Evangelicals and Conservatives: On Beyond Worldview
The relationship between conservatism in the United States and Protestant evangelicals is puzzling. Historians who study the rise of conservative ideas in post-World War II America are hard-pressed to find regular interaction between the Right’s creators and such neo-evangelical public intellectuals as Christianity Today’s first editor-in-chief Carl F. H. Henry. Even considering evangelicals as fellow-traveling conservatives seems like a stretch, as the distance between Wheaton, Illinois and Mecosta, Michigan includes more than road miles.
This apparent effort is further complicated when we realize that Protestant evangelicals ignored (or bypassed) the initial battles that defined the Right ideologically. Evangelicals were also absent from the debates when the Right’s civil wars (as The American Conservative’s editor Daniel McCarthy calls them) heated up in the early years of Reagan’s administration. When historians do find evangelicals cooperating with conservatives (some would say cooperating only with neo-conservatives), they uncover culture warriors and political operatives, as opposed to scholars engaged in arguing about what conservatism means in the context of the United States and the American experience.
These realizations about the nearly nonexistent relationship between evangelicals and conservative intellectuals are a part of what make Bradley G. Green’s The Gospel and the Mind: Recovering and Shaping the Intellectual Life important. Green, who was educated at Southern Baptist institutions and teaches at Southern Baptist-affiliated Union University, has written a book endorsed by a diverse set of thinkers including such stalwart conservative intellectuals as Catholic political philosopher James Schall, S.J. and Hume scholar Donald Livingston, as well as Houston Baptist University president Robert Sloan, Jr. and Anglican theologian Graeme Goldsworthy.
Green’s book is one in a series of recent Christian academic literature looking to push evangelicals beyond the culture warrior persona of the 1980s and 1990s in hopes of finding greater promise than Republican Party politics. James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World, James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, Andy Crouch’s Playing God, and Hunter Baker’s The End of Secularism all stake out various positions in these regards. Gerald R. McDermott deserves to be included in this list as well for his work to persuade American evangelicals of the “need to recover the Great Tradition within Evangelicalism and thus to read scripture in and through the lens of the church spread out through time.”
The Gospel and the Mind attempts to synthesize or at least find common ground between being a mission-minded evangelical living in accordance with the historic Christian faith, and traditional conservative thinking found in such mid-twentieth-century conservative writers as Richard Weaver, whom Green cites approvingly. The virtues of being a historically conscious (a term popular among postwar conservatives) Christian is a prominent theme throughout Green’s corpus, which also includes Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy: Engaging with Early and Medieval Theologians.
Green says that his main interest in writing The Gospel and the Mind came from the desire to explore the relationship between intellectual pursuits and the gospel. Green probes “five main interrelated Christian theological themes and their relevance to the intellectual life: 1. The realities of creation and history; 2. The notion of a telos or goal to all of history; 3. The cross of Christ; 4. The nature of language; 5. Knowledge, morality, and action.”
Green presents the book on one level as a primer for Christians who struggle to connect faith to intellect. His answer to those who see a disconnect between intellect and faith is to help the reader embrace “complementary” Christian visions rooted in a Christ-centered anthropology and belief in a created order. It “is the Christian vision … that provides the necessary substructure, or precondition, for meaningful and enduring intellectus.” Green uses this complementary vision to take issue with the current state of higher education, noting the ways modern universities fail to uphold the dignity of humans and their relationship to creation.
Green anchors his Christian vision in tradition. He presents names familiar to conservatives and conservatism—Weaver, Malcolm Muggeridge, John Lukacs, and others—as sources of inspiration. He argues that the history of the early church, bolstered by tradition, provides a stronger foundation for implementing the Christian vision in perpetuity than individuals merely being well versed in Scriptural language. He articulates the value of tradition and history in that each “affirms” and “associates” and demonstrates that individuals are not “less than human.” He presents tradition as a kind of reaffirmation that determines action, and the necessity of choosing in accordance with, and not against, the eternal order. Since Green is also fond of citing conservative Southern writers like Walker Percy and Weaver, it seems that tradition also provides the narrative for living well.
Green’s second chapter elaborates on the notion of a telos in history. Most contemporary evangelicals have little sense of finality in history because the concept does not exist in the educational apparatus or curriculum available to them. They are prone to fall back into the problematic modern assumption that even though history is without a purpose, motion (or progress) still exists.
He then addresses the tensions between faith and reason. Green is an Augustinian scholar and he turns to the Bishop of North Africa to remind the reader that all knowledge must rest on some kind of faith—and that good knowledge should continue to reiterate and flesh out “what has already been initially believed” (p. 83). Toward the end of the third chapter Green makes a strong claim for Christian believers: “Our intellectual development as Christians should always be seen as part of our being conformed to the image of Christ, something rooted in and proceeding from the cross.”
Green next takes a linguistic turn, to what he sees as the postmodern problem rooted in a crooked and antihuman anthropology. He claims that a Christ-centered anthropology is also linked to language. He tackles the epistemology of such familiar continental postmodern thinkers as Jacques Derrida to demonstrate the necessity of a Gospel-centered theory of language. Similar to his criticisms of the directionless motion of modernity, Green argues that postmodern theories of language are motion-driven human creations that lack a telos.
It seems that Green could have beneficially broken this project into two volumes here—one dealing with the problem of rootlessness in secular ways of knowing that takes up the first half of this book, and the other a fleshing out of why language based on the Wittgensteinian model is troublesome, which concerns the second half of The Gospel and the Mind. A volume from an evangelical perspective that deals specifically with the heady literature of linguistic theory would be most welcome.
Still, even though postmodernism has long since lost its luster in academia, the volume as written will be particularly useful for evangelicals who have not had an opportunity to delve into French theory. Green would also do evangelicals a great service by showing how the use of a term like postmodernism is often used so broadly that it is rendered meaningless. Other, more nuanced terms such as post-structuralism and culturalism exist to specify what an expansive term like postmodernism cannot. To his credit, Green does use some of this terminology in his text, but to more accurately portray postmodernism, Green might also consider showing readers how Peter Lawler’s reading of postmodernism is not in conflict with a Christ-centered anthropology.
Green’s background helps him bridge conversations concerning conservatism and evangelical Christianity. These groups have worked uneasily beside each other for far too long and both may benefit from more deep and overt interaction. Given that most early conservatives in the United States were not evangelicals, it would be worthwhile to delve further into hermeneutics and other spaces where evangelicalism and traditionalism may meet, or not. Given Green’s academic expertise and background in Southern Baptist institutions, there are few people better suited to take up these arduous and necessary questions in the future.
Seth Bartee, Ph.D. is an intellectual historian and visiting scholar at The Russell Kirk Center in Mecosta, Michigan.
Posted: June 1, 2014