Anti-Intellectualism and the Christian Right

The answer to how and why the modern conservative movement got so bat-shit crazy, to use Lindsey Graham’s words, is complicated. While it is beginning to seem like the big tent of the GOP has too many competing agendas to continue to function as a national party, these same groups coexisted and thrived for over forty years prior to their recent undoing. What destroyed the modern conservative movement? I would suggest that the hubris of the establishment and conservative intellectual elites paired with the rampant anti-intellectualism of the evangelical Christian movement created an echo chamber where facts mattered less than faith and feelings. While the establishment rode these forces to repeated victories, pushing the nation rightward on economic and social policy for a generation, they were sowing the seeds of their own destruction. No amount of sanity or “being the adult in the room” can quickly undo this mess.

The “Culture War” that the right has been feverishly engaged in since the 1970s made this connection prominent. Conservative intellectuals expressed outrage over the replacement of “traditional” curriculum (note: the disciplines, courses, and books they were calling traditional had only been in positions of prominence for roughly 40 years) and warned that academia was overrun with leftist radicals who sought to remake America in Marx’s image. Don’t trust those pesky professors or elite universities! Evangelicals like Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell hitched their movement to the rising star of the GOP. Using politics to generate fear among their flocks, these charlatans stole fortunes from their faithful in the name of combating God’s enemies on Earth. Republican candidates pandered to these voters, increasingly considered the “base” of the party, promising to stand-up for the rights of unborn babies, to fight against homosexuality in both society and the legal system, and other insidious liberal institutions (like public schools, universities, and social welfare programs). Your America would be protected from the godless eggheads.

No two subjects illustrate the rabid anti-intellectualism of the Christian right better than history and science.

From demanding that politicians agree with the narrative of “American Exceptionalism”– a phrase most historians roll their eyes at– to exerting tight control over the type of history taught in classrooms around the nation, the GOP has made shaping history in the public sphere their business. Rarely is this done by practicing historical inquiry. You see, historians promote their narratives of the past by engaging in the careful study of relevant sources, a thorough reading of historiography, and the uncovering of new data. The modern conservative movement has no time for this supposedly liberal endeavor. Instead, they feel like history should be a positive story of “our” past and not a complex account of our triumphs and failures. We should celebrate heroes like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, not denigrate them by mentioning that they owned slaves. An odd stance when you consider that both men were pretty clear about the stain they thought slavery left on the nation in their own words and deeds. Facts don’t matter. For these supposed lovers of history, the task is not reconstructing some sliver of the past. What matters is that history prime the pump for the way conservatives want to view the world they live in today.

Listen to Fox news. Pay attention to how Donald Trump talks about returning us to greatness. The version of America they long for is based on the phony notion that there was some magical time where Americans were all hard-working, virtuous, Christians who lived in harmony and had nary a problem. God provided ample opportunity for his chosen people! A child with a good middle school social studies teacher could point out the flaws in this narrative. How great was America in 1850 for blacks? Hell, how great was America for blacks in 1950? Do you think the providence that early English settlers had in establishing colonies in the empty cultivated spaces that just a few years earlier had been teeming with Native Americans was God’s favor– put more bluntly, do you believe God killed off upwards of 90% of the indigenous people in the New World so white Europeans could move in and set up a slave society? We are still four years away from the 100th anniversary for granting women the right to vote– were those centuries that we withheld women’s suffrage a golden age?

No historian I know would teach the past this way. Our story is complicated and full of nuance. A figure can be a hero in one context and a villain in another. Just like real-life. History is not meant to fill you with a warm, fuzzy feeling. The purpose for studying history is to help you develop the knowledge and skills necessary for understanding how the world you live in came to be. Quite simply, history is about proving cause and effect.

Instead of combating the supposed liberal bias in history– easily tackled by addressing individual accounts and providing counter-examples and documentation– conservatives have simply tried to discredit the profession. Academics are portrayed as out-of-touch elites, more concerned with identity politics (Black Studies, Women Studies, Culture Studies, etc) and Marxist ideology (this is such a dated reference that it makes me wonder when the last time they cracked open a monograph or visited a college campus was) than with the “truth.” Including the perspectives of marginalized people is viewed as catering to “white guilt.” Talking about the harmful effects of US foreign policy gets you labeled anti-American. No appeal to the sources or other works of history will sway them. Indeed, the very act of citing something is a mark of your untrustworthiness. Credentials and distinctions are a sign of inferiority. As my grandmother put it, “you are using that college stuff on me.”

The conservative Christian approach to science is similarly plagued by anti-intellectualism. In many ways, this is more shocking to me than their approach to history. After all, our day-to-day lives are filled with the fruits of modern science. In my great-grandmother’s lifetime (1905-2008) she went from a world where traveling by horse was the standard to a world where space travel is literally “no big deal.” I have access to more information on my phone than the whole of human society could get to in 1950. We consume more of the sun’s energy in a single year than the first 6000 years of human existence harnessed collectively. We’ve cured diseases (and created new ones). I work in Los Angeles but live in Ohio. We live in an unprecedented age of technological wonder.

Despite seeing the results of science all around us, the Christian right largely sneers at the methods that produced them. Scientists, like historians, are biased academics who want to destroy the world. They reject the way physicists and astronomers use gravity to explain how structures in our universe were formed. Yet they trust it enough to climb into a plane and soar above the Earth! I’m being glib, but it is hard not to be. These viewpoints are so bizarre and inconsistent.

Chris Impey, Teach Astronomy, 9.9 Galaxies: Structure Formation. I had the pleasure of working with Chris on the General Education Academy at the University of Arizona. You will not find a more brilliant mind, gifted teacher, or generous colleague.

They continue to push for the inclusion of the Abrahamic creation story in science curriculum around the nation (I’ll consider accepting this if they agree to teach the Big Bang next to creation in their Sunday schools). They loudly proclaim that the Big Bang, evolution, and the “old Earth” are lies that academics spread in the name of Satan. Seriously. Here is former Congressman Paul Broun of Georgia (Tea Party Republican) explaining it to a sportsman’s banquet at a Baptist church in Hartwell, Georgia:

Paul Broun sat on the science and technology committee. Because nothing says productive discourse on science and technology than “science is a plot from hell.” This is pretty much how the GOP has filled all committees and department openings in the last 30 years– put people who openly oppose the institution or subject in positions of powers so that nothing is done. They have done this to the Department of Education repeatedly, beginning during the Reagan administration.

Young Earth Creationism is the preferred evangelical Christian explanation for our origin story. To be frank, this is such a stupid idea that it doesn’t even qualify as junk science. It starts from the premise that the great flood (of Noah’s Ark fame) laid all the sediment and strata in a single moment. This is not based on observation or scientific principles, but on a predetermined conclusion that supports the idea that evolution is not plausible. You see, if evolution is real, the Bible (or certain readings of it) cannot be infallible. And if proving evolution false requires also undoing what we know of physics, geology, biology, genetics, and the like, so be it.

How silly is this idea? According to a 2009 Pew survey, 97% of scientists agree that humans and other life evolved over time. Rational people would be very skeptical of a belief system forces them to deny everything we know about how the world works (and all the technologies we have developed to leverage that knowledge), and to disagree with practically everyone who studies the subject. Yet, somewhere between 30-50% of Americans wholeheartedly accept this position. And the modern conservative movement is to blame for this.

While this movement is explicitly Christian in origin, establishment Republicans have adopted it wholesale. In 2014, only 8 out of 278 GOP members of Congress had made on record claims of supporting the scientific consensus that the actions of humans have an impact on climate change. Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio are all climate deniers. Some in the GOP, have begun to soften the stance– Lindsey Graham, Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie, and John Kasich all agree that the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that fossil fuel use contributes to climate change. However, other than Graham, most have been afraid to open fire on their colleagues or constituents for perpetuating the denier mindset. Take this recent example from Gov. Kasich:

This is bizarre pseudo-science promoted by religious hucksters and it is harmful to our nation. There is no plausible science that supports Young Earth Creation. Like your “Leave it to Beaver” fantasies about our past, this is faith masquerading as fact. Perpetuating this worldview for a generation not only held back our development as a nation, but it created a dangerous echo chamber where preaching to their facts adverse choir is more advantageous than promoting a rational, plausible way forward for America. No need to prove what caused a problem– simply promote a solution that “feels” right. Can someone show conclusively that you are wrong? Who cares– just claim they are biased “haters.” Liberals. RINOS. “Losers.” Until the GOP cures their evangelical Christian problem they will never be free from the tyranny of authoritarian candidates like Donald Trump who are all too willing to pander to their worst traits and beliefs.

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