Review: The Anointed
Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson. The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011. 356 pp. ISBN 978-0-674- 04818-8.
In The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson explore the sources of intellectual authority in contemporary American evangelical Christianity. They hope to offer an account of why evangelicals tend to follow the teachings of certain charismatic popular leaders with limited academic credentials—whom the authors dub “the anointed” based on the notion that these leaders and their followers believe God has anointed them for their roles—rather than the teachings of evangelical academics who are respected by secular authorities in their fields.
A collaboration between a historian (Stephens) and a physicist (Giberson), both of whom self-identify as evangelicals, The Anointed begins with four case study chapters covering the subjects of human origins, American history, family and child psychology, and eschatology. Each chapter follows a similar pattern. After an opening vignette, the authors present a brief background of evangelical thinking on the chapter’s topic. They then describe the ideas, methods, and influence of a charismatic popular “anointed” leader who claims to speak with authority on the topic, and provide a shorter treatment of a leading evangelical scholar on the subject who has great credibility in the academic world. The populist leaders are creationist Ken Ham, history activist and Texas Republican politician David Barton, psychologist and Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, and best-selling apocalyptic authors Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye. The evangelical academics include biologist and director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins, historian and National Humanities Medal recipient Mark Noll, psychologist and leading textbook author David Myers, and renowned New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop N. T. Wright. These figures do not all receive the same amount of attention. For example, there is a significant and insightful description of Collins’s career and ideas, but just a brief overview of Wright’s.
The case-study chapters provide interesting material about how evangelicals construct and adopt beliefs, and will be valuable resources for courses on contemporary American religion, evangelicalism, and perhaps the sociology of religion. Each chapter contains nuggets that testify to the extraordinary popular success of evangelical leaders. Chapter 1 takes the reader on a vivid trip through the Creation Museum in Kentucky, which receives thousands of visitors each month. Tours conclude “at the Last Adam Theater, where visitors learn of Jesus’ sacrifice and receive a call to repent of their sins” (25). The authors describe the development of the intellectual framework that shaped the museum, including the work of Ham and his organization Answers in Genesis. Chapter 2 on amateur Christian historians is most insightful when it sets David Barton’s work in the context of the astounding earlier success of The Light and the Glory, a 1977 book by Peter Marshall and David Manuel that purported to chronicle God’s work in American history and sold almost a million copies. In chapter 3, the authors do well to highlight the importance of a now little-known work, The Christian Family (1970) by Lutheran pastor Larry Christenson, which sold two million copies and became “the manual for conservative Christian families” (106). The book’s best material is in chapter 4, where we get a helpful mini-biography of Hal Lindsey and an astute contextual analysis of how the rise of a Christian publishing subculture in the 1970s fueled the popularity of Lindsey’s works, especially the apocalyptic thriller The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), which had sold an astonishing twenty-eight million copies by the early 1990s. The United States had 725 Christian bookstores in 1965 and 1,850 in 1975, and “sales of Christian books climbed over 112 percent from 1972 to 1977” (158). Lindsey proffered ideas about Armageddon, and the authors suggest that Ronald Reagan’s public discussion during his presidency about how possibilities for Armageddon might affect foreign policy indicated just how much influence Lindsey and his ilk exerted on American life.
A prominent theme that cuts across the case studies is that many of the phenomena the authors highlight began or intensified in the wake of the turbulent 1960s. The Late Great Planet Earth, The Christian Family, and Dobson’s Dare to Discipline all appeared in 1970, the latter works indicating that questions about family matters “seemed urgent after the alarming 1960s assault on traditional values” (102). The Light and the Glory came a few years later, aiming at “restoring optimism to a nation crippled by doubts and fears” (75). Curiously, the authors do not develop this point further or engage the historiography, missing a chance to make a larger contribution to scholarship on recent U.S. history.
The last two chapters deviate from the case-study pattern. Chapter 5, which seems largely superfluous, describes the institutions of the parallel culture of evangelicalism by following the life of one evangelical from childhood through mid-20s. Chapter 6, however, is where the real action is. Here the authors present their explanation for “what confluence of factors empowers [the anointed leaders] to rise to national prominence until they wield intellectual authority over tens of millions of people? What winds carry them so comfortably past their credentialed and mainstream evangelical colleagues? . . . What draws followers—often well educated, sometimes with doctorates, employed in mainstream professions, raising wholesome families—to them?” (234).
Many of the answers are predictable: they cite characteristics of American culture and especially evangelicalism—such as anti-intellectualism, populism, and a religious free market. Stephens and Giberson also discuss strategies invoked by the anointed themselves—such as claiming endorsement by God or that they are countering threats from Satan. One, however, merits closer attention. In the book’s most notable attempt at innovation, the authors argue that the anointed use in-group and out-group dynamics to gain authority. In-group dynamics occurs when “people begin to think of themselves as part of a movement, inspired by a leader” (237). Out-group dynamics, by contrast, functions by creating an enemy (out-group) that helps unite groups that would normally be rivals in a common cause against the out-group. Drawing heavily on Yale law professor Dan Kahan’s account of cultural cognition, the authors coin “cue-based epistemology” to describe the process by which in-group dynamics influence belief and trump conventional expertise (245). They conclude that “by effectively exploiting cultural cues, evangelical leaders resonate with their audiences and quickly become insiders—members of the tribe” (248– 49). The authors place cue-based epistemology in the larger framework of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, claiming that cultural cues and our need to have a group identity and embrace leaders we can trust “are deeply rooted in our genes” (249).
Despite these efforts to explain intellectual authority, The Anointed will likely disappoint historians looking for a contribution to scholarship on expertise. Many historians will be unsatisfied with the extent to which the explanation is based on social science theory rather
than analysis of historical evidence. Bracketing the explanatory framework in a separate chapter does not help matters. The authors briefly raise the issue of trust in conjunction with cue-based epistemology, but they do not engage the substantial and important literature on trust that has arisen in the history of science and related fields in recent decades, as for example in the writing of Theodore Porter and Steven Shapin.1 This literature insists that assent to scientific knowledge and methodology does not arise self-evidently but rather is mediated by sociocultural processes, which suggests examination of the rhetorical, institutional, and interpersonal strategies that scientists employ to gain trust and credibility. Stephens and Giberson also do not explain how their work relates to the scholarly literature in fields like sociology and history on in-group and out-group dynamics or the authority of experts in American society.
The authors also miss the opportunity to connect their discussion with moments in American history where credentialed secular expertise has been a serious problem for public policy. In the nineteenth century, early proponents of the human sciences offered expert knowledge about racial and sexual differences that bolstered efforts to marginalize women and racial minorities. In the early twentieth century, several presidents of elite universities, who were widely regarded as progressive experts, endorsed eugenics. During the 1960s, a near cult of technocratic expertise surrounded Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, but with disastrous results in Vietnam. These historical examples complicate a picture viewed simplistically as credentialed reliability versus populist irresponsibility.
One reason for some of these difficulties is that the authors have two goals that sometimes interfere with each other. On one hand, they want to assess how the anointed leaders have such intellectual authority among evangelicals despite their lack of scholarly qualifications. On the other hand, the authors want to condemn the views of the anointed and endorse the positions of the evangelical academics. Too often, the authors’ enthusiasm for the second goal inhibits their pursuit of the first. The Anointed is certainly not a dispassionate work of scholarship. It is a critique of the ideas espoused by the anointed. In fact, Giberson has personally participated in some of the issues mentioned in the book. The authors quote Ham from a debate on beliefnet.com, but fail to mention that Giberson was the opponent. They describe how Collins set up the BioLogos Foundation “to counter the antiscience message of the creationists,” but do not indicate that Giberson became BioLogos’s executive vice president for a time and wrote a book with Collins under its auspices (9). The Anointed thus raises important questions about the relationship of scholarship and advocacy.
The Anointed seems to be written for a general audience, and it mostly consists of fluid prose that should endear it to general readers despite its length. There are drawbacks, however, to the snappy style and quick-moving stories. One such drawback is a tendency to oversimplification, particularly in describing views on human origins. The authors’ language at times implies that everyone is either a young-earth creationist or a full-blown ateleological evolutionist, whereas in fact many evangelicals are somewhere in between. Too often they say things like Francis Collins “believes in evolution” without specifying what kind of evolution Collins affirms or how he thinks God might be related to evolution (55). Another drawback of the writing style is that it sometimes gives a patronizing tone to the descriptions of the anointed, perhaps to make the account more vivid. Despite these flaws, The Anointed makes an important contribution by prompting us to consider how human beings determine their beliefs on some of the most important questions in life.
Theodore M. Porter, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995). Among many works by Shapin see most recently The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008) and Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010). ↩