We’re soon to publish The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, by Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson. The book is an exploration of intellectual authority within evangelicalism, a seemingly insular world in which, according to Stephens and Giberson, the teachings of dubiously credentialed leaders are favored over the word of secular experts in the arts and sciences. We invited Stephens and Giberson, who each have roots in evangelicalism, to answer a few questions about evangelical truth and its place in American life.
Q: Recent observers, including Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker, regard statements like Michele Bachmann’s endorsement of evangelical historian and philosopher Francis Schaeffer as anomalous or bizarre. But you argue that huge numbers of Americans embrace ideas like these. Can you explain how beliefs that appear extreme to outside observers can seem mainstream to their Evangelical adherents?
Many of the extreme and puzzling beliefs of evangelicals—like dinosaurs being contemporary with humans—are beliefs that they are raised with. Trusted but uninformed authorities in evangelical churches and religious schools present these ideas to laypeople and ministers so often and so convincingly that many grow up accepting them as obviously true.
Q: In The Anointed, you discuss knowledge authorities in diverse fields—history, evolutionary science, and psychology, among other domains. What threads connect these figures?
There are two threads that run through our Anointed authorities. The first is an appealing “Christianizing” of the ideas. David Barton “Christianizes” American history; Ken Ham “Christianizes” the science of our origins; James Dobson “Christianizes” social science, including the definition of the family. The “Christianizing” of these ideas, by default, undermines the credibility of secular ideas that might challenge the positions promoted by the Anointed leaders.
The second thread is old-fashioned American anti-intellectual populism. Barton, Ham, Dobson, and other Anointed leaders tend to make no effort to engage the fields they claim to represent. Barton never subjects his claims about American history to peer review in a journal. Ken Ham and James Dobson do no scientific research. In the secular world ideas get vetted in the academy through peer review in technical journals; then they appear in serious but more popular outlets; and then finally they might get discussed on the radio. The ideas of the Anointed cut out all these middlemen and appear immediately on the radio or television.
Q: What does the embrace of figures like the ones you describe in The Anointed mean for America?
Widespread acceptance of these ideas, if not reversed, portends disaster for America. Take the rejection of evolution for example, which may not be a serious social problem by itself. Anointed leaders convince their followers to reject evolution by undermining the credibility of the scientific community. The resulting widespread distrust of the scientific community—often portrayed as atheistic, anti-religious, ideological—undermines the credibility of everything the scientific community says, including its conclusions about climate change, the dangers of fracking, the importance of ecosystems, the need for vaccinating children, and so on. In the social sciences, homophobia—a social challenge under any condition—is nurtured by promoting nonsense about homosexuality being a bad life choice that can be reversed through religiously oriented therapy. And more nonsense about God condemning homosexuality. The result is ongoing marginalization and even persecution of a minority group.
Q: Do you see analogues for these kinds of beliefs elsewhere in American history? Is there something about Americans that makes us receptive to theories disproven by secular authorities?
The problems created by Anointed leaders today have ample historical precedent, which is one reason we need to be cautious. The subordination of women is an example that, to this day, is nurtured with biblical proof texts, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that women are more than capable of assuming positions of leadership and authority.
The issue for Americans is not secular authorities per se. Most Americans are fine paying good money for “secular” expertise from their dentists, surgeons, and landscapers. The issue is anti-intellectual populism, which resonates deeply with evangelical self-understanding. We celebrate the resourceful “cowboy” who can make his own way on the frontier, without the support of a social safety net; we love the moral simplicity of “Dirty Harry” because he does what is right, even in the face of a complicated bureaucratic system that opposes him. There is something deeply “American” about Rick Perry telling a schoolboy that in Texas children are taught “both creation and evolution” and encouraged to make up their own minds because they are “smart enough.” This is utter nonsense, of course, but it has great popular appeal.
We should be very fearful of a populist Republican administration that would, through the Supreme Court, remove the barriers that have kept creationism and intelligent design out of our public schools. All we have to do is look at the curriculum in evangelical schools to see what such an administration would intuitively think was the best for America’s children.
[For more, read Karl W. Giberson’s HUP Blog post on the Anointed leaders of the religious right from this past May, a recent post by Randall J. Stephens on the Religion in American History blog, or listen to a radio interview with Stephens.]