The Evangelical Brain Trust

The New York Times/January 6, 2012

The central question of the culture wars that have raged since the 1970s is not whether abortion is murder or gay marriage a civil right, but whether the Enlightenment was a good thing. Many evangelical Americans think the answer is no, according to "The Anointed," a field guide to the evangelical experts you haven't heard of — but should.

Many evangelicals, Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson say, get their information on dinosaurs and fossils from Ken Ham, an Australian with a bachelor's degree from the Queensland Institute of Technology. Ham believes human reason should confirm the Bible rather than reinterpret it, and teaches that God created the world a few thousand years ago. His ministry, "Answers in Genesis," includes a radio program broadcast over more than 1,000 stations, a magazine with a circulation of 70,000 and the ­multimillion-dollar Creation Museum in Kentucky. While other evangelicals — for example Francis Collins, the born-again Christian who runs the National Institutes of Health — offer more nuanced perspectives on science's relationship to the Bible, Ham commands a far larger audience.

When it comes to history, many evangelicals reject the world-class historians in their own fold — such scholars as Mark Noll and George Marsden, who advocate a balanced account of Christianity's role in early America — in favor of the amateur David Barton's evangelical makeover of Washington and Madison.

Why would anyone heed ersatz "experts" over trained authorities far more qualified to comment on the origins of life or the worldview of the founding fathers? Drawing on case studies of evangelical gurus, Stephens and Giberson argue that intellectual authority works differently in the "parallel culture" of evangelicalism. In this world of prophecy conferences and home-­schooling curriculums, a dash of charisma, a media empire and a firm stance on the right side of the line between "us" and "them" matter more than a fancy degree.

To the evangelical experts profiled in this book, the chief purpose of science or historical research is not to expand human understanding, but to elucidate God's will. That doesn't require academic scholarship — just a "common sense" reading of the Bible and a knack for finding evidence in today's headlines rather than in the record of the past: "America's worrisome slide into immorality, liberalism and unbelief was caused by the widespread acceptance of evolution and its pernicious influence in areas like education, law, sexual mores, politics and so on," in the authors' paraphrase of creationist logic. Similarly, amateur Christian historians "have pressed history into the service of politics and religion," twisting facts to support their feelings that the country has veered from its biblical moorings.

"The Anointed" condemns the current state of evangelical intellectual life, but Stephens and Giberson avoid monolithic stereotypes. They are careful to note that evangelicals disagree wildly among themselves about almost everything. Their interview subjects range from a home-schooled Baptist who has never had a non-Christian friend to academics trained in the Ivy League. Still, a reader of "The Anointed" is likely to conclude that the average evangelical hates the academic establishment almost as much as he loves Jesus.

The authors make a strong case that serious scholars are prophets without honor in a culture in which successful leaders capitalize on "anti-intellectualism, populism, a religious free market, in- and out- group dynamics, endorsement by God and threats from Satan." The most influential expert in their pantheon, James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, studied at the University of Southern California and, early on, published research in peer-reviewed journals, but later resigned from the American Psychological Association and turned his back on secular accolades in favor of the anointing power of the evangelicals who buy his best-selling books on child-rearing.

In fact, Dobson's academic career, however brief, hints that evangelicals' attitude toward the ivory tower is more ambivalent than Stephens and Giberson suggest: the authors don't always explore the paradoxes inherent in their own evidence. The doctorate of philosophy is no Mark of the Beast, but a mark of intellectual respectability that evangelicals have long coveted. The amateur experts of "The Anointed" often style themselves "Doctors" (usually on the basis of a dubious honorary degree). Despite their anti-elitist posturing, most conservative Christian colleges have sought secular accreditation and often boast when one of their own earns a Ph.D. from a prestigious university.

This is not a new phenomenon. I recently came across a 1950 letter in which the dean of Biola College crows to a fellow fundamentalist at Providence Bible Institute that a half-dozen new hires with Ph.D.'s "will give us quite a respectable academic showing."

This pride does not mean these evangelicals embrace mainstream academic standards. On the contrary, they want it both ways: to claim the authority of reason while also defending the "Christian worldview" against the ivory tower's "secular humanism." Two centuries ago evangelicals retaliated against science's incursions on biblical authority by trying to out-­rationalize the scientists, appropriating Enlightenment principles and treating Scripture as a "storehouse of facts," as the 19th-­century theologian Charles Hodge put it. The point was that Christianity is eminently reasonable. Even the untutored layman can understand the Bible's meaning. Stephens and Giberson note their subjects' zest for "unmediated" truth, for bypassing professionals and presenting "evidence" directly to the Christian masses — just as Martin Luther, with his calls for sola Scriptura, bypassed Catholic priests. "I don't interpret Scripture; I just read it," Ken Ham says. Glenn Beck, when he made David Barton a darling of his media empire, contrasted him with historians who "bring in their own ideas instead of going back to the original sources."

At its best, evangelicals' commitment to applying the "Christian worldview" to every dimension of life has led young people to "reflect on their deepest beliefs" in a manner that "lacks a secular counterpart," Stephens and Giberson write. This is the crux of their book, and a point they might have developed further. In the Christian worldview, human reasoning, without God's guidance, will always err: faith must precede the scientific method. Serious evangelical thinkers — not just lightweights like Ham — insist that facts and values are inseparable. The theologian Michael Horton recently complained in the pages of Christianity Today that in modern America "reason rests upon public facts, faith, on private values . . . " but that "the Gospel tears down the wall between reason and faith, public and private, objective and subjective truth, by its very content."

For all evangelicals' supposed disdain for secular academia, it is telling that their favorite guru is not an undereducated quack, but a thinker that "The Anointed" mentions only in passing: C. S. Lewis. American evangelicals adore Lewis because he was an Oxford don who defended the faith in a plummy English accent, thus proving that one could be a respected intellectual and a Christian too. The "parallel culture" that "The Anointed" vividly describes, then, is not a bald rejection of Enlightenment reason, but a product of evangelicals' complex struggle to reconcile faith with the life of the mind. Self-styled experts like Ham appear to be spokesmen of certitudes. But their promises to reconcile the Bible with modern thought do not conceal that this balancing act has forced evangelicals to live in a crisis of intellectual authority — a confusion so unabating that it has become the status quo.

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