U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Enlightenment and Protestant Thought; Or, Reading Frances Schaeffer through David Hollinger

David Hollinger will be the keynote speaker for this year’s S-USIH annual meeting, with a talk intriguingly titled, “Reinhold Niebuhr, Christian Survivalism, and the Question of Secularization.” This topic fits in with his recent focus on American Protestant thought. In his 2011 OAH presidential address, “After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern American Encounter with Diversity,” (published in the June 2011 Journal of American History), Hollinger argues that a better understanding of mid-century liberal, ecumenical Protestant thought—most famously represented by Niebuhr—helps us come to terms with “the dialectical process by which ecumenical Protestants lost their numbers and their influence in public affairs while evangelical Protestants increased theirs.” But, Hollinger contends that, in addition to losses, there were also gains. Ecumenical Protestants might have lost their grip on Protestant America, but they helped pave the way for a more diverse multicultural America. This is a compelling argument, if a touch overstated (as I argue here).
Hollinger’s contribution to the recent Modern Intellectual History “state of the field” roundtable (analyzed as a whole by Daniel Wickberg), ostensibly about the long life of his and Charles Capper’s canonical primary source reader, The American Intellectual Tradition, includes a challenging intervention: when American intellectual life is considered as part of a wider, trans-Atlantic community of discourse, “its most commanding theme is the accommodation of Protestant Christianity with the Enlightenment.”  The second plenary session at the upcoming conference, chaired by David Sehat and featuring Wickberg, Joan Shelley Rubin, Jennifer Burns, and Jonathan Scott Holloway, takes this meta-statement as its provocation.
Hollinger begins to work out the implications of the “commanding theme” in a more recent Dædalusarticle, “The Accommodation of Protestant Christianity with the Enlightenment: An Old Drama Still Being Enacted.” Hollinger seeks to revise the wrongheaded notion that the history of Enlightenment thought in America largely resides outside religion, a problem that stems from the fact that mainline Protestantism is understudied relative to its numbers and influence, which were huge until its steady decline began in the sixties. The debates about the Enlightenment, the adjustment that Christians underwent in response to the earth-shattering epistemological implications of modernity, were played out within Christian communities of discourse. This historical observation is similar to one Molly Worthen made in a paper she gave at the 2011 AHA (I assume Worthen will flesh it out further in her forthcoming book, Let Angel Minds Inquire: Evangelical America and the Problem of Anti-Intellectualism).

Worthen contends the culture wars were not just a battle between religious and secular Americans but also an internal feature of American Protestantism. In a similar vein, Hollinger writes: “Quarrels within American Protestantism revolve around the feeling among more orthodox, evangelical parties that mainstream liberals are actually secularists in disguise, as well as the feeling among ecumenical parties that their evangelical co-religionists are sinking the true Christian faith with an albatross of anachronistic dogmas and alliances forged with reactionary political forces.” This struggle famously played out at the 1979 Southern Baptist Convention, when conservatives who felt threatened by new sexual mores—feminism, abortion, and gay rights—took control of that particular Protestant sect, to the dismay of their more moderate coreligionists.
Does Hollinger’s thesis have American exceptionalist undertones? Although Hollinger is far from an American triumphalist, he has long argued that the United States is exceptional. In his two important books on the problems of racial and ethnic diversity, Postethnic (1995) and Cosmopolitanism and Solidarity (2006), Hollinger implies that the United States has found ways to accommodate racial and ethnic diversity to a degree that most nations have not. America, as such, should serve “as an archive of experience on which the world can draw critically.” Despite his hesitations about American nationalism, mostly related to the persistent racial injustices suffered by the descendants of black slaves, Hollinger defends the American nation as a proper place to seek justice. “A stronger national solidarity enhances the possibility of social and economic justice within the United States,” he writes. “This is a simple point, but an extremely important one. Any society that cannot see its diverse members as somehow ‘in it together’ is going to have trouble distributing its resources with even a modicum of equity.”
On the question of religion and the Enlightenment, Hollinger again contends that the U.S. is different, even exceptional. This is why “copious literature on ‘secularization’ often treats the United States as a special case,” never more true than now, when “debates about the nation and its future are so much more religion-saturated than at any time since the 1950s.” Charles Taylor, arguably the most important recent scholar on secularization in the wake of his 2007 tome A Secular Age, certainly puts the United States in a different framework than Europe. The United States has, of course, experienced secularization, not due to a decline of religious belief, but rather, in spite of its persistence. Similarly, legal scholar Stephen Carter argues in The Culture of Disbelief that the American public sphere is hostile to religiously informed action, even though, when polled, well over 90 percent of Americans say they believe in God. Taylor argues that the incommensurable steadfastness of religious belief in the United States lends credence to theories of American exceptionalism. Moreover, the doggedness of religious belief amongst a vast majority of Americans in a secular age also helps explain the culture wars.
According to Hollinger, two forces propel the “engagement of Protestant Christianity with the Enlightenment,” which he terms “a world-historical event”: science and diversity. He writes that, when people are confronted with new knowledge that challenges their religious beliefs, they undergo “cognitive demystification.” The most important moment of mass “cognitive demystification” occurred in the early twentieth century, when American Protestants had to come to terms with the new scientific thinking known as Darwinism.  “In the U.S., the overwhelming majority of commentators on the religious implications of Darwinism were “reconcilers.” That is, they sought ways to accommodate Christianity to the new knowledge, out of which came liberal, ecumenical Protestantism, some in the form of the Social Gospel. “The persistence of strong creationist constituencies right down to the present,” however, “shows that the greatest single instance of cognitive demystification remains contested in the United States.” In other words, not everyone has accommodated the Enlightenment, Hollinger seems to say.
Demographic diversification offered another stiff challenge to religious doctrine. The primary change agent in this regard was, of course, immigration. Living, working, and going to school with people whose beliefs and traditions were foreign but not obviously wrong led to a wider acceptance of diversity, and more importantly, an embrace of the knowledge that such diversity resulted in. Take the cultural relativism of anthropology, in the work of Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, as an example. Hollinger writes that these pioneering anthropologists “explicitly and relentlessly questioned the certainties of the home culture by juxtaposing them with often romanticized images of distant communities of humans.” (A great book that is highly critical of such secular relativism, from a Roman Catholic, localist, traditionalist perspective, is Christopher Shannon’s A World Made Safe for Differences, which I reviewed here.)
One of the reasons for mainline Protestantism’s decline in the wake of the sixties is because, Hollinger writes, “ecumenical Protestant leaders tried to mobilize their constituencies on the leftward side” of the issues that rocked the nation. Conservative rank-and-file Protestants often jumped ship for evangelical churches, where religious leaders were highly critical of the liberal activism of mainliners. “The accommodations the ecumenical Protestant leadership made with secular liberalism generated countermeasures from fundamentalist, Pentecostal, and holiness Protestants.” Hollinger continues: “When the ecumenical leadership finally backed away from the traditional assumption that the heterosexual, nuclear, patriarchal family is God’s will, evangelical leaders seized the idea, called it ‘family values,’ and ran with it to great success.”
In his conclusion, Hollinger contends that ecumenical leaders lost many of their churchgoers after they made a secular, liberal turn in the sixties, much as the Democrats lost the south when they backed civil rights. However, today’s America looks much more like the nation liberal ecumenical leaders advocated for than the one conservative Protestants wanted. This was “cultural victory” in the face of “organizational defeat,” as sociologist N.J. Demerath III has put it, and echoes the arguments by scholars such as James Livingston and David Courtwright. The left won the culture wars even as it lost many important elections.
All of this is fine as far as it goes. Hollinger’s accentuation of liberal Protestant thought, which thankfully goes far beyond the facile storyline about how Niebuhr endowed Cold War liberalism theological cover, is an important intervention. I look forward to his keynote for that reason.
But underlining Hollinger’s thesis is the implication that only liberal Protestants accommodated the Enlightenment. Conservative Protestants, on the other hand, resisted it. Evangelicals and fundamentalists failed to reconcile or adjust their thinking to the new knowledge. Hollinger does not say as much, but his focus on how liberal Protestants were the ones accommodating the Enlightenment seems to imply that he does not think conservatives did any such reconciling.
If Hollinger indeed thinks as much, I think he is wrong. Conservative Protestants also found ways to accommodate the Enlightenment, or adjust their thought to it, with the qualification that accommodation and adjustment do not necessarily entail agreement or wholesale adoption. In this way, conservative Protestants acted as we would expect if we buy the argument in Corey Robin’s controversial book, The Reactionary Mind. Conservatives, Robin theorizes, are not the defenders of static, existing institutions or doctrines. Rather, the movements for revolutionary change—such as the sexual revolution unleashed in the sixties—have led conservatives to rethink their original premises. “If a ruling class is truly fit to rule, why and how has it allowed a challenge to its power to emerge?”
The embrace of innovative evangelical thinker Frances Schaeffer, I argue, demonstrates that conservative Protestantism (and the larger conservative movement and GOP, which rode the conservative Protestant wave) found ways to accommodate secular modernity.
Frances Schaeffer is usually mentioned in all of the important books on the Christian Right. Both William Martin and Daniel Williams include three-or-four page synopses of Schaeffer in their indispensable histories of the Christian Right. But I would argue that Schaeffer is more important to modern evangelical thought than such brief treatment indicates. As James Sire writes, not without a touch of hyperbole: “It is little exaggeration to say that if Schaeffer had not lived, historians of the future looking back on these decades would have to invent him in order to explain what happened.” Perhaps we are on the verge of an explosion of Schaeffer scholarship. One indication of a potential such impending burst is the panel of young scholars at the upcoming S-USIH conference on the topic of Schaeffer, titled, “The Expansive Legacy of Francis Schaeffer.” (For a brief introduction to Schaeffer and the 1970s Christian Right, view the first 25 minutes of episode 6 of the PBS “God In America” series.)
Schaeffer, the hippie-like evangelical sage of L’Abri, a Swiss mountain retreat for Christian wanderers and seekers, became famous in the 1970s, late in his life, when his books and documentary films touched millions of American evangelicals. Growing up in working-class Pennsylvania, Schaeffer was “saved” at a tent revival in 1929. His theology was shaped during the great debates of the 1920s, when his mentor, J. Graham Machen was fired from Princeton Theological Seminary for maintaining fundamentalist beliefs at a time when liberal theologians—Hollinger’s reconcilers—were on the rise. Schaeffer attended the Machen-founded Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, a fundamentalist alternative to the liberal Ivies. Schaeffer pastored a number of churches in the northeast and St. Louis before moving to Switzerland as a missionary in 1947. Schaeffer and his wife Edith founded L’Abri in 1955 after he was purged from the missionary by Carl McIntyre, who, astonishingly, accused Schaeffer of being a communist. Although charging Schaeffer with communism was outrageous even by the standards of McIntyre, who made McCarthy seem like a dough-faced fellow traveler by comparison, living in Europe, according to Schaeffer’s oldest daughter Priscilla, resulted in him rejecting the pietism he displayed while a pastor in the U.S. Instead, he came to embrace to a more modern spiritualism, part and parcel of his newfound interest in art, music, and philosophy.
Edith (Seville) Schaeffer was raised in China by highly educated and well-heeled Christian missionaries. Consistent with such a privileged early-twentieth-century upbringing, she loved high culture, a passion she eventually shared with her husband. Edith always lived with the tension inherent to highbrow fundamentalism—a combination that most people would consider oxymoronic. According to Edith and Francis’s son Frank Schaeffer, whose captivating apostate memoir Crazy for God should be must-reading for all students of the Christian Right, Edith spent a considerable amount of time fretting about the effect of H.L. Mencken’s formative anti-fundamentalist satires. “But we’re not like that!” she would exclaim. “He would never have written those horrible things if he had ever met me!”
Such anecdotal evidence reveals why Schaeffer was ultimately so significant: he (thanks in part to his wife) sought to reconcile a fundamentalist reading of scripture to modernity, or at least, modernity shorn of a modern epistemology. The younger Schaeffer writes: “I think my father lived with a tremendous tension that pitted his growing interest in art, culture, music, and history against a stunted theology frozen in the modernist-fundamentalist battles of his youthful Christian experience.” In fact, Schaeffer’s theology wasn’t stunted. In order to do battle with modernity, it incorporated all that he had learned from modernist forms. “Dad spent the rest of his life trying to somehow reconcile the angry theology that typified movement-fundamentalism, with a Christian apologetic that was more attractive.” In the mind of Schaeffer, the acids of modernity reshaped evangelical thought.
It might be argued that Schaeffer was the perfect Christian theologian for a postmodern age because he understood the upheavals in how humans conceived truth. For Schaeffer, this was a problem in need of a correction that only a proper understanding of God could provide. It should be noted that American Protestant theologians, liberal and conservative, had long grappled with thinkers who unmasked paradigms of truth. In her excellent book American Nietzsche, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen shows how American theologians voraciously read Nietzsche, not because they agreed with his radical antinomianism, but because Nietzsche was a proxy for modernity writ large, compelling them to reformulate their own truth paradigms to new contexts. Schaeffer represents, to put it in Hollinger’s terms, a similar form of “cognitive demystification” in that he grappled with the giants of modernity in order to reinvigorate his particular brand of fundamentalism.
When the “New Evangelicals” came on the scene in the 1950s, with Billy Graham as their chief spokesperson, they presented a friendlier face to fundamentalism by not worrying so much about schisms over scriptural interpretation. But they still focused all of their preaching energies on spouting Biblical verse. Schaeffer, according to his son, “reversed the priorities of fundamentalist dogma. Instead of spouting Bible verses, Dad talked about philosophy, art, and culture.” He endowed biblical inerrancy with a wider currency. He was the evangelical answer to modernism, even postmodernism. “In the early ‘60s, he was probably the only fundamentalist who had even heard of Bob Dylan.”
Schaeffer’s philosophical project, best articulated in his 1968 book, The God Who is There, was anti-secular humanist, secular humanism defined as “the system whereby men and women, beginning absolutely by themselves, try rationally to build out from themselves, having only Man as their integration point, to find all knowledge, meaning and value.” Schaeffer theorized that the radical relativism of secular humanism had become the epistemology of modern humanity after what he termed “the line of despair” had been crossed. Prior to this epistemological shift, even non-Christians could make sense of truth claims, despite not having a base for such claims. For example: “One could tell a non-Christian to ‘be a good girl’ and, while she might not have followed your advice, at least she would have understood what you were talking about. To say the same thing to a truly modern girl today would be to make a ‘nonsense’ statement. The blank look you might receive would not mean that your standards had been rejected, but that your message was meaningless.”
Schaeffer essentially presented a Christian theory of secularization heavily dependent on intellectual history. He believed the whole world’s culture had become post-Christian in following “the same basic monolithic thought-form—namely, the lack of absolutes and antithesis, leading to a pragmatic relativism.” Hegel was the first step towards the line of despair because Hegel theorized that instead of antithesis—instead of the proposition that, since this is true, that cannot be true—synthesis was the proper method of thought. Synthesis, thus conceived, implied relativism, since all thought had some merit in that it would eventually be enveloped by synthesis. After Hegel, Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism, was to blame for the next step towards the “line of despair” since he argued that synthesis could not be reached by reason but rather by a leap of faith. Schaeffer objected to the separation of reason and faith; he believed they were mutually inclusive. French existentialism, especially Sartre, represented yet another step towards despair. “The total, he says, is ridiculous,” as Schaeffer described Sartre. “Nevertheless, you try to authenticate yourself by an act of the will. It does not really matter in which direction you act as long as you act.” French existentialism, for Schaeffer, implied moral relativism: a person could either help an old lady across the street or attack her and steal her purse. Either way that person would “authenticate themselves.”
Crossing over the line of despair was a frightening development. Nevertheless, Schaeffer argued that Christians should be thankful for it, since it had destroyed false optimism. Christianity is realistic, not romantic, he argued, in that it does not base hope on the goodness of people. “Christianity is realistic and says the world is marked with evil and man is truly guilty all along the line.” But Christianity, if not romantic, is also not nihilistic, because even though Christians and nihilists both see humans for what they are, Christianity offers a way out to those who embrace God. This way out is a methodology Schaeffer repeatedly terms “antithesis,” which he simply defines as such: “If a thing is true, the opposite is not true; if a thing is right, the opposite is wrong.” In other words, Schaeffer claimed to understand better than most theologians that people experienced their encounter with modernity—with a world stripped bare of confidence in humanity—as if they had been touched by a vortex. Fundamental truths that transcended the particular truth claims of humans offered stability in such a vertigo-inducing world.
Schaeffer’s methodology of “antithesis” had specific political implications even though he avoided politicizing his theology until the 1970s. For example, Schaeffer made clear that, according to the method of antithesis, heterosexuality is right and homosexuality is wrong. One of the symptoms of despair that Schaeffer catalogued was what he called “philosophic homosexuality,” or homosexuality as “an expression of the current denial of antithesis.” “In much of modern thinking all antithesis and all the order of God’s creation is to be fought against—including the male-female distinctions.” And yet, despite the homophobic implications of his theology, his son Frank describes his father as decidedly un-homophobic. “Dad thought it cruel and stupid to believe that a homosexual could change by ‘accepting Christ.’”  Schaeffer thought homosexuality was a sin, but on par with other sins, such as gluttony. He believed all sins could be forgiven and all sinners treated with kindness. Perhaps this was small consolation, but relative to the firebrand anti-gay messages that other formative leaders of the Christian Right were propounding, it was certainly more humane. Certainly better than Tim LaHaye, who wrote a book in 1978 titled, The Unhappy Gays, in which he writes: “When sodomy fills the national cup of man’s abominations to overflowing, God earmarks that nation for destruction.”
Being nice in his anti-homosexuality was evidence of Schaeffer’s model for bringing fundamentalist Christianity into the modern world. Once he began to gain a measure of fame—once even the families of Billy Graham and Gerald Ford became regular guests at L’abri—Schaeffer’s fellow conservative Christians recognized him as the ideal conduit to a youth culture they failed to understand. As Frank describes it: “Evangelical leaders came to L’Abri so Dad could teach them how to inoculate Johnny and Susie born-again against the hedonistic out-of-control culture that had Johnny’s older brother on drugs and Susie’s older sister marching on the capital.” As a father-son tandem, the Schaeffers became the answer to bringing young people into conservative Protestantism.
With the help of evangelical pitchman Billy Zeoli, who had reams of Amway money, thanks to its right-wing founder Rich DeVos, Frank Schaeffer became the evangelical documentary filmmaker par excellence, and his “father’s sidekick.” This partnership produced How Should We Then Live?—a thirteen episode documentary about culture, art, history, and politics. They then made a second series that focused on pro-life issues, especially abortion—Whatever Happened to the Human Race?—the brainchild of Frank and Dr. C. Everett Koop, an ardently pro-life evangelical who was eventually appointed Ronald Reagan’s Surgeon General. Both films continue to be viewed at evangelical colleges nationwide.
Frank describes the legacy of the films in the following terms: “The impact of our two film series, as well as their companion books, was to give the evangelical community a frame of reference through which to understand the secularization of American culture, and to point to the ‘human life issue’ as the watershed between a ‘Christian society’ and a utilitarian relativistic ‘post-Christian’ future stripped of compassion and beauty.” In other words, it is quite possible that the making of abortion as an evangelical issue—not just a Catholic issue—required a different sort of Protestant thought. In part, this was because the worldly Schaeffer always argued on grounds that even non-religious people could understand. When he became an outspoken pro-life activist, he argued on the grounds of “what the genetic potential of a fetus was, or what direction we all can agree that we want society to go in.” He was not a firebrand, and he could relate to young people with his immense fluency of popular culture.
Perhaps he was before his times, since the Falwells, Robertsons, and Dobsons also had their day. But in terms of lasting significance, Schaeffer’s modernized, highbrow evangelicalism might be more important, precisely because Schaeffer found unique ways to accommodate the Enlightenment to fundamentalism—as dissonant as that elocution may sound to the ears.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Nice post. I agree entirely about the significance of Schaeffer. As you suggest, he seems to have been particularly important in pointing the way toward a new kind of Evangelical youth culture.

    I sometimes think that the U.S. Evangelical Protestant response to modernity resembles the Catholic Counter-Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries: an attempt, in the wake of some pretty fundamental challenges to the religious status quo, to defend the core of an old order by greatly reconfiguring many aspects of it. One way or another, this is yet another form of “anti-modernism” that must itself be understood as a distinctly modern phenomenon and not merely as a hold-out from the past or an instance of “the contemporaneousness of the un-contemporary.”

    One tiny correction: Princeton Theological Seminary is not an Ivy League institution. Though located in Princeton, NJ, PTS has always been institutionally separate from, and not formally affiliated with, Princeton University (though PU has strong Presbyterian roots and PTS remains affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA).

  2. A brief comment here: nicely done Andrew. I look forward to the conference yet again. I would add that the stuff that I am making my way through on Richard John Neuhaus is in some ways contiguous with Schaeffer’s work and an extension of it. Neuhaus came to a similar realization about the fading relevance of the Christian left in the aftermath of the Vietnam War (see the Hartford Appeal). Neuhaus’s contribution to constructing a new frame of reference for a non-relativistic ideology was to turn toward natural law and a new metaphor–the Naked Public Square. What makes Neuhaus’s work so intriguing to me is his ability to bring together neo-liberal economic thought and evangelical Christianity under the umbrella of an ostensibly American ideal.

    • Barry Hankin’s recent study on Schaeffer, I think called FRANCIS SCHAEFFER AND AMERICAN EVANGELICALISM, is a wonderful introduction to the subject

    • Forgot to mention: As someone who wrote and published his undergraduate honors thesis on Schaeffer in 1998, when almost no one was talking about Schaeffer, it’s great to see all this new interest. THanks for this thoughtful post, Andrew!

  3. I don’t think Schaeffer matters much now. It’s an ancient pattern: the prophet inflicts a wound with his intransigence, and his followers fill the gash up with proud flesh in the next generation. There’s a Timothy Lahaye waiting to take over from every Schaeffer as we can see in contemporary religious politics. I would be more concerned; but I’m also a follower the method of antithesis and think that Schaeffer is simply wrong about a great many things The project of a socially benign fundamentalism founders on the falseness of its principles.

  4. Thank you all for the comments and suggestions. If you click on the link under “links to this post” below, you’ll see that John Fea raises some important questions about my post and about Hollinger’s essay (or the way I framed it). Most importantly, he wonders why anyone would classify as new the notion that the Protestants accommodated the Enlightenment, particularly if we go back to pre-Civil War history. LD had a good response at Fea’s blog. Here’s mine:

    I agree with L.D. that Hollinger must be aware of the long history of Protestant accommodation with the Enlightenment, even though he doesn’t address much more than twentieth-century history in his Dædalus article. And, since I’m a twentieth-century historian myself, that’s what I honed in on.

    Perhaps it would be more useful to use the term “modernity” instead of Enlightenment, especially since modernity, in the context of twentieth-century discourses of religion vis-a-vis secularism, often stood in for the two biggest epistemological threats to a Christian worldview: Darwinism and biblical criticism.

    The term Enlightenment implies a much longer history, as you make clear. Bringing Protestant thought to the center of the history of debates about modernity is, perhaps, a more accurate way to think about the freshness of Hollinger’s intervention.

    Of course, even in that framework, there’s nothing very new about Hollinger’s take. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be stated–especially to an audience of intellectual historians who aren’t always as attuned to religious history as religious historians like you are.

  5. Andrew, your comments partially address the question I had in the back of my mind as I was reading this: “What does Hollinger mean by ‘the Enlightenment’?” Your suggestion that “modernity” might be a more useful term makes sense, since the strict equation of the Enlightenment with secularization doesn’t really work. But putting it this way opens other cans of worms like what is modernity? and what is the relationship of modernity to the Enlightement? Maybe the most interesting thing is the reaffirmation of the notion that the Enlightenment in America is something that happens within rather than against the Protestant ecumene. That’s not a new notion by any means, as John Fea points out. But it does track with recent developments in the historiography of the Enlightenment in Europe, with scholars positing a “theological” Enlightenment that intersected with and ran alongside the more secularizing, rationalizing movement that generally is imagined when the name “Enlightenment” is conjured up. That though perhaps diminishes the claim that America’s experience was in some way exceptional, either in the eighteenth century or beyond.

    Of course, one could argue that none of this innovative at all, since the view that it was mostly about religion is one of the oldest ways of looking at the Enlightenment, maybe the oldest, since it goes right back to Enlightenment itself. After all, when Voltaire was demanding “ecrasez l’infâme,” he didn’t mean lousy customer service from his cable provider.

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