The Intellectually Influential Clergy

Image by Josh Batchelor from Pixabay

The footprint of Trumpism in American Christianity, particularly among those we clumsily and vaguely characterize as “Evangelical,” is large and persistent. It is powered in part by genuine political disagreement, in part by cultural anxiety, and in part by a large and rapacious commercial apparatus that converts Americans’ fears into fortunes 30 pieces of silver at a time. (This makes more sense if you think of cable news, political radio, and social media as in effect one complex and recursive system of self-moronization.) And it grows in its opportunistic way because American Christians still, after all these years, have not quite figured out how to engage with politics without either drifting into some unholy compound of state-idolatry and theocracy or degrading the church to the position of just another special-interest group among many, a half-assed Chamber of Commerce for the faithful — God’s little lobbyists. Because they have been convinced that we live in especially critical times and that the other side is irredeemably evil and on the verge — always and forever on the verge — of achieving irresistible power, they are all too eager to subordinate eternal concerns to short-term political mandates, proclaiming themselves practical and hard-headed men of worldly experience.

This is a particularly acute institutional problem for Evangelicals, because they do not have the Catholic Church’s history of wielding real political power, and — perhaps more importantly — because they do not have its hierarchy. The Catholic Church discovered many centuries ago that if an organization is going to cultivate princely power, then it had better have some princes. The pope can meet any head of state — including heads of officially atheist states — as a peer, and in most cases something more than that. Lesser princes of the church have sufficient status and prestige (purely secular qualities but necessary ones) and, in some cases, enough plain political clout to meet any legislator and most heads of state eye-to-eye. But without a hierarchy of that sort, American Evangelical leaders most often come to wide influence only as political pundits or operatives (Mike Huckabee, Ralph Reed), or as a familiar species of self-help guru (Joel Osteen, T. D. Jakes). A very few, such as Tim Keller, achieve some intellectual influence as clergymen, but that is a bit of a high-wire act: Almost invariably, they end up politically neutered by a too-scrupulous bipartisanship or else are spiritually evacuated by factionalism and the unclean hurly-burly of democratic action in the real world.

Kevin D. Williamson, National Review, “God’s Little Lobbyists

Williamson’s critique of evangelicalism is interesting, but wrong. Yes, Catholics have had political power, and yes, Catholics have a hierarchy. More importantly, the Catholic Church is an institution and a corresponding tradition. It has the advantage of a priestly class that can focus its efforts on intellectual work. Catholicism has resources devoted to intellectual life. Evangelicalism, overwhelmingly, does not.

Stanley Hauerwas once relayed a quote by James William McClendon concerning the intellectual tradition of baptists that has hung with me through the years. McClendon authored a three volume systematic theology. Systematic theologies have rarely been produced by baptists. Asked why this was the case, McClendon noted that baptists, throughout their history, have been a mostly poor, marginalized, and persecuted minority among Christian movements. To produce something as complex as a systematic theology, one must have the leisure, resources, and time to dedicate one’s research and writing toward that end. Baptists, mostly, have not been afforded such a luxury.

That said, I have often remarked to friends that one of the most underdeveloped areas of theological reflection among American Christians is with regard to political theology. I have also lamented the fact that we have not done a better job of calling out the called among us with intellectual gifts and encouraged those individuals–both male and female–to use those gifts for the edification of the church. There are many reasons for this–complacency, anti-intellectualism, and even idolatry.

The church does have opportunities, even today, to further develop its intellectual capacities. The first setting is the sermon. Ministers do often preach them every weekend, and it is within the sermon that not only the Scriptures can be exposited and the gospel announced, but some serious thinking can be offered about the times we live in and the challenges we face today. Pastors, to preach these kinds of sermons, must read and study, and have the support of a congregation who will encourage them to do so–and to share with them the other burdens and responsibilities of the ministry, in order to meet the needs of the congregation as a whole.

As Williamson phrased things, I do not think the goal of the clergy should be intellectual influence per se, but rather to reflect the mind of Christ to the world, to articulate the truths of Christianity with clarity, to be “scribes of the kingdom” bringing forth treasures old and new, and to offer reasons for the faith Christians profess, knowing that disagreement and opposition will come. If minds are changed and influence results, praise be to God, for these changes will, in the end, be a display of the gift of grace.