Faith in History
The Scandal of the Evangelical Experts?
Evangelicals have a knack for subculture. Christian music, Christian books, and Christian movies all enjoy a thriving business. Evangelicals have their own experts, too, popular authorities who champion causes from creationism to Christian childrearing to a uniquely spiritual founding of the United States.
Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson, authors of The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, recently confronted the evangelical experts in a New York Times editorial titled "The Evangelical Rejection of Reason." This column, a blunt condensation of the argument in their book, portrayed Christian authorities such as history writer David Barton and creationist Ken Ham as culpable for Christian anti-intellectualism.
Stephens and Giberson, Christian academics themselves, are revisiting the argument of renowned historian Mark Noll that the evangelical mind is scandalous. They deplore the way that many evangelicals and their anointed experts eschew not only mainstream science or history, but even the conclusions of many Christian academics. If Christians were open to these influences, according to the authors, their faith would grow richer and more complex, and would become less centered on the polarized positions demanded by the evangelical experts and their versions of the culture war. Stephens and Giberson take the discussion a step further by explaining how the subculture's authorities encourage evangelicals (or more commonly, "fundamentalists") to cultivate their anti-intellectual tendencies.
Stephens and Giberson's New York Times piece generated indignation in the conservative blogosphere, revealing the perils of their approach. I suspect that nearly all evangelicals in academia, and many rank-and-file Christians, would sympathize with at least some of Stephens and Giberson's concerns. (For full disclosure, note that I am a friend of Randall Stephens, and I am credited in The Anointed for helping with their chapter on evangelical history). But I am concerned that Stephens and Giberson's tone seems so hostile toward their adversaries, and toward "fundamentalists" generally, that they will reach few beyond the already convinced.
The editorial's list of topics on which evangelicals have supposedly "rejected reason" is long and eclectic: evolution, homosexuality, religion and the Founding, and spanking children. On all these topics, evangelicals have not accepted the dominant academic position on the subject, and thus, the New York Times piece implies, have rejected reason. Surely many evangelicals would be open to a reasoned discussion on some or all of these topics, but they would need to feel that Stephens and Giberson appreciate that conservative Christians have logical justifications for believing what they do. Aren't there serious reasons to believe in a literal reading of the "six days" of Genesis 1, or the historic teachings of most major religions on human sexuality, or even that the Bible's mandates to spank your children (Proverbs 13:24 etc.) remain in effect?
Thomas S. Kidd teaches history and is a Senior Fellow at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots and God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution. Follow his writings via Facebook and Twitter.