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The Anointed Leaders of the Religious Right

American evangelicals, Fox News, and now the Republican Party take their intellectual cues from a roster of remarkably similar populists who head media empires.
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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.

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. But, as historian Randall Stephens and I argue in our forthcoming book The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age Barton is far from unique. American evangelicals, Fox News, and now the Republican Party take their intellectual cues from a roster of remarkably similar populists who head media empires. These leaders, who we dub "The Anointed," wield an astonishing influence on America's main streets. But because this influence is felt primarily at the grass roots level -- and rarely discussed in the pages of the leading opinion journals -- it can seem invisible.

Barton has created a rose-colored "past" that appeals to conservative evangelicals fretting about the trajectory of a nation they believe once belonged to them. If only this Edenic past can be recovered, Barton assures them, we can reverse the nation's blind, secularized stagger toward Gomorrah. This message is welcomed in churches across America's heartland, where Barton frequently appears. The warm and welcome nature of the message, together with Barton's born-again credentials, are more than a match for the persistent challenges he faces from both the secular academy and from fellow evangelical historians like Mark Noll and George Marsden. By any imaginable academic yardstick, Noll, the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at Notre Dame, former professor at the conservative evangelical Wheaton College, and author of the acclaimed America's God, towers over Barton. If Republican leaders were really serious about understanding the nation's religious history they would be talking to Noll, not Barton. Noll is as thoroughly evangelical as Barton, but understands history well enough to know that reading his own faith back into the founding fathers is irresponsible. Unfortunately, Noll is not a populist -- his work is not widely available on Youtube -- and thus one has to be a bit more serious to pursue his thinking. That the religious right prefers Barton to Noll is an alarming testimony to the power of wishful thinking and anti-intellectualism.

Unfortunately Barton shares the Right's academic stage with discouragingly similar leaders in other fields. In The Anointed, Stephens and I note the degree to which American evangelicalism has created its own set of homegrown academic "experts" who preach comforting messages at odds with generally accepted understandings of the modern world.

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. But Collins exerts no more influence on the science of the religious Right than Noll does on its history.

In the social sciences, James Dobson is the anointed leader. For years he has assured his millions of followers, through his Focus on the Family organization, that toddlers should be spanked, homosexuals should be straightened through repentance and "therapy," and children should be raised by stay-at-home moms subservient to their husbands. It made no difference that social science research steadily and surely contradicted all those positions. Dobson was certain that a few well-chosen if ambiguous proof-texts from the Bible held far more authority than secular research. And Dobson, who some credit with having secured the White House for George Bush, cannot be ignored by anyone who seeks to head the Republican ticket. In contrast to Dobson, the evangelical psychologist David Myers -- a professor at the conservative Hope College in Holland, Michigan -- has kept up with social science, steadily integrating its insights in the worldview of the religious believer. Myers, author of the acclaimed text Psychology, ( now in its 9th edition, is a well-respected member of the social science scholarly community. But it is Dobson's discredited platitudes that shape the views of the Right, rather than Myers's more well-informed contributions.

Of greatest concern, perhaps, is the influence on American evangelicalism of Tim LaHaye, whose bestselling -- and nominally fictional -- Left Behind series has millions of Americans convinced that we are in the last days. Ongoing unrest in the "holy land" of the Middle East, earthquakes and tsunamis, globalization, and the advance of technology are all viewed by millions of Americans as biblically foretold signs of the apocalypse. Long an icon of the religious Right, LaHaye and like-minded prophecy buffs -- John Hagee, Hal Lindsey, Jack Van Impe -- have provided fanciful and uninformed interpretations of the Bible for decades. And no matter how long the roster of failed predictions from the Bible, their followers remain loyal. Their confused analysis of current events prevents effective engagement with many pressing concerns, from global warming to America's relationship with Israel.

These anointed and deeply influential leaders are shadow advisors to many leaders on the Right, including Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, and Michele Bachmann. The latter has even indicated she wants Barton to lecture to her fellow lawmakers on history. We should all hope that evangelicals will come to appreciate the genuine scholars in their community -- authentic believers who share their religious beliefs -- and move away from the anointed populists who have for too long defined their worldview.

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