In a recent Harper’s Magazine article, Baylor University professor Alan Jacobs caused something of a stir: What had become, he asked, of America’s Christian public intellectuals? Once a prominent feature of public life, the Christian social critic seems to have faded from view. “Half a century ago,” Jacobs noted, “such figures existed in America: serious Christian intellectuals who occupied a prominent place on the national stage. They are gone now.”
It’s impossible to dispute Jacobs’s central point: In the United States, we no longer have a Walter Rauschenbusch or a Reinhold Niebuhr, thinkers who critiqued American society from a Christian perspective. True, there are Christians who are also intellectuals—figures like Cornel West and Robert P. George—but their cultural cachet is hardly comparable to that of their 20th-century predecessors.
In part, this is the result of shifting currents in the American disposition. As a public, we don’t have the same taste for sermonic advice we once did, intellectual or otherwise. But, as Jacobs argues, the decline of Christian public voices is also a function of something internal to Christian thought: Over the past half-century, many strains of Christianity have seen a “privatization of religious experience and discourse.”
Ever since, Christians on the right have been attempting to reverse this process, whether by invoking a past in which some aspects of traditional Christian thought defined social norms, or by using many of the rights created by liberalism in order to protect the public expression of Christian values—for example, conservative Christians have claimed legal protection for abstaining from issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, and for refusing to offer insurance coverage for medical practices they believe run counter to their faith.
Indeed, the right’s dominance over public expressions of Christianity has been so pronounced that it has created something of a crisis for liberal and left-wing Christians: How can one launch a Christian critique of poverty, inequality, racism, or the United States’ seemingly endless appetite for war when Christianity, at least as it has largely been understood by one’s comrades, is often associated with the fundamentalist right? How can one invoke the egalitarian and communitarian ideals of the faith when the right has so dominated the public landscape that the very notion of “left Christianity” is often now a puzzling idea?
Without a unified Christian left to contrast against a powerful and already unified Christian right, there is no obvious political program or donor base for an incipient generation of left-Christian activists and intellectuals. Young Christians committed to social and economic justice have to carve out their own lineage and propose their own goals and priorities; on the right, that work has already been done for them.
It’s in the face of these challenges for an emerging new generation of Christian liberals and leftists that Harvey Cox— a Baptist minister, Harvard divinity professor for more than 40 years, and Christian left-wing intellectual to the core—offers a beacon of light. Still writing well into his 80s, Cox has authored more than a dozen books, contributed chapters and papers far and wide, and played a profound role in shaping liberal Christianity in America. He has also served as a model for several generations of Christian activists and intellectuals, reminding both Christians and the left that their programs are not as distinct as they are often thought today.