The Dilemma of the Fundamentalist Intellectual

It’s tough to be a conservative evangelical intellectual these days. As a recent exposé at Religion & Politics makes clear, they are still addicted to mainstream academic credentials, even when those credentials can be nearly impossible for them to achieve.

Why is it so difficult for conservative evangelicals to earn mainstream academic credentials? In part, it’s due to the stark and growing divide between mainstream institutions and evangelical intellectual assumptions. As I’m arguing in my new book about evangelical higher education, in the late nineteenth century conservative evangelicalism lost its place as the presumed intellectual backbone of America’s colleges and universities. I think historian Jon H. Roberts said it best. In the late 1800s,

Truth claims based on alternative epistemologies—tradition, divine inspiration, and subjective forms of religious experience—increasingly lost credibility within the academy.  In addition, the recognition that knowledge itself was fallible and progressive cast doubt on the legitimacy of venerable doctrines.  Claims that ongoing inquiry would eliminate error and establish truth fostered an iconoclasm toward orthodoxies.

In response, conservative evangelicals—calling themselves “fundamentalists”—built a dissenting network of higher-educational institutions. It wasn’t only brick-and-mortar schools. Fundamentalists created their own accrediting agencies, athletic leagues, alumni organizations, and more. These independent evangelical institutions allowed academics to rack up titles and honors without participating in mainstream thinking. As we’ve noted recently, the fetish for credentials has always included a frenzy of cross-institutional honorary doctorates.

sacred secular university

The empire really was in ruins.

But it’s still not enough. Throughout the twentieth century and continuing today, conservative evangelicals have yearned for more than just their own credentials. They have oohed and aahed at their colleagues who have earned mainstream academic respectability.

One notable case occurred during the mid-century creationism wars. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, evangelical intellectuals squared off (again) over the question of a young earth. Did belief in the Bible require belief in a literal six-day recent creation? In a literal world-wide flood?

At the 1948 meeting of the creationist American Scientific Affiliation at Calvin College, for example, geochemist J. Laurence Kulp battled with Calvin botanist Edwin Y. Monsma. Monsma defended the young-earth position. Kulp trashed it as mere “foolishness.” With his PhD from Princeton and his faculty berth at Columbia, Kulp’s mainstream credentials helped carry the day. As historian Ronald L. Numbers described, many ASA members were “ready to follow Kulp in boldly shedding the trite fundamentalist apologetics of the past.” Creationism, yes. Young earth, no.

At least in part, Kulp’s bona fides from outside the charmed circle of fundamentalist institutions helped convince many conservative evangelical intellectuals that Kulp’s ideas had oomph.


Creationists love credentials…

Today, we see a sad case of inflated credentials from another evangelical intellectual. As Professor Jill Hicks-Keeton of the University of Oklahoma points out, a recent publicity appearance to promote the new Museum of the Bible highlighted conservatives’ desperate drive for mainstream academic credentials.

Professor Hicks-Keeton describes the spiel of Jeremiah Johnston of Houston Baptist University. Professor Johnston hopes, in his organization’s words, to “teach Christians to be Thinkers and Thinkers to be Christians.”

But in his quest to wow evangelical audiences, according to Hicks-Keeton, Dr. Johnston played fast and loose with his resume. Hicks-Keeton sleuthed a little deeper. As she puts it,

Johnston’s academic credentials sound impressive: “He has studied at Oxford,” the pastor said. The CTS [Christian Thinkers Society] website’s bio for Johnston includes a list of presses with whom he has published, led by one of the most prestigious in the guild: Oxford University Press. During his talk to the congregation, Johnston repeatedly performed such credentials for church members by dropping academic words the average churchgoer would not have encountered (shema, protois, verisimilitude) and by flagging his own academic work. . . . A closer look at his curriculum vitae reveals that his educational pedigree is unrelated to Oxford University, a premiere institution of scholarship. The “Oxford” mentioned by Pastor Daniel is actually the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies—identified by its website as “an independent Christian charity.” Johnston’s publications with OUP amount to four brief, co-authored contributions to encyclopedias and edited volumes, which are not subjected to the rigors of peer review.

Ouch. For any academic—evangelical or not–these charges sting.

Why would Professor Johnston puff up his credentials, when they are so easy to deflate? I don’t know Johnston, but my hunch is that he shares the century-old dilemma of all fundamentalist intellectuals. In spite of their long efforts to free their minds from the shackles of mainstream academic thinking, they are still wed to the same hierarchy of prestige as everyone else.