Title: The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age
Author: Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson
Publisher: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press
If the word “Evangelical” popped up in a word association game, hair-trigger responses might include words like “Republican,” “anti-evolution,” “Jerry Falwell,” or “fundamentalist.” Word association games aren’t usually the best way to understand religion. (When it comes to Mormons, “polygamy” usually tops the list.) Numbering an estimated one hundred million people—sixteen million in the Southern Baptist Convention alone (7, 187)—the American evangelical community is actually more diverse than these labels can hope to communicate. Politically, the spectrum ranges from conservative to liberal (though perhaps heavily weighted toward the former), all bound loosely together by a common commitment to the necessity of being “born again” through Jesus Christ. Such Christians have no central authoritative body and no single all-encompassing creed. But the open marketplace of religion in the United States has provided space for an evangelical “parallel culture,” complete with its own schools, publishing houses, music industry, summer camps, school accreditation agencies, historians, scientists, and family counselors.
In the midst of this Christian crowd, certain evangelicals rise to the top as leaders, attracting a following by establishing parachurch organizations like Focus on the Family or Answers in Genesis. The more ubiquitous of such leaders are thought by their followers to be “anointed,” that is, especially blessed by God to speak on his behalf—in other words, they function as modern prophets (7). And for many evangelicals, the democratic God who once called a stammering Moses to lead Israel of old is certainly more likely to call a folksy down-to-earth preacher over some stuffed-shirt academic.
This concept of an “anointed” leader helps the authors explain how Don McLeroy, a dentist and chair of the Texas State Board of Education, could confidently decry the theory of evolution in 2009 as his board debated curriculum decisions that could affect public schools across the United States (Texas is a large market!). Evolutionary scientists were merely part of the “secular, liberal, elitist” movement in Americaattempting to stamp out Christian faith. McLeroy would draw on a cottage industry of various evangelical fundamentalists to make the case that creationism deserved equal time in public schools. But why would he rely on “Answers in Genesis” founder Ken Ham, a man with no scientific expertise, rather than evangelical Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project and current Director of the National Institutes of Health? This is the question two evangelical scholars try to answer in their new book The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.
The first four chapters cover science (evolution versus creationism), history (America as a “Christian nation”), social sciences (gay marriage, child rearing, etc.) and eschatology (end times prophecy and the rapture). In each instance, various ill-informed, simplistic figures hog the spotlight while better-educated, more nuanced evangelical scholars are disregarded as capitulators, if not ignored altogether. They catch the ear of the evangelical mainstream, up to some of the current candidates for the presidency of the United States. The pseudo-historian David Barton is routinely featured on Glenn Beck’s old television program talking about the faith of the mythical “Founding Fathers,” for instance, while Vanderbilt Ph.D. historian Mark Noll plugs away writing real history while being largely ignored by his own tradition. Ken Ham builds a multi-million dollar “Creation Museum” where statues of the children of Adam and Eve play near dinosaurs in a pre-deluge earthscape, while Yale Ph.D. Francis Collins struggles to gain traction as a believer in God and rigorous scientist. Outdated psychologist James Dobson opines on the dangers of gay marriage and the benefits of spanking your kids while the scholars from whose work he has cherry-picked data object that he is egregiously misusing and misrepresenting their research. Author Tim LaHaye sells millions of copies of his rapture-describing Left Behind series while New Testament scholar N.T. Wright shakes his head at the terrible exegesis (oh, and Glenn Beck apparently believes in the rapture, 172). What’s going on here?
Chapter five explores the spectrum of evangelical beliefs through the experience of Paul Miller, a twenty-something life-long evangelical. Miller felt intellectually stifled as a new student atBryanCollege, conservative Christian school in the south. He began having doubts about his Christian faith until he discovered a wider evangelical culture which embraced different views on politics, science, and Bible exegesis than the ones he was raised with.
Often an evangelical “crisis of faith” is resolved with a simple liberalizing, whereby specific beliefs…are abandoned and other beliefs…move to the center as animating ethical and theological concerns. The evangelical spectrum encompasses both of these camps (216).
Miller transferred to Gordon College, whose motto—“Freedom within a framework of faith”—gave Miller a better sense of belonging. Some evangelicals will see Miller as a compromiser, a heretic, but there is still room enough in the wider evangelical tent for both colleges (221).
The authors close the book with a final explanatory chapter, weaving together the threads of the previous chapter to identify the reasons some fundamentalist evangelicals receive greater cultural purchase than others. They outline a “confluence of factors” which empower amateurs like Ken Ham and David Barton compared to their evangelical scholar counterparts. The approach of the amateurs is marked by anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism, a down-to-earth “I’m just like you” aw-shucks-iness. As 20th century historian Richard Hofstadter argued decades ago, Americans go a bit nutty with the “democratic impulse” according to which we all can be specialists (236). The authors also draw on historian Mark Noll’s observation that the fundamentalist amateurs are dedicated in a single-minded fashion to create knowledge for a particular end (to “Christianize” each branch of knowledge and policy). Young Earth Creationist movements spend time decrying the ill social effects of evil Darwinism while evangelical scientists are actually out there doing actual research projects, although their plodding academic approach and style might make your average American’s (myself included) eyes glaze over (241). This anti-elistism impulse grows out of American confidence in the every-man. “Armed with simple explanations of the world, winsomely affirming that common people can think for themselves, they are often preferred to experts” on issues like evolution, global climate change, and vaccinations (237). Sarah Palin asserts that Americans “need a commander is chief, not a professor of law standing at a lectern” (237). Just this week Rick Santorum similarly decried the President: “Don’t you see how they see you? How they look down their nose at the average American — these elite snobs.” Words like “elite” and “secular” become dog whistles alerting us that we’re on the same team. The authors point to research on “cue-based epistemology” to uncover the bias we all seem to have toward people who are a lot like us (245). We can’t all be specialists, we take much of what we learn on faith:
Christian audiences, understandably bewildered by competing claims about the age of the earth, human origins, the nature of homosexuality, the religion of the Founding Fathers, genetic engineering, or raising children, often hear two very different arguments. One…from an unknown but well-credentialed scientist who works at a famous but very liberal university…This case is made with no consideration of how this new information fits within the larger framework of Christian theology and whether the new facts challenge other deeply held beliefs. The other argument comes from a fellow believer and is couched in specifically biblical terms; the more academic argument is critiqued as both uncertain and incompatible with Christian beliefs. The credentials and affiliations might not be as impressive, and the science/history/psychology might even be a bit thin, though that would be challenging to determine. But all the relevant clues indicate that the argument is trustworthy, largely because of who is making it (248).
This final chapter offers plenty of interesting food for thought, drawing on studies in history, sociology, evolutionary psychology, and other methods of analyzing why we believe who we believe. But the execution is a bit sloppy, especially in comparison to the earlier chapters. The authors fail to point out how many of these same speculations could be applied to people who rely on any sort of experts, evangelical or otherwise. And they’re certain to offend any fundamentalist readers, as they conclude with an appeal to the presently-fashionable speculative enterprise of evolutionary psychology to argue that evangelicals are predisposed to believe the way they do. Additionally, for some reason they fail to offer much advice to scholars, the evangelical academic ones like them who are competing for limelight with the amateurs. Perhaps this book will be most appealing to young readers like Paul Miller–those who struggle with feelings of doubts or wince at the glares of nay-sayers as they transition to a less-fundamentalist-style faith. What the latter parts of the book lack in organization and focus the first four chapters make up for with entertaining and informative descriptions of the historical and contemporary circumstances surrounding the rise of evangelical fundamentalism. Despite its flaws, I enjoyed The Anointed. But I’m not sure it strikes the right chord in order to rise above preaching to the (very real, and very-cool-scholarship-producing-and-receiving) choir.
Co-author Randall Stephens is something of a head honcho over at the Religion in American History blog, where JI’s own Christopher Jones is a regular contributor. Co-author Karl Giberson was recently featured on that liberal bastion/radio station NPR discussing his work on American evangelicals. Other essays and related links about the book are available at Harvard University Press’s website.