In the 2011 Journal of American History roundtable on American conservatism, the participating historians seemed to agree that the final word on conservatism was yet to be written. There was the feeling that historians had indeed made great strides towards researching a movement once considered too ridiculous to take seriously. (1) Still, Wilfred McClay’s reaction to Kim Phillips-Fein’s lead article was more skeptical about the newfound awareness. The former Merle Curti award winner—despite renewed attentiveness to conservatism—remained suspicious as to when conservative intellectuals would garner genuine respect from liberal academics instead of being treated as laboratory rats ready to be poked and prodded. (2)
The majority of conservative intellectuals (major, minor, and between) are yet to see daylight outside of venues dedicated to conservative thought, as McClay suggested. (3) I would also add that the great expanse of conservative thinkers other than the hallmark names like Russell Kirk, William Buckley, Richard Weaver, and Leo Strauss have yet to be considered within the larger framework of the history of conservatism. A problem is that the historian’s scope is too limited, as the criteria for measuring the importance of a conservative intellectual is that they participated in familiar conservative venues such as National Review and The Philadelphia Society.
If historians broaden their scope towards conservatism, they may find uncharted territory and boundaries that even Kirk and Strauss rarely traversed. (4) A group of thinkers associated with conservatism that has collected more boilerplate than symmetry (McClay’s terminology) in relation to the wider conservative movement is evangelical intellectuals. Here I am specifically referencing Southern Baptist intellectuals and not television personalities like Joel Osteen. Southern Baptists intellectuals are considered conservative because they oppose hot-button cultural issues like same-sex marriage and on-demand abortion just as many traditionalists do. (5) Yet, there are reasons to consider evangelicals as strange bedfellows next to conservatives. From the standpoint of canon, one may notice that Baptists and evangelical types were absent from Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind,and the updated editions that followed. Theologically, Southern Baptists are not as traditional as their Catholic and high Protestant cousins considering their proud embrace of the legacy of the Protestant Reformation and the significant changes it brought about in the modern world. To make matters worse, Baptists believe in personal salvation and church autonomy in a way that often defies community building—something that Kirk and traditionalists cannot abide by. Yet these groups are paired together without taking the time to understand their differences, as much as their similarities.
Since the conclusion of the second Bush presidency, there is an ever-widening gap between evangelicals and conservatives. (6) Evangelicals, in the opinion of traditionalists, happily supported an era of continued big government that further led to the demise of the Republican Party because President Bush was one of their own—a genuine Christian with a conversion story and a changed life to match that story. Traditionalist conservatives also look suspiciously on evangelicals for other reasons including and not limited to their sole reliance on Biblical scripture for a political map, and equally feeble attempts to believe that the Republican Party can amply represent theological positions in Washington amidst a secular bureaucracy set on continually perpetuating itself. (7) But just as there is not a general archetype of a conservative, this is also true of Baptist evangelicals as one could continue to break this group down into subgroups within the denomination, one more or less conservative than the next. (8) One aspect of research of American conservatism is absolutely certain, it will take an effort of (Charles) Taylorian proportions to flesh out all of the complexity in American conservatism into a readable tome—one that could fill volumes to document American conservatism and its many tributaries. (9)
I am interested in the recent development of a younger generation of Southern Baptist intellectuals including a marked growth in scholarly publications (monographs and journals) and a rising presence in the blogosphere. (10) This new fervor has taken place a part from conservatism or possibly as mild reaction against it. There is a historical trajectory from which to trace this recent enthusiasm, and reason to consider these intellectuals in the movement that originally rejected their presence.
A movement known in Southern Baptist circles as the conservative resurgence (CR) influenced this new generation of thinkers. Beginning in the 1970s, considering which source consulted, conservative (or fundamentalist) Southern Baptists began a campaign to take back the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) from liberal Baptists—a goal they accomplished in 1979 with the election of Adrian Rogers as president of the SBC. (11) The resurgent Baptists eventually took back crucial Baptist seminaries because of correlated efforts of key individuals and supporters alike. While I do not want to present a reductionist account of the conservative resurgence, I will have to abbreviate most of the story of the CR for the sake of brevity and argument.
During the previous SBC meeting, several of the key players in the conservative resurgence spoke on a panel titled “The Conservative Resurgence, the Great Commission Resurgence, and the Future of the SBC.” (You can watch the panel discussion here). This panel is important for historians of conservatism, because we learn how the CR developed from an intellectual/theological struggle within the larger conservative movement that began more than twenty years before. In other words, Russell Kirk (and others) fought similar and different battles simultaneously. The texts may have been different, but both movements existed within in similar space. In place of The Conservative Mind, a book titled Baptists and the Bible is often credited as the first volley against liberal Baptists who held positions of authority in Baptist seminaries and the SBC. (12) From this book followed other creeds eventually culminating The Baptist Faith and Message 2000. For intellectual historians it is fascinating to see how various doctrines and groups formed out of the larger conservatism of midcentury America.
Paige Patterson—the unofficial don of the “Texas mafia” of conservative Baptist reformers—helped turn several seminaries into conservative institutions where the official doctrine is Biblical inerrancy. Inerrancy was the primary force of CR from the outset. Other doctrines followed from Biblical inerrancy and they are a realization of the importance and permanence of the Great Commission to both the New Testament and Jesus’ earthly ministry, and the belief that conservative Baptists carry the responsibility as standard-bearers of a faith that must move beyond theory and into human action. (13) Patterson’s influence as theologian, pastor, and administrator cannot be emphasized enough, although there were many other important figures who impacted CR including Paul Pressler (Houston-based judge), W.A. Criswell (founder of Criswell College), Thomas Nettles (Baptist historian), Adrian Rogers (posthumous pastor of Bellevue Baptist in Memphis, Albert Mohler (president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), Charles Stanley (pastor of First Baptist Atlanta), and Russ Bush (co-author of Baptists and the Bible and faculty member at both Southwestern and Southeastern Seminaries). (14) Of the theological beliefs that resounded from the conservative resurgence, one stands above the rest as it affects the intellectual life of Southern Baptist thinkers and separates them from the conservatism of Kirk, Weaver, Buckley, and Strauss.
The Great Commission is a specific and intentional theological belief that the resurgents made intentional to Southern Baptist intellectual life. The Great Commission (GC) is a series of Bible verses found at the conclusion of the gospels of Matthew and Mark where Jesus told his eleven disciples to spread the new message of salvation to all nations and make disciples of those new followers of Christ. (15) GC was never a dominant trope among most postwar conservatives who tended focus on custom and order as opposed to converting unbelievers to Christianity. Roman Catholic conservatives, like Kirk, often believed that the Protestant Reformation only furthered the destruction of social order, and Eric Voegelin found Christian eschatology as suspect as liberal utopianism. (16) This does not mean that Kirk and others hated or disagreed with evangelicals on many key issues, but for the most part evangelicals did not gravitate into conservatism until the mid to late 1970s and the 1980s when conservatism was well into its second phase. Their graduation into conservatism tended to happen politically and not because of dialogue with those who generated that movement intellectually.
GC is such a defining characteristic in evangelical intellectual life that one often finds a dualism among the Southern Baptist laity. The dualism has often resulted in a laity that looks down on intellectual life because GC so specifically put an emphasis on conversion and heaven mindedness. (17) Despite this apparent epistemological dualism, people like the late Francis Schaeffer and his protégés encouraged young Christians to engage the world with hearts and minds. Schaeffer was only loosely affiliated with the resurgents, as far as I know. Nevertheless, many evangelicals count him as the starting point for their intellectual lives. (see Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Center for Faith and Culture for a greater understanding of Schaeffer’s impact on evangelical intellectuals).
Southern Baptist intellectuals are still attempting to bridge this gap between heart and mind while maintain the impact of GC. Here are, I believe, several aspects of Southern Baptist intellectual life that define them now and separate them from their conservative counterparts you might find publishing at The American Conservative or lecturing on the ISI lecture circuit. (18) 1. Spreading the gospel message of salvation is the ultimate goal, even for scholarship. (19) 2. Most Southern Baptist intellectuals are less concerned with preserving bourgeoisie morality and manners than they are making disciples of all people from a variety of lifestyles. The democratic strain is robust in evangelical intellectual life and is suspect to conservatives who view social justice writ large as the enemy of community, custom, and tradition. (20) 3. Conversion and imitating Christ is more important than loyalty to community and tradition. Because of the importance of GC many Southern Baptists leave their communities to become missionaries either overseas or in other parts of the United States. The evangelical Burkean is a rarity. (21)
We can trace further theological differences between conservatives and evangelicals to questions regarding size and place of government, foreign policy, and so on. (22) Evangelicals may gravitate towards liberal positions because they can support a greater welfare state and foreign aid as of their reading of GC. (23) The state (with all of its imperfections) may indeed be a tool of God to spread the gospel message around the globe. Evangelicals have a difficult time arguing for aristocracy, too, because they read the GC as having an equalizing effect in society, andso it is easy to see why evangelicals are lambasted by those in the traditionalist camp who believe order in the commonwealth is also a reflection of the harmony in heaven.
Another point of contention worth mentioning again is source material. Conservatives will mesh figures like Tocqueville and Burke heavily into theology. (24) Resurgent Baptists are primarily Biblical theologians meaning they use the Bible for understanding and acting on everything from politics to modern art. I am vulgarizing a lot of complexity here, as there are obviously Baptists who utilize Martin Luther, Augustine, John Calvin, and others in their understanding of the world. Nevertheless, the predominant trope is still towards a Biblical understanding of the world and culture. The Bible is the primary text for Southern Baptists as they think about everything from theology to marriage to financial planning.
I will attempt to highlight some of the recent goings on. A decade ago or more Southern Baptists fretted about who would take the place of their aging activist thinkers like D. James Kennedy (Coral Ridge Ministries), James Dobson (Focus on the Family), Jerry Falwell (founder of Liberty University and co-founder of Moral Majority), and Adrian Rogers. The real shift that has taken is that new faces have taken the place of the people who gave CR a face. The new breed of evangelical thinkers have not chosen the path of activism, and have instead taken Mark Noll’s challenge to heart, and picked up the scholars robe, again. (25)
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has solidified his role as the go-to Baptist public intellectual. He is un-abrasive, bookish, and perceptive in his dealings with media and academics. He keeps an active presence online with a blog, a twitter account, and for a while hosted a popular radio show, where he interviewed scholars about important theological and cultural issues. He occasionally podcasts as an interviewer as the list of interviewees include the likes of Robert Darnton, Joel Kotkin, and Thomas Kidd.
The most important blog in the evangelical intellectual world is Justin Taylor’s Between Two Worlds. Taylor’s blog is located at The Gospel Coalition portal. Since he began blogging, Between Two Worlds is the equivalent to evangelical intellectualism as is the significance of the US Intellectual History blog to intellectual historians. Taylor is also an editor at Crossway Books and supposedly preparing for doctoral work soon.
The Gospel Coalition (TGC) is also a meeting place for a variety of evangelicals. There are other influential bloggers here including theologian Don Carson, Reformed Lansing, MI pastor and author Kevin DeYoung, and author and Lifeway editor Trevin Wax. TGC also houses the revamped evangelical academic journal Themelios. TGC, of course, is centered on the concept of generating “a unified effort among all peoples—an effort that is zealous to honor Christ and multiply his disciples, joining in a true coalition for Jesus.” In other words, the Great Commission is preeminent in the intellectual life of these thinkers.
A handful of seminaries house the bulk of Southern Baptist scholars including Southern (Louisville), Southeastern (Wake Forest, NC), Union (western TN), Southwestern (Fort Worth), and Houston Baptist University. It is worth noting that the presidents of most of these seminaries are not merely administrators but public intellectuals too. Daniel Akin, Southeastern president and a founding resurgent, lectures regularly, blogs, and publishes. I have already mentioned Mohler’s role as the unofficial representative for Southern Baptists. David Dockery (Union) is an active intellectual who founded the new journal Renewing Minds, edits,and publishes monographs regularly. Paige Patterson (Southwestern) does all of the above with an edginess reminiscent of the culture wars in which he earned his Baptist stripes.
Besides the presidents, there are a host of younger thinkers such as Taylor, which are taking the reins once occupied by likes of Dobson, Kennedy, and Falwell. At SEBTS Nathan Finn, Bruce Ashford, Andreas Kostenberger, and Keith Harper are names worth looking for—Kostenberger and Harper have a more extensive bibliography given that they are a generation or two ahead of Finn and Ashford. Kostenberger is one of the main respondents to anti-apologist Bart Ehrman. Many of these scholars have blogs, twitter feeds, and will published regularly at the official SEBTS blog Between the Times. Another little known fact is that unlike the non-religious world of graduate schools where most students leave their home programs for jobs elsewhere, seminaries will often hire their own. Therefore, it is not unusual to see seminary faculty rosters filled with faculty who are also alum. Because GC is the focus of this article, it is worth noting that SEBTS houses The Center for Great Commission Studies.
David Dockery has emerged as a top-notch thinker who presides over Union in western Tennessee. Union houses bright evangelical thinkers like Hunter Baker, Gene Fant, and Bradley Green. Union has emerged as a school dedicated to the Christian intellectual tradition—a mixture of classical and Christian education. They also publish a new much talked about academic journal titled Renewing Minds. Baker is editor and founder of a popular Christian academic journal titled The City. In 2009, his book The End of Secularism garnered a lot of press for its provocative thesis that religion and science are not natural enemies. Dockery also edits a Crossway series titled Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition (five volumes were published in 2012 with at least one more volume planned for 2013) and various other works including a book on Christianity and the liberal arts.
Southern Seminary boasts many of the who’s who in Baptist circles including Mohler, Russell Moore, Gregory Wills, Michael Haykin, and Bruce Ware. Many of Southern’s scholars have an online presence (blogs and social media) as well. Southern also hosts the Great Commission lecture series.
This list is not comprehensive but merely meant to serve as place to begin to understand the trajectory of current Southern Baptist thinking. Again, Patheos (evangelical channel) and Taylor’s blog is an excellent way to keep up with what is happening in the evangelical intellectual world. I have not even touched up the evangelical scholars at other institutions like Baylor and Wheaton (Illinois).
There is also a host of new books considering the place of Baptist history as we can watch Baptist intellectuals sorting out a more conceptualized ecclesiology. In fact, one of the most important things to come out of this renewed thinking is that Baptists are creating a new scholarly identity while working out a firmer ecclesiology. (26) Many of the newer evangelicals have chosen a different path to addressing what they consider social ills, which may be why the names of most of these scholars evade us intellectual historians, as we tend to gravitate towards the popular and outlandish renderings of evangelical religious life. Regarding evangelicals and relationship with conservatives, these two groups will most likely grow further apart; however, it is unclear what new alliances may form as President Obama begins his second term (Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus formed a standing alliance during the culture wars of the 1990s). I believe it is interesting to compare the presence of GC among Baptists while considering how the Burkean tradition may downplay this aspect of faith in favor of having an immediate impact or a longer lasting earthly impact, as evangelicals might say. Another way of stating this is that tradition and conversion—conversion more so than faith—are antagonists between these two schools, although one does not have to be a person of faith to be a conservative. It is also worth considering the variances in canon and how we might speak of the trajectory of conservatisms (or not) that follow from both conservatives and evangelical Southern Baptists.
(1) See, Kim Phillips-Fein, “Conservatism: A State of the Field,” Journal of American History, 725-26.
(2) See, “Now What? Reflections On Historicizing American “Conservatism”” U.S. Intellectual History, January 5, 2012 for summaries of each article included in the roundtable on conservatism.
(3) I should add that historians such as Jennifer Burns, Paul Murphy, Kim Phillips-Fein, David Hoeveler, Leo Ribuffo, Michael Kimmage, and others have contributed greatly to shifting the previous trajectory from the pathologizing of conservatives to serious consideration of conservative ideas.
(5) Throughout this post, I use the terminology of conservative and traditionalist interchangeably, although there are crucial differences in both terms. I also use the terms Southern Baptist, evangelical, and Baptist interchangeably. Again, I am smoothing over complexities here for the sake of brevity.
(6) By conservative, I mean someone who believes in the ability of Western culture and Christian humanism to render order in society. By this definition both Russell Kirk and Christopher Dawson qualify as exemplary conservative thinkers. You can also find variants of conservatism (secular humanists, etc.) that are implicitly and explicitly secular, too.
(7) For critiques of evangelicals as conservatives, see D.G. Hart’s From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism (2011), Daniel McCarthy, “How Protestantism Lost Its Mind,” The American Conservative, September 1, 2012, and Jon Utley, “Evangelicals, Ron Paul and War,” The American Conservative, January 20, 2012.
(8) See, Andrew Naselli and Collin Hansen ed., Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism (2012).
(9) See, George Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 and Gregory Schneider, The Conservative Century: From Reaction to Revolution (2009) for readable introductions into the conservative movement.
(10) Two portals—The Gospel Coalition and Patheos (evangelical channel) have helped evangelicals get their work to a larger audience. Several Baptist seminaries serve as portals for both individual and group blogs as well.
(11) Southeastern Seminary dedicated its fall 2012 magazine, Outlook,specifically to looking back on the conservative resurgence. See, Keith Harper “The Road Not Taken,” for a brief overview of the conservative resurgence.
(12) See, Russ Bush, “Baptist Identity: The Role of Scripture in Baptist Life,” Baptist Identity Conference, 2004, at Union University.
(13) See, “An Exposition from the faculty of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on The Baptist Faith and Message 2000.”
(14) Rodgers, Criswell, and Bush are now deceased.
(15) See, Mt. 28:16-20 and Mk. 16:14-20.
(16) See, Michael Federici, Eric Voegelin: The Restoration of Order.
(17) See, Mt. 16:23.
(18) Hunter Baker, who is well known in Baptist circles and a professor at Union University, is listed as a lecturer on the ISI circuit as is Protestant public intellectual Peter Leithart. Therefore, these boundaries are sometimes fluid.
(19) See new Crossway series Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition edited by David Dockery.
(20) A major update to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 was an opposition to racism. The implication is not that conservatives are racist, but that conservatives are unwilling to mandate such beliefs beyond a community setting. Baptists recognize racism as something to be universally rejected, even if that means creating federal mandates. Better said, most Baptists are comfortablewith these mandates. Traditionalists associate Baptists and evangelicals with neo-conservative big-government policies.
(21) See Louis Markos, Literature: A Student’s Guide (2012). Markos’ approach to literature is classical and somewhat Burkean. Crossway published Literature.
(22) From a conservative standpoint, many of these issues were debated in Peter Berkowitz’s edited volume Varieties of Conservatism in America.
(23) Evangelicals, mostly, supported the presidency of George W. Bush with few reservations because of his evangelical Christianity. President Bush did not dismantle the welfare state or shrink foreign policy, something that dismayed traditionalists with Bush and his evangelical supporters. Also see, George W. Bush, Decision Points for an explanation of how his faith played a seminal role in his decision making.
(24) Retired Georgetown professor James Schall and postmodern conservative political philosopher Peter Lawler are most successful in bringing secular (extra-canonical) source material together with theology. Both find the interplay of philosophy and theology of worth consideration for matters of better understanding education and culture.
(26) See The Baptist Identity Conference at Union University in 2004. The panel featured Mohler, Akin Gregory Wills, Richard Land, and David Dockery among others.