Culture wars? Insights from ethnographies of two Protestant seminaries

Culture wars? Insights from ethnographies of two Protestant seminaries

Jackson W. Carroll

In The restructuring of American religion, Robert Wuthnow (1988) analyzes religious responses to social change in the post-World War II period. In particular he considers shifting symbolic boundaries in U.S. religious institutions. Responses to social change have encouraged ideological conflict, competition, and resource mobilization of special purpose groups within and across traditional denominational boundaries as liberal moral visions clash with more conservative conceptions. The result is what James Davison Hunter (1991) has called a “contemporary culture war.”

In Hunter’s view (1991:43-4), the battle lines form around “orthodoxy,” with its commitment to an external, transcendent authority, and “progressivism” with its finger on the pulse of the modern zeitgeist, especially the “spirit of rationalism and subjectivism.” These competing moral visions, Hunter claims, lie at the heart of the present cleavage in American culture. They, in turn, are fundamentally religious in character; that is, they are based on “systems of faith” which make “claims to truth about the world” (Hunter 1991:56).

Both Hunter and Wuthnow observe that, to the extent that clearly differentiated moral visions exist, they do so especially in the public rhetoric and actions of elites who play important roles in shaping the debate on either side. The most influential of these elites, however, are not the university intellectuals, but middle elites, so-called “knowledge workers,” including the clergy and religious administrators of all denominations and faiths.

In this paper, we use data gathered for another purpose to shed light on the culture wars thesis, especially the issue of the sources of truth and interpretive authority in the two visions. The data are from a three-year ethnographic study of two Protestant theological seminaries aimed at assessing the role of a seminary’s culture in the formation of students.(1) The data allow us to look at the “seedbeds” (the literal meaning of the word seminarium), where the perspectives of religious middle elites are nurtured and formed, for clues about the shape and function of their moral visions. Because one of our schools stands within conservative or evangelical Protestantism and the other within liberal or mainline Protestantism, our data should shed some light on the culture wars thesis. As Hunter notes, these two Protestant streams are major contributors to the disparate moral visions that lie behind the culture wars.

The data were collected by teams of two researchers at each of the two schools. The researchers spent thirty or more days a year for three years (1989-1992) at each school living in dormitories, attending classes and faculty gatherings, eating with students and faculty, participating in campus events, and visiting students in local church and student field work settings. They also conducted lengthy focused interviews with students who began their programs in 1989, and with the majority of the faculty of each school.(2)

We begin with a series of vignettes from each school, drawn from our ethnographies. The vignettes provide insight into the ways that questions of truth and interpretive authority are articulated and negotiated in each context. Then we link ethnographic insights to literature on the sources of these moral visions. Finally, we revisit the question of “culture wars” in American religion.


Chapel services at Evangelical Theological Seminary (hereafter ES) are held three days a week. Today, the preacher is one of the younger New Testament professors and a popular figure on campus. The service is well-attended.

The pews of the attractive but plainly adorned chapel are arranged in a fan-shape and face the dais, the central feature of which is the pulpit. The Dean of the Chapel, the preacher, and three well-dressed students sit on the platform.

The service begins with a hymn sung to an organ accompaniment: “My faith has found a resting place, Not in device or creed; / I trust the Everliving One, His wounds for me shall plead. / I need no other argument, I need no other plea, / It is enough that Jesus died, and that He died for me.” As the hymn concludes, the Dean of the Chapel welcomes the worshippers and announces that “Joseph will now lead us in prayer.” Joseph, a student dressed in coat and tie, moves to the lectern and begins to pray, punctuating his prayer repeatedly with the phrase, “Father I pray. . . .”

The Dean stands again to introduce the next parts of the service. He comments on the preacher and then turns to one of the students, a young woman with long, dark hair and wearing a black dress. He instructs, “Now Sue, you come and sing for us.” Accompanied by a tape, she sings a popular Christian song, the pivotal line of which is: “I wonder would I know you now.” Sue has a low, breathy voice that enhances the romantic tone of the song. A male student reads the scripture from I Corinthians 15, with its central focus on the reality of Christ’s Resurrection.

The preacher, Robert Williams, has an animated, nervous manner. All eyes are riveted on him. Apologizing for beginning his sermon with a personal story, which he usually avoids, he says that his heart beats faster when he speaks of the Resurrection. That is because he is obsessed with death; he dreams about it regularly and wakes up terribly upset. So, he says, he likes to think that God rose for him. He likes to think that so that he can sleep at night. But he hopes that his audience can hear the lie in those words. The Resurrection, Williams says, was done not for his sake but for God’s sake, and his whole happiness is in that. He continues to speak of the reality of the Resurrection and how it and the whole gospel way of thinking are so antithetical to the way that we think. Then he returns once more to his central point (What follows is a close paraphrase of Williams’ words):

The point is this: Denying the possibility of the Resurrection would mean something horrendous to God. God would be a liar. If God is a liar, you can’t get God’s benefits. . . . It robs the gospel of its power. . . . It’s not enough for me, when I wake up sweating, to know that I have the prospect of a risen soul, a spiritual high, or a thousand years of Christ’s reign like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The issue is the right doctrine about God. If we preach wrong, your faith is futile, and the end is the grave. . . . Dear preachers: please remember that preaching precedes application. The only way is sound biblical preaching.

In a concluding prayer, Williams prays: “Father, thank you for raising Jesus from the dead. Apart from the empty tomb, I would be drowning my sorrows in success, substances and self-help. Help us, that we may not misrepresent you or give you false hopes.”

The Normative Core

The sermon theme and the rather austere worship style that gives central place to biblical preaching are not unusual at ES. The school is non-denominational, with over 700 students (including certificate and part-time students as well as those in degree programs) and approximately twenty-six full-time faculty.(3) Students are mostly white and the majority are male (approximately 70 percent). Asian-Americans, especially Koreans, constitute a growing ethnic minority. There is a small number of African-American students. Approximately 50 percent of the 103 students who entered in 1989 were enrolled in the Master of Divinity degree program, preparatory to ordination as ministers. Just over 20 percent of the 103 expressed an intention to become pastors. Counseling, teaching, evangelism, missions, and youth ministry were some of the other vocational choices. Students come from a variety of mainline and evangelical Protestant denominations.

The school views itself as guarding “the essentials of the Reformation faith,” while allowing “freedom in the formulation of the non-essentials.” It’s Mission Statement declares that the school is united around “the twin convictions . . . of the abiding truth of God’s written Word and the centrality of Christ’s saving work.” “Provided these principles are honored, differences in denominational outlook and theological formulation are welcome,” the Statement affirms.

The first article of the Mission Statement emphasizes the scriptural core: “To encourage students to become knowledgeable of God’s inerrant Word, competent in its interpretation, proclamation, and application in the contemporary world.” Other articles accentuate academic excellence, training in ministry skills, student spiritual growth, maintaining an evangelical presence in society, and developing a vision for God’s rederuptive work throughout the world. At the center, however, defining the school’s normative core or “orthodoxy” is the commitment to sound interpretation of an inerrant scripture, using the original languages. One faculty member refers to this as “industrial strength exegesis.” Students refer to this commitment as that which makes the school “solid,” a word which they used numerous times in speaking of their choice of ES.

Experience is Not Enough

Prospective students hear this central message loud and clear when they visit the campus at a “Discover ES Weekend.” Old Testament professor, David Burns, has been asked to give students a taste of the academic life of the school. His lecture is titled, “How to Misinterpret the Twenty-Third Psalm and Other Famous Passages,” and it reflects a course that he teaches on the “Uses and Abuses of the Bible.”

His point of departure is a popular evangelical book, A shepherd looks at the Twenty-third Psalm, that has sold over a million copies. While the book is well-intentioned, says Burns, and many have been blessed by it, it is, nevertheless, an example of “world-view confusion.” It uses one’s own world-view and experience to interpret the text and fails to understand that the text was written from a very different world-view. The Psalm, he argues, is not primarily about sheep and shepherding, and the question is whether the author’s experience as a shepherd gives him interpretive expertise when the Psalm moves beyond references to sheep and shepherding. Burns tells the prospective students that he is not trying to impugn the author’s motives, but emphasizing that good intentions in biblical interpretation are not enough. He concludes:

The concern of ES is for careful, accurate interpretation. Languages are crucial. Our real goal is to make scripture applicable in a very proper way so that it will guide belief and action.

Right Thinking and Solidity

Faculty teaching styles reinforce the school’s commitment to right thinking based on accurate scriptural interpretation and Reformed theology. Pedagogy is generally didactic. Lecturing is the preferred mode, especially for those in the Divisions of Biblical Studies and Christian Thought.(4) In an interview, James Rivers, Professor of Theology, says that his goal in lectures is

not a question just of laying out doctrines and getting [students] to learn them. It’s more a question of replicating in themselves the habits of thought that you find in the scripture. Undoubtedly [this does] yield a . . . set of doctrinal crystals. . . . But it’s a way of thinking that needs to be replicated, [one] that needs to be brought into contact with our modern world.

“Getting Things Straight”

Rivers’ comment makes an important point about ES. Students are not “force fed” the core message of the culture. While the normative core is presented with considerable vigor and clarity, students are encouraged to negotiate a stance towards it. And negotiate they do! Students have enormous theological energy. As one listens to dormitory discussions, deliberations at mealtime in the cafeteria, exchanges in hallways outside classrooms, one hears students engaged in a process that our research team came to call “getting things straight” – vigorous arguments with each other as they sharpen their understanding of God, the nature of the church, the obligations of Christians in the world, how Scripture should be studied, and other topics such as women’s ordination, millenniatism, the right way to do evangelism, or the place of music and art in the Christian life. At one lunchtime forum that featured a professor speaking about believer’s baptism, more than sixty students showed up. A bulletin board in a hallway outside the cafeteria is called “Iron Sharpens Iron” and is the venue for lively exchanges. On it students place signed position papers, responses to other students’ statements, clippings from the media, and cartoons – most of which are arguments for or against some doctrinal or ethical position. A typical board may include an article damning abortion, a discussion (pro and con) of the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit showing at a nearby art museum, a theological rationale for women’s ordination, and another arguing the need for women to be submissive to their husbands on biblical grounds.

Student efforts to “get things straight” aim both at gaining clarity about core commitments that the school’s culture upholds and also negotiating a position on issues within the culture where legitimate differences of opinion are allowed.

As to core commitments, in addition to those previously noted, world missions and evangelization get considerable emphasis; and, although it is not stated in the school’s official documents, a right-to-life stance on abortion gets widespread support. One faculty member commented that opposing abortion “has become the social badge of honor [for evangelicals].” It defines you culturally and institutionally as an evangelical . . . [much as] inerrancy has done.”


Areas on which there can be legitimate differences include: the role of women in the church, including women’s ordination; the use of inclusive language; some aspects of charismatic theology, including whether the Holy Spirit continues to perform “signs and wonders” beyond the end of the Apostolic age; and whether there are avenues to God’s truth in addition to careful interpretation of scripture.

A particularly spirited exchange occurred over a poster placed on the “Iron Sharpens Iron” board by a student group, Partners for Biblical Equality (PBE). The group supports male-female equality, including the ordination of women, from an evangelical perspective. PBE members are particularly opposed to those who use certain biblical texts (interpreted as culture-bound and therefore non-binding) to place women in subordinate, submissive roles. The controversial poster used a drawing based on a verse from the prophet Joel, “. . . and your sons and daughters shall prophesy,” to challenge traditionalist opposition to the ordination of women. The poster caused so much acrimony that it had to be placed under glass on another bulletin board to prevent defacement.

The debate was also about the place of art and images as media for communicating truth. In an ensuing discussion in a student publication, one student contends that such images present a story, not an argument; therefore, they should not be used to argue the cause of important questions. “Will ‘art’ replace verbal articulation, or dance replace debate?” he asks. His opponent asserts the opposite: “the importance of communicating beyond words, and the cruciality of perceiving beyond the printed page.” “. . . [T]he power of an image can bypass our ‘literary defenses’ and pierce to our hearts.” A faculty member agreed with the first student in a subsequent article entitled, “A Word is Worth A Thousand Pictures.”

The Reform of Evangelicalism

To what end is all of this theological and ethical energy directed? One answer is that it is in the service of forming students, “replicating in [them] the habits of thought that you find in the scripture,” as Rivers puts it. There is also another agenda. Many faculty members are concerned to combat the “acids of modernity.” While this may seem consistent with Hunter’s ‘culture wars’ thesis and in continuity with fundamentalist-modernist battles of the past, such assumptions miss an important point: The battle in which ES faculty members are engaged is not only with “secular humanists” or mainstream denominations that have adapted to modernity. Another important contest is with fellow evangelicals who have taken modernity into their bosoms in an uncritical, a-theological accommodation to the culture. Their opposition includes the sentimental, individualist, popular evangelical piety that many students exhibit, expressed for example in praise choruses and highly personalistic prayers. In particular, however, they oppose the sell-out to modernity of many evangelical church and parachurch leaders who have adopted modern technology and marketing techniques to engineer growing churches at the cost, in the faculty’s view, of attention to truth. Also, Dr. Kenneth Coates, one of the younger faculty members, notes that he and his colleagues opposed what they see as a shift of models of pastoral leadership away from an “older model: the pastor as the broker of truth,” to models that emphasize “the pastor as therapist” or the “pastor as the manager.” Agreeing with Coates, Dr. Rivers says that “What you have is these manager types who are presiding over the evangelical world who don’t know how to replenish it and who have no vision as to where it should be going.”

All of these groups, he and many of his colleagues contend, exhibit what they call “selfism,” a kind of subjectivization characteristic of modernity that idolatrously places the self and its needs at the center of things, usurping the proper place of God.

Getting the Message

Do students get this message? Based on our data, most do. While not “clones” of the ES’s culture, most are formed or reinforced by the school’s core commitments. With echoes from Burns’ lecture to prospective students, these are the words of a student speaker at the school’s commencement:

Shame on us if the world is more studious and industrious than those committed to the Gospel. How can such a precious message be handled with mediocrity? The Christian minister must be a diligent student. . . . We live in a world that believes that what is sinful is normal and what is righteous is strange. But our Lord commands us to proclaim the Gospel. Without the Gospel promise that God will be with us, this commission would lead us to despair. God has called us to a ministry of the Word.

His words were met with loud “Amens” from fellow students.

Students also seem to get the message about “selfism.” Many come to be critical of therapeutic and technocratic models of ministry. Whether they will be “seduced” by these models after leaving the school, we cannot say. Most students, however, do not reject the expressions of piety connected with popular evangelicalism. Rather, as one graduate told us, they learn to appreciate the more classical, Reformed styles of piety and discipline while continuing to enjoy the popular styles.

Some students, however, pay a price for their engagement with this culture and its definition of truth. A few find what they call “the one right answer” approach of some of the faculty more than they can take. They either leave, or find ways of minimizing the culture’s impact, quietly reinterpreting some of its core elements in ways that enable them to survive. Women students pursuing ordination are at times discouraged and hurt by the attitudes of some fellow students and several faculty members who strongly oppose women’s ordination, often on biblical grounds. One women, the only one in a particular class, was asked by a male student why she was taking the course, since she was likely to end up “having babies” instead of using what the course taught.(5) Similarly, one of the small number of African-American students at the school commented that “I am at ES because [it] has a high regard of Scripture and because I felt that it was the most intellectually and doctrinally diverse of conservative, evangelical schools.” But, he added, “I only wish that more of [them here] would . . . open their eyes and see that the real world is not a white, middle-class suburb.”

The disenchantment and pain felt by such students are palpable, but they are a minority. Most, including those who are not happy with their experience, are strongly influenced by the moral vision they encounter in ES’s culture.


The fine, filtered sunlight of a winter mid-morning plays across the refectory floor. On a large center stage diverse actors jump and twirl to a cacophony of sounds. The central figure is a Black man in bright African robes. As he careens around the perimeter, this young professor exposes a well-muscled calf in energetic kicks. The dance is also punctuated by drumbeats and the responsive chants of two African students in their own tribal dress. Behind them, several Korean women in intricately embroidered silks gently sway to the lilting strains of harp and ching.

The congregation leans slightly forward as this dramatic invocation entitled, “Primeval Chaos,” concludes with a responsive reading. “And God saw everything that God made, and behold, it was very good.” Then, there is silence. And slowly, the rich, baritone chords of an American Black spiritual begin. The worship order hails the “good creation.”

Suddenly, the scene shifts. The liturgy recounts the story of Babel: how the people of the earth set out to build a tower to the heavens to “make a name for ourselves” and how the Lord decided to “confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” The lituvgist, A Korean faculty member, instructs the congregation to shout in their native languages – spoken or signed: “Babel! Babel! Babel! Babel! A name for ourselves! A name for ourselves! A name for ourselves!”

All quiets as an African-American student begins to sing, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” Her song is followed by the Korean Han dance. A jet-halted, pink figure moves slowly and purposefully to an oriental tune from a cassette recorder. The woman’s face is impassive; her flowing arms and hands are delicate, yet strong and fraught with meaning. The worship order says that “Hart” means sorrow and pain.

The final scene is Pentecost. And the liturgy states that, in this event, the “good creation” is reunited. The Scriptures are read aloud: “And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them . . . and [they] began to speak in other tongues.” Everyone is told to call out, “Christ is Lord.” First in English; next in other dialects or “voices” including African dialects, Korean, Spanish, beating drums, clanging cymbals, and the motions of American Sign Language; and finally, altogether.

“In the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shah see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams . . .,” the people read. After reciting the Lord’s Prayer in many voices, worship ends with these sung words: “We are one in the spirit; we are one in the Lord. . . . And we pray that our unity may one day be restored. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. . . .” As the final note dies, each person – standing or sitting – holds the hand of the nearest neighbor.

Social diversity is imaged, experienced, and re-imaged in the opening ritual of an “Issues Retreat” at Mainline Seminary (hereafter, MS) in early 1992: through African and Korean dress, music, and dance; in African-American spirituals; in the clash of many languages – spoken and unspoken; through the choice of biblical images and themes emphasizing chaos and Spirit more than order and Law, heterogeneity more than homogeneity, action more than passive reception, and conventional roles turned-upside-down like “daughters prophesying” in the context of a place for everyone, young and the old; and finally, in the reversal of power in the worship itself – no white male and only one white female lead despite the fact that the school is majority white, and the upper administration and faculty are majority white males.

Images of Diversity and Inclusivity

MS has a total enrollment of nearly 400, sixty percent of whom are in the Master of Divinity program leading to ordination. The remainder are enrolled in the Master of Religious Education (4 percent), Master of Theological Studies (11 percent), and Doctor of Ministry (12.5 percent) programs or are part-time “special students” who are not pursuing a degree (12.5 percent). Although MS is an official seminary of a particular mainline denomination, about twenty-five percent of the student body claims affiliation with another denominational group. Three-quarters identify with another mainline denomination; the rest are made up of Black Baptists and other evangelicals.

While denominational diversity at MS is permitted, racial and gender diversity are explicitly encouraged. The most vivid image of such diversity is found on the faculty. Of twenty-four full time faculty in 1992, nearly thirty percent were women and a little over twenty percent were Black or Hispanic. Compared to the faculty, the student body is much more homogenous. Although there have been significant gains among women, Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics in recent years, a 1992 enrollment study self-conscmously highlights the schools’ growing female and Black constituency. In 1982, 24 percent of all Master of Divinity students were women and 6 percent were Black. By 1992, the largest degree program at MS realized a four percentage point increase in the number of women (28 percent) and a seven percentage point increase in the number of Blacks (13 percent). The presence of a small number of Asian and Hispanic students brought the total of non-white Master of Divinity students to fifteen percent. And even though seminary officials proudly marked this milestone, the statistical inventory was – as always – qualified by, “But we’re not there yet.”

In MS’s catalogues and publicity material since the mid-1960s, there is a recurring picture. It is a rectangular grid composed of irregular boxes, all bounded by a stark white border. The pictures in the grid tend to shift as the constituency of the student body changes. In the 1989 catalogue, the grid appears opposite the school’s “Mission and Ministry” statement. Upper left box: the largest square contains a shot of a married white male student in a white sweater, leaning forward over a book. Upper right: an attractive single white female in a dark sweater stares ahead intently; her arm rests on an open notebook. Middle left box: a baby-faced white male in a cable-stitched sweater vest puts finishing touches on a clay figurine. Middle right: an African man in native headdress poses in front of a library stack. Lower left box: a Korean student smiles warmly; he is dwarfed by a large, carved seal bearing the word “oikoumene.” Lower right: a middle-aged white female takes notes in a large classroom. We have labeled this institutional image of social representation and proportionality, “matrix pluralism.”

Images of diversity and inclusivity are not only embodied and publicized at MS, they are also dramatized and discussed. At the closing of New Student Orientation, the film “Places in the Heart” was shown. The movie traces the struggle of traditionally powerless persons – a woman, children, a blind man, and a Black man – against traditionally powerful white men in a small southwestern town. The film closes with a surrealistic Eucharist celebration set in a white-steeple-and-clapboard church. At the table are Ku Klux Klan members and the Black field hand they ran out of town; a bank president with the widowed woman, two children, and the blind brother he victimized; and finally, the Sheriff who was accidentally killed by a young Black man, and the young man himself who was consequently lynched. In small group discussion afterwards, some students protested that the presence of Klan members defiled the ritual; most, however, talked about the last scene as an image of “true inclusivity” that is only accomplished through Christ. It is what one third-year student reminiscing about her time at MS called “the vision of the kingdom [of God] as the perfectly inclusive, perfectly diverse unity” over against “the kingdom on earth” where “our human structures always fail.”

The Authority Of Experience

On a Monday evening in April, 1992, forty students gather around a display of black-and-white angular drawings taped to a chalkboard. The class, “Contemplative Drawing: A Path to the Fuller Self,” is a popular offering that meets a two-hour requirement in Religion and the Arts for all Master of Divinity students. Carol Kane, an energetic and attractive professor, reviews student attempts to draw a chair with the aid of a viewfinder and says, “What’s important here? There are relationships to the bounding edges of the format. There is the concept of shared edges, and there is the relative relationship of the parts.” One student complains about how hard it is “to hold a viewfinder and draw at the same time; and then, to deal with the layers of negative space.” The technique, Dr. Kane explains sympathetically, pushes you to engage the “whole brain.”

The discussion turns to the creativity and pain of art as “birthing.” Leaning forward on the lectern, Dr. Kane intones: “The patriarchal church denies birthing images; creativity requires birthing.” A woman sitting close to the front raises her hand and speaks authoritatively, “People resisting the arts are patriarchal and patronizing,” Another woman chimes in, “I took [the course] ‘Women and Spirituality,’ and we learned that Hildegaard envisioned an egg. The men said, “You can’t do that!” So they sent a male scribe to illustrate her visions. In response she did her own illustration. They denied her vision. . . .”

Referring to a reading by Matthew Fox, Dr. Kane draws parallels between a more organic and cosmological way of viewing the world and the artistic act. A Black woman responds, “I feel good about the expression of a holistic world view, especially the creation piece, you know; you are the creation and the creator. There’s no need for a hierarchy to tell you what to do.”

Dr. Kane moves to application: “Okay, so you recognize this creative ability in yourself and yet you know the world is full of problems. What do you do as leaders of churches?” Another African-American woman responds, “You bring people in to be co-creators; that way, they’re included.” With sudden animation, Dr. Kane responds: ‘That’s an approach! I’ve always thought you could open up fellowship halls in churches and have opportunities for poor, indigent street people to come in and make something with their hands. That’s what I call ‘power with’. . . .” A young white male adds, “That reminds me of an empowerment model of counseling; I’m learning that here, too.”

How things are taught at MS matter almost as much as what is taught. Experiential learning is valued, and the action-reflection or “praxis” approach is favored. For example, a student panel discussion in a “Global Mission” class began with personal experiences of racism; moved to a discussion of what the Bible says about racism; then to a presentation of what the school’s denomination and the Worm Council of Churches say about racism versus what they actually do; and ended with an invitation for students to act. Sign-up sheets for information about strategies to protest apartheid in South Africa were provided. In fact, action-reflection through art, drama, journaling, field trips, internships, and even social protest is valued so highly that more didactic presentations in large classes draw negative reviews. Talking about the required classes for the Master of Divinity degree, one student noted, “You really can’t do a whole lot when you’ve got 90 people in the room in terms of hearing other voices and being sensitive, [you have to] really struggle to hear other opinions and learn to respect them. You can’t.”

And as in Carol Kane’s class, what is taught supports the importance of reflection and action. With a few exceptions, phenomenological perspectives such as feminist theology, Black theology, process theology, social and anthropological theories, and third-world liberation theology are favored. Contextual and political sensitivities are heightened, and the use and abuse of power becomes a common theme. Consequently, traditional, external authority – namely, the patriarchal church and eurocentric male truth – is frequently questioned. Especially telling is a 1990 classroom discussion about the Bible. In response to Dr. Diane Carpenter’s query “Why don’t MS students carry Bibles?” a United Church of Christ woman in Urban Ministry noted, somewhat wistfully, “If we found it authoritative, we would bring it with us.” A United Methodist pastor added, “It’s a question of which translation to carry; it’s a political decision.” She continued, “[Anyway] in worship I want to feel more than intellectualize.” “It [intellectualizing] is ‘white male,’ patriarchal, and hierarchical. Some of us find it a burden,” another mainline Protestant pastor – white male himself – insisted.

Oppression and intolerance are the gravest sins at MS, and the most sought-after remedy is the liberation and empowerment of traditionally marginalized groups. Still, most students and faculty would not reduce salvation to liberation. A black South African pastor and visiting professor put it this way:

God has not withdrawn from human beings. Because God still talks, you have to relate the good news of the Gospel to the situation of oppression in South Africa. Liberation and salvation are not the same. Salvation relates to the calling of GOd. [But] nobody has salvation who can allow the organized oppression in South Africa. [Instead] salvation leads to liberation.

The primary vehicle for liberation and empowerment at MS is the group. Groups are allowed, even encouraged, to proliferate on campus. A large number are official, which means they have submitted a budget to the Seminary Council. Over a three-year period they included: a woman’s covenant group; an evangelical association; Black seminarians; a Korean fellowship; a “liberation resources” center; a spiritual life committee; seminarians for gay, lesbian and bisexual concerns; and a social action group, among others. More informal groups included: a Marx reading group; two feminist-womanist reading groups; a liturgics group; a gospel choir; a men’s choir; and temporary groups organized around events such as a March for the Homeless and a National Organization of Women’s Pro-Choice March. In addition, there are a number of impromptu groups, mostly in the dormitories, including in-room Bible studies and small-group worship services in the “Lovett Prayer Room” – a carpeted room bounded by a low bench with a central, oriental-style table always littered with candles and spent matches.

Among other things, campus groups provide a base for acting on issues which directly affect their members. For example, Black seminarians mobilized for removal of a white “Nefretiti doll” on exhibition at the campus. One ‘woman described it this way:

We had a Mexican stand-off because he [the Old Testament professor] told us that the doll wasn’t coming out of the window. . . . And we had to regroup and replan our strategies. [At the next meeting] I made my little statement that the doll had to go and then this Black guy, this brother, got up and said the same thing. And so [the professor] said, you know, well, how do you propose to do that or something like that. So this guy came off with, “by any means necessary,” you know. Some Malcolm X sounding thing, so we again had this impasse. We took the issue up with the Dean of Students, and it became a discussion for the faculty meeting and so forth. And we were very adamant about that, and the doll was out of the showcase in about two weeks.

While diverse, more homogeneous, student-run groups are effective forums for reflection and action, seminary-organized, inclusive groups enjoy less success. Students frequently complain about their “lack of real power” as “token” representatives on faculty and staff-led committees. And the Seminary Council which previously included representatives from students, faculty, administration, and staff dissolved in 1990-1991 in favor of an entirely student-run group. Also, required and assigned ‘Covenant’ groups – while meaningful for a number of mainline Protestant students, particularly pastors – are referred to as “legislated spirituality” by others.

The Price of Inclusivity

Doug is Black, ex-Navy, and an Episcopalian. He works in the campus post office, lives in Seminary housing, is an official campus escort for visitors and prospective students, and a popular disc jockey for student parties. Talking with one of the authors about “campus taboos” over breakfast in a local pastry shop, he observed:

I think if I stood up and said I supported the right of the Klan to exist, somebody would shoot me. Because that is not “politically correct.” It speaks to the other side of the liberation theology issue that nobody wants to deal with. This is a “love your enemies” side of liberation theology.

Unfortunately what happens when something gets to be a taboo is that if I, as a male, stand up and say that feminism is oppressive, I am told essentially, “You had better shut up.” It is a function of my being male. . . . Sometimes celebration of maleness is not something you can do at MS. But celebration of femaleness, you can do that. . . . I think of myself as male, and I think I have an incredible sensitivity. As a matter of fact, I spend a lot of time covering that up. . . . Female friends of mine – and this is symbolic of Black theologians who say white people can’t understand the suffering of Blacks – they say “well you can’t really understand because you are not a female.”

After a while, it [all] really starts to eat away at your esteem. It is another form of oppression. If you are getting your esteem and your sense of wholeness from standing on my throat – none of us benefits, anymore than if I get my esteem from standing on yours. . . . I don’t know the whole truth, you don’t know the whole truth – truth is found in community.

Sam Rogers commutes a couple of times a week from a suburban church. Sam is confessedly “more conservative” than a lot of students; he describes another taboo, but very similar dynamics:

I have felt real held back at some times. I think part of [my holding back] is the desire to keep dialogue and diversity at the expense of real proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And I would say, evangelical proclamation. I think it was [uncomfortable] for me at the very first. But I think because I have become more comfortable with my identity, with who I am, I don’t feel intimidated at all. But I have to admit there are times . . . well, just, boldness is sometimes quenched.

But, then, there have been times when there [has] been [a] very powerful sense of Christ’s presence in worship. So, I think there is a certain grace in diversity. Yet, at times, a sort of self-absorbed hypocrisy really – in the diversity that you are not allowed. You can’t accept the evangelical. As long as you are a liberal activist-oriented person, it is okay, we will include you. But if you tend to be more charismatic or evangelical or towards those shades of Christianity, there is a little less acceptance, I think. I like to be challenged by somebody; even a fundamentalist can challenge me in ways that a Unitarian/Universalist can’t.

Karen James is what MS calls a “semi-commuter” student. She stays on-campus a couple of nights a week, and then travels to her church field. She is widowed, has a daughter in college, and is the new pastor of a mainline Protestant church. Karen’s on-campus experience has been educative in ways she did not expect.

I think I have come to a greater understanding of the pain of the Black community. . . . When I came here I loved the community. Everybody seemed to be working together. Loving each other. I thought, “This is what the whole world should be.” And we had our first class in Black liberation theology. And all of a sudden, I saw the anger. It was very painful, and l thought, why are they doing this at the seminary? Here we had the model. We were working together, and they are destroying it.

And then suddenly, it wasn’t until last year, I suddenly realized that this was the safe place to let all of that out . . . that we could be trusted to absorb that pain and help them to work it through. And then, in our own sense, grow also. . . . So I came full circle with that.

At MS there is continuous negotiation between the value of diversity for a truly inclusive community and the strains that inequity, suspicion, and even anger and confusion produce. Intolerance of the intolerant, by which is meant conservatives or traditionalists, is one fracture line. Re-imaging the role and relationship of oppressors, by which is meant white males, is another fracture line. Coming to terms with the anger of the traditionally oppressed, which typically includes everyone except white males (but especially Blacks and women), constitutes still another fracture line. And finally, growing tension revolves around the institution’s relationship to the sponsoring denomination and its mandate to educate pastors for local churches. Roy Anders, a second career student who is also a pastor, talks about holding the balance at MS:

It’s such a diverse place. We’ve got everyone from Southern Baptists to Unitarians. And I guess I have learned to appreciate a little bit the diversity of MS and how God’s grace can work in that diversity. [It’s] kind of neat. Probably two of the furthest people apart theologically in the entire group would be my roommate and I. And I usually find reality somewhere in between the way he perceives what is going on and the way I perceive what is going on.

In many ways, students at MS have divorced life experiences from their perspectives. For example, you could just go storming off beating your fists against the desk and never see what was really happening to people in your local congregation – or that they just dont care to see it that way. I think there is grace in that pull for me: that people in my churches are far more conservative than I am and people here at school are far more liberal than I am, and it’s important to learn from both of them. I figured that’s what the Lord had in mind all along.


In Table 1, we summarize the dominant themes (contents and styles) of the moral vision embodied in each culture. We emphasize dominant themes, reminding the reader that the actual situation is less polar and more nuanced than the table implies.


The contrasting visions of truth, especially those emphases highlighted in Table 1, have an obvious affinity with the moral visions at the heart of Hunter’s culture wars thesis. Each, in its own way, is a response to the Enlightenment and modernity, though each also is rooted in much earlier ways of understanding truth in the Christian tradition and in relation to theological formation (Kelsey 1992). These modern versions of the two visions were crystallized in the chaotic and expansive late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the orthodox vision in the fundamentalist movement; the progressive in the social gospel movement (Abell 1943). Although the movements failed in the 1920s, the core of these two visions lingered in the neo-evangelical movement, of which ES is a direct heir, and in Protestant liberalism, the legacy of MS (Szasz 1982; Marsden 1980; Hutchison 1976; Hopkins 1940; Johnson 1940; White and Hopkins 1976).

ES’s orthodox vision views truth as “out there,” or more accurately, as “back there,” instantiated in an inerrant Scripture. The task of the Christian – especially the theological scholar and the pastor – is to interpret the biblical text accurately so that it can be applied to issues of personal and social life. Before any application, however, there must be sound biblical preaching, based on careful exegesis using the original languages. The goal is to uncover the truth of the text while attempting to discipline the influence of the interpreter’s own culture. Reason, especially “redeemed reason,” as one ES faculty member puts it, and which includes common sense, is essential to the process. Thus, the primary avenue to truth is cognitive and rational, a style exhibited in the preferred didactic pedagogy.

As the various incidents from our data illustrate, the role of experience in the interpretive process is less clear. Even if not totally ruled out, it clearly is secondary to hard rational-cognitive work, as in Burns’s lecture on interpreting Psalm 23. Likewise, preference for rational-cognitive approaches to truth lies behind the preferred pedagogical style and informs the debate over the use of art and other images as media of communication.

The battle against “self-ism,” whether in the popular evangelical charismatic piety of the students or in the therapeutic and technocratic practices of many evangelical pastors and parachurch leaders, also reflects the school’s view of truth. Popular evangelicalism’s sell-out to this subjective approach to truth strikes at the heart of the Reformed view of God as transcendent and of truth as objectively given.

In ES’s vision one can see the legacy of Reformed Puritan orthodoxy. There is also a connection between its interpretive strategy and Scottish “common sense” realism, which not only influenced earlier conceptions of science, but found strong theological expression at Princeton Theological Seminary in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Pre-given categories of reason, including one’s common sense, resonate with the sensory world, making scientific knowledge of it possible. They also help to discipline cultural biases in the interpretation of Scripture (May 1976; Marsden 1980; Wells 1986).

Rather than viewing science as a strategy for unearthing given truths, MS’s progressive vision embraces science as part and parcel of the unfolding truth.(6) For progressives, the truth is inherent in human beings and the natural order, and human experience is valued. As in the opening illustrations, this perspective is reflected at MS in the structure of worship (social diversity and inclusiveness) as well as the content of worship (chaos and creation, struggle and liberation). Similarly, it is supported both by what is taught (liberation and process theologies) and how it is taught (action and reflection).

For progressives, the truth is “in here” – inherent in human beings and the natural order, and “out there” – a state that the world is moving toward. Human judgment and experience are to be trusted. Advances of reason over the course of human experience are seen as positive steps towards ultimate purpose and truth. Consequently, traditional institutions and the beliefs that undergird them are subject to revision in the light of contemporary experience and/or the current standards of scientific advance; and, in contrast to the orthodox scheme, with its emphasis on individual initiative, the progressive position emphasizes social responsibility (May 1967, 1976; Nisbet 1980).

The late nineteenth century roots of these positions can be stated simply: for the orthodox, the problem with society is flawed individuals – the remedy, change individuals; for progressives, the problem is flawed social structures – the remedy, change structures. As a MS student observed, “truth is in community.” Consequently, the seminary encourages group formation, and group action is the preferred channel for change. These smaller, homogeneous groups, however, are often in tension with the larger, heterogeneous community ideal. And the burden of social responsibility rests heaviest on those “in charge,” i.e., white males in general and the institution’s administration in particular.

Because advances of reason are seen as positive steps toward ultimate truth in the progressive scheme, traditional institutions are always subject to revision in the light of contemporary experience. This characteristic is the source of liberalism’s peculiar, ongoing negotiation of modernity. Keeping pace with and integrating “the modern” is difficult enough. The greatest challenge, however, has been adjusting to dramatic change in scientific self-understanding. Such has been the case in the latter half of the twentieth century.


If we can trace fundamental elements of two distinct, early twentieth century moral visions to the present-day cultures of the two schools, do we assume that these visions remain unaffected by subsequent cultural changes? No. In fact, our research indicates that both schools are significantly challenged by the late-modern situation. Anthony Giddens notes that late- or post-modernity is characterized by the subjectivity of truth claims and the necessity of self-evaluation and self-correction (Giddens 1991:15-17).(7) This being the case, the older progressive impulse which tends towards subjectivity and self-reflexivity – the “truth in here” and trust of individual human experience – finds new legitimation in the late-modern context. At the same time, the values and norms of older liberal institutions themselves are challenged.

MS reflects this late-modern shift. The culture explicitly promotes questioning of accepted liberal traditions. Passionate encounters across the boundary lines of MS’s social matrix are the necessary refining fires for a late-twentieth century progressive faith. Out of the chaos of social diversity, there is confidence that a new creation, a new birth, will occur: the truly diverse, truly inclusive Kingdom of God. It is nineteenth century post-millennialism turned inside out: liberal values and institutions are unmasked, and the liberation or emancipation of the self becomes the starting point for the liberation of social structures (the world). As with the older vision, however, self-liberation only occurs in (diverse, inclusive) community. What strains against this subjective freedom and experimentation is suspicion of the very institutions that first opened the door to variety – MS itself and the mainline denomination that it serves.

It is clear that late- or post-modern subjective understandings of truth strike directly at the heart of the objective, foundational claims about truth put forward at ES. Late-modernity presents a special threat to its theological and moral vision. Yet, there is a paradox here that the climate of subjectivist truth reveals. Because late-modernity recognizes and takes seriously subjective claims to truth, the orthodox vision (including its emphasis on the Bible and the historic evangelical emphasis on the authority of the conversion experience) also gains a right to speak that it did not have before. It does so, however, precisely as one among many subjective claims to truth. This paradoxical result was recognized by Kenneth Coates, ES’s young theology professor, at the conclusion of a course exploring options in modern theology. He granted that post-modernity has given evangelicals tools for critiquing the culture of modernity. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that “the post-modern vision extends the modern and makes it difficult for us to hang on to the rootedness of the evangelical vision. . . . ” Thus, for evangelicals, late- or post-modernity is a two-edged sword.


What do our findings reveal about the culture wars thesis? Our brief summaries of the two schools’ cultures clearly give some support to Hunter’s depiction of the two warring moral visions at the heart of American culture. Furthermore, they support his contention that the two moral visions are grounded in religious or faith traditions that, in turn, make claims to truth about the world. They also give some insight into the formative process of middle elites such as clergy and other religious leaders.

But do our data support the thesis that these two visions lead to a culture war? With only two cases, we cannot provide a definitive answer, but we venture to respond with a qualified no. To be sure, the potential for warfare is present in the two visions, and battles have occurred over such issues as right-to-life versus choice, homosexual rights, the role of women, and the role of the church in society, to name but a few.

At the same time, however, our experiences in the two schools lead us to believe that, for the most part, the more intense battles are internal to each culture.(8) As we have suggested, ES’s primary warfare is not with mainline Protestants or even with secular humanists. It is rather against the excesses of popular evangelicalism and especially what they perceive as the idolatry of those evangelicals who have sold out to the “self” movement and to therapeutic and technocratic models of the church.

Likewise, MS is not at war with evangelicalism. In fact, in the name of diversity and inclusiveness, the school supports and encourages a self-consciously evangelical group on campus. The most noticeable warring occurs long the boundary lines of the social matrix over issues of race and gender. Yet these are very functional brushfires; through them, the culture acts out its commitment to liberation. In a sense, handling these skirmishes prepares MS’s students for the big battle – that is the reform of its denomination, the church more generally, and the world.

Indeed, because ES’s and MS’s battles are more internal to each culture and because the visions themselves are so diametrically opposed, the two groups seem mainly to talk past each other. There is little real face-to-face engagement. For the most part, they seem unconcerned with the other’s existence. That hardly makes for war!

Furthermore, we are not content with Hunter’s characterization of the conflict in such sharp, bi-polar terms. Our data do make clear that two different visions exist, but it must be remembered that we studied only two schools, and we selected them in part to provide sharply contrasting cultures. Had we chosen to study other theological schools we would have found more moderate, middle-ground positions.

Moreover, in the schools, there was not consensus about either vision. Rather we found students and faculty who, if they were brought together, would find considerable common ground. Indeed, Hunter (1991:43) recognizes the existence of the middle: “In truth, most Americans occupy a vast middle ground between the polarizing impulses of American culture.” We do not doubt that some of the emerging elites – graduates of these two schools – will find themselves leading some of the special purpose groups that conduct the culture wars. Most, however, will likely focus their energies within their own sub-cultures or find common ground in the middle.

In sum, we would argue that the presence and persistence of these very different theological and moral visions create a situation where the majority on either side are less at war than at cross purposes. A main effect is misunderstanding and tension within and between the two cultures which feed “culture skirmishes.”

Is some kind of rappochement possible? Our data provide a small but tantalizing hint. These two theological and moral visions were forged in and by a white Protestant hegemony. Both are significantly challenged by cultural visions outside the pale. At MS, and increasingly at ES, students encounter and dialogue with other racial and ethnic groups. That cross-cultural contact, particularly at MS, is already reshaping the way students view the world. In particular, we speculate that African-American churches may provide a viable middle way that bridges the gulf between these disparate visions. The Black church holds generally to the truth “out there” approach that characterizes both ES’s culture and the orthodox vision that Hunter describes. It combines this perspective, however, with a strong commitment to social justice like that found in the vision at MS. It does so in part by also taking seriously the truth “in here” approach, drawing from the African-American experience of oppression as an interpretative principle.

We do not mean to suggest that the Black church is simply a synthesis of the two positions we have described. Rather, it offers a third way, one that itself is not without internal conflicts. Nevertheless, it may be that this group, joined by others of the middle who are uncomfortable with either extreme, will win the right to have a major voice in defining how the public culture is shaped.

1 The study has been funded by grants to Hartford Seminary by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Spencer Foundation. In addition to the authors of this paper, Barbara G. Wheeler and Daniel Aleshire have also been principal researchers for the project. Wheeler and Carroll, whose background is in liberal Protestantism, carried out the field work at the evangelical seminary. Marler and Aleshire, whose background is in conservative Protestantism, undertook the field work at the mainline Protestant school. A forthcoming book, tentatively entitled Being there: Culture and formation in two Protestant theological schools, will report the full results of our work. The authors are grateful for their contributions to this paper. While we have disguised the actual names of the two schools, we wish to express our deep gratitude to the students, faculty, and administrators for their gracious hospitality and willing assistance during our field work. We also wish to thank Hartford Seminary, where both authors were previously faculty members, for its continuing support.

2 Field notes and interview transcripts have been entered into a freeform database (ASKSAM) which permits a variety of ways of accessing data.

3 The average student body size (full- and part-time) of evangelical theological schools in 1991-2 was 518, and the average full-time faculty size was 18.6. (Source: Association of Theological Schools data, further classified by school type.)

4 Experiential pedagogies are more likely to be used by faculty members in the Division of the Ministry of the Church.

5 Many faculty members and students, however, are supportive of women students and give women visible roles in public events such as chapel services.

6 Eighteenth century Wesleyan perfectionism, Transcendentalism, and nineteenth century Darwinian evolutionary thought lie behind this moral vision (Hutchison 1976).

7 Older notions of causal-linear objectivity and grounded truth were initially challenged by quantum theory in the 1930s, verified in the early 1960s, and extended by chaos theory more recently (Bernstein 1985; Prigogine and Stengers 1984). The underlying discovery that the observer substantially affects the observed reinforced an emerging consensus among feminist and third-world scholars that Enlightenment truth was really Eurocentric, male truth (Huyssen 1986).

8 Coser (1956:67ff.) maintains that the more intense hostility is expressed toward those with whom one is close rather than toward those who are at a distance.


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