The evangelical world encountered another skirmish this week with the election of conservative public intellectual (and erstwhile Catholic) Dinesh D’Souza to the presidency of King’s College.
Where this fever-pitch overreaches is the mistaken belief that King’s is lessening its Protestant standards. I’m not sure how one arrives at fearing the desecration of a Protestant institution by a haphazardly Catholic who now proudly attends an evangelical church.
Opinions from both sides have weighed in on the matter. Opinions on the debate include notable Reformed church historian Carl Trueman and Francis Beckwith. Moreover, Christianity Today included a lengthy piece on the subject along with the evangelical Drudge himself, Justin Taylor, who simply highlighted the key terms of the debate.
As best as I can tell, Trueman and Beckwith disagree with the election of D’Souza as each understands it from their own respective tradition. Trueman castigates King’s for tabling the importance of their theological charter while Beckwith disagrees with the apparent minimalism from which D’Souza and King’s argues. Both men lay great importance on the disjunctive realities presented in the Catholic and Protestant debate.
While Trueman and Beckwith demonstrate fine points, Mr. D’Souza deserves our defense more than he does our evangelical antipathy. Trueman and Beckwith’s positions do not err inasmuch as I believe there are other issues to consider in this debate.
Parsing both significant and insignificant theological nuance is as important as ever, but the larger issue of cultural co-belligerency, especially in our times, reigns supreme. King’s may be perceptive in recognizing this first. And they may not be the last. And lest we assume that King’s has thrown in their hat, I don’t recall there being any official announcement that King’s is intentionally catering to Catholicism. Marvin Olasky has said as much in recent days, dismissing the rumor that King’s is an environment ripe for evangelicals converting to Catholicism.
What this issue ultimately proves is the impending necessity for both evangelicals and Catholics to work together on issues of social relevance. This is why, despite the well-articulated arguments by those opposed to the Manhattan Declaration, I believe that mild separationism will do far more harm to both evangelicals and Catholics than any perceived, minimal devitation from strict doctrinal standards. From where I stand, neither Catholics are evangelicals are willing to compromise. And that’s okay. No compromise is necessary for maintaining a vibrant Christian witness.
Particularly on the college level, it is right for stalwart evangelical colleges to remain stalwartly evangelical. The same can be said for Catholics and their institutions. What this suggests, however, is that both spectrums need not mitigate against the potential for a “third way”—colleges which are purposefully more ecumenical in blend.
Trueman and Beckwith are both right, and I stand here not as a reincarnated catalyst for Evangelicals and Catholics Together. But what I see, despite the correct distinction between colleges and seminaries, is the need for Christian colleges to stand for a strong cultural witness. This may mean, in the case of D’Souza, that such a cultural witness includes a strong political witness. Call me a latent apologist for a new Christendom, but King’s College is unique in fostering a bold Christian witness along the lines of Reformed Social Thought— a type of thought not seen as being in direct contradiction to Catholic Social Teaching in its implications for society. All disagreements aside over the lack of a “Christian consensus” on the “Christian World Life View” as Trueman calls it, the vision of King’s College is forged with a traditionally conservative political agenda. And, if I’m interpreting Trueman correctly, he’s okay with that as long as we admit our affinities. The decision of choosing D’Souza lies as much, perhaps even more so, in his political and cultural acumen than in his theological influence or for that matter, insufficiencies. Disagree with me if you will, but the terms of Christian influence in society lie more so in the crucible of ethical consensus and witness between Catholics and evangelicals than strict theological unanimity between the two.
I never want to diminish the important dividing lines of justification. There are firm, irreconcilable differences. Yet, however distant the two traditions may be on issues of soteriology, there still remains robust consensus on the sanctity of marriage and life. Such an alliance provides fertile ground for continued cultural engagement—especially in view of the diminishing significance of Christian influence in society. If we grant that King’s political and ethical witness appear to be inseparable, then the election of D’Souza is far more palatable and helpful than it is something to spurn.