CAPE TOWN, South Africa — In the spring of 1962, the Reverend Billy Graham stood before a Harvard Law School audience to deliver a lecture titled, "Evangelism and the Intellectual."
"I'm not a professor," said Graham, "I'm not an intellectual . . . I'm not a theologian.
"I am an evangelist."
Contrary to the expectations Graham's introduction sets out, his remarks were academically rigorous and theologically rich enough to elicit effusive applause from Harvard's intellectual elites.
"American evangelical Protestants, both in popular American media and even in their own minds, are often reputed for anything and everything but intellectualism," notes the website for the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs. "However, this perception fails to account for the development of an increasingly sophisticated, self-assured, and productive class of intellectuals – an emerging 'evangelical intelligentsia.'"
Timothy Samuel Shah, a visiting professor of political science at Georgetown University and a lead researcher for CURA's ongoing study of evangelical intellectualism, said this emerging "evangelical intelligentsia" was showcased in Cape Town, South Africa, during The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, often referred to as the Cape Town 2010 Congress.
Shah, who attended Cape Town 2010 to perform research for The Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, helped survey some 2,196 evangelical leaders from 166 different countries. The Congress was primarily focused on discussing international evangelism; Shah was impressed by the intellectual mettle of those gathered.
"It almost had a feeling of an academic conference," Shah said. "It was very intellectual."
The recently released results of the Pew study Shah was working on at Cape Town 2010 reveal a great deal about this new breed of evangelical leaders — both in terms of similarities and differences. For example, the study shows that evangelical leaders are almost unequivocally united in believing that Christianity is the one true faith (96 percent) and the Bible is the word of God (98 percent). Most leaders also agreed on social issues like abortion (96 percent disapproved) and homosexuality (84 percent believed it should be discouraged).
However, the survey found that evangelical leaders in the global north were more pessimistic regarding the prospects for evangelicalism in their respective countries than their peers in the global south. For example, 82 percent of the global north leaders said evangelical influence is slipping in the United States while 58 percent of global south leaders believed evangelicals were gaining influence in their countries.
While nearly all surveyed said the Bible is the word of God, they were "divided between those who say the Bible should be read literally, word-for-word (50 percent), and those who do not think that everything in the Bible should be taken literally (48 percent)," according the Pew study.
Also, approximately 42 percent felt alcohol consumption was compatible with a good Christian lifestyle, while 52 percent disagreed. They also split evenly regarding whether a belief in God is necessary to be a moral person: 49 percent said yes, and 49 percent said no.
While the survey exposed differences among these leaders, it was surprising that the vast majority of those surveyed (85 percent) were similar in one important aspect: they had graduated with a university degree. Despite impressive levels of education among evangelical leaders, contemporary stereotypes of anti-intellectualism in the evangelical movement continue to fester.
"For decades . . . American intellectuals have looked down on evangelicals," said Jay Lindsay in an article for the Associated Press, in which he referenced the work of Boston University sociologist Peter Berger. "Evangelicals say they often aren't well-understood beyond their Bible-banging, evolution-hating caricature. Many equate evangelicals with fundamentalists, an evangelical subset that interprets the Bible literally — as in the six calendar days of creation — and is home to ardent evolution opponents."
In the same AP article, Mark Noll, a noted history professor at the University of Notre Dame and an acknowledged evangelical intellectual, said stereotypes that God-fearing evangelicals are anti-science or afraid of scientific progress are false. "After all," he said, "the founders of early modern science were theists of one sort or another."
Of course, beyond early modern scientists there are plenty of current evangelical intellectuals: noted philosopher Alvin Plantinga at Notre Dame, Bancroft Prize-winning historian George Marsden also at Notre Dame, and legal scholar and Federal Judge Michael McConnell are just a few on a laundry list of significant intellectuals who are also believing evangelicals.
Yet, aside from individual names, Cape Town 2010 itself was a hotbed for intellectual engagement. Indeed, Shah compared it with the intellectual rigor during his studies at Harvard.
"I was struck by just how much evangelicals (at Cape Town 2010) were thinking hard about issues of social substance," said Shah, also an evangelical. "They were striving to combine efforts to draw people to personal faith but at the same time working to see that the people are afforded social and political justice . . . The Congress was full of mostly very educated evangelicals from around the world meeting to discuss a whole host of global issues in fairly sophisticated ways."
According to Shah, this intellectual climate is not only reflective of Cape Town 2010 but also the broader Lausanne Movement, which sponsored the Cape Town event. The Lausanne Movement had its origins with Billy Graham in 1977; its first Congress was held in Lausanne, Switzerland, in an effort to focus global evangelical leaders on evangelizing the world. Cape Town 2010 was officially the Third Lausanne Congress and carried on Graham's original vision and mission.
"[From] my experience in evangelicalism I think there are lots of people who are very comfortable with serious high-minded intellectualism," said Shah. "This is certainly the case with the Lausanne Movement and Cape Town 2010."6 comments on this story
Still, the intellectual discourse in the Lausanne Movement and at Cape Town 2010 are only half of the story. Lausanne is still very much about shared faith and religious commitments that transcend boarders. "Right along side the paper presentations, panels and break out sessions are devotional meetings," said Shah.
Fellow attendee LouAnn Stropoli, a research associate with the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, likewise commented on the devotional aspect of attending. "The Third Lausanne Congress ... was a life-changing experience," Stropoli wrote via email. "The most powerful aspect of the conference for me was the gathering of brothers and sisters from all around the world, seeking unity, love, compassion, and forgiveness in individual, national, and global perspectives."