Evangelicalism and the Post-Truth World

Are evangelicals responsible for the “post-truth” world? A recent NY Times opinion piece by Molly Worthen makes this claim, but that conclusion is far from certain. I think history argues against that – even recent history.  If one lays the blame for giving up on facts at the feet of evangelicals, one of the first data points to consider is there no easy answer to the question, “what is an evangelical?” Worthen’s own work asks this question, and she acknowledges the answer to this far from clear. In Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, she notes:

“The term evangelical has produced more debate than agreement. The word is so mired in adjectives and qualifiers, contaminated by politicization and stereotype, that many commentators have suggested that it has outlived its usefulness.”[1]

By her own observation, then, the term is nebulous and fraught with imprecision. Worthen seems to focus on an evangelical subculture, fundamentalism perhaps as responsible for a disdain for science and other facts as informing their view of the world. To be sure, there have been skeptics of science, but it’s a more difficult claim to make that such a subculture has shaped all of contemporary American evangelical Christianity. Many evangelicals, indeed I would say most, do not fixate on the Bible as a scientific text, but are content to answer “undefined” to various questions of natural science. The biblical record is an account God’s dealings with humanity, our sin and failure, and God’s own provision of a savior in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The unfolding of his plan, and the revelation of God’s glory through Christ are the heart of the narrative. As science may touch on these things, the Bible notes that, but almost in passing; “he made the stars also.” As Herbert Lockyer wrote, “The Scriptures were given, not to tell us how the heavens go, but to teach us how to go to heaven.” The broad swath of evangelicalism I’ve been exposed to has never majored on scientific authority, much less fossils or archaeology as any formative part of the Christian faith.

Worthen acknowledges “evangelicals are not the only ones who think that an authority trusted by the other side is probably lying.” But while evangelicals believe the supernatural is real, the fact that others believe only in the natural doesn’t mean they are any less contemptuous of the other side. There is an entire school of thought (aka worldview) that says the Enlightenment certainty about the scientific method and rational conclusions is flawed. Structuralism and Post-structuralism cast these assumptions aside, and with it, one can credibly argue, any certainty about truth. These are the heirs of Nietzsche, not exactly a friend of evangelicals, who said, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” That is just as presuppositional an apologetic as Cornelius Van Til or any other Christian may offer. It’s a worldview that is exclusive and rules out all others.

While focusing on a few evangelicals whose embrace of science caused them to run afoul of their Christian institutions, Worthen does not address the treatment of science as a faith in and of itself. It is an objective source of truth, a canon by which its adherents measure fact. One need only look at the numerous revisions to “settled science” to see that as a tenuous claim. In the 18th Century, it was settled science to bleed a patient suffering from any number of maladies. That, of course, is now considered medical hokum. Or more recently, A 130-Year-Old Fact About Dinosaurs Might Be Wrong. Our knowledge of science doesn’t represent a static body of doctrine, but something that is always changing. “We might be wrong” is something one hears too infrequently from the scientific community. The mandarins of science today have often coalesced with atheism; Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, et. al, to posit a worldview that is just as dismissive of any view that doesn’t accord with their its orthodoxy. To paraphrase Worthen, they too have one worldview, the one based on faith in an inerrant Science, [that] does have a claim on universal truth, and everyone else is a spiritually-deluded simpleton. There is plenty of truth denial on the other end of the theological spectrum as well. The new definition of gender fluidity contradicts the science of XX and XY, but this didn’t emerge from evangelicalism.

Worthen also observes that Christian academia can become an uncomfortable place for any who would challenge the received orthodoxy, but that goes both ways. It’s long been the case that Christians or others who disagree with the prevalent academic mindset (i.e., left of center) have experienced that kind of marginalization. The claim of the Bible is that there is such a thing as truth, it matters, and it is knowable. That’s actually the opposite of “post-truth.” The truth is preeminently a person, Jesus Christ.  We shouldn’t confuse poor or sloppy handling of the truth with “post-truth.” Atheists and others who share no beliefs with evangelicals have just as firm a commitment that theirs is only correct version of reality. That’s not the provenance of evangelicalism. Evangelicals have a duty to handle the truth carefully, as a trust that we pass on to the next generation. But it’s simply inaccurate to claim that evangelical faith in the Bible as God’s authority has given us the world of “post-truth.” There’s a whole lot of blame to go around for that.

[1] Worthen, Molly (2013-10-01). Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Kindle Locations 88-95). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

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