Nov 1, 2011
From Jonathan Dudley, a graduate of Yale Divinity School, a student at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and the author of Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics:
In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Karl Giberson and Randall Stephens lamented “the evangelical rejection of reason.” The lay evangelical community, they explain, would rather get its science from folks like the young-Earth creationist Ken Ham than from the evolution-believing NIH director Francis Collins, even though both are evangelicals.
As someone raised in the evangelical community, I am poignantly aware of the problem they describe. I grew up listening to James Dobson on the radio, reading books by Ken Ham, and learning to view the environmental movement as a left-wing conspiracy. I was shocked, then, when upon going off to study biology at an evangelical college, I discovered that the vast majority of professors at such colleges accept evolution and support the environmental movement.
Why is there such a disconnect between the lay evangelical community and the best evangelical scholars when it comes to science? In my book Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics, in addition to critiquing popular evangelical beliefs, I also explore the sources of this discrepancy.
Lay evangelicals evaluate the arguments made by “experts” in a manner different from many non-evangelicals. The latter will often ask: How prestigious is her academic pedigree? Is she representing the consensus of similarly credentialed experts? Insofar as I can understand her arguments, do they convince me? Lay evangelicals ask different questions: How good of a Christian is this guy? (Or, in evangelical parlance, “How is his walk with the LORD?”) How closely do his arguments line up with my understanding of the Bible? Is this guy one of us?
Evangelicals also tend to come under the sway of those with the biggest microphones, not the best arguments. Although many evangelical scholars are also capable of projecting piety, they rarely have the resources to flood the airwaves or the communication skills to connect with the average believer. What’s more, evangelical scholars, despite often lamenting the intellectual problems with the lay community, are generally more interested in pursuing scholarship than becoming the type of rousing, populist leader necessary to redirect evangelical Christianity.
The evangelical community also keeps its scholars in check. When a college’s base of donors, prospective students, and even board of trustees are made up of lay evangelicals, this places severe limits on what its scholars can say publicly. This fact became apparent at my alma mater, Calvin College, when public outcry and the powers that be combined to silence two scholars advocating the acceptance of human evolution.
A final major source of this disconnect is the evangelical community’s understanding of the Bible. Most lay evangelicals understand the Bible as offering all they need to know on matters ranging from the origin of species to imminent destruction of the Earth. This notion makes experts unnecessary to form valid beliefs. But it is also untenable; what communities think is the “clear teaching of the Bible” varies throughout time and among cultures in a manner that can be directly traced to different starting beliefs. How lay evangelicals interpret the Bible, ultimately, reflects how those they take as authority figures interpret it.
The disconnect between lay evangelicals and scholars is a problem with tremendous consequences, both for politics and for the level of scientific literacy in America. The vast majority of evangelicals are lay people, and thus, their beliefs, and not those of their scholars, are what end up mattering politically. What the lay evangelical community believes about evolution or global warming impacts which GOP candidates will succeed (Jon Huntsman doomed his campaign by voicing his belief in science on both issues). It impacts how much support will exist in the House and Senate for legislation dealing with climate change. It impacts what local school boards will teach in public schools about human origins.
It’s a problem, therefore, that affects every American. The first step to addressing it is to understand that. Secular America often laments the impact of evangelicals in politics, thinking their anti-intellectualism is inherent in evangelical Christianity. But as the community’s scholars demonstrate, it doesn’t have to be this way. The real question is how to replace the James Dobsons and Ken Hams of the world with their more qualified evangelical counterparts.