Vietnam and Christian intellectuals

A while back we commented on Alan Jacobs’s piece decrying the absence of Christian intellectuals in American public discourse. You may recall that Jacobs’s discussed Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and Neuhaus’s magazine, First Things, at some length in his essay. R.R. Reno, the current editor of First Things, has commented himself on Jacobs’s essay, and he makes a couple of interesting points. First, he brings out in greater detail something we merely alluded to:

There’s something to this analysis, but I’d add another factor, unmentioned by Jacobs. The biggest shift in American religious culture in my lifetime has been the extraordinary decline of mainline Protestantism as a vital force in public life. The mainline Protestant tradition had inherited the establishmentarian mentality of New England Puritanism, along with Puritanism’s urgent moralism. As a consequence, the leaders of mainline Protestantism saw themselves as the “conscience of the nation.” In mid-twentieth-century America, as men of letters, social reformers, and political rhetoricians were transformed into “intellectuals” (itself a fascinating story), mainline Protestants came to play that role as well, and did so in theological as well as sociological and philosophical terms.

(Emphasis supplied.) He goes on to say:

The decline of mainline Protestantism was part of a larger dissolution of centrist American institutions. Universities today are far less likely to produce intellectuals. The reason for this failure is not just specialization (although that is a factor) but ideological homogeneity. To a degree that I could not foresee when I was a college student nearly forty years ago, the world of ideas has become almost entirely colonized by the political urgencies of the moment.

(Emphasis supplied.) As Matthew Sitman has noted, Jacobs is only really interested in the output of liberal protestant intellectuals from about 1945 to 1970. Of the examples Jacobs cites, Auden lived the longest, and he died in 1973. And, while we are not a sociologist of American religion, this seems to jive with Reno’s point. We certainly have the impression that mainline protestantism fell off a cliff in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Certainly we have a hard time recalling any time since then that mainline protestants have been a force to be reckoned with.

We also wonder, perhaps with a comic-book understanding of American history, whether a broader trend of antiestablishment sentiment should be considered when examining this phenomenon. Reno makes the point that liberal protestants had a strong investment in the American establishment, going back, no doubt, to colonial times. But by the end of the 1960s, the establishment was not looking so hot. If you draw bright brackets around 1945 and 1970, you include an active phase of the civil rights struggle and most of the United States’ escalation in the Vietnam War. Indeed, we wonder whether the Vietnam War didn’t have much to do with the rise of antiestablishment sentiment in the United States. For example, Operation Rolling Thunder commenced on March 2, 1965 and Operation Arc Light sometime before the middle of 1965. The Tet Offensive began at the end of January 1968. The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago turned into a general melee as a result of clashes between protesters and Mayor Richard Daley’s police. And more generally at about this time, radical leftist factions—especially student groups—were involved in high profile actions. Obviously, we don’t mean to set up a montage of late-1960s strife set to the strains of “Fortunate Son,” but we think it is worth considering that at about the same time Christian intellectuals—and, indeed, mainline protestantism—are disappearing, antiestablishment sentiment in the United States is reaching a fever pitch over the Vietnam War.

However, if there is a relationship between the rise of antiestablishment sentiment caused by the Vietnam War and the decline of protestant intellectuals, it is a complicated one. But perhaps there’s a link. Jacobs mentioned Fr. Neuhaus as a Lutheran, active in the civil rights movement and in opposing the Vietnam War. Reno observes:

Richard John Neuhaus was a good example. Although formed in the more isolated atmosphere of Missouri Synod Lutheranism, Neuhaus came of age politically and intellectually as a participant in mainline Protestant–dominated organizations supporting civil rights and then opposing the Vietnam War. He possessed an inborn confidence, but that confidence was reinforced by the mainline Protestant sense of ownership over the moral future of America.

(Emphasis supplied.) Perhaps it was the failure of these organizations to, well, do anything to stop the war that drove their decline. While the civil rights movement resulted in actual achievements, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the antiwar movement did not produce many (any?) similar achievements. Again, we do not want to suggest that Vietnam was the defining moment for American mainline protestants and their intellectual vanguard; however, it is difficult to maintain a sense of ownership over a country’s moral future when the country manifestly does not listen to you. To put it another way, it is passing hard “to transcend the ideological conflicts of the moment in order to speak to the nation as a whole” when the nation clearly isn’t listening.

Or maybe not. It’s an interesting question, and it would be fascinating to see an author explore the question at length.

Reno makes another point, very self-aware, and we wanted to mention it, too:

By the time Neuhaus founded First Things, it was already obvious that mainline Protestantism was finished. It had become a chaplaincy for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Neuhaus thought Evangelical and Catholic intellectuals could fill the void, providing America with a religiously informed public philosophy suited to our times. (I’m so thoroughly catechized by the First Things project that those words flow out of me effortlessly.) As Jacobs laments, however, this vision has not come to pass. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Alan were to say that folks like me have become a chaplaincy for the conservative wing of the Republican Party.

(Emphasis supplied.) We might, in an uncharitable moment, be inclined to agree that, in many ways, the First Things project has been largely Catholics, evangelicals, and others united to give the Republican Party some intellectual cover. But First Things is not alone, nor is it the worst offender. Groups like the Acton Institute seem altogether more interested in providing a theological and philosophical framework for conventional Republican ideology than First Things. And the shifting landscape of the Republican Party seems apt to draw First Things out of a cozy relationship. By this, of course, we mean: Donald Trump is mixing up the established order. Reno himself was a major contributor to National Review‘s Against Trump issue, for example. And we have heard reports that some Trump supporters have been highly critical of First Things for what they perceive as regular anti-Trump coverage.

Something else to think about, at any rate.