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Evangelical Christians in the United States have suffered their share of scandals. But perhaps the biggest scandal has nothing to do with Elmer Gantry-like antics, sexual or financial. It is what Mark Noll, a highly-regarded historian of American religion and himself an evangelical Christian, calls "the scandal of the evangelical mind."

At least a fourth of the people in the United States classify themselves in surveys as evangelical Christians. The group is probably the largest, certainly the most religiously active and potentially the most politically powerful religious force in the nation.And yet, Noll says, evangelicals have let their religious tradition sink into intellectual penury, largely bereft of the kind of vigorous intellectual life that would engage their faith with the whole array of modern learning and artistic expression.

" `The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,' " he writes in a newly published book (William B. Eerd-mans Publishing Company) by that title, "is that there is not much of an evangelical mind."

Evangelicals, he says, sponsor dozens of seminaries, scores of colleges, hundreds of radio and television outlets but not one research university and not one journal that deals with modern culture and current events on the level of The Atlantic or The New York Review of Books.

Noll, the McManis Professor of Christian Thought at the evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois, says in a preface to the book that he wrote it as "a wounded lover."

He describes himself "as one who is in love with the life of the mind but who has also been drawn to faith in Christ through the love of evangelical Protestants."

In fact, Noll is something of a contradiction to his own thesis; he is part of an evangelical intellectual revival that has been quietly growing for several decades.

Last week, for example, when the American Political Science Association held its annual convention in New York, the discussion from the floor in both a session dealing with religion and politics and a session on religion and the news media was dominated by evangelical scholars.

Indeed, much of the best empirical research on the intersection of religion and politics is being done by evangelical political scientists.