From Christopher Stroop
Educated Evangelicals, Academic Achievement, and Trumpism: On the Tensions in Valuing Education in an Anti-Intellectual Subculture
Authority First: The Enclave Strikes Back
“I sat in the waiting room wasting my time, and waiting for Judgment Day. I praise liberty, the freedom to obey.” – Green Day, “21st Century Breakdown,” 21st Century Breakdown (2009)
Fundamentalists force an inhumane choice on reflective, empathetic individuals who grow up in their enclave communities: assent that 2 + 2 = 5, or, if you can’t, shut up about it or leave. Conservative Evangelicalism is a variety of Christian fundamentalism, and, make no mistake, the data tells us with overwhelming clarity that (apart from the “special demographic” of Vladimir Putin, Mitch McConnell, and James Comey), white Evangelicals are the one demographic most responsible for electing the most patently unqualified and dangerously demagogic president in modern American history. I am often asked how they could vote for someone so impious, which is a question I’ve addressed multiple times, generally referring to white Evangelical subculture’s pervasive authoritarianism and its politics of Providentialism (which can lead them to conclude that God can use Trump as a “vessel” despite his imperfections).
Perhaps a more interesting, or at least less frequently addressed, question, is how Evangelicals could vote for a candidate so manifestly, indeed flamboyantly, incompetent. But the two questions are very much of a piece, and the answers will take us down similar paths. Authoritarianism in power is always accompanied by anti-intellectualism, pseudo-intellectualism, and post-truth conditions. Fundamentalism is authoritarian by definition–it accepts a vision of “the Truth” that is sacrosanct, unquestionable, and, when found to be incompatible with reality, protected through the generation of “alternative facts,” which themselves become unassailable truths within the enclave community that is built up to sustain the fundamentalism in question.
Why go to such extreme lengths to maintain false “truths” instead of simply accepting new information? Because, thanks to abusive socialization and indoctrination, one’s entire identity is tied up with being right about these particular truths, making it so painful to face (actual) facts that for most fundamentalists doing so is simply impossible, leading to deflection, whataboutism, and extreme manifestations of psychological defense mechanisms such as projection and defensive fetishes.
If this sounds a lot like America’s current (illegitimate) president, it should. Both conservative Evangelicals and the reality-TV-star-in-chief are insecure and defensive. Both cling to demonstrably false views. Both feel aggrieved, since they believe their “alternative facts” deserve a hearing on par with actual facts. What this serves to do, of course, is to create a situation in which there are no generally agreed upon facts, leaving “facts” to be determined by power. And because they are so invested in being right, they are willing to use coercion to force their fake “facts” on others.
Fundamentalism is authoritarianism in microcosm, or on the margins. Fascism is essentially fundamentalism in power, and it continues to nurse a sense of being “the moral majority,” as well as a sense of being “beleaguered” and “treated very unfairly” – at the same time. As I tweeted on February 11, “There’s a reason that one scholarly framework for approaching authoritarian ideologies is ‘political religion.’” See also my analysis in “#ChristianAltFacts, or, How the Christian Right Broke America,” and Christopher Douglas’s excellent article “The Religious Origins of Fake News and ‘Alternative Facts.’“
But perhaps this is all very abstract. And perhaps it might imply that all Evangelicals are simply anti-intellectual, with no ambivalence. In fact, in the kind of Evangelical environment I grew up in–a generally college or postgraduate educated, middle to upper-class part of the broader enclave community–attitudes about education and knowledge are riddled with tensions. In an attempt to help others better understand the dynamics of living with Evangelical anti-intellectualism while simultaneously theoretically valuing education, I’m going to explore this topic through my personal experience below.
There is a strange sort of hope and fear for Evangelicals who profess to value academic achievement–they want the kids in their communities to achieve academically, because that lends a veneer of credibility to them and to the ideology itself. Would-be respectable Evangelicals desperately want to believe that their parallel institutions and bodies of knowledge are just as good as “the world’s.”
At the same time, there is a widespread fear that at least some aspects of the parallel Evangelical information universe may not hold water when seriously tested. Would-be “respectable” Evangelicals who value education and want to be taken seriously are acutely aware that when it comes to “training up” the next generation, too much critical thinking, or the “wrong” kind of education can lead to the community losing a potentially talented culture warrior to “the world.” I was supposed to be that talented, academically accomplished culture warrior. #SorryNotSorry, but “taking back the country for Christ” was not for me. I am in fact horrified to watch theocracy rising in Trumpism, as I switched sides in the culture wars long ago. This blog is part of my effort to talk back, fight back, and support others undergoing the very difficult process of leaving fundamentalism.
“Take Captive Every Thought”: Coming of Age with Cognitive Dissonance
“…and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” – from 2 Corinthians 10:5 (NIV).
I grew up with my parents and relatives frequently telling me I was smart. They expected great things of me, speculated I would become some sort of scientist or inventor. Indeed, I was a precocious kid, speaking in complete sentences when I was two. It wasn’t too long after that age, still in the first half of the 1980s, that one of my dad’s favorites stories about little me occurred. We were in a department store, and I asked him if I could have a toy car that cost a dollar, but which he deemed cheaply manufactured and not worth the price. Disappointed, I bided my time and, 10 or 15 minutes later, when we were in a completely different part of the store, I asked Dad, “What’s the most money you can think of?” Not suspecting I was still thinking about the toy car, he answered, “Oh, a million, maybe a billion dollars,” and I immediately followed up with, “Now does one little dollar sound like much?” He bought me the toy car.
As this vignette illustrates, my family members can admire and encourage intelligence. They also value education. Both my parents have master’s degrees from Ball State University. They were both in the first generation from their families to get college degrees, making me part of the second generation to go at a traditional age (my maternal grandmother did get a degree as an adult; she then became an elementary school teacher). My dad likes to brag that with my Ph.D. from Stanford I’ve “taken it to a whole new level.”
Nevertheless, in my childhood my parents also provided me with young earth creationist literature; exposed me to frequent urgent insistence that abortion is a literal holocaust, so we must stop the baby-killing liberals; exposed me to the teaching that sexual orientation is definitely a choice, and certainly never provided the slightest hint that they might question that pernicious notion; seemingly expected that the rapture could occur any day now; and taught me to interpret the Bible essentially literally–which frankly struck no small amount of terror into my highly sensitive young heart. As I’ve written elsewhere:
My early childhood was marked by episodes of abject terror over whether I was “really saved.” In my teen years, I wondered whether Calvinism were true and whether I might be part of the predestined reprobate. Later in high school, I moved on to thinking I had committed the unpardonable sin, walking around with a palpable lump of anxiety in my chest for about a week because I had failed to keep a promise to God to stop masturbating.
You could say I got some mixed messages growing up. One message I consistently got was that it was absolutely essential to do God’s will. My need to be certain that I was doing God’s will was at times so paralyzing that I would stand in front of my dresser wondering which pair of socks God might want me to wear that day. And then there was that other terrifying message taken from the apostle Paul–to “take captive every thought” in order to make sure it was pure and properly Christian. Given that I was already inclined to introspection, you can bet that one did a number on me.
However, another message I consistently got was that I was going to go to college and probably get a full ride academic scholarship. And so, after graduating from an ideologically driven Christian high school, I did. I looked at a few schools, including Evangelical colleges, whose required “lifestyle statements” (yes really, Google it) I already found infantilizing and invasive enough to rule them out. And I ultimately went to my parents’ alma mater, where I received the Whitinger Scholarship, won best undergraduate paper in one of the History Department’s Student History Conferences, and even won the Provost’s Prize for outstanding graduating senior in 2003.
Meanwhile, I voted for George W. Bush in 2000, despite serious misgivings and ambivalence, “because abortion”; I tried to argue with professors that if there were credible historical witnesses to miraculous occurrences, then we could be confident miracles did indeed occur; and I embarrassed myself in far too many attempts to defend young earth creationism because I accepted Ken Ham’s argument that Christianity falls apart without taking the accounts of creation and the fall literally.
In general I fought hard, but slowly failed, to hold on to my Evangelical faith. For me, giving up that faith was ultimately the only way to be able to live with myself while beginning to resolve the cognitive dissonance that resulted from growing up taught both to value authentic intellectual inquiry and achievement and to defend #ChristianAltFacts at all costs–indeed, in some cases potentially on pain of eternal conscious torture in hell if I rejected these “alternative facts.”
Speaking of living with myself, I was only just able to do so. Suicidal ideation was a frequent visitor during my college years, and well into my twenties I would often think of myself as “an impossible person who shouldn’t exist.” Someone raised by a loving Christian family wasn’t supposed to change beliefs and politics. I felt like a traitor and was torn up with guilt, which I now realize were responses programmed into me through my indoctrination in the toxic, authoritarian ideology of Evangelicalism. My youth, spent in absolutely unnecessary existential crises, was stolen from me, and none of it was my fault (and if you’re reading this and struggling with similar issues, as you may need to hear, it is not your fault either).
In fact, the suicidal ideation started earlier, as did my crisis of faith. Ever since my childhood I’d had a strong sense of self and of being “different.” This went along with being uncomfortable in my own skin, as the acceptable ways in which one can be different are highly circumscribed in the conformist conservative Evangelical subculture. Meanwhile, when I was 16, I read the entire Bible through for myself, and that was the beginning of the end of my ability to hold on to the Evangelical belief in Biblical inerrancy, and of a crisis of faith that only really began to feel properly resolved much later, in my 30s, when I realized I’m queer.
Back in those teenage years, I found some solace in alternative rock, the authenticity of which stood in sharp contrast to the glibness of most “contemporary Christian music,” as our enclave community’s parallel music industry is known. In my doubting teenage angst, one of the tracks I played over and over–I am confident my parents did not know this–was “Suicidal Dream”from Australian band Silverchair’s 1995 album Frogstomp (along with “Shade”). I knew something was “off.” Spiritual abuse programmed me to blame myself, but somehow I ultimately could not authentically and in good conscience give up my doubts.
The cognitive dissonance went back further. While I did indeed have young earth creationist literature and apologetics books growing up, I also had a subscription to Ranger Rick Magazine, an annually renewed gift from my maternal grandma–the one who went back to school as an adult and became a fourth-grade public school teacher. Her generation’s Christianity, in my family at least, was much more moderate than that of the next generation. Through Ranger Rick, an excellent publication for children from the National Wildlife Federation, I learned about environmentalism and evolution. I learned about the latter as well from an old natural history textbook that had once been my mom’s, and which I found fascinating, though I eventually learned that some of the information in it was dated. (Thanks, Robert T. Bakker! I’ll take you over Jim Bakker any day.)
There was also a more distant relative who would teach me fascinating things about carnivorous plants, meteor showers, and dinosaurs, and who always told me that they lived tens and hundreds of millions of years ago, even though I knew I was supposed to believe that the earth was 6000-10000 years old. In Christianese, all of this “planted seeds,” I’m sure. And yet I couldn’t fully give up on young earth creationism until well into college, and then only in conjunction with severe existential crisis. The extent of identity loss that goes along with losing fundamentalist faith is something I think few if any who have not lived it can really understand.
High SAT Scores for God: Academics in a “Respectable” Christian School
“And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” – Colossians 3:17 (NIV)
And then there was Christian school. From first grade through half of sixth grade, and then again for all four years of high school, I went to a Christian school in Indianapolis. Elementary school talent shows concluded with sing-a-longs of–to borrow a phrase from Dave Barry, I am not making this up–Lee Greenwood’s godawful “God Bless the USA.” Our high school chemistry, physiology, and AP bio and AP chem teacher was an absentminded apocalyptic who would at times spend half the class on what he called “thoughts,” long, rambling devotions of sorts. These often involved his dreams (“I dreamed it was Judgment Day, and Christ was separating people into the sheep and the goats, and I was running around frantically trying to see if any of my students were among the goats…”).
The two years I had him, for chemistry and AP bio, he predicted that the rapture would probably occur “this fall around Yom Kippur,” because, you see, it was surely the year of Noah, since sin (especially gay sin) was increasing and increasing, and did you know they’re genetically engineering red heifers? (Again, I am not making this up.) I’m pretty sure he did/does this every year. The rapture’s always just around the corner. And this man teaches science.
In AP bio, this teacher showed us young earth creationist “documentaries,” even one about “flood geology,” as well as secular documentaries. While we used a secular college textbook, as is standard, he refused to teach us the evolution chapters, instead telling us to read them on our own and regurgitate them for the exam. In class, we discussed how “microevolution” could occur within a Biblical “kind” as described in Genesis, but this was not “macroevolution,” which would involve speciation. Of course, the position that “microevolution” can occur without the speciation of “macroevolution” is untenable, but what of that?
To get back, then, to the paradoxical nature of the pro-education anti-intellectualism I grew up with, you can see how odd it is for a school to offer AP courses and encourage high college placement rates, etc., while still teaching #ChristianAltFacts. But that’s what our school did and does; Christian Right ideology, including a belief in Biblical inerrancy, set the tone for everything else. In elementary school, we pledged allegiance both to the American flag and the Christian flag. One of the walls in the old elementary school was emblazoned with part of Psalm 33:12, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD.” In our milieu, “liberal” was treated like an antonym for “Christian.”
And yet the school has long touted its SAT scores and college placement rates, both of which are higher than those of the surrounding Indianapolis Public Schools. (Incidentally, the school tried to funnel as many graduates as possible into Evangelical colleges, so the #ChristianAltFacts deemed essential to the salvation of our souls would not be too severely challenged in the process of acquiring higher education.) Part of this is self-selection, I’m sure. The student body consists almost entirely of children from middle and upper-class families and, when I was there, was very disproportionately (almost entirely) white, though it has since become much more racially integrated.
As both my parents work in Christian ministries–my mom is a Christian school teacher and my dad has spent most of his adult life working with music, arts, and technology in churches–we were on the lower end, economically, of the range of families associated with the school. These were not families whose children grew up without books in the home. And the school was (and presumably still is), too, rigorous in its way. All students took the PSAT, and before we took it officially we had a practice test administered. In English and Bible classes, we were taught how to craft arguments and how to identify logical fallacies–in order, of course, to defend the faith. You were not supposed to turn these critical thinking tools back on Biblical literalism, but some of us couldn’t help it. The English teachers gave me an excellent start in learning how to write well. I would not be a published writer and scholar now if not for them, I’m sure.
So, this rigor produces its effect. The school graduates national merit scholars. Alumni go on to become aerospace engineers, entrepreneurs and business leaders, theologians, or, in my case, an apostate historian leading a pretty weird life. Kent Brantly, who made the cover of Time for his role in fighting the 2014 Ebola epidemic as a missionary doctor, graduated with me in 1999. Although I have not talked to him in years, I remember him as a very kind, unassuming person. I have often quipped that my Christian school education consisted largely of two prongs, critical thinking and Biblical literalism. For me, that created unbearable cognitive dissonance. Others are apparently capable of living with it. But while academic achievement that did not challenge conservative Evangelical ideology was encouraged–“for the glory of God,” of course–this coexisted with overt anti-intellectualism and a sense that secular experts were “blinded” and/or part of a conspiracy when their expertise challenged untouchable, sacrosanct beliefs.
Rejecting the “Worldly Wise”: Evangelical Anti-Intellectualism
“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” – 1 Corinthians 1:27 (NIV)
After my first year in college or at some point when I was home during the first half of my college career (I don’t remember exactly when), I found myself at a concert held back at my Christian school. A local Christian singer was performing. As she got ready to cover Nichole Nordeman’s “Fool for You” (the “you” is Jesus), she said something that’s been etched in my memory ever since. “It’s impossible to be too dumb to get into the Kingdom of Heaven. It might be possible to be too smart, but it’s not possible to be too dumb!” The crowd cheered wildly, while I sat there quietly horrified, pondering the “it might be possible to be too smart” part of her statement.
The song itself was already cringeworthy to me; I encourage you to click on the link above and listen to it, paying attention to the lyrics, just to get a feel for the attitudes one finds in Evangelical communities and contemporary Christian songs. They usually resolve everything tidily, because Evangelicals generally do not deal well with internal conflict, questions, ambiguity or, well, reality. And yet they live with glaring contradictions they refuse to face.
The value placed on a (circumscribed) good education one finds among educated, middle and upper-class Evangelicals sits oddly with this kind of overt anti-intellectualism that one also meets frequently in the subculture. But in this area too, one meets not only aggrieved defensiveness, but also magical thinking, both of which help explain white Evangelicals’ affinity for Trump. I’ll give just two examples.
Fist, on the aggrieved and defensive front, an experience from my two years at Colorado Springs Christian Middle School comes to mind. This school was even more extremist than the one I graduated from in Indianapolis; while at CSCS, I had to do a worksheet in (I think it was eighth-grade) Bible class that indicated that black people were the cursed descendants of Ham. The teacher seemed embarrassed, but made us go through the material anyway. But the incident I’m thinking of happened once while I was in the lunch line, when the cashier overheard me referring to humans as primates. She became furious and red-faced, despite my protestations that I was simply using a descriptive classification, not actually suggesting that humans evolved from apes. That didn’t stop her from going, well, apeshit. I suppose I was lucky to get out of that situation without a detention.
Now to the magical thinking. I spent my third year of college studying abroad, in Germany and England, and as I had some time between terms due to differing academic schedules, I decided to spend a month in Russia. This was in early 2002. A German friend accompanied me for the first part of the trip to Russia, which we spent in Moscow and St. Petersburg. As it was not so far back that I had participated in short-term mission trips in Russia (1999 and 2000, more here), despite my increasingly acute crisis of faith, I was able to find connections through missionaries to help arrange affordable lodging and even some guided tourism, which was nice.
In Moscow, we worked with an American woman who was employed at a missionary organization. She was very friendly and helpful, but also exhibited typical Evangelical magical thinking. Her Russian was not very good, she admitted to us, before telling us that she spoke fluent Spanish, but God “called her to Russia.” I had long since become critical of this notion of God “confounding the worldly wise” by using people with dubious qualifications as “vessels” of his will in particular callings to which they are not naturally suited, but it is a deep-seated part of Evangelical culture. Later in the trip, I visited a Wesleyan church in Vladimir, where, I was told, the American pastor had been serving for seven years. He still preached through an interpreter. My Russian–I could get by but was not fluent at that time–was clearly better than his. I was not impressed.
What this is meant to illustrate is the broader point that Evangelicals devalue the expertise of “secular elites.” Since these “elites” are “wrong” about evolution, it is easy for Evangelicals to believe they are also wrong about climate change, and, indeed, to believe anything our increasingly radical American conservative movement–radicalized in large part thanks precisely to the Christian Right–wants to believe. Belief in “the Truth” inevitably leads to post-truth, which is a necessary condition for a power struggle in which authoritarians, if victorious, can impose the narrative they wish to impose on society.
As long as he proved willing to protect them, to treat their views, no matter how absurd, as acceptable or even authoritative, and in particular to help them pursue their goal of outlawing abortion, it should surprise precisely no one that America’s white Evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Trump for the presidency. Fundamentalism is authoritarian. Political forms of authoritarianism are essentially species of fundamentalism. And the dynamic they represent is abusive. Post-truth politics is gaslighting on a large social scale. Today’s radical post-truth regime is now in power in America thanks largely to your friendly neighborhood white Evangelicals, who are confounding the worldly wise indeed.