Where’s Niebuhr? On Alan Jacobs’s Essay on Christian Intellectuals

Alan Jacobs just published a rich essay for Harper’s entitled “The Watchmen: What Became of the Christian Intellectuals?” Jacobs, a hearteningly intellectual public figure in his own right, laments that there are few Christians today who are “prominent, intellectually serious Christian political commentators.” Humorously, Jacobs terms this the “Where Is Our Reinhold Niebuhr?” problem, the Union Seminary theologian being one of the last Christians–using that term with a bit of elasticity, for Niebuhr at times struggled with theism itself (see Richard Wightman Fox’s coverage of the correspondence between the Niebuhr brothers on this point)–to command the attention of both the secular and religious communities.

Jacobs seeks a diagnosis for this sorry state, and finds it largely, though not exclusively, in the self-marginalization of Christians. Speaking of leading schools like Wheaton and Notre Dame, he argues that “As these institutions grew stronger and more confident, they provided ways for highly educated Christians, Christians who perhaps in an earlier era would have had a chance of becoming significant public intellectuals, to talk to one another more than to the culture at large. As they devoted themselves to these labors, all around them the Sixties were happening; by the time they realized just how dramatically the culture had changed, it was too late for them to learn its language — or for it to learn theirs.”

He seconds this view in his concluding line: “I think that, from the Fifties to the Seventies, American intellectuals as a group lost the ability to hear the music of religious thought and practice. And surely that happened at least in part because we Christian intellectuals ceased to play it for them.” To be sure, elsewhere Jacobs speaks of the need of minority groups (including Christians) to create “subaltern counterpublics” due to their forced exclusion from the mainstream. He recognizes that the loss of Christian public intellectuals in American life is due in part to forces out of their control. The dominant line in the piece, however, is that Christians essentially distanced themselves from the culture, thus leaving us without modern Niebuhrian figures.

There is truth in this diagnosis. I do not doubt that some evangelicals of the past did find it easier to speak to their own kind rather than trying to engage the broader sphere. The temptation to pull back from the big, bad secular world is not a small one, particularly when teaching jobs are scarce and one needs to put regular food on the table. In my studies of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, I certainly saw evidence of a defeatist, retreat-oriented mindset. One sees such thinking, for example, in the educational philosophy of many conservative Christians of the prewar years (roughly the 1920s-40s), when various groups, expelled from mainstream American public life, created scores of Christian training schools. Such institutions can and do much good, of course, but one cannot miss that most schools of this kind do not even attempt to compete in the grand quest for intellectual influence.

However, I wonder if the dominant note in the loss of Christian intellectual influence in America is not retreat, but rejection. My book Awakening the Evangelical Mind: An Intellectual History of Neo-Evangelicalism (Zondervan, 2015) traces how leading evangelical lights like Harold Ockenga, Carl Henry, E. J. Carnell, and George Eldon Ladd sought to reload their scholarly movement and reengage a secularizing culture. These and other “Cambridge evangelicals” (so named by me for their common matriculation at Harvard in the 1940s) attempted to acquit the evangelical cause on an intellectual level, publishing in the top journals, writing with renowned presses, writing in mainstream publications, and appearing in the media when they could.

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.

The reasons for this shift are complex and require careful tracing (no one has done more along these lines than George Marsden–start with his Soul of the American University and chase it with Twilight of the American Enlightenment). If you want a one-word answer for the lack of Christians in the elite American academy, it’s this: secularization. The top universities have radically restructured themselves over the last 150 years, going from bastions of religious instruction to incubators of secularism. We’re doing some serious shorthand here, but it’s very, very difficult to land a top teaching post in many disciplines in leading schools without clear and demonstrable buy-in to some version of a scientistic, politically progressive, social-justice-framed, anti-foundationalist worldview.

Obviously things are somewhat different in areas like the hard sciences (though the stats on political diversity tell us that they aren’t all that different, really). A post-structuralist approach to race, class, and gender animates much of the spirit of many schools, and represents a veritable replacement theology of the old pro-religious bent of most of our top schools. This viewpoint, of course, took time to develop, and was not fully developed in the postwar era of the neo-evangelicals, but it was emerging.

The same is true beyond the academy. The New Yorker and Vice and CNN are all downstream from our top schools, which set the standard for the broader body politic. The criteria for a spot writing or speaking for such outlets is very similar to that used in the academy. If you don’t have a certain viewpoint within a narrow ideological range, you’re not going to be eligible to host a major TV show, edit a leading thought-journal, or convene one of those fancy mover-and-shaker conferences in beautiful locales. You might eke out an invitation as a Christian–maybe–but with rare exceptions, you’ll still find yourself far from the centers of power.

So: what’s the point? The point is that while some evangelicals did then and do now succumb to a defeatist mentality regarding academic and cultural influence, the dominant reason for the very existence of the “Where’s Niebhur?” question is this: marginalization. In terms reminiscent of your childhood “Where’s Waldo” game, it can be nearly amusing and deeply disheartening to play the find-a-Christian-scholar-in-this-two-page-spread-of-leading-professors at your local elite college or university. Yes, there might be a few you can spot, and this can be truer in some disciplines and spheres than others (business, for one), but in general, we are not awash at present in either leading academics or public intellectuals.

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.

I have substantial appreciation for Jacobs’s piece. He makes many important points, and I agree with him on many matters. Further, his historical reconstruction is revealing. But I do wonder if he overplays the self-deselecting element of his public influence argument, and underplays the marginalization element. I’m hopeful that in coming days we’ll see more Christian research scholars and public intellectuals find perches of influence in our broader culture. However, though I am committed to dreaming big, in Awakening the Evangelical Mind, I focus a bit less on landing the star-professors at the top schools, and a bit more on developing “confessional intellectuals” for the glory of God, those who are faithful and fruitful wherever they ply their trade, religious institution or secular.

No matter how things go, I for one am convinced of this: we need to continue building our institutions with happiness and without insecurity while, at the same time, relentlessly and joyfully engaging the secular academy, cultural centers, and public square with as much excellence and faithfulness as we can. It’s not one or the other–it’s both. As we pursue faithfulness and fruitfulness alike, we need to be realistic about the endpoint of our faith. We believers, after all, travel the way of the cross. It is a hard road, though it leads to a glory the world can only fitfully dream of.