Thoughts on the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind
Since I published Dr. Benjamin Mabry’s critique of Mark Noll’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind last week, I wanted to share a few of my own thoughts about the book.
I was more positive on the book than Mabry, primarily because Noll’s central thesis that evangelicals don’t have much of a mind is indisputably true. This is parallel and related to my ongoing analysis of the lack of evangelical leadership on our society.
In his masterpiece Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia, sociologist E. Digby Baltzell shows the link between antinomian systems like Quakerism and anti-intellectualism and lack of a leadership culture. Pentecostalism, one of the factors Noll identifies as contributing to the problem of the evangelical mind, is also antinomian in a broad sense, in that personal guidance from the Holy Spirit, sometimes in the form of direct communication, is roughly analogous to the Quaker’s “inner light.” Having been raised in a Pentecostal church, it is easy for me to nod along with Noll on some of his observations.
While I think there are a number of things that could be criticized in the book - Mabry identifies multiple of them - I don’t think they undermine the central claim.
I have read the current edition of the book with a new 2022 preface by Noll. Moreso than the book itself, Noll’s new preface was very revealing, and disturbing, as to what it suggests about the way he thinks.
This preface is a full on broadside against culture war type evangelicals (see my three worlds of evangelicalism article for my grouping of evangelicals).
These evangelicals have been least likely to seek vaccination against the coronavirus, least likely to believe that evolutionary science actually describes the development of species, and least likely to believe that the planet is really warming up because of human activity. White evangelicals are also most likely to repudiate the conclusion of impartial observers and claim that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen.” They are most likely to regard their political opponents as hell-bent on destroying America. They are least likely to think that racial discrimination continues as a systemic American problem. And in response to a question that is usually formulated poorly, they are most likely to believe that Scripture should be interpreted “literally.” In each of these spheres, white evangelicals appear as the group most easily captive to conspiratorial nonsense, in greatest panic about their political opponents, or as most aggressively anti-intellectual.
Yet in the recent past, the broader evangelical population has increasingly heeded populist leaders who dismiss the results of modern learning from whatever source. There seems to be a special fascination for slipshod reasoning disseminated on Twitter. No half-baked conspiracy, however lacking in responsible verification, seems too much. Are the Christian colleges and universities failing? Or are they just spitting into a whirlwind?…Many evangelicals today treat all progressive political or cultural ideas, not as proposals to discuss, but as vicious attacks on everything God-fearing and positive in American history.
He’s especially upset that these evangelicals do not accept today’s secular dogmas on systemic racism, devoting several paragraphs to the topic.
Because most accept (even affirm) modern laws aiming at racial equity, they view systemic racism as only a fantasy promoted by irresponsible radicals. The intellectual problem has been that focusing so strongly on one dimension of social reality makes it almost impossible to recognize that other dimensions beyond the personal have also fueled contemporary injustice.
Let’s be honest, some of this is true. Plenty of evangelicals have gone in for conspiracy theories like Q-Anon, for example. They are anti-intellectual. The systems and structures of society do contribute to individual outcomes, not just on race, but on a huge swath of dimensions like opioid deaths, your ability to get a job, etc.
At the same time, is there anything in this critique that could not have been leveled by a rabid secular atheist who hates Christianity? Noll’s beliefs here are right down the rails of the secular progressive line.
More importantly, he treats white evangelicals as coterminous with the culture war group, and fails to criticize any other evangelical camps. The cultural engagers may have college degree and may not believe in déclassé movements like Q-Anon, but they are hardly paragons of intellectual excellence. Much of their leadership is decidedly mediocre. They too are dominated by “charismatic preachers, innovative publicists, and media-savvy publishers.” Like Noll himself, who could probably be classified as belonging to this group, they also frequently give off the appearance of being in thrall to secular ideological systems. Just as the religious right too often baptizes Republican party positions, this group too often repackages secular ideological systems on topics like race in Christian wrapping paper. Is there truly nothing to criticize about this group?
Additionally, like many today, Noll is keen to claim that most black Christians are really evangelicals. He says:
African American believers do not usually call themselves “evangelicals,” but they overwhelmingly share the main evangelical characteristics and have unceasingly campaigned for broad reforms aimed at justice for all.
If that’s the case, then what is the state of the black evangelical mind? How do they combine faith with politics? Do they ever believe in or promote conspiracy theories, or treat conservative “political or cultural ideas, not as proposals to discuss, but as vicious attacks on everything God-fearing and positive in American history”?
Noll doesn’t want to talk about that, either.
I had a reader tell me that Mabry’s linking of former NIH director Francis Collins’ to Noll’s book wasn’t fair, because he couldn’t have foreseen Collins in 1994. But in this new 2022 preface, Noll explicitly cites Collins as a positive example:
The recent pandemic well illustrates this conflicted relationship. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, has explained how C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity turned his life around. He has also been one of the most responsible proponents of mask wearing and vaccination. Many evangelicals, however, have turned aside from such research-supported voices to heed advice from figures who have mastered social media, but nothing else.
Noll is apparently unconcerned about Collins’ dubious behaviors like funding fetal organ harvesting research, which were widely reported by at least 2021.
Also, he doesn’t seem to recognize that evangelicals had valid reason to be skeptical of pandemic health advice. When the surgeon general of the US tells people to “stop buying masks” because “They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus,” then the public health establishment does a 180, people are right to wonder what’s going on. When our vaccine makers tout that their shots are “more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19” but they turn out to be largely ineffective at stopping people from getting Covid (although did seem to prevent more serious illness in people who did get infected), people are right to question what they are being told. When people are locked up in their homes, churches forbidden from meeting, and families told they can’t visit their dying mother in the nursing home or hold a funeral for her after she passes, but then 1000 public health professionals issue an open letter supporting mass public gatherings to protest George Floyd’s death, should we really believe what they are telling us about the pandemic?
I’m not anti-mask, was happy to wear one, am “triple vaxxed,” and very much pro-science. Yet it’s very obvious that we were lied to by our ostensible public health authorities, that they made a number of bad public policy choices during the pandemic, and that they engaged in dodgy machinations to suppress debate over the origins of the virus and hide US government funding of gain of function research in viruses. (Collins was involved in gain of function research, by the way). The critics of our pandemic response had good reasons to be critical.
It’s highly dubious for Noll to be pushing this line on Francis Collins in 2022.
Noll is surely a good historian just as Collins was a first rate scientist. But there’s more to life, and more to the Christian life than that. Just as it’s not obvious what would have been different at the NIH had had a non-Christian been running it instead of Collins, Noll’s preface gives off the air of being written someone who is fundamentally bought into the structures and systems of modern secular thought and values. Until the supposedly smarter and more responsible evangelical leaders are able to break from this thralldom, there’s not much prospect of them leading the church anywhere good.
See also Carl Trueman’s thoughts on Noll in his article “The Failure of Evangelical Elites.”
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Aaron, you write:
"I’m not anti-mask, was happy to wear one... Yet it’s very obvious that we were lied to by our ostensible public health authorities..."
Well, a significant portion of that lying was *about masks*, so maybe you should be anti. It turns out that there's been a small but steady stream of studies over the decades that show masks don't really have any statistically valid benefit, not even in surgical settings. And no, I wasn't aware of them either until quite recently, but it certainly gives me pause about the entire corpus of received "scientific" wisdom; instead we ought perhaps to be paying more attention to John Ioannidis of "replication crisis" fame, and calling for more transparency, openness, and especially for wide dissemination of negative results.
Great thoughts. As you call out, there is a legitimate point in what Noll is saying, which I suggested that Mabry ought to have spent more time addressing in his review. It's easy to get into a mode in which our suspicions about Noll's loyalties, his conformity to the pattern of the world, cause us to entirely dismiss his legitimate points.
What it sounds like is really needed is for more of us whose loyalties are less dubious to address the problem that Noll perceived and the possible remedies for it. I'm hopeful that your project here can continue to contribute good insights on the matter.