The Wedge

Why Rockefeller Financed Scientific Naturalism

Phillip E. Johnson

The nineteenth century was a disaster for Christianity, although it began well enough. In the early 1800s the Second Great Awakening filled America with evangelical faith, leading Alexis de Tocqueville to conclude that a vibrant Christianity was an essential element of the new nation’s democracy. In Britain, such outstanding leaders as William Wilberforce and John Henry Newman provided a new direction for Anglicans and Catholics alike, thus laying the foundation for the moral renewal that characterized the reign of Victoria. Dedicated missionaries went forth to evangelize the world. It might have seemed that Enlightenment skepticism had been effectively answered.

Yet by the end of the century the fruit of that good start was withering away. A. N. Wilson’s account of Victorian apostasy in God’s Funeral gives one the sense of the air being let out of a great bag of gas, as the most perceptive intellectuals came to the conclusion, often reluctantly, that belief in the Christian God was no longer possible. This was an intellectual earthquake, in which the most important element was the cultural acceptance of Darwinism, even while Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection was in eclipse among scientists. For the most part, the Victorian intellectuals, including even agnostics like T. H. Huxley, were not in rebellion against Christian morality. Their rebellion was against the concept of a God who was not restrained by the laws of natural science. A similar apostasy occurred among intellectuals in America, so that by 1900 the universities had embarked upon the course they pursued throughout the twentieth century. The Christian premises of higher education were first downplayed and then repudiated altogether. By 1950 most elite professors were outright agnostics, and (with rare exceptions like C. S. Lewis) the others embraced a liberal or timid theology that was headed in the same direction.

I’ve often wondered what happened to the Victorians, why they had so little resistance to the virus of scientific naturalism. Those thoughts were rekindled recently when I read Titan, Ron Chernow’s superb biography of the first John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller was a lifelong devout Baptist, who enjoyed attending church and teaching Sunday school. He never paid any attention to theology, however, and seems to have had no interest in Christian doctrine as opposed to Christian behavior. His was a works religion in which the path to salvation lay in abstemious habits, the creation of wealth, and philanthropy. Later this creed merged almost effortlessly with the social gospel, as the fortune produced by personal discipline was put to the service of progressive social policies determined by experts. That Rockefeller’s faith was genuine is beyond doubt, and his philanthropy was a lifelong habit of that faith rather than a public relations strategy. Rockefeller’s philanthropy was also intelligently targeted to achieve concrete results, such as the development of scientific medicine in general and the eradication of endemic hookworm in the American South in particular.

Despite all his native shrewdness, however, Rockefeller ended up financing the destruction of his own faith. This was most evident when, intending to create a great Baptist university in Chicago, he selected the liberal biblical scholar William Rainey Harper to direct the project. Harper used the money to recruit academic superstars like John Dewey, and such choices guaranteed that the University of Chicago would be effectively agnostic before it admitted its first student, regardless of how many trustees were Baptists. This was not exactly a betrayal, but more a logical outcome of Rockefeller’s theological blindness. Chernow describes how Rockefeller’s chief assistant in philanthropy, Frederick T. Gates, was a former Baptist minister who wrote: “My religion becomes . . . simply the service of humanity in the Spirit of Jesus. It is the religion of Jesus, of science, and of evolution alike. . . . There is no essential difference between religion and morality except that the one is more intense and passionate than the other.”

Nobody seems to have told Rockefeller that a Christian university needs to stand for something more specific than a general endorsement of good deeds. Rockefeller’s devoted son, who grew up in an intensely Baptist household, proposed in a 1917 address to the Baptist Social Union that the ecumenical church of the future “would pronounce ordinance, ritual, creed, all non-essential for admission into the Kingdom of God or His Church. A life, not a creed, would be its test; what a man does, not what he professes; what he is, not what he has.” Correctly interpreted, that last sentence makes a sound point, because the best evidence of what a man believes is how he lives. We know that the senior and junior Rockefellers truly believed in using their wealth to help others, not because they said so, but because they willingly gave away so much of their fortune. To go from this evidentiary principle to the conclusion that it doesn’t much matter what a man believes, however, is to step off a cliff into the abyss of relativism. Once that lesson sinks in, it won’t much matter what a man does either.

The example of Rockefeller is only one of many illustrations of the point that it is a mistake to blame the declared enemies of religion for the present intellectually marginalized state of the Christian faith. The campaign to exclude God from the realm of knowledge succeeded mainly because the elite Christian intellectuals who advised benefactors like Rockefeller lacked discernment, and in many cases were themselves well along on the road to syncretism or apostasy. The worst of it is that, for the most part, the Christian intelligentsia hasn’t changed much.

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