During the mid-1970s I spent an academic year as a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in the Sociology Department at Princeton University. The memos that I received from my sociology hosts always began with this greeting: “Dear Visiting Humanist.”
When I showed one of those memos to an evangelical friend, he said: “I sure hope this doesn’t get circulated in the evangelical world!” The term “humanist” was a bad word at that time among evangelicals, and the antagonism would soon intensify with the appearance, in 1980, of Tim LaHaye’s bestseller, The Battle for the Mind, which called for an all-out evangelical campaign against “secular humanism.”
What LaHaye and others failed to make clear, of course, was that “humanism” could sometimes be used in manner that was not unfriendly to the Christian faith. The memos that I received at Princeton were simply acknowledging my role as a scholar trained in the humanities. And Catholic thinkers—the writings of Jacques Maritain are a prominent case in point—have long promoted a “Christian Humanism,” a perspective that celebrates the created dignity of the human person in God’s design for the world. What makes secular humanism bad is its insistence that human consciousness is the highest standard of truth, goodness, and beauty in the universe.
LaHaye’s failure to make these distinctions troubled me. And there were other things that bothered me in the way he made his case. Long before he produced his wildly popular Left Behind novels, for example, he had advocated for a “pre-tribulation rapture” perspective: a reading of “Bible prophecy” that sees us as presently in “the end-times,” with a coming seven-year “tribulation” period that will begin soon after the true Christians are taken up into the heavenly realm.
I also worried much about LaHaye’s heavy use of “battle” imagery with reference to the intellectual quest. I certainly agreed with him that Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, and their ilk were intent upon undermining the Christian faith. But I have also gained some good insights from such folks. “All truth is God’s truth,” even when it comes from minds who do not acknowledge the divine Presence.
In short, I did not see Tim LaHaye as a significant partner in the kind of evangelical concerns to which I was committed. I was a bit wary, then, when in the late 1980s I received an invitation to spend some time with a small group of Christian scholars and activists—with Tim LaHaye as one of the persons who had already agreed to participate—to discuss strategies for representing our convictions in the public square. It was to be “off the record,” and Wheaton College had provided facilities for the meeting. And the invitation came from Father Richard John Neuhaus.
The fact that Father Neuhaus was convening this gathering reduced my wariness significantly. While he and Tim LaHaye would be classified, in general terms, as being on the conservative end of the political spectrum, Father Neuhaus was certainly a thinker who was fond of nuances. And more importantly, he could hardly have been ignorant of the fact that LaHaye has said some things that were virulently anti-Catholic. So I agreed to attend, motivated in part by a curiosity about how the interactions would go.
As it turned out, I really liked Tim LaHaye—certainly much more than I expected to, given our serious political and theological disagreements. He was a gracious presence, genuinely open to engaging the rest of us in thoughtful discussion.
The encounter forced me, then, to look beyond our disagreements to some deeper dynamics in LaHaye’s public leadership. It struck me that was there was something new going on in the combination of LaHaye’s theology of cultural pessimism and his forming of a coalition for active cultural engagement. The fact that he had partnered with Jerry Falwell to establish the Moral Majority signaled an important theological-spiritual shift. The dispensationalism to which the two of them subscribed had long served to reinforce a strong sense of cultural marginalization, viewing the truly faithful as a cognitive minority existing on the margins of the dominant culture, waiting for the Lord to “rapture” them out of the increasing cultural mess before things got drastically worse. Now, suddenly, folks holding to the underlying theology of that cultural posture were building a coalition that presented itself as a “moral majority.”
This commitment to coalition-building fostered in LaHaye’s case a new “ecumenical” spirit. LaHaye clearly looked to Father Neuhaus as someone from whom he wanted to learn. Even more surprising to me was a comment that LaHaye made to me in a personal conversation. He really liked working, he said, with Mormon leaders—and then he added: “And some of them really love the Lord!”
On questions relating to the Christian intellectual quest, I am still not happy with “battle for the mind” imagery. But in recent years I have come to appreciate the fact that many promising younger evangelical scholars got their start in a serious commitment to the life of the mind by responding positively to the LaHaye-type call to intellectual warfare. Having enlisted in the battle, they soon came to realize that the issues were more complex than they realized when they signed up for the cause. But they still see that initial call to engage in scholarly conflict as what introduced them to a serious engagement in the life of the mind.
It is on the topic of eschatology that I most favorably incline these days to Tim LaHaye’s overall perspective. To be sure, I do not accept any straightforward version of his end-times scenario. But it does increasingly feel to me like we are entering into a cultural “tribulation period” of sorts. And since that period will likely last more than the seven years posited by my dispensationalist friends, I would certainly welcome any supernatural intervention that might alter what might otherwise be a disastrous course of events. In that regard, I am happy for Tim LaHaye, who has now experienced his own very personal pre-tribulation rapture.
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.