McGraw speaks to the Record about political theory and the social sciences
By Micah McIntyre
In an office lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves of books ranging from Plato’s “Republic” to volumes about Russian politics, Bryan McGraw fills out paperwork in preparation for his new position as Dean of Social Sciences. He will oversee the departments of politics and international relations, business and economics, sociology and anthropology and urban studies. McGraw — who received his Ph.D. from Harvard and taught at the University of Georgia, Notre Dame and Pepperdine before coming to Wheaton in 2008 — served as Chair of Politics and International Relations for the past three years. In 2010, McGraw published his first book, “Faith in Politics: Religion and Liberal Democracy.” Since then, he has continued to study the relationship between the Christian faith and politics. McGraw sat down with the Record to talk about his new role.
What brought you to Wheaton College?
The first job I got was actually at Pepperdine and I might be the only person in history to choose the Western Chicago suburbs over Malibu, Cali. This time of year is a particularly painful reminder of that. But Wheaton offered me a job. That’s the thing about political theorists — it’s a terrible job market. There’s not some great movement of God’s spirit but I was open to being in a lot of different places. This is the place that I landed.
With such a wide range of interests and extensive list of areas of expertise, is there a particular topic you love to teach or study the most?
I am finally doing political theory. On the research and writing questions, I am endlessly fascinated by trying to figure out how pluralist liberal democracies intersect with religion. I find myself continually drawn back to those questions. On the flip side, I am really fascinated by how Christians interact with pluralist democracies and that’s what I really love. I didn’t start doing political theory until I was in my Ph.D. program. I went back and I read my master’s thesis and my undergraduate honors theses and realized that I had kind of been doing political theory all along.
You mentioned that the integration of faith and politics is a big interest of yours. As the new Dean of Social Sciences, what are some of the ways you are looking to integrate faith into such a wide variety of subjects?
My job as dean is to help create conditions in which the faculty of the various disciplines are doing it themselves. There are, of course, ways in which we overlap and interact, that’s all quite natural. That’s kind of the way I see my role in that regard: My job is to help them do their job.
Is there a specific program or anything in particular that you are especially excited for?
I am excited to help continue to grow both the Center of Urban Engagement and the Center for Faith, Politics and Economics. They are both centers that have done really well and I think they will do even better in the future. In addition, I want to help the faculty and students in the social sciences think a little bit more about what role the social sciences play in the Christian liberal arts. I think all of us in this division feel a little funny, in the sense that everybody knows how the humanities fit into the Christian liberal arts. Everybody looks at the natural sciences and says, “Look it’s God’s creation, of course we should understand that,” but with the social sciences, people are kind of unsure how it fits. It won’t happen overnight, but maybe we can think a little bit more about how we contribute. Obviously we contribute, but we can maybe think a little more systematically about it.
What unique contributions do you believe you bring to this position?
Political theorists are notorious for stealing from everybody. If you look at a standard book by a political theorist, they will oftentimes be citing a wide range of disciplines. That can make us sometimes like dilettantes, but it also makes us sympathetic to the fact that there a lots of things to be learned from a wide range of disciplines. A lot of my educational background is in interdisciplinary studies. I have an intuitive sympathy for the range of disciplines that are there and I think that I am reasonably well-positioned to help people out. With the new dean structure, one of the things people naturally worry about is, “Are you just going to be doing things for politics and IR,” which is fair, but I think and I hope that my background makes me a little more sympathetic and able to navigate the whole of social sciences.
You have attended and taught at a number of renowned universities across the country. What has been different about your experience here at Wheaton?
The first time I came to Wheaton’s campus was to interview for the job. The thing that I’ve found really interesting is that there are family clans that come through Wheaton. I think that’s a mark of how much people value their Wheaton experience. I think it’s also very striking how eager Wheaton students are not just to learn, but to have their lives transformed by their learning. I’ve taught lots of good students over the years at different places and they’re all fun to teach … but it’s particularly different where students feel like there is more on the line. I had a student once who wrote me a note. It was probably in the Christian Political Thought class, and he suggested in the note that the class kind of saved his faith. He was really struggling with the fact that there are so many Christians in politics who don’t seem particularly Christian in their politics and that politics itself seems not particularly hospitable to the way we ought to act as Christians. To try and figure out how to negotiate those distinctions was really important to him. That’s amazing. That’s a whole different level of what we professors are doing. I find that a decent number of students who come into class want to know what’s true and they want to live according to truth and that’s unusual for American higher education.