Don't Trust the Experts!!!

Randall Stephens

Focus on the Family--in an ongoing quest to define the organization over and against everyone and everything else--has put together a film, TrueU: The Toughest Test in College. (Thanks to RiAH contributor Hilde Løvdal for sending me the link!) The
rhetorical style of this trailer matches other culture war forays. ("Your professors our out to get you! Watch out!") The logic goes something like this: discredit expertise and secular knowledge by pointing to supposed bias and then hitch current ideas to a discredited consensus from yesteryear.

Perhaps this clip is an example of turning postmodernism to one's advantage. "Your truth is no better than my truth." It reminds me of Stanley Fish's article, "The Ignorance of Our Warrior Intellectuals," from nearly 10 years ago in Harper's. Here's Fish:

What must be protected, then, is the general, the possibility of making pronouncements from a perspective at once detached from and superior to the sectarian perspectives of particular national interests, ethnic concerns, and religious obligations; and the threat to the general is posed by postmodernism and strong religiosity alike, postmodernism because its critique of master narratives deprives us of a mechanism for determining which of two or more fiercely held beliefs is true (which is not to deny the category of true belief, just the possibility of identifying it uncontroversially), strong religiosity because it insists on its own norms and refuses correction from the outside.

Harvard University Press will soon be rolling out the book that Karl Giberson and I have written. We've titled it The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. Throughout we look at the work and careers of evangelical experts who have served as powerful authorities on a whole range of subjects: human origins science, millennial theology, psychology, child care, and American history.

We couldn't have known when we started the book that many of these issues, and experts, would make national headlines with the 2012 election's approach. Their influence on the candidates is obvious. Michele Bachmann confidently assumes that America was founded as a born-again, Christian republic. Rick Perry lauds the teaching of both creationism and evolution in schools, relying on experts in the former to make his case. Bachmann's husband draws on professionally discredited reparative therapy for homosexuals, like it's 1959. And there is more . . .

One of the questions Giberson and I wrestled with in the book had to do with the nature of evangelical anti-intellectualism. Was this something that was specific to the faith? (Mark Noll's Scandal of the Evangelical Mind came in handy here.) Could it be traced to other areas of American life? (Richard Hofstadter and others who wrote about broad patterns of knowledge denial helped us here.)

I've been mulling over one question in particular as the 2012 campaign heats up. Will red-meat, anti-science or providential history ideas play well beyond Peoria? (No offense Peoria!) Will candidates think about those GOP voters beyond the hardcore base? Something tells me that if they want a national constituency they better leave David Barton and his giant, novelty cowboy hat in Texas.


Paul Harvey said…
Wow, where to start? Strange thing is the public statements of the post-Dobson Focus have been all about moving beyond this kind of stuff, beyond culture wars, uniting with people on other side of issues where there is agreement (such as campaign with local liberal groups to promote adoptions for kids who need homes). Basically everything that this little film evidently is not.

Maybe some semi-competing agendas within the organization? I don't really know. I love the part here where "questioning" leads inexorably to drugs, raves, sex, etc. Is this film supposed to be a sort of advertisement for true Christian colleges, Randall, or something else? Kind of hard to tell.
Randall said…
I think it's meant to warn students to be wary while they are at state colleges. A warning to protect themselves against falsehoods of all sorts.

The emails I still get regularly from Focus tend to be about homosexuality and the war on Christians.
Paul Harvey said…
Interesting Randall -- very different than new public persona that they are promoting, at least around here.

I asked question about the students bc. one student in the trailer mentions "I thought I was going to a Christian college but then my professor said creationism was stupid" etc. These students never confronted my Baptist college biology professor, James Hurley, as devout a believer and a scientist as they come. He could also breathe some serious wrath on the kinds of blatant ignorance of basic scientific facts that the students here profess. It was hilarious to watch his face scrunch up in disgust and fury when the subject of the Creationist Institute (or whatever it's called) came up.
As a seventh-year resident of Central Illinois, I have been sitting here these last few minutes, wondering if these issues would even play IN Peoria. :)

The idea that the general populace must be protected by religious leaders (and not too secretly-- white Anglo patriarchs with ties to the American Revolution) seems to play well where we see "white (male) misery," (as Dave Roediger would say). That is, some combination of a memory of former glory and the privileged attitude, historically tied to white skin, that white men deserve to be at the top of the social and economic hierarchy and resent anyone ahead.

So, I think of spots in the country where residents possess either less land and capital than they had generations ago (many rural areas and former mining centers, especially in the white midwest and South), and where there are still memories of strong white, male unions, with jobs now automated or moved elsewhere. Is this right? I'm just brainstorming out loud. If so, perhaps the expression, "Will it play in Peoria?" might swap Peoria for the name of some small town somewhere in Kentucky or Oklahoma.

Where are the geographic centers of "red-meat, anti-science or providential history"? The books I've been reading locate these in national organizations in the 1970s, 80s and beyond, but is there any more specific, geographic answer beyond this? Is Colorado Springs extra special?
Paul Harvey said…
Janine, more later on your questions, but in reality this stuff doesn't play all that well even in COS. I have plenty of devout evangelical students who get along just fine at my public univ. Of course their beliefs are challenged, but so are those of my atheist students who I constantly pester in class.
What a great film! The inferred connection between questioning things and then therefore going to raves and forgetting 11 hours of your life because you're drunk is fantastic!

As someone who has read Randall's forthcoming book (more on that later), I think Randall's book will help us understand how the "anointed ones" who preach against the authority of experts get the level of trust they get, especially when the seem so nonsensical to those of us who were not raised that way--and even when there are people within the evangelical community who are in fact mainstream experts on this kind of stuff. Why believe Ken Ham, non-credentialed creationist, when you can believe Francis Collins, evangelical, but also Harvard biologist, former head of the Human Genome Project, and current head of the NIH?

Randall's book will help us understand why folks like Ham have any ground to stand on, and an audience (and political party) who toe their line, contrary to the mainstream as it may be.
Randall said…
I think Texas is a good example, with WallBuilders and the Texas State Board of Ed, creation museum, Hagee...

I still believe that Thomas Frank is right about the suburbs of Kansas City. Not sure where else the geographic centers would be.

The American South? Would like to see a map of America's megachurches. Would that give us some idea of the red-meat center?

"Plays in Peoria" is still just a nice alliteration.
Hilde said…
Randall - you're welcome!
TrueU has been around for at least a couple of years. Focus on the Family's relationship to higher education is ambivalent - both Christian and secular universities. Dobson often warned against sending students to colleges that are not Christian as he defines it.
David Raymond said…
After reading the comments I had to watch the video again and I came out with a different take. I understand why people are reading between the lines and attributing the worst of evangelical thinking (or nonthinking as the case may be), but couldn't this video simply be a cautionary tale for young Christians heading off to college? Everybody has a worldview. That worldview influences our understanding our disciplines and shapes our research. In college, even Christian colleges, you will encounter unsettling worldviews that run counter to your own. Be prepared.If you are unprepared, you will be demoralized and tempted to seek refuge in parties, drugs, alcohol, sex, etc. (I failed to see the connection between questioning, which is a thrust of the video, and partying.) Sift through the evidence and think for yourself (It is implied that we should not take expert opinions on faith). Is this bad advice? How many naive freshman think the professor is a dispenser of unvarnished, factual wisdom? Learning to distinguish between fact and interpretation of the facts is at the heart of our discipline. The title of this blog is the same advice given to me by my neo-Marxist 1960s radical professors: question authority!
Amy said…
I am going to send the clip to my REL 365: Evangelicalism in the US students. Many are self-identified evangelicals who happen to be in a large state university in the Midwest--not Peoria, but pretty close! They seem too hip to listen to focus on the family, but I am sure that they have heard warnings from friends and family regarding the likes of me!
Randall said…
David: That's a good point.

My issue has to do primarily with the weighing of evidence. The student in the film suggests putting the Ten Commandments in public would change things. Would it? Is there a shred of proof for that? How would someone even gauge it?

On weighing the evidence . . . Rick Perry claimed last night that there is no real validity to human-caused climate change. I would not encourage a college student along those lines. I would also challenge a student who held zealously to an ancient aliens view on the building of the pyramids.

Certainly, students should question assumptions and they should come to understand how important interpretation actually is. That would include interpretation of the Bible as well. I guess I'm asking about a standard, accepted view.

How would a historian of the South respond to a long rant from a student on how the Civil War was fought over state's rights, not slavery? Would it matter that the informed academic history community has no truck with that theory?
David Raymond said…
Randall. I guess my reaction was to the automatic leap to the postmodernist pick and choose of Perry, Bachman, et al from the seemingly simple message that one must be prepared to encounter different ideas and worldviews in college. Must be the early semester optimism that I suffer from ever fall when I confuse the enthusiasm of my freshman for genuine engagement with history. I guess I took the message too literally (no fundamentalist pun intended) because it resonated with me and my freshman encounter (some 30 years ago) with opposing viewpoints. That encounter made me realize that I must learn to think for myself or abandon the field. As for the Southern revisionist view, they fail to see that there are good, better, and best arguments based on logic, reason, and evidence. I guess that is where Perry et al get confused. Maybe academe needs to do a better job explain the tentative nature of truth so that we don't come across as biased experts who cook the evidence to suit our perspective. Where is C.S. Lewis when you need him?

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