A Response to Darryl Hart’s Bewilderment

My friend Darryl Hart is bewildered.  He does not understand why Christian historians are so obsessed with David Barton. (He does not mention me in his post, but he does link to one of my pieces).  At his blog “Old Life” he writes:

Thomas Nelson likely made its decision to pull The Jefferson Lies for economic as much as scholarly reasons. Even so, considering all the bad books that publishers print, I am still befuddled by the large and concerted critique of Barton. I get it. He’s on Glenn Beck. But how many academics listen to or watch Beck? Thomas Nelson is a big and profitable trade press. But how many academics receive the company’s catalog?…

So I guess I really don’t get it. It seems to me the free market makes a lot of bad products available including books. What’s one more?

(Hart also wonders why Christian historians are not going after Howard Zinn’s stuff with the same zeal.  This question deserves an answer as well, but that will have to wait for another time).

It appears, based on his post, that Hart and I have a different understanding of the Christian historian’s vocation.  He is right when he says that few academics watch Glenn Beck or read Thomas Nelson books, but there are a lot of ordinary evangelicals who do.  If the historian’s job is to stay in the ivory tower and not engage the public, then Hart’s point is a good one. 

But if part of the historian’s job is to bring the skills of historical thinking and learning to the larger society, and especially the church, then we have a responsibility to critique folks like Barton.  As a professor at a Christian college I run into students on a regular basis, many of them active members of the College Republicans, who embrace Barton’s views of American history.  Some people in my church and community watch Glenn Beck and believe that Barton’s views are correct. These ideas shape how many evangelical Christians think about the relationship between church and political life.

Darryl seems to imply that if Barton is not influencing the academic community, then he is not worth critiquing.

Frankly, it seems that much of Hart’s work as an American religious historian contradicts his thoughts in this blog post.  Hart spills a lot of ink making sure the evangelical public has a clear understanding of the history of conservatism, the relationship between church and state, and the Reformed tradition.  He certainly thinks that writing to a non-academic audience is important. 

Here a scenario:  What if a really bad book about J. Gresham Machen was making serious inroads in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and many in the pews were trying to change church policy based on this flawed interpretation of the denomination’s founder?  Would Hart, a gifted historian with the expertise to do something about this false history of Machen, just sit by and let it happen?

I don’t get it.

13 thoughts on “A Response to Darryl Hart’s Bewilderment

  1. Yeah, I never had that desire to target an evangelical audience. Others have done that well. We had a different set of goals.

    We'll have to agree to disagree. I think we were fair to believers and did not caricature. Quite a few reviewers thought that, which was a good confirmation.

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  2. There is nothing inherently wrong with NPR, The Atlantic, or PBS. Despite what you might assume from my review, I'm a longtime member of my local NPR station, have subscribed to the Atlantic ever since I started getting a regular paycheck, and even pay a monthly fee for full digital access to the New York Times. (And you might be surprised at my voting record despite my occasional inability to spell certain candidate names). But much as I love these media, I don't look to them for empathy for my deeply held religious convictions and have had to work especially hard to keep them from shaping the entirety of my world view. I understand that as an evangelical and an academic, I straddle two worlds that often seem irreconcilable. I feel like I spend half my time playing the social and cultural liberal among my evangelical friends, and the other half playing the fundamentalist gadfly among my culturally refined secularist friends. One thing I have learned (though am still not very good at) is the importance in either case of spending more of my time listening and less speaking.

    You were of course free to write the book you wanted to write. I guess I am just a bit surprised that a couple of guys teaching at a Nazarene college couldn't have used their unique status as “insiders” to offer a little more nuance about the communities under review. And maybe equally surprised that you would have “certainly had no interest” in trying to communicate to the broader evangelical world. It seems basic to my identity as a Christian scholar that I bear a kind of Kingdom obligation to speak (sometimes using hard words) to the faithful. And, when speaking OF the faithful to the broader world, that I also bear a kind of Kingdom obligation to honor my brothers and sisters (even while sometimes using hard words). I wonder what you think of these as obligations rather than just matters of academic interest or taste.

    Though far from perfect, Richard Mouw has contributed helpfully to those wrestling with these tensions. THE SMELL OF SAWDUST and CONSULTING THE FAITHFUL both are written with a mix of critique and appreciation that sets a pretty high bar for the rest of us.

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  3. “Was there any thought given to writing something pitched to the evangelical faithful?” Not really. I certainly had no interest in that.

    And that's a good question. We were trying to explain and describe, largely to the non-evangelical reader, “why” it is that evangelicals listen to incredibly uniformed experts like the ones we looked at. It was an academic treatment. It wasn't autobiographical or intended for an inside, megachurch audience.

    Still, you think that, even then, we missed the mark by a long shot. But we think that we did explain why these experts have such power. That's what we set out to do.

    There are lots of people outside of the evangelical sphere, even some in Europe and elsewhere, who want to understand how it is that such an outrageously uniformed person as Ken Ham could rise to be such an important authority on human origins science. And, judging from the good reviews in Wilson Quarterly, NYT, and Christian Century, we must have made the case well enough. (Also, not everyone who reads the NYT is a macchiato-sipping, limousine-liberal stereotype of George Wallace’s imagination. Nor is the NYT Pravda.)

    Also, I think you box in evangelicals by assuming that they couldn't read this and get something out of it; as if born-again Christians can only care about something that's on apocalyptic AM radio, CBN, or World Net Daily. Plenty of younger born-agains are breaking out of the old mold, as recent pew data has shown. For instance, there was a lively discussion on Jesus Creed about our book: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2011/11/08/anointed-%E2%80%A6-evangelicals-and-authority-2-rjs/ Not to mention the dozens and dozens of emails we received from evangelical readers who thought it was on target.

    But more to the point on your comment: “Was it PBS members and Atlantic subscribers who were on the edge of caving into James Dobson's attacks on Barak Obama?” (Not sure if the misspelling of Barack was intentional or not.) Those PBS viewers might still like to know why Dobson–who has views about human sexuality and gender that are so outrageously at odds with what professionals have to say–is enormously popular.

    Geez, what's so bad about the Atlantic, PBS, and NPR??

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  4. The Anointed is hardly a disinterested analysis of evangelical anti-intellectualism. It contains a fairly hard-driving polemic from beginning to end. In that light, I have always wanted to ask who you (Randall) perceived as your primary audience. If you were trying to convince evangelicals to read Noll (instead of Barton) or to listen to Francis Collins (rather than Ken Ham), I could never quite understand why you took your case to the New York Times, Harvard University Press, and NPR. Were audiences who consume content from these institutions in danger of falling under the Creation Museum's spell? Was it PBS members and Atlantic subscribers who were on the edge of caving into James Dobson's attacks on Barak Obama? In what meaningful way was the book doing anything other than preaching to the-already-converted? The Anointed neither presents a picture of evangelicals that its apparent audience wasn't already primed to believe, nor complicates the caricature of Christians that one was already apt to hear among considerable segments of the media and the academy. What purpose was served by making your appeal to all but the very group who is most being shaped by Answers in Genesis or Wall Builders?

    The book functions as a piece of advocacy scholarship–not that there's anything wrong with that–but who exactly were you trying to persuade? Was there any thought given to writing something pitched to the evangelical faithful? Making your case in a book published by a publisher more likely to reach a Christian audience? Scheduling a few interviews on Moody Radio? Crafting an editorial for Christianity Today? Or going out on the Christian College speaking circuit? If these had been your audiences, perhaps you would have displayed a bit less contempt for evangelicals.

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  5. Daryl: All books are written with a limited framework in mind. We were writing about evangelical anti-intelletualism. Another book could be done about Oprah's brand of anti-intellectualism, or the anti-intellectualism of pop psychology, new age, or whatever. But our book wasn't going to be everything about everything. (Still, we did discuss other brands of anti-intellectualism. And Chris Beneke and I did write a piece for the Atlantic blog recently comparing Zinn and Barton.)

    But to your other point about the slippery slope, I know Ken Ham would say that if you don't believe in 6,000 to 10,000-yr young earth creationism, you might as well throw all of the Bible out the window. Others might say that if you don't believe that homosexuality is an abomination, then you should just chuck the Bible.

    And on freedom of thought… Sure everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, but that doesn't mean that creationism or providential history should be taught in the classrooms of public schools in Kansas, Texas, or Georgia.

    And one last thing on the significance of David Barton. I can think of few other amateur historians who have served as an expert witness for Supreme Court cases, given testimony before congress on global warming, shaped curriculum for public schools in one of the largest states in the union, acted as a congressional tour guide in DC, appeared twice on the Daily Show, and sold millions of copies of books to boot.

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  6. Randall, “wuashed”? Whatever happened to freedom of thought?

    What is troubling to me is a belief in the superiority of intellectuals and their ideas among folks who otherwise also believe in equality, the value of “the people,” and democratic forms of participation. Are you really going to argue that only some forms of ideas are good and others are bad? Or that only people with the right degrees should hold positions of power? Are you advocating philosopher kings? And are you aware of the danger that comes with holding certain ideals? Having watched a good documentary about the Weatherman and the Underground phase, I am unprepared to say that certain ideas are good and other should be obliterated.

    Not to mention that ideas like the Trinity or virgin birth or resurrection don't exactly receive support from academic experts. Or that notions like social justice (Ed Blum's point) are just a tad contested.

    So I still wonder why someone would single out one form of anti-inellectualism and not also acknowledge that other forms of anti-intellectualism abound (some even having the gloss of advanced learning).

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  7. Hmm. I don't know why it's so difficult to say that a young man or woman who is in college and who believes the earth is 6-10,000 years old is just plain wrong. So that's a faith tenet that shouldn't be “quashed”? Or, the faith tenet that America was founded by born-again Christians? Or the faith tenet that homosexuality can be cured? I may be blind but the consensus on these things doesn't seem like pointed-headed, ivory-tower groupthink to me. Stanley Fish was right about one thing with regard to po-mo: “Academic cross-dressing:
    How Intelligent Design gets its arguments from the left.” http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=6&ved=0CEgQFjAF&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.udel.edu%2Fsoe%2Fwhitson%2Fcurriculum%2Fevolution%2FStanleyFish%2520ID.pdf&ei=hkhBUM7uKIW29QTYpYC4Dw&usg=AFQjCNFNXx3L-VTxOzWUnqcuC0aDhl9vBQ&sig2=l_UN0nH54yO24nsJUxaL8Q&cad=rja

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  8. My critique of The Anointed neither ignores nor denies the fact that evangelical anti-intellectualism is a major phenomenon and a real issue. It clearly is. My objection to the book is to the ways it idealizes the quashing of faith tenets that the authors recommend as the obvious, natural, and clearly desirable trajectory for young evangelicals who aim to take intellectual life seriously. The authors strike me as painfully naive about the ideological conformity in a different direction that is demanded throughout much of the academy. While not often described as anti-intellectual, the pre-reflective socialization that happens in many university classrooms functions in much the same way as it does in evangelical churches. That's one of the reasons I love the Barton-Zinn comparison.

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  9. i, for one, would be very interested in seeing evangelicals go after Zinn … it will force them to look social injustice square in the face (even if that means problematizing him and correcting him)

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  10. I don't understand the critique of The Anointed as “these guys are trying to prove they are not stoopid.” The anti-intellectualism of evangelicalism is a major phenomenon. It is real, and ignoring it won't make it any less significant. (The review of The Anointed in B&C was particularly interesting. The reviewer was shocked, shocked by our anti-populism and read the book as our attempt to appear cool to the in-crowd on the Upper East Side. That seems so bizarre. As if the actual subject, content, argument of our book didn't merit analysis.)

    What about the influence of Barton, Ham, Dobson, LaHaye, and others. If Sarah Palin deserves some scrutiny, why not these others? Evangelicals in the Pew are not reading Kuyper, Van Til, McIntyre, and the like. (And frankly, it doesn't matter if they do or not.) But they do read Barton, et al. When an amateur historian like Barton is the best selling historian in America . . . then that deserves some attention. Esp. since he's tied in so heavily with the RNC and is bragging about his role in crafting the current platform. Or when Dobson is arguably the most important popular psychologist in the country, that warrants treatment. And why shouldn't that popularity and the problems it poses matter as much to professionals (in psychology and history) as it does to believers?

    Am I missing something here?

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  11. John, your response is fair enough and in keeping with your blog here. But I don't sense that the Religion in American History blog, the USIH blog, or Randall's efforts at the Historical Society blog are written for evangelicals in the pew. These sites are dominated more by academics, some of them religious, some not. But the turn out against Barton has been large.

    In which case, I wonder, as in the case of Randall's book, if some historians — not necessarily yourself — are using this to distance themselves from Barton and the evangelical kooks.

    I would feel more comfortable with the opposition if it were equally directed at Zinn. But so far no one is contemplating bringing that out of print.

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  12. I think your closing scenario explains the Zinn/Barton difference among evangelical historians. What would it accomplish to criticize Zinn in, say, World Magazine? Which readers of World are also reading and spouting Zinn? If we hope to help grow our communities and churches, we naturally focus on what is shaping them most.

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  13. It reminds me of Hart's comments on the book and op-ed Giberson and I did.

    Hart wondered why we would: “single out Ken Ham (never heard of him), David Barton, and James Dobson for their 'dangerous' anti-intellectualism?”

    Because Hart had “never heard of” Ham then Answers in Genesis/Kan Ham didn't matter.

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