A Conservative Evangelical Response to Molly Worthen’s “The Evangelical Roots of our Post-Truth Society”

Introduction

Molly Worthen (Ph.D., Yale) serves at University of North Carolina (Go Heels!) as assistant professor in history. She recently penned a piece on “post-truth” politics for the New York Times. In “The Evangelical Roots of our Post-Truth Society,” Worthen attempts to ground the current phenomenon of “post-truth” politics in conservative evangelicalism. Worthen’s definition of “conservative evangelical” is less than clear, and she lumps some very different Christian (and a few non-Christian) individuals and institutions together in her piece. Other difficulties with Whorthen’s piece could be highlighted, and other theories as to the origins of ‘post-truth’ politics posited. However, this article argues that Molly Worthen fails to support her thesis that evangelicalism is uniquely to blame for ‘post-truth’ politics and/or society, as is especially evident in numerous instances of special pleading, and that Worthen even sometimes provides evidence against her own thesis.

Media

Worthen points to a supposed general distrust of media among conservative evangelicals. She attempts to illustrate an instance of this distrust through the anecdotal experience of Rachel Held Evans, who attended an evangelical school, but no longer accepts its views. The reason, we are told, that conservative evangelicals distrust the media elite, is that the media elite do not hold a biblical worldview. Of course, this is true of many media elite, and so we can hardly fault evangelicals for incorporating that fact into where they get their news. For example, Worthen, who writes this piece for the New York Times, does not appear to hold to a biblical worldview.

Not only does Worthen apparently reject a biblical worldview, she questions the propriety of the very concept of a worldview. Of course, Weltanschauung is not particular to evangelicalism, so Worthen’s hesitancy on this count is rather odd. Questioning various sources of media as to general reliability and truthfulness is not specific to evangelicalism either. One might even suggest such questioning and mistrust is a crucial aspect of a healthy epistemological skepticism.

The real problem occurs when news is dismissed out of hand merely because of its source. For example, Worthen quotes from Dean Nelson, who does not understand the concept of ‘Christian journalism’ or ‘Christian mathematics’ (we should be careful here not to conflate ignorance and implausibility, or to believe the former necessarily entails the latter!), “But he acknowledged that ‘many of the students’ parents were raised on Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and distrust the mainstream news media. So it’s a little bit of a dance with parents who are expecting us to perpetuate that distrust and raise up this tribe of ‘Christian journalists.’ ’” Thus Worthen reveals she is dismissive of news from both Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Granted, as a conservative evangelical, I may have major qualms with many of the claims made by Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck (personally, I do not listen to either one), but not because they are Methodist or Mormon, and not because the “mainstream media,” or even Dr. Worthen, dismiss them out of hand. Worthen is inconsistent insofar as she dismisses some sources of news while warning against the supposed tendency of evangelicals to do the same.

In my experience, the mistrust Worthen describes is much more readily associated with those on the political ‘left’ or ‘right’ than it is with evangelicals and others.

Science

Worthen quotes Evans, who claims that a biblical worldview was presented to her as a cohesive worldview. That part is not the objection. What Worthen and Evans do presumably object to are the other claims Evans associates with the aforementioned, supposedly cohesive, worldview. According to Evans, this worldview claims that climate change and evolution are not real, evolution was made up by God-hating scientists, and capitalism is a societal ideal.

Each of these is entirely too broad a topic to comment upon in this article, other than to ask how any of them leads to the denial of truth. A major flaw in Worthen’s piece is that what she actually observes in evangelicalism is not evangelicals relativizing or dismissing the concept of truth, but rather disagreeing with Worthen and others about what constitutes the truth. Worthen writes, “Ever since the scientific revolution, two compulsions have guided conservative Protestant intellectual life: the impulse to defend the Bible as a reliable scientific authority and the impulse to place the Bible beyond the claims of science entirely.” But surely Worthen does not object to an impulse to defend the scientific reliability of the Bible? She is, after all, a scientifically-minded individual, so it is unclear why she would object to an impulse to find the Bible consistent with scientific reasoning insofar as a person holds to the Bible and science.

Worthen claims the impulse to defend Scripture as a scientific authority, “blossomed into the doctrine of biblical inerrancy,” but this assumes the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is new, which it is not. Nor did Scripture become “the irrefutable guide,” whether historically or metaphysically speaking. When evangelicals affirm what they believe from the Bible over against what others believe about fossils or archaeology, they do not undermine truth, but rather establish their firm belief in such a concept. Indeed, evangelicals who utilize their reasoning concerning the application of Scripture to fossils or archaeology, whether right or wrong, are seeking justification for their beliefs in Scriptural or scientific claims. Evangelicals do not undermine the view that positions should be based upon truth when they engage in the aforementioned activities, but rather establish it.

Worthen has, however, began to undermine her own thesis through this bit of anecdote. Unfortunately, Worthen’s comments about the supposed evangelical impulse to get the Bible outside of science do not fare much better.

Non-Neutrality

Throughout her article, Worthen apparently assumes she possesses no worldview, or is neutral, or objective, rather than admitting her frank acceptance of a worldview that is held in opposition to conservative evangelicalism. She does note, “Conservative evangelicals are not the only ones who think that an authority trusted by the other side is probably lying.” So why is Worthen picking on evangelicals? She explains, “they believe that their own authority — the inerrant Bible — is both supernatural and scientifically sound, and this conviction gives that natural human aversion to unwelcome facts a special power on the right.”

Is the Bible authoritative, inerrant, supernatural, and scientifically “sound”? The answer is largely irrelevant to Worthen’s thesis, because she wants to show how post-truth society stems from evangelicalism. Adherence to the Bible as authoritative, inerrant, supernatural, and scientifically “sound” (whatever that means) does not deny the concept of truth, but rather assumes it, just as before. Indeed, if others claim the Bible is not authoritative, or inerrant, or supernatural, or scientifically sound, then they too make truth claims which assume some concept of truth rather than promote some post-truth paradigm. Moreover, such assumptions and arguments are not unique to evangelicalism, so Worthen’s thesis again finds little or no support from her observations here.

Worthen says this adherence to the Bible as supernatural and scientifically sound “gives that natural human aversion to unwelcome facts a special power on the right.” Does it? Well, with respect to the belief in scientific soundness, the answer is clearly no, as just explained above. Those who are not evangelicals also lay hold to the claim of scientific “sound”-ness, and there is no reason to see this claim functioning any differently in their approach to unwelcome facts.

What about the supposed supernatural character of the Bible? Worthen does not make her argument explicit, if she has one, as to why belief in the supernatural strengthens evangelical aversion to seemingly problematic facts. One imagines she might mean that those who believe God is on their side are deluded into thinking some powerful entity approves of their rejection of various facts. But even if this is what Worthen means to imply, it is an extremely weak argument, for those who are not evangelicals do something very similar when they reject various unwelcome facts in the name of ‘Science’ or ‘Reason’ or claim that ‘History’ is “on their side.”

What is most troubling here is that Worthen’s use of “unwelcome facts” merely assumes, without argument, that there are facts out there which contradict a biblical worldview. Worthen strengthens this implicit claim when she writes, “This religious tradition of fact denial long predates the rise of the culture wars, social media or President Trump, but it has provoked deep conflict among evangelicals themselves.” Worthen’s article, it seems, is not so much an article about a post-truth society or the role that evangelicals have supposedly played in the creation of that society as it is a swipe at evangelicals as the sort of folks who deny the facts. But Worthen is merely begging the question, assuming the very thing she needs to prove. If Worthen’s entire article depends upon her disproving what evangelicals refer to as a biblical worldview, then she never attempts to support her thesis through argumentation. Instead, Worthen feigns a type of objectivity in this article that she does not believe evangelicals have access to.

Worthen continues, “The second impulse, the one that rejects scientists’ standing to challenge the Bible, evolved by the early 20th century into a school of thought called presuppositionalism.” Unlike in the previous example, here evangelicals have supposedly outright rejected science in favor of the Bible. Worthen is factually incorrect. Presuppositionalism did not develop from a fixation on science, does not reject science, and Worthren does not provide any examples of what, or who, she is talking about.

Next, Worthen provides her definition of presuppositionalism, writing, “The term is a mouthful, but the idea is simple: We all have presuppositions that frame our understanding of the world.” This reductionist understanding of presuppositionalism is so broad that Worthen herself qualifies as a presuppositionalist when she writes, “We all cling to our own unquestioned assumptions.” Much more can be said about presuppositionalism, including the fact that presuppositionalism draws upon a Christian worldview in particular. Presuppositionalism is not reducible to the obvious statement that everybody has assumptions.

Worthen continues, “Cornelius Van Til, a theologian who promoted this idea, rejected the premise that all humans have access to objective reality.” Worthen is in error here as well. Van Til (who was not only a theologian, but a dissertated philosopher) did not reject the premise that all humans have access to objective reality. Worthen pulls the following quote out of context from Van Til to substantiate her claim, “We really do not grant that you see any fact in any dimension of life truly.” But she neglects Van Til’s clarifying statements throughout his work, such as, “The first objection that suggests itself may be expressed in the rhetorical questions ‘Do you mean to assert that non-Christians do not discover truth by the methods they employ?’ The reply is that we mean nothing so absurd as that. The implication of the method here advocated is simply that non-Christians are never able and therefore never do employ their own methods consistently” on page 103 of his The Defense of the Faith. And, “We are well aware of the fact that non-Christians have a great deal of knowledge about this world which is true as far as it goes” on page 26 of his Introduction to Systematic Theology. In Van Til’s philosophy of truth, all humans, whether believers or not, absolutely do have access to objective reality as he explains in section 15 of his 1972 pamphlet, Toward A Reformed Apologetic.

I have been told that on my view the Christian can say nothing more to the non-Christian than: ‘You work on one set of presuppositions and I work on another set of presuppositions, and that is the end of the matter. There simply is no common ground of any sort between us.’ I would now make as plain as possible that only because reality is what the self-attesting Christ of Scripture has told us it is do we, as believers and as unbelievers, have common ground at all. If the triune God of Scripture did not exist and if He did not do what He says in Scripture He does, i.e. create and direct the whole course of history, the unbeliever would have no standing place in order to engage in his effort by his false systems to deny the existence and work of God.

Lest the readers think I am some brilliant Van Til scholar, or that there is no way anyone could expect Worthen to know the work of Van Til this well, allow me to point out that I just used Google to land at this helpful site.

Worthen persists in her error, “If this sounds like a forerunner of modern cultural relativism, in a way it is — with the caveat that one worldview, the one based on faith in an inerrant Bible, does have a claim on universal truth, and everyone else is a myopic relativist.” Multiple problems plague this statement from Worthen. As already demonstrated, Van Til is neither a relativist nor in denial that all humans have access to objective reality. The concession that one worldview is universally true is a fairly major “caveat.” More importantly, the claim to universal truth does not serve Worthen’s thesis well, but works against it, since the recognition of universal truth on the part of evangelicals is not consistent with a ‘post-truth’ anything. And more than that, how do those who are not evangelicals differ from this understanding that there is only one universally true worldview? If they differ at all, they differ in virtue of a post-truth understanding of things, which again, works against Worthen’s thesis, and not for it. Van Til undoubtedly believes Worthen’s view is false, and vice versa, but that’s a far cry from pinning the emergence of post-truth politics onto evangelicals. Indeed, even if Worthen’s thoughts on Van Til were correct, Van Til is a negligible part of evangelicalism, if he is a part of evangelicalism at all. Worthen continues, “in the quest to advance knowledge and broker peaceful coexistence in a pluralistic world, the worldview based on biblical inerrancy gets tangled up in the contradiction between its claims on universalist science and insistence on an exclusive faith.” Which is to say, a worldview that posits the inerrancy of the Bible, universalist science, and exclusivity is inherently contradictory. Ipse dixit. Yet again, this claim does not support, but rather goes against, Worthen’s whole argument.

She continues, “By contrast, the worldview that has propelled mainstream Western intellectual life and made modern civilization possible is a kind of pragmatism.” Pragmatism, however, is a fairly late development in the history of philosophy that rejected traditional correspondence and coherentist theories of truth. By definition, pragmatic ‘justification’ is not epistemic justification at all, which seemingly fits much better in the context of truth and science. Indeed, Worthen writes, “It is an empirical outlook that continually — if imperfectly — revises its conclusions based on evidence available to everyone, regardless of their beliefs about the supernatural.” Of course, pragmatism as a philosophical assumption, and all of the other assumptions Worthen alluded to herself holding, are not empirically verifiable, so Worthen has not helped her own case here. But even the admission that pragmatic “conclusions” are continually and imperfectly revised works against Worthen, for this would seem very consistent with what many evangelicals probably do think about scientific conclusions. Scientific conclusions are tentative and so should not be given the same weight as what an all-knowing being has to say about his creation. More than that, scientific evidence is evaluated from within the context of a worldview. For example, pragmatism is a particular way of approaching epistemological subjects like science. Pragmatism is not mere acceptance of plain evidences and brute facts, but rather a means to try and make sense of evidences and facts. When Worthen uses phrases like “conservative evangelical war on facts” and “pseudoscientific view of the Bible” she betrays her actual position which is not a position of objective, scientific neutrality, but of hostile opposition toward a biblical worldview, the doctrine of inerrancy, and the evangelicalism wherein they are found.

Conclusion

Toward the end of her article, Worthen quotes Nelson, who negatively comments that “cynicism and tribalism are very closely related. You protect your tribe, your way of life and thinking, and you try to annihilate anything that might call that into question.” Interestingly, this is an accurate summary of the nature of Worthen’s article. Worthen concludes, “Cynicism and tribalism are among the gravest human temptations. They are all the more dangerous when they pose as wisdom and righteousness.” I would add that they are even more dangerous when they appear in the New York Times and involve a great deal of special pleading.

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4 thoughts on “A Conservative Evangelical Response to Molly Worthen’s “The Evangelical Roots of our Post-Truth Society”

  1. Did one conservative evangelical read Molly Worthen’s article in the NY Times and tell all the others; or do a majority of conservative evangelicals read the NY Times? Anecdotal evidence is not invalid; it is just information waiting for verification. If for decades, we’ve read media articles, or comments by people claiming to be evangelicals claiming the absolutism of biblical primacy, even as it flies in the face of scientific discovery, then one can be pretty sure that the belief is pervasive throughout the evangelical Christian community.

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    1. Validity and invalidity do not apply to evidence as such; that’s a category error, and I was not dismissive of said anecdotal evidence in virtue of it being anecdotal evidence other than my use of the term ‘anecdotal,’ into which you read your apparent objection. Absolute biblical primacy, as you call it, establishes rather than “flies in the face of scientific discovery.” I don’t see that your comment really adds to or takes away from anything in the post, and especially not the overall theme of the post, which refutes Worthen’s thesis.

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