[a few thoughts composed on my iPhone on the shore of Little Platte Lake]
Someone has said that academic squabbles are so nasty only because they are so unimportant. Nonetheless, many academics like to see themselves as “courageous”–exhibiting intellectual heroism, taking stands that are unpopular, leading to some kind of “martyrdom.” This is the kind of “courage” you claim when you’ve dodged the draft and type with hands never blemished by a callous.
This self-understanding of academic “courage” takes specific forms among Christian scholars, and is perhaps ramped up by adding religious stakes to the mix. Again, the scholar likes to imagine himself or herself as “courageous” for saying unpopular things, for speaking truth to power, for questioning the status quo.
There are “progressive” versions of this in which the courageous scholar-martyr is marginalized by evangelicalism for taking unpopular stands that are nonetheless supported by “science” or “justice” or “democracy” or “experience” or what have you. As a result s/he is critcized, bullied, rejected, ostracized, ignored, excluded, etc. But the courageous scholar is willing to endure such sacrifices for the sake of Truth, Justice, Science, Progress, Diversity, etc.
But progressives don’t have the corner on the courage market. There are conservative Christian scholars who tell themselves the same story: they are willing to risk marginalization, exclusion, derision, even appearing the fool in order to stand up for The Truth against academic trends, intellectual fads, and the temptations that roll into the university under the guise of Progress.
But when one looks at these scenarios more closely, I think one will see that, in fact, neither is risking very much. Those “courageous” progressives don’t really value the opinions or affirmations of conservative evangelicalism anyway. What they really value, long for, and try to curry is the favor of “the Enlightened”–whether that’s the mainstream academy or the progressive chattering class who police our cultural mores of tolerance. Sure, these “courageous” progressives will take fire from conservative evangelicals–but that’s not a loss or sacrifice for them. Indeed, their own self-understanding is fueled by such criticism. In other words, these stands don’t take “courage” at all; they don’t stand to lose anything with those they truly value.
Similarly, “courageous” conservatives who “stand up” to the progressive academy aren’t putting much at risk because that’s not where they look for validation and it’s not where their professional identities are invested. They are usually “populists” (in a fairly technical sense of the word) whose professional lives are much more closely tethered to the church and popular opinion. And in those sectors, “standing up to” the academy isn’t a risk at all–it’s a way to win praise. When your so-called contrarian stands win favor from those you value most…well, it’s hard to see how “courage” applies.
But here’s what we don’t often see: Christian scholars who have vested their professional lives in the mainstream academy willing to take stands that would be unpopular at the MLA or APA or AAR. Conversely, we don’t see many conservative scholars willing to defend positions that would jeapordize their favored status with popular evangelicalism.
Now both of those options would require courage.