Evangelical Historians and Alienation

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Over at The Anxious Bench, George Mason University religion professor John Turner writes that as an evangelical Christian he has never felt alienated from the secular academy.  In the process he reflects on Christian historian Jay Green‘s presidential address at last months biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History.

Here is a taste of Turner’s post:

Jay Green’s talk resonated deeply with me because it reflects my own ambivalence. As I reflected on the end of Books & Culture, I noted that I attended graduate school in history shortly after the appearance of Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University and The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, and B&C‘s launch. I took it for granted that evangelical historians could gain a hearing for scholarship, not least for scholarship on evangelicals. Certainly, as Jay Green explains in his book, some forms of “Christian historiography” are utterly beyond the pale of academic respectability. But as I came onto the scene, I saw books by Marsden, Noll, Nathan Hatch, and Joel Carpenter gaining not just a respectful hearing, but outright respect. And there have been a veritable flood of historical scholarship about and by evangelicals in the last two decades.

Thus, I never felt alienated from the academy the way that prior generations of evangelical scholars did. Certainly, I have heard a fair amount of anti-evangelicalism from academic colleagues, but this seems to have more to do with evangelicalism’s association with conservative politics than with religious matters per se. And with the waning of the Religious Right, I have not heard as much of that sort of talk recently. In other words, it is very easy to feel at home in modern academia (especially if one has tenure!). At least it is for me.

Turner has spent his entire career at public universities (South Alabama and George Mason) and has written important books in the field of American religious history.  He has not experienced the stigma that comes with teaching at a Christian college and I am guessing he does not spend much time having to explain the mission of Christian colleges to secular historians in the way that I do whenever I visit a campus to give a lecture or run into someone at a conference.

Having said that, I do think that the historical profession rewards good scholarship. University presses also tend to publish good history regardless of institutional affiliation. In this sense I have not felt completely alienated from the academy even as I ply my trade on the Christian periphery.

Turner uses the rest of his post to reflect on his feelings of alienation from evangelicalism.  He writes:

Do I feel alienated from evangelicalism? To some extent. Like many evangelicals, however, I have a complex religious identity. I grew up in a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation that involved me in things such as Young Life. And I’ve remained Presbyterian and evangelical despite the fact that both my church and evangelicals often do things that perplex or dishearten me.

But that needs some clarification. As D.G. Hart contended in his Deconstructing Evangelicalism, “evangelical” no longer has a meaningful connection to the mid-twentieth-century “neo-evangelical” movement of disaffected fundamentalists. I’m not convinced the term “evangelical” is meaningless, but it certainly obfuscates as much as it illumines. Am I alienated from evangelicalism? Well, which evangelicalism?

I’m certainly alienated from Jerry Falwell, Jr., but then I never was connected with Falwell, Sr. I’m alienated from David Barton, but not from John Fea. Joel Osteen does not resonate with me, but Billy Graham still does.

On this point, I agree wholeheartedly with Turner.  I think any evangelical scholar/intellectual/academic will always be uneasy evangelicals as long as evangelicalism remains a largely anti-intellectual faith.

I wrote a bit about this here.

2 thoughts on “Evangelical Historians and Alienation

  1. It might be safe to say the real story here is that the majority of evangelicals are alienated from their liberal intellectual elite. That the feeling is mutual may be the cause. Liberal theology already owns the Protestant mainline. It seems to want to claim the rest as well.

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