Evangelicals, Elites, and Alternative Facts

alternative-facts

Molly Worthen, a reputable scholar of American evangelicalism who teaches at the estimable University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, suggests in a recent New York Times article that evangelicals have been leery of “fake news” for a long time now.

She’s more right than she knows.

Worthen points to the usual suspects, rationalist defences of Biblical inerrancy and seven-day creation, and adds to them a brief mention of theologian Cornelius Van Til, who posited a great gulf fixed between the Christian (= true) view of things and every other (world)view.

Van Til and his arch neo-Calvinist philosophy would be utterly unfamiliar to the vast majority of North American evangelicals. But his extreme and rather theoretical division of (Christian) truth on one side and what “the world” says on the other side is not just the oversimplification of fundamentalism. I suggest that such a dichotomy reflects much of evangelicals’ actual experience over the last century or so of North American culture.

For during this time, all “right-thinking” people just “knew” that…

…the Bible was not only to be studied “just like any other book” (Benjamin Jowett) but with a strong anti-supernaturalist bias against both the miraculous in its accounts and any divine involvement in its composition;

…not only are science and religion fundamentally antagonistic, largely because “Darwin has disproved the Bible,” but, paradoxically, Christianity is also responsible for justifying the scientific and technological despoliation of the earth by granting license (in Genesis 1) to human beings to use, and abuse, the planet as we see fit (Lynn White, Jr., Peter Singer, et al.);

…cohabitation before marriage is the best way to produce happier, stronger marriages, and then, if things don’t work out, divorce can be good for everyone, parents and children alike;

…sexual freedom brought by the Pill will be just as beneficial for women as for men;

…all women who decide to stay home and raise a family are guilty of false consciousness and thus are complicit in their own enslavement;

…abortion is entirely about freedom for women over their own bodies, and nothing (and no one, such as an unborn baby) else matters;

…conservative churches will die unless they adapt their theology to contemporary psychology and their ethics to liberal mores;

…all religions are basically the same and produce identical good/bad effects, so evangelism and apologetics are absurd and offensive;

…religious freedom is restricted to liberty of belief in the interiority of one’s own mind and in the privacy of one’s own home or place of worship, while any public practice of religion is in bad taste at best and a threat to public order at worst; and

…holding ethical and psychological reservations about non-traditional sexuality and gender is exactly the same as holding racist prejudices.

The cultural elites who cannot bring themselves to understand why anyone other than “deplorables” would support Donald Trump also cannot understand why any sensible person would disagree with them about anything. Isn’t it all just so very obvious? Aren’t the facts clear?

Molly Worthen suggests that evangelicals have been leery of those cultural elites for a while. I’d say so, too.

In fact, I’d go her one better: North American evangelicals by now have a long list of “alternative facts.”

And why shouldn’t they?

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 700 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book is scheduled for release later this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).

3 Comments

  1. I understand the concerns expressed in this viewpoint, John, and I can accept that each side is entitled to their "facts", which in many cases are really opinions. But the fragile detente can be upset whenever opinions from either side are presented as "settled science" or "so obviously true" that further comments and questions are unwelcome. It's at that point one's rancor is roused, understandably so. Something for all parties to keep in mind.

    On the dubious science vs. faith debate, it's unfortunate that some believers accept that there is irreconcilable antagonism between faith and science. Perhaps I'm missing something but I don't see science as a threat, conflict, or challenge to faith. The scientific method is the best process we have to answer the "What" and "How" questions about things but it seems completely unequipped to give answers to the "Why" questions relating to purpose and meaning. I don't see how the tools of science can ever give us answers to those enduring metaphysical questions - Where did we come from? Why are we here? What's True, Good or Beautiful? Where do we go after death?

    As an undergrad decades ago, I was fortunate to have Charles Taylor drop by our campus to provide comments on various topics including Evolution. His perspective enabled me to keep things in balance. As I recall he said evolution in its essence is simply scientists' best guess today at a possible mechanism explaining the diversity of species. Tomorrow, scientists may come up with a different explanation that better fits the observations. That's how science works. But it's when "evolution" morphs into "Big E" Evolution, a worldview or religion, and starts expounding implications beyond it being simply a possible mechanism that we should get excited, as in, when Evolutionists make statements like "See, God wasn't involved so therefore he does not exist."

  2. Stackhouse now teaches at Crandall University. Its website says that it seeks “to evaluate theories/conclusions in light of a Christian worldview.” He is understandably defensive of Molly Worthen’s article, which critiques the idea of a Christian worldview. But Stackhouse’s response is very badly reasoned. He merely perpetuates the type of thinking that promotes an antithetical “Christian” worldview. By bringing in the term ‘cultural elites’ and referring to Clinton’s use of ‘deplorables’, Stackhouse is essentially using an ad hominem argument that Worthen is a liberal thinker whose ideas can be dismissed. Stackhouse recognizes that Van Til made an extreme division between “Christian” truth and the truth of “the world”. He says that this dichotomy is reflected by the experience of evangelicals. If by that, Stackhouse means that Van Til is correct that there is no point of contact between different worldviews, then he has given no reasoned justification. Although Stackhouse may make certain ethical choices regarding issues like abortion, that is not at all the same issue as the debate about alternative facts and truth, such as whether President Trump can lie about voting results, the size of crowds, or whether he was spied upon. Nor is it the same as the debate about how science can be questioned, and on what basis. Stackhouse ignores the real issues here. Stackhouse concludes: why should evangelicals not have alternative facts? That is a terribly dangerous viewpoint, and one that will not serve the interest of evangelicals or Crandall University.
    Molly Worthen is correct that Cornelius Van Til's ideas of Christian worldview are responsible for the current denial of truth and the idea of alternative facts in US politics. Van Til was also the main influence on Francis Schaeffer, whose ideas shaped the religious right in the US. The Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd disagreed sharply with Van Til. See the articles in the book "Jerusalem and Athens." Dooyeweerd rejected Van Til's view that there is no point of contact between different worldviews; Dooyeweerd insisted on common states of affairs. And Dooyeweerd rejected a presuppostionalist approach to philosophy. What counts is not presuppositional beliefs, but ontical conditions or ontic presupposita that are common to everyone. Dooyeweerd did not accept a propositional view of biblical revelation; he also was sharply critical of the use of theological ideas as the basis for philosophy, as in Dirk Vollenhoven's philosophy (which in its idea of religious antithesis is closely allied to that of Van Til).
    Reformational philosophers and evangelicals need to take responsibility for these mistaken ideas and the damage that they have caused to U.S. society. It is time for them to publicly renounce the idea of a distinct Christian worldview in Van Til's sense of presuppositions based on theological beliefs. The issue is what evidence counts in the critique of science and what commonalities are accepted as holding true for everyone. It may be, as Dooyeweerd argued, that there is an experience-based Christian worldview. But such a worldview cannot be based on theology or even on biblical exegesis. Both are sciences, in the sense of theoretical activities, and are themselves subject to critique. It is the presuppositionalist idea of worldview that is a problem, when presuppositions are taken to be theological beliefs.
    I recognize that this is going to be a problem for "Christian" colleges that have emphasized the priority of beliefs. But these colleges are part of the problem.

    • J.G.Friesen,

      Thank you for posting. Can you please explain your argument that worldview cannot be based upon theology or Biblical exegesis, thanks.