Last month I wrote about the Fall and what it means for Christian scholars, institutions, and the Church. Of course, the Fall also requires that we deal with bad arguments and replace them with better arguments and understandings. In a January Chronicle of Higher Education article about “Bad Religion in the Ivory Tower,” the secularist Jacques Berlinerblau provides a helpful example of the kind of intellectually sloppy argument Christian academics need to correct, as well as the tendency to make evidence-poor claims and simple dichotomies that Christian academics need to resist as well.
The crux of Berlinerblau’s argument is that he is disappointed that scholars who study faith did not see the capital riots coming. Unfortunately, his primary evidence for this lack of prescience is a comment by Yale scholar Kathryn Loften almost a decade ago after the Obama-Romney election. Apparently, she predicted the demise of the Religious Right at that time, and Berlinerblau now claims her outlook is common. If it is as common as he claims, one would hope he could have been able to find a contemporary example during the Trump presidency.
In other words, Berlinerblau never produces a recent example of these religion scholars who downplayed the role or danger of Christian conservatives’ support for Trump (he does mention one journalist who is not in the academy). Ironically, Berlinerblau claims a nonspecialist like John Fea saw it coming, but he seems to forget that Fea, a Messiah University professor, is an academic specialist in the area of Evangelical history and politics—a fact that actually contradicts his earlier claim that no religion specialist saw it coming.
Berlinerblau’s essay also provides a helpful example of creating simple dichotomies to score an ideological victory. He argues “many who study the intersection of religion and politics” affirm the “Olden Rule: Always posit religion at its best, secularism at its worst.” Unfortunately, he appears to want to replace this rule with a couple claims to secular superiority.
First, Berlinerblau maintains secular scholars are the true prophets whose discomfort predicted the capital riots. In reality, we should recognize that any sociology of religion textbook worth its salt points out how religion and secularity can serve both revolutionary and conservative political masters (and perhaps even both at times). Religion can inspire both the Abolitionist and Civil Rights movements or support Putin’s totalitarianism and Trump’s nationalists. Secularist political movements can support greater social justice or genocide and the deadly body counts associated with the Soviet Union or China during or after the most recent communist and cultural revolutions.
Second, Berlinerblau then goes on to discuss how secularists have been made uncomfortable with politically-supported Christian favoritism and thus have been on the vanguard of fighting for a principled form of pluralism. In reality, we need to recognize the complexity of principled pluralism’s origins. Christians actually disagreed with and persecuted each other (as my Anabaptist ancestors who were kicked out of Catholic Austria and Eastern Orthodox Romania knew all too well), which led early political leaders such as Roger Williams and William Penn to promote theologically-based arguments for religious liberty (much better than Locke’s toleration) that would encompass various forms of religious believers, as well as nonbelievers. These were the religious liberty efforts which were later carried forward by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Yet, it would be a mistake to call these later efforts “secular” as Berlinerblau does when he states, “The Anglo American secular tradition maintains that the alignment of a government with a church (or churches) is a blueprint for structural instability, a threat to order.” Such claims are anachronistic. Thomas Jefferson never used the word “secular” in any of his writings and the Supreme Court did not use it until an 1845 case.
Finally, I must say something about the odd break in the middle of Berlinerblau’s essay devoted to scholars’ perceptions of Christian supporters of Trump. For some reason, he suddenly goes off topic to take some cheap shots at a couple foundations, Templeton and Henry Luce, that support religious-related research. Apparently, he thinks these foundations demonstrate the attempt to find religion at its best. In contrast, Christians should recognize the complex reality that every foundation, Carnegie, Ford, MacArthur, Spencer, Pew etc. all have ideological predilections. Certainly, we can be critical of those predilections, but we should resist claims such as Berlinerblaus’s that when foundations with particular ideological agendas fund humanists and social scientists, it is “cronyism.” Of course, if Berlinerblau studied the results of these studies he would know that they do not always present religion at its best. The foundations do not control the studies’ outcomes.
Often, the problem with scholars such as Berlinerblau who make sloppy arguments for secular superiority is that they do not recognize what I call their secular privilege because he is swimming in throughout their education. As the philosopher Warren Nord wrote after a study of K-16 education in America, “We systematically and uncritically teach students to make sense of the world in exclusively secular categories. Consequently, the great majority of students earn their high school diplomas and their undergraduate degrees without ever contending with a live religious idea” (Nord, 2010, p. 5).
Furthermore, even if they do see it, they tend to downplay its influence. For instance, Berlinerblau wants us to continue to believe that “secularism is, well, kind of dull and technical. A barrister’s paradise.” Actually, like religion, secularism can be quite exciting but also extremely dangerous (ask former prisoners from the Gulag or China’s Cultural Revolution survivors). As Christians, we need to be honest about both the dangers and the benefits of religion and secularism that inform political movements, scholarship or foundations. Using evidence-poor and simplistic dichotomies to score points should be resisted in favor of a nuanced understanding of God’s good creation, as well as our fallenness, the latter, which can be inspired and furthered by either religious or secular people and ideas.
Warren A. Nord, Does God Make a Difference? Taking Religion Seriously in Our Schools and Universities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 5.