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When Disrespect is Respectful

The Groves of Academe

When Disrespect is Respectful

While pondering Christian Smith's "Force of Habit" [September/October] and a response to it [Will Katerberg, "Special Pleading?", November/December], I came across an article in a Philadelphia weekly newspaper that explains why the academy's hostility to Christianity may actually be fitting. It was a report from the newspaper's lesbian columnist about a pizzeria in the city's Northwest section that bakes exceptional pepperoni pies with a serving of Jesus on the side—not the elements of the Supper, mind you, but Christian music, Christian television, and even Bible verses on the takeout boxes. To be sure, the writer did not seem to notice the inconsistency between her previous column alleging bigotry against people unenthusiastic about gay unions and this one, which was less than enthusiastic about displays of evangelical zeal. But she did unintentionally locate one important source of academic opposition to Christianity: to be sympathetic to or a proponent of faith's importance is to identify apparently with Bible verses on takeout pizza boxes that say "repent and be willing to turn from your sin."

The problem isn't merely tackiness. It also involves politics. Popular evangelical Christianity today is known not simply for "spreading the word" because men like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson used their mailing lists and platforms to recruit votes for the Republican Party. This may have been an appropriate use of their ministries. But it also surely helps to explain why academics, many of whom reside in Blue America, might be edgy when hearing positive comments about popular Christianity.

This is not news to Christian Smith. His two most recent books, Christian America? (2000) and American Evangelicalism (1998), document skillfully the hostility that exists between rank-and-file evangelicals and "mainstream" culture. To be sure, some of this tension is simply based on misinformation. Yet, I would not have thought Smith needed to resort to a French philosopher's idea of habitus to account for the reaction of his secular colleagues to contemporary Christianity.

Academic hostility to Christianity involves the rules of the modern research university and the genuine threat that Christian scholarship poses to them. Here it is important to see the similarities between the Religious Right and the evangelical academy. It's not simply the logic of the following deduction: (1) many Christian scholars are evangelical; (2) evangelicals make up the Religious Right; (3) ergo, Christian scholars must vote Republican. The awkwardness of faith in the academy reminds us why the Founding Fathers separated church and state in the first place. Just as the U.S. Constitution ignores church membership or religious oaths as criteria for holding public office, so the modern research university separates faith and academic work in the arts and sciences. To speak of Christian scholarship in the modern university, no matter how postmodern its justification may sound, is to violate a rule that prohibits scholars from appealing to special revelation.

After all, the faith to which Christian scholars appeal is one that comes not simply from the book of nature but from the book of Scripture. How else does something qualify as Christian if it does not bear some direct relationship to the Word incarnate, who is only revealed in the word inscripturated? If this is so, then the comments of sociologist Steve Bruce on religion and politics may be just as true for the academy: "In modern democratic culturally plural societies, no socio-moral interest group can plausibly promote its case on the grounds that 'the Bible (or the Koran or the Book of Mormon) says so.' Instead it must argue that equity or reason or the public good says so."

I wonder whether believing scholars know what a difficult question they put to fellow academics when they ask if room can be made for religiously informed scholarship. Of course, some of what qualifies as Christian scholarship is academic work written in the prophetic mode, or to show that religion has been a salient variable in human history and culture. But full-blown scholarship informed by faith, with self-conscious reflection on the truths of Christianity, runs counter to rules governing the university for the last 125 years.

Of course, the exclusion of Christian scholarship appears to be unfair. Why can't Christians argue from their perspective in the same way that feminists, Marxists, African Americans and Queer theorists have? One answer is that Christianity is more than a perspective. Its claims are fairly exclusive and total. Another answer is one that Louis Menand made: academic freedom should not be construed as a form of affirmative action for all aggrieved identities; rather, it is a mechanism for allowing the academy to adjudicate its affairs without interference from outside interests (e.g., political, business, or ecclesiastical).

In the end, the difficulty that believing academics face from hostile peers may turn out to be a compliment. That was how Alan Wolfe saw it when he wrote that "faith is vital, religion ubiquitous, and belief admirable" but is not such in the university, where its teachings are not the university's business. That is why, he added, "we have families, churches, circles of friends, and private religious institutions." Conclusion: "The inclusive university should be for something else."

If believing scholars could recognize hostility to faith as the academy's highest form of flattery, in other words, if they could acknowledge the ways in which Christ and culture are legitimately at odds, they might understand why some habits die hard. They might even discover the plausibility of certain anti-religious prejudices.

—D. G. Hart is academic dean and professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. He is the author of The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies and American Higher Education (1999).

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