January 5, 2005


Faculty Clubs and Church Pews (William J. Stuntz, 11/29/2004, Tech Central Station)

Churches and universities are the two twenty-first century American enterprises that care most about ideas, about language, and about understanding the world we live in, with all its beauty and ugliness. Nearly all older universities were founded as schools of theology: a telling fact. Another one is this: A large part of what goes on in those church buildings that dot the countryside is education -- people reading hard texts, and trying to sort out what they mean.

Another similarity is less obvious but no less important. Ours is an individualist culture; people rarely put their community's welfare ahead of their own. It isn't so rare in churches and universities. Churches are mostly run by volunteer labor (not to mention volunteered money): those who tend nurseries and teach Sunday School classes get nothing but a pat on the back for their labor. Not unlike the professors who staff important faculty committees. An economist friend once told me that economics departments are ungovernable, because economists understand the reward structure that drives universities: professors who do thankless institutional tasks competently must do more such tasks. Yet the trains run more or less on time -- maybe historians are running the economics departments -- because enough faculty attach enough importance to the welfare of their colleagues and students. Selfishness and exploitation are of course common too, in universities and churches as everywhere else. But one sees a good deal of day-to-day altruism, which is not common everywhere else.

And each side of this divide has something to teach the other. Evangelicals would benefit greatly from the love of argument that pervades universities. The "scandal of the evangelical mind" -- the title of a wonderful book by evangelical author and professor Mark Noll -- isn't that evangelicals aren't smart or don't love ideas. They are, and they do. No, the real scandal is the lack of tough, hard questioning to test those ideas. Christians believe in a God-Man who called himself (among other things) "the Truth." Truth-seeking, testing beliefs with tough-minded questions and arguments, is a deeply Christian enterprise. Evangelical churches should be swimming in it. Too few are.

For their part, universities would be better, richer places if they had an infusion of the humility that one finds in those churches. Too often, the world of top universities is defined by its arrogance: the style of argument is more "it's plainly true that" than "I wonder whether." We like to test our ideas, but once they've passed the relevant academic hurdles (the bar is lower than we like to think), we talk and act as though those ideas are not just right but obviously right -- only a fool or a bigot could think otherwise. [...]

There is even a measure of political common ground. True, university faculties are heavily Democratic, and evangelical churches are thick with Republicans. But that red-blue polarization is mostly a consequence of which issues are on the table -- and which ones aren't. Change the issue menu, and those electoral maps may look very different. Imagine a presidential campaign in which the two candidates seriously debated how a loving society should treat its poorest members. Helping the poor is supposed to be the left's central commitment, going back to the days of FDR and the New Deal. In practice, the commitment has all but disappeared from national politics. Judging by the speeches of liberal Democratic politicians, what poor people need most is free abortions. Anti-poverty programs tend to help middle-class government employees; the poor end up with a few scraps from the table. Teachers' unions have a stranglehold on failed urban school systems, even though fixing those schools would be the best anti-poverty program imaginable.

I don't think my liberal Democratic professor friends like this state of affairs. And -- here's a news flash -- neither do most evangelicals, who regard helping the poor as both a passion and a spiritual obligation, not just a political preference. (This may be even more true of theologically conservative Catholics.) These men and women vote Republican not because they like the party's policy toward poverty -- cut taxes and hope for the best -- but because poverty isn't on the table anymore. In evangelical churches, elections are mostly about abortion. Neither party seems much concerned with giving a hand to those who most need it.

That could change. I can't prove it, but I think there is a large, latent pro-redistribution evangelical vote, ready to get behind the first politician to tap into it.

The Academic Left and the Christian Right, Part II (William J. Stuntz, 1/04/05, Tech Central Station)
The intellectual left and the religious right not only could come together. Given the right kind of political leadership, they will.

So what would this coming-together look like? What ideological territory, what issue space, can secular academics and evangelical Christians both occupy? Here's a short list:

1. Abortion. Begin with the hardest nut to crack. The secular left believes strongly in abortion rights. Conservative Christians believe passionately that abortion is evil. Surely common ground can't exist here.

Yet it might. The key is that the two sides don't need to agree on premises in order to buy the same conclusion. Pro-life Christians want to see fewer abortions. That is already happening: the abortion rate has been falling since 1981; from that year to 2000 the rate fell by 27 percent, according to census data. Among teenage girls, the decline is greater still. The abortion rate is probably lower today than in 1975; it might be lower than in 1972, the year before the Supreme Court legalized the practice nationwide. What lies behind these trends? Strangely enough, the answer has a lot to do with the law being pro-choice. When the culture is sharply divided on some kind of behavior, the side that wins the law's endorsement tends to lose ground, culturally and politically. Roe v. Wade has been the pro-life movement's friend. Those who want abortions to be rare would do well to keep them safe and legal. [...]

2. Poverty at home. Urban poverty should be America's number one domestic policy issue. Right now, it's a non-issue: Republicans do nothing because there are no votes to be had in poor city neighborhoods; Democrats do nothing because they have those votes locked up (also because they fear angering powerful interest groups). Making urban poverty a major issue requires that some class of voters outside poor city neighborhoods demand action. Secular intellectuals and evangelical Christians could fill the bill. [...]

3. Poverty abroad. The worst moment in last year's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination was not Howard Dean's scream or John Kerry talking about voting both ways on money for Iraq. It came when John Edwards made an applause line out of opposing trade deals with sub-Saharan Africa. The idea that the richest nation in human history should adopt trade policies that make the poorest region in the world poorer is morally outrageous. Unless the left has lost all sympathy with the world's poor, that proposition is one both sides of the political aisle should be willing to embrace. The Christian right is already there -- partly because the world's poorest places, including sub-Saharan Africa, are also the places where Christianity is spreading most rapidly. That fact offers a political opportunity for those who want to ease suffering elsewhere in the world. If John F. Kennedy could win broad political support for programs like the Peace Corps more than forty years ago in a less favorable political climate (Southern white evangelicals weren't as keen on helping poor Africans then), it should be possible today to win support for programs that help poor democracies fight poverty and disease. We could start by making it easier, not harder, for those same poor democracies to sell their goods here.

4. Spreading freedom, and nation building. The academic left is naturally cosmopolitan, not isolationist. So it isn't surprising that, by the end of the second Clinton Administration, most intellectuals had embraced the use of American armed forces to topple murderous regimes and plant democracy where dictatorial killers once ruled. That's a less common stance in faculty hallways today (probably for the same reason that conservative Republicans once attacked Clinton for intervening in Kosovo). But given a different President, either a Democrat or a less polarizing Republican, the earlier view is likely to return.

There seems ample reason to be dubious about this proposition, especially in light of what convergence on these issues would require:

(1) Abortion: Never mind the proposal that those who view abortion as murder would consent to participate in its regulation, add in the follow-on issues--euthanasia, cloning, stem cells, etc.--and it just gets messier.

(2) Alleviating domestic poverty is, of course, central to the President's Ownership Society, a focus of both his campaigns and of the '94 GOP Revolution, but creation of private wealth through public means seems unlikely to hold any appeal to the academic Left.

(3) The Left is too firmly ensconced in bed with Labor to support free trade of the kind he's saying they should.

(4) The academic Left's very cosmopolitanism makes it nearly impossible for them to support imposing a single geopolitical vision universally, which is what's happening here at the End of History.

Meanwhile, here's a piece by the always interesting Stanley Fish that proposes a more likely shift may be coming, a somewhat unwelcome intrusion into the academy by the religious, One University, Under God?: What will succeed high theory and race, gender, and class as the center of intellectual energy in academe? Religion. (STANLEY FISH, 1/07/05, Chronicle of Higher Education)

[E]ven before the events of September 2001, there was a growing recognition in many sectors that religion as a force motivating action could no longer be sequestered in the private sphere, where the First Amendment, as read in the light of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, had seemed to place it. [...]

The history of religion has always been a growth industry in academe and has brought along with it the anthropology of religion, the sociology of religion, the economics of religion, the politics of religion, and so forth.

But it is one thing to take religion as an object of study and another to take religion seriously. To take religion seriously would be to regard it not as a phenomenon to be analyzed at arm's length, but as a candidate for the truth. In liberal theory, however, the category of truth has been reserved for hypotheses that take their chances in the "marketplace of ideas."

Religious establishments will typically resist the demand that basic tenets of doctrine be submitted to the test of deliberative reason. (The assertion that Christ is risen is not one for which evidence pro and con is adduced in a juridical setting.) That is why in 1915 the American Association of University Professors denied to church-affiliated institutions of higher learning the name of "university"; such institutions, it was stated, "do not, at least as regards one particular subject, accept the principles of freedom and inquiry."

What that meant, in effect, was that in the name of the tolerant inclusion of all views in the academic mix, it was necessary to exclude views that did not honor tolerance as a first and guiding principle.

Walter Lippmann laid down the rule: "Reason and free inquiry can be neutral and tolerant only of those opinions which submit to the test of reason and inquiry." [...]

Following in the wake of Rawls and Neuhaus, any number of theologians, philosophers, historians, and political theorists have re-examined, debated, challenged, and at times rejected the premises of liberalism, whether in the name of religion, or communitarianism, or multiculturalism.

To the extent that liberalism's structures have been undermined or at least shaken by these analyses, the perspicuousness and usefulness of distinctions long assumed -- reason as opposed to faith, evidence as opposed to revelation, inquiry as opposed to obedience, truth as opposed to belief -- have been called into question. And finally (and to return to where we began), the geopolitical events of the past decade and of the past three years especially have re-alerted us to the fact that hundreds of millions of people in the world do not observe the distinction between the private and the public or between belief and knowledge, and that it is no longer possible for us to regard such persons as quaintly premodern or as the needy recipients of our saving (an ironic word) wisdom.

Some of these are our sworn enemies. Some of them are our colleagues. Many of them are our students. (There are 27 religious organizations for students on my campus.) Announce a course with "religion" in the title, and you will have an overflow population. Announce a lecture or panel on "religion in our time," and you will have to hire a larger hall.

And those who come will not only be seeking knowledge; they will be seeking guidance and inspiration, and many of them will believe that religion -- one religion, many religions, religion in general -- will provide them.

Are we ready?

We had better be, because that is now where the action is. When Jacques Derrida died I was called by a reporter who wanted to know what would succeed high theory and the triumvirate of race, gender, and class as the center of intellectual energy in the academy. I answered like a shot: religion.

One would merely note with some amusement that Walter Lippman's test is self-defeating--reason is irrational. It's taken a few decades for the results of the test to register, but the final grade is in and the academic Left faces at least double secret probation.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 5, 2005 2:34 PM

American politics is mostly about means, not ends, so what Stuntz is suggesting is (surprise, surprise) the surrender of the right to the left.

Posted by: David Cohen at January 5, 2005 5:03 PM

I think Stuntz's biggest error is his view that intellectuals either know or care that poverty programs have failed. It's never been about the poor for the intellectuals, it's always been about themselves - putatively helping the poor is simply a means to the true end, their own self-actualization. The intense resistance to any sort of metric on the success of poverty programs tells you that.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at January 5, 2005 8:07 PM

I'm a Harvard Law grad and a conservative Christian. I don't have the time to express it reasonably with examples, but I think Stuntz is all wet, he's basically in bed with the liberals, culturally and theologically. The offhand equivalence of opposition to Bush and Clinton is a dead giveaway.

Of course, liberal churchgoers and Democrats can collaborate. There's no news hook in that! Just let someone carrying and/or quoting a Bible turn up at the lunch table. Then watch the scurrying.

Posted by: AH at January 6, 2005 12:14 AM

His argument regarding abortion is a perfect illustration that Evangelicals are not alone in not thinking things through clearly or honestly. I work that section over at my website

Posted by: Ptah at January 6, 2005 2:00 PM