In 1925, state legislatures began passing laws against teaching evolution. The ACLU stepped in to test the law in Tennessee using high school teacher John Scopes. William Jennings Bryan was the spokesman for the fundamentalists; the ACLU had Clarence Darrow for the teacher’s defense.
The infamous “Monkey Trial” was a watershed event for Christians. Scopes and the ACLU lost the court battle proper, but it was an empty victory for believers. They abandoned the field and took refuge inside the walls of the church. Choosing cultural monasticism rather than hard-thinking engagement, they left the public square to the secularists. The disciples of Dewey, Marx, Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, Skinner and a host of others replaced the disciples of Jesus Christ in the public dialogue.
Christians were the founding fathers of the intellectual community in America, but in the years that followed, Christianity lost its claim as a player in the marketplace of ideas. As Os Guinness has pointed out, Christians had not been out-thought. They just had not been around when the thinking was being done.
In the latter part of the 20th century, that began to change. Sharp, fair-minded thinkers like Francis Schaeffer, Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, Chuck Colson—to name just a few—slowly chipped away at the stranglehold non-Christians had on the world of ideas.
Now, nearly 100 years after Scopes, we’re on the cusp of another watershed. On one side is a public square crying out for answers on a host of critical issues while the culture heats up against virtually everything Christianity stands for. On the other side is the church—also crying out for answers—tempted to withdraw into the cultural and intellectual monastery that provided sanctuary for Christians in the past but also ensured their cultural impotence.
Will the followers of Christ continue to thoughtfully engage—with truth and grace—the critical ideas in culture, or will we retreat from the public square again and take refuge behind the walls of our churches?
The pressure to withdraw comes from two sources: inside, by the church, and outside, by the culture. Since retreat leaves the flock without an adequate shepherd for the Body and leaves the church without an appropriate voice in the world, we must stay engaged for our sake and theirs. God will take care of Himself.