OLD HABITS DIE HARD:
LABELS, CATEGORIES, AND NAME-CALLING
My thanks to James Sauer for his response to my essay, "The Place of Ideology in Christian Liberal Arts: Why We Need More `Ought' and Less `Is'" (Faculty Dialogue, Fall-Winter 1986-87, No. 7, pp. 53-70). In my opinion, actual dialogue is rare in this journal, ironically enough. With more readers and respondents like Jim, this deficiency would be overcome. [Eds. Keep your cards and letters coming folks!]
Jim raises three complaints against my essay: (1) he thinks there are fewer conservatives at evangelical colleges than I do, (2) he disagrees with my definition of "conservative," and (3) if all were to follow my advice, the truly valuable features of evangelical education would be lost.
As for the first complaint, Jim may be correct, but I doubt it. True, I cite no evidence for my assertion about the predominance of conservatism on our campuses. All I have are my impressions gathered in ten years at one college, and from discussions with colleagues at other evangelical colleges. James Hunter has since published a book on evangelical students, but I haven't read it yet (I will soon). Even so, I'm not sure whether Hunter sheds any empirical light on this question anyway.
I agree with Jim that relatively few conservatives on our campuses are articulate and informed. In my experience, the campus conservatives don't, for the most part, argue well--more bluster and blow than anything else.
I would like to suggest two reasons why conservatives are relatively ineffective at getting their argument across; (1) conservatives are, as I argued in my original essay, in the majority; those on top usually assume the correctness of their position. This, I think, is what many conservatives do. On the other hand, beleaguered liberals (and especially radicals) can't do that. They are suspect, and so must be ever ready to give a defense of their faith. (2) Under the conditions I have described, conservatism is often combined with parochialism, and parochial people don't argue well (by definition).
Given my identification of "individualist" with "conservative," I continue to assert that conservatives do constitute the majority of evangelicals (on campus and off). This is a conclusion which has some empirical support. Dennis Hollinger's Individualism and Christian Ethics, containing a carefully detailed examination of materials published in Christianity Today over a number of years, is an excellent source. Hollinger demonstrates evangelical commitment to individualistic values by analyzing the editorial positions in this "popular mouth-piece of evangelicalism." Also, David Moberg's The Great Reversal, and more recently, Doug Frank's Less than Conquerors, both argue that the evangelical perspective is overwhelmingly individualistic. So too does James Hunter in his book American Evangelicalism. He shows how evangelicals have, over the years, retreated from "the public square" into the cult of personal piety. This retreat has presumably occurred so that evangelicals, who must remain parochial in outlook in order to maintain their orthodoxy, can escape the tensions created by the secularist forces of modern society. He backs his claims up with data collected from national surveys.
However, this documentation, as convincing as it might be, probably misses the mark. After all, Jim claims I have misdefined the word "conservatism" in the first place. To Jim, "true conservatism" is not so much focused on individual legal or property rights, or on personal piety, but on a concern for the commonweal expressed through traditional moral commitments and social forms. True conservatives, according to Jim, support social obligations over individual rights; espouse moral absolutism, not ethical relativism; advocate traditional morality over rational innovation.
Well, he's correct. What is generally recognized as "organic conservatism" is traditional, collectivist, and absolutist. This is the sort of conservatism arising from sources like Aquinas, later defended by Burke, still later by Kirk (as well as lesser contemporaries like Will, Kristol, et. al.).
In my essay, I wasn't concerned with old-time organic conservatism but with new-time individualistic conservatism--of the libertarian sort. New-time middle class conservatism arises not from feudal antiquity, but from the Enlightenment. The focus is not on the whole, but on the part; namely, the individual. I should have made a distinction between organic conservatism, which Christians (especially Catholics) have espoused for centuries, and the relatively new "libertarian" variety of conservatism, which evangelicals, to varying degrees, have espoused.
Of course, there are those contemporary conservative Christians (like Jim, I presume) who defend a complex mixture of individualist and social-organic sentiments. Here we have a peculiar mix of beliefs which are, it seems to me, in substantial conflict. Robert Bellah, for one, has commented on this hybrid conservatism--distinguishing as he does between an individual focus (expressive and utilitarian, with an emphasis on "rights") and a collective focus (republican and biblical, with an emphasis on "civic virtue": see Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart).
The combination is indeed odd, and I'm afraid I didn't devote any space to these distinctions. I wish I had--it would have been a better essay as a result. Even so, I stick with the ideological items I present in chart II of my original essay, and with the emphasis on individualism as a primary value of contemporary evangelical conservatives. This is, as such generalities go, an accurate description of the contemporary evangelical scene.
As for Jim's final criticism--that my agenda calls for the eradication of all that is good and pure in Christian higher education--here I think he is way off base. In fact, he is so off base I don't think his criticisms deserve any response. In my essay, I advocated this and only this: ideology must play a more prominent part in the teaching of courses at evangelical colleges. As such, I argued for greater ideological diversity. Since we evangelicals are mostly conservatives (i.e., individualistic conservatives), I advocated that some radical points of view be taught in our courses. I even suggested specific ways this goal could be accomplished in various disciplines. But I did not argue for an exclusively radical approach.
I presented a fair argument for this conclusion, yet Jim hasn't counter-argued my conclusion whatsoever. Instead, he asserts a number of irresponsible claims:
Item: he writes, "My favorite plan of Mr. Perkins is to purge classist counter-revolutionaries like Shakespeare, Milton, Swift...from our literature..." I'm not sure what Jim means by "My favorite plan" here, but there is nothing in my essay which suggests that I want to purge Shakespeare, or anyone else, from our literature.
Item: Jim calls my definition of ideology "Marxist." Sure Marx used the same definition I use. What of it? It's a good one. Marx also defined "property" in a way that some economists do. I know political scientists who use the same definition of "the state" Marx did. Does this definitional agreement make any of us "Marxists"? I think not. This sort of wild-eyed labeling may be just the ticket for Franky Schaeffer, Tim LaHaye, and their ilk, but surely responsible scholars can (and must) do better.
Item: he labels my efforts as leading to "permanent agnosticism." Yet Jim provides absolutely no grounds for concluding such. I conclude that Jim's third criticism is without substance. Therefore, I will make no further response.
Even so, the other two criticisms are worthy of reflection, and I'm glad to have had the opportunity to think through these matters again.