Yesterday I tweeted out this question on Twitter, which generated a lot of engagement and suggestions. In fact, it is still going strong as of this writing.
I deliberately left the question somewhat open-ended, to see how people would respond. Most people replied with the names of evangelical pastors or writers.
This wasn’t a bad thing, but not necessarily what I was intending by “Protestant intellectual.”
While not having a precise definition, I would define a leading Protestant intellectual roughly as:
Someone with top, generally widely recognized intellectual insight or scholarly accomplishments, who:
Is a practicing and self-identifying Protestant of any variety (mainline, evangelical, black church) whose religious identity is part of their public identity, and:
Whose religious perspective has some level of influence on their work - although their work does not necessarily have to be religious in nature.
Although a theologian could conceivably count - think about someone like Reinhold Niebuhr back in the day - the people I am thinking about are probably not specifically religious figures or primarily scholars of religion.
The paradigm I had in mind as a Protestant intellectual was the late sociologist Peter Berger. He was eminent in his field. He was publicly Lutheran. And there was a religious dimension to some of his public intellectual work, in addition to his scholarship on religion.
A Catholic example would be the Canadian (not American) philosopher Charles Taylor, who is Catholic. While I’m not an expert on his work, his book A Secular Age clearly reflects a Catholic perspective.
Although less prestigious than Berger or Taylor, Patrick Deneen is an example of a Catholic intellectual you are probably familiar with.
With this definition and these examples in mind, who are the top Protestant intellectuals in the US?
The best suggestion I received by far was Cornel West, who is a great exemplar of a contemporary Protestant intellectual (obviously not evangelical).
Some people suggested Marilynne Robinson, who is a literary figure but otherwise fits the bill.
Former Human Genome Project and NIH director Francis Collins is a well-known evangelical scientist (although heavily criticized by many within the evangelical movement for the way he led the NIH). It’s less clear to me how his religion influences his scientific work, but I'll count him.
Another person suggested the public intellectual Walter Russell Mead, who is a good example.
Others suggested Alvin Plantinga, who counts but who is also 90 years old. He’s Canadian I believe, but that’s close enough.
Political scientist Joshua Mitchell would be a Protestant equivalent of Deneen.
Another suggestion was Allen Guelzo, whom I don’t know, but looks like he might fit the bill.
The person that I actually consider the greatest Protestant intellectual today, and Peter Berger’s successor, I unfortunately had to leave off the list because I have never seen him explicitly publicly identify as being a Christian.
Check out the tweet thread to see all the names people threw out.
As you know, I’ve been concerned about the general decline of the elite in America, and also about how contemporary Protestantism punches far below its historic weight in America despite Protestants still being a plurality of the population.
I’m very interested in identifying Protestants who are operating as Protestants at the top levels of society.
To that end, I’ve opened comments on this post to everyone. If you have thoughts or suggestions, please share.
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Featured Image Credit: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0
I believe that William Lane Craig fits the bill fairly well. He is identifiably Protestant (Baptist), has made several high-level intellectual contributions in the area of philosophy of religion and theology (ex. the Kalam Cosmological Argument), and is reasonably well-known.
Perhaps its the circles I run in, but West and Michael Eric Dyson seem like solid examples. I am a Catholic, so perhaps it is due to personal blind spots, but I would have a hard time coming up with many others.