Faculty Clubs and Church Pews

WILLIAM J. STUNTZ

The past few months have seen a lot of talk about red and blue America, mostly by people on one side of the partisan divide who find the other side a mystery. It isn't a mystery to me, because I live on both sides.

For the past twenty years, I've belonged to evangelical Protestant churches, the kind where George W. Bush rolled up huge majorities. And for the past eighteen years, I've worked in secular universities where one can hardly believe that Bush voters exist. Evangelical churches are red America at its reddest. And universities, especially the ones in New England (where I work now), are as blue as the bluest sky.

Not surprisingly, each of these institutions is enemy territory to the other. But the enmity is needless. It may be a sign that I'm terminally weird, but I love them both, passionately. And I think that if my church friends and my university friends got to know each other, they'd find a lot to like and admire. More to the point, the representatives of each side would learn something important and useful from the other side. These institutions may be red and blue now. But their natural color is purple.

You wouldn't know it from talking to the people who populate universities or fill church pews.

A lot of my church friends think universities represent the forces of darkness. Law schools — my corner of the academic world — are particularly suspect. A fellow singer in a church choir once asked me what I did for a living. When I told her, she said, "A Christian lawyer? Isn't that sort of like being a Christian prostitute? I mean, you can't really do that, right?" She wasn't kidding. And if I had said no, you don't understand; I'm a law professor, not a lawyer, I'm pretty sure that would not have helped matters. ("Oh, so you train people to be prostitutes…")

You hear the same kinds of comments running in the other direction. Some years ago a faculty colleague and I were talking about religion and politics, and this colleague said "You know, I think you're the first Christian I've ever met who isn't stupid." My professor friend wasn't kidding either. I've had other conversations like these — albeit usually a little more tactful — on both sides, a dozen times over the years. Maybe two dozen. People in each of these two worlds find the other frightening, and appalling.

All of us are appalling, I suppose, but these reactions are mostly due to ignorance. Most of my Christian friends have no clue what goes on in faculty clubs. And my colleagues in faculty offices cannot imagine what happens in those evangelical churches on Sunday morning.

In both cases, the truth is surprisingly attractive. And surprisingly similar: 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.

The atmosphere I've found in the churches to which my family and I have belonged is very different. Evangelicals like "testimonies"; it's common for talks to Christian groups to begin with a little autobiography, as the speaker describes the path he has traveled on his road to faith. Somewhere in the course of that testimony, the speaker always talks about what a mess he is: how many things he has gotten wrong, why the people sitting in the chairs should really be teaching him, not the other way around. This isn't a pose; the evangelicals I know really do believe that they — we (I'm in this camp too) — are half-blind fools, stumbling our way toward truth, regularly falling off the right path and, by God's grace, picking ourselves up and trying to get back on. But while humility is more a virtue than a tactic, it turns out to be a pretty good tactic. Ideas and arguments go down a lot easier when accompanied by the admission that the speaker might, after all, be wrong.

That gets to an aspect of evangelical culture that the mainstream press has never understood: the combination of strong faith commitments with uncertainty, the awareness that I don't know everything, that I have a lot more to learn than to teach. Belief that a good God has a plan does not imply knowledge of the plan's details. Judging from the lives and conversations of my Christian friends, faith in that God does not tend to produce a belief in one's infallibility. More the opposite: Christians believe we see "through a glass, darkly" when we see at all — and that we're constantly tempted to imagine ourselves as better and smarter than we really are. If that sensibility were a little more common in universities, faculty meetings would be a lot more pleasant. And it should be more common: Academics know better than anyone just how vast is the pool of human knowledge, and how little of it any of us can grasp. Talking humbly should be second nature.

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. (Barack Obama, are you listening?) If liberal Democratic academics believe the things they say they believe — and I think they do — there is an alliance here just waiting to happen.

Humility, love of serious ideas, commitment to helping the poor — these are things my faculty friends and my church friends ought to be able to get together on. If they ever do, look out: American politics, and maybe American life, will be turned upside down. And all those politicians who can only speak in one color will be out of a job.

I can hardly wait.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

William J. Stuntz. "Faculty Clubs and Church Pews." TCS (November 29, 2004).

This article reprinted with permission from Tech Central Station.

THE AUTHOR

William J. Stuntz is a Professor at Harvard Law School.

Copyright © 2004 Tech Central Station


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