a possible “crackup” that may be coming in the evangelical community. He sees a quiet version of that split already happening among the younger generation, many of whom seem to be moving in other directions: mainline Protestantism, Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy.

The more dramatic gap, as Douthat sees it, is between, on the one hand, the elites—“evangelical intellectuals and writers, and their friends in other Christian traditions,”—and those millions of folks, on the other hand, who worship in evangelical churches. It may be, he says, that these elites “have overestimated how much a serious theology has ever mattered to evangelicalism’s sociological success.” It could be that the views and attitudes on display in the recent support for rightist causes have really been there all along, without much of an interest in the kinds of intellectual-theological matters that have preoccupied the elites. If so, then the elites will eventually go off on their own, leaving behind an evangelicalism that is “less intellectual, more partisan, more racially segregated”—a movement that is in reality “not all that greatly changed” from what it has actually been in the past.

Douthat hopes he is wrong about this, and I think that he is. But his scenario has some support by increasing voices in the evangelical academy who are saying that they can no longer identify with a grassroots evangelicalism that has become regrettably “politicized” these days.

One problem with the Douthat scenario is that it suggests that there is a significant gap between the vast majority of “ordinary” evangelicals and a much smaller band of “evangelical intellectuals.” To see whether that picture is really accurate, we have to fill in some specific detail.

There is, in fact, a rather significant network of evangelical academic institutions in North America. The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) has a membership of 140 evangelical schools, with a total enrollment of over 300,000 students. In addition, the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) reports that of the 270 member institutions that it accredits in North America, 40 percent of these seminaries identify themselves as evangelical, and their student bodies account for 60 percent—about 40,000 students—of those enrolled in graduate theological education. If we add to those numbers the many Bible institutes, colleges, and seminaries who are not members of either the CCCU or the ATS, it is fair to say that “evangelical intellectuals” are presently teaching almost a half-million students who have chosen to attend self-identified evangelical schools.

The majority of those students come from evangelical churches. And they will take what they learned from “evangelical intellectuals” into professional life when they graduate. This is not exactly a picture of ivory tower elites who live in a very different world than grassroots evangelicalism.

As one who has spent over a half-century in the evangelical academy, the picture I have just sketched poses some important questions for my own reflection. Given the tens of thousands of evangelical students whom I and my colleagues have taught, to what degree are we responsible for current attitudes and viewpoints in the evangelical movement at large? And if we were to decide to take our leave from evangelicalism, do we have an obligation to all of those former students, to give them counsel about what they should now do with what we have taught them about being “evangelical”?

I also have a different sort of concern, relating to the many evangelical academic conferences and seminars I have attended over the years. When we academic types gathered together—and by communicating to each other on the pages of, say, Books and Culture and Christianity Today—to explore what our evangelical identity has meant for our intellectual quests, we experienced a healthy sense of an academic community united by a deep commitment to the gospel. We have been inspired to work at producing the kind of scholarship that we would not have otherwise pursued if we were not part of the evangelical network.

If we go our own individual ways now spiritually and theologically, what happens to all of that? Is the need for that kind of bonding in the academy no longer needed? Will younger scholars continue to nurture those bonds if they no longer have a sense of serving a broader movement?

A well-known scholar—himself a secular Jew—once spent some time working on a project at Fuller Seminary. He was a good friend, and he made a point of sharing with me his impressions of what he experienced at Fuller. “This is a unique place, Richard,” he said. “Right now your faculty is holding two things together in an impressive manner. You have top-notch scholarship and you have strong connections to the grassroots.” Then he went on: “But you can’t keep that up. Eventually you will either dumb down your scholarship or you will lose touch with the grassroots. Holding the two in tension is great while it lasts, but it will inevitably come apart.”

I responded by telling him that Fuller was only one of many evangelical campuses where the successful holding-together was happening. And I said that I was confident we could all keep doing it well. Indeed, I said, if the day comes when we go in one or the other directions he described, I would consider it a major defeat for evangelicalism as such.

Ross Douthat’s “crackup” scenario is, in effect, a prediction that the defeat is coming. It does not have to happen that way, though. Nor does being successful at the holding-together require necessarily keeping the “evangelical” label. But it does mean intentionally developing a clear strategy for preserving what has been the best of the evangelical legacy that has nurtured us in the past. I plead with those intellectual leaders who have been talking about simply “resigning” from the evangelical movement to stay around to work on that strategy.

Richard Mouw is former president of Fuller Theological Seminary and author of Adventures in Evangelical Civility: A Lifelong Quest for Common Ground (Brazos).

June
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The Unlikely Crackup of Evangelicalism