As reported in the New York Times on December 29, 2015, Vonette Zachary Bright, an important Evangelical leader, has died at age 89. She was born in 1926, the daughter of a farmer in Cowetah, Oklahoma. She received a bachelor’s degree in home economics from Texas Woman’s University, and went on to a master’s degree in education from the University of Southern California (definitely a step up). Subsequently she wrote a dozen books. It strikes me that she was born one year after the so-called “monkey trial” in Dayton, Tennessee, when a schoolteacher was tried for teaching evolution in defiance of state law. The trial, written up by H.L. Mencken, turned into a historic battle about the veracity of the Bible between Clarence Darrow, the famous defense attorney, and William Jennings Bryan, an equally famous Evangelical politician, who spoke on behalf of the prosecution. Bryan’s public humiliation in this debate was a turning point in the history of American Evangelicals, who retreated for several decades into a subculture despised by the cultural elite. Vonette Bright’s life span saw not just one but several changes in that turbulent history. This invites reflection.In 1951 she and her husband William R. Bright (whom she had known since grade school) founded Campus Crusade for Christ, originally a student ministry at the University of California, Los Angeles. Bill Bright, as he was generally known, died in 2003. He graduated in economics from Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. (Neither Bright could be accused of having been shaped by elite academia.) The organization they founded has now grown into a huge international organization, probably the largest in the Evangelical world. With headquarters in Orlando, Florida, it now claims 25,000 full time staff and 300,000 volunteers in 175 countries. No longer limited to campus ministry, it now covers a much broader spectrum of activities. Because of this it has now changed its name to just Cru (a not very happy choice, I would say, but the old name is still used). In 1966 the Brights founded Athletes in Action, thus carrying on a venerable tradition of “muscular Christianity”, which long ago also gave birth to the YMCA. [I think it goes back to the British public school whose pedagogical maxim was “make them so exhausted that they forget about sex”—not a very successful strategy, it seems.]Since 1976 Campus Crusade has conducted a “family life program”—with conferences, small groups and individual marriage counseling, advocating what in those circles is usually called “the traditional family” (which historically is actually the bourgeois family, a tradition about as old as the steam engine). It is fair to see this as a campaign against all the consequences of the sexual revolution that began not long before the “family life program”. The latter has hardly been a great success, except in the deeper recesses of the Evangelical subculture. [There you can find such scintillating phenomena as “virgin clubs”—young women making a vow to remain virgins until marriage, wearing a ring with an inscription to that effect, and attending large annual conferences to “renew their vows”—accompanied by their fathers, who might see this as practice for “giving away” their daughters to the putative deflowerers.]Campus Crusade’s most ambitious initiative has been the Jesus Film Project, launched in 1979. The Brights wanted to produce a film that would be “Biblically correct” yet have all the technical sophistication of a top Hollywood production. It is based on the text of the Gospel of Luke. Wealthy donors initially supported the project to the tune of about six million dollars. It has been a vast undertaking, not least linguistically: The film has been dubbed in over one thousand languages. So even illiterate viewers can hear Jesus speaking in Hindi, or Swaheli, or Quecha. A large screen has been developed on which the film can be seen from both sides simultaneously, for large gatherings of viewers. It is claimed that some 200 million people have seen the film. The aim of the project is that before long every person on earth will have had the opportunity to see the film and thus have the option to make a decision for Jesus (some Evangelicals believe that this will hasten the Second Coming). After each big showing staff go around and ask who might be interested in learning more about Jesus; those who say yes are asked for their contact information; they are later visited by local pastors or church workers. Some years ago I had the occasion to ask someone from Campus Crusade whether this procedure is not resented in some places. Yes, they replied, and spreading the Gospel has often been dangerous and sometimes may lead to martyrdom.Revivalism has of course been an important feature of Evangelical Protestantism in America, ever since the First Great Awakening in the 18th century, followed by the flowering of Methodism and innumerable local revivalists, and other large movements of similar intensity. The period in which Campus Crusade first flourished, 1950s and 1960s, has been called by some a Fourth Great Awakening. During this last period there were other movements that began on college campuses, notably the Intervarsity Christian Fellowhip, begun in 1941, operating today on 649 campuses in the US and some abroad, but it cannot compare with the size of Campus Crusade.Probably most important during this period has been the meteoric rise of Billy Graham, who began his “crusades” in 1947 and, though (now in his nineties) he has turned over a highly organized enterprise to his son Frank Graham, who has continued to be a religious celebrity. Billy Graham is liked and admired by people who do not share his beliefs. In some ways he resembles the Dalai Lama, though his spirituality is more noisy (no Buddhist tranquility here!). While rarely making political statements, he has been cultivated by presidents beginning with Dwight Eisenhower (who made the famous statement of his profound respect for faith, “I don’t care what it is”).I would venture to say that the core features of the Evangelical revival have persisted in all these manifestations: a constant appeal to Biblical authority, an urgent appeal to repent before it is too late, and then the “call to come to the altar”, be converted in a highly emotional way, and enter into a “personal relationship with Jesus”. There are of course different variants, but this is the “deep structure” of a very distinctive type of religion, whether in one of Billy Graham’s rallies of many thousands in a football stadium, or in the first revival I ever attended, in a humble Evangelical church in Springfield, Ohio. [I went out of curiosity with my then Finnish girlfriend. She became very tense as the preacher’s helpers fanned out to invite people to come to the altar. As one of them leaned over and asked “sister, are you saved?” she replied in her strong accent “I am a member of the Church of Finland”. A wonderful clash between two very different versions of the Christian religion!]Campus Crusade for Christ started in 1951. What has happened to American Evangelicanism since then? Around that date it had just begun to rouse itself from the depressed marginality into which it had retreated from the debacle in Dayton, Tennessee. An era of publicity-wise mass evangelism, of which Billy Graham was the shining exemplar, had begun. The combination of Evangelical piety and “traditional values” was a good fit with the robust patriotism of the Cold War. Yet Evangelicals were still wary of plunging confidently into the political arena (probably their last foray was with the Temperance movement that culminated in Prohibition, a Pyrrhic victory if ever there was one!). For a while they pinned hope on Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer from Georgia, one of their own. But although he taught Sunday school every week, his presidency (1977-1981) was a disappointment. Evangelicals were most upset by the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the 1970s, and the feminist and gay movements that were rising in tandem. So there was reason to hope when Carter convoked the White House Conference on the Family. But the liberationist caucus that had already been on the ascendancy in the Democratic Party pressured the administration to change the topic of the conference from “the family” to “families”. Carter collapsed before this aggression as readily as he did before the Islamist students occupying the U.S. embassy in Tehran (he did send an under-equipped rescue team that failed to get there). An irate group of conservative delegates (many of them Evangelicals) walked out of the conference in protest. That was the end of what one admirer of the administration had called “the end of the secular Enlightenment”.The administration of Ronald Reagan, which followed immediately, clearly heralded a change in the political climate. Jerry Falwell, a militantly Evangelical Baptist preacher, had already founded the Moral Majority in 1979; ideologically similar groups followed. The so-called New Christian Right burst on the political scene and was poised to become an important constituency for the Republican Party. The religious difference between the two parties, geographically expressed in the ideological difference between Oklahoma and Harvard Yard, persists as an important aspects of U.S. politics. It was perfectly caught in Barack Obama’s (presumably unguarded) characterization of his political opponents as people clinging to their religion and their guns. What also happened during the Reagan administration was the rather uneasy political alliance between Christian conservatives (Evangelical and Catholic) and the heavily Jewish intellectuals of the neoconservative movement. This was definitely not a marriage made in heaven, but it worked for a while politically. (The unease in the relationship was mitigated by the fact that Evangelicals, because of their understanding of the Old Testament, are strongly pro-Israel.)Politics can change quite quickly. Cultural changes are usually slower and may not be noticed for a while. What was been happening more gradually than American politics was the effect of social mobility on the Evangelical community. The cultural association of Evangelicals with Tobacco Road was becoming less plausible as Evangelicals grew richer and more educated. In 1994 the historian Mark Noll, who is Evangelical himself, published The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which castigates his coreligionists for being anti-intellectual; ironically things were changing by then. Evangelicals are acquiring an intelligentsia of their own. There is now a network of Evangelical centers—universities, think tanks, publications. Significant academic centers are Baylor University, Calvin College, Gordon College, Wheaton College, and Fuller Theological Seminary. These institutions have faculty members with degrees from excellent universities in the US and abroad. The students, insofar as I have encountered them, are of two distinct lots: some are as good as any in elite universities, others come from institutions that few have ever heard about, but are bright and eager to prove how good they can be.There is an interesting fact to consider here: Faculty selection in elite institutions is biased in terms of the ideological prejudices in the selection process, with thoughts such as these in the minds of those on hiring committees: “we may have enough women applicants to satisfy federal diversity requirements, and (though we are not really allowed to ask) it seems that this candidate is a woman, but is she likely to be acceptable (that means ideologically acceptable) to the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies?” Such questions are somewhat less likely to be raised in the case of student applicants, who after all are by definition still available for correct indoctrination (though of course there are still the legal or not so legal quotas for those labelled “federally protected groups”). In the top category of this new Evangelical intelligentsia there are scholars with impeccable credentials who, if they so choose, could just as well be employed by non-Evangelical elite universities. Among them are the aforementioned historian Mark Noll (who moved from Wheaton College to Notre Dame) and the philosopher Alvin Platinga (who moved from Calvin College, also to Notre Dame).This is a new phenomenon. It is comparable to the movement of Jews, especially after World War II, into academic institutions (not to mention private clubs and classy neighborhoods) from which they were previously excluded. “Fundamentalism”, a category that in the progressive lexicon of elite secular culture includes both Evangelicals and conservative Catholics, is still (uneasily) acceptable in faculty clubs. Anti-Semitism is, still, considered taboo, unless one wants to apply the term (sometimes fairly, sometimes not) to the often passionate anti-Israel sentiments prevalent in progressive academia. Where is this going? In his book The New Evangelicals (1987) the sociologist James Davison Hunter anticipated that younger and better-educated Evangelicals would come to resemble the more secularized mainline Protestants. This has not quite come to pass. To be sure, some of the more robustly anti-modern beliefs of many Evangelical are difficult to hold onto if one has acquired a modicum of tertiary education—like the belief in the “inerrancy” of Scripture even in the account of creation (the beautifully named “young earth theory” aka “creationism”), or in the surviving rigid moral codes (relevant joke: Why are Southern Baptists against extra-marital sex? Because it might lead to dancing!). But I don’t see that the core beliefs of Evangelical Protestantism, as outlined before in my description of revivalism, have significantly diminished (somewhat mellowed perhaps, emphasizing the promise of heaven over the threat of hell). Evangelicals have not moved in the direction of Unitarians (another relevant joke: What happens when you cross a Unitarian with a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan? You get someone who burns a question on your front lawn!). Compared to the theologically liberal, they are remarkably feisty.The Veritas Forum was founded in 1986, a very interesting case of the new Evangelical intelligentsia. Its purpose is defined as the open discussion in academic settings of “the relevance of Jesus Christ to all of life”—the emphasis is on discussion, not preaching. Christian perspectives are of course introduced, but always in conversation with critics of Christianity or religiously neutral experts in various fields. The program began at Harvard; its headquarters is still in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As far as I know, the organization is well-funded. Its young and very well educated staff conducts programs in fifty institutions, mostly in the U.S., some in Europe. The intellectual level is consistently high. The organization reminds me a bit of Opus Dei, the conservative Catholic order whose avowed aim is to infiltrate elite institutions, including universities, with Catholic ideas and values. The Veritas Forum does this with a measure of chutzpah symbolized by its name—which of course simply means truth in Latin, the Christian truth claims with which the organization unabashedly identifies—but which so happens is also on the logo of Harvard University. (It is an old military custom to display captured enemy banners in victory parades!)The Veritas modus operandi is twofold: big public events, usually with well-known individuals, and also (usually before and/or after the public event) small-group discussions of the public topics, often at the Harvard Faculty Club. I had had contacts with the group before, but in October 2015 I was invited to have a public event about religious pluralism with Ross Douthat, a conservative Catholic and (nevertheless) a regular columnist of the New York Times. The event was intelligently planned and very well attended. The Venue, Harvard Memorial Church, was appropriate in view of the Forum’s stated purpose. For one, it is ur-Harvard: Located in the center of the campus, the present building was built in 1932, but its architectural predecessors conducted daily morning prayers and Sunday services ever since 1636. I knew its last senior minister who died in 2011—Peter Gomes, a Baptist, whose father came from the Cape Verde Islands and whose mother was African-American. He was an erudite man who refused to be intellectually imprisoned in any narrow category. He was a theologically conservative Evangelical, a registered Republican, and openly gay. This particular combination is not exactly typically Harvard. All the same, he was generally well-liked—he was open-minded, witty and an eloquent preacher. (In all those respects, I would say, rather different from Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei!)
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Published on: January 13, 2016
Religion & Other CuriositiesThe Long Road to Harvard
Evangelicals have come of age.