Were the Neo-Evangelicals Public Intellectuals?


Carl FH Henry


But Owen Strachan want them to be.

Strachan, who teaches at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, wants to turn post-fundamentalist evangelicals such as Carl Henry, E.J. Carnell, and John Harold Ockenga into mid-twentieth century public intellectuals.  His piece is a response to Alan Jacobs’s Harper’s essay, “The Watchmen: What Became of the Christian Intellectuals.”

Neo-evangelicals were those fundamentalists who attempted to give some intellectual credibility to American evangelicalism in the decades following World War II. I will not go into detail about them here. Read books by George Marsden, Joel Carpenter, and Molly Worthen.

Strachan writes:

These were not retreat-minded individuals. They came to play. But though they possessed sterling credentials and unquestionable ability, men like Henry and Carnell (each the possessor of two doctorates, Carnell’s from Harvard and Boston University) were never going to receive a gilded invitation to the academic mainstream, the elite dinner-party. It simply wasn’t going to happen. Why? Not because of a lack of tremendous intellectual power, research ability, or personal initiative. These and other evangelicals were not even in serious competition for the top university post or the nighttime host of a public affairs television show. They weren’t then, and they aren’t now, and they may never be.

And this:

Look, Carl Henry should have had the corner office at Yale University. E. J. Carnell should have had a 1-1 load at Princeton. George Eldon Ladd should have been famous the world over for his studies of the kingdom of God. Ockenga should have had a weekly broadcast on NBC. On and on it could go. These were fantastically gifted individuals, but their beliefs consigned them to the margins, and that was that. So it is today. Evangelicals will pop up on newscasts and panels; they’ll publish with some big houses, and they’ll participate in some big debates. But in terms of Niebuhrian influence, lasting presence in the nexus of global power, that’s going to be tough (though not impossible) to come by. Their stubborn belief in an exclusivist Christ already renders them suspect, and out of step with the spirit of the age, to say nothing of the ramifications of holding a Christian view of sexuality.

Strachan obviously likes people like Henry, Carnell, Ockenga, and Ladd.  He likes them because the  reclamation of these figures (especially Henry) have played a significant role in current efforts by conservative Southern Baptists to articulate a particular kind of Christian intellectual life. It is thus understandable why Strachan is upset that Jacobs does not acknowledge the neo-evangelicals contribution to such a life in his Hartper’s piece on the history of Christian public intellectuals in America.

The neo-evangelicals were smart, if not brilliant men. (I took a course with Henry at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the early 1990s–he was a first-rate mind). But they were hardly “public intellectuals” in the way that Jacobs uses the term.

Here is a taste of Jacobs’s response to Strachan:

I agree with Strachan that these were all first-rate intellects whose abilities deserved the kind of stature that he imagines for them in an alternate and better universe. But I also think that they had intellectual priorities that made them poor candidates for playing the role of the broadly public Christian intellectual, or for holding the top-tier university post. My thinking about this is shaped primarily by George Marsden’s great book Reforming Fundamentalism, and I think Marsden’s title gets at what these men were up to. They looked around at their fellow evangelicals and they saw people who were simply not prepared to engage with the larger world of ideas, and so they took it upon themselves to educate their fellow evangelicals in these matters. A book like Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism— and this is true of most of Henry’s work — is not meant for a general audience, it is meant for an audience of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. And I think all of the figures Strachan cites were basically pastoral and pedagogical in their vocational orientation. They were less concerned to engage directly with the culture at large than to provide the intellectual foundations that would allow later generations of evangelical Christians so to engage.

Strachan joins the chorus of folks who are upset with Jacobs for not acknowledging their favorite Christian thinkers in his article.

One thought on “Were the Neo-Evangelicals Public Intellectuals?

  1. 2nd- or 4th-rate “intellectuals” [must use scare quotes, sorry] presuming to rate “first-rate” minds?

    The premise is shaky to its foundation. It takes one to know one. Alcibiades suspects perhaps, but does not know he’s not an equal participant in the dialogue. [I love Thrasymachus because he does know.]

    The criticisms of Alan Jacobs, muchly on racialism grounds: Martin Luther King was a great man, and a greater man in human history than John Locke or Reinhold Niebuhr or Richard Rorty, but he was not a philosopher or “public intellectual.”

    Category error. Folks gotta get out of Jacobs’s face.

    Now, a first-rate intellectual looks like this. [Source doc. It’s all there. Should be standard in the American curriculum.]


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