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 because I disagree with the politics.  I do not hope to promote the values or agendas of Fundamentalist America; I don’t want to offer my own slanted history in rebuttal.  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).


Required Reading: Shields and the Civility of the New Right

Another reason to spend time at Mere Orthodoxy: Matthew Lee Anderson today shares his interview with Jon Shields.  Shields is the author of The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right.  Even if you don’t have time to spend with the whole book, it is worth taking a few minutes to read this interview. 

Shields elaborates on the thesis of his book, viz., that the incivility of the Christian Right has been overplayed by journalists looking for a good story.  Using interviews and a participant-observer method, Shields found that such headline-grabbing fury did not fairly represent the movement.  As Shields notes in this interview,

If one looks at Christian radio personalities or at direct mailings or at fringe organizations, belligerency is quite common. The media picks up on these latter examples partly because they are somewhat more visible, partly because they make for more interesting stories, and partly because of the sociology of the newsroom itself. So the media has identified real incivility in the Christian Right.

Of course, such distortion takes place all over the political and theological spectrum.  In my research into the history of conservative educational activism, I find that conservative writers and pundits also relied on the tactic of the hyperbolic example.  For example, the early Soviet-friendly statements of John Dewey or George Counts are often used by conservatives to demonstrate that all of progressive education is nothing but a communist plot. 

It seems to return us to the central dilemma of America’s ballyhooed culture wars.  Even though most people–even people politically, culturally, and theologically committed on issues such as abortion or gay rights–prefer to act in civil, “small-d” democratic ways, the fevered punditry of voices on each side dominate the headlines.  One religion-bashing quip by Richard Dawkins, or one minority-bashing pronouncement by Glenn Beck, does more to define the two sides than thousands of people working quietly and politely to promote their vision of America.


Required Reading: Matthew Lee Anderson on Non-Culture War Conservatism

“Why do the angry people get all the attention?” 

That was one of those audience questions that has stuck with me.  It was at a talk about the history of American creationism I gave a while ago to an audience of (mostly) committed students of biological evolution.  I had included one of my go-to bits from the aggressive atheist Richard Dawkins.  I often explain my purpose in studying conservative religion in American public life as a quest to deflate Dawkins’ 1986 warning: Anyone who does not believe in evolution, Dawkins insisted, must be “ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).”  Though I don’t believe in creationism, I think many people who are not ignorant, stupid, or insane do believe it.  Our talk turned after that to the prominence of mean-spirited, angry culture warriors.  Why do such voices get all the attention, when most of us, whatever our beliefs, would prefer a respectful dialogue?  

Yesterday at Mere Orthodoxy, Matthew Lee Anderson posted another in his series on what it would take for conservative religious Americans to create a post-culture war persona.    

Anderson suggests “four moves” that would move the public engagement of conservative religious Americans in healthier directions:

1) Recover a robust doctrine of creation that is isn’t afraid to be doctrinal.

2) Emphasize the moral imagination and attempt to construct arguments that both appeal to and buttress it.

3) Remember that the church does not simply engage the culture, including politics, but is a culture and so has her own political order.

4) Reframe American exceptionalism around America’s responsibilities rather rather than its virtues. 

As Anderson admits, some of these moves might just be restatements of the goals of the last two generations of culturally engaged evangelicalism.  Carl Henry’s call in 1947 for a “progressive Fundamentalism with a social message” comes to mind.  But for those of us from the outside, those of us trying to understand conservative religion in American public life in order to take away some of the power of all the “angry voices,” understanding Anderson’s moves (and his supporting reading lists) might be a good place to start.