John Fea has the details of an exchange on Twitter between Tommie Kidd and Jonathan Merritt on bragging rights for expertise on evangelicalism. It started when Kidd wrote a piece that Joshua Little tweeted on the African-American poet, Phillis Wheatley, as an evangelical. Merritt responded by calling it “weird” to label Wheatley an evangelical. And from there it descended to who has given the most brain cells to the subject of evangelicalism.
Merritt tweeted with the sort of bravado others have experienced both in his opinion-based journalism and social media presence:
Btw, “endorsing Whitfield’s new birth” is considered a working definition of “evangelical” by exactly zero scholars I know.
“I know” is an important qualification since Merritt is not a scholar and his range of scholarly monographs for understanding evangelicalism is limited. But it forced Kidd to sputter back with scholars who actually do regard Wheatley as an evangelical.
Here’s Catherine Brekus (Harvard Divinity School) calling Phillis Wheatley an evangelical https://t.co/t91ftKNj9n https://t.co/8XA7RxlBwR
— Thomas S. Kidd (@ThomasSKidd) December 14, 2018
When you invoke a Harvard University professor you win, right?
John Fea piled on by questioning Merritt’s description of himself as “a public intellectual who ‘trains hundreds of young writers’ and is a ‘sought after speaker at colleges, conferences, and churches.'”
Actually, “go read my books” is something someone says when they’ve spent 2 decades studying a topic & someone on twitter, unprovoked I might add, thinks he knows more about the topic. And then when the expert corrects him the tweeter doubles-down on the criticism. https://t.co/HJwIzOoSYj
— John Fea (@JohnFea1) December 14, 2018
As an aside, when evangelical historians wanted to be on the right side of the controversy over Paige Patterson’s disregard for sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention or the Nashville Statement, they weren’t reluctant to cite Merritt’s columns/stories about the controversy. For those of us who have for sometime thought Merritt was on the obnoxious spectrum of the Myers-Briggs personality test, we didn’t trust his “investigative” reporting since as a
liberal moderate Southern Baptist he had/has some stake in the convention’s politics even while posing as a journalist and outsider.
The dispute between Kidd and Merritt does raise an interesting question about public intellectuals and academics. Russell Jacoby raised it forcefully almost thirty years ago (and re-examined recently) ago when he lamented the disappearance of writers who published in middle-brow magazines about all aspects of culture and politics. Dwight Macdonald writing for Partisan Review or Daniel Bell writing for The New Leader were examples of public intellectuals who engaged in serious debates that elevated public discussion of important topics.
For the record, Jonathan Merritt is no Dwight Macdonald.
A recent variation on this question is Daniel Drezner’s distinction between thought leaders and public intellectuals — “thought leaders are optimists, inductive reasoners and prioritizers of experience, whereas public intellectuals are pessimists, deductive reasoners and prioritizers of expertise.” If we had to put Kidd and Merritt into those boxes, then the Baylor historian replaces Merritt as the public intellectual and the journalist winds up the thought leader.
In a democracy, will numbers decide who’s perspective is correct? Since Merritt has 58k twitter followers and Kidd only 11.8k, does Merritt get to decide whether Wheatley is an evangelical?
I understand that when a journalist sits down to write a piece on deadline, he cannot read all the books that a scholar has poured over during the course of a career (or even grad school). A journalist can’t even read the four best books on the topic from university presses. He or she will have to talk to the authors of those books. But that doesn’t even get to the nub of the issue — expertise — since how will a journalist know which are the best books in an academic discipline? He might read the reviews of the most widely respected academic journal. But again, how will a journalist know whether to pick reviews from the American Historical Review or the Journal of the American Academy of Religion? Professors obtain Ph.D.’s for a reason.
And to keep the record straight, when a university hires a journalist to teach, as I heard was recently the case for Peter Beinart, who writes on foreign policy for the Atlantic, City University of New York did not set the journalist up to teach the science of international relations. Even though Beinart writes about that subject, knows experts in the field, and has likely read a few white papers, he is only competent to teach — you guessed it — journalism. To teach in a traditional academic discipline, Beinart would have to have taken lots of seminars, passed his comprehensives, and then written a passable dissertation.
The thing is, from the other side of the coin, all of that work that Beinart may have done to prove his academic chops would not give him the reputation or skills to write for the New Republic where he used to work, or for the Atlantic. Indeed, the prospect of breaking into the ranks of popular or even middle-brow magazines is a challenge and that may be why Merritt is so impressed with himself. Very few academics have access to editors of magazines, can write in an accessible way for non-academics, or keep up a regular set of submissions because the nature of writing for an academic guild requires a different kind of writing than what magazines or newspapers publish. That doesn’t stop some professors from writing about subjects in which they have no training or been vetted by the academy. It doesn’t even prevent pastors with no more than a D.Min. from speaking out (vaguely) about politics. And that may tempt you to think that as much as journalists envy the expertise of scholars, scholars envy the access of journalists. The intellectual authority of a Ph.D. only goes so far in the land of the free and home of the brave.
Where does this leave us? More people read Jonathan Merritt than Tommie Kidd and more editors and journalists read Merritt than Kidd, and this despite the fact that Kidd is one of the most productive evangelical historians who writes for first rate university and trade presses. What impresses Americans, despite our high rates of college education, is a presence in the media (from podcasts and cable news to Twitter). And yet, if Jonathan Merritt hadn’t had a father who went to seminary to study with professors who read some of Kidd’s book, and if Merritt himself had not gone to a college that only hires and grants tenure to professors with Kidd’s kind of accomplishments, he wouldn’t have a job as a writer.
At some point, journalists might want to pay it backward a little to the teachers who educated them (even indirectly).