The Scandal of the Liberal Mind Anti-intellectualism: it ain't just for the Evangelicals

Posted September 22nd, 2016 by Alex Wilgus & filed under Religion.

American Christians, especially Evangelicals have long been taken to task for rejecting the life of the mind. Mark Noll’s 1995 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and most recently Alan Jacobs’s much discussed piece for Harper’s “The Watchmen: What Became of the Christian Intellectuals?” tell a story of withdrawal from academia and intellectual pursuits. The long and short of it seems to be that yesterday’s fundamentalists and today’s evangelicals make up the religious wing of Richard Hofstadter’s famous assertion of American “anti-intellectualism” and the national preference for sloganeering over sophistication. The evangelicals, like their fundamentalist forbears, shrunk from the intellectual calling because of some animus toward smartypants types.

But there is a different way to tell the story. By the first quarter of the twentieth century, the world was in a scientific mood. New industry and technology had dramatically reshaped the experience of everyday life. New products, cheap and available electric lighting, cars, huge sea vessels, all bolstered by efficient manufacturing made it seem that science had actually delivered the signs and wonders that religion and myth had only promised. In the colleges, and even churches, every kind of knowledge needed to comport with data-driven methods and scientific ways of knowing. This wasn’t a gradual development. Sociology departments were hastily set up in universities and divinity schools alike. Foundations were set up in cities, not for simple charity, but with explicit scientific purposes, like Graham Taylor’s Chicago Commons Social Settlement House in Chicago. Understanding human beings could no longer be the province of religion or even philosophy. Somehow, the forces that had transformed the industry and the market had to be brought to bear on the human condition if any moral progress was to be made. Science could master anything. Why not the human being?


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