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Good News Bears

The complicated, contradictory world of evangelicals.

Oct 3, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 03 • By A. THOMAS WALKER
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The constant tension in any movement is who gets to define it, and how. Enter the debate over evangelicalism, which exists in two forms. Evangelicalism as a doctrinal movement has often been defined according to what is called the “Bebbington quadrilateral”—a strong commitment to the Bible, Christ’s atoning work, evangelism, and activism. Yet another evangelicalism, an Anglo-American phenomenon, peppers the American landscape with its own cultural signifiers. This kitsch evangelicalism, known more for its cultural oddities, consistently edges out the intellectual and doctrinal coherency of evangelicalism in popular culture.

Photo of Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Illinois

Billy Graham Center, Wheaton College, Illinois

The Anointed picks up on this theme, insisting that evangelicalism has come to be defined more by its reactionary elements—opposition to evolution, aversion to modern psychology, apocalypticism, and support for an unabashedly Christian America. So what drives evangelicals to reject the overwhelming evidence in support of evolution? Why do evangelicals insist that the Founding Fathers were devout Christians when other evangelical scholarship points to the contrary? Plagued by perpetual disputes as to what properly qualifies one as an “evangelical,” and a looming fissure among its youth, evangelicalism is facing an uncertain future in America. Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson insist that holding steady on culturally marginalized positions will not help evangelicalism in its quest for cultural relevance or intellectual coherency.

Profiling such figures as the noted creationist Ken Ham, David Barton of WallBuilders, and James Dobson of Focus on the Family, the authors search for the affinities of what draws evangelicals to the opinions of “the Anointed”—discredited spokesmen and authorities who receive celebrity-like adoration and expert-like status among evangelicals. Such opinions foment the cultural derision and scorn heaped on evangelicalism by its opponents and further intensify the entrenched and embattled mindset of evangelicals. Their quest is to offer a psychological analysis of evangelical authority structures.

Evangelicals opposing evolution, for instance, argue that the loss of a Divine Being results in no authoritative moral norms. Lamenting America’s break from its Christian heritage, evangelicals warn of further moral decay as God is marginalized from the public square. And spurning modern psychology for its “secular bias that menaces spirituality,” evangelicals gin up alternative authorities to conceal their own machinations. With decreased cultural influence, and fearing secularization, many evangelicals retreat into what the authors call a “parallel” culture.

But because evangelicalism encompasses such a large swath of the population and, by default, its own economic subculture remains intact within a larger religion-free market, the authors are right to suggest that evangelicals can reject expert opinion for the “self-sufficiency of their parallel culture.” Leaders are formed through an informal process of constituency building and rallying followers by “playing on common fears, identifying out-groups to demonize, and projecting confidence.” Joined by the direction of a leader with “charismatic trustworthiness,” spokesmen are said to “speak for God” and given preeminent status. A pervasive anti-intellectual spirit congeals these ingredients into an identifiable subculture: The authors attribute these features to an innate and evolutionary penchant for tribalism—the need to belong, identify, and embrace: “People, not surprisingly, more readily follow experts they know or perceive as being like them, even if their expertise is marginal or even suspect.”

The criticism offered here is punctuated by a tone of dismissal and reliance on academic pedigree. Ken Ham is eviscerated as an uncredentialed profligate who peddles fear as he does homeschooling textbooks; David Barton of the “Christian America” thesis is a likable dunce preoccupied with theocracy; and James Dobson is a colloquial, grandfatherly sap offering sage advice on how to prevent homosexuality in youth. All of them have “undermined the academic status quo” and deter intellectuals from embracing the Christian faith.

To be sure, the authors are not wrong in many of their assessments. As they state,

A winsome preacher who can quote the Bible and tell heart-warming stories of God’s blessings may possess more authority on global warming for believers than an informed climatologist .  .  . from Harvard.