In 1994 Mark Noll wrote about the scandal of American evangelical anti-intellectualism and many of his arguments remain relevant for the movement today. Suspicion of evolution, vaccines, and climate change in many circles, paired with the election of science-sceptic Donald Trump by 80 per cent of white evangelicals further pits the evangelical movement against professors and other academics who share inconvenient truths or challenge particular beliefs.
This resistance to science and intellectualism has played into a wider evangelical persecution complex. This explains the relative success in evangelical circles of movies such as God's Not Dead. And by 'success', I mean the fact that this movie was even made in the first place and, even more surprisingly, was made into a sequel. One of the perceived battle grounds of evangelical Christianity is in the classroom, especially at colleges and universities, and a movie like God's Not Dead plays on this fear.
A disproportionate number of my family and friends have PhD's. Many are working as professors or seeking jobs and I've learned that these culture war movies hardly come close to accurately portraying who the majority of professors are or what these professors try to do. As academics and 'facts' come under increasing attack in the midst of a Trump presidency, the place of evangelicals in the attack on intellections in America is worth examining:
The fear of college professors
Growing up in a conservative evangelical church, I wasn't free from a fear of college professors challenging my beliefs. I attended a Christian university, and even so, many people at my church warned me that it was too liberal (I assure you, it wasn't!).
While most of the challenges to my particular version of Christianity occurred in conversations with my fellow students, I did hit a few bumps in the road. Students in one literature class objected to the content in a novel, but our professor allowed us to substitute another book for the class.
I certainly entered college with my defenses up even though it was a Christian university. I don't think I let them down until a few years after graduation.
What college professors actually do
Knowing many college professors, I can verify that most of them care very deeply for their students and want nothing more than for students to think for themselves. The majority of professors work long hours to develop classroom activities that will get students engaged and involved so that they become active participants in forming, analyzing, and articulating their own ideas.
They meet with students throughout each week, answer email at all hours, and worry when students stop showing up at class. One political science professor told me that none of his colleagues could conceive of attacking their students in class or forcing them to change their beliefs.
Are there some exceptions to this? I'm certain that you could drum up a few examples of aggressive professors, but by and large, students and their ideas are highly valued by professors.
Do college professors proselytize their students?
The harder word for those in the evangelical movement addressed by Knoll's book is that many of these Christians fear being proselytized by college professors much as they try to proselytize others. Are there atheists and people in other religions who are guilty of aggressively pushing their beliefs on others? Certainly. But college professors are often doing something quite different from proselytizing.
In addition, for many evangelicals, there is an expectation that the Christian faith is simple, self-evident, and a matter of simple obedience to the Bible and one's church leaders. Questioning the Bible or church leaders could become a slippery slope, even if those questions appear to be honest and sincere.
This is how we end up with entire churches that oppose the mere mention of evolution. The moment a college professor (or high school teacher for that matter) encourages a student from such a church to consider the evidence, a crisis ensues. While every honest academic pursuit requires an evaluation of all sides, weighing the value of arguments, and then drawing a conclusion, the simple act of considering an alternative to the party line becomes an act of rebellion.
Ironically, the church leaders who foster this adversarial environment against academics are far more likely to cause a Christian to leave the faith. When flimsy walls of nonessential issues become the essential boundaries of the faith, a college professor encouraging honest inquiry can hardly be blamed for the collapse of such a poorly conceived belief system.
Do evangelicals need academics?
As America continues to be awash in the Trump administration's propaganda, lies, and meticulously misrepresented news while labeling the news media as 'fake news', evangelicals could benefit from a reconsideration of Mark Knoll's words. American evangelicals have a great need for the commitment to research and careful evaluation of the available data found in the academic community.
Our faith need not fear the scrutiny of scholars. The power of Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and return have stood the test of time not because they have been protected from serious inquiry. Rather, these historical events are proven true each time someone reaches out to God in prayer and experiences the life changing presence of the risen Christ.
Ed Cyzewski is the author of 'A Christian Survival Guide'. He writes at www.edcyzewski.com.