From Niebuhr to God's Harvard

From Niebuhr to God’s Harvard
Kelly Baker

As I surfed the web today between classes and dissertation, I noticed a couple things of possible interest to our readers.

First, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly has an interesting web report on the “comeback” of Reinhold Niebhur. It seems that Niebhur is in vogue with an off-Broadway play, entitled “Horizon," loosely based on his life that ran this summer as well as various politicians, including Eliot Spitzer, Barack Obama and John McCain, quoting the politician. The appeal of Niebhur for politicians seems to be in his understanding of how faith relates to politics. Benedicta Cipolla writes:

Niebuhr's own grounding of his political beliefs in his Christian faith may serve as another factor in the increased interest in him. While Republicans have long cloaked their programs and policies in the language of faith, since the 2004 election Democrats too have turned to a religious vocabulary to publicly undergird their views on domestic and foreign policies and to attract voters who may feel more welcome as people of faith by conservatives. At debates and forums, current presidential candidates from both parties have spoken about how faith has informed both their public policies and personal lives with a pietistic emphasis some believe would have discomfited Niebuhr.

Second, Slate offers a dialogue between Hanna Rosin and David Kuo, who is a self-proclaimed evangelical and previous employee of the Bush Whitehouse, on Rosin’s God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America. (Kuo has also written Tempted by Faith critiquing the Bush administration’s faith based initiatives.) This is another book on my ever-expanding reading list of new books on “evangelicals.” Kuo, however, quickly calls Rosen on her presentation:

In examining Patrick Henry College, you are looking at a very narrow slice of the evangelical world. Most studies conclude that there are at least 20 million, and perhaps as many as 70 million, Americans who fit the "evangelical" classification. Patrick Henry's first class in 1999 had 92 students, and it currently has only 325 students. It's run by a man who makes no apologies for saying that Jesus would be a social conservative. Isn't it a bit of a stretch to make generalizations about evangelicals based on Patrick Henry?

Rosin responded with her conception of “evangelical”:

When I say "evangelical," I am thinking of that elite subgroup that goes to church at least once a week. The Patrick Henry kids are in that 29 percent of Christian teens who say religion is "extremely important" in their lives, who don't cut classes or do drugs, and who wouldn't succumb if you left Scarlett Johansson waiting for them in their bedrooms.

Despite the gender connotations present in her definition, I think, once you get past Scarlett, this points to a larger issue of how to define the term evangelical and how to employ it. Does the term have much value since it is bandied about so often?


Art Remillard said…
Many thanks, once again. I'm sure folks out there have listened to the Speaking of Faith show on Reinhold Niebuhr.

Among the host things I'm ignorant to, the ideas of R. Niebuhr are among them. So the show was a good introduction.

He's a good contrast, it seems, to Catholics of the time like J.C. Murray. If memory serves, Murray appeared on the cover of Time in 1960, and his _We Hold These Truths_ was considered an influential book among general readers, Catholic and Protestant. Murray, Niebuhr, and others were important voices from the religious sphere, who demanded attention and spoke to a broad audience.

So I look around now, and I think it's safe to say that Protestant voices in public life are still present, and visible. Who doesn't notice the "Religious Right"? And, as you once again notice, Jim Wallis et al. are giving voice to the Social Gospel legacy. I'm not sure who the visible Catholics are, though? To be honest, the most influential among them seems to be Bono (I'm not kidding). Any thoughts???
Randall said…
Thanks for the post on the book. I just got a copy after reading the review in Newsweek. The Chronicle of Higher Ed has had some interesting items on Patrick Henry.

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