The Evangelical (and Republican) Cult Explosion

Karl Giberson is an evangelical, a biologist, and an intellectual. And he’s fighting the “good fight” against that (larger) cultic part of evangelical subculture that is epistemically closed to secular scholarship. By calling the mass of evangelicalism cultic, I mean that it has created a parallel universe populated by its own pseudo-intellectual apologists promoting factoids as facts. A factoid is a thing treated by a group as factual when there is little or no reason for doing so. Examples include young earth creationism, Moses’s authorship of the Pentateuch, and Christianity—not the Enlightenment—being the primary intellectual impetus for the American Revolution. For this latter factoid, Giberson writes at HuffPo the following:

The May 4, New York Times introduced readers to David Barton, an amateur historian whose ideas about America being a “Christian Nation” founded by evangelicals are quite foreign to the readers of that publication. Described in the article as a “quirky history buff” and “self-taught historian,” Barton has long been a powerful and influential figure with America’s vast evangelical subculture. For many years he was co-chair of the Texas Republican party and his multimillion dollar media empire — Wallbuilders — churns out a steady supply of materials supporting his key message that America was founded as a Christian nation and needs to return to its roots to recover the favor it once received from God. Barton, who Glenn Beck describes as “an expert in historical and constitutional issues,” is also a “professor” on Beck’s new online university. Barton’s formal education consists of a degree in religious education from Oral Roberts University.

And of Barton’s meaning for evangelicalism, Giberson writes this:

Barton is a powerful symbol of an invigorated anti-intellectualism that has long flourished within American evangelicalism and has now taken over the Republican party.

In other words, the cultic rot is spreading. At his blog, Julian Sanchez calls this “epistemic closure”:

One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!)  This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile. Think of the complete panic China’s rulers feel about any breaks in their Internet firewall: The more successfully external sources of information have been excluded to date, the more unpredictable the effects of a breach become. Internal criticism is then especially problematic, because it threatens the hermetic seal.

Put differently, the Republican Party has learned from populist religion how to become a large, disciplined, and energetic cult. Here’s Giberson again (this time on creationism):

Many evangelicals get their ideas about origins from Ken Ham, architect of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, which features stunning dioramas of Adam and Eve interacting with dinosaurs. The result is that most evangelicals think the earth is a few thousand years old and that evolution is a conspiracy. When Republican presidential hopefuls are asked if they believe in evolution, they dare not answer yes, for fear of offending their antievolutionary base. Unfortunately, most of them don’t even want to answer yes. And this, despite the highly visible presence of Francis Collins at the helm of the NIH. Collins is thoroughly evangelical and, as he and I have argued in our recent book, The Language of Science and Faith, there is simply no reason why evangelicals need to reject evolution in favor of the fanciful tales told by Ken Ham and other creationists.

This is a dangerous time for the United States. We are at a historic decade where an existential decision is going to be made: will we be a nation that deals with reality honestly—or ignores it? Large numbers of people, unfortunately, are quite blatantly voting for the latter, choosing to flamboyantly blow off reality for fantasy and propaganda. They’ll make their own reality, thank you very much.

But think about what it means to embrace propaganda and expose yourself to it exclusively. At TruthDig, Chris Hedges compares contemporary American civilization to Easter Island’s (when its civilization went into permanent decline):

The desperate islanders developed a belief system that posited that the erected stone gods, the moai, would come to life and save them from disaster. This last retreat into magic characterizes all societies that fall into terminal decline. It is a frantic response to loss of control as well as despair and powerlessness. This desperate retreat into magic led to the Cherokee ghost dance, the doomed Taki Onqoy revolt against the Spanish invaders in Peru, and the Aztec prophecies of the 1530s. Civilizations in the last moments embrace a total severance from reality, a reality that becomes too bleak to be absorbed.

The modern belief by evangelical Christians in the rapture, which does not exist in biblical literature, is no less fantastic, one that at once allows for the denial of global warming and of evolution and the absurd idea that the righteous will all be saved—floating naked into heaven at the end of time.

And, in 1921, with the gloomy emergence of cultic Nazism on the horizon, William Butler Yeats wrote, in his poem “The Second Coming”, the following lines:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Unfortunately, this is our cultural moment. This is what America has come to. The antidote to this infantilism is to get off the sidelines, marshal adult courage, and push back in the public square, affirming the virtues of doubt and critical thinking.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to The Evangelical (and Republican) Cult Explosion

  1. Just about everything in this piece is spot on. The level of cultism and anti-intellectualism from the right is astounding. That said, I see lots of delusion on the left as well. Yes, Bush wrecked the economy. But it has now been 2.5 years and Obama policy has done virtually nothing. And if you want to talk about anti-intellectualism, look no further than the fight against cutting out spend. Our debt and deficit is outrageous and it is only in the last 4 months that Obama has talked about cutting spending. Quite the contrary, he has spent MORE prior to that with the idea being to spend our way out of a recession. And if you ask many on the left, the answer is not to cut spending, but to raise taxes on “those that can afford it.” As if the progressive tax system is not already unfair enough. I wonder, how many go out to dinner with a group and then insist that the person who makes the most picks up the largest % of the tab? This is an absurdity that only manifests in group think, greed and tax code. And, yes, I am speaking of the greed of those with less who demand those with more spend it on them. Many point to tax policies of the past as their justification – as if the injustice and inequality of the past can be justification for the future.

    This time in america is indeed worrying. We have myopic lunacy from both the entrenched right and the entrenched left. The far left is no less corrupt and blinded by their own desires than the entrenched right.

  2. omnivorousEgo says:

    Cult is the perfect word to describe the mob like mentality of recent republicans. This method is taken directly from the playbook of Saul Alinsky, whom both left and right alike turn to ‘organize’ their base. In reality both parties exploit the political field by methods of extreme polarization. What better way to band a group of people together than by identifying an ‘enemy’?

    We are all Americans and need to start acting as a union. Unfortunately for the more critically thinking individual, neither side provides the willingness to entertain the radical thinking that we so desperately need. I dont want to be left on the sideline anymore. We need the Intellectual American Party, before it’s too late.

  3. Longtooth says:

    We are experiencing the outcome of a profound ideological shift that occurred during the cold war. The most prominent symbolic characterizations are the revision of the Pledge of Allegiance to include “under God” (1954) and the dethronement of E Pluribus Unum in favor of “In God We Trust” (1957) as the national motto. Both changes are fundamentally unconstitutional, but have survived challenge under the guise of “concessions to “ceremonial deism”. Funny, I don’t recall any deists ever supporting either of the above mentioned changes. Evidently there has always been a streak of anti intellectualism in the American psyche, but these particular changes were ones that hard-core biblical religion could exploit like never before. Now, only a half century or so later, in spite of the “no religious test” clause in the Sixth Article, patriotism is increasingly measured by one’s allegiance to a belief in God and the dogmas and agenda of the churches as opposed to any practical secular needs of the Nation and its posterity. Since the 1950’s evangelical fundamentalism has grown from a minor cultural element to a full-fledged political movement. Now, any person or law making that obstructs their creationistic agenda of government-religion fusion risks being labeled as anti-Christ and atheistic. That makes real scary stuff for any centrist politician looking to gain or keep a job. And consequently they are all looking to make the politically correct supplications. The whole political machine has become enslaved. It’s not just the republican social conservative core. The fundamentalist agenda is inexorably wedging its way into the Democratic Party as well.
    During the primaries of the 2010 presidential election, I rejected Obama as a desirable candidate. This was because I believed he leaned too far to the right in his religious connections. Unfortunately, my concerns were not disappointed. In spite of campaign promises to contrary, Obama has allowed virtually all of Bush’s discriminatory faith-based executive orders to stand. Erick Holder, Obama’s attorney general, regularly defends right wing religious causes in litigation before the courts. Rumor has it that Obama decided to turn a blind eye toward the constitutionally questionable uses of government money by the churches. In return, the faith based organizations are supposed to go along with his green energy and “universal” medical insurance policies. This amounts to a blatant post election shape shifting on Obama’s part, resulting in a constitutionally sketchy clustering of ends and means. Just like it was under Bush, the churches are being allowed to siphon off hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars a year in government money to advance religious causes, all in the name of government and religion partnerships. A case in point is school vouchers, which frequently if not predominantly end up subsidizing religious indoctrination rather than sound education. Can we no longer have a president or congress principled enough in the secular and constitutional sense to stem the tide of these exploitations? It may seem like small stuff compared to the immense money drain of social security, Medicare, and military adventurism, but where deficits are concerned, the devil is inevitably in the detail. Likewise, for the eroding intellectual integrity of the American public, the inevitable result of government accommodation of fundamentalist biblical ideology and causes.

    • While superior to Bush, Obama has been a huge disappointment. Gitmo, the wars, civil liberties, constitutional protections, the economy .. all areas where Obama has failed to live up to his promises and has been Bush-lite.

      And now Bachmann announces she will run. You just know that her or Palin will be on the ticket. There is ZERO chance I can vote Rep if that is the case. I think many Americans will be in the same boat. So, 4 more years of disappointment.

  4. santitafarella says:

    Jared,

    Your first response above implies that Democrats have an equivelent intellectual problem as Republicans. I don’t think so. The Democratic Party is still a bourgeois liberal party, not a leftist party. It is controlled by liberals like Barack Obama. The Republican Party, on the other hand, though it has been (historically) a bourgeois liberal party as well—sharing many values with centrist Democrats—is, increasingly, becoming a Herderian populist one. In other words, it is becoming a far-right nationalist sectarian party. It is not bourgeois liberal/conservatives like Barry Goldwater who control the party, but George Wallace-loving Southern populists and fundamentalists. In the contemporary Republican Party, Wallace beats Goldwater, and the religious sensibilities of fundamentalists beat the agnostic sensibilities of, say, Abraham Lincoln (who was a Republican).

    That’s a problem for the Republican Party and America as a whole that has no equivelent manifestation in the Democratic Party. The past two decades have seen a historic shift in the Republican Party’s character.

    —Santi

    • Santi,

      It is hard for me to evaluate who really controls what and what the representations are of each party. I tend to view it as philosophies of a party because it is so unclear who really drives what within specific parties. Yes, the growing base of cultists in the Republican party is very concerning as it drives ludicrous policies. But some Democrat philosophies are equally as concerning. For instance, Democrat empowerment of unions that can hold the free market hostage. Look at the current NLRB -Boeing case as an example. This happens regularly and spans a lot more than just Boeing. Refusal, until recently, to even look at budget cuts by Democrats – so anti-intellectual it is astounding. These issues seriously damage America and do not hold up to intellectual scrutiny of what is best for our nation.

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