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Ditching the Protestant academic’s inferiority complex

Scholarly evangelicals have faithful predecessors on which to draw

Oliver O'Donovan Wikimedia Commons/Photo by Henry Center

Ditching the Protestant academic’s inferiority complex
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I teach at a college mostly populated with right-leaning faculty, staff, and students. It contains many faithful Christians across the various denominations. Every Easter, without fail, a line of evangelical students enter the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, my institution has developed a reputation for students making that move.

Hillsdale College is no anomaly among academically minded conservatives. In the eyes of many, Catholicism has developed into the conservative movement’s de facto religious expression. I have participated in conferences where the conversation among attendees assumed that all persons of faith there were Catholic.

My own undergraduate and graduate school experience gave me some window into the then-nascent phenomenon. Claims to beauty and tradition did not entice me, though they did others. I was decidedly Protestant in my views of Scripture, soteriology, and the sacraments. But I did envy the intellectual resources that seemed readily at the disposal of my Roman Catholic colleagues. They had contemporary or at least recent thinkers who seamlessly engaged fundamental political questions, thoughtfully interpreting ancient philosophical sources from a consciously Catholic perspective. Among Protestants, I found nearly no one who did so and most of those I did encounter, quite frankly, were less impressive. I felt a great intellectual tension between my Sundays and my weekdays.

These experiences certainly can give Protestants in the academy an inferiority complex. Given my experiences, I read with surprise the results of a recent survey released by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). This massive study examined statistics on “Religious Change in America.” Its results would startle those only knowing the conservative intellectual world in which I live.

It found that “White Evangelical Protestants” retain their adherents at one of the best rates among all Christian groups (76 percent), especially compared to Catholics (62 percent). In calculating the gap between those leaving and those entering a particular religious expression, White Evangelical Protestants came out just above even, gaining 0.1 percent in the exchange. The only Christian subset to do better were “Hispanic Protestants” at a 0.5 percent increase, which supports Protestantism’s strength in America more generally. White Catholics, by contrast, lost more than nine persons leaving their church for every one they gained by conversion.

I do not dwell on these statistics to demean or denounce our Roman Catholic friends. Nor do I deny that the trend to “swim the Tiber” still exists. Though much more of a niche than is sometimes assumed, this niche remains one of outsized importance, setting much of the paradigms for discourse across the varied subsets of Conservatism.

Protestants in the conservative intellectual world have more to stand on and thus more to offer than they or others realize.

Instead, these statistics show a resilience and possibility in Protestantism today. And I think Protestants in the conservative intellectual world have more to stand on and thus more to offer than they or others realize.

My own experience of tension between Sunday in the pew and weekdays in the classroom slowly dissipated. It did so when I found mentors and friends who thought about politics and philosophy in a seriously scholarly and seriously Protestant manner.

Some of these mentors still live, such as Oliver O’Donovan through his twin works, The Desire of the Nations and The Ways of Judgment. But many of them were long dead. Richard Hooker’s Laws and Francis Turretin’s Elenctic Theology helped introduce me to Protestantism’s commitment to and development of the natural law. Franciscus Junius instructed me on how to carefully consider the political teachings of the Mosaic law. Althusius, Samuel Rutherford, Philip Melanchthon, and Peter Martyr Vermigli all formed my interactions with the nature of law and justice in a way that held to the primacy of Scripture, but also deep engagement with classical sources.

Beyond these mentors, I found friends experiencing similar frustrations and encountering the excitement of finding the same brilliant but largely forgotten works. They made for refreshing and challenging interlocutors to hone my own engagement. Institutions like The Davenant Institute have formalized these relationships, seeking to resource Protestant social thought for the 21st century, retrieving long-lost writings and bringing like-minded ministers and scholars together to consider contemporary applications.

Much work remains to be done on these fronts. In that work, we can and should learn from our Catholic friends even as we draw from our own commitments. But Protestants should not feel inferiority or a sense of being imposters in the conservative intellectual world. We have faithful predecessors on which to draw. We have deep Scriptural truths by which to be formed. And, as the PRRI survey shows, we have many across the country who still hold to the teachings of the Reformation, who could benefit from a thoughtful retrieval of this past and a presentation of these truths. Let us in the academy be about this work for the good of Christ’s Church.

Adam M. Carrington

Adam M. Carrington is an associate professor of politics at Hillsdale College, where he holds the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the U.S. Constitution. His book on the jurisprudence of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field was published by Lexington Books in 2017. In addition to scholarly publications, his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Examiner, and National Review.

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