17 Aug

What became of the Christian intellectuals?

Category: What We're Reading
Published: 08/17/16

From T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Reinhold Niebuhr to Richard John Neuhaus, Cornell West, and Marilynne Robinson, Jacobs narrates the short-lived tale of the Christian public intellectual.

“The lack of prominent, intellectually serious Christian political commentators — familiarly known as the “Where is Our Reinhold Niebuhr?” problem — has frequently been explored since Niebuhr's death in 1971. But the disappearance of the Christian intellectual is a more curious story, because it isn’t a story of forced marginalization or public rejection at all. The Christian intellectuals chose to disappear.”

—Alan Jacobs

In the September 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine, literary critic and frequent guest of the MARS HILL AUDIO JournalAlan Jacobs, gives an account of the rise and fall of a body of Christian intellectuals that once served as cultural interpreters for a twentieth-century, democratic public. Jacobs laments both the altered social milieu of today and the absense of publically committed Christian intellectuals, who — borrowing from Karl Mannheim’s identification of the intellectual as “watchman” — are committed to and accepted as offering a critique of the social order on moral and religious grounds without somehow forfeiting their “seat at the table.” Of course, the decline of Christian intellectuals as part of a larger decline of Christianity in America is well-noted (Jacobs mentions recent accounts by Ross Douthat, Joseph Bottum, and George Marsden in particular). Jacobs’s overview, however, highlights a soft surrender by Christian intellectuals of their public voice with the dying out of one generation and the rise of a second generation a little too willing to turn a blind eye to some inherent drawbacks of democracy.

Read more in Jacobs’s The Watchmen: What became of the Christian Intellectuals?