Call Them The Evangelical Alpha Males

Terry Mattingly ( teaches at Palm Beach Atlantic University and is senior fellow for journalism at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service.
There’s Chuck Colson and James Dobson, James Kennedy and Robert Schuller, and Paul Crouch and Pat Robertson. There are many more. They are 60 years old or much older, but they still command the spotlight.

“During this decade the American Church will experience a massive turnover in … leadership,” note researchers George Barna and Mark Hatch, in their book, “Boiling Point.” If history is a guide, “the impact of many of the personality-driven ministries will fade as the primary personality departs the scene.”

Celebrities are hard to replace. That’s why a provocative thinker named Phillip E. Johnson — patriarch of the “Intelligent Design” movement — has taken a different path.

It’s not that he is terribly modest. But Johnson wants to win and he is convinced that aiming the spotlight at others is good strategy. He wants his cause to thrive after he is gone.

“One of things that the Christian world is notorious for is a celebrity style of dealing with issues,” Johnson said, speaking at a conference at Palm Beach Atlantic College (which is also where I teach). “That puts a big burden on one person. I never wanted a movement like that.”

So Johnson writes his own books, while promoting those written by his colleagues. And he keeps yielding the stage to biochemist Michael Behe, philosopher Stephen Meyer, mathematician William Dembski, worldview specialist Nancy Pearcey and a host others.

Johnson would rather be a rabbi than an Alpha Male. This is not normal. Then again, Johnson has not lived a normal, garden-variety Christian life. He is a graduate of both Harvard University and the University of Chicago School of Law and served as clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren. Then he joined the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley — a great home base for a left-of-center agnostic.

However, a personal crisis rocked Johnson’s life and he became a Christian believer, of a bookish Presbyterian stripe. Years later, he read Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis and was hooked. Johnson became convinced that the legal rhetoric being used to silence critics of Darwinian philosophy was, in fact, a secular fundamentalism.

Acting as fierce, but jolly, academic samurai, Johnson set out to slice up the scientific establishment. The result was Darwin on Trial in 1991, followed by numerous other books that have inspired and infuriated readers. Last summer, Johnson suffered a major stroke. He responded by writing yet another book, the upcoming The Right Questions.

Johnson thrives in secular settings. When he does agree to talk theology, rather than science, he refuses to march straight through the landmines in the first chapters of Genesis. Instead, he starts with the prelude to the Gospel of John, which states: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.”

After reading this, Johnson asks: “Is that true or false?”

Then he turns this scripture inside out and creates a credo for use in sanctuaries aligned with the National Center for Science Education. It sounds like this: “In the beginning were the particles and the particles somehow became complex, living stuff. And the stuff imagined god.”

After reading this, Johnson again asks: “Is that true or false?”

The movement Johnson calls “the Wedge” argues that today’s debates over science, creation and morality are, literally, clashes between people who believe there is scientific evidence that God created man and those who believe there is scientific evidence that man created God.

This debate will not be settled overnight, which is why Johnson is convinced he must not fight alone. He believes the stakes are high and getting higher.

“If there is no Creator who has a purpose for your life, then there is no such thing as sin,” he said. “Sin would mean that you are in a wrong relationship to your Creator. Well, you can’t be in the wrong relationship with the particles. They don’t care. So you don’t need a Savior, to save you from the consequences of your wrong relationship with the particles. …

“When you give away creation, you have given away everything.”