Essay / Culture

John Derbyshire on Conservatism on National Review Online

John Derbyshire on Conservatism on National Review Online: “Evangelicalism is, in fact, too intellectually flimsy to sustain any coherent political position outside a narrow subset of ‘social issues.'”I often agree with John Derbyshire, but every once in a while he is given to the sort of instinctive wheeze about religion that is a hold over from the nineteenth century. Tradition is a fine thing, but this is one traditional American opinion that needs to go. It gets in the way of good thought. Evangelicals have a rich intellectual heritage. R.A. Torrey, to cite but one example, had a good education, valued the life of the mind, and carried out a sustained public and private ministry over the course of decades that was sophisticated and thoughtful.Evangelicals are a big group. They touch all classes of people and all intellectual abilities. As such they often mirror the strengths and weaknesses of America. America is not a very “intellectual” country. We should all be thankful for this since I do not think the angst ridden cafe driven conversations of Paris have done much for Western civilization. However, sometimes a proper reaction to snobbery, laziness, and impotence (which disguises itself as thoughtfulness) can lead to anti-intellectualism and that too is a bad thing.Evangelicals have been betrayed by the intellectuals often. First, the schools they built turned on them. The loss of Princeton in particular hurt. Then they carefully nurtured the second tier schools, think Baylor, only to see those betray their values. Finally, they went to the third level of schools, often only slightly better than high schools, and built those institutions up. Schools like Wheaton College fit this category. However, the siren song of “intellectualism” and the pressure to conform to the professorial union has too often moved those schools away from core evangelical values. This frequent betrayal has led a few evangelicals to give up on thoughtful approaches to faith. Like the victim of a crime, they shun the site of their victimization. Evangelicals can, at times, confuse thoughtful, Socratic living with the treasonous “intellectuals” who let them down.However, there exists a sustainable and exciting rational core to evangelicalism. It does not give up. Evangelicals are readers. Any movement centered on the Bible has a rich and sustained intellectual tradition. Evangelicals have been attending to the Fathers and to their Reformation roots in the last fifty years. Movements like Dispensationalism have produced scholars like Biola’s own Robert Saucy and others to develop theological rich takes on core ideas. The Biola attack on “replacement theology” where Jewish persons are not allowed their Biblical role now looks charitable, profoundly correct, and theologically sophisticated.In short, Derbyshire needs to read a good systematic theology. He might start with Wayne Grudem. He could think pick up some John Piper. Following this he could sit with some of my students at Torrey Honors and discuss the Bible, culture, and America’s founding documents. He would find a confident group that is committed to Socratic exchange, passionate about ideas, and brave enough to defend our country.Derbyshire may not agree with our conclusions, but he has given no evidence that evangelicalism is intellectually flimsy. In fact, it is easy to point to contrary examples. Without government money it supports a K-University educational system. One can earn an accredited Ph.D. in psychology for example having never left an evangelical educational institution. It supports numerous presses (IVP, Baker, Word). Many of these have serious academic lines which frequently sell respectable numbers to pew sitters. The movement is deeply self-critical, a sign of intellectual life, and very engaged in the culture.In terms of a broadly coherent worldview, evangelicals have undergone a philosophic Renaissance. Derbyshire should sit with a copy of Philosophia Christi, the philosophy of religion journal. As part of the traditional Christian mainstream, evangelicals have all the worldview strengths of Christianity. However, that may be Derbyshire’s complaints. He moves from evangelicals to attack Roman Catholics with the same nineteenth century fervor.Christians have been around a long time. In the process of thinking through the abolition of slavery, the creation of the modern University, the development of science, and democratic forms of government we made many mistakes. Derbyshire remembers all of them. However, the secularism that Derbyshire seems to favor has in its modern Western incarnation done almost nothing of value (lacking any popular support in most of the West) and has done a great deal of harm in some places.In short, if my choice is between the worldview and sophistication of Al Mohler and the whacky ramblings coming out of the libertarian camp then count me with the Southern Baptists.

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