The Loss of Christian Intellectuals

HT: MereOrthodoxy and Francis Shaeffer

Mere Orthodoxy Podcast discussion

Alan Jacobs The Watchmen

The model of separate-but-equal domains that Father Neuhaus chose may be the best that is generally available for most Christian intellectuals, but it means that the larger public sphere, the realm of American civic discourse, is deprived of Christian voices that could speak in serious and significant ways of the issues that face us as a country and a society — including the rise of illiberal and confrontational movements that often seem to be rooted in religious identity. Since almost nobody who comfortably belongs to that larger public sphere is interested in anything that Christians or other religious believers have to say — I once heard the philosopher Richard Rorty comment, “Of course the theists can talk, but we don’t have to listen” — it’s unlikely that many will feel it as a loss.

Repost from Calvin in Common

I don’t think is argument is that Christians aren’t doing intellectual work, but that religious voices with the broadest audiences aren’t intellectuals. Ask yourself “who would be the religious leaders with the broadest popular recognition, attention or influence?” The closest to a Christian intellectual you might come to would be Pope Francis. Beyond him the American list would probably look something like this:

1. Oprah
2. Joel Osteen
Others who might make the list would be notorious pastors of the religious right.
There have of course been presidential “spiritual” counselors like Billy Graham (Nixon and others), Bill Hybels (Bill Clinton) and I suppose Marilynne Robinson for Obama.
Miroslav Volf perhaps come closest but while my teenage and young adult kids would recognize the Pope, Oprah, possibly Joel Osteen and Rick Warren they wouldn’t know Robinson or Volf.
Jacob’s point that I gleaned was that Christianity is assumed to have so little to offer intellectually in the broader public discourse. Another piece that followed up on it from a conservative blog mentioned the fragmenting of the media. Snapchat isn’t exactly a medium for sustained anything. Most of you probably don’t have Snapchat on your phone but in case you haven’t learned Facebook is really for grandma.
Christian intellectuals seem to have nothing to say that anyone outside their own ghettos feel is worth hearing. I don’t know that this speaks to the quality of their work as much as the fragmentation of the public conversation and the assumed center having moved to a sort of vague moralism where one might imagine the Pope and the Dalai Lama are pretty much the same thing to the degree that the Pope doesn’t talk about abortion or birth control.
At a popular level Oprah may promote books and authors and non-intellectuals may find that they have a special purpose from Rick Warren but this seems to be as high as it goes. The Dalai Lama gets to the US more than the Pope does and has more Hollywood star power in his corner. Of our two presidential candidates the one who more openly tries to promote his Christian bona fides is likely in church less than the one who says little about her faith.
This is a great distance from the mid 20th century as Marsden points out in the introduction to his book. This point isn’t that there aren’t Christian thinkers. The point is that the broader cultural assumption among is that Christianity is a spent force and has little to offer beyond the general scavenging of ancient “spiritual” bobbles passing as “wisdom” for our broad emotional edification. As a culture we are tourists visiting cathedrals never imagining being gripped by the forces that moved their makers to build them.
Here’s the intro to Marsden’s book.
In the late spring of 1960, Life, America’s immensely popular pictorial news magazine, claiming a readership of 25 million, published a “crucial U.S. debate” in a five-part series on “The National Purpose.” The authors, a distinguished group, included not only professional observers of the national scene, headed by the legendary Walter Lippmann, but also men of practical affairs, such as David Sarnoff, head of the Radio Corporation of America. Others, such as poet Archibald MacLeish, recent two-time Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, and evangelist Billy Graham, were among the most famous representatives of major areas of American life. It was unremarkable at the time that all the contributors were white males. It was just as unremarkable that the forum included a clergyman, even though the clergyman was an ardent evangelical (as well as being the only southerner in the mix). 1
Henry R. Luce, editor-in-chief of Life, explained in his foreword to the book version, which appeared later in the year, that, “more than anything else, the people of America are asking for a clear sense of National Purpose.” Providing a sort of Norman Rockwell touch, he wrote that “a group of citizens may begin by talking about the price of eggs or the merits of education, but they end by asking each other: what are we trying to do overall? Where are we trying to get? What is the National Purpose of the U.S.A.?” America had become “the greatest nation in the world.” But the questions of the day were about what America would now “do with the greatness” and whether it was “great in the right way.” Luce was one of the most influential opinion shapers in America, perhaps the most influential for the rank and file of the reading public. He was the head of a publishing empire that included not only Life but also Time (the most widely read print newsmagazine in the country in an era when print still held its place as the most respected medium), Fortune (the leading business weekly), and the new Sports Illustrated.
Luce, a Yale graduate and the son of Presbyterian missionaries to China, was a wide-ranging and inventive thinker in his own right. America was his mission, and he tended to see the interests of God and country as going hand in hand. He invented the phrase “The American Century” in 1941, having prophesied prior to America’s entry into the war that the nation was destined to become the leader of the free world. Americans had taken up that task and warmed to it. Now, almost twenty years later, the nation seemed to be drifting, and Luce wished to clarify where it should be heading.
The immediate context was that 1960 was an election year, and it was not clear exactly where the nation was headed. The recent years had been the first in a generation when the nation’s purpose had not been clear. In the 1930s, the nation had the clear goal of recovering from the Depression. Then came World War II, postwar rebuilding, and the Korean War. Ike had been president since 1953. He had led the “Crusade in Europe,” as he had titled his World War II memoir in 1948, but his presidency had been marked by his efforts to fend off the efforts of others to create a crusading or crisis atmosphere. Early in his presidency he had faced a challenge led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, who had attempted to turn anticommunism into a major domestic purge of anyone who had ever had leftist affiliations. The Cold War was at its height, and one of Ike’s goals was to dampen the kind of zealotry that might lead to World War III. Moderation, however, came at a price: it could seem like lack of direction. Ever since the Soviet Union had launched its Sputnik satellite in 1957, critics of the administration had complained of a missile gap, saying that America was losing the space race. On the domestic front, there was a great deal of anxiety as to whether unprecedented prosperity and shallow popular culture might be causing the nation to lose its moral bearings as well.
In the original Life version of the series, the magazine’s chief editorial writer, John K. Jessup (Yale ’28), set the stage for the discussion. Amid lavish color illustrations of national icons, Jessup guided readers through the high points of American rhetoric, from the Declaration of Independence to Franklin D. Roosevelt. The American project of building democracy had become, as Woodrow Wilson had declared, an international project of “making the world safe for democracy.” Yet the Cold War world of the 1950s seemed anything but safe, and Americans seemed to be faltering on sustaining the first principles upon which democracy was built. “Self-government” had been a perennial American goal, he said, but today that idea, “that men can govern themselves in freedom under law,” might seem “too 18th Century for the world’s needs today, or America’s complex relation to it.” Furthermore, Jessup argued, “democracy . . . is not the highest value known to man.” Rather, it works only because it is grounded in “higher allegiances,” allegiances, that is, to “moral law.” Americans, he affirmed, have a “public love affair with righteousness,” because “our very right of self-government is derived from ‘the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.’” If Americans were to answer communism around the world in an effective way, then they ought to be able to provide a new articulation of John Locke and the founding fathers’ principle that freedom is grounded in rights to property. But Jessup recognized that Americans had lost such a clear sense of purpose. He quoted a letter from a US Air Force lieutenant to Time: “What America stands for is making money, and as the society approaches affluence, its members are left to stew in their own ennui.”
Marsden, George. The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief . Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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