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Why Tyler Cowen Doesn't Meet Protestant Intellectuals
There may be fewer evangelical intellectuals but that's not the only reason Cowen doesn't meet them
Tyler Cowen is an economist and public intellectual who is the main writer at Marginal Revolution. When he linked to my recent piece in City Journal about North vs. South Appalachia, I had more people write to me to tell me about it than about any other mention I’ve ever gotten. He’s a very popular guy.
He recently put up a short post about how more and more of the classical liberals he meets are religious. I noticed this nugget in there.
If a meet an intellectual non-Leftist, increasingly they are Nietzschean, compared to days of yore. But if they are classical liberal instead, typically they are religious as well. That could be Catholic or Jewish or LDS or Eastern Orthodox, with some Protestant thrown into the mix, but Protestants coming in last. [emphasis added]
I have a few thoughts about why Cowen meets so few Protestant intellectuals.
First, Protestant intellectuals tend not to center their Protestant identity in the way Catholics do. For example, Robert George, Amy Coney Barrett, Patrick Deneen, and Duncan Stroik are all people for whom their Catholic identity is central to their public persona.
Perhaps for cultural reasons, Protestants tend not to do that. There are some Episcopalians among movement conservatism leaders, for example, but they are very quiet about it. In fact, when I researched the religious background of leaders of conservative organizations a while back, I actually had to ask most of the Episcopalians personally to figure out their religion because it wasn’t online anywhere I could find. Evangelicals seem to be in the same. In a previous post, I noted that the person I think is the top evangelical public intellectual is someone I couldn’t actually list because he has never to the best of my knowledge publicly stated he is a Protestant.
Secondly, Catholics have institutions and networks designed to publicly support and promote their intellectuals. Protestants don’t have that. For example, I had coffee this morning with someone who is a retired chemist. He got his Ph.D. at Harvard under Robert Burns Woodward, who was a Nobel Prize winner and the leading organic chemist of the 20th century. This person was at the top of his class and went on to a highly successful research career in the pharmaceutical industry. He’s presently working on writing about the relationship between Reformed theology and science. But nobody in the evangelical world even knows about him.
You would think that after decades of bemoaning the “scandal of the evangelical mind,” we would be heavily promoting the world class scientists and other intellectual figures we have. But that isn’t the case.
I’m not a scientist but I’m not chopped liver either. I was a partner in a consulting firm, a senior fellow in a major think tank, and have written for and been cited in most of the major publications in the country (NYT, WSJ, Guardian, Atlantic, etc). But the institution that’s done the most to promote my work is the Catholic-centric First Things magazine.
Undoubtedly the best career move I could make as a writer on culture, men’s issues, and public policy would be to convert to Catholicism. That would probably open doors to opportunities I will not otherwise get.
The case of former NIH director Francis Collins is the exception that proves the rule. Evangelicals heavily promoted Collins at both the personal and institutional level. This is what Catholics are able to do for their intellectuals but which is all too rare in the evangelical world.
For more on the Catholic “intellectual ecosystem,” read this 2021 piece from Onsi Aaron Kamel on the subject.
Third, Catholicism is normative within US conservatism. As I’ve noted many times, postwar conservatism has been a heavily Catholic-Jewish project. Within the Christian wing of movement conservatism, Catholicism is essentially normative. That’s one reason that inbound converts to Catholicism have long played a significant role in conservatism. I’m told many young, ambitious conservatives in DC end up converting even today. I’m sure most of these are genuine, but the fact that conservatism is a heavily Catholic milieu surely plays something of a role. (Religion spread through social networks if nothing else). So it’s no surprise that the list of classical liberal types Cowen meets lead off with Catholics and Jews. Evangelicals may be the biggest, most important voting block in the Republican coalition, but they are not the proverbial deciders.
Fourth, there are undoubtedly some substantive problems with a lack of top flight Protestant public intellectual talent. Joel Carini just highlighted some of the cultural traits that inhibit this development. Fergus McCullough also listed some internal considerations.
Nevertheless, I would say that Cowen’s experience is not fully reflective of reality due to points one through three above. In all of them, Protestants have work to do - centering identity, creating or leveraging networks and institutions, and renegotiating their relationship with movement conservatism.
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Cover image credit: Politics and Prose Bookstore, CC BY-SA 2.0