A Visit to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

Gordon Conwell

I spent Monday night at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Massachusetts (Boston-area).  Thanks to Gordon-Conwell president Dennis Hollinger for the invitation and Mary Ann Hollinger for her hospitality.

The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life sponsored conversation on evangelicals and politics that included Boisi director (and Jesuit theologian) Mark Massa, Dartmouth historian of American evangelicalism Randall Balmer, and yours truly.

A few takeaways:

  1. Gordon-Conwell is a seminary founded by mid-century evangelical stalwarts Billy Graham, J. Howard Pew and J. Harold Ockenga.  Over the last fifty years it has been an institutional fixture on the evangelical landscape.  During the course of the evening I did not meet a single Trump supporter.  This is the first time that I have been at a self-identified evangelical institution where I did not meet someone who wanted to make the case for Trump.
  2. I talked with several pastors-in-training (MDiv students) who wanted advice about how to deal with Trump supporters in their future congregations.  My advice:  preach the Gospel in season and out of season.   I hope they will avoid bringing politics into the pulpit, but rather preach in a positive way about what the Bible teaches regarding truth and lying, welcoming the stranger, caring for the “least of these,” loving neighbors,” the dignity of human life, and the pursuit of holiness.  I encouraged them, to borrow a term from Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, to be “faithfully present” in the congregations and communities where God calls them to serve.
  3.  All of the evangelical millennials I chatted with were fed-up with Trump and the Christian Right.  It seems like a sea-change is coming.
  4.  During the formal conversation, Gordon-Conwell theology and missions professor Peter Kuzmic talked about how his fellow evangelicals in Eastern Europe were appalled that American evangelicals supported Trump.  I asked him publicly if the evangelical support of Donald Trump was hindering the work of the Gospel in Eastern Europe.  He did not miss a beat in saying “yes.”  This is tragic.  It is the case I have been making during the Believe Me book tour.  I told Kuzmic that I would like to take him with me on the road.  His testimony was a powerful one.  While court evangelicals continue to take victory laps over securing an originalist judiciary that might overturn Roe v. Wade, the witness of the Gospel is becoming more difficult, especially for missionaries.
  5. We talked a lot of about “fracture” within the evangelical community.  The days of a unified neo-evangelicalism (if there ever was such a thing) are over.  George Marsden once said that an evangelical is someone who likes Billy Graham.  Well, Billy Graham is now dead and there will be no one to replace him.  This is not a statement about whether or not there are any potential heirs to Graham.  It is rather a statement about the current state of American culture, a state that Princeton historian Daniel T. Rodgers has called the “Age of Fracture.” I want to write more about this.
  6. It was an honor to share the stage and the evening with Randall Balmer, a scholar who has taught me so much about evangelicalism.

James Davison Hunter Talks About “The Culture Wars”

Hunter Culture WarsAs far as I know, University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter coined the term “culture wars” in his 1991 book The Culture Wars: The Struggle to Control the Family, Art, Education, Law, and Politics in America.

Over at The Wall Street Journal, Jason Willick has a feature story on Hunter titled “The Man Who Discovered ‘Culture Wars’.” Here is a taste:

In the heat of battle, religious conservatives too have found themselves defending behavior that contradicts their stated moral values. On the relationship between the religious right and the president, he says: If “there is a hope that the state can secure the world, even by someone as imperfect as Trump, ” then “religious people, are willing to make all sorts of accommodations”—willing “to justify pretty much anything.”

Sometimes the culture wars have escalated into real violence, as when white supremacists and antifa extremists clashed in Charlottesville last August a mile down the street from Mr. Hunter’s office. Could there be a risk to the political system itself? Mr. Hunter has written before about the parallels between the American culture wars and religious and moral conflicts that have led to state breakdown abroad. In his 1994 book, “Before the Shooting Begins,” he wondered if America’s mostly peaceful culture wars amount to “our postmodern Bosnia.”

One source of optimism is that the U.S. has a remarkable history of accommodating cultural diversity. “It’s not perfect and certainly not linear, and certainly race has been one of those elements of our past and our present that resists that kind of absorption,” he says. “But you look at the Irish, you look at Catholics, Jews, Mormons.” Perhaps that past can be re-created: “My hope is that we can continue to absorb diversity. But it’s certainly being tested right now.”

The aspiration of the Enlightenment, and of liberal democracy, was always “a political order in which you can have a fair amount of diversity,” Mr. Hunter says. Because of the “epic failure of religion to provide a unifying foundation for society”—as demonstrated by the religious wars in 17th-century Europe—Enlightenment thinkers attempted to “retain Jewish and Christian values, understandings of the world, but without any of the creedal foundations.” This is one way of thinking about the project of today’s culture-war progressives: expanding universal equality and dignity, but without a foundational source of authority outside reason and science.

As to the future of the culture wars, Mr. Hunter is ambivalent. He notes that some progressives have already declared victory and quotes a colleague who said all that remains is “a mopping-up campaign.” Mr. Hunter doesn’t go that far, but he does believe that because “politics is an artifact of culture,” progressives’ disproportionate power in elite institutions “will cash out, politically, in the long term.”

Yet he doubts that reason and science are any better suited than fundamentalist religion to provide a stable basis for morality, even if the West continues to secularize. One challenge of the Enlightenment he says, is that “reason gave us the power to doubt and to question everything, including reason itself.” That “throws us back upon our own subjectivity. . . . You have your truth, I have mine.”

Read the entire article here.

Don’t Try to Change the World


A message to my fellow evangelicals from University of Virginia scholar James Davison Hunter‘s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World:

Any good that is generated by Christians is only the net effect of caring for something more than the good created.  If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world, in other words, it is precisely because it is NOT rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and our fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.”


“Christian Politics?”: Week Four

56aef-hunterYesterday I taught the third of four 90-minute classes on Christian politics at West Shore Evangelical Free Church in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.  Read my summary of week one here and week two here and week three here.

In week two, I introduced the political playbook of the Christian Right.  In week three, I suggested a different playbook–one that privileged hope over fear, humility over power, and history over nostalgia.  In week four, I introduced the class to yet another playbook: James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.

I summarized Hunter in several points:

  • Cultures rarely change from the bottom-up
  • Evangelicals have been largely absent from the arenas in which the greatest influence in the culture is exerted
  • Electoral politics will not change the culture
  • Evangelicals should stop trying to change the world
  • Evangelicals need to place-centered
  • Evangelicals must pursue others (community)
  • Evangelicals must learn to think vocationally
  • Evangelicals should work for pluralism, but be prepared for exile.

In the end, I thought this class went much better than I thought it would. So often scholars and pundits talk about “evangelicals” in monolithic and detached terms from their perches outside of the evangelical community.  After spending about 90 minutes a week with over 125 evangelicals of all ages, I am more encouraged than ever about the witness of the church in the age of Trump. We have a long way to go, but I am hopeful.

Quote of the Day

“It isn’t just the Constantinian temptation the church must repudiate but, more significantly, the orientation toward power that underwrites it.  The proclivity toward domination and towards the politicization of everything leads Christianity today to bizarre turns; turns that, in my view, transform much of the Christian public witness into the very opposite of the witness Christianity is supported to offer.”

–James Davison Hunter, To Change the World, 2010

Big Patriotism vs. Small Patriotism


I resonated with Bonnie Kristian‘s attempt to understand American patriotism in the context of this whole NFL-American flag mess.  She uses Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to describe a “small patriotism”–something akin to hobbit Frodo’s love of the Shire.

Here is a taste:

Small patriotism is the love of home because it is home. It is the comfort of familiarity, the sigh of relief we give on completing a long journey, however pleasant. Big patriotism is all abstract ideals and national mythology, easily bent to fit any political agenda. It is centered on the state, not the people, and certainly not any concrete community in which we are thoroughly engaged.

Small patriotism loves one’s neighborhood for one’s home, and one’s city because it holds the neighborhood, and one’s state, region, and country as the city’s host. Big patriotism is a top-down phenomenon, anchored in the self-declared glory of government and the idolatrous liturgies of civil religion. When small patriotism thinks of America, it conjures an image of some local vista and the people who populate it. Big patriotism pictures the hulking forms of federal monuments and the grim grandeur of war.

Small patriotism is particular, but never competitive. Its love of what is good about our place never needs to falsely exalt that good into best. “Once you have realized that the Frenchmen like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs — why, good luck to them and let them have it,” C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves. This sort of patriotism “produces a good attitude towards foreigners,” he noted, for “[h]ow can I love my home without coming to realize that other men, no less rightly, love theirs?” Their love in no way detracts from mine, for we are not in competition. Neither wants to conform the other to its image, for it is the difference that makes each home beloved. Conquest is unnecessary and unwelcome.

Read the entire piece here.

I think Kristian’s “small patriotism” is what we have witnessed recently in places like Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the rest of the Caribbean in the wake of hurricane season.  It is the kind of home-love that we see in Wendell Berry’s Port William Membership.  It is the kind of “faithful presence” that James Davison Hunter writes about in To Change the World.  It is the kind of patriotism that I wrote about in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  Here is a small taste:

The writer Wallace Stegner once said that ‘no place, not even a wild place, is a place until it has had a poet.’ Philip Vickers Fithian was Cohansey’s poet.  He was a patriot in the classical Greek sense of the word–a lover of his terra patria, his native land (p.10).

Brantley Gasaway: “Long Live the ‘Culture Wars’?”

GasawayI am very excited to have Brantley Gasaway writing for us this weekend from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta. Brantley is an Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Bucknell University. He is the author of Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice. –JF

Long Live the “Culture Wars”?

Many Americans, especially participants in partisan and religious conflicts, likely take for granted the reality of the “culture wars” of the past four decades. Both politicians and the media regularly describe debates about controversial issues such as abortion, feminism, gay rights, affirmative action, the teaching of evolution, gun rights, healthcare, and the broader role of religion in public life as part of ongoing “culture wars.” The term “culture wars” became especially popular with the publication of James Davison Hunter’s 1991 Culture Wars: the Struggle to Define America and Pat Buchanan’s speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention.

But how should historians think about these “culture wars”? What constitutes and causes a “culture war”? Are the contemporary culture wars unique or a recurrent aspect of American history? The first session I attended at AHA—“Are the Culture Wars History? New Comments on an Old Concept”—addressed this issue.

Andrew G. Hartman, a professor at Illinois State University and author of A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2015), began by offering the most circumscribed analysis. The culture wars do not represent an enduring feature of American politics, Hartman argued. Rather, the culture wars are best understood as the divisive disputes over the meaning of “America” (and what it means to be an “American”) that resulted from the profound social transformations initiated by the New Left and secularists in the 1960s and resisted by neo-conservatives and religious traditionalists. In contrast to authors such as Thomas Frank, Hartman insisted that the political, social, and religious conflicts associated with the Culture Wars have been about real, substantive issues throughout the past four decades of unique social changes. While largely agreeing with James Davison Hunter’s analysis of the polarization between “orthodox” and “progressive” groups, Hartman pushed for a deeper historical understanding of the contemporary culture wars.

Adam Laats, a professor at Binghamton University and author of The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education (Harvard University Press, 2015), used the category of “culture wars” to interpret recurrent battles over education (especially textbooks) throughout the past century. Although such conflicts have been consistent, Laats claimed, historians must contextualize each one in order to understand who represented the respective “conservative” and “progressive” positions and what each side wanted. Such an approach helps us avoid imposing our current definitions of “conservative” and “progressive” on previous generations of activists. Not least, Laats concluded, using “culture wars” as an interpretive lens allows historians to see trends and changes over time regarding specific issues such as public acceptance regarding the teaching of evolution.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, a professor at the New School and author of Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford University Press, 2015), also focused on educational conflicts as a crucible for larger culture wars. Her research has examined debates over both sex education and bilingual education in California in the 1970s. Like Hartman, Petrzela locates the roots of these conflicts in the social revolutions of the 1960s, in particular the sexual revolution and the Chicano/a power movement. Although her work did not touch directly upon the larger usefulness of “culture wars” as a historical category, Petrzela’s case study illustrates the complex ways that both progressive and conservative activists responded to public controversies concerning gender, sexual, familial, and ethnic identities.

Stephen Prothero, a professor at Boston University and author of the newly published Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections) (HarperOne, 2016), presented the most expansive interpretation of American culture wars. The culture wars did not begin in the 1960s, he argued; they began in the early Republican period and have occurred throughout American history. Prothero defined culture wars as heated public disputes—ones that employed belligerent rhetoric—about moral and religious questions concerning the meaning of “America.” He analyzes the nature of American culture wars through five case studies: the 1800 presidential election; anti-Catholicism in the 1830s and 1840s; anti-Mormonism throughout the nineteenth-century; the enactment and repeal of Prohibition; and the familiar “culture wars” over the past several decades. Prothero offered the most provocative thesis of the panel: culture wars are conservative projects, initiated and waged disproportionately by the Right, that ironically fail because they are focused on “lost causes.”

Leo Ribuffo, an esteemed historian at George Washington University, served as the respondent and began with the most memorable line of the session: “The term ‘culture wars’ should be buried deep, deep within a hole alongside nuclear waste.” Ribuffo chided historians for employing loose language and a bad metaphor in subsuming disparate, disconnected, and almost invariably non-violent debates under the category of “culture wars.” Instead, he quipped, “shouting matches” represents a more apt analogy. While offering critical questions for each participant, Ribuffo saved his most pointed ones for Prothero—understandably so in light of Prothero’s sweeping historical analysis of American culture wars. In particular, Ribuffo described Prothero’s description of “culture wars” as conservative projects as self-serving for liberals: when progressives envision and work for change, that is natural, but when conservatives react (or press for change), it is “war.” Ribuffo also suggested that Prothero ignored examples such as anti-Semitism that would complicate his liberal/conservative categories. (I expect that Prothero’s book will be receiving wide exposure and discussion in the coming months.)

Despite Ribuffo’s comments (and his fair questions for Prothero), I left the session convinced that “culture wars” remains a useful interpretive category for historians. To be sure, most public disputes and political controversies throughout American history have not resulted in actual wars (with the grave exception of the Civil War, of course—but that is why no one would describe this as merely a “culture war.”). And, as Hartman emphasized, the details of the contemporary culture wars are unique. But over and over, particular groups have repeatedly felt “embattled” as they perceive threats to their identities, ways of life, and understandings of “America.” While we should be careful to contextualize each conflict (as Laats emphasized), “culture wars” offers a lens for historians to interpret what these distinct actors have believe is at stake and to trace the relationships between these different types of culture wars.

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn on the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture


Lasch-Quinn describe her latest visit to the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University Of Virginia, an institute run by James Davison Hunter.

But what makes IASC stand out so much for me, what makes it so distinctive, is its conscious guarding against much of what have been the dominant trends of modern academe as well as the larger intellectual climate of our times. To allude to just a few, these trends have included a kind of cv-oriented careerism, an unquestioned assumption that what academic life is about at its root is individual advancement and success conceived of in the narrowest possible terms of the present age, a partitioning of the pursuit of learning into separate fiefdoms with their own small-minded gatekeepers, an emphasis on quantity over quality, the abandonment of the humanistic and democratic aims of education for upscale vocational training for the privileged classes, stultifying bureaucratization and overweening administration, carelessness about style and form, forgetfulness about the public trust, the replacement of the contemplative and the search for meaning and excellence with the functional imperative and profit-seeking, posturing and back-biting in pursuit of personal status rather than collective engagement toward shared purposes, the bracketing of ethical or so-called “normative” concerns–once considered at the very heart of scholarship, teaching, and learning. 

Read the entire piece at U.S. Intellectual History blog.