Mark Noll et al.

Revisiting "The Secularization of the Academy"

A symposium 25 years on.

4 of 5view all

But worries about a secular academy did for Christian scholars what fears about a naked public square did for the Religious Right. Christian academics generally had little patience with the Moral Majority, but the integration-of-faith-and-learning mantra that caught on in the late 1980s resembled the Christian America theme of social conservatives. Both relied on an understanding of the self (inspired by Abraham Kuyper) that saw faith informing everything a Christian did. Both objected to the idea of neutrality as a fiction that could be used (sometimes sinisterly) to exclude believers from jobs or offices. Both also sought to promote the Lordship of Christ in all walks of life.

Yet if Christian academics could spot the problems of a Francis Schaeffer, and could even recognize that travel budgets would not allow for an entire conference day to be devoted to worship, perhaps they could also see the difficulties of trying to establish academic rules and procedures that give preferential treatment to believers. After all, few Christian academics are prepared either to say that the United States was founded as a Christian nation or that Christianity should be established by law. If believing scholars can live with a secular nation (and even recognize the defects of Europe's Christian nations), what is wrong with a secular academy? For all its defects and sometime silliness, secular higher education provides more room for believers and non-believers than any Christian college or university ever did. That's not all bad.

Just Doing It

George Marsden

How does the project of promoting high-quality scholarship by "evangelical" Christians in the American academy look today as compared to when we held that conference a quarter of a century ago?

High-level scholarship among such Christians and their allies seems much stronger, especially in sheer numbers, than it did back then. That can be seen most clearly in the stellar faculties at the more than 100 institutions of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Although they often carry heavy teaching loads, many scholars at these schools are publishing impressive work. At the same time, compared to 1990, one can find a much larger cohort of openly Christian scholars, especially younger ones, in positions in mainstream academia. Such scholars are still a small minority of all academics, but the gains are considerable. Today, evangelicals do not lack wide-ranging intellectual resources, even if most evangelicals may not appreciate them.

Our conference on "the secularization of the academy" in 1990 was a small part of what turned out to be a substantial stimulus package that helped promote the resurgence of evangelical scholarship. Originally I contacted Bob Lynn of the Lilly Endowment about possibly funding the historical research I was proposing on the topic. Lynn was enthusiastic but asked if it would be OK if the Pew Charitable Trusts would fund the project, an arrangement that resulted in generous support. Around this same time, Nathan Hatch, Mark Noll, and George Rawlyk were enlisting Pew for far more extensive support of Christian scholarship. Eventually, under the leadership of Joel Carpenter, who became the religion program director at Pew, the foundation provided a total of something like 15 million dollars to support Christian intellectual inquiry, including grants for senior Christian scholars and funding for a cohort of the best and the brightest "Pew Younger Scholars" through leading graduate programs. That support coincided with an upsurge in interest in scholarship among younger evangelicals that is now having a payoff in academic excellence. In more recent years Carpenter, as director of the Nagel Institute at Calvin College, has been building networks of Christian academics around the world. The burgeoning of such networks is doubtless one of the most significant developments since 1990.

In The Secularization of the Academy I noted the historical anomaly that American Protestants had no research university that was Protestant in any interesting sense. Today Baylor University offers a counter-example, although its persisting struggles to move in that direction illustrate that going against dominant cultural-religious trends is not easy.

I have learned one lesson. Ever since that conference in 1990 I have been arguing that, since mainstream academia has some bias against religiously based perspectives, it should attempt to correct that by developing a more inclusive pluralism that would encourage religious perspectives along with other minority outlooks. So far as I can see, that argument, as sensible as it may seem, has little appeal in the academic mainstream. Prejudice against evangelicals in academia is now well documented by sociologists and does not seem to be receding. So fostering greater evangelical inclusion is not something many are willing to champion. Yet it has always been true that some avowedly Christian scholars produce scholarship strong enough to overcome the prejudice. Since there are more such scholars today, more are making it into the academic mainstream. The lesson is this: arguing for the cause is of limited value. Many will see it as simply complaining from a disliked minority. Instead: just do it. Just continue to produce high quality scholarship. If that happens and the numbers of high-quality "Mere Christian" scholars keeps expanding in anything like the way it has in the past quarter-century, the network of such scholars will be in a good position to be recognized, even if grudgingly, for what it already is: one of the most vital intellectual communities of our time.

icon4 of 5view all

Most ReadMost Shared

Seminary/Grad SchoolsCollege Guide