Public Intellectuals and the Common Good (2019-2020)

 In one of his last published essays, the late Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C. asked “Where Are College Presidents’ Voices on Important Public Issues?”  As was widely accepted by that time, the University of Notre Dame’s president emeritus noted in the February 2, 2001, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education that scholars and, in particular, college presidents, had abandoned questions plaguing the public.

Hesburgh argued that the pressure to raise funds drove college presidents to embrace politically safer ground versus wading into the uncertainty that often comes with public engagement.  As a former member and chair of the Civil Rights Commission, he argued that the most pressing issues of the day were being decided in arenas void of individuals who were arguably best trained to provide needed insights.

Little has changed since Hesburgh made that argument. Books and articles concerning public intellectuals generally begin with the assumption that their contributions are valuable but relatively absent, at least in Western culture.  As a result, some of the most recent additions to the literature draw insights from practices public intellectuals embrace within a global context.

While history notes the prominent role evangelical intellectuals once played in Western culture, recent history also records their relative absence.  As Mark Noll chronicled in 1995, in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, part of the challenge was the relative lack of intellectual engagement evangelicals were practicing at that time.  By nearly every known indicator, intellectual engagement has since increased. However, evangelicals are not immune to the lure of political safety as well as the perils of specialization.  The scholarship they produce all too often fails to inform a particular public whether that public be the Church and/or the state.

The “Public Intellectuals and the Common Good” project seeks to assess the present array of challenges, identify valuable opportunities, and provide examples of relevant practices as they relate to helping evangelical scholars expand their vocational understanding to include that of the public intellectual.  Far from where some self-appointed public intellectuals find themselves working today, this project will also help evangelical scholars cultivate a sense of need for their work in relation to the broader context of the common good.

The State of the Evangelical Mind (2016-2018)

American Evangelicalism, however one defines it, is at a crossroads. The last quarter of the twentieth-century was replete with signs of prosperity. Not only were many churches, universities, and seminaries growing at unprecedented rates, some argued the individuals populating those institutions were contributing to a relative intellectual renaissance. For example, in the October 2000 issue of The Atlantic, Alan Wolfe noted, “evangelical scholars are writing the books, publishing the journals, teaching the students, and sustaining the networks necessary to establish a presence in American academic life” ( magazine/archive/2000/10/the-opening-of-the-evangelical-mind/378388/).

However, a host of legal, financial, social, and ultimately theological questions now face evangelicals, threatening that renaissance. For example, many observers viewed the financial challenges that compelled Christianity Today to close Books and Culture after twenty-one years as a tangible expression of those challenges. Caught between fear and hope, many of those same observers proposed the evangelical mind is now on the threshold of another “scandal.” In contrast, others proposed the opportunities for faithful intellectual engagement and witness are greater now than in recent history.

The answers to those questions have ramifications for evangelicals as well as the nation in which many evangelicals find a home. In The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (Simon and Schuster, 2017), Frances FitzGerald argues evangelicals defined the nation in a host of ways. They comprise about 25% of the US population but, as the Pulitzer Prize-winning author notes, evangelicals are far from a homogenous group. As a result, she contends how evangelicals engage issues ranging from climate change to immigration will have an impact on the range of debates and possible courses of action taken in the United States.

This project seeks to reflect upon that past while also thinking critically about the prospects for the future of the evangelical mind. As argued, those prospects depend in many ways upon the influence evangelical churches, universities, and seminaries exert. For example, what role will each one of those institutions play? What kinds of relationships will they need to share with one another? What kinds of relationships will churches, universities, and seminaries need to forge with other institutions? The essays in this volume are designed to frame the resources needed for answering those questions while also suggesting how those institutions should chart both their respective and common courses for the future.

By drawing upon the wisdom of the past, perhaps some of these questions are best navigated by also reflecting upon the common and respective purposes animating the church, the university, and the seminary.