Written by Bruce Ellis Benson
Bruce Ellis Benson is Executive Director of the Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology. He works in aesthetics, hermeneutics, phenomenology, and philosophy of religion. He is the author or editor of a dozen books. Among his most recent books are Liturgy as a Way of Life: Embodying the Arts in Christian Worship and (with J. Aaron Simmons) The New Phenomenology: A Philosophical Introduction.
Whatever else resulted from the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth-century, the fundamentalists emerged rather scathed. At least in the eyes of much of society, they appeared to be ignorant and backward. Even the fundamentalist Bernard Ramm once wrote of his fellow fundamentalists that “many times they were dogmatic beyond evidence, or were intractable of disposition, or were obnoxiously anti-cultural, anti-scientific, and anti-educational.”
There’s an old joke to the effect that “fundamentalism” is “no fun, all damn, and no mental.” To what extent that was simply a caricature is certainly open to debate. Yet what is not at all open to debate is that fundamentalists were largely marginalized, both by themselves and by society at large. Partly this results from the very ideal of fundamentalism, the insistence that true Christians should be “set apart” from society at large. Thus, fundamentalists practiced what was called “double separationism,” and so attempted to have as little to do with “the world” as possible. With this in mind, for instance, it’s not surprisingly that fundamentalists didn’t go to Hollywood movies or Broadway plays: they realized that paying for a ticket was subsidizing industries that they saw as inimical to their very identity. Of course, Hollywood and Broadway returned the favor: fundamentalist Christians were generally portrayed as out-of-touch bumpkins.
But, in the forties, a certain group of fundamentalists wanted to break away from that identity and perception. They wanted a different sort of climate, one that still held to what they perceived as the fundamentals of the Christian faith, but without being dogmatic and divisive. They were open to scientific research and education in general. They were also open to historical-critical study of the Bible. In short, they wanted to move away from the fear that had generated fundamentalism in the first place. Among these reformers were Billy Graham and Carl F.H. Henry. They realized that, if they were to become relevant to society at large, they had to move away from their narrow enclaves and become players in a broader cultural context. But given their fundamentalist history and the prominent social perceptions of that history, they needed a serious makeover. In place of the word “fundamentalist,” they adopted the word “evangelical” or “neo-evangelical.” To be sure, the word “evangelical” had been around for a long time, but now it was being repurposed. It was a shrewd move. The fundamentalists were known for their fiery rhetoric against the “liberals,” but these new evangelicals wanted to tone things down. Not surprisingly, the classic fundamentalists responded, well, just as you would expect. John R. Rice wrote: “Although they claim to believe the Bible, they are buddy-buddies with the infidels who spit on the blood of Jesus, deny the inspiration of the Bible and the blood of the atonement, while they despise us fundamentalists.” Showing the historical connection between evangelicalism and fundamentalism, the historian George Marsden defines a fundamentalist as “an evangelical who is angry about something.”
The questions and challenges faced by Graham and Henry are not simply of historical note. They remain important today in the context of the very evangelical colleges and universities that were established in light of the neo-evangelical upsurge. But, how does one, practically, continue to move away from the angry, fearful world of fundamentalism within an evangelical academic setting? One way is to broaden the curriculum to include more mainstream theology while teaching students theories regarding how the Bible came to be within specific historical and cultural settings. Or, another way might be to take philosophy seriously and to present evolution as a view worth considering. Further, one might invite speakers to campus who don’t necessarily sound or look like the student body or faculty. Yet another way is to admit of disagreement and allow flexibility regarding lifestyle expectations for both faculty and students. Such steps are certainly in keeping with the history of evangelical colleges. For example, it is hard for many students at such colleges today to fathom that, not so long ago, students were not allowed to use tobacco or alcohol or attend movies or play cards, and that their professors were expected to live by the same rules. In general, most evangelical colleges have made these and other moves in the attempt to live into the dual vision of the initial neo-evangelical reformers: standing for what they took to be Christian truth while also standing for the importance of intellectual rigor. In other words, evangelical colleges have historically been defined by an attempt to bring the life of the mind and the life of faith together as a lived reality.
All along, though, faculty at these institutions realized that there were limits as to just how much they could say and what they could teach, even if those limits were constantly changing and never perfectly defined as evangelicalism itself continued to change. Yet before we can address this concern, it is important to set these limitations in a wider context. Consider the following claim: “We know perfectly well that we are not free to say just anything, that we cannot simply speak of anything, when we like or where we like.” While that line could easily come from a professor at an evangelical college, it is actually from a lecture (L’ordre du discours) Michel Foucault gave at the Collège de France in 1970. In other words, there are always boundaries, whether we are talking about colleges, or the Rotary Club, or your kid’s soccer game. One can argue that the climate—at least in American colleges and universities—is more restrictive than it would have been for Foucault in Paris. Today it is common to hear that “political correctness” restricts speech on college campuses, both by faculty and students (and even speakers who get “uninvited” if they are perceived to be saying something one can’t say). No doubt, these complaints have some basis in fact. Yet the idea of “political correctness” hadn’t even been invented when Foucault made that statement. Indeed, Foucault is speaking about social discourse in general, not just academic discourse.
So what do we make of his point about discursive limits when applied to the task and identity of evangelical colleges? Some might argue that evangelical colleges actually are more upfront than secular institutions about what can and cannot be said, since the former have doctrinal statements and the latter don’t. The thinking behind this line of argumentation is quite simple: every place has its exclusions and prohibitions, but they are more explicit at evangelical colleges due to their Christian commitments. In such cases, maybe it is better because at least you know which things are not open to discussion. In contrast, at secular institutions, very little is spelled out and yet the limits continue to exist. There is something to this argument that should not be too quickly ignored. By having a doctrinal statement that everyone is expected to endorse, the limitations are made public. Most evangelical colleges even have such statements on their websites.
Yet, as always, the devil is in the details. What normally is not published—on websites or anywhere else—is exactly what those statements (and individual clauses) mean and, more important, what those statements entail. In regard to the former, if the clause concerns something like the inerrancy of the Bible, what does it mean to say that the Bible has no errors? In other words, define “error.” This seems like an easy enough task, until one actually tries to do it. Socrates was particularly deft at showing that things like “virtue” that we all supposedly understand turn out to be really difficult to define. Alternatively, by entailments, I simply mean: if you believe X, what other things are you thereby affirming (however implicitly)?
It should go without saying that documents are not self-interpreting (though perhaps our current cultural and political climate would benefit from more people actually saying it more often). The stability of a doctrinal statement depends upon who gets to do the defining and determining the entailments. So things aren’t nearly as cut and dried as they might seem. With this in mind, the argument that evangelical colleges are more upfront about their prohibitions than secular institutions loses a good deal of its force because it all depends on
- how narrowly or broadly these documents are interpreted,
- how far reaching those entailments go, and
- who defines these two items.
Likely, this varies significantly among evangelical institutions. So one needs to know the culture of the institution in order to know how its principal documents have been interpreted and what the entailments are as a result. But then we are right back to the situation found on secular campuses, namely that there are unwritten codes about what you can and cannot say. Since they are unwritten, a faculty member has to figure them out by asking colleagues (who may or may not be forthcoming, often out of fear). So, not only is discussion limited by explicit statements, it is likewise limited by all of the implicit statements that go along with them. And one may not find out what those implicit statements actually are until one has already said something that conflicts with them. But by then it may be too late. If you add into the equation that the doctrinal statements of most evangelical colleges take quite a lot off of the table for discussion to begin with, then it is hard to think that evangelical colleges really have as much intellectual freedom as might be ideally desired for an academic institution, regardless of its religious affiliation.
You may have noticed that the title of this blog post ends with a question mark. That is because I’m wondering what is happening at evangelical colleges, today, at this particular moment in time. Part of why I say that I am “wondering” about this, rather than that I believe that such and such is the case for them, is that there are quite a few evangelical colleges and it would be rather presumptuous to claim to understand them all. Actually, it’s hard enough to understand any one in particular. As Foucault also reminds us, discourses aren’t really “owned” by anyone. Power is much more diffuse than that. So one can’t point to faculty or students or administration and say “well, there’s your answer” to the state of evangelical colleges.
Still, my question boils down to this: are evangelical colleges at risk of sliding from neo-evangelicalism to something like “neo-fundamentalism”? In other words, are evangelical colleges (or perhaps evangelicals in general) making a retreat from the world and embracing a new sort of solitude? Fundamentalism, as we noted, is not just about standing for the truth but doing so in a way in which one purposely separates oneself from the “world.” Here I should point out that this question cannot be answered simply by saying “this is what evangelical colleges are ‘intending’ to do.” The famous principle of double effect is that one might well intend to do X and, in so doing, also do Y. So I’m not asking whether evangelical colleges are explicitly moving to neo-fundamentalism. Instead, I’m asking whether, given the ways in which they are responding to the world around them, neo-fundamentalism is actually the direction they are heading even without realizing it or intending to do so. Further, and perhaps this is where the real rubber meets the road, if they are sliding toward neo-fundamentalism, does this mean that they are becoming culturally irrelevant as a result?
Perhaps my question comes as a surprise. After all, there was a time during which evangelicals as a whole exerted an important influence on politics or culture at large in the US. Because of the election of Jimmy Carter, Newsweek named 1976 “the year of the evangelical” (a bit premature, since many evangelicals hate him—and I choose the word “hate” quite deliberately). In 2000, George W. Bush, a self-identified evangelical, became president. Even as recently as 2005, Time had a cover story on “America’s Twenty-Five Most Influential Evangelicals.” Yet, even though political commentators still talk about the “evangelical vote,” that influence seems to be waning. In effect, evangelicals marched right into the culture wars—and were soundly defeated. My impression of evangelical colleges is that they are hunkering down, rightly realizing that they are increasingly in the minority when it comes to academic institutions generally and, more specifically, the broad trends of cultural awareness and political orientations of the students they have traditionally attracted. And this gets us back to the whole motivation of fear. Earlier, we noted that fundamentalism was motivated by fear of the modernists. But were Graham and Henry—and those who followed in their footsteps—ever able to get beyond that fundamentalist fear? From all of my exposure to evangelicalism, I simply can’t think of a more powerful motivating emotion in its history.
So I wonder if that fear, which at best went underground in evangelicalism but was really running the show all along, has now become so acute that, in place of the expansion into the world at large, evangelical colleges are slowly creeping back toward their fundamentalist strongholds. It seems that they are not just holding on to the fundamentals of the faith, as it were, but are seeking a new sort of double separation from anything that is other than their own interpretation of those fundamentals (and the entailments of that interpretation). That fear of the other might be understood as directed toward “liberal” Christians (with whom they cannot associate for fear of being made “unclean”), or perhaps it can be seen in all-too-thinly-veiled attacks on Muslims, or even completely unveiled attacks on gays and transgendered people. Or, and perhaps this is the most troubling for both the church and the academy, maybe it is most often manifest in the difficulty of evangelical colleges (and, for that matter, evangelical churches) coping with faculty and students who simply ask too many questions.
Is what Graham and Henry tried in effect a grand experiment that is at risk of ultimately failing? Or is it slowly in the process of being revealed as the sham it always was such that evangelicals simply are fundamentalists—whether angry or not? Perhaps it is too soon to tell.