There is one thing that secularists and Christians, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats have in common: we no longer expect our leaders to know anything. My old party has turned knowing nothing into a virtue, yet the situation is no better elsewhere.
I am a political conservative and a Christian. The two need not go together, but there are good reasons for small government, strong protection for invidual rights, and a sensible, strong foreign policy.
Good luck hearing that articulated. When I was a boy, the spokesman for conservative ideas was Bill Buckley. He was smart, but we knew he was vocalizing ideas from deeper, though less telegenic leaders. He simplified things for us, but if we cared his magazine National Review always showed its work. We could look up the sources, the real thinkers, and the research that undergirded the argument.
Buckley was a bright popularizer: a public intellectual, not an intellectual himself.
God help us, but in today’s movement Mr. Buckley would be too highbrow. What used to be our popularizers of hard ideas, became our intellectuals. After all, ideas are hard and do not get clicks. Better to go prophetic mode and create click bait headlines, even if that means saying things that are false.
This is not just a problem on the right. The left, secular or religious, now features people with no relevant academic credentials in the area in which they are opining and who have not read any of the relevant literature. The popularizers are now cut off from the idea people. The substitute is the testimony where the former Evangelical can keep speaking into middle age about his or her “disappointment” with theology that there is no evidence he or she knows.
Competence is too often dismissed as unnecessary since “everyone” knows “they” are wrong. Any stick to beat the dogs on the other team, so if the argument is not great, or the footnotes not quite right, we are still speaking in the prophetic voice a truth to power. Right?
Often this is true, but the temptation is to keep cutting corners.
Dinesh D’Souza paved the way for this career on the right. He had the right backstory, a good testimony, and a winsome speaking manner: not knowing anything did not matter. As he moved into Christian Apologetics, it became obvious he had not done the work needed, but if his arguments were shoddy, his conclusions were what we wanted to hear. Instead of demanding: “Get thee to a grad school or at least read more with some mentoring.” We let him go.
It has ended badly.
God can use an ass, of course, but nobody should aspire to be one. There are many ways to learn and not everyone can go to college or graduate school. Fortunately, books are easy to get and the Net provides a great place to meet mentors to help sharpen our ideas. We need public intellectuals, people who engage ideas and help us understand them, but we need better ones!
If we are just going to opine to our friends, then being an amateur is fine. However, the time is long past that we demand our apologists have relevant degrees, tell the truth about them, or at least do the necessary reading and research.
A movement, religion, or philosophy needs intellectuals, people who work directly with ideas, public intellectuals, people who translate those ideas to us, the folks. Don’t get me wrong, the intellectuals need not lead. Idea people sometimes are not doers, but those who do should know what to do and get the information needed.
We need reality based decisions. When I pick up a book of popular science, politics, or theology, then I am looking for a book that makes the complex comprehensible, but does not tell falsehoods in the process. Let’s do better.