John Fea and Warren Throckmorton are two bloggers I enjoy reading. They both also happen to be white evangelical college professors at mainstream white evangelical institutions here in Pennsylvania. Dr. Fea, who blogs at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, is a history professor at Messiah College, while Dr. Throckmorton, whose blog is now on Patheos’ evangelical channel, teaches psychology at Grove City College.
They’re both terrific bloggers. Fea is an insightful, insatiably curious historian, and his blog is a steady supply of fascinating perspectives on early American history. His author’s corner interviews are an invaluable shortcut for keeping abreast of all sorts of important and interesting books and ideas. (He’s also a fan of the Mets and of Bruce Springsteen, indicators of wisdom and virtue.) Throckmorton can be a tenacious pitbull when he sniffs out a story. Check out his ongoing series examining financial irregularities at the mission agency Gospel for Asia — it’s an impressive, dogged pursuit of answers to important questions. In another life, Throckmorton would have made a fearsome investigative journalist.
But I’m worried for both of them. Specifically, I’m worried because this is an election year and that means that the ever-shifting goalposts of the white evangelical tribal gatekeepers may well shift between now and November. Depending on the outcome of the upcoming Republican presidential primary races, the bounds of theological acceptability could shift in such a way that both of these fine professors may end up on the outside looking in.
On the one hand, that seems unlikely. Messiah and Grove City are solid schools committed to quality academics. Science majors there study actual science — not young-Earth creationism. And their biblical and religious studies classes are taught by real scholars in those fields. They seem far-removed from the purity purges of the religious-right culture warriors.
But I might have said the same thing about Wheaton College ten years ago. Or about Southern Seminary 30 years ago.
And here is the problem: Both John Fea and Warren Throckmorton are well known and well-respected (for now) for debunking the falsehoods and fabrications of right-wing pseudo-historian David Barton and his theocratic Christian nationalism. (Here’s a link to Fea’s posts on Barton, and here are Throckmorton’s.) Right now, their work critiquing Barton and Bartonism is widely admired as a sign of integrity and a badge of honor for the evangelical institutions that employ them. But that could change, very rapidly, in the months ahead.
See, David Barton has a new job. In September, he was hired to run Keep the Promise PAC — a super-PAC supporting the candidacy of Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. Here’s how Throckmorton responded to that news:
It is surreal that Barton is in the position to spend great sums of money to promote a presidential candidate who shares his alternative view of America. Let that sink in. As strange as it seems for me to write this, Cruz could win the nomination. If so, we could have a Christian reconstruction/seven mountains theological hybrid in the White House.
Ted Cruz still seems like an unlikely nominee because, among other things, he’s deeply disliked by many of his fellow Republicans. But he’s polling well in Iowa and he’s positioning himself for a big day in the South on Super Tuesday. And right now he’s doing better than Jeb! Bush or Marco Rubio at positioning himself as the leading non-Trump candidate. Come summer, it’s possible that this is the guy the Republican Party will be rallying behind.
And if the Republican Party winds up rallying behind Ted Cruz, then the gatekeepers of white evangelicalism will fall in line. They’ll do so partly out of reflexive partisan loyalty, but partly out of financial necessity, because many of the same big donors who have contributed more than $38 million to David Barton’s pro-Cruz super-PAC are the same rich white guys who write big checks supporting mainstream evangelical institutions.
If it comes to that — if partisan identity and financial security both compel evangelical institutions to get in line in support of Ted Cruz — then it will also follow that outspoken critics of Cruz’s buddy, David Barton, will no longer be allowed to be either outspoken or critical. The boundary lines of white evangelical acceptability will shift. Barton and Bartonism will have to be included. And therefore critics of Barton and Bartonism will have to be excluded.
If Ted Cruz gets the nomination, Barton’s critics will abruptly be officially designated as “controversial” — the first step in an inexorable process of marginalization that can only be mitigated by a ritual of groveling apology that no one with integrity could ever comply with. Throckmorton’s scholarly rejection of “reparative therapy” for LGBT people may be dragged out to pressure Grove City to distance itself from this “controversial” professor. Fea may be criticized for his fondness for The Ghost of Tom Joad (Steinbeck and Guthrie are practically Marx and Lenin, after all). And I suppose having the support of the likes of me will only be a liability at that point.
Maybe I’m being overly cynical here. After all, the administrators and provosts of Messiah and Grove City clearly have more integrity and intelligence than Wheaton’s Stanton Jones and Philip Ryken. (I don’t know who those folks are at Messiah and Grove City, but a YouTube comment section has more integrity and intelligence than Jones and Ryken have demonstrated.)
And maybe the Ted Cruz campaign really isn’t going anywhere. Maybe all the fellow Republicans he’s alienated over the past few years will scuttle his prospects, or maybe his whiny, abrasive personality and the sheer nuttery of his pals like Barton and his dad will ultimately doom his candidacy. So maybe the honest critics of Bartonism won’t be facing a purge from white evangelical gatekeepers after all. Maybe Fea and Throckmorton are safe, for now.
But somebody is going to win that Republican nomination, and whoever that turns out to be — Cruz, Trump, Rubio, Bush — the gatekeepers of white evangelicalism will fall in line, and the boundaries will be redrawn, redefining what is and is not acceptable speech and behavior within the tribe. At that point, anybody might become suddenly redefined as “controversial” — whether a Barton critic or an advocate of refugee resettlement like Russell Moore.