Why Are Evangelicals Second-Class Conservatives?
This essay by Aaron Renn -- "Evangelicalism's Second-Class Status In Conservatism" -- appeared in American Reformer late last year, but I just got around to it because a friend sent it to me. I encourage you to read it. In it, Renn, a Reformed Christian, laments the undeniable fact that Evangelicals are a huge part of the conservative voting coalition, but punch way below their weight in intellectual leadership circles on the Right. It begins like this:
Evangelicals are the largest and most loyal voting block within the Republican coalition. Yet within the intellectual or institutional leadership core of conservatism, they are second class citizens. There are few prominent evangelical thought leaders in political conservatism. There are no evangelicals on the Supreme Court, and only one evangelical leading the top conservative think tanks or publications (Rich Lowry of National Review). In terms of results, conservatives have been completely routed on the social issues that are the top concern of evangelicals, while racking up many wins in libertarian economics and foreign interventionism.
How did this state of affairs come to be? In part it is because modern American conservatism was from its origins disconnected from the Protestant demographic mainstream of America. It is also because evangelicals joined the conservative movement relatively late in its development.
Renn goes on:
Undoubtedly evangelicals themselves are in part to blame for this state of affairs. They have failed to develop the intellectual or leadership capabilities needed to merit a seat at the table. Lind was not wrong in his assessment of the evangelicals in this regard. This was admitted at nearly the same time by evangelical professor Mark Noll in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. The scandal being that they didn’t have one.
But that’s not the whole story. The Catholic domination and long record of conversions to Catholicism by conservative intellectuals shows that there is a normative status to Catholicism within conservatism. Catholic thought so sets the conservative agenda that evangelicals frequently defer to it and look to it for leadership.
You get the idea.
I don't really know much about Evangelicalism, so I am not going to attempt to make any grand statements, which would only highlight my ignorance. Aaron's essay made me think, though, about why, when I became serious about being Christian in my early to mid-twenties, Catholicism was the only option I took seriously. (I did have a brief college dalliance with Episcopalianism, but it was because I loved beautiful liturgy and really wanted to be Catholic, but was afraid of taking the leap.) Maybe there's something of an answer here.
As you regular readers know, I was raised in the Methodist church, but my family weren't big churchgoers, so when I reached the age of 15 or so, I didn't have much faith to speak of. I was a functional agnostic. It was hugely important that the first time I was struck, and struck hard, by the reality of God was when I ambled into the Chartres cathedral at age 17. Nothing, nothing, prepared me for that place. I could not shake the fact that this Cathedral, the most beautiful building I had ever seen -- more beautiful than I could have imagined -- emerged out of medieval Catholicism. What kind of religion inspires its believers to build a temple like that to its God? The hook had been set.
Later, in college, I read The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton, his 1940s-era account of converting to Catholicism, and eventually becoming a monk. I was absolutely captivated by his tale, in part because I saw so much of myself in young Merton and his longings. That book made me intensely long for Catholicism. Plus, at that time John Paul II was the pope, and he was always making news. He was such a towering presence in the world, and I was drawn to him magnetically. I knew that I didn't have the strength to become a Catholic, but I knew more and more that if I ever got serious about Christianity, it would be as a Catholic.
I found myself reading more and more about faith, and the things I was reading were Catholic things. They were just far more interesting than the Evangelical writing I came across. The way the Catholic mind worked was really interesting to me, in ways that the Evangelical mind was not. To put it simply, Catholics just seemed to think more deeply about God, the world, and God in the world. I had nothing against Evangelicals, but the pietism of the Evangelicals I knew didn't have much appeal to me. It was also the case that my own burgeoning spirituality was far more mystical and sacramental than Evangelicalism is, though I didn't have those words to describe it back then.
Plus, I was put off by the rah-rah Republicanism of the kinds of Evangelicals I would see in the public square. My move to conservatism took a few years, and I certainly had no interest in political liberalism in church circles. But I remember driving around Baton Rouge one afternoon, and seeing a Howitzer parked on the front lawn of a Baptist church, next to a sign announcing that Col. Oliver North, of Iran-Contra fame, was coming to speak there soon. I found that appalling. Though I am far, far more conservative today than I was back then, I still would.
So, the bottom line was this: at an intellectually formative time in my life, when I was in college and fresh out of college, and moving ever closer to making a full Christian commitment, Catholicism was just way more interesting than Evangelicalism -- which, frankly, was not interesting to me at all. It wasn't that I thought Evangelicals were dumb or anything like that. It's just that I never thought of them at all.
I became a Catholic in 1993, in Washington DC, which was an incredible time and place to be a Catholic and a conservative. It was thrilling to read Father Richard John Neuhaus's work in First Things, and through that magazine, be introduced to Catholic thinkers and writers who dazzled me. And, of course, John Paul was at full strength. It felt great to think of myself as on Team Neuhaus.
But here I confess something. I was barely even a Catholic, but I perceived in Washington that in the conservative circles in which I ran, it was considered cool to be Catholic, and intellectually respectable. Even liberals I ran with might have disdained conservative Christianity, but they had respect for Catholics that they didn't have for intellectuals. I began to look down on Evangelicalism. I'm not proud of it, but there it is. The idea was that Evangelicals are nice people, but intellectually, there's not much there there, only a lot of sincere enthusiasm that could be kind of cringey. This was not fair, I know. But that's how it was.
I'm thinking right now of a friend I used to have back in the day, a woman who had converted from Evangelicalism to Catholicism. We got to talking about our conversions one day. She told me that in the megachurch of her childhood, they were actively cautioned against thinking too much. I was so ignorant of Evangelicalism that if I had heard some secular person say that, I would have accused them of making it up. But she said no, it was true, and gave me examples. I think she quoted a teacher in the church's school, saying that, "If you question too much, the devil gets a foothold." Mind you, she was a conservative Catholic, and had no interest in liberal politics or theology. She just got bored and frustrated with the limits of Evangelicalism, as it had been presented to her growing up.
The bottom line is this: for my generation of searching, intellectual-minded Christians, Catholicism was vastly more attractive than Evangelicalism, which seemed shallow and emotional by comparison. Fair or not, this was how it seemed to me half my lifetime ago.
Well, you know what happened to me later, when I began writing about the Catholic clerical sex abuse scandal. I found out the limits of Catholic intellectualism, at least within me. I should have remembered my Merton, who wrote in his memoir that he learned along the way that a conversion that is only intellectual is more precarious than one might think. I would not have described my Catholicism then as mostly intellectual, though now I can see it definitely was. This was my fault. I thought that as long as I thought the right thoughts, and aligned with the right tribes within Catholicism, my faith would be able to withstand anything.
When I told a Catholic intellectual friend that I had burned out on Catholicism, and was becoming Orthodox, he said that he didn't understand how I could leave the intellectual palace that is Catholicism for a bunch of Eastern mysticism. I thought then that he had a problem, not me; all that superior intellection had not protected children, or made the Church one bit holier. Around that time, I met in my travels a Mainline Protestant conservative academic, who told me that he had almost converted to Catholicism in graduate school, but the intellectual arrogance of his Catholic roommates put him off. He didn't want to end up like them: smug, self-satisfied, and disdainful of all the poor dumb Evangelicals. I got it. Had I been in graduate school with that guy, I might have been one of the smarty-pants Catholic snots.
You understand, I hope, that I am only telling you my story, not making generalizations about Catholics or Evangelicals. You might, however, be wondering why, if I could no longer believe as a Catholic, I didn't then consider Evangelicalism, not Orthodoxy. The answer is the one the Catholic convert Cardinal Newman gave: "To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant." He meant that the historical record of Christianity makes it hard to believe in Protestantism. I found that to be true. In Orthodoxy, I have found a form of Christianity that is intellectually deep, but also one that intentionally makes intellection subordinate to the conversion of the heart. Mostly, though, my own total intellectual shattering, and humiliation, as a Catholic has cured me of triumphalism of any sort. And I hope I have fully repented in my heart for my onetime haughty disdain for Evangelicals. Whatever their intellectual shortcomings compared to their Catholic peers, the Evangelicals were much better at motivating conversion of the heart. By the way, in Vienna over the weekend, I met an older Orthodox Christian, a cradle Orthodox, who said that the problems in the Orthodox Church are so bad that no one should be encouraged to join it. I could not disagree more! I love being Orthodox, and have grown so very much as a Christian within Orthodoxy. But I do warn people not to idealize Orthodoxy -- or any form of Christianity.
Oh, one more thing: In his 2010 book To Change The World, the (Evangelical) sociologist James Davison Hunter observes a similar phenomenon to the one that Renn does. He says that Evangelicals vastly outnumber Jews in American life, but cannot hold a candle to Jews in terms of leadership across a wide variety of fields. As I recall from my long-ago reading of the book, Hunter criticized his fellow Evangelicals for having a simplistic view of how culture is changed, and for not knowing how, or caring, to do the kind of long-term network-building necessary to make cultural change. But that doesn't really explain why Evangelicals should lack proportional representation in the leadership ranks of conservative institutions, does it?
These days, I seem to be meeting more and more intelligent young conservatives who are becoming Catholic. Just the other day, I was with one of them, a friend who is choosing Catholicism despite many, many reasons not to do so, given this friend's circumstances. This person is going to pay a heavy price for their choice. I asked why Catholicism, and they said, simply, "Because I love the Lord, and I want to be close to him." She explained why, for her, it had to be in Catholicism. This kind of thing is really interesting to me, because these young people don't have the things I had when I was their age, and entering the Catholic Church. They don't have a pope like John Paul II. They have lived through the destruction of the Catholic Church's institutional moral authority via the scandal. Presumably they know that in America, at least, parish life in most places is going to be functionally Mainline Protestant.
And yet, they're becoming Catholic, despite it all. I meet smart Evangelicals, especially in Hungary (where the Calvinists have a strong tradition), but among young American friends of an intellectual bent, I don't see any movement toward Evangelicalism. Again, not knowing much at all about Evangelicalism, I can't tell you why that is. I have some very smart Evangelical friends (like, well, Aaron Renn), but it's my impression from the outside that restless conservative young people are moving towards Catholicism (and in fewer numbers, to Orthodoxy) for reasons having to do with seeking depth, historical roots, and, as one of the young Evangelicals who turned up at my former Orthodox parish in Baton Rouge put it (I'm paraphrasing), "I can see what's happening around us, and I want to be part of a church that's going to be able to make it through intact."
Again, I offer this to you only as a personal narrative, meant to start conversation, not end it. I am eager to hear from you readers who have either left Evangelicalism for Catholicism, or vice versa, or who have stayed where you are, but have thoughts about the second-class status of Evangelicals within institutional and intellectual conservatism. Write me at rod -- at -- amconmag -- dot -- com, and put EVANGELICAL in the subject line.
And hey, do check out American Reformer, which is publishing some great stuff. If that's what the future of intellectually conservative Evangelicalism looks like, then the problem that Aaron Renn laments in his essay won't be a problem for much longer.
UPDATE: Responses came in. Let's go. Here's the first one:
I read your article with great interest and profound sadness. I am an evangelical pastor who laments the poor state of intellectualism in our portion of the Christian faith. There seem to be very few intellectuals in the Evangelical tent and those who would qualify are often seduced by the parasite of liberalism when they become enamored with being accepted into cultured circles, gaining tenue, and maintaining their invitations to cocktail parties hosted by the leftist elite.
I primarily blame our evangelical colleges and seminaries that have compromised and failed to hold the proper standards to produce the minds capable of engaging the pagan world. Beyond that I think there are a couple of other reasons for this dismal state. First, the 20th Century was the dark ages for evangelical intellectualism. This was a reaction formation to the fear of creeping liberalism that began to enter our realm in the early 1900’s. While there were some courageous champions like J. Gresham Machen, most evangelicals developed a skeptical and anti-intellectual mindset towards higher education. Coupled with the ruralness and lack of access to high quality education of most evangelicals in the 20th century, and you have a recipe for obscurantism. The result was educational and intellectual pursuits fell into shadow. This becomes quite obvious when one reads the works of evangelicals from the 1700’s and 1800’s. There were giants in those days. For example, since you are living in Budapest, you should read any work you can get your hands on by Adolph Saphir. Dr. Saphir was a Jew living in Budapest when he converted in one of the greatest evangelical movements among the Jews since the 1st Century. He had a towering intellect and his writings on the New Testament, The Book of Hebrews, The Hidden Life, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Unity of Scripture are some of the most profound works outside of Scripture. There were so many wonderful scholars, professors, pastors, and teachers in this time period, but alas Evangelicalism has now been given over to lesser men who are concerned with their social media footprint and making money off pathetically researched sermons and books. When one reads the intellectual works of previous generations of Evangelicals and compares it to what is being produced today it is obvious that there has been a sickening and catastrophic drop in quality and scholarship.
The second reason for our loss of ground in the educational and intellectual front is a bit more noble. Many of the more serious-minded Evangelicals remember that all of this (nations, cultures, lifestyles) is passing away and would rather spend their passion on the mission the Gospel than being apologists for the hedonistic nation and culture we live in. Yes, we have often been enticed into believing the lies that if we get the right politicians in office we can turn things around, implement policies that will magically make everyone who is not a Christian into a Christian, and return us to some cult of 1950’s Americana forever and ever. But today, a growing number of evangelicals have simply grown weary and uninterested in engaging arrogant intellectuals who dismiss them as buffoons because they attend a Baptist, Pentecostal, Calvary Chapel, Missouri Synod Lutheran, or PCA church. In short, many Evangelicals who were once proud, patriotic, lovers of this country (USA) have lost faith in it and don’t feel it is any longer worth saving (there are probably many like that in England, Canada, Australia, and Europe).
Sadly, the loss of Evangelical scholarship and intellectualism has a price. It means marginalization, continued disparagement, and the loss of our voice in matters of state and culture. More than that, a very important mission field has been abandoned; the field of educated intellectuals who are hopelessly lost in their spiritual ignorance and educated smugness. These people need the Gospel of Jesus Christ as much as those living in the mountains of Honduras or in some small village in Kazakhstan, but somehow this field has been walled off from our influence. Much of that is our own fault for either believing that we can compromise our way into this culture’s good graces or by being lazy and unwilling to do the hard work of being a missionary to the intellectual and higher culture. I believe that we are going to see some of the greatest evangelical missionaries from our coming generations who are being forced to choose between the creeping paganism of the wicked West and having a faith that is pure and stands on solid apologetical ground. My hope is that many of these young warriors will go into the field where there are educated elitist who need Christian peers who will love them and challenge them with truth.
I am a former Evangelical. My family and I are catechumens in the Orthodox Church. I have a master degree from an Evangelical seminary and I was a youth pastor who occasionally preached at my former Evangelical church. My family and I left for a couple reasons: One reason was we wanted to raise our children in a more stable faith tradition that had a longer view of Christianity than the construction of that individual church.
The other was that this church wanted to battle it out with any church or denomination that didn’t agree with them on tertiary points of theology.
I think this is one of the reasons why Evangelicalism does not have a higher degree of intellectuals, even though many, many pastors have at least an MDiv or a Doctorate. The pastors are too interested in fighting for their pet theology, so they beat up on each other rather than maturing.
Another reason is a problem of individualistic interpretation. Evangelicals do not have a defined lens to interpret Scripture, so they have to interpret it by their own wit or emotions. If something doesn’t “feel” right, then it must not be.
I remember having to duke it out with Parents, Elders, and Pastors if I was teaching something in Sunday School that didn’t perfectly align with their individual theology. How do you build something that lasts when everyone building it is trying to smash someone else’s work? All I seemed to grow in was my ability to argue and proof text, not grow in my faithfulness or prayer life.
Evangelicalism cannot develop a leadership class, unless it gets out of its own way. Unfortunately, I don’t think the various theology of Evangelicals would allow that to happen. Those that tried would be called heretics or compromisers.
I have a bit of an eclectic Christian background--I was raised in a mainline Methodist church but would often go to church summer camps that were evangelical, and my mother's side of the family came from the Evangelical United Brethren branch of the UMC. I can also remember my dad reading the Left Behind series and attending Promise Keeper retreats. While the church we attended was very mainline, the home church had a distinct evangelical flavor. More recently, I almost converted to Catholicism after college and have been piddling around in-and-out of Orthodox churches for some time.
Evangelicals do have second-class status with intellectual conservatism, and I think it has a large part to do with the semi-fundamentalist to full fundamentalist biblical interpretations that are so common. One is most likely to hear an American Evangelical describe the Bible in a way that a devout Muslim would describe the Quran--it is an infallible text that is basically dictated by God directly. Now, Catholics sort of have "infallible" on their dogmatic shelf when they refer to the Bible (there is a internal debate about whether that pertains to the entire Bible or only those matters which are necessary for salvation), but far fewer Catholics are going to claim that the universe is less than 10,000 years old. It always seemed to me, regardless of whether or not it was true, that to be an evangelical was to deny the most plausible theories for the material development of life and the universe. How exactly is the conservative movement, which has embraced deep thinking Jewish and Catholic thinkers in many of its leadership positions, going to give a position of intellectual authority to someone who belongs to a group of people who deny so many plausible theories? Liberals have Neil Degrasse Tyson and conservatives get Ken Ham?
When I was considering converting to Catholicism, I ultimately decided against it because I had read poor quality apologetic material online, and I came to the conclusion that Catholic dogma, like Evangelicalism, basically prevented any real and critical study of the Bible. Now, with regard to Catholicism, I was wrong, and in large part because of that experience I have been put off by most popular and conservative Catholic apologetics even though I loathe rainbow or seamless garment Catholicism. My point, however, is that I did not convert to Catholicism because I thought that it was intellectually untenable, and I associated intellectual untenableness with evangelicalism as a whole.
A lot of this really does come down to common conservative evangelical interpretations of the Bible. If you tell people to "just believe" things that your intellect will suggest might be false, you are going to create a caste of people who lack the intellectual curiosity needed to be a deep thinker. Take Pope Benedict for example, Benedict was a deeply curious thinker who was not afraid of uncomfortable questions that needed to be asked, or at least acknowledged, by Catholic scholars. While he was also aware of the issue of ceding too much ground to "Catholic" scholars within Catholicism (he loved Soloviev's Antichrist in which the antichrist was a tenured professor at Tubingen), he did not tell people to bury their heads in the sand. However, numerous evangelical leaders or institutions seem to have a "just trust us" mentality when it comes to difficult questions. You need people capable of understanding the position of the other side well enough to make it attractive to be a good intellectual, and evangelicalism just doesn't do that very well.
I hope this doesn't come across as uncharitable, but it's hard to state the matter in a positive way. Evangelicalism maintains a certain anti-intellectualism within large segments of it that make it too difficult to create public intellectuals. If you grow up thinking that intellectuals tend to ask morally bad questions, you either leave evangelicalism or you stop asking questions. Maybe a few can thread the needle and do both, but they would need a great deal of mental toughness--mental toughness that I don't possess.
Hi Rod, I'm not sure that this message is really what you're looking for in response to the questions you posed, but I'll offer it for your consideration just the same. For context, I am an evangelical protestant and have been so my whole life.
I think part of the reason Catholics have dominated the conservative movement over Protestants has to do with both group's relationship to the Biblical text. As you know, Catholic philosophy is usually not explicitly couched in the biblical proof texts so much as the larger stream of western philosophy that has flowed from the union of Christian and Greco-Roman thought. Thus a Catholic argument against homosexuality will often discuss the unitive and procreative functions of the marital act while a Protestant will usually just quote Leviticus and Romans. Neither approach is necessarily wrong, but the Catholic ability to articulate arguments independent of biblical texts will make it more appealing to certain audiences, while the Protestant's Biblical citation will result in knee-jerk reactions one way or another. Of course I'm not claiming that Catholics "ignore the bible" or antying like that. It's simply that the Protestant impulse to explicitly root arguments in the Bible often hamstrings their ability to reach a wider audience. It also results in a degree of stigma that simply doesn't come when you couch your argument in terms of Aristotelian principles instead.
At the risk of digressing, I would like to add a related observation from my own experience in Christian circles (both online and in person). Catholics do indeed have a rich philosophical tradition that will appeal to many intellectuals. But one area in which Protestants easily dominate is basic defense of the accuracy and reliability of the bible. From both my academic studies and personal study, I've spent a lot of time with scholarly works on the biblical texts and the beliefs of the early church. It is striking to me that if I stop to consider the most important "basically orthodox" biblical scholars of the past 30 years they are all protestant (e.g. N.T. Wright, Richard Bauckham, Larry Hurtado, etc.). From my perspective, it is also nearly exclusively protestants like William Lane Craig and Mike Lincona that are interested in publicly debating and defending basic Christian doctrine against sceptics. The field of protestant apologetics is very crowded (and of highly variable quality) but it is at least there. In my experience, it feels like Protestants are far more interested in trying to defend the resurrection and the Bible in intellectual terms than Catholics are. (I leave aside the fact that modern Catholic bibles often have deeply sceptical notes such as the NABRE's claim that Matthew 16:21-23's prediction of the passion doesn't represent an authentic saying of Jesus).
Personally, I see the appeal of Catholicism and its claim for historical continuity. Also, given how detached from history modern culture is, I completely understand why it appeals to others. But, ironically, my experience has been precisely the opposite of Cardinal Newman. The deeper I've dug into the Church fathers of the first 3 centuries, the less convincing I find Catholic and Orthodox claims regarding universal, unwritten tradition. For instance I find it hard to beleive in widespread prayer to Mary in the early centuries of the church when the Church Fathers are completely silent on the practice until Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Gregory Thaumaturgus in the late 4th century (some would cite the sub tuum praesidium amulet of course but more recent studies have dated that later than the 3rd century date touted by Catholic apologists).
Again, I can only speak for myself, but I'm not entirely convinced that Catholicism and Orthodoxy will prove to be the the bigger draw for intellectually curious Christians in the future decades. I would also add I've encountered plenty of "just believe" rhetoric from Catholic and Orthodox individuals online (for instance in an online forum I recall an Orthodox individual who argued that icons went back to the apostles since Luke made an icon of Mary. When questioned as to his source, he only claimed that it was recorded in the Synaxarium and that was good enough for him).
One from Northern Ireland:
Hi, I'm a 23 y/o Christian Calvinist who attends an Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland, and I have a few thoughts on your article.
In Northern Ireland, as I'm sure you're aware, Conservatism and its relationship to Christianity is very different to anywhere else. The parties in government which are conservative are Unionist to Britain first, and conservative second. Hence, we have the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) deferring to the UK 'conservative' party on gay marriage and abortion as it strengthened the Unionist aspect. There is no ongoing intellectual defense of unionism or conservatism ongoing here, because you are (or as is becoming apparent, were) born into a political position here. To be Protestant (nominally at least, because your parents were) is to be Unionist and Conservative, and to not think much about either, and just put in your vote for the correct parties when asked to. The opposition is either Irish Republican and Marxist, or Irish Republican and socially liberal, and is supported primarily by people who have a family background in Catholicism. I think they think a little bit more.
There is a third and growing participant in government, mostly the Alliance party, who are just liberal in the style of the American Democratic party, who are getting a lot of votes because they want peace, and aren't attached to cringeworthy fundamentalism. They have a lot in common with those who have actually ran our country for the last number of years, the liberal university graduates in the civil service, as the Marxists and Unionists haven't been able to play nice together in the Assembly (devolved parliament for the province). Demographic shift means that Unionism and therefore conservatism is going to decline into irrelevance in the next decade or 2, and we will likely find ourselves united to the Republic of Ireland, which has enshrined abortion and gay marriage into their constitution. There will probably be some violence and decline of quality of life here as a result of Unionist reaction.
Sorry to give you a bad overview of the situation, but it's how it looks to me. Onto the intellectualism and evangelical part.
There basically isn't any intellectualism in evangelical circles, and if there is, it will either be viewed with suspicion, or voted to London out of the way, so that the populism and fundamentalism can continue.
My experience has 3 main parts:
1. My personal experience in 'coming out' as a Calvinist. In high school, I read JI Packer's Knowing God, and it gave me an interest in doctrine and being systematic in deriving beliefs from the Bible. I became a Calvinist, but mostly on the internet (Reddit!) and with a few close friends. Knowing God is sovereign gave great comfort over the 2 years of my father's terminal illness, which went from the latter half of my last year of high school, to the middle of my second year of uni. When I went to university, I gained a group of close friends who I shared my Calvinism with, or could discuss and debate it with. At home, there was little opportunity to discuss such things , and due to my family's association with tent mission type evangelism, I thought it best to keep quiet. During my father's illness, our Baptist church failed us, and a variety of faith healing quacks who said we needed more faith in order to get my Dad healed gathered round.
After my Dad passed, things settled, we moved to a local Presbyterian church as my mother had friends there, I lived away from home for the better part of 2 years, then came back with a girlfriend I met on a Calvinist dating group, and said I was planning to marry her to my Mum. This started a long and bitter path I'm still on, which brought out that I'm a Calvinist, which was fine because nobody knew what that was, but when I stated that God directs all things by Providence, there were a lot of issues. Now all slight mentions of theology get a lot of kickback, and it's apparent to me that my mother holds to an unbiblical Keswickian theology, and Christianity is essentially reduced to getting people saved, attending church and missions and reading your Bible without too much thought. This is an ongoing situation, which I hope to improve for myself at least, but I'm pretty resigned to being identified as a bad city person, as you yourself were.
2. My friend John. He attended, at the point where I knew him, a Presbyterian church. But it seems to be a terribly broken one, reduced to a social club for old people, with no emphasis on doctrine, just on good deeds and feel-good worship. The minister's mother in law is as likely to 'preach' as he is, and there's nothing there for an intellectually minded young man, with no one there to understand what he talks about (he enjoyed digging into philosophy and such). He was
talking about going off into the Eastern Orthodox or Catholicism at that point, and I don't know what happened to him. To me, he illustrates the deadness of some evangelicalism, and how an inability to engage the intellect of congregants is killing it.
3. The minister shortage. The Presbyterian church we attend is currently vacant, and we are getting a series of retired ministers to preach for us. Which is OK, but we've been vacant for 18 months now and I'm fed up with wee sermons with little meat. The cause is a shortage of ministers, which has led to cannibalizing missionary organizations of qualified men, to the detriment of both, as missions and ministry within the church are 2 very different fields. And still there's no encouragement to young men to dig into the faith, to pursue progress in it instead of worldly careers. I don't think I would be a minister, but enabling the intellectual aspect of Christianity to grow in our churches would be helpful in growing supply and in strengthening congregations (reading groups or lecture groups as per Live Not By Lies perhaps). Instead we turn into evanjellyfish, holding firm to the sacraments of Quiet Bible Time and Group Bible Study, being careful not to cause offense or be offended, making sure the kids are entertained, but don't teach them what they need to stand against temptation.
I spent about 15 years flying in the Reformed, evangelical orbit, and here are my observations.
First, in some heavily theological Reformed traditions, there is a deep distrust of political and cultural institutions. My former denomination (I'm now part of the ACNA [Note: conservative spinoff of The Episcopal Church -- RD) was split among members who were willing to vote, and those that refused. Many smart, deeply theological people opted out of political participation and would question why any Christian would choose to inhabit the political sphere. (Many were, at the time, involved in higher education, so they had not given up on all cultural institutions.)
Second, within many Reformed colleges and universities, the emphasis was on Christ-centered learning first, and intellectual rigor a bit farther down the list (I attended a Reformed college in the 1990s, and still have connections there). That's not to say I didn't have excellent professors and mentors, but, having good friends at rigorous universities, the disparity was evident. Ultimately, even the best and brightest students end up stuck within the evangelical orbit because they weren't just quite good enough to cut it elsewhere.
(NB: I went to college with Caleb Stegall. He is obviously a massive exception to all this.)
Third, many Reformed evangelicals are deeply distrustful of Roman Catholics (as a former Catholic, I was a bit appalled when one day, an elder at the church we were attending prayed for the souls of Catholics). Many are also deeply distrustful of intellectuals outside of theology. There is reverse snobbery going on.
Finally, I have some close friends that have recently crossed the Tiber for reasons your friends give. I appreciate what they are looking for, but I also hear them expend mental and emotional energy defending the often sad state of worship and formation in Catholic parishes. I also see them jump from parish to parish, looking for that perfect priest and perfect community (the irony here is rich, because in the next breath, they will criticize the placelessness of contemporary American culture).
Oh, that last paragraph sounds so familiar. I did pretty much that. It was a real and frequent shock to me -- yes, frequent; it happened over and over -- to enter American Catholicism, and to experience the radical difference between Catholicism on paper (the Church of JP2 and Father Neuhaus) and Catholicism as it actually is in many places (Our Lady of Pizza Hut, and Father Frootloop). The standard thing you'll hear if you complain is that you need to be humble about this stuff. There's no doubt something to it. But at a certain point, you realize that you aren't asking for the Cure of Ars's parish, but just something that resembles lived Catholicism, the thing that won your heart to Christ in the first place. Just today I finished writing a chapter in my new book in which I talked about the Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann's book How God Becomes Real. In it, she talks about how important it is to be embedded in a faith community that makes the claims of the faith (not just Christian faith; she's an anthropologist who studies different faiths) become vividly alive in one's imagination. It made me think about how hard I had to work in most Catholic parishes of which I was a part to make the things I believed as a Catholic feel like more than intellectual propositions. The separation between the church in my head and the church in my life was pretty big. I found in Orthodoxy that no matter how lousy the preaching might be -- and Orthodox preaching, I've found, is no better or no worse than Catholic preaching -- the overwhelming richness of the liturgy thoroughly immerses your imagination in transcendence. Here in Budapest, there are no Orthodox churches that worship in English, which is too bad for me, because I can't benefit from sermons (I know the liturgy, so it being in a language I don't understand is not that big a deal). But the profundity of Orthodox liturgical worship is so great that if I never heard another English sermon in church again for the rest of my life, I would still be fulfilled in a way I rarely was in Catholic worship. This is such a tragedy because Catholics have in their tradition what it takes to create a far richer liturgical life. But they don't often use it.
A Catholic writes:
Your brief post on Evangelicals caught my attention. I am a Catholic in the American South, a re-vert who went through a similar intellectual, in my case, re-version in the early aughts in Washington DC in fact, having attending G'town, during the later JPII days and especially due to exposure to the titanic intellect of Benedict/Ratz. Spent most of my middle school and high school/college years affiliated with Mainline Protestantism (Methodism).
In any case, today I am often the lone Catholic amongst my friends in the community, the majority of which are overwhelmingly Evangelical Baptist, along the Andy Stanley lines. Overwhelmingly politically conservative, I find their faith commitments pretty compelling. Their knowledge of and commitment to scripture is impressive. And their hearts are quite thirsty for the Lord, and this resonates with their families and children. Frankly it is what makes the South such a nice place to live and raise a family, in my opinion.
But I wonder just how strong the roots can hold. In many conversations, there is a tendency or lack of an intellectual framework for most contemporary issues or controversies, as well as a general underappreciation of the history of Christianity (I COMPLETELY agree with the Newman position/quote) and broader Christianity (e.g. family went to a Sunday service at a prominent Evangelical church out of convenience one Palm Sunday, and not one mention of Palm Sunday, Easter week, Good Friday, etc. Not one?! I couldn't get over it). Moreover, the emotive emphasis on most of the services, with the rock band concerts, I just cannot relate to, and couldn't compare in reverence or holiness, in my opinion, to a proper and compelling Mass.
In terms of their political representation and notably at leadership especially at the national level, I always assumed it had to due to both (a) the general conservative disposition, and emphasis on the community and subsidiarity, a little irony there too, and (b) the lack of a formal hierarchy extending to the national level.
Check this one out:
I was brought up in the Catholic church as a kid and had nothing but disdain for it (I was born in 1962). It seemed to me that it was all show and no substance. People knew nothing about the Bible, and seemed to care nothing about it. They attended mass out of habit, and it seemed to have no influence on them at all, behavior wise. Growing up, it appeared to me to be a load of complete nonsense. I became an atheist as a teenager, and proceeded to live a pagan lifestyle, devoted entirely to my own satisfaction.
Needless to say, by my mid 30s I was a pretty miserable person. One evening, watching the news, I saw the person I regarded as the most loathsome man alive, President Bill Clinton, making the comment that his wife had told him that doing the same thing over and over and expecting something different to happen was insanity. Hearing those words was like a slap in the face. I realized in that moment that the only way my life would ever be any different would require me to do something I had never done before. My best friend in high school had become an evangelical Christian when we were in college. I called him up and told him that I wanted to go to church with him and his wife. I admitted that I had never taken the Bible seriously and that I needed to know if it was real or not. Bought a cheap King James version of the Bible at Barnes and Noble and started going to church and Sunday school with my friend’s family.
One of the things that immediately struck me about the Bible is how truthfully it portrays human beings. I remember one time, early in my church attendance, telling my friend that Jesus really knew what people were like. Reading his interactions with people, it was clear to me that he totally understood what people were like. (I know it sounds absurd to say that, given that he would know exactly what his own creations were like!)
One Sunday morning, in class, the teacher was reading from Luke 17, beginning at verse 20. He read out verse 24, “For as the lightning, that lighteneth out of the one part under heaven, shineth unto the other part under heaven; so shall also the Son of man be in his day.” When I heard those words the hair on my head stood straight up, and it was like I had been struck by lightning.
Jesus was like the lightning flashing in the sky. If you weren’t looking in the right direction, you wouldn’t see it. In that moment I thought to myself, “Lord, I’m looking now”.
That was back in February 1996. Even now as I’m typing these words, I have tears in my eyes. I know that the Lord was speaking to me through his word that morning. Not long afterwards, I professed faith in Jesus Christ and was baptized into him, for the forgiveness of my sins, which are so long there would never be time to tell of them. He gave me a new life, a life I could never have imagined. In the next room is my wife of 23 years, and a person who would never have given me the time of day, back when I was a pagan. I don’t have to look very far to see how much Jesus Christ has changed me, and made me into someone I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams.
The reason that I’m an evangelical Christian is because that church is built on the truth of God’s word, in the Bible. It is not built on the wisdom of men, traditions of worship or prayer, and it is certainly not built on the hierarchy of a supposed “divine” organization of men on Earth. The local church, organized as in the early days of the church is the best guard against apostacy and error.
It is the suspicion of the so called “wisdom” of men that drives the divide you mention in your post. I have a degree in Mechanical Engineering and a MBA. I’m not some uneducated rube, but at the same time I have little confidence in my own wisdom or the wisdom of others. Right now, our country has been run into the gutter by the most educated and credentialed leaders of all time. Their foolishness is on display nearly every moment.
The crisis in the Catholic church and other denominational churches go hand in hand with the way they are organized, and due to the notion that the leaders of these churches are possessed with some kind of knowledge or wisdom that is not available to the members. That is the purest nonsense. Again, reading the gospel accounts of Jesus, the history of Israel and Judah – you can see how when the religious leaders become corrupted or arrogant, the followers are likewise drawn away from the Lord.
That is the issue entirely. The Evangelicals reject the idea that intellectual prowess or cultural sophistication is necessary for the spread of the gospel or the health of the church. What is needed is the preaching of God’s word and the clear evidence of the impact of that word in the changed lives of the followers of Christ. That is also why the Evangelicals are held in contempt. They have no use for the supposed wisdom of self-proclaimed “leaders” or “experts”. We see every day the folly of these experts.
The Bible can be understood and put into practice by common men and women. That is one reason why it is rejected. It does not appeal to the pride of men. I say this as someone who had to swallow a lot of my own pride many years ago (and every day since!).
Well, as an Orthodox Christian I disagree with a lot of that, and would have as a Catholic, but I do think that we from the liturgical traditions have a lot to learn from our Evangelical brothers about living the faith. Here's a good article by an Orthodox priest about how you can tell that you're backsliding your way out of the faith. What strikes me about it, other than the fact that it's true (based on my observations of myself and others over the years), is that it puts the onus on the individual worshiper. I've noticed that a lot of people who fell away from the Church (whatever church) blame the church's leadership. No doubt they are sometimes right. But unless they have a specific complaint, I usually assume that they just didn't want to live the Christian life, and are rationalizing their decision not to go to church. If you are a believer who wants to be closer to Christ, and to live a holier life, and you for whatever reason or reasons aren't getting the help you need from your parish, I can understand why you'd want to leave. But I've known people throughout my life, from a variety of churches, who were quick to blame the faults of the pastor or church leadership, but the truth was they didn't really want to be in church. The tell was usually that they didn't find another church once they left the old one.
I remember years ago talking to a Catholic priest who had a reputation for boldness, and for unswerving orthodoxy. Yet he told me in private conversation that he pulls his punches all the time in his sermons. But why? I asked. He told me that you have to meet people where they are, and that if he gave his congregation Catholicism straight, they would all leave. His strategy was to try to build them up slowly. I had never been to this priest's parish, but I knew from his reputation that he was no compromiser. His words made me realize that one big reason Catholic preaching and parish life isn't stronger in terms of theology, doctrine, and practice, is that a large number of the laity wouldn't stand for it. As a different priest (an orthodox Catholic) told me once, "Priests come from the laity. If there's a problem with priests, you can be sure that there are problems with the laity too." He wasn't trying to offload blame, but simply trying to help me understand that priests are people too, and don't just rain down from heaven perfectly formed.
Rod, I'm a Catholic convert from the evangelical world. Grew up Baptist and was in evangelical/nondenominational/Baptist circles until I decided to convert. I'm quickly approaching year #10 as a Catholic.
I first investigated conversion around 2001/2002 and when the sex abuse scandal hit it became a no-go topic for me. I quickly decided I didn't want any part of that. But the thing is that I spent the next decade watching my Catholic friends and how they responded. They answered my questions as they came up, but mostly I just watched. I knew that if I was going to convert, the sex abuse scandals would become part of my story. It wasn't until the birth of my son in 2008 that I started revisiting the topic, given that I had married a Catholic and most of his friends were serious Catholics.
I wasn't eager to leave Protestantism, but I found it empty as a younger adult. When I thought about it my complaints were that Communion wasn't taken seriously, it seemed to be an afterthought, I felt like I didn't know my history as a Christian (everything focused on post-reformation Christianity. There was just a gap between Acts and Martin Luther that was never filled by Pastors or other teachers). There was no intellectualism, unless you wanted to argue about who's version of the tribulation period was going to play itself out. And as a woman, the churches I went to were very male leadership centered and that was off putting. As a woman, you simply didn't participate in the life of the church unless you were a teacher, sang in the choir, were a missionary or a wife/mother - and I didn't see myself in any of those roles, given that I was interested in going to a secular college as a young adult. There was also a lack of community that I was craving. As I wandered around in my 20's and early 30's, I wanted and expected a lot more from a Christian community and just didn't find it in Protestantism.
When my son was about 4, I decided to enroll in an RCIA class. Flipped my husband out because he was a non-practicing Catholic. I really just picked the Catholic church that was up the road from our apartment. I didn't have much guidance with that, but given the instruction I got from my Catholic friends and my own research I knew that some of the stuff the DRE was saying in class was just not accurate. But I stuck with it and converted, even if I knew the teacher was misleading people about who should and shouldn't be taking communion in a Catholic Church. I had asked my questions, gotten over the anti-Catholic rhetoric of my youth and could see myself as having a place in the wider Catholic community.
It was all very haphazard, I know, but Catholicism was is the fulfillment of what I was looking for in my faith and couldn't find as a low church Protestant. There's beauty, there's the intellectual and historical component, there's community and spaces for me as a woman to participate in church life. I'm not hung up on the woman can't be a priest thing because there are reasons why the traditions are the way that they are. I like that there's a book of 'why' and I think the Catechism is the most beautiful book ever written, except the Bible. If we all adhered to it, the world would be so different.
In the end, one of the big reasons why I joined the church is because I knew they'd be one of the last refuges for those of us who hold to conservative theology and have a conservative worldview socially.
Evangelicals talk a good game, but they simply don't have an institution behind them that can trace its roots directly back to Jesus. That matters to me.
I'm in my late 40's now and it's sad that so many of our Catholic Churches are just as secular as the culture. Yet, I could never go back to being a Protestant. It was so empty. I know plenty of people who are Protestants who clearly love Jesus, but very few of them have any intellectual rigor to their proclamations for Christ. It's a feeling. The people who I know that are steadfast/serious in their Protestantism tend to have or be church leaders and a tradition of that faith in their family. My parents weren't church goers and I got church because they decided to utilize a bus ministry that came to our neighborhood for me. My grandparents were in the Salvation Army and I was warned off about that from my dad and my aunts/uncles. So, church was never a community/family thing for me, except in the sense that my grandparents were super Christian and that rubbed off on everyone whether they liked it or not.
As a result, it was really important to me that I share the same faith as my husband and my son and build a Christian community for myself and our family. Evangelicals are just too fragmented for that to occur in a serious way and just don't have the intellectual heft to keep me challenged or interested. Plus, my husband will only consider converting to Lutheranism, if there's a reason to leave Catholicism, so there's that piece as well.
Rod, the thing I've learned is that everyone has their own faith journey. Jesus will meet us anywhere, anytime, but we've got to be open to him. I tend to think of a story I recently shared with my son. My uncle was living in a small town in the UP (in Michigan) when he was younger and my grandfather called at one point and asked if he was getting to church. My uncle said 'no, the only church around is the catholic one and we aren't Catholic'. My grandfather said 'go to church. It doesn't matter if the church is Catholic, spend time with God." My uncle was taken aback. I don't know if my uncle actually went to the Catholic Church after the conversation, but I do know that was how my grandfather was. He just wanted people to know Jesus and Spend time with him. I think he had the right idea when he expressed the idea that it's not the label, but Jesus we should be seeking.
I honestly would have stayed in the evangelical world had I been fulfilled by it, but I wasn't. I just remember feeling lost and disconnected most of the time. I can't imagine going back simply because I feel like I've claimed my entire heritage as a Christian by becoming a Catholic. I feel lied to. You can't just undo that with a Rock band at the 10 o clock service.
UPDATE.2: More letters from readers:
I’ve been a charismatic evangelical all my life (I’m 62). And yes, there is a decided lack of intellectualism in many parts of evangelicalism (especially among the young-Earth types), but I’ve seen how those with the intellectual bent tend to ruin things as well. They almost inherently become more liberal and compromising in some way or other.
I’m partial to the Vineyard church movement, and it attracted a lot of intellectuals because its founder (John Wimber) could talk on their level. But when Wimber passed away, the church suffered and declined. They’re all good people, but intellectualism only gets you so far, and too frequently, it can lead you off on tangents that subtly take you away from the Truth.
One of my favorite Bible teachers is David Pawson who passed away a few years ago. He tells of going to Germany and preaching to them that they needed to repent – of a form of Biblical criticism that their scholars exported around the world. Pawson’s own professor at Oxford (who was an expert on the book of Romans) lost his faith through such intellectual criticism.
Pawson was once asked by the local Catholic priest if he could teach the Bible to his people as they were hopelessly Biblically illiterate. Such illiteracy is sadly widespread everywhere, but among regular Catholic laymen, it seems all too common to have rarely if ever read the Bible. It’s just a large book that gathers dust. I’ve heard Catholic priests joke about that.
This is tragic enough, but even more so because of the wonders the Bible contains, and that can be unlocked when one’s mind deeply engages it.
One of my favorite scriptures is this:
Psa 53:2 God looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek God.
My Paraphrase: God looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any who “frequent the threshing floor”, searching after, seeking, contemplating, studying, and inquiring of God, who turn their mind and attention to seeing and pondering God, becoming wise and gaining insight.
To me, this is way more than an intellectual pursuit. It is pursuing God and understanding of Him and His ways with everything you are – with your mind yes – but also with your heart. With my heart, I hear in this verse God lamenting the very few who will pursue Him like He wants. Are there any? And no, in my experience, intellectuals rarely fall into that category of who God is seeking.
One of the keys to being one of those who God is looking for is “turning aside”, like Moses did with the burning bush. Turning to books is good. But turning aside when you see God move changes how you see everything. Burning bushes have a way of transforming your mind.
So, frankly, I don’t care to mingle in intellectual circles. I’d much rather mingle among those who have turned aside, seen God, and learned from Him.
I read your piece on Evangelicalism/Catholicism/Orthodoxy with great interest. As I mentioned in another email, I am a small o orthodox Anglican, who departed the Episcopalian Church in the exodus of 2006/7.The nucleus of the church my husband and I now attend came out of the Episcopal diocese of Dallas and is a part of the Anglican Church of North America, after a time of being under the authority of the Provence of Nigeria.
In the two years we have attended Christ the Redeemer, in addition to the core of ex Episcopalians, there has been and interesting mix of nationality and religious backgrounds. Nigerian, Pakistani, Egyptian, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, along with a few former Baptists (we are in Texas, after all), and various non-denominational or mega-churches. Until about six months ago, all familiar faces. And then, slowly, but surely new faces began to appear. Some cradle Episcopalians, but many with non-liturgical backgrounds, so much so, that our priest has had informal coffees to answer inquiries about Anglican beliefs and practices. In casual conversations with some of our new attendees, I hear stories of people who are searching for something missing in the churches they were attending, in one instance, a young lady did research and decided to try an Anglican church. One was a refugee from the current split in the Methodist church, (She has found a lot of empathy with those of us ex Episcopalians.)
You will be pleased to know that this past Sunday's homily included a clear and firm affirmation of orthodox Christian beliefs about sex and gender.
Although we incorporate some contemporary music along with traditional Anglican hymns, our liturgy and observances are very traditional. There is a reverence for the beautiful liturgy that is our inheritance and a conscious purpose of passing it on to future generations.
My impression is that our new attendees are looking for a firmer framework within which to practice the Christian faith.
We are officially Protestant, but we honor the historical church, its calendar, creeds, and disciplines.
Get daily emails in your inbox
A reader sent a link to this fascinating essay from the Protestant journal Ad Fontes, in which the author, Onsi Kamel, compared and contrasted the "Catholic intellectual ecosystem" in the US to the Protestant one. Here's a long excerpt, which I hope will inspire you to read the whole thing:
But why do I analyze any of this? What is the significance of the existence of these sorts of networks, and what is gained by analyzing them? First and foremost, this kind of network is significant precisely because of who possesses it, or rather, who doesn’t: Protestants.
For a variety of reasons, including the progressive apostasy of the mainline churches and the subsequent loss of distinctly Protestant Ivy League divinity schools, Protestants lack top-tier academic institutions of our own. Evangelicals run institutions, to be sure, but these are often not up to the intellectual level of their Catholic or secular counterparts. More often, they are several tiers lower, and Protestants today lack robust access to non-Protestant political and cultural outlets. Why is this?
There are a couple of reasons, I think. First: not only have Protestants lost the institutions that were formerly home for us, but we also lack robust representation at elite levels in the secular academy. This, in turn, means there is less distinctly Protestant work to popularize. Because there is less Protestant work to popularize, public intellectuals are not reading Protestants on a regular basis; the void is filled by Catholics.
Second: Protestants in elite institutions tend to be in the mainline, and the mainline has very little to say socially and politically that the secular, progressive left isn’t saying more forcefully, effectively, and cogently elsewhere. For this reason, the Christian voices featured in secular spaces tend to be either Catholic or evangelical. Which brings us to a further question: why aren’t conservative evangelicals achieving at the level of their Catholic counterparts? Again, I think there are a couple of reasons.
Conservative evangelicals tend to be populist in orientation, suspicious of elite institutions, research, and credentials (and not without some warrant, it should be noted). And populists, it should go without saying, generally have little appetite for “expertise” or “elites,” or for supporting institutions which sustain an expert class. But evangelicals have also tended to cede cultural ground they view as under threat, retreating to regroup elsewhere. In response to their skepticism of “expertise” or “political elites,” conservative Catholics have not retreated into bunkers or siloes, forfeiting their places in elite institutions; they have channeled such skepticism into top institutions of American conservatism, like First Things or National Review or more recently The American Conservative, as well as into the highest levels of the academy, as represented in the works of figures like Alasdair MacIntyre or Patrick Deneen. By contrast, evangelicals have largely forfeited or wasted such positions, apparently in the belief that such positions are hopelessly tainted (consider regular evangelical sneering at the Ivies), that figures within them are powerless to do anything (consider the disappointing record of Francis Collins as NIH director), or, more tragically, because evangelicals, as mirror images of their mainline counterparts, have had little to say that wasn’t already being said better by non-evangelical Reaganite neo-Conservatives (consider the evangelicals active at The Bulwark or The Dispatch).
As an aside, it is worth noting that this populist orientation has generally given evangelicals a distinct advantage in the realms of media and popular outreach, using mass-market media to connect with the masses. Figures like Billy Graham have few analogues in the Catholic world, and even if Catholicism is in the process of replacing the mainline’s former function in elite American culture, evangelicalism has simultaneously come to dominate lowbrow religious popular culture. Catholicism, by contrast, is fundamentally tied to one institution—the Roman Catholic Church—with a fixed hierarchy and established patronage networks, both of which can funnel money into elite institutions for the purpose of cultivating excellence.
An additional issue: perhaps as a result of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, or perhaps as a result of the mass apostasy of the mainline, conservative Protestant circles tend to have more, and more rigorously policed, theological and cultural shibboleths and smell tests. In some respects, this evangelical impulse is good: it can preserve something closer to the traditional position on Scriptural authority, certainly more effectively than the mainline can. But in other respects, this impulse fragments Protestants and ultimately destroys the possibility of forming networks of sufficient size and scope to sustain an ecosystem of intellectual life like that sustained by American Catholics.
Finally, evangelicals in the pews generally don’t care, or believe they shouldn’t care, about what the elites think or talk about – what the NYT or WSJ or Washington Post publishes, what the latest best seller on the NYT best seller list is. Jesus didn’t care about all that fluff, and the real work is the gift of faith by grace through the Holy Spirit. And so, they support their local church’s Bible camp instead of Protestant academic institutions. I suspect such rhetoric is not fully thought-out—after all, Jesus seems suddenly very interested in what the elites are up to when there is a presidential election on the horizon. The truth is rather that evangelicals often pretend an other-worldly remove with respect to certain kinds of prestige or cultural activity, but they have always had a strong activist streak when it comes to politics. This reveals a misunderstanding about how elite (and thus popular) culture is shaped. It isn’t shaped whole cloth from political victories or from the founding of evangelical-only magazines, important as those no doubt are. Rather, culture is shaped gradually, over time, by people who hold posts in the relevant secular (or ecumenical) cultural institutions and who are willing to use those posts for the advancement of what is good and true.
So where do we go from here? Evangelical engagement in politics clearly demonstrates that evangelicals wish to shape American politics and culture. But evangelical divestment from institutions that are either secular or non-evangelical prevents evangelicals from being sharpened by non-evangelicals and in turn sharpening them. If confessional Protestants and evangelicals want to be able to get their ideas out into the real world, if they wish to break out of their echo-chambers, what needs to happen?
As I suggested, read the whole thing.