Engaging the Public Sphere

September 01, 2011

Westminster alumnus Rev. Alan R. Crippen II (MAR '89), president and founder of the John Jay Institute

The John Jay Institute is a para-academic, intercollegiate organization that prepares Christians for service and leadership in the public arena. The organization revolves around a one-year program in which post-undergraduate students complete a one-semester residency followed by a semester-long field placement. During the residency, students take courses in political theology and philosophy, American Constitutionalism, and natural law, among others. They then complete their field placement through an externship in a public policy, military or government position. Through it all, there is a commitment to orthodox, trinitarian, Christian theology.

“We’re concerned about the spiritual formation of the students,” says Crippen, who is also a non-parochial priest in the Anglican Communion. “We not only want to educate their mind, but also to form their soul and character.” 

Crippen’s vision is to prepare a new generation of ethical apologists who will publicly argue for the moral truths revealed in scripture. This vision flows from his understanding of Reformed theology as the proper lens through which to view society.

“In all the expressions of Protestantism,” he says, “it seems to be the Reformed tradition that has thought the most deeply, extensively and thoroughly about culture, all the facets of culture, everything from architecture to the arts to business ethics to political thought, political ethics, and public ethics.  It’s a very rich tradition, and that’s a tradition that Westminster schooled me in.”

Crippen’s call to public service began with the military. After graduating Philadelphia Biblical University in 1983, he felt led to serve the United States as a military officer and was commissioned in the field artillery of the army. Stationed in Germany during the tense days of the nuclear-driven Cold War, he began to wrestle with how theology could impact current events in the political realm and beyond. 

“The idea of delivering a nuclear weapon was more than a hypothetical,” he reflects. “I thought, ‘Can a Christian deal with war in a nuclear age?’ Some have argued that the best theology is done existentially: theology in the moment. For me, in the early 80’s, it was theology in the moment.  I had to have some ethical answers to my role as a soldier.”

Following his experience in the military, Crippen craved a rigorous theological curriculum that would enable him to find these 'in-the-moment' answers. This led him to Westminster.

“I wanted more,” he says.  “I wanted more theological ballast, and more orthodoxy.  [Westminster] had a great reputation for biblical, ethical, theological education. It was a school in the Reformed tradition which has a fully-orbed theology of culture and, of course, part of that culture is politics. It also had a confessional approach to education that schools its students in a tradition that is informed by scripture, history, and issues of the moment. My experience at Westminster lived up to all of that.”

As he has strived to form young Christian leaders throughout the years, Crippen has encountered new “in-the-moment” questions about how theology fits into public life. What is the best way to go about presenting theological and moral arguments in a society that is largely post-Christian and even anti-Christian? How do we affirm Christian truths in the political realm of a religiously pluralistic society?

Crippen says that, when he graduated Westminster in 1989, there were many Christians getting involved in politics, but not in the best of ways. He saw them as trying to be too “triumphalistic”, trying to take back America as a “Christian nation” without stopping to realize that we had actually become post-Christian, as Christian intellectuals such as Francis Schaeffer and C.S. Lewis had pointed out.

“They didn’t really comprehend that the game has changed,” he says.  “So, I grew up in that, in many ways sympathetic to the concern that we’ve lost the moral foundation for the American republic, and literally all hell’s breaking loose in ethics.  We’ve just lost a sense of who we are as a people, we’ve lost our narrative, we’ve lost it all.  So, the question is, how do we recover that? Working with a lot of Christians who were not really trained to do this, who have not really reflected in a deep way on our heritage, on the philosophical currents, on the theological currents, I realize that we have to look back and prepare a whole new generation of apologists.  If we’re post-Christian, and we want it to be Christian again, we’ve got to realize that we’ve got to be about apologetics.”

Crippen again credits his time at Westminster as being vital in shaping this view. Specifically, his immersion in Van Tilian presuppositional apologetics had a huge cross-over effect.

“We believe in natural law here at the institute and are operating in that heritage,” he says. “However, the foremost thing to remember about natural law is that it’s not salvific.  I think that my schooling in the Van Tilian tradition has helped me to not have unrealistic expectations about what natural law can and cannot do.  Natural law cannot save; it’s law.”

How, then, does he reconcile this difference? How should young Christian leaders in the public realm practice apologetics in their work without unrealistically attaching salvific hope to it? And how can they effect Christian change in America without stepping outside the bounds of pluralistic public discourse?

“I like how John Stott characterizes it,” he says.  “There are apologetics of two varieties. There is apologetics for the gospel that’s very evangelistic and is making a case for the truth of the gospel which has a goal towards conversion, and there’s another kind of apologetics which is also needful, and that is an ethical apologetics which argues for the moral truths as revealed in holy writ.  That’s what I think a lot of people in the public square are not good at.  So, I saw a need for young people to be skilled at that, so as to not look like crazed Bible-thumpers or fundamentalists.  The stories are still out there with some of the presidential candidates who are hawking that kind of attitude.  From a secularist perspective, they look a little frightening. Are they theocrats?  Are they theonomists?  What are they?  I think we need to be able to present a case for the idea of a transcendent moral foundation through our democratic institutions in a way that’s not threatening, in a way that’s winsome, in a way that’s not triumphalistic, and in a way that doesn’t create suspicion about some kind of theocratic takeover.  That requires a high degree of sophistication from lay people, so that’s kind of the articulated need. There’s a huge need for what we do.”

The John Jay Institute recently relocated from Colorado Springs, Colorado to Philadelphia. To find out more about the organization, visit http://www.johnjayinstitute.org/.