Having commented that “experts” seem to be mostly platform and little substance, and that evangelicals have a special fondness for these sorts of pop experts, I was asked to address the question, “Why do you think evangelicals are especially vulnerable to ‘experts’?”
I am not the first person to note the evangelical experts phenomenon. Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson devoted a provocative book, “The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age,” to the topic a couple years ago, which I reviewed in 2011.
More recently, I was tasked with leading World magazine’s coverage of conservative Christians’ growing doubts about popular history writer David Barton.
Why are evangelicals so attracted to writers like Barton? There are many factors, some of them particular to evangelical subculture, some of them more typical of American culture generally.
Within evangelical subculture, there is a pervasive sense – which is substantially, if not entirely, warranted – that elite experts, especially academic ones, are often hostile toward people of faith.
This complaint is an essential component of Barton’s defense of his work. Even many so-called “Christian” history professors, Barton has said, were “basically trained by pagan professors who hate God, and they’re just repeating what they’re … told.”
Whatever you think of Barton, many observers have noted that the elite academy is often either overtly or implicitly antagonistic toward those who identify as people of faith.
Recent decades have seen the emergence of a remarkable cadre of openly Christian scholars, from my doctoral adviser George Marsden to the late Jean Bethke Elshtain and Princeton’s Robert George, but those voices of faith remain few and far between in top tier universities.
Thus, evangelicals have gravitated toward their own experts, whether or not they have earned credentials in relevant fields or have any specialized training at all. We can see similar trends in broader American culture.
In areas from health and dieting to personal finance, Americans flock to telegenic personalities who reveal “secrets” that the established authorities won’t.
Call it the “Dr. Phil-ization” of America – a “clunkier-sounding” counterpart of “Oprah-ization.”
Oprah and her successor, Dr. Oz, both depend on a parade of experts – some of them actually credentialed, others not – who cut to the chase and disclose the “true” path to weight loss, relational bliss or whatever the topic may be.
These experts typically have an entrepreneurial knack for delivering compelling, quasi-religious messages about the “truth.”
Meanwhile, credentialed professors grumble because they don’t remotely approach the voluminous book sales or attention of the entrepreneurial pop experts.
What should evangelicals do about their subcultural experts?
Most obviously, evangelicals should realize that fame does not equal reliability or expertise.
On the other hand, credentialed elites (Christian and otherwise) also need to accept that someone who reaches a broad audience is not automatically a hack.
Evangelicals, in particular, and Americans, in general, could use more people who possess studied expertise in important subjects and are willing to communicate that expertise to a general audience.
For academics, this is going to mean that not everything can be complex, convoluted and cynical.
If professors insist on sticking to their standard obscure mode, there will always be entrepreneurs who are willing to fill the gap left by our absence in popular and evangelical culture.
Thomas Kidd is professor of history at Baylor University and is a senior fellow at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR). He is the author of several books, including “Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots” (2011) and “God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution” (2010). A version of this article first appeared on The Anxious Bench, where he blogs regularly. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @ThomasSKidd.