This is the no-vaxxer deep story in a nutshell: I trust my own cells more than I trust pharmaceutical goop; I trust my own mind more than I trust liberal elites.
The anti-intellectualism and anti-professionalism run deep. As does the bad faith “do your own research”, “trust your own mind”, “we report, you decide” framing beloved by a very American strain of anti-intellectualism that discards science while claiming it and inverts history and morality.
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”.
I grew up in the cult of ignorance with Southern Baptist, Buchanan-ite parents. I watched as they progressively radicalized themselves with the growth of conservative media. The result is profoundly anti-intellectual, post-truther Trumpists wired to believe “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”. The notion that impartial news and objective facts exist has been destroyed within them.
That destruction is very much a product of the toxic Christianity I grew up in, with its dedication to Christian alt facts and biblical inerrancy. Inerrancy is a pillar of the U.S. cult of ignorance. Inerrancy motivates the cult to discard secular knowledge and live in parallel society to secular culture.
Outside the U.S., biblical inerrancy is referred to as “the American heresy”. The American Heresy begat and nourishes the American Cult of Ignorance. Below are selected quotes on the history and broad impact of biblical inerrancy. Here’s how we went from using the Bible as a clobber-text to rationalize away America’s sins to fake news, post-truth, anti-vaxxers, no-vaxxers, and culture wars. The way is riddled with bad faith, populist hermeneutics that appeal to “common sense” and “straightforward”, “simple and direct”, “plain and literal” interpretations. This anti-intellectual framing has been with us for awhile and heralds the science and pluralism rejecting climate of today. It characterizes the cult of ignorance.
This is evident when you consider the two primary doctrines, the two paramount identifiers of white evangelicalism. One of these was adopted and embellished, the other was concocted from scratch, but both became white evangelical litmus tests in service of white nationalism.
These are, first, “biblical inerrancy” – the idea of the Bible as a collection of selective clobber-texts which can be cited as ultimate authority, and, second, opposition to legal abortion because of the claim that human personhood begins at conception. (Or, really, based on growing white evangelical opposition to contraception, the claim that human personhood begins at ejaculation.)
These are the two non-negotiables of evangelical identity. On almost everything else, white evangelicalism can admit a wide array of difference. One can be charismatic or anti-charismatic, Reformed or Arminian, etc.There have been prominent white evangelicals who were annihilationists, and universalists, and monists, subordinationists and super-supercessionists. White evangelicalism can accommodate any of that, but it cannot accommodate anyone who strays from the twin pillars of clobber-text inerrancy and anti-abortionism.
There’s no wiggle room on those two things. Those are defining boundaries and fiercely enforced aspects of identity. And both were adopted by white evangelicals in service of the larger agenda of white nationalism.
The weaponizing of “inerrant” biblical clobber-texts as the ultimate authority is the older of the two, but it’s still a relatively recent development. It had to be – this approach to the Bible, this use of the Bible, simply was not possible for English-speaking Christians until the 17th century, when English translations of the Bible were finally able to be mass-produced. But the invention of this idea also required a second ingredient – a massive, howling injustice in need of rationalization.
Those things arrived at nearly the same time with the publication of the King James Bible and the beginning of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Slavery was a morally indefensible horror, an atrocity that was utterly incompatible with the spirit of Christianity – so that spirit had to be exchanged for the letter. This is when and how literalist inerrancy was invented. It was a tool to allow selected clobber texts to be cited as “biblical authority” that trumped that of the Golden Rule.
Historian Mark Noll’s The Civil War as Theological Crisis offers a fine summary of all this. Noll describes this as a “debate” over “the Bible and slavery,” but it’s really an account of the invention of the literalist clobber-texting (anti-)hermeneutic and of what would later come to be called “inerrancy” and a “high view of the authority of the scriptures.”
The purpose of that invention, from the start – and the invention, too, of white evangelicalism as a whole – was the defense of slavery. This was not simply a “biblical” defense of immorality and injustice, it was also a form of self-deception – a device that allowed white evangelicals to defend the indefensible while pretending to themselves that doing so put them on the side of the Bible and of God. The need to think of themselves as good and righteous despite defending the massive injustice of white nationalism led to the invention of a new doctrine that allowed them to pretend that they were good and righteous because they defended the massive injustice of white nationalism.
Fundamentalist Christians rejected these accounts. But more importantly, fundamentalists critiqued the methods, assumptions, and institutions of the expert elites. Fundamentalists questioned the biologists’ and Bible scholars’ suspension of the question of God’s supernatural intervention. They rejected the secular university as a site of neutral science and objective scholarship. And they didn’t just question the ideas and conclusions of the secular world and its institutions of knowledge. In a form of resistance, they adapted modern institutions and technologies to create bodies of counter-expertise.
Christian fundamentalist Bible colleges and universities, publishers and bookstores, newspapers and magazines, radio and then television shows, museums and campus ministries, together formed a set of institutions that resisted elite, secular expert knowledge. Recognizing the power of expertise’s infrastructure, Christian fundamentalists created this counter-infrastructure to cultivate and curate its alternative forms of knowledge. This alternative knowledge-the forerunner of today’s alternative facts- took the form of creationism and an alternative Bible scholarship demonstrating the Bible’s inerrancy and traditional authorship.
This alternative educational and media ecosystem of knowledge was galvanized and mobilized when the Christian Right emerged in the late 1970s to influence the Republican Party. There were two long-term consequences for our fake news world. First, theologically and politically conservative Christians learned to distrust the proclamations of the supposedly neutral media establishment, just as they had grown to suspect the methods and conclusions of elite experts like scientists or historians. And second, they learned to seek the truth from alternative sources-whether a church sermon, Christian media (newspapers, books, radio or television shows), or a classroom in a Christian college.
The consequence is that theologically fundamentalist Christians have for years explained to themselves that what seems to be worldly wisdom and conclusions are really the results of conspiracies, biases, and misplaced human pride in academic, scientific, and journalist communities. This cognitive training to reject expert knowledge and to seek alternative, more amenable explanations has helped disarm the capacity for critical thinking and analysis.
In the following years, the areas of rejected expert knowledge has grown to include climate change, the efficacy of abstinence-only sex education, and even the supposed link between vaccinations and autism. One could make the argument that even issues that don’t appear to have any religious resonance at all-such as the efficacy of supply-side economic policies, or the idea that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction and ties to Al Qaeda-are likewise successful partly because of this conservative cognitive training in the rejection of mainstream media and the cultivation of other sources of information, like Fox News at first, but also now websites like Breitbart, 4chan, Infowars, and others.
The goal of “fake news” and “alternative facts” goes beyond providing different data. Their purpose is actually to destroy the notion that there could be impartial news and objective facts. Maria Bustillos calls this endgame “dismediation,” “a form of propaganda that seeks to undermine the medium by which it travels.”
It is conservative voters who are measurably more credulous to fake news sites. The origin story of that credulity in fundamentalism holds a similar imbalance.
It’s past time for us to consider the possibility that the God gap in partisan religiosity is linked to the asymmetry of whether and how voters consume fake news. Akin to William F. Buckley standing athwart history and yelling_stop_, the sister conservatism of Christian fundamentalism has stood athwart modern knowledge and yelled NO. In cultivating alternative sources and alternative ideas, Christian fundamentalists laid the ground for the fake news to come.
…this history is the key to understanding how evangelicals used and continue to use scripture, morality, and the political power they gathered across the course of the twentieth and, now, the twenty-first centuries.
The nineteenth-century racism of American evangelicalism shored up southern cultural and racial mores through the interpretation of scriptures, theology, and belief that informed white southerners’ social and political actions. Evangelicals’ use of morality in the nineteenth century forged the pathway by which racism and white supremacy became part and parcel of evangelical history, informing how they interpreted scripture, how they constructed a public and nationalistic vision for America, and how they used morality to both convert and oppress African Americans in slavery and in freedom.
To understand how evangelicals went about this process, we must begin with the Bible, because the Bible was the defining text to which people turned to answer the question of whether slavery was or was not God’s will. Before the Civil War, the Bible was interpreted literally, and most people’s acquaintance with it came through their pastor or, if they happened to be people of means, through their own copy (most likely sold to them by an agent of the American Bible Society). Although many did not have a Bible in their own homes, they heard scripture often enough in their churches to acquire a familiarity and could quote their favorite verses by heart. Some scriptures, however, were often repeated in order to support slavery.
This agonizing history of enslaved and freed African Americans at the hands of evangelical Christians exposes the unsavory foundations of deeply held evangelical beliefs. A literal interpretation of the Bible that deemed slavery as being allowed by God, a mythological ideal of southern civilization based in whiteness, and a preoccupation with purity and sexuality all brought out the worst in white southerners fighting to keep a dishonorable way of life intact. The lives of enslaved and later freed African Americans were made intolerable by evangelicals invested in keeping them in their places and maintaining white supremacy and power.
For that change of heart, Klansmen looked to evangelical Protestantism in general, and to fundamentalism in particular. The Klan overlapped with, and helped feed the larger upsurge of, fundamentalism in the ‘twenties; indeed, the very term “fundamentalist” only came into use in 1920. The 1920s “marked a crucial transition in American religious history,” according to one of its leading interpreters. The evangelical Protestant establishment found itself on the defensive in the face of unprecedented competition from Judaism and Catholicism, as well as from advocates of the social gospel and higher biblical criticism. Belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, the truth of the creationist account of human origins, and an otherworldliness that justified the status quo on earth became defining features of the fundamentalist world view.41 In it, Klan leaders found the spiritual anchor for their ideology. To combat the rival extremes of “democracy” and “monarchy,” the Klan advocated fundamentalism as a parallel, all-encompassing explanation of and prescription for social order: a reactionary populist vision backed by the authority of the Almighty. In the Klan’s hands, Protestantism was thus very much a political creed: it provided answers to the basic questions about who should wield power over whom, and how and why.
Central to the old-time religion the Klan was so enamored of was belief in the literal truth of the Bible. “The Klansman,” explained one manual, “pins his faith to the Bible as the revealed will of God.” “Human reason bows” before this “Impregnable Rock,” “afraid to doubt.” Such magical thinking helped Klan leaders subdue reason and elicit unquestioning loyalty to the status quo. Rational thought derived from philosophical materialism, in contrast, was deeply threatening. Darwin’s theory of evolution was thus said to be part of the larger threat of “materialism” to “moral integrity.” Indeed, Georgia legislators found the teaching of evolution to be not simply “improper” but “subversive.”
The Klan’s opposition to religious liberalism was thus eminently sensible. Once the right to interpret the Bible was conceded, much less the right to enlist it in the cause of social reform, the whole structure of feeling that made fundamentalism such a formidable buttress of social order would collapse.
Since the 1960s conservative Christians have slowly and steadily built an institutionally integrated, mutually reinforcing, and self-sustaining subculture that exists alongside the world in which most of us live. The religious right may be one of the most visible manifestations of that subculture, but it is not the full expression, nor the most influential aspect, of it. This subculture is often invisible, but it is so pervasive that there are now adult Americans who were raised in Christian homeschooling families, who believe that America is a Christian nation; that there is no separation of church and state implied in the Constitution; that authoritarian patriarchy is the God-ordained structure for families; that the functions of civil government are limited to providing for national defense and punishing crimes outlined in the Bible; that the Bible speaks to every aspect of life; and that we are all obligated to live under the law contained therein, law that is anchored in the literal six-day creation described in Genesis. Furthermore, this integrated worldview includes an ideological structure for identifying, explaining, and then dismissing any alternative ways of seeing things.
Reconstructionists operate from the presupposition that God exists and that the Bible is true; everything must be seen through that lens.
The other pillar of the Christian Reconstructionist framework is theonomy. Literally meaning “God’s Law,” theonomy refers to the view that the God of the Bible is the ultimate source of authority. Claims of human autonomy are not merely false, but sinful.
This is partly why, for example, broad swaths of American Christians believe in a literal six-day account of creation and a version of history intended to show God’s plan for America, despite the fact that scientists and historians agree that the believers are inaccurate or wrong. The religious culture at issue here is characterized by extreme dualism resulting in a profound suspicion of outsiders. In presuppositionalist terms, there are really only two possible perspectives: biblical Christianity and everything else. All religions, philosophies, and ideologies not rooted in the Bible are rooted in rebellious human reason that seeks to be autonomous from God.
The story of creation is as important to conservative Christians as the story of the crucifixion. Naturalistic evolution is nothing less than the denial of the authority and sovereignty of God in favor of the supremacy of human reason. It is an alternative faith; an idolatrous faith. Rushdoony argued that the Bible should be understood as a coherent whole, a singular narrative revealing God’s plan for his glorification in history. That the various books contained in the Old and New Testaments were written at different times in different places and by different people is overridden by God’s involvement in their production. All scripture is “God breathed.” It is inerrant, infallible, and the only source of true knowledge.
In The Mythology of Science, first published in 1967, Rushdoony develops a presuppositionalist position on the relationship between evolution and creationism. He begins by asserting that Christianity does not challenge science itself; in fact Rushdoony understands science as an exercise of dominion. But like other disciplines in today’s academy, according to Rushdoony, contemporary science in not true science because it is held hostage by its naturalistic, humanistic assumptions. Rushdoony argues that evolution presupposes the supremacy of human reason and the sufficiency of the natural world. In his view it does so to free humans from the authority of God and the requirements of biblical law, so it is inherently atheistic.
In this world, the earth is only a few thousand years old; Adam and Eve are literal people from whom we all descended; God created all of it in six twenty-four-hour days; and the scientific evidence from geology, biology, physiology, genetics, and every other branch of science proves this to be true. In this world it seems entirely plausible that the vast majority of those in the scientific community are covering up evidence that is contrary to their theory because it undermines their more fundamental commitment to a science without God and that there are many more legitimate scientists whose careers are derailed because they depart from evolutionary orthodoxy.
The creationist narrative includes widespread ridicule of scholarly knowledge in favor of “common sense,” laying the groundwork for the epistemological basis of the whole message: your understanding of this material is adequate to evaluate the validity of science. It is rooted in broad-based American populism and more specifically the Protestant notion of the priesthood of all believers. The apologetic dimension of the fight against evolution is the sacred responsibility of all believers; the responsibilities of the priesthood require that the necessary knowledge be accessible to all. Or, as a conference speaker said, “You can assess this for yourself, and you have a Christian duty to educate yourself.” Another conference speaker said, “Don’t let someone tell you the Bible needs special expertise; this violates the first commandment by getting between you and God.” But more derisive examples had the added benefit of ritually delegitimizing opponents, including “you don’t have to get a PhD to be that dumb” and “it’s a good thing God’s Word is eternally protected: can you imagine if God wrote his Word and then relied on scholars to protect it?”
Over time, individual relationships with God, the conversion of neighbors near and far, the inerrancy of the Bible, and moral dictates governing personal behavior became the brew served hot to the hungry masses. The certainty provided by “The Not-So-New Southern Religion” reinforced the pillars of white supremacy and misogyny that steeled southern white culture from opposition, while serving as a code in and of itself. If patriarchy was God’s will, then it was not sexist. If traditional gender roles were biblically sanctioned, then women’s submissiveness is but a testament of faith, another “Grand Bargain” for the promise of salvation.
The sheer number or religious believers creates a “sacred canopy” of like-mindedness that shields communities from diversity of faith, thought, and policy. Such cultural reinforcement of one perspective can, in turn, create a distinct and acceptable—but often false—reality. 63 Without pluralism or even an awareness of pluralism, too often the default is righteousness and intolerance. 64 So powerful is the reach and breadth of some southern churches, that even nonbelievers in proximity receive their social cues indirectly. 65 That only fortifies this insulated worldview.
Inerrancy triumphed over interpretation, absolutism over compromise, and political power became a false idol worshipped by many.
Fear, defensiveness, distrust, and conformity have too often been their currency. Conformity, specifically, necessitated a strict moral code, while evangelicalism required proselytizing and conversion. Together they established a sacred canopy in the region, whereby homogeneity and the sheer volume of believers shields them from pluralism, diversity, or competing ideas. Therefore, when change does come, it is often met with shock, resistance, and a reactionary backlash. For example, when modernism, science, and Darwinism threatened Victorian morals, gender norms, and white supremacy, fundamentalism surged. The inerrancy of the Bible pushed evangelical protestants toward absolutism, a tendency all too familiar in the black and white world of the patriarchal South. The Civil Rights Movement, Second-Wave Feminism, and gay rights would incite the same defiance decades later. It is this recipe of Protestant, evangelical, fundamentalist moralism, and “The Not-So-New Southern Religion” ( chapter 7 ) it creates that made white southerners such an easy mark in the Long Southern Strategy.
The rise and spread of fundamentalism lifted the burden of evangelical belief by confirming the inerrancy of biblical prophecy, among other absolutes. Surrendering all control to this evangelical vision of God, after all, requires constant discipline. The narrative that encourages such discipline—just like the narrative of evangelical exclusivity—centers on believers being right and therefore set apart from non-believers. Such certainty mitigates the desire to cooperate with other institutions; if “all others are wrong, whatever they may claim about themselves; they are ultimately deceptive and evil, doomed to divine condemnation.” In such an extreme cosmology, “compromise,” continues Sam Hill, “is thus a vice, not a virtue in the moral universe of a fundamentalist,” particularly if fundamentalism arrived in the South at a time of extreme cultural angst.
Thus, when the SBC dropped its anti-integration rhetoric for the most part in the 1970s, it had to find another outlet to protect the status quo, as well as its own power. “For religious conservatives,” argues Paul Harvey, “patriarchy has supplanted race as the defining first principle of God-ordained order.” 153 The SBC’s relationship to women and to feminism in general became, in additional to biblical inerrancy, a linchpin for fundamentalists.
The Christian denomination in which I grew up was founded on the proposition that chattel slavery could flourish alongside the gospel of Jesus Christ. Its founders believed this arrangement was not just possible but also divinely mandated.
American Christianity’s theological core has been thoroughly structured by an interest in protecting white supremacy. While it may seem obvious to mainstream white Christians today that slavery, segregation, and overt declarations of white supremacy are antithetical to the teachings of Jesus, such a conviction is, in fact, recent and only partially conscious for most white American Christians and churches. The unsettling truth is that, for nearly all of American history, the Jesus conjured by most white congregations was not merely indifferent to the status quo of racial inequality; he demanded its defense and preservation as part of the natural, divinely ordained order of things.
At a pragmatic level, white churches served as connective tissue that brought together leaders from other social realms to coordinate a campaign of massive resistance to black equality. But at a deeper level, white churches were the institutions of ultimate legitimization, where white supremacy was divinely justified via a carefully cultivated Christian theology. White Christian churches composed the cultural score that made white supremacy sing.
If white supremacy was an unquestionable cultural assumption in America, what does it mean that Christian doctrines by necessity had to develop in ways that were compatible with that worldview? What if, for example, Christian conceptions of marriage and family, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, or even the concept of having a personal relationship with Jesus developed as they did because they were useful tools for reinforcing white dominance? Is it possible that the white supremacy heresy is so integrated into white Christian DNA that it eludes even sincere efforts to excise it?
White evangelicals have generally claimed that their worldview and theology are derived directly from a straightforward reading of an inerrant Bible, and thus, by extension, a direct reflection of God’s will. But the evidence suggests that it is more accurate to say that white evangelicals, like everyone who engages the text, read their worldview back into the Bible. In human hands, the Bible is as much a screen as a projector.
White Christian selectivity harnessed the Bible in service of maintaining the current status quo, which, conveniently, was structured to maintain white supremacy.
The historical contradictions between the various confident declarations about biblical teachings on race by white Christians are head spinning. As a social consensus coalesced around the immorality and sinfulness of slavery following the Civil War, white evangelicals retreated from the previously unflinching claims of biblical support for slavery. And only just recently, as Americans are beginning to name white supremacy as a social sin, white evangelicals have also repudiated their previous, and equally confident, claims that the separation of the races was an obvious biblical dictate. Having reluctantly conceded these points, with concessions coming only after they have become socially untenable, white evangelicals, incredibly, continue to assert that their current theological conclusions are derived directly from an inerrant Bible.
There is stronger evidence that it is the other way around: that white Christians’ cultural worldview, with an unacknowledged white supremacy sleeping at its core, has been read back into the Bible. And if this is true, a deeper interrogation of our entire theological worldview, including our understanding and use of the Bible and even core theological doctrines of a personal relationship with Jesus, is in order. Until we find the courage to face these appalling errors of our recent past, white Christians should probably avoid any further proclamations about what “the Bible teaches” or what “the biblical worldview” demands.
This theological worldview—Lost Cause theology, premillennialism, an individualist view of sin, an emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus, and the Bible as the protector of the status quo—has created a mutually reinforcing, closed habit of thought among white evangelicals. The system protects white Christian interests on the one hand and white consciences on the other. In return, white Christians defend the system from external critique, relying on the cultural tool kit it provides.
Lost Cause theology, with its underlying commitment to preserving white supremacy, has proven remarkably durable, even as it has adapted to new times. Its main contours are still discernible in dynamics driving our politics today. Paul Harvey, historian at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, summarized the Lost Cause narrative this way: “Ultimately… white spiritual leaders preached that a sanctified, purified white South would rise from the ashes to serve as God’s ‘last and only hope’ in a modernizing and secularizing nation.”59 Writing in the mid-1960s, cultural anthropologist Anthony Wallace described Lost Cause religion as a revivalist movement aiming “to restore a golden age believed to have existed in the society’s past,” terms eerily close to contemporary calls by President Donald Trump to “Make America great again.”60 It is true that old-school Lost Cause theology is rarely aired in mainstream white churches today. But its direct descendant, the individualist theology that insists that Christianity has little to say about social injustice—created to shield white consciences from the evils and continued legacy of slavery and segregation—lives on, not just in white evangelical churches but also increasingly in white mainline and white Catholic churches as well.
it’s no wonder that Christian communities that insist on “biblical inerrancy,” a hallmark of evangelicalism, exhibit abusive dynamics. If you want to understand the Christian extremism that represents the single greatest threat to democracy and human rights in America today, it’s important to understand how authoritarian Christians read the Bible.
Conservative theologians responded by developing the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Inerrancy asserts that the Bible is errorless and factually accurate in everything it says – including about science.
This doctrine became the theological touchstone of fundamentalism. Alongside inerrancy emerged a system of ideas, called apocalyptic or “dispensational premillennialism.”
That pretty much sums up the conservative Evangelical ethos: you’re either with us or against us. In or out. And you are not in if you do not espouse all manner of #ChristianAltFacts and vigorously advocate a radical right-wing political agenda. Remember, the vast majority of white American Evangelicals, with respect to their insistence on “Biblical inerrancy,” their urgent emphasis on conversion, and their rejection of pluralism, are fundamentalists in the academic sense of the term, whether or not they call themselves such.
Predominantly white, conservative evangelicalism’s insistence on the supposed “inerrancy” of the Bible, its rejection of pluralism, and its construction of enclave communities in which members are isolated from frequent interaction with outsiders mark it as fundamentalist.
It remains true that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy makes it difficult at best for conservative evangelicals to reconcile themselves to a robust pluralism. This is not to say that conservative evangelicals are monolithic, but the frame for debate they recognize as legitimate is generally narrow, and there is a high expectation of conformity.
Consider the case of evangelical institutions. It is not surprising, for example, that in a moment in which evangelicals are feeling threatened by rapid social and political change, evangelical institutions of higher education, known for ideological homogeneity, are in full inquisition mode.
Administrations are policing boundaries, identifying and rejecting outsiders, and enforcing order by purging professors over evolution, same-sex marriage, and other matters, as I have written about in these pages, even as they scramble to obtain Title IX waivers so that they can continue to receive federal funding while discriminating against members of the LGBTQ community in housing and hiring.
From these cases, it is clear that the order most conservative evangelicals crave entails the unquestioning acceptance of a patriarchal, anti-LGBTQ interpretation of the Bible. In their pursuit of this order, conservative evangelicals use emotional manipulation and indoctrination-and, as is characteristic of authoritarianism in general, their defensive aggression is a product of fear.
Another critical element of evangelical authoritarianism, as of authoritarianism in general, is anti-intellectualism. When I was in high school, a pastor I talked with about my doubts suggested that if I was having difficulty reconciling the apparent contradictions in the Bible, I must be harboring sin in my life. I might be, he said, under the influence of literal demons.
At Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis I was trained to write well, to formulate arguments, to identify logical fallacies. All of this was supposed to be employed in the service of defending the faith and fighting the culture wars, of course, which was the same thing as “saving America” from probable divine punishment if we did not “do God’s will” by banning abortion, restoring sanctioned school prayer, keeping members of the LGBTQ community from having full civil rights, and vigorously opposing most welfare and universal healthcare, which were means of being racist while swearing that we were not racist. (Narrator: They were racist.) For my part, however, I could not keep from turning that critical tool set I learned in Christian school around on the ideology I was supposed to be supporting, the biblical inerrancy nonsense, the conflation of “the Biblical worldview” with always supporting the most extreme Republicans available.
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.)
What makes me so sure of this? In a nutshell, the SBC (and white evangelicalism writ large) continue to cling to (white) Christian supremacism and patriarchy, which they justify with reference to a doctrine of “biblical inerrancy” that just happens to function primarily to uphold straight white male authority over women, children, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community.
Far from reining in radical evangelicals, evangelical scholars grubbing for “moderate” brownie points only serves to create plausible deniability about the rot at the very core of an authoritarian version of Christianity grounded in a theology of “biblical inerrancy” that serves to uphold white supremacist patriarchy.
This doesn’t exactly leave a lot of wiggle room for academic freedom, nor does the required statement of faith that Regent employees are required to sign. While the statement doesn’t explicitly demand adherence to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, it does require belief in biblical_infallibility_, which in practice generally redounds to the same thing, in addition to requiring belief in the Trinity, the virgin birth, the particularly ugly understanding of Christ’s death and resurrection known as penal substitutionary atonement, belief in Christ’s return, and a commitment to “worldwide evangelism.”
Can a person who adheres to these very specific beliefs, metaphysical propositions that are not grounded in facts accessible to all, and that are attached to an imperative to convert others to said metaphysical propositions, produce serious, authentic scholarship?
So, #ChurchToo was created by queer ex-evangelical women who specifically wanted to draw attention to the ways that evangelicals’ theology of “biblical inerrancy” is inherently harmful, the ways that concepts like “male headship” and even the notion of “sexual purity” itself shore up power structures in which abusers and narcissists easily thrive.
My experience of growing up evangelical was less of a “big tent,” more of what I like to refer to as “the quasi-ecumenism of Biblical literalism,” in which denominational affiliation didn’t particularly matter, but where a literalist reading of the Bible and certain political positions certainly did. “Right belief” was vigilantly policed. There was a little space for less fundamentalist views-for accepting theistic evolution as opposed to young earth creationism, for example-but it was an uncomfortable space.
The majority of American evangelicals continue to be moved, to greater and lesser degrees, by a fundamentalist ideology tied to an essentially literalist reading of the Bible. And, despite an often large capacity for compassion, this makes it extremely difficult for them to change on key issues, including LGBTQ affirmation and same-sex marriage. Those who are celebrating the “tipping point,” it seems to me, are failing to hold their co-religionists accountable for the harm they have done to all of us who could not conform to the demands of the fundamentalist evangelical worldview-particularly to members of the LGBTQ community. They are also de facto refusing to acknowledge their own complicity in that harm.
In that piece I did choose a marginal figure, charismatic Pastor John Burton, to illustrate my point about the abusive dynamic present in much of American evangelical Christianity. I focused on Burton’s words because they summed up in a clear, concise way the conflation of “love” and “terror” that is present in the widespread conservative version of the evangelical worldview I was socialized in-a version that in my view is fundamentalist in its absolutist insistence on Biblical literalism, inerrancy in the Bible’s original manuscripts, and exclusivity with respect to truth and salvation; in its essentially dominionist drive to enshrine its understanding of Christian principles into laws that are binding on everyone; and in its construction of what scholars associated with the University of Chicago’s Fundamentalism Project have called “enclave communities.”
The core political constituency of the Religious Right of the 1970s had its roots in a series of theological and institutional disputes known as the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy that reached a peak in the 1920s. Protestant modernists, or theological liberals, favored modernizing Christian teachings to conform to new scientific theories such as Darwinian evolutionary theory. They also embraced recent developments in biblical scholarship that challenged traditional views of the divine origin of Christian scripture. Fundamentalists emphasized the “fundamentals” of Christian orthodoxy, insisting on the inerrancy of scripture, the divinity of Christ, His virgin birth, and the reality of scriptural miracles. Early fundamentalists advocated these positions in—and took their name from—The Fundamentals, a series of essays published between 1910 and 1915.
In the 1920s, fundamentalists contributed to a number of national controversies including, most prominently, the infamous Scopes trial of 1925 in which conservative Presbyterian and Democratic politician William Jennings Bryan played a central role in a legal dispute over the teaching of Darwinian evolutionary theory in Tennessee public schools. The Scopes trial unfolded during a decade of conflict over social issues ranging from alcohol prohibition and the changing roles for women in society to the political resistance against the campaigns of prominent Catholic politicians. Against the backdrop of these divisive issues, fundamentalists battled to control churches and began to create independent institutions. In 1927, for example, Southern evangelist Bob Jones Sr. founded Bob Jones College—later expanded to Bob Jones University (BJU)—to resist modernist trends in theology and the secularization of higher education represented by the Scopes trial. Institutions like BJU popped up across the country—especially in the South and West—as theological conservatives sought to develop spaces of organizational and bureaucratic power to protect what they regarded as traditional Christian theological and social positions. Many of these institutions would persist for decades and create an alternative religious subculture largely insulated from broader secular trends in the United States. Indeed, Jones’s BJU would play an important role later in the century in catalyzing the growth of the Religious Right when federal officials attempted to regulate the university’s racial policies and prompted Christian conservatives to organize a political response.
Some of it goes back to the bible. Some parents and pastors truly believe that this is what the bible requires of them, for a myriad of reasons. At best, I believe they are misguided, reading the bible with what I call an “Amelia Bedelia hermeneutic” that requires taking everything in the text literally, with little to no analysis for context clues or historical significance.
Some of it is because evangelical Christian culture has a well-documented and dangerous pathology of external or “secular” bodies of knowledge. It’s the same reason Christian schools and Christian music and Christian science museums and Christian insurance companies exist: because secular authorities cannot be trusted. You only need to look at the number of antivaccination activists who are also conservative Christians to see how many Christians are primed to distrust and dismiss sound medical and scientific information if it does not come from their list of preapproved sources.
Male headship was a familiar hum in the background of my life: women were called to support their husbands, and men were called to lead their wives. It was unequivocal truth
Despite the traction gained by ideas like Sayers’s, patriarchy within Christianity reasserted itself with a vengeance during the twentieth century. Two significant (but related) shifts happened within evangelical theology that helped seal biblical womanhood as gospel truth: the championing of inerrancy and the revival of Arianism.
The fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth century split Protestants into liberal and conservative camps, laying the groundwork for the modern culture wars. Liberals wanted a more ecumenical approach to missions and the freedom to modernize traditional beliefs; conservatives wanted to protect traditional beliefs against encroaching cultural pressures. Margaret Bendroth gets to the point: “The central drama of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy was a conflict over the nature of biblical truth. For fundamentalists, all other debates over evolution, the conduct of foreign missions, or the coming millennium boiled down to a single principle: their insistence on the utter reliability of God’s word.”34 The fundamentalist-modernist controversy helped evangelicals stake out the importance of biblical inerrancy—the belief that the Bible is completely without error, including in areas of science and history.
For many, inerrancy meant not only that the Bible was without error but that it had to be without error to be true at all.35 Just like my youth Sunday school teacher, conservative evangelical leaders employed a slippery-slope mentality to weaponized inerrancy. If we can’t trust the biblical account of creation, they argued, then how can we trust the biblical story of Jesus? Either we believe the Bible, literally and in its entirety, or we don’t. When presented with these options and “forced to choose,” as Hankins writes, it is not surprising that so many twentieth-century evangelicals chose inerrancy.36
Indeed, the early twentieth-century emphasis on inerrancy went hand in hand with a wide-ranging attempt to build up the authority of male preachers at the expense of women. As we have seen, preaching women peppered the landscape of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America: they flooded the mission field as evangelists and leaders, and they achieved popular acclaim as preachers among Pentecostal and even fundamentalist denominations. As these women rose in prominence, so too rose inerrancy teachings. And these teachings buttressed male authority by diminishing female authority—transforming a literal reading of Paul’s verses about women into immutable truth.
The concept of inerrancy made it increasingly difficult to argue against a “plain and literal” interpretation of “women be silent” and “women shall not teach.” The line between believing the Bible and believing a “plain and literal” interpretation of the Bible blurred. If Ephesians 5 told wives to submit to their husbands, the plain and literal interpretation demands that wives submit to their husbands. Those who disagree were not faithful to Scripture.
And just like that, evangelicals baptized patriarchy. Women could not preach and had to submit—not because their bodies were too flawed or their minds too weak, but because God had decreed it through Paul’s inerrant writings. Those who doubt these biblical truths doubt the truth of the Bible itself. Inerrancy introduced the ultimate justification for patriarchy—abandoning a plain and literal interpretation of Pauline texts about women would hurl Christians off the cliff of biblical orthodoxy.
From my experience as someone who grew up Southern Baptist and remained in conservative evangelical churches throughout most of my adult life, inerrancy creates an atmosphere of fear. Any question raised about biblical accuracy must be completely answered or completely rejected to prevent the fragile fabric of faith from unraveling.
The evangelical fight for inerrancy was inextricably linked with gender from the beginning.
Trinitarian teachings are central to orthodox Christianity; and complementarians—in their blind pursuit to maintain control over women—have exchanged the truth of God for a gender hierarchy of human origin.
It should also not surprise us that evangelicals resurrected Arianism for the same reason that evangelicals turned to inerrancy: if Jesus is eternally subordinate to God the Father, women’s subordination becomes much easier to justify. Arianism, like inerrancy, proved the perfect weapon against women’s equality, the perfect prop for Christian patriarchy. Except it is still heresy.
Conservative evangelical leaders, yearning to maintain traditional family values and fend off feminism, turned to an old heresy. They poured their ideas about submission and authority, embedded in the very nature of God, into the teachings imbibed by their congregations—the same evangelicals who already believe that inerrancy is bound up in female submission. Evangelicals believe that biblical womanhood is the only option because we have been taught that it is tied to our trust in the reliability of God’s Word as well as embedded in the Godhead itself: women are subordinate because Jesus is subordinate. Gospel truth indeed.
As I listened to her, I realized that biblical womanhood had become more than a clause in the “Baptist Faith and Message 2000.”57 It had become more than a return to traditional family values. It had become a gospel issue—intertwined with the very nature of God. It had become God’s timeless truth, defended by those who remain the most faithful.
Nettles is concerned by Barr’s critical comments about inerrancy. I understand the negative reaction since biblical inerrancy has been the fortress that American conservatives have created as a bulwark against liberalism and heresy. However, Barr has a legitimate grievance here. The problem is that fundamentalists and some evangelicals do not so much preach the inerrancy of the text as much as practice the inerrancy of their interpretation. Thus, to question a patriarchal interpretation of, say, 1 Tim 2.11-14, becomes tantamount to a denial of biblical inerrancy and authority.
The fundamentalist and conservative evangelical sleight of hand is to slip out the inerrancy of the text and to subtlely replace it with the inerrancy of their interpretation. Which means, in effect, that biblical inerrancy can in practice amount to the hegemony of a patriarchal culture and its male advocates.
Accounts of the battles over the SBC commonly focus on the question of biblical inerrancy, but the battle over inerrancy was in part a proxy fight over gender. Conservatives were alarmed by women’s liberation, abortion, and changing views on sexuality generally, but they also had concerns specific to the SBC. “Evangelical feminism” had been making inroads in Southern Baptist circles, and growing numbers of Baptist women had begun challenging male headship and claiming leadership positions; between 1975 and 1985, the number of women ordained in the SBC increased significantly. These women insisted on interpreting biblical texts contextually, attentive to the settings in which they were produced. Conservatives, however, insisted on a “populist hermeneutic,” a method privileging “the simplest, most direct interpretations of scripture.” For conservatives, this wasn’t just the right method, it was also the masculine one. They depicted biblical authors like Paul as uncowed by political correctness. Paul wasn’t afraid to prohibit female authority, and masculine men should do likewise. They accused liberals and moderates of waffling, of introducing needless complexity while they stood firm in their quick grasp of the obvious, literal truth of the Scriptures.
The issue of inerrancy did rally conservatives, but when it turned out that large numbers of Southern Baptists—even denominational officials—lacked any real theological prowess and were in fact functionally atheological, concerns over inerrancy gave way to a newly politicized commitment to female submission and to related culture wars issues.
Inerrancy mattered because of its connection to cultural and political issues. It was in their efforts to bolster patriarchal authority that Southern Baptists united with evangelicals across the nation, and the alliances drew them into the larger evangelical world. Within a generation, Southern Baptists began to place their “evangelical” identity over their identity as Southern Baptists. Patriarchy was at the heart of this new sense of themselves.
Christian nationalism is a framework that orients Americans’ perspectives on national identity, belonging, and social hierarchies. American evangelicalism, strictly speaking, is a theological tradition prioritizing certain doctrinal commitments including biblical inerrancy and conversionism.
The next three strongest predictors after political conservatism all involve identification with a particular view of the Bible, most prominently a belief that it should be interpreted literally and characterizing oneself as “Bible-Believing.” As sociologist Philip Gorski has argued, Christian nationalists have historically built their ideological foundation on a narrow, literalist interpretation of God’s commands to Old Testament Israel, applying them to their contemporary national situation.
I grew up in a faith tradition that embraced change over time. There is no inerrant Judaism, as far as I’m aware. There are no inerrant Scriptures for the Jews, but rather an acknowledgment that the Iron Age scribes were products of their time, and therefore not everything they wrote is binding as society progresses forward.
There is something strikingly self-aware about admitting when your ancestors tragically erred, and seeking to learn from their harmful choices rather than justifying them.
Evangelicalism, with its #ChristianAltFacts, insistence on biblical inerrancy, and theocratic tendencies, is incompatible with healthy democracy and should be relegated from the mainstream of American political discourse to the fringes. While this outcome hinges on a serious shakeup within the Republican Party and conservative movement, the willingness of journalists to tell the truth about Evangelicalism’s authoritarian nature can only help.
- Spiritual Warfare and the Politics of Paranoia and Providentialism
- The Long Southern Strategy and the Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity
- White Resentment: The Grand Bargain of White Supremacy
- The Segregationist Discourse
- Texas Republicans: Upholding White Supremacist Mythology with the Power of Law
- “Those Burning Crosses Are Symbols of Evangelicalism”
- Trinity of Toxic Nonsense: White Supremacy, Misogyny, and Purity Culture
- I Cannot, and Will Not, Believe in That God: Libraries as Candles in the Dark
- Empty the Pews of Toxic Christianity
- Purity Culture, the False Gender Binary, and Abuse at Heritage Christian School
- The Breathtaking Bigotry of Unreconstructed America
- Post-truth, Open Society, and the Business of Behaviorism