“Experts” and Evangelical Subculture

In my recent post on platforms and publishing, I noted that certain “experts” seem to be mostly platform and little substance, and that evangelicals have a special fondness for these sorts of pop experts. Matthew Lee Anderson subsequently asked me to address the question “Why do you think evangelicals are especially vulnerable to ‘experts’?”

I am not the first person to note the evangelical experts phenomenon – Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson devoted a provocative book, The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, to the topic a couple years ago. (I reviewed The Anointed, and the problems with its approach, at Patheos in 2011.) More recently, I was tasked with leading WORLD Magazine’s coverage of conservative Christians’ growing doubts about popular history writer David Barton.

Why the evangelical attraction to writers like Barton? There are many factors, some of them particular to evangelical subculture, some of them more typical of American culture generally. Within evangelical subculture, there is a pervasive sense (one that is substantially if not entirely warranted) that elite experts, especially academic ones, are often hostile toward people of faith.

This complaint is an essential component of David Barton’s defense of his work – academics are by definition hostile toward people of real faith, he tells us. Even many so-called “Christian” history professors, Barton has said, were “basically trained by pagan professors who hate God, and they’re just repeating what they’re been told.”

Whatever you think of Barton, many observers have noted that the elite academy is often overtly or implicitly antagnostic toward those, from students to faculty job candidates, who identify as people of faith. Recent decades have seen the emergence of a remarkable cadre of openly Christian scholars, from my doctoral advisor George Marsden to the late Jean Bethke Elshtain to Princeton’s Robert George, but those voices of faith remain few and far between in top tier universities. Thus, evangelicals have gravitated toward their own experts, whether or not those experts have earned credentials in relevant fields, or have any specialized training at all.

But we can see similar trends in broader American culture. In areas from health and dieting to personal finance, Americans flock to telegenic personalities who will reveal to you “secrets” that the established authorities won’t. Call it the “Dr. Phil-ization” of America, a (clunkier-sounding) counterpart of “Oprah-ization.” Oprah and her successor Dr. Oz both depend on a parade of experts – some of them actually credentialed, some of them not – who cut to the chase and disclose the “true” path to weight loss, relational bliss, or whatever.

These experts typically have an entrepreneurial knack for delivering compelling, quasi-religious messages about the “truth.” Meanwhile, credentialed professors grumble because they don’t remotely approach the voluminous book sales or attention of the entrepreneurial pop experts.

What should evangelicals do about their subcultural experts? Most obviously, we evangelicals should realize that fame does not equal reliability or expertise. On the other hand, credentialed elites (Christian and otherwise) also need to accept that just because someone reaches a broad audience, that does not automatically mean they are a hack.

Evangelicals, and America in general, could use more people who really possess studied expertise in important subjects, who are willing to communicate that expertise to a general audience. (Blogs like the Anxious Bench or Black, White, and Gray are trying to do this in our admittedly small way.) For academics, this is going to mean that not everything can be complex, convoluted, and cynical. If we professors insist on sticking to our standard obscure mode, there will always be entrepreneurs who are willing to fill the gap left by our absence in popular and evangelical culture.

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  • Just Sayin’

    Dr. Jenkins is a prime example of an academic expert who reaches a lot of ordinary, intelligent people. I generally find history quite dull but I read his books — because they are not dull! He has a rare knack for finding an intriguing, fresh angle on an historical topic and he reels me in almost every time.

    • Thomas Kidd

      agreed!

  • Miles Mullin

    Well-done, Tommy.

  • Randy

    Well, done indeed. I’m not sure I’m convinced of Matt Anderson’s question – are evangelicals any more vulnerable to experts than Americans in general? Or any other out group?

    I think there have been really important changes over the last 20 years, stemming from the work of Mark Noll and George Marsden (okay, others too), but also the Pew Scholars Program, Harvey Fellows Program and Veritas Riff (http://veritasriff.org/), which is attempting to train evangelical scholars in ways to effectively speak to/in culture. But those are more on the academic front and not so much on the more popular side.

    One thing I appreciate about your own work is that you don’t treat that part of your audience with condescension. Others do, and it shows. And it’s annoying, as well as counter-productive.

    • Thomas Kidd

      Thank you Randy! I do think that the “scandal of the evangelical mind,” so to speak, has become less scandalous in the past 20 years. But I do think there remains a distinctive (not unique) evangelical suspicion of scholarly experts, some of it warranted.

      • Andrew Orlovsky

        Good Thoughts.My question is how do we reconcile that fact that so many scholars consider Evangelicalism to be anti-intellectual, but at the same time, as Charles Murray’s book “Coming Apart” notes, the poorest least-educated Americans are the ones who are least likely to attend church, read the bible, etc. Evangelicalism is doing a pretty good job of reaching the upper middle class professional with a bachalors degree, but seems to have trouble with both the PhD and the high school dropout. We must have a church culture that welcomes both.

  • John W. Morehead

    I’ve experienced variations of this in Evangelicalism before. Most recently this took place in a FB forum, ostensibly designed as an Evangelical-Mormon conversation page. It looked to me more like an Evangelical echo chamber put together to constantly repeat the concerns that Evangelicals have about Mormonism, followed by hand wringing as to why Mormons don’t just accept this and jump ship. When I suggested that this was more monologue than dialogue, and that my academic research, publishing, as well as popular level work supported this contention, I was quickly denounced as an ivory tower scholar with theory but no practical insights. So the Evangelical bias against the academy, not as anti-Christian but as the opposite of useful information and irrelevant to real-world concerns, reared its ugly head. I fear that the scandal of the Evangelical mind remains in pop Evangelicalism.

  • RCPreader

    I would suggest that the rush to specious “experts” who seem to say “the right things” is a longstanding function of the relative rootlessness of American Evangelical Christianity. While both Catholicism and European Protestantism emphasized strong theological/intellectual traditions (for a while in the Church of England a minister was required to read a canned sermon if he did not possess a degree from Oxford or Cambridge), America had a freewheeling frontier Christianity of largely independent, entrepreneurial preachers, who often were not terribly well educated or precisely orthodox. This has been a great source of vitality, but it has its weaknesses as well. There is less tendency to be cautious about new intellectual authorities who set themselves up, and less of an authoritative intellectual tradition through which to judge such new would-be authorities.

    I would further suggest that the co-opting of many Evangelicals by neocons which occurred in the 1980s-2000s, and the corresponding failure of many Evangelicals to discern differences between neoconservatism and a traditional conservatism more in keeping with their faith, is a related phenomenon. Somebody would say something which suggested that “he’s on our side” and there would be an uncritical rush to his corner.

    • Thomas Kidd

      Yes, I am sure both of these are true – although American evangelicals have also had intellectual heavyweights on which to draw, should they so choose. The latter trend (neocons and the substitution of Republican politics for Christianity) is an especially troubling trend.

  • RustbeltRick

    I don’t buy the argument that the elite academy is hostile to people of faith, because that would assume “the elite academy” is somehow a monolith, like “the media” or “Hollywood.” Talk to some high-ranking academics and you may hear some bash religion, while others practice it.

    • Fallulah

      The academics all “hate god” hahahahaha

  • TexasRangersFan

    Tom (this is Mark Sadler), I agree with your too brief summary. I have come to believe that this phenomenon is the result, in part, to a mixture of at least some of the following: (1) America’s love for simplicity at the expense of clarity; (2) a robust individualism that can lead to some form of subjectivism/relativism; (3) a weak to nonexistent appreciation for and employment of the humanities (If I hear STEM one more time I may go into a rage – grin- and my first undergrad major choice was physics); (4) a rejection of critical thinking that requires pacing, research, and/or more education (see #1 above); (5) a strong tendency to worship the superficial without ‘knowing’ the person(s) well; and (6) a general intellectual laziness (see Thomas Aquinas on this and why he believed people refused to think carefully). Today, many of us seem to prefer to be guided by our familiar, if flawed, biases with the result that we are affirmed. This can be seen in the misuse of the term ‘phobia’ in so many circles. In the early Hellenic academy the push against this sophistry and weak rhetoric could teach us much about ourselves.


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