Evangelicalism as a Mission Field for Evangelical Scholars

Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith delivered the final plenary lecture at “The State of the Evangelical Mind” conference last week.  Very early in his talk Smith announced that “everything going on in this conference has no connection whatsoever to evangelical churches.”  He was right.

Smith began by addressing the “elephant in room.”  Up until this point all of the speakers danced around the links between the the so-called “scandal of the evangelical mind” and Donald J. Trump.  Smith called out the 81% of American evangelicals who voted for the current POTUS and even gave a shout-out to my work on the “court evangelicals.”

Smith was not optimistic about the state of the evangelical mind.  The “evangelical mind,” he lamented, is a “minority report at best.”  If such an evangelical mind does exist, it is found almost entirely in “confessional groups.”  In other words, it is not thriving, or perhaps even existing, in non-denominational churches. These congregations have grown from 194,000 in 1990 to eight million today.  According to Smith, those concerned about the evangelical mind should be devoted to closing the gap between the scholarly world and these churches.  Evangelicalism, he argued, is a “mission field for evangelical scholars.”

Following Smith’s call will require boldness on the part of Christian scholars.  Smith urged us to consider a “scholarship for the masses,” a “scholarship without condescension,” an “outreach scholarship, and a “translation scholarship.”  Our work with the church should be something akin to the work we do in undergraduate classroom teaching.  Smith imagined bringing our general education programs into the churches

Smith calls Christian scholars to critique American evangelicalism while at the same time working for reform.  The Christian Right, he said, is “invested in the anti-intellectualism of evangelical churches.”  They rely on non-thinking Christians in order to advance their political agendas.  The fulfillment of Smith’s vision will require evangelical scholars to stay in their churches and engage in a “come alongside scholarship.”  He reminded us that “you can’t be a prophet on your way out the door.” Such work will require scholars dedicated to the church, Christian colleges and universities willing to provide time to faculty who want to pursue this work, and patrons willing to fund such an effort.  Where is the Christian scholar MacArthur grants?  Why isn’t the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities developing a program to promote Christian scholarship along the lines of the National Endowment for the Humanities?

There were times during Smith’s talk when I wanted to stand up and cheer.  As many of you know, I have been trying to live out Smith’s vision for over a decade and it has been a somewhat lonely experience.  To hear a leading evangelical intellectual like Smith affirm the kind of things I have been doing through my speaking, my writing, and my work at The Way of Improvement Leads Home gave me hope.

Talking with Evangelicals About Religion and the American Founding

West Shore

In January I had the wonderful opportunity to teach a course at my church titled “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?”

“Mainstream Evangelical” is probably the best way to describe the people who attend West Shore Evangelical Free Church.  The theological commitments and cultural sensibilities of the folks who attend West Shore represent the views of millions of white American evangelicals. The membership of West Shore is solidly middle class.  The pastors are generally Calvinist (some more than others) in theological orientation.  The music is contemporary (yes we have a worship band).  The sanctuary has chairs (not pews) and a state of the art sound system.  Members read popular books published by evangelical publishers and listen to Christian speakers such as Tim Keller, Beth Moore, Eric Metaxas, Rick Warren, Joyce Meyer, Andy Stanley, David Platt, Tim Tebow, Max Lucado, and Ravi Zacharias.  Most of the members vote GOP.  I would guess that a good number of the people in my church voted for Donald Trump.  I would also guess that many supported another GOP candidate in the primaries.  And I would guess that very few voted for Hillary Clinton.

Again, this is mainstream white evangelicalism.

I went into this 4-week course expecting trouble.  Frankly, I was surprised that the pastoral staff asked me to teach it.  Most evangelical churches tend to shy away from courses like this.  Such courses are too controversial.  Pastors don’t want their congregations divided over political issues such as whether or not America is a Christian nation.

Anyone who has read my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? knows that the book is not polemical in its approach to this question.  But in certain evangelical churches, the very fact that a book like this does not openly promote the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation automatically makes it polemical and unChristian.

Now that the course is over, I am happy to report that everything went well.  If there were David Barton-types in the class (I taught about 150 people per Sunday) they did not speak-up.  (Although a few of them made themselves known anonymously on their course evaluations forms.  Some were quite scathing).  Those in the class seemed to approach the topic with an open mind. It gave me hope that we actually can make progress in bringing good American history to the evangelical church.  It made me want to continue my work on this front (if other evangelical churches would have me).

The biggest challenge in a course like this is trying to get the class to think historically.  As Sam Wineburg has taught us, historcal thinking is indeed an “unnatural act.” When most evangelicals come to a class titled “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?” they naturally think about the question in political terms.  This question has become one of the major battlefields in the so-called “culture wars.”

When I started to teach from a historical perspective–an approach that makes every effort to understand the material on its own terms rather than using the historical facts to make a contemporary political point–I think some people found it jarring.  Why is he pointing out that the founding fathers may have been too innovative and political in their use of the Bible?  Why is he calling our attention to founding fathers who were not Christians?  Why is he pointing out the fact that God is not mentioned in the Constitution? Is this guy one of us? They feel much more comfortable when I talk about the God-language in revolutionary-era state constitutions or how Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams appealed to the Bible to make a case for independence.  They want a usable past to fight the culture wars.  But that is not how historians work.

A few years ago one of the people in my church who had just finished reading Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? stopped me in the hallway and thanked me for writing it.  But he said that reading the book was like “riding a rollercoaster.”  He said that as he read one page he found himself in agreement with me, but then on the next page he said that he was baffled when I raised issues that did not fit well with his political world view or his assumptions about the agenda behind my book..  This person was conditioned to read American history through the lens of the culture wars. It took him some time to realize that my book– a history book–was not written to promote a political agenda.   My class at West Shore last month seemed to be just as disoriented.  They were looking for ammunition to fight the culture wars and I did not deliver.  Instead, I tried to tell the truth about the past to the best of my ability.

The response to the class was overwhelming.  I received at least 8-10 e-mails each week from folks who had additional questions.  I was encouraged that so many of my fellow evangelicals wanted to think more deeply about religion and the founding.  Many left with more questions than answers.  This is good. Some have already asked me for additional reading material so they can expand their knowledge of the subject.

I learned a lot from the course as well.  I thought I attended a church filled with Christian nationalists.  Instead, I discovered that many folks in my church are eager to learn.  They want to make sure that their political witness is not damaged by claims that America is a Christian nation that somehow needs to be “restored.”  And I also learned that there are a lot of folks in my church who did not think the United States is or ever was a Christian nation. They are very bothered by the fact that so many evangelicals manipulate the past to serve political ends.

I want to thank the pastoral staff at West Shore for inviting me to teach this class and for advertising it to the congregation.  I am becoming more and more convinced that my church really does care about the cultivation of the evangelical mind as a means of equipping men and women for faithful Christian service.

A Conversation on Christian America in Strasburg, PA

The good folks at First Presbyterian Church of Strasburg, PA–especially pastor Bob Bronkema and his team of very committed laypersons– know how to stage a conversation about Christian faith and public life.  As far as I am concerned, their “First Forum” lecture series should be a model for the way that churches can provide a safe and civil space for Christians to tackle some of the big issues facing our culture today.

Last night I had the honor and privilege of kicking off the first First Forum event with a lecture entitled “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?” I presented to close to 100 people from the church and community (it was good to see former students Liz McVey and Amanda Mylin in attendance).  The event, much to my surprise, was advertised throughout the Lancaster region as well as on a big marquee in the center of Strasburg.

The church hall was converted into a lecture room/coffee-house setting with images of my book, flyers about my work, beautiful table-dressings, information about First Forum, and Messiah College colors. I spoke for about 45 minutes and fielded questions for another 30 or so.  It was a very intelligent and thoughtful crowd. 

Following the event coffee and dessert was served, which allowed the attendees to chat informally about the lecture. I had some great conversations with folks from the church.

It was also good to catch up with my old friend Bob Bronkema.  I got to spend the day hanging out with Bob, his wife Stacy (who is also a Presbyterian minister and makes a great lasagna), and his daughters Rachel, Naomi, and Bethany (Bethany throws a mean football!).  Thanks for being great hosts and remember to keep those home fires burning (literally).

I hope more churches will think hard about creating spaces for these kind of events as part of their mission to the community.

Conference on Faith and History Wrap-Up: Part Three

On the last day of the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, I attended a session entitled “Christology in History: Three Perspectives from the Trenches.”  One of the presenters at this session was Susan Fletcher, the historian at The Navigators, an evangelical para-church organization based out of Colorado Springs.  (I want to commend The Navigators for hiring a public historian–most evangelical organizations don’t know what a public historian is!).

Fletcher, who was trained as a public historian at IUPUI, was one of several historians and historians-in-training at CFH with an interest in bringing the past to public audiences.  I have been attending the CFH since the 1990s and I think this was the first time I had ever run across a public historian.

Fletcher started her talk with a word of thanks to Tracy McKenzie, the Wheaton College historian who, the evening before her talk, challenged the members of the CFH to consider speaking to the church.  She was obviously thrilled that the CFH leadership was interested in a way of doing history that was sensitive to the needs of a larger public.

As I listened to Fletcher and McKenzie, I could not help but think that the CFH might be going through a paradigm shift of sorts.  The CFH has historically centered around three things: fellowship among Christian historians, scholarly reflection on the integration of faith and the discipline, and discussion over how Christians could get a seat at the so-called “academic table.

But this weekend I heard a lot of talk about speaking and writing for public audiences, using the practice of history as a form of service, and the role that historians might have in the church.

This renewed emphasis on engaging a larger public merges very nicely with the way that the historical profession is moving generally.  Think about what has been happening in the American Historical Association over the course of the last several years.  Anthony Grafton, the outgoing AHA president, used his term in office to encourage historians to embrace the digital world, to think about ways to communicate to non-academic audiences, and to urge graduate programs in history to prepare students for more than just academic jobs.

The current president, Bill Cronon, writes columns in Perspectives in History urging historians to update Wikipedia entries and write in a manner that is accessible to the general public.  James Banner, in his book Being a Historian, tells historians to take risks by writing in accessible prose, avoid getting caught up in historiographical debates, and start treating readers of their work as “fellow citizens.”

All of these calls from the larger profession resonate very well with the Christian historian’s vocation to love God and neighbor. McKenzie’s plea for historians to serve the church fits nicely with a larger paradigm shift that is rapidly making inroads in history programs at colleges and universities across the country.

I hope to see more and more public historians, history writers, museum professionals, and a host of other non-academic historians finding their way to the CFH.