Getting It Wrong at The Atlantic

Watch out!  A couple of recent articles in The Atlantic dish out some misleading histories of Fundamentalist America.  It would be easy for those of us trying to understand FA to be confused.

First, let me say that I get it: Fundamentalist America is not easy to understand.  As Kevin White has noted recently on Mere Orthodoxy, this is true even for those who consider themselves FA citizens.  Even among only conservative evangelical Protestantism, we can be dazzled and confused by what historian Timothy L. Smith called the “kaleidoscope” of American evangelicalism.  Once we add conservative Catholics, cultural traditionalists, Burkean conservatives, free-market ideologues, etc. etc. etc…., mapping out a sensible understanding of Fundamentalist America can seem like an overwhelming task.  For those raised in the traditions of Tradition, this kaleidoscope can be bewildering.  And it can be even more so for those of us trying to understand Fundamentalist America from the outside.

I understand this difficulty.  I sympathize.  In the case of the recent articles in The Atlantic, neither author set out to mislead.  Unfortunately, each of them got it wrong.

First, Jonathan Merritt reflects on the thirty-third anniversary of the Christian Right.  Merritt pegs the founding of the “modern” religious Right in America to Jerry Falwell’s founding of the Moral Majority in June, 1979.  As Merritt argues,

“Previously, Evangelical Christians had been reticent to engage in partisan politics. But the cultural revolution of the 1960s brought on a blitzkrieg of social changes that left many religious conservatives feeling as if their way of life was being threatened. In response, the faithful flooded the public square — millions of them under the Moral Majority’s banner — to influence national elections and legislation. Standing tall at the helm of the movement was the silver-haired Falwell, a man whose presence could silence a room and whose rhetoric would often rouse it to raucousness.”

There is some truth to this, but only if we understand it in a very limited way.  Only if we put the emphasis of this entire paragraph on the word “partisan” does this give an accurate impression of the history of activism by religious conservatives.  A sensible reader might read this paragraph and conclude that it was not until 1979 that religious and cultural conservatives “flooded the public square.”  A reader might think that only the “blitzkrieg of social changes” from the late 1960s and 1970s spurred religious conservatives to public action.

This is a woefully misleading impression of the nature of conservative religious activism in America.  Even if we leave out the enormously important “long history” of Great Awakenings, abolitionism, and temperance, we have a twentieth century chock-full of religious activists working to maintain a traditional Godly public square.

And this activism did not differ in essence from that of later, post-1979 religious conservatives.  In the 1920s, for instance, the threat of evolution in public schools and the weakening of Biblical morality in public life spurred conservatives to action.  In the 1940s and 1950s, conservatives’ perceptions of a rapidly changing social order gave rise to new organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals, and culture-changing revival campaigns like those of Billy Graham.

It is true that these cultural campaigns did not seize on partisan politics with vigor until the late 1970s.  Most conservative Christian activists did not see themselves as working within the confines of the Republican Party until that time.  But the implication that conservative religious folks had been somehow quiescent in earlier decades gives a very misleading impression of the history of Fundamentalist America.

Atlantic Editor Robert Wright offers up the next flawed history.  Wright suggests that the recent aggressive atheism of prominent evolutionists has led conservative religious people to turn away from science altogether.  He argues,

“I do think that in recent years disagreement over evolution has become more politically charged, more acrimonious, and that the rancor may be affecting other science-related policy areas, such as climate change.

“My theory is highly conjectural, but here goes:

“A few decades ago, Darwinians and creationists had a de facto nonaggression pact: Creationists would let Darwinians reign in biology class, and otherwise Darwinians would leave creationists alone. The deal worked. I went to a public high school in a pretty religious part of the country–south-central Texas–and I don’t remember anyone complaining about sophomores being taught natural selection. It just wasn’t an issue.

“A few years ago, such biologists as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers started violating the nonaggression pact. I don’t just mean they professed atheism–many Darwinians had long done that; I mean they started proselytizing, ridiculing the faithful, and talking as if religion was an inherently pernicious thing. They not only highlighted the previously subdued tension between Darwinism and creationism but depicted Darwinism as the enemy of religion more broadly.”

I take Wright’s point to be less about the history of creationism and more about evolutionists’ strategy.  I agree that it will continue to be counterproductive for evolutionists to insist that evolution and religion must be eternally at odds.  As Wright concludes, “if somebody wants to convince a fundamentalist Christian that climate scientists aren’t to be trusted, the Christian’s prior association of scientists like Dawkins with evil makes that job easier.”  Fair enough.

But his admittedly conjectural assertions about a “non-aggression pact” between creationists and evolutionists suggests a dangerously false understanding of history.  As I’m sure he would readily admit, the evidence from his own high-school career does not adequately sum up the American experience.  The notion that Dawkins and Myers represent a new element in the creation/evolution debates underestimates the importance of the long history of activism by the likes of Robert Ingersoll and Thomas Henry Huxley.  Both promoted “freethought,” what a later age would call atheism or agnosticism.  And both were associated firmly in the public mind with Darwinian evolution.  Indeed, Huxley relished his nickname, “Darwin’s Bulldog.”  As Huxley wrote to Darwin,

“And as to the curs which will bark and yelp — you must recollect that some of your friends at any rate are endowed with an amount of combativeness which (though you have often & justly rebuked it) may stand you in good stead — I am sharpening up my claws and beak in readiness.”

Such aggressive evolutionism has been associated in the public mind with a combative anti-theism for as long as the public has wondered about creationism and evolutionism.  In addition, Wright’s suggestion that creationists had tacitly agreed to “let Darwinians reign in biology class” until recently woefully misses the historical boat.  Since the 1920s, conservative activists have worked energetically and consistently to make sure Darwin did not so reign.  Most famously, the 1920s saw the issue come to a public head with the Scopes “Monkey” trial in Tennessee.  But unlike the persistent Inherit-the-Wind myth suggests, creationists did not crawl back to their isolated hollers after that 1925 trial.

It is notoriously difficult to know what goes on behind closed classroom doors, but the available evidence suggests that anti-evolution sentiment remained both powerful and polticially active in every decade of the twentieth century.  One large-scale study in 1942, for example, asked thousands of high-school biology teachers about their teaching.  The survey authors concluded that evolution was taught in “notably less than half of the high schools of the United States.”  And of those schools in which evolution was taught, the study authors concluded that it was “frequently diluted beyond recognition,” either by pairing it with the teaching of special creation, or by the separation of human origins from the idea of organic evolution.  Other studies found similar results.

More recently, Michael B. Berkman and Eric Plutzer confirmed the continuing tendency of American teachers to avoid teaching evolution.  Their study of 926 US public high school biology teachers found a sizeable minority (28%) who reported to teach evolution.  It also found a smaller but still significant group (13%) who reported teaching creation.  The large middle, what Berkman and Plutzer call the “Cautious 60%,” teach a mish-mash of creationism and evolution.  One important reason teachers gave for skipping evolution is an understandable desire to avoid controversy.  In other words, in twenty-first century America as in 1920s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s America, anti-evolution sentiment dictated large percentages of education policy.

Unlike the picture Wright paints, however, this is not a recent development but a generations-old cultural trend.  The suggestion that recent Gallup poll data mark any significant change in America’s enduring trench lines in this culture-war front is misleading.

My hunch is that neither of these authors hoped to use their misunderstandings of the history of Fundamentalist America as a weapon.  My hunch is that both of them sincerely believe in the historical narratives they deliver.  However, this understanding of the history of conservative religious activism in public life is not merely neutral.  It promotes a myth that religious Americans in the past did not participate in politics; it suggests that recent conservative cultural activism represents a break from American traditions.

Let me be clear: I do not object to this misuse of history for partisan reasons.  I do not hope to promote the values or agendas of Fundamentalist America.  But I do object as an historian.  If we hope to understand Fundamentalist America, we need to be honest and fair about its history.  Suggesting that an activist conservative Christianity, or a defensive creationist community, are somehow recent developments distorts that history in pernicious ways.

Further reading: Oscar Riddle, F.L. Fitzpatrick, H.B. Glass, B.C. Gruenberg, D.F. Miller, E.W. Sinnott, eds., The Teaching of Biology in Secondary Schools of the United States: A Report of Results from a Questionnaire (Washington, DC: Union of American Biological Sciences, 1942); Estelle R. Laba and Eugene W. Gross, “Evolution Slighted in High-School Biology,” Clearing House 24 (March 1950); Michael B. Berkman and Eric Pluzter, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms (Cambridge University Press, 2010); George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, Exp. Ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).

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2 Comments

  1. You couldn’t be more right about the kaleidoscope of belief. I feel like I have a good grip on many parts of it, having been raised in the Word of Faith, attending a charismatic (but not so Word of Faith) church, and using a Southern Baptist curriculum. Still, explaining it to other people is difficult. The temptation to say “this is what fundamentalists believe” is tempting and always misleading. I can’t believe this isn’t a stumbling block to more fundamentalists. If you’ve got (say) five disparate, vehemently disagreeing groups, all claiming to base their beliefs literally on one, supposedly inerrant, text, what are you supposed to include? Presumably they do conclude all the others are stupid, ignorant, or crazy. It’s much simpler to assume the text isn’t inerrant or can’t be taken literally.

    Anyway, starting today and continuing until Wednesday, I’m running a three part series on why I think fundamentalism is actually dangerous. I know you disagree with that assertion, and for that reason I would love it if you could stop by and give me your opinions. Today I’ve written about Masonic conspiracy theories within fundamentalism. I’d love your take on this. See also http://www.skepdic.com/illuminati.html

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  2. Jesus was not a Utopian socialist, he was liinvg in the reality of the world. He knew better than anyone alive just what needed to be done. Jesus was a humanitarian. He gave us three ways to aid the poor and needy and none of them included the government. They included:1. Families were required by the laws of Moses to care for, feed, house and clothe the needy, poor, widowed and orphaned of their own households and extended family groups.2. Every three years the church was required to set aside their tithes to give to the poor and needy, but not all who ask are to receive assistance. Those who are capable of working but refuse to are not to receive aid, those who have family nearby were to go home to their families and lastly widows under 60 were expected to remarry if possible.3. Individuals who were capable were to go out in secret and give alms to the needy and poor, but to do it quietly and never in public. In public, it would shame the receiver and show pride in the giver, a sin.Conservatives want to help people, they love their fellow man, but they think that there are smarter and more efficient ways to get assistance to the needy people. It is more efficient, more transparent,much more pleasing and personal to let local churches, organizations and individuals give out aid. The government is inept, corrupt, bloated and uncaring when it comes to individuals, wouldn’t you prefer Personal care from someone you can trust?

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