Secrets and lies and the deeper scandal of the evangelical mind

Secrets and lies and the deeper scandal of the evangelical mind February 5, 2013

Question: Who wrote the second epistle to Timothy in the New Testament?

Fundamentalist preacher: Paul.

Biblical scholar: We don’t know, but Paul was long dead by the time it was probably written, so not him.

Evangelical pastor: (glances over both shoulders warily, leans in, whispering) Who’s asking?

This is another pernicious aspect to what Peter Enns described as “The Deeper Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: We Are Not Allowed to Use It.” Enns wrote:

Calling for evangelical involvement in public academic discourse is useless if trained evangelicals are legitimately afraid of what will happen to them if they do.

A more basic need is the creation of an evangelical culture where the exercise of  the evangelical mind is expected and encouraged.

But, with few exceptions, that culture does not exist. The scandal of the evangelical mind is that degrees, books, papers, and other marks of prestige are valued – provided you come to predetermined conclusions.

I think it’s actually worse than that. The culture of expectation and fear Enns describes doesn’t only require certain predetermined conclusions — reaffirmations of a particular party line. It also requires the pretense of affirming some official, party-line conclusions that most evangelical academics know to be false.

It requires duplicity, forcing us to keep certain uncomfortable truths secret or, even worse, to deny in public some things we know to be true and will acknowledge as true in private.

Shhh. Don’t mention Deutero-Isaiah, or Darwin, or human development. The truth will only get you in trouble.

This is something Karl Giberson and Randall Stephens have addressed in several articles (see this one in The New York Times) and in their book The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

But this isn’t just a problem for professional scholars and academics. It affects thousands of evangelicals with undergraduate degrees from mainstream evangelical institutions like Wheaton, Calvin and Gordon. It affects every seminary educated evangelical pastor.

Those folks studied things and learned things. And now they know things. But they also know that much of what they know is not welcome, not accepted, in the wider evangelical subculture. So they have to keep quiet, because if they say in public what they know — what they know to be true — they’ll wind up in trouble with members of their congregation or with donors to their institution or with the evangelical customers of their publishing house.

Who wrote 2 Timothy? How old is the Earth? Does carbon trap heat? Does reparative therapy produce “ex-gays”? Is contraception “abortifacient”?

Evangelical scholars and graduates — including most pastors — know the answers to such questions. But they also know what will likely happen to them if they provide accurate, honest answers to such questions. And they are, as Enns writes, “legitimately afraid of what will happen to them if they do.”

So evangelical scholars and graduates and pastors keep their mouths shut. Evangelical college students learn not to tell their evangelical parents what they’re learning in biology classes, or in geology, or astronomy, or philosophy, or Intro to New Testament. Evangelical pastors develop a knack for dodging or deflecting questions they’re afraid to answer honestly.

This evasiveness and secret-keeping is an integral — or, rather, a dis-integral — part of the education of every educated evangelical. The duplicity is baked right in.

Warren Throckmorton discusses this in a thoughtful response to Enns titled “The Scandal of the Evangelical Double Mind.”

Throckmorton is an interesting guy. He’s a conservative evangelical who teaches psychology at a conservative evangelical college. Yet he’s become known as a troublemaker because he refuses to say what he’s expected to say if he knows it isn’t true.

Throckmorton is best known around the Web for two things: For his patient, thorough criticism of “ex-gay” therapies, and for his stubbornly impatient but just as thorough debunking of David Barton’s bogus “history.”

Throckmorton’s assessment of Barton’s fabrications is no different from that of nearly every other professor at any evangelical college or seminary, or from that of nearly every graduate of any of those evangelical colleges or seminaries. We all know what Throckmorton knows — that Barton is a peddler of flagrant falsehoods. Yet many of us don’t feel free to say so forthrightly for fear of “controversy” or institutional repercussions from Barton’s many supporters in the evangelical subculture.

Barton is an extreme case. He makes such outrageous and outlandish claims that it may seem a bit safer to respond, publicly, by reasserting the facts in response to his fabrications. Thus Throckmorton is not quite as alone and unsupported in his refutation of Barton’s falsehoods as, for example, Katharine Hayhoe is in her courageous refusal to keep silent about the reality of climate science.

Both Throckmorton and Hayhoe demonstrate a candor and an integrity that goes against the grain of our scandalously duplicitous, double-minded subculture. That takes courage, but in the long run it involves less risk than the fear-driven custom of keeping some knowledge secret and giving different answers to different audiences. Such candor will expose you to criticism, to the career-killing label of “controversial,” and to retaliation from the donors who pull the strings at many evangelical institutions. But on the plus side, you won’t have to worry about being exposed as someone who tries to say different things to different people.

The big change and challenge today is this: We have the Internets now. That means such duplicity will be exposed. It’s no longer easy to get away with saying different things to different audiences.

Evangelical scholars and graduates and pastors have kept silent and kept secrets due to being “legitimately afraid of what will happen to them” if they don’t. But keeping secrets may no longer be an option.


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  • Vladmac

    Having not attended an evangelical college, I don’t know what they actually teach, but my assumption was that they would teach the sorts of things I learned in conservative evangelical churches before I went off to a “secular” school. Is that not the case? Had I gone to, say, Wheaton or Biola, would I have been taught in a biology class that my dog and I share a common ancestor? Would I have been taught in a religion class that, for example, Daniel was written long after Babylonian times and wasn’t actually prophecy in the sense of telling the future? Wow, that probably would have messed with my mind even more than learning about real science, history, etc in a secular school did …

  • Carstonio

    At first I thought this was the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome, but that story involved the simple fear of being thought a fool. What Fred describes is darker, as if the Emperor were the Queen of Hearts ordering beheadings like drinks in a bar. 

    Who are “the donors who pull the strings at many evangelical institutions”? I imagined the equivalent of Nevin Shapiro.

  • It seems like a certain episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  These people can see with their own eyes that there are four lights, but they’re being demanded to claim their are five or else suffer the repercussions.

    It also seems like a problem faced by invisible minorities.  I know someone who had to leave her only home behind because she just didn’t feel like it was safe to come out as trans where she was.  Back home, so far as anyone knows, she’s a he.  And it’s safer that way.

    But if she had come out at home, which would be at great risk to herself, then it would make it a little bit easier for a second person to do so.  And if a second person did so, it would make it easier for a third, and so on.

    People don’t want to keep who they are or what they believe secret, but being the first to come out and say, “I’m X,” is dangerous.  Being the 27th to say so is less so unless the preceding 26 were all made examples of in scary ways.

    Of course there are levels of dangerous.  No evangelical is likely to be killed for saying, “Actually I think the earth is a fair bit older than that,” but a small time pastor might end up out of a job wondering how to pay for food and housing.  An institution might find itself so low on funds due to lack of donors that they either have to hike tuition and crush their students in debt or they have to cut a lot of good programs.  Stuff like that.

  • Enoch Root

    You know when the atheists write off religion as an indoctrination into a specific cultural identity?

    Well, yah. Like that. :-)

    The duplicity is baked in so that you can ‘prove’ that you belong by taking it on faith.

    Anyone who thinks about it for ten seconds realizes that ‘gay-ism’ can’t be cured, but it’s very important that it can be cured in order to serve the doctrine. If you think it can’t be cured, then you don’t simply disagree with the point, but with the doctrine, and thus God, and it’s also clear that you hate the gays who can never be saved because their preference can’t change.

    The reason you’d hold these views is in order to belong to the community of faith. The way to belong, to have that identity, is to be willing to hold these ideas, because it proves your faith.

    It’s a sort of pseudo-faith, undertaken in order to fit in rather than engage in a larger spiritual or esoteric perspective. This pseudo-faith is on display for other people, not for God.

    This dynamic is not limited to the evangelical world by any means, but it’s completely pernicious there, which is why so many charlatans have found their place in that movement.

  • LL

    I took a History of Biblical Literature class in college. Basically, it taught all the stuff that Fred says is not allowed for evangelicals to contemplate or acknowledge. I tried to tell my mother some of this stuff (don’t ask me why, I can’t remember, if I had been smarter back then I would have just kept my mouth shut) and she refused to hear it. Seriously, if you ever want to startle the shit out of an evangelical, tell them that the books of the Bible were not written by the people they’re named for (mostly) and that there are different versions of the Bible depending on which denomination you’re talking about. 

    I wouldn’t even bother trying to tell her that whatever nonsense she supposedly believes about evolution, science, etc. is nonsense. It would be a waste of time. And she lives in Oklahoma, so she’s surrounded by dupes just like her. So the chances that she’ll one day see the light and stop listening to this bullshit are quite small. 

  • The_L1985

     I went to a very, VERY conservative Baptist Bible college for women.

    When my biology professor there realized that I knew nothing whatsoever about evolution, he looked at me like I’d grown 3 heads.

  • The_L1985

     Oh, just reading the first few verses of the book of Hosea will turn a lot of fundies green.  “Marry a wife of what?

  • As one of the “thousands of evangelicals with undergraduate degrees from mainstream evangelical institutions like Wheaton, Calvin and Gordon” I heartily agree that a tension between those “in the know” and those “in the dark” certainly exists. But I’ve never personally felt conflicted regarding issues of biblical authorship, evolution, homosexuality or contraception, nor have I felt convicted to keep some sort of vow of silence for the sake of the “naive common believer.” I’m not in any sort of public ministry so I don’t face the pressures of someone who makes their livelihood as part of the evangelical subculture, but I’ve always felt that my evangelical education properly equipped me to engage with difficult issues in a meaningful and truthful way rather than settling for some sort of pseudo-Christian doublethink.

  • Makabit

    Fundamentalists don’t read Hosea?

    I’m startled by that. If there’s one thing I assume about fundamentalist Protestants it’s that they know the text, if only by their own lights.

  • The_L1985

    No, from my experience with Sword Drills and ABC Bible Verses I can pretty well confirm that quite a few Protestants only know certain pre-approved aspects of the text.  They can recite certain pet verses and know what order the books are, but tend not to know much outside of that.

  • BC

    Talk about the Anti-Christ!  Christ:  You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.

    Anti-Christ:  The stronger your faith in the un-truth is, the more spiritual and godly you are.

  • stardreamer42

    It should be noted here that “keeping secrets” — either by complicity, or out of fear of what will happen to you if you don’t — is one of the strongest hallmarks of abusive families. 

  • Jay

    I grew up in an Evangelical environment, but when I learned more and thought things through, it pretty much all collapsed.  There wasn’t anything real there that I could find, except an unmotivated preference for compassion that I’ve tried to hold on to.

  • Otrame

    A friend mentioned to me, almost in a whisper, that the geology classes she had been taking had made her realize that the Bible was wrong.  She was frightened.  She did not want her family to know this.  She knows I am an atheist and knew she could talk about it with me.  I told her, you do not have to give up God to live in the real world.  You do have to give up worshiping the Bible like it’s a graven image. I said, if God made the world then ignoring what we find out about that world is an  insult to God. Then I sent her to read Fred.  She seems pretty happy these days. 

  • My cynical  observation is that religious right activists, in general, seem to read the Bible one verse at a time, thus conveniently ignoring historical and intratextual contexts, contradictions, changes in definitions and knowledge… 

    They seem to presume that modern era social constructs, such as “homosexuality” & “effeminate,” “race” …for that mater, “man” and “woman” … are as they have always been.. and that if they notice that they aren’t, they presume that it’s because change, time itself, is a satanic conspiracy. They act as if they are the intended audience for the books and epistles.

    Of course, I could be wrong.

  • MaryKaye

    It wasn’t until several years after I stopped being a Christian that I revisited certain Bible verses and realized that I had been expending significant mental energy, year after year, *not to consider what they might mean.*   In particular I had never been allowing myself to consider that Jesus might not have considered himself divine (cf “why do you call me good? no one is good but God alone”) or that he had expected the end of days a lot sooner.  I’m not saying I was necessarily right or wrong; but it shocked me to realize that I wasn’t *allowing* myself to think about these questions. 

    I was raised Catholic, not Evangelical.  Probably Evangelicals have more of this.

    There are probably things I don’t let myself think now, too.  I hope someday to figure out what they are.  But I am fairly sure they aren’t eating as much energy as they used to be.

  • AnonymousSam

    Yes, exactly. Exactly. This is the spirit of an Antichrist, teaching people to ignore even the cries of their own cognitive dissonance to find holiness in the worst behavior a human being can exhibit, and so much of it is specifically what Christians are not supposed to do. Hatred of the foreigner, spitting on the poor, usury, lying, condemning people to illness, putting them in prisin indefinitely…

    And loving every second of it. Feeling righteous in doing it. Thinking this is precisely what Christianity is supposed to be like.

    This is the Antichrist.Fred needn’t speculate what an Antichrist would do; we’ve been seeing it in its raw, unfettered evil form for the last couple of years now.

  • A teacher friend of mine was telling me the other day that she was shocked at her students’ lack of knowledge about the basic mythology of Christianity- she was discussing why  a planet in a sci fi story they were discussing might me called ‘New Eden’, and none of her kids knew the reference or a basic outline of the Adam and Eve story. She thought it would be nice to do a Literature of the Bible thing for at least a couple of weeks, just to get to the point where the references in the other material would connect to something, but she was worried to bring it up lest parents take offense.

    It’s funny to think that it would be the fundie parents who’d get really pissed off.

  • Tabbitha

    Thomas, at the high school where I used to teach, the  English Department created a required  unit in Biblical Literature, just so the kids will understand the Biblical allusions in literature. But the school is heavily Asian immigrants who tend not to have much of a Christian background. 

    I remember teaching World History to 7th graders in the same district. We covered major world religions. One of my students was perplexed about why Mary was called a virgin. So I explained. Another kid practically fell out of his chair laughing, exclaiming, “And people BELIEVE that?” 

  • The_L1985

     I was raised more-or-less both, and I had the same sudden epiphany while I was reading through the Old Testament.

  • Brightwater

    I think that if God were giving us the Commandments today, the first one would be: You shall not confine the Lord your God to a book, a box, a building, or any other thing made by humans.

  • Carstonio

    Your friend could do a broader Literature of Scripture class with holy books from different religions, in the interest of neutrality.

    I’ve heard of proposals to require courses in the Bible as literature, or to make it a requirement in literature courses, although they almost always sound like Trojan horses for sectarianism.

  • AnonymousSam

    Acts 7:48, Gospel of Thomas 3 and 77 seem relevant. ^^

  • Ledotter

    That’s because most people who read the bible on their own without preconceived bias become A-theists pretty quickly! My lutheran pastor made the mistake of requiring all of my confirmation class to read the WHOLE bible on our own at home!  About 2/3 of us turned into atheists and he never made that mistake again!  

  • Oh, yeah, I don’t know that it would have been a great idea for a class, it was more just a spitballed reaction to a sort of holy shit moment- both she and I are from the South, and we grew up in environments where Christianity was inescapable regardless of your actual religious beliefs. Out here in Godless Hills, Massachusetts, the kids really and genuinely aren’t compelled to know.

    It’s the kind of thing where it’s both somewhat dismaying (you don’t realize how many references to Christian concepts there are in even a low level high school Lit class until you’re with people who don’t catch them) and actually really neat, in the same way finding out they’re almost totally lacking in the socialized homophobia that I grew up with is.

  • ohiolibrarian

    My freshman year of college I was amazed that a couple of my roomies didn’t know some basic Bible stories and references. I’m not sure why I knew them. “Davy & Goliath”, perhaps. This was in 1975.

  • The_L1985

     …There is no way to read any book without bias.  The human mind practically is bias.

  • The_L1985

     My brother had a Hindu classmate in middle school, and when mythologies came up as part of World History, the poor fellow made the understandable but incorrect assumption that Jesus was the only main character in the Bible.  So when the teacher asked who delivered the 10 commandments, who was in the lion’s den, who had the coat of many colors, etc., this boy would call out “Jesus!” and be genuinely surprised that it was the wrong answer.

    BTW, you use a forward slash / to end an HTML tag, not the backslash. :)

  • Of course there aren’t any non-Christians who are unwilling to hear the most up-to-date research in different academic fields that might undermine their presuppositions about life? No? Really?

    Conclusion: evangelical Christians are human beings with similar flaws and prejudices to everybody else. Shocking.

  • A biologist’s presuppositions about life are challenged: “Life is impossible without phosphorous. Any claims to the contrary are ultimately pure science-fiction. Extensive study has shown that — what? You’ve found bacteria which substitutes arsenic for phosphorous? I don’t believe that can be right. Let me see that. … Oh. Cool!”

    An evangelical’s presuppositions about life are challenged: “The Flood was a Biblical event, and as we know, no word in the Bible is not literally true, so it must have happened exactly as described and it’s not worth debating about. What? You’ve published a paper proving that flooding that extensive would have destroyed all of civilization beyond that which a single family and generation of animals could have repaired? … You are clearly deluded by Satan, doing the Adversary’s bidding, trying to corrupt our children and destroy their faith, and I’ll see to it that no one ever takes you seriously again.”

    Yeah, it’s totally the same thing.

  • Of course, didn’t it turn out that the critter in question actually didn’t substitute arsenic for phosophorous and the whole study was fatally flawed?

  • I had to look it up, but yes, apparently so. I think it still illustrates the point though — the new information was given skepticism, but they took the time to test it all over again and verify whether it was accurate. There are still plenty of other things in science that are debated, including (until recently) the existence of the higgs boson, the age of HE 1523-0901, and for that matter — the age of the homo genus.

    I’d say academic gatekeepers are a bit easier to deal with than evangelical gatekeepers. The latter still operates like Joseph McCarthy, seeing Communists behind every questionable activity and condemning them just as fervently.