Further Thoughts on the Impact of Christian Intellectuals (Sean O’Neil)

Last Thursday I reached a point where I wondered aloud whether evangelical support for Donald Trump ought to make Christian intellectuals like me (many of whom have publicly criticized Trump and his evangelical enablers) question if we exert any significant influence. Yesterday’s news that Books & Culture will cease publication didn’t alleviate that angst. But fortunately, many of you wrote helpful comments — both encouraging me to keep writing, and acknowledging the inherent limits of that kind of communication within evangelicalism. One reader was kind enough to let me reprint his Facebook comment as the guest post below.

Sean O’Neil is a member of Church of the Cross in Hopkins, Minnesota and has a background in community and economic development. He studied political science at Bethel University and public policy at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He currently works on an economic development program at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the opinion of his employer.

Noll, Scandal of the Evangelical MindFirst, like it or not the American evangelical tradition has always been flavored by popular democratic attitudes and skepticism of elites. This is just simply part of the DNA of American evangelicalism, so to speak. Mark Noll explains this as well as anyone else. I’m not telling you something you don’t know, but my point is that given our cultural tendencies toward populism and anti-intellectual skepticism, it shouldn’t surprise us to see Christian intellectuals having only a modest impact in the results of any one specific election cycle. We simply don’t have a cultural habit of looking to Christian intellectuals to mobilize large numbers of evangelicals for immediate political action (or inaction). And I’m sure you’d agree this isn’t the primary role of Christian scholars and thinkers anyway. [Ed. – I do.]

Second, I’d suggest that if we take seriously Jesus’ statement that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, then we should be ready to expect that some of the most important things we do in service of God’s kingdom won’t show up in polling numbers and spreadsheets. We know that God’s kingdom activity often hides in plain sight. This is a hard reality to accept in public life where decisions of real consequence carry a stubborn immediacy. But it shouldn’t persuade us to think that Christian thinkers like Miroslav Volf or yourself don’t have a significant impact in the life of the Church, even if this doesn’t result in large scale changes in voting behavior.

Sean O'Neil
I should add that Sean’s wife Andene is a former student of mine, and one of the pastors at Church of the Cross. Oh, and they have two incredibly cute children.

Further, I’m convinced that there are seeds being planted in the Church right now that will have a longer term impact on Christian engagement in political life. Just in my circle of friends, family, and local church community, I have seen more soul searching and discomfort with our current political climate than ever in my lifetime. This discomfort has spurred numerous forums, public dialogues, and even new organizations (like the ones you mentioned in a recent post) that are engaging popular Christian audiences around meaningful visions of faithful citizenship and political stewardship. Christian intellectuals are impacting the frameworks and language being used in these spaces. This comes at a time when the “culture war” mentality that has dominated white evangelicalism over the past four decades seems increasingly unattractive and implausible. Who knows what kind of fruit this might bear in years to come?!

So, there is my inadequate but sincere encouragement to continue writing on these topics and helping us become better followers of Christ in public life!

– Sean O’Neil

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