Are Christians Extra Post-Truth?

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Do you buy it?

I know a lot of SAGLRROILYBYGTH, unlike me, hail from evangelical intellectual backgrounds. And a lot of us have read and pondered Molly Worthen’s recent argument that evangelical Protestantism has midwived a “post-truth” culture. Is she right? Or is this merely true of every American intellectual subculture?

First, some of the usual disclaimers: I’m not neutral. I’m a big fan of Professor Worthen’s work. Her book about the twentieth-century history of the evangelical intellectual tradition is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in the history of American religion, politics, and culture.

I leaned on it heavily in my book about evangelical and fundamentalist higher education. Molly even kindly agreed to read and comment on my manuscript, helping me sharpen up my argument. So I’m biased.apostles of reason

But I think I can put that to one side to consider her latest broadside. What does she say? It’s worth your time to read the whole thing. To get our discussion going, however, here’s her argument in a nutshell:

Evangelicals like Rachel Held Evans were “taught to distrust information coming from the scientific or media elite because these sources did not hold a ‘biblical worldview.’”

At evangelical colleges, Worthen points out, faculty members have often been surprisingly free to teach evolution and biblical skepticism. Yet the deeply embedded evangelical suspicion of mainstream knowledge has led many of them to do “a little bit of a dance with parents.”

Evangelicals, Worthen argues, have long taught themselves to look askance at mainstream sources of information. When it comes to recent harrumphs over “post-truth” politics and charges of “fake news,” she writes, evangelicals find “nothing new.”

What do you think?

To my mind, Professor Worthen’s insight is valuable. Evangelical Christians have been taught for so long to be skeptical of mainstream truthiness that they certainly seem uniquely primed to jump on the post-truth bandwagon. And, as I’ve argued elsewhere, many of Trump’s post-truth themes have long been trump-eted (sorry) on the campuses of evangelical colleges and universities.

But I’m also a little stumped. Couldn’t we say similar things about ANY intellectual subculture? Since the Sixties, for example, left-leaning intellectuals have insisted on the untrustworthiness of mainstream news sources. It all came from “The Man,” after all.

So when I hear of a well-meaning neo-hippie doubting the truthiness of vaccinations, isn’t it the same thing as an evangelical doubting the truthiness of climate change? When I hear of an organcy Trader-Joe shopper turning up his nose at genetically modified crops, isn’t it the same thing as a fundamentalist pooh-poohing evolutionary science?

Is there anything here unique to the evangelical intellectual tradition? Aren’t we all just as guilty of creating a post-truth society?

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2 Comments

  1. Worthen seems to be stating the obvious, but her suggestion that evangelicals will heal themselves seems completely baseless. She would have done better to set them in context of the larger problems of the day. Worthen knows the intellectual pedigree of presuppositionalism — it’s a Dutch-American Calvinist offshoot of the crisis literature between the wars kicked off by Edmund Husserl and other European thinkers. It is therefore very much tied up in the spirit and crises of the Weimar era, the situation of ethnic and religious minorities (primarily Jewish Europeans), and of faith generally within the modern state. Since then, the foundational assumptions of western scientific/theoretical thought, Enlightenment rationality, and the liberal state have remained in a suspended legitimation crisis, at least from the continental perspective, and periods of instability (the wars, decolonisation, 1968, the new nationalism) bring it to a head that Anglo-American pragmatists can’t ignore.

    Yes there are left and right wing expressions of this undying “crisis of the west,” each resorting at their basest to the cynic’s nuclear option of extreme relativism and subjectivism. Your shots at “antivaxxers” and “hippies” aren’t very good examples though; behind both insult terms there’s a broad spectrum of people and perspectives who mostly accept modern scientific rationality but have valid questions about the facts and values of the pharmacological and agricultural industries. Outside the US high caution about vaccines and GMOs is accommodated rather than demonized. The better example for you from the left would be various “postmodern theorists” who may reject the idea that facts and values can ever be distinct or agreed upon apart from a totalizing, hegemonic ideology that enforces what counts as fact or value. This is a perfectly valid position, however, and one that has to be taken seriously. But when it is brought indelicately into the public discourse of a democratic republic reduced to screaming “talk shows,” it is toxic. People will divide absolutely and regard their opponents as having stepped out of reason and reality; divisive political issues become existential conflicts and each side views the other as suicidal, so then democracy becomes a suicide pact.

    The perennial and pragmatic solution is to resolve the matter by force, by more or less authoritarian means, but there is also a simultaneous tendency for most people (especially the elites) to line up according to their sense of self-interest. Who is doing more harm, Fundamentalists/Evangelicals or the organic food loving “hippies”? The latter are not even a political bloc; they cross other categories and include religious conservatives.

    If your point is that “we” in some kind of petty identity politics all reject the facts, values, and reasoning of our enemies and therefore can’t fault anyone else for doing this I think that’s a pretty cynical game of relativism itself. Have hippies spent millions of dollars and decades of effort trying to dismantle the idea of secularism as religious neutrality and the separation of church and state without any alternative model that is not totalist and theocratic in nature? Have moms worried about HPV vaccines voted in an administration intent on increasing world instability and conflict? Has anyone on the left proposed (and enacted, in other countries) differential civil rights legislation that allows religious freedom to mean the right to deny the rights (or even the existence) of sexual minorities?

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  2. Agellius

     /  April 18, 2017

    I think also of liberal hippie types who are skeptical of mainstream medicine and only trust “natural remedies”. Those who say the U.S. is fundamentally racist claim that mainstream values are racist at their core, indeed I have heard it argued that mainstream ways of arriving at truth — logic and science — are themselves inherently racist methods designed to perpetuate the racist paradigm. Various groups mistrust the mainstream media, government, the medical establishment, the corporate establishment, the academic establishment, for various reasons. Basically anyone outside the mainstream in one way or another, in order to justify his non-mainstream stance, professes skepticism of the mainstream.

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