Are American Evangelicals Gullible?
This question has been bothering me for decades. And for what I consider good reasons.
But first let me be clear about this: By no means would I ever believe that evangelicals are necessarily or always or only more gullible than anyone else. What I am asking is if American evangelicals TEND to be too gullible for their own or anyone else’s good? Should they be taught to be more critical in their thinking?
As I have explained here many times, but I have to re-explain it for new readers, I grew up in the “thick” of American evangelicals. My uncle, for example, was a member of the national board of the National Association of Evangelicals. I taught in three evangelical universities, graduated from an evangelical college (BA) and an evangelical seminary (MA). I served as consulting and then contributing editor of Christianity Today, the main evangelical news and opinion magazine. I have spoke at numerous evangelical churches, conferences, conventions, meetings. I have been publicly called a leading evangelical theologian and influencer.
Now, on to my concern.
It began to grow in my mind when I came to know that many of my own evangelical friends and even family members believed, uncritically, absolutely bizarre stories whose tellers claimed they were true. I knew they were not true but could not put a dent in my fellow evangelicals’ armor of belief and denial.
I will point out just a few examples.
I have long had deep interest in cults and new religions. I taught course on “America’s Cults and New Religions” (which I advertised to students as “Unsafe Sects”). My course was an elective, so, like other professors of elective courses, I had to recruit students. I kept hearing a story from students, pastors, colleagues and other evangelical influencers. It said that evangelical Christians should not study cults or heresies but only biblical truth. That way, they would know the counterfeit (heresy) when they encountered it. According to the story, told and re-told, even in Millard Erickson’s otherwise admirable systematic theology, the Secret Service does not show bank tellers counterfeit money, only real money. Finally, out of exasperation, I wrote a letter to the Secret Service asking them about this. I received back a letter (which I still have) from a SS agent saying they DO show bank tellers counterfeit money during training sessions. I was not surprised. The first time I heard the story I knew it could not be true.
Another example: the “hole to hell.” Sometime in the 1980s a story began to circulate that Russian engineers had dug the deepest hole ever dug by anyone and that they heard screams coming from the bottom of the hole. Proof of hell? So the story claimed. I kept hearing it from fellow conservative, evangelical Christians. When I first heard it I knew it wasn’t true. It was the religious equivalent of an urban legend (these are called “evangelegends”). At a family reunion the story was being passed around and believed uncritically by everyone. I dared to speak up and say that Christianity Today had published an article debunking the story. It began with some Russian atheists who set out to prove how gullible Christians are. A few of my evangelical relatives chastised me for not believing the story.
Also during the 1980s and into the 1990s many, many American evangelicals bought deeply into “Satanic panic,” believing wild stories that I never believed. One of them that “made the rounds” was about a man who claimed to have been a high priest of a Satanic cult. He published at least one book about it. Again, Christianity Today found discrepancies in his story and debunked his claims. His book and his public talks were sensational, to say the least, and many, many evangelical Americans bought into his claims uncritically and elevated them to the status of canonical. Whenever I tried to debunk the book and its claims, evangelical students, friends, relatives, etc., let me know in no uncertain terms that I was wrong even to raise questions about the man and his story about himself. I went into a Christian bookstore and saw the book for sale long after Christianity Today had exposed it as mostly, if not totally, false. The owner rebuked me and told me to leave his store.
I could go on and on in the same vein. I came to believe that American evangelicals, not all but many if not most, have in their religious DNA a tendency to believe obviously false stories of a religious nature and to follow influencers (evangelist, “Bible teachers,” preachers, writers) uncritically, even when their stories, claims, teachings, personalities, actions, lifestyles, were to me OBVIOUSLY questionable at best.
A recent example is the so-called QAnon conspiracy myth. Many American conservative evangelicals have bought into it uncritically. It’s obviously false.
Why this American evangelical weakness? I can only remember that I was taught, as a young evangelical Christian, to “doubt your taught and believe your beliefs.” In other words, I was conditioned by my American evangelical subculture, especially on the popular, “grassroots” level, NOT to think critically but to uncritically accept as true whatever people above me in “God’s chain of command” said, no matter how blatantly questionable or even untrue it seemed to me.
When and how did I acquire my critical thinking skills? I trace that back to reading. One thing my parents, very conservative evangelical Christians, did not do was censor my reading habits. I had a grandmother who had been a school teacher and she fed me and my brother books that were age-appropriate and good literature throughout our childhood years and even into our teen years. I read voraciously, on my own, books, both fiction and non-fiction, that interested me. Scientists say that reading wires the brain to think critically. I believe that was true in my case.
A real turning point for me was this incident. When I was growing up in church and in our denomination I often heard a story about a female Bible college student who was being stalked by a predator at night. She tried to think of a Bible verse to yell at him but turned around and yelled “I’m all covered with feathers” several times. That scared him and he ran away. My parents claimed to know this student. But they never said her name. I accepted the story as true until after I left home and became Baptist and heard the story told from a Baptist pulpit by a Baptist minister who placed the incident far, far away from where my parents said it happened. After the sermon I asked him if he knew who this female Bible college student was. He didn’t know. I consulted a scholar who had published books about urban legends. He had the story in his catalogue of “evangelegends” and could trace its origin back to the 19th century. According to him, nobody ever knew who the rescued student was or where it happened.
Why is this relevant to Americans today? Because…something about American evangelicals and politics. I’ll let you draw the conclusion I’m thinking of.
What is the cure, if any? Evangelical pastors need to train their congregants to think critically, especially about stories and teachings that have no basis in reality and are, on their surfaces, obviously doubtful if not just impossible, even within a biblical-Christian worldview.
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