Evangelical Christians Form Parallel Structure

Read Karl Giberson's piece, "The Evangelical Rejection of Reason," in The New York Times

Some Evangelical Christians see a public assault on their beliefs with the rise of gay marriage, the increasing legitimacy of abortion, and the debate on climate change. They are forming a "parallel culture" in response, a practice fellow Evangelical Karl Giberson calls "dangerous."

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NEAL CONAN, host: As a growing rift divides evangelical Christians, two evangelical professors published an op-ed in The New York Times this week that denounced the anti-intellectualism of fundamentalists who embrace what they described as discredited, ridiculous, even dangerous ideas. They described a parallel culture nurtured by church, Sunday school, summer camps and colleges, as well as publishing houses, broadcast networks, music festivals and counseling groups, all in response to what they see as a secular conspiracy: gay marriage, the elimination of prayer at public school, a growing acceptance of atheism.

We want to hear from evangelicals in our audience. How is this playing out in your community? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Karl Giberson is a former professor of physics at East Nazarene College. With Randall Stephens, he is the author of a new book, "The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age," and joins us from member station WBUR in Boston. Thanks very much for coming in today.

KARL GIBERSON: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And where do you see anti-intellectualism among fundamental evangelicals?

GIBERSON: Well, it's been very visible in the GOP candidates, most of whom are reaching out to an evangelical base. And the mere fact that, you know, accepting science and believing in evolution can make you into a maverick on that stage is quite alarming. So it's been highly visible in the GOP discussion. But what's important for people to understand is that people like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, and so on, are reflecting views which are held by tens of millions of American evangelicals and thought to be relatively unproblematical.

CONAN: In fact, is this the mainstream of evangelical thought?

GIBERSON: Yes. This is what the polls show, that the majority of people would agree with Rick Perry that if there's something wrong with the theory of evolution, we don't really need to take it too seriously. So the fact that, literally, tens of millions of Americans think the Earth is 10,000 years old is quite alarming.

CONAN: I was just thinking about that little news item we read - the spear tip, 13,800 years old, in a mastodon's bone. Some people would have a problem with that.

GIBERSON: Yes. I mean, you can be pretty sure that Ken Ham, who's one of the people we profile in our book "The Anointed," will soon come out with a report on how that data somehow is flawed.

CONAN: And anti-intellectualism, is this not simply saying, wait a minute, we have different beliefs, or is this simply saying what - proven fact, we're just ignoring it, we're just putting blinders on?

GIBERSON: Well, it's important to recognize that there's nothing intrinsic to evangelicalism that requires embracing these odd positions. And for, you know, a hundred years prior to the modern creationist movement, most evangelical Christians were OK with the geologists telling them that the Earth was much older than the Bible suggested.

So some of these ideas are relatively recent. They don't come, kind of, directly out of the Bible. They require a certain assumption about how one should read the Bible, which stories are meant to be literal history and which stories are not - and so on. And one of the things that we're careful to do in our book "The Anointed" is to highlight people like Francis Collins, who's a very prominent evangelical Christian.

CONAN: And now the head of NIH.

GIBERSON: Yes. Now the head of the NIH. And, I mean, he accepts mainstream science, including the evolution of the human species and the age of the Earth and the Big Bang Theory and so on, and he's a thoroughgoing evangelical. So there's absolutely nothing in the evangelical theology that requires this. It's simply been the emergence of a politically powerful message put forth by these leaders that we call the anointed in our book, that have kind of convinced people that they need to go in this direction.

CONAN: Yet he and, in fact, others are denounced almost as apostates.

GIBERSON: Well, it's not almost as apostates, they're denounced. People walk out of church sometimes when he's speaking and - I mean, we get referred to as being wolves in sheep's clothing and leading the faithful astray. And people - you see people referring to him as a professing Christian, you know, rather than just a Christian, and so on, as there's got to be something suspicious about somebody who can be that comfortable with contemporary science and call themselves a Christian.

CONAN: And I was interested in what you described as this parallel culture, where it is nurtured, well, of course, by church and Sunday school, but also by colleges and universities, which - are they part of the anti-intellectualism?

GIBERSON: Not really. In fact, the salvation of evangelicalism, if there's going to be one, will come out of the colleges and universities that are sponsored by that subculture. And most of the faculty in schools like Eastern Nazarene College, where I've taught for many years, are very alarmed at what we see as this growing anti-intellectualism. So there is - there's room and energy within evangelicalism for reform.

But the problem is the power brokers tend to be very, very conservative, and, I mean, for the past 10 or 15 years, I've had influential fundamentalists, like, demanding that I be dismissed from my institution because I was too liberal to teach there. So you deal with that as a kind of a constant threat to the investigation of these controversial topics.

CONAN: And this culture, you describe it as being almost a reaction to the growth of secular society.

GIBERSON: Yeah. There's a sense - and, I mean, it's - I think it's easy to see how people can begin to feel like they're being threatened. And you can imagine a small community where a nativity scene appears at a certain spot in the town square, like, every year for, you know, a century and a half. And then, like, all of a sudden, the courts forbid it to reappear there. And like - and that can seem like an assault on tradition, which people value a lot.

Most people don't think there's anything dangerous or sinister about praying, but the fact that praying gets outlawed from the public schools can make it look like religion is not being sort of merely separated, but religion is being undermined and marginalized, and that can feel threatening. And so many people would rather send their children to a school where they could pray before class.

CONAN: Or home-school them.

GIBERSON: Or home-school them, in many cases.

CONAN: We're talking with Karl Giberson, co-author of "The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age" with Randall J. Stephens. And they are also the authors of an op-ed that appeared in The New York Times, "The Evangelical Rejection of Reason." 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Aaron's on the line, Aaron calling us from Lynchburg in Virginia.

AARON: Yes, Neal. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

AARON: Yes. You know, I - having come through four years at an evangelical university, growing up in what many would call the evangelical subculture, I - and even now pursuing a graduate degree and working for an evangelical university, I find that there is - there are certain things that will be certain hot-button issues. I mean, I think there is even - as your guest was stating earlier - in these evangelical universities, there are these areas where they are looking into - looking at scientific reason, looking at research and data and not just going off of tradition.

And I think, really, what the issue comes from is not necessarily the true orthodoxy of the Christian faith that they hold, but I think more of these extra-scriptural moralities and even hot-button points, that there can be no compromise on, that I think it's almost something to where the foundation of one's faith, when it is seen as something that is reduced down to into talking points than when - when one of those talking points is challenged, when that's the only foundation that you have, then you really can't move on past that.

GIBERSON: Yes. There's a very real sense in which there are hot-button items, but, unfortunately, these hot-button items, I think, have been manipulated by leaders looking to kind of build coalitions. They're not always, like, authentic biblical or traditionally Christian concerns. And, I mean, gay marriage would be a good example. I mean, there's just a handful of proof text scattered throughout the Bible about homosexuality. Jesus said absolutely nothing about it.

And yet, somehow, that's on the front burner of, as sort of the central issue that Christian leaders like James Dobson want us to worry about. So I think there's a manipulation of the, sort of, the evangelical perception of where society is going, where the threats are that's behind some of that.

AARON: I certainly agree. And I think what - where some of that - the party lines can be drawn with that manipulation, I think are - whereas it's almost picking one issue over the other, where, you know, as a Christian, you can see that there is a biblical mandate for, you know, caring for the poor and caring for the needy. And - whereas you might be, you know, wanting to align yourself with one certain political party or political force, also, your faith on another hot-button issue would be something like abortion, whereas you may want to align yourself with somebody politically who would want to, you know, have policies in place that would take care, you know, that would - things that would match up with your faith on - sometimes there can be that issue of no compromise. And many times, I find it is just that one thing of maybe not even necessarily gay marriage in some circles, but usually the ethic of human life and how that is treated with abortion rights.

CONAN: OK. Aaron, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

AARON: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we could go next to - this is Francis, Francis with us from Mt. Shasta in California. Francis, are you there? Francis?

FRANCIS: Are you there? Oops.

CONAN: Francis, you're on - turn off your radio, Francis. You're on the air.

FRANCIS: Greetings from Mount Shasta, California.

CONAN: OK. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

FRANCIS: OK. This is an Evangelical Lutheran here. And we look at the fundamentalist error that's the root of most of the problem is they don't seem to realize that God created time, and fundamentalists seem to believe that God is limited by the time he created. And, of course, the offset of that is if God wants to take eight billion years to create Earth and tell Moses, I did it in seven days, well, that's fine. We don't see any problem with that. And the other subset is man is a part of nature, and the creation of the soul of man is the realm of faith. So would your guest care to comment on those things?

GIBERSON: Yeah. I mean, you're absolutely right. And I think you're illustrating the point I made earlier, that there are resources and movements and denominations within even conservative evangelicalism that are able to make peace with all of these different controversial topics. So, I mean, you're absolutely right. I mean, there's just no need whatsoever to be saying, look, to be a Christian, you've got to think of the Earth as being 10,000 years old. I mean, that's simply not reasonably made an article of faith.

FRANCIS: They sure make a big deal of it, but I think at the root of it is their failure to conceive that God created time and, therefore, is the master of it.

CONAN: Francis, thanks very much.

FRANCIS: Thank you.

CONAN: In your op-ed, Karl Giberson, you described some of these ideas as potentially dangerous. What do you mean by that?

GIBERSON: Well, one of the things that has, unfortunately, happened with some of these anointed leaders who are very successful at leading these movements is they've managed to kind of undermine the scientific enterprise. And if you look at what Ken Ham does with Answers n Genesis or what the Discovery Institute does with Intelligent Design and so on, they make so many negative comments about how scientists are biased, how science is all about the assumptions that you bring to the data rather than the objective examination of the data. They make a big deal about scientific revolutions in the past that have overturned well-established ideas, and so on. So they've created an impression that is very widely shared among evangelicals, that science is not really very trustworthy. And Al Mohler, the Southern Baptist leader, has made a - gotten a lot of mileage out of talking about how the subtle results of science today will be replaced by something different tomorrow.

So there's this sense that if you don't like a scientific idea, you've got lots and lots of justification for setting it aside. I think that's one of the reasons why climate science, for example - which everybody wishes wasn't true, because we don't want to have to pay the price that it will take to do deal with that. But so many evangelicals reject global warming, even though that has not even a remote tangential connection to anything in the Bible or their faith. And one of the reasons for that is that they just don't trust science as a whole. So when the National Academy of Sciences comes out and says, look, we all agree that global warming is real, they say, well, OK. We'll just wait 15 years, and then you'll change your mind, just like you always do.

CONAN: Fifteen years we don't have. Karl Giberson, thank you very much. Karl Giberson wrote "The Evangelical Rejection of Reason" for The New York Times. There's a link to his piece at our website, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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