Todd C. Ream is Professor of Higher Education at Taylor University, the Senior Fellow for Programming for the Lumen Research Institute, and the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review. Previously, Ream served on college and university campuses in residence life, student support services, honors programs, and as a chief student development officer. He is the author and editor of numerous books and contributes to a wide variety of publications, including About Campus, Christianity Today, First Things, Inside Higher Ed, Modern Theology, New Blackfriars, Notre Dame Magazine, The Review of Higher Education, and Teachers College Record. He is presently working on a series of books concerning Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C. Jerry Pattengale is University Professor at Indiana Wesleyan University, Co-Director of the Lumen Research Institute, and the Interim President of Religion News Service. Previously, he served as Executive Director of Education at the Museum of the Bible (Washington, DC) and is one of its two founding scholars. Pattengale has authored over twenty books and contributes to a wide variety of outlets including The Wall Street Journal, Christianity Today, The Washington Post, Inside Higher Ed, Patheos, The Chicago Tribune, and the History Channel. Christopher J. Devers is Assistant Professor of Education at Johns Hopkins University and Senior Fellow for Operations for the Lumen Research Institute. Overall, Devers is interested in applied metacognitive processes and how people learn. Specifically, he explores learning using videos, mobile devices, and in online environments. He is also interested in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) and student success. He has published numerous articles in publications such as the Journal of Interactive Learning Research, the Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, the International Journal on E-Learning, and the International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning.
We live in a divided age. Impeachment hearings, the push to the 2020 presidential election, and, of course, Covid-19 dominate headlines in the United States. Unfortunately, the fault lines those events expose will likely only grow by the time these words are published.
One is thus not likely surprised by the ways such plagues also descended upon the houses evangelical Christians populate. Once a means to refining our common appreciation for truth, debate has collapsed into becoming a means of pursuing the mirage-like balm tribalism affords people during times ruled by fear. As a result, the identities evangelical Christians all too often hold are defined by what they oppose versus what they promote.
Scholars and, in particular, historians, are striving to understand how we came to this point as people of faith. In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, John Fea wrestles with the question concerning how evangelicals and white evangelicals, in particular, came to support Trump as a presidential candidate at a higher level than any other candidate for whom such data exists.1 In Who is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis, Thomas S. Kidd argues the crisis made evident by the 2016 presidential election was lurking below the surface through at least the latter half of the twentieth century. In fact, Kidd argues “The problems go back at least to the beginning of polling about evangelicals’ partisan preferences.”2
In the introduction to Evangelicals, Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be, a book he co-edited with David W. Bebbington and George M. Marsden, Mark A. Noll opens by noting “The word ‘evangelical’’ is in trouble—but for different and competing reasons.”3 In general, Noll mentions those reasons as at least including three. First, Noll covers comparable ground as Fea by noting the ways “pollsters and pundits have fixated on the overwhelming support [Donald Trump] has received from a constituency often called simply ‘evangelicals’”—or, if there is a pause for breath, ‘white evangelicals.’”4 Second, Noll contends a less obvious yet critical component in these discussions involves divisions between historians concerning how the story of evangelicalism is told. Third, Noll contends that even if a consensus exists concerning how a term such as “evangelical” is defined within the United States, such a definition may not hold when extended beyond those borders. In particular, he notes that what emerges does not involve “political or theological standoffs” but “sheer, mind-boggling diversity.”5
Noll, Bebbington, and Marsden, as well as Kidd and Fea, offer their own responses to this crisis that merit serious consideration. We hope that what follows in this issue adds to those responses, doing so in ways that overlap with their contributions while also offering evangelicals and, in particular, evangelical scholars a two-prong option to consider. Such an option is drawn from the larger “Public Intellectuals and the Common Good: Christian Thinking for Human Flourishing” project. It began with a symposium held at the Sagamore Institute in Indianapolis, Indiana on September 26-27, 2019, and now comes to full fruition in these pages and in the pages of a volume bearing the same title scheduled for release by InterVarsity Press.
The first prong in the option we encourage evangelical scholars to consider involves how they may understand themselves as public intellectuals. In The Second Mountain: The Quest for the Moral Life, David Brooks argues the walls religious people and institutions sometimes build “were caused by the combination of an intellectual inferiority complex with a spiritual superiority complex.”6 In essence, Brooks argues one way Christian intellectuals (of which evangelicals are likely part in Brooks’ estimation) respond to that inferiority is not by prayerfully yearning for wisdom but through exercises of self-righteousness. As a result, too many Christians “withdraw into the purity of their enclave.”7 Doing so then “gives people a straightforward way to interpret the world—the noble us versus the powerful and sinful them.”8
At a time of crisis such as the one detailed by Fea, Kidd, Noll, Bebbington, and Marsden, such a response may prove emotionally explainable. Regardless, it fails to be theologically defensible. In contrast, Jesus Christ came to serve as the perfect mediator between God and humanity, the infinite and the finite, the just and the unjust. To whatever vocational end God created them, all who accept the perfect mediation Christ offers through the gift of salvation are, in turn, called to do the same regardless of how imperfect their efforts may be.
By virtue of their vocation, evangelical scholars are called to serve as not only intellectuals but public intellectuals or, according to Michael Desch, “persons who exert a large influence in the contemporary society of their country through their thought, writing, and speaking.”9 While we would add the Church to Desch’s understanding of contemporary society, we believe Desch’s definition and the practices it highlights have merit.
The second prong then involves to what end evangelical scholars as public intellectuals seek to exert influence through “their thought, writing, and speaking.” Space unfortunately prohibits us from detailing the growing body of literature concerning the crisis public intellectuals are also facing. However, a quick assessment of that literature would note the absence of a clear end to which public intellectuals seek to exert their influence.
In contrast, we argue that end is the common good. Offered in his recent book simply titled The Common Good, Robert B. Reich argues the common good is determined by a society’s need to “agree on basic principles—such as how we deal with our disagreements, the importance of our democratic institutions, our obligations to the law, and our respect for the truth—if we’re to participate in the same society.”10 While we do not disagree with Reich’s understanding of the common good, we do not believe it proves to be wholly sufficient. In particular, it lacks what a Christian anthropology alone can offer—that our gratitude for what Christ did for us then demands we owe one another. Regardless of how human depravity makes it difficult to see the image of God in others, nothing can negate its existence.
As a result, the evangelical scholar’s concern with the common good is determined by the ways one sees all persons as bearing that image. That line of sight is thus often referenced within the wider Christian tradition as the beatific vision.11 In more eloquent terms than we could offer, Jacques Maritain writes in The Person and the Common Good that:
The beatific vision is therefore the supremely personal act of the soul, transcending absolutely every sort of the created common good, enters into the very bliss of God and draws its life from the uncreated Good, the divine essence itself, the uncreated common Good of the three divine persons.12
Regardless of the challenges posed by a particular crisis, evangelical scholars are called to exert influence through “their thought, writing, and speaking” in ways that reconnect members of the created order if for no other reason than doing so bears witness to the Triune nature of the God they are called to serve. We, in fact, believe that the more pressing the crisis, the more a witness to God’s nature is needed.
In their own ways, the essays explore dimensions of those options and do so in ways we believe merit consideration by individual Christian scholars as well the institutions they serve. Mark Stephens’ “Cruciformity and the Public Intellectual: Christian Weakness for the Common Good” opens this issue by adding to this theological understanding in relation to public intellectuals and the common good. Darin Davis’ “Seeking the Common Good by Educating for Wisdom” extends that line of thinking in relation to institutional contexts such as the Christian university. Abson Prédestin Joseph’s “Shaping Prophetic Voices for the Public Sphere” then discusses how such understandings can be formatively put into practice.
This issue then closes with two essays that argue that such an understanding of the relationship shared by public intellectuals and the common good is predicated upon how we diversify our understandings of the public intellectual. In “From `Stranger’ to `Neighbor’: Neurodiversity’s Visionary Opportunities as Public Intellectuals Promote the Common Good,” Mark Eckel contends we expand our thinking to include what individuals with neurodiverse gifts offer. Hank Voss then argues in “The Public Theology of all Baptized Believers: Wisdom from Don Davis, Robert Romero, and Paige Cunningham” for including voices previously excluded from conversations led by public intellectuals. If an understanding of the common good such as a beatific vision offers is to be pursued, including such voices proves necessary.
In many ways, this theme issue and the essays it contains is just the beginning of a conversation we now invite you to join. The divided age in which we find ourselves may have lurked below the surface long before the 2016 presidential election. However, the cross confirms such divisions are not permanent. The sacrifice Christ offered not only serves as the means by which we are reconciled to God but by which we are also reconciled to one another. While such efforts will undoubtedly not be easy, we hope these essays offer encouragement to evangelical scholars who embrace the calling serve as mediators in Christ’s name.
Cite this article
- John Fea, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2018).
- Thomas S. Kidd, Who is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), 150.
- Mark A. Noll, introduction to Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be, eds. Mark A. Noll, David W. Bebbington, and George M. Marsden (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2019), 1.
- Ibid., 2.
- Ibid., 11.
- Ibid., 256.
- Michael C. Desch, introduction to Public Intellectuals in the Global Arena: Professors or Pundits?, ed. Michael C. Desch (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2016), 1.
- Robert B. Reich, The Common Good (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018), 22.
- For an elaborate discussion of the beatific vision in the Christian tradition, please see Hans Boersma’s Seeing God: The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2018).
- Jacques Maritain, The Person and the Common Good, trans. John J. Fitzgerald (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966), 21.