Thoughts on Michael Gerson’s “The Last Temptation”: Part 3

Last temptation

Click here for previous installments of this series.  Click here to read Gerson’s article in The Atlantic.

Here is Gerson on the history of American Protestant fundamentalism:

Moreover, in making their case on cultural decay and decline, evangelicals have, in some highly visible cases, chosen the wrong nightmares. Most notable, they made a crucial error in picking evolution as a main point of contention with modernity. “The contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death,” William Jennings Bryan argued. “If evolution wins … Christianity goes—not suddenly, of course, but gradually, for the two cannot stand together.” Many people of his background believed this. But their resistance was futile, for one incontrovertible reason: Evolution is a fact. It is objectively true based on overwhelming evidence. By denying this, evangelicals made their entire view of reality suspect. They were insisting, in effect, that the Christian faith requires a flight from reason.

This was foolish and unnecessary. There is no meaningful theological difference between creation by divine intervention and creation by natural selection; both are consistent with belief in a purposeful universe, and with serious interpretation of biblical texts. Evangelicals have placed an entirely superfluous stumbling block before their neighbors and children, encouraging every young person who loves science to reject Christianity.

What if Bryan and others of his generation had chosen to object to eugenics rather than evolution, to social Darwinism rather than Darwinism? The textbook at issue in the Scopes case, after all, was titled A Civic Biology, and it urged sterilization for the mentally impaired. “Epilepsy, and feeble-mindedness,” the text read, “are handicaps which it is not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity.” What if this had been the focus of Bryan’s objection? Mencken doubtless would still have mocked. But the moral and theological priorities of evangelical Christianity would have turned out differently. And evangelical fears would have been eventually justified by America’s shameful history of eugenics, and by the more rigorous application of the practice abroad. Instead, Bryan chose evolution—and in the end, the cause of human dignity was not served by the obscuring of human origins.

The consequences, especially for younger generations, are considerable. According to a recent survey by Barna, a Christian research firm, more than half of churchgoing Christian teens believe that “the church seems to reject much of what science tells us about the world.” This may be one reason that, in America, the youngest age cohorts are the least religiously affiliated, which will change the nation’s baseline of religiosity over time. More than a third of Millennials say they are unaffiliated with any faith, up 10 points since 2007. Count this as an ironic achievement of religious conservatives: an overall decline in identification with religion itself.

Of course we can’t be sure what would have happened if fundamentalists decided to wage war against eugenics or social Darwinism, but this is interesting to think about.  Historians talk a lot about “contingency,” the idea that the past can be understood by choices that people make.  What would evangelicalism look like today if the fundamentalists decided to focus on race?

Gerson does some interesting historical thinking here.

More to come.