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?

Required Reading: Molly Worthen on the Intellectual Civil War among American Evangelicals

What does it mean to be an “evangelical” in America?

Molly Worthen of the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill discussed her latest book recently with Tiffany Stanley of Religion & Politics.  The interview is sprinkled with gems that make me look forward to reading Worthen’s new book, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.

apostles of reason

Of course, for those of us interested in the intersection of conservative politics and American education, the meanings of “evangelical” are always of intense interest.  Controversies over sex education, prayer in schools, and creationism often feature conservative Protestant evangelicals as main players.

What does it mean to be “evangelical?”  In this interview, Worthen suggests three central questions that define the boundaries of the evangelical experience.  As she explains them,

First, how do you reconcile faith and reason? How do you maintain one coherent way of knowing? Second, how do you become sure of your salvation? How do you meet Jesus and develop a relationship with him, to use the language that some evangelicals prefer. And third, how do you reconcile your personal faith with an increasingly pluralistic, secular public sphere?

Worthen also suggests some useful insights into the complex interaction between evangelicalism and education.  For example, how does the historically defined divide between white and black evangelicals play out in schools?  As Worthen puts it,

If you really grilled black or Latino Protestants on this question [of creationism], many of them would say, “I prefer the Genesis narrative to Darwin’s account, but do I get worked up about it? No. I’m more concerned about educational opportunities for my kids and more concerned about structural injustice.”

And of creationists in general, Worthen hits on the deeper intellectual divide at the heart of the evolution/creation trenches.  “I think it’s a mistake,” Worthen told Religion & Politics’ Stanley,

to understand creationists as “anti-science,” at least if we want to understand how they see themselves. The reality is that the creationist movement comes out of a tradition of Biblical interpretation that understands itself as deeply rationalist, deeply scientific, that rests on the premise that God’s revelation is all one, that God is perfect and unchanging, and therefore his revelation must be perfect and unchanging too. Our two modes of encountering his revelation, in scripture and in the created world, cannot contradict each other. . . . To understand reality accurately, they say, you must take as your founding assumption the truth of God’s revelation. I think that is crucial for understanding the frame of mind of creationists and how they view their project.

Of course, as Dr. Worthen knows, it meant very different things to assert this “creationist” way of knowing in 1877 than it did in 1977.  As she points out, one of the main features of the American evangelical experience has been a profound and continuing tension between the claimed authority of religious leaders and that of the wider secularizing society.

In schools, this evangelical “crisis of authority” has often played out as a continuing tension between a lingering desire to assert Protestant authority over “our” schools and a lamentation that “God has been kicked out” of American education.

One of the continuing dilemmas of religious historians has been to reconcile the mixed bag of evangelical intellectual life.  On one hand, American evangelicalism has included many of the great thinkers of the American tradition.  On the other hand, it has included in its big revival tent some of America’s most fervently anti-intellectual personalities.  I’ll look forward to reading in more detail about the ways Worthen wrestles with these perennial questions.

IN THE NEWS: Fea, Worthen, Santorum, and Civil Discourse

Three cheers for John Fea!  Fea is an American historian and blogger.  I’m a big of both his academic writing and his history-themed blog.

Fea recently criticized a piece in the New York Times about Rick Santorum’s mix of religion and politics.  The author, Molly Worthen, marred an otherwise insightful article about Santorum with some unnecessary derogatory comments about Santorum’s religious tradition.

Instead of summarizing any more, I’ll just include a slice of Fea’s conclusion here:

Let me be clear.  This post is not meant as an endorsement or rejection of Santorum’s beliefs or his candidacy. (I voted for Bob Casey Jr. in the 2006 Pennsylvania senatorial race).  It is rather written out of frustration over the way Santorum’s views are so easily dismissed, as if they are not worthy of being engaged in civil discourse or the public square. I wish Worthen would have done one of two things in this piece:
1.  Simply describe, without the gratuitous swipes, the Catholic natural law tradition that informs Santorum’s conservatism.  She is a good historian and a perceptive political reporter.
OR
2.  Directly engage with Santorum’s ideas rather than just assume that he a crazy, prejudiced bigot because his understanding of moral life comes from Thomas Aquinas.

Hear hear!