The September issue of Harper’s features a thoughtful essay by Alan Jacobs, “The Watchmen: What Became of the Christian Intellectuals?” Jacobs points out that the age of Eliot, Lewis, Auden, and Niebuhr is long past. These days, there are no Christians with currency as intellectuals, which is to say as articulate public voices who interpret present political and cultural trends for a broad, educated audience.
Jacobs doesn’t settle on any one explanation for this change. He points out, rightly, that the Cold War led to a fusion of Americanism with “Judeo-Christian values,” and that the American tradition of pragmatic get-aheadism incorporates an anti-intellectual strain. But at one point he makes an arresting assertion: “Christian intellectuals chose to disappear.”
Jacobs’s claim here is that a combination of success and failure has made us comfortable with an inwardly turned conversation: Christians talking to Christians. Many evangelical colleges and universities, for example, are serious places with accomplished faculty. Christians can write for and read magazines like First Things, where I’d like to think we maintain high standards. At the same time, however, Christian voices are discouraged from speaking in an explicitly Christian way to an increasingly secular elite culture. So we talk to ourselves—and we are sufficiently numerous to make talking to ourselves a satisfying enterprise.
There’s something to this analysis, but I’d add another factor, unmentioned by Jacobs. The biggest shift in American religious culture in my lifetime has been the extraordinary decline of mainline Protestantism as a vital force in public life. The mainline Protestant tradition had inherited the establishmentarian mentality of New England Puritanism, along with Puritanism’s urgent moralism. As a consequence, the leaders of mainline Protestantism saw themselves as the “conscience of the nation.” In mid-twentieth-century America, as men of letters, social reformers, and political rhetoricians were transformed into “intellectuals” (itself a fascinating story), mainline Protestants came to play that role as well, and did so in theological as well as sociological and philosophical terms.
Richard John Neuhaus was a good example. Although formed in the more isolated atmosphere of Missouri Synod Lutheranism, Neuhaus came of age politically and intellectually as a participant in mainline Protestant–dominated organizations supporting civil rights and then opposing the Vietnam War. He possessed an inborn confidence, but that confidence was reinforced by the mainline Protestant sense of ownership over the moral future of America.
This sense of ownership can seem hopelessly arrogant and smug (and it often was). But it also imposed a sense of obligation, which encouraged mainline Protestant intellectuals to transcend the ideological conflicts of the moment in order to speak to the nation as a whole. (Catholicism has its own way of encouraging consideration of the larger view, but that’s not my topic right now.) Looking back, I’m quite certain that the institutional strengths of mainline Protestantism were essential for the flourishing of the mid-century Christian intellectuals Jacobs rightly praises.
By the time Neuhaus founded First Things, it was already obvious that mainline Protestantism was finished. It had become a chaplaincy for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Neuhaus thought Evangelical and Catholic intellectuals could fill the void, providing America with a religiously informed public philosophy suited to our times. (I’m so thoroughly catechized by the First Things project that those words flow out of me effortlessly.) As Jacobs laments, however, this vision has not come to pass. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I wouldn't be surprised if Alan were to say that folks like me have become a chaplaincy for the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
The decline of mainline Protestantism was part of a larger dissolution of centrist American institutions. Universities today are far less likely to produce intellectuals. The reason for this failure is not just specialization (although that is a factor) but ideological homogeneity. To a degree that I could not foresee when I was a college student nearly forty years ago, the world of ideas has become almost entirely colonized by the political urgencies of the moment.
The dissolution of institutions is ongoing. Today, the educated public looks to science for orientation—rather than to culture, which was the metier of the older generation of intellectuals, including Christian intellectuals. Jonathan Haidt draws on social psychology to orient us on pressing social questions. Steven Pinker employs evolutionary biology. Others appeal to brain science. These are today’s “watchmen,” with writers like Malcolm Gladwell serving as their popularizers.
These and other trends have made me sensible of how different our circumstances are from those in which Neuhaus learned to speak as both a Christian and an intellectual, circumstances that were still to some degree in force when First Things was founded in 1990. As Christians, we have a place to stand—in the Church. But in this cultural moment our churches are anxious, ambivalent, and unsure (unlike mainline Protestantism in its heyday). Which means that as intellectuals, we have no solid ground.
Neuhaus always thought of himself as speaking from the center of what he liked to call the “American experiment.” I’m certainly patriotic, but I see myself speaking from the periphery. We are dissidents, not “intellectuals.”
R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things.