Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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More evangelicalism and intellectual life

The Friar notes, but doesn’t really discuss, Alan Wolfe’s update of the article I cited just below. I have some factual quibbles--he gets Michael Farris’s name wrong, refers to the Christian Reform Church instead of the Christian Reformed Church, and I don’t think Patrick Henry College could be rightly described as "emphasiz[ing] a Great Books education." They give me some cause for pause about the extent to which he actually has control of the material with which he’s dealing. For example, he makes much of the brouhaha at Calvin College when George W. Bush gave his commencement address there (something about which I blogged, perhaps too often. Wolfe’s summary description is that "the event made clear that not all faith-based colleges in the United States are filled with loyal Republicans pleased by America’s recent turn to the political right." No one who has paid any attention to evangelicalism in higher education and politics could have thought anything else: across the country, somewhere between 25% and 35% of evangelicals didn’t vote Republican in the last couple of elections. And, as I noted in one of my Calvin posts, that "only" 1/3 of the faculty signed a letter protesting the visit suggests a massive difference between Calvin and any equally "good" secular liberal arts college. So Wolfe’s lead-in is a little misleading.

And then we get to the thrust of his argument, which is that academic excellence and religious fidelity are inconsistent with one another. He particularly objects to statements of faith:

Faculty and administrators at these schools defend faith statements on the grounds that they protect and nurture community; because we have a shared mission, they like to point out, one will not find among us the groundless anomie and lack of direction associated with more secular institutions. That may be true, but community and diversity represent different values, and frequently one must choose between them. All too often, evangelical colleges prize the former over the latter. By their very nature, statements of faith are designed to defend against religious diversity. That is one reason I object to them; they smack of religious bigotry and suggest a lack of appreciation for academic freedom. But there is something else wrong with statements of faith: they manifest a defensiveness that is one of conservative Christianity’s less attractive features.

What this amounts to saying is that adherence in an academic setting to anything remotely resembling the confessions and creeds of traditional Christianity is "bigotry." Belonging to a creedal or confessional church is "bigotry." A college sponsored by a creedal or confessional church would have to engage in "bigotry" if it wanted to be faithful to its denomination. If this is what Wolfe thinks is necessary for the "evangelical mind" to be "opened," then I hope that my colleagues in such institutions don’t take his advice. It’s possible to have a serious intellectual life taking as one’s point of departure certain "presuppositions." Most "scientific" disciplines do this all the time (consider this particularly colorful recent example). And, as Bruce Kimball has shown, there’s a perfectly distinguished conception of liberal education that has at its roots a notion of religious formation.

But that’s enough for now.

Update: Another quibble: my friends at the University of Tulsa would be shocked to learn that they’re teaching at a public institution. But (once again) seriously: Wolfe is on the strongest ground when he raises questions about the pursuit of a political agenda allegedly following from a religious mission. One of the things upon which I would insist (both to folks on the left and on the right) is that there is a role to be played by prudence whenever we engage in politics or other "practical" enterprises. Prudence can be cultivated in an educational setting, but not if we don’t leave room for its (varied) formation, hence not if we’re committed to a particular practical agenda. In other words, it’s not just intellectual life that suffers if "everything" is dictated by politics, but even moral formation (and hence ultimately citizenship and politics).

Update #2: Touchstone’s David Mills has some characteristically thoughtful Mere Comments.

Discussions - 7 Comments

I have not followed this debate very closely but I have a small personal anecdote that, to my mind anyway, put to rest any natural resistance I may have had to the idea of "faith statements." I had to sign one once. The problem was that I didn’t--at least not in every particular--believe in it. So I thought it best that I gently let it be known why I couldn’t sign it unamended. I thought I was probably going to be out of luck as far as the job went. On the contrary, I was surprised to find how open to the conversation and grateful for my honesty the administration was. I agreed (and since it had absolutely nothing to do with my academic area, it was no big concession) not to make a point of proselytizing about these areas of my disagreement. They were very clear to me that this did not mean I could not answer direct questions about my faith or that I should in any way unnaturally sensor my conversations with students. They just didn’t want me work in some active way to undermine their faith or their institution and its purposes. Of course, I had no interest in doing that! In general, I think their statement of faith kept the school grounded and focused, but not at all close-minded. People who start with SOMETHING generally are more interesting and curious, in my view. I think the statement was more of a point of departure than a box outside of which one dare not think. In my case, it was clear that even the administration was very much open to conversation and even disagreement. I believe that I was treated with more respect for my views in that setting than I would ever be treated in an patently PC environment at a secular college.

Alan Wolfe is a very smart man who knows a great deal about American religion.

Personally, as an academic like Julie whose (pretty orthodox) Christian beliefs don’t always line up with any one statement of faith, these things can pose problems for me, and in some instances they might disuade me and those like me from applying for a job.

That said, and that said, my basic reaction to this bit from Wolfe is a huge DUH. He might as well say, "But there is something else wrong with arches: they manifest a defensiveness that is one of monumental Roman architecture’s less attractive features."

Great closing paragraph and metaphor, Carl. (It redeemed your opening sentence, with which I humbly but vehemently disagree. Does Alan Wolfe understand genuine faith? Does he understand the Catholic mixture of faith and reason? Is he all too often a political partisan who employs his tendentious surveys and data to score culture-wars points? Does he have a self-critical bone in his body? Is he a vicious anti-Straussian? Is he anything resembling James Davison Hunter or Peter Berger?)

Julie:


I agree with you that these statements can and do indeed provide generous atmospheres for those who do not conform to the modern university. In that, they are very welcome indeed and a real education may be had there.


Carl:


As an Orthodox, I agree with you. It certainly behooves any academic to pay close attention to not only the statement of faith. But I would also add the mission of the school. If the mission focuses on political victory or moral education, then there’s a problem with the school.

I agree with Paul. Alan Wolfe’s status as an "expert" on American religion is highly overblown. He comes at the question with the presupposition that faith and reason are at odds (not unlike, in some ways, I might add, some Straussians I’ve been acquainted with, ahem). Perhaps more importantly, he thinks that any sincere commitments along the lines of orthodoxy ( or even claims to orthodoxy) amount to, as rightly pointed out, bigotry. In his original article, he seemed to praise evangelical colleges and seminaries for being committed to the truth of things *and* praise some of them (his bit on Fuller comes to mind) for embracing some forms of the modern therapeutic culture (which seems to cut against the truth claims). It seems that the latter has won out over the former now.

Okay, perhaps the "very" was too much. But "smart" and "knows a lot about" aren’t the same as "wise" and "understands." I intentionally didn’t use those words, for the reasons you guys spell out. I know his work more second-hand than first-hand anyways.

Here’s the sort of nastiness/utter-stupidity disguised as intellectualism Wolfe is capable of, here directed against all conservatives, revealed by Wolfe as being followers of Carl Schmitt.

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