U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Evangelical Anti-Intellectualism: Reading Noll’s Scandal in 2015

This is the cover for the 1995 paperback edition.

This is the cover for the 1995 paperback edition.

I recently finished Mark Noll’s classic, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 1994), for the first time. It’s a shame it took me this long. Most every page—all but maybe the final chapters—reminded me of why I’m in the business of intellectual history.

Despite the depth of its subject matter, the book is a relatively easy read—very accessible. It’s not every day you can say that about a work that locates problems of late-twentieth-century Evangelical intellectual culture in what Henry May called the “didactic Enlightenment.”[1]

Part of my shame about waiting so long to read the book has to do with my own work on both anti-intellectualism and Mortimer J. Adler. Noll provides an excellent, brief explanation of how Revolutionary Era American Protestant Christians thoroughly appropriated Scottish common-sense realism. Those religious thinkers rolled that philosophy’s attendant language of naturalism into their thinking about both America’s public life and their evangelical efforts. This project was so easy for them that American Protestants forgot they had a philosophy. This crucial forgetting–along with other theological, political, and social developments in the late nineteenth century—enabled American Protestants, in Noll’s estimation (and I agree), to become anti-intellectual.

I wish I had incorporated some of this in the part of my Adler book (chapter 5) on his own embrace of common-sense realism. I used Sophie Rosenfeld’s excellent study, Common Sense, in that chapter (among other sources). Rosenfeld outlines America’s appropriation of common-sense philosophy for political endeavors.[2] And my chapter on Adler focused on how Adler appropriated common sense into his own “great books liberalism.” But Noll would’ve been helpful to me in formulating a useful contrast—i.e. how Adler attempted to use a reformulated philosophy of common-sense realism to combat anti-intellectualism. Alas, one can never cover everything one wants, or cover all things that would be useful to everyone. Making extensive connections outward can be difficult when your inner compass tells you that more readers likely need to understand your historical actor(s), on their own terms (i.e. when you feel those actors have been misunderstood in the historiography).

Returning to Noll, one must keep in mind that he wrote this as a faculty member at Wheaton College—as the “McManis Professor of Christian Thought,” in fact. Noll is now a member in the History Department at the University of Notre Dame, but the accusatory “scandal” in the book’s title did not result in a scandalous departure, or firing, from Wheaton. In 1994-95, he was an insider historical critic. A Publisher’s Weekly blurb on the cover of my paperback says: “A brilliant study by a first-rate Evangelical mind.”

After completing Noll’s book, and then picking up (again) Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (AIAL), I’ve been surprised at how much both books agree on the Protestant roots of American anti-intellectual tendencies. Indeed, Noll prominently cites Hofstadter in the the former’s introduction. But Noll quotes prominently from a Hofstadter footnote rather than the part of AIAL that directly correlates with Scandal. For instance, here’s the part of Hofstadter’s book that goes to Noll’s concerns, as well as the concerns of many recent writers about the role of Christianity—particularly Protestantism—in America’s founding and thought life (e.g. Sehat, Fea, etc.). Here’s Hofstadter, in the opening chapter 3 (the first to directly address historical roots) directly addressing what he sees as the root cause of all anti-intellectualism in American life (bolds mine):

The American mind was shaped in the mold of early modern Protestantism. Religion was the first arena for American intellectual life, and thus the first arena for an anti-intellectual impulse. Anything that seriously diminished the role of rationality and learning in early American religion would later diminish its role in secular culture. The feeling that ideas should above all be made to work, the disdain for doctrine and for refinements in ideas, the subordination of men of ideas to men of emotional power or manipulative skill are hardly innovations of the twentieth century; they are inheritances from American Protestantism.[3]

So much for separation of religion from the American founding, whether in terms of churches influencing the state or vice versa. It didn’t matter what happened in terms of material separation because a deep-seated Protestant mindset ruled all. The latter’s anti-intellectual sensibility determined what followed—only to be enhanced by subsequent theological, scientific, or philosophical innovations.

Even Noll’s book wasn’t this assertive. Noll limited his arguments to roots and effects in Protestant Evangelicalism alone. But there can be little question that Noll built his work on ground tilled and planted by Hofstadter. Noll just made Hofstadter’s work more palatable, and less scandalous to Protestant Evangelicals, because of the former’s insider status. – TL

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Notes

[1] Henry F. May, The Enlightenment in America (NY: Oxford University Press, 1976/1978).
[2] Sophia Rosenfeld, Common Sense: A Political History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014)
[3] Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Vintage Books, 1963), 55.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Nice writeup Tim.

    Only half-joking: it might be easier to figure out what developments in US intellectual history aren’t rooted one way or t’other in early American Protestantism.

  2. Great post, Tim!

    Noll’s Scandal came out a few weeks before I had to start writing my honor’s thesis on Francis Schaeffer and gave the entire project direction. You might also want to check out THE ANOINTED: EVANGELICAL TRUTH IN A SECULAR AGE, by Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson, and Molly Worthen’s APOSTLES OF REASON–which I see as closely akin to Noll’s earlier argument.

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