From Dec. 17, 2017
The attached article (click on the above picture) is interesting, and gets at something I’ve been thinking for quite awhile, at least in part, which is that there is a strong flow of styles of thought across the conservative religious and political space. Said like that, it hardly seems new, but what I mean is that there is an epistemology within evangelicalism rooted in the 18th and 19th century which was honed there and exported to politics. A political position or statement doesn’t have to be theological to be evangelical.
This makes someone like Trump an evangelical, even as he is (as this article says) a prime example of “What would Jesus not do?” Not a Christian, of course, but an evangelical. This article makes the important point that “The result is a malleable religious identity that can be weaponized not just to complain about department stores that hang “Happy Holidays” banners, but more significantly, in support of politicians like Mr. Trump or Mr. Moore — and of virtually any policy, so long as it is promoted by someone Fox evangelicals consider on their side of the culture war.”
This is what I and many others have elsewhere called tribalism. That term is meant to evoke a kind of sealed, prerational, mutually reinforcing set of beliefs and practices. But the term has its problems. For one, the reference is to what we used to think “tribes” were like, which was primitive. That’s not a good reference, because it keeps alive the mistaken and racist ideas that so-called “primitive” groups are like that. They aren’t.
Another problem with the term “tribal” is that it tends to put weight on practices and not on epistemology. That’s not a necessary thing, but it is how we tend to think about tribalism. It is about looking out for “my” people, believing that their intentions are good and actions are praiseworthy, while thinking that “your” people have bad intentions, even when an action seems good. All that is true, but there’s something more to the evangelical cult.
1. It is an epistemology of inner light. In philosophy we might call that “intuitionism”. This is usually a term used in ethics for the idea that there are moral facts in the universe that cannot be reduced to natural facts, and that we can know only through our intuition (i.e., not through arguments or other kinds of evidence).
In the case of evangelicals, intuitionism extends to everything, not just ethics. It is the intuition of the inner light, the intuition that comes when you think you have the truth of God on your side. This intuitionism extends far past the central tenets of faith, to things that the Bible has very little to say about (abortion, homosexuality) or nothing to say about (guns, economic systems, most of contemporary culture). But intuitionism allows, even insists on, extrapolation.
It also demands conformity. Difference is delusion. If something or someone feels wrong, it’s not because one’s feelings have been built in an isolationist culture, but because the spirit is telling us something. So, intuitionism demands conformity, familiarity, safety.
2. This renders argumentation to being more like a tool of battle than a space where people can come to mutual understanding. Put bluntly, evangelicals believe that they already understand everyone else, and there is nothing important that they can learn from talking to anyone. Their reasoning is sanctified – not pure, but able to be corrected by God – whereas the reasoning of everyone else is fundamentally flawed, with no external mechanism of correction.
So, we can see tactics of argumentation which a philosopher might consider to be logical fallacies, used on a regular basis. There is guilt by association (especially useful on questions of race – assume that black people are fundamentally bad just because they’re black, whereas the same action by a white person can be overlooked or forgiven), ad hominem arguments (just about every counter-attack that Trump makes), questionable labels (see again: Trump), and red herrings (every time you see something in the “But what about X!” category – Hillary, liberal failings, etc – you’re seeing a red herring). These are logically bad but rhetorically effective arguments.
3. This means that each side sees the other as insufferably arrogant. Evangelicals see non-e people as clinging to flawed reason and resisting God, and as such arrogant because they trust their own reason above God’s. Non-e people see evangelicals as rejecting evidence, the ideas and opinions of other people, and trusting in a version of God that could easily be evangelical groupthink, or the rhetoric of powerful and influential people (like pastors and Fox News pundits), or just their own conclusions based on suspicion of institutions and people not controlled by evangelicals (i.e., those outside God’s team).
There is a strange double consciousness among evangelicals about this. On the one hand, the intuitionism means that the inner light of God’s reason guides us, and so therefore rational debate should be irrelevant. And yet, there is a strong core of dialectical practice among evangelicalism. There is argumentation, but it is weaponized in the sense that the point is to get people to intuitionism.
This is why one should never argue with an evangelical. Not because discussion is not a good idea in general, but because evangelicals and non-evangelicals aren’t playing the same game, and don’t have the same rules. One side thinks that discussion should result in both sides coming to the best position together, based on evidence, and the other side thinks that they already know what’s right, because of intuition, and argumentation is there to disrupt and unsettle the process of reasonably coming to the best conclusion. It reminds me of an old Onion headline: “Pope Calls for Greater Understanding Between Catholics, Hellbound.”
This is true for more than just religious questions. This is true in politics as well. If someone says “everyone is entitled to his opinion”, that really means – “those who have not seen the light have their opinions, but I, who have seen the light, have the truth”. This is why conservatives can come back time and again to discredited ideas like trickle-down economics, the idea that a military build-up is equivalent to safety, and immigrants are unsafe and the cause of both economic stagnation and criminal activity. These are all empirically false ideas, and yet they act like articles of faith, and have a place in intuitionist logic, so they keep coming back.
The force of such intuitionism is that one can think they understand someone better than they understand themselves. I recently had someone explain to me just how little professors worked. In other words, she explained to me, a professor, with no basis other than (I suspect) Fox News, the world I have lived in for 25 years. Why does this make sense? Because she is on the right team, and so her ideas are true, whereas I am not, and therefore everything I think is tainted, in this case, by self-interest. The irony here is that I grew up on that team, and know its playbook – but I’m perceived as the worst kind of person, the apostate who once knew the truth but forsook it.
No evangelical will say that they want a theocracy, but that’s what is happening epistemically. In this approach to politics, conversion is the starting-point of any real progress, and so even if the conversion isn’t literal (and, of course, evangelicals hope that it is), it is conversion to an intuitionist approach to knowledge.
4. Evangelicals are ripe for being fooled and used by politicians, but at the same time those who fool and use them have to adopt their style of reasoning, and are thus eventually brought into the fold. It is a truism of politics that evangelicals vote for someone who they think will advance their positions, and then as soon as that person gets into office they don’t do it. That’s the “swamp” that Trump referred to – the corrupting place that take people away from ideals. The swamp is not “money in politics” or “pork” or anything like that. It’s the worldly influence. And so, Trump has been draining the swamp, by changing bureaucratic offices within Washington to be filled with people who will maintain this belief structure.
5. The epistemology itself is based on propositions, ideas that one must assent to. Evangelical theology is based on giving one’s life to God, which initially means accepting Jesus as one’s personal Saviour. This is done with a prayer, but it also means assenting to a list of propositions about faith and the world. These were initially codified in the pamphlets known as the “Fundamentals” in the early 20th century, and are included in confessions of faith for evangelical churches. These function like creeds functioned in older churches, although they are usually not recited but woven into every assumption of every program and statement in an evangelical church.
The effect of these propositions is to reinforce the internal structure of the evangelical epistemology. There are things like verbal plenary inspiration. Most evangelicals wouldn’t know that term, but they would certainly know the concept, which is that each word of the Bible was given by God and is authoritative and is inspired by God. This is intuitionist – how does one know how things fit together in a book as complex and seemingly contradictory as the Bible? There is the spirit that tells you.
It is important to “not forsake the gathering of yourselves together” – this is called fellowship, but functions as surveillance. It is not felt as surveillance, but it functions that way – any deviation from the spirit of the central propositions is policed.
When one relies on propositions as the containers of truth, it is easy to tell who’s in and who’s out. It is a shibboleth for constructing and policing a tribe, a test to tell whether someone is of the faith or not. There was a time when actions strongly correlated with words, and acting in a way that was interpretable as outside of the tribe was “corrected”. There is redemption, if someone is truly contrite and asks for forgiveness, but there is no redemption for someone outside of the tribe.
These propositions also provide the abstract bedrock for the extrapolations and the tendency toward conformity mentioned earlier. They are the “objective” correlate to the “subjective” inner light.
6. None of this description is something that an evangelical will agree to. But then, that falls in line with intuitionism as well. If argumentation is just a weapon, one way to deploy it is with misdirection. Notice how often both evangelicals and Trumpian politicians will say something that we know is racist, sexist, or otherwise hateful, but which could be interpreted in a banal manner. Everyone knows what is being said, but the one who said it (and his/her defenders) will claim the banal meaning, and accuse others of having their minds in the gutter, or otherwise being inclined to take the worst conclusion. Why? Because in the minds of evangelicals and Trumpians, the opponents are utterly corrupt in every way, and therefore will always take the worst view of those who are holy.
Various philosophers have pointed out that the best practitioners of postmodernism today are evangelicals and Trumpians. That’s probably someone unfair to the idea of the postmodern, but there is a grain of truth, at the tactical level. If all that really matters is intuition, which undergirds who’s on “my” team and who isn’t, then the level of discourse is just a game. The game helps my team to keep score, and in the rare case that someone comes over, especially someone famous, all the better. I remember how excited we all were in the late 70’s when Bob Dylan “became a Christian”. He’s one of us now, we thought. Popularity, especially among the famous and influential, is a mark that we’re right.
7. All of this means that culture is central here. Culture is felt relations and practices. Intuitionism leads to cultural change, not to liberal society in which many cultures come together and the best state emerges out of their engagement with each other.
8. So what is the conclusion here, if you’re not in the evangelical camp, including its political versions? One conclusion is that one cannot argue with an intuitionist. Don’t even try. There are two different games happening, and it is the non-evangelical who usually doesn’t realize that. Secondly, there’s also little point in obsession over what evangelicals are thinking. This comes from the idea that “we don’t understand them well enough”, and more understanding would help to bridge a gap. It won’t. Note that there is never a similar move in the other direction. Evangelicals, both political and religious, are the minority in the country, but there is never an effort on their part to find out how others think in order to convince them of the truth of the evangelical way. That’s not how intuitionism works. Persuasion doesn’t work, in either direction.
What does work? Well, not all evangelicals are hard-core. Some follow a path because those around them do. In other cases (although not all), meeting someone not on their team who is nevertheless a decent person has helped. This does not work on the hard-core, those for whom intuitionism is deeply seated. But what does work is to strip this cult of its success and its honors. Intuitionism needs to be taken seriously, to have people come over to its side, to be unquestionably accepted. That’s easier said than done, given how much of contemporary media takes this intuitionism seriously. But the fact is that evangelicalism’s growth has slowed, and people of color are not joining, and the youth are not staying. And Kansas, which implemented evangelical/intuitionist economics, crashed hard, and evangelical social policy has been shown, almost without exception, to make the problem they are addressing worse (e.g., drugs, abortion, violence, teenage pregnancies, many others). Intuitionism will spin all of this in its own way (the “faithful remnant”, etc.), but this will strip away those who are not hard-core.
There was a long process for many mainline Christians, stretching back through the Middle Ages and further back, of coming to terms with the relationship between faith and reason. This informs and animates the theology and the practice of these other versions of Christianity. The result of the Reformation, and then the Great Awakening as it was experienced in the US, was that this history was largely lost, and with it, the ability to think about what it means for true difference of ideas and opinions to exist in a world where Christians also can exist. If you go into an evangelical bookstore today, you will see almost no history at all. There is a reason for that – intuitionism has no history, and needs no history. It is a cult of easy answers to hard questions, of “me and Jesus” childish faith, and of temper tantrums when this kind of faith is not taken seriously by the rest of the world.
It should be obvious that I think of evangelicalism as a cult, as an aberration of Christianity, not as Christianity itself (despite the claims of evangelicals to be the “true” Christians). That doesn’t mean that every evangelical is a bad person, although intuitionists will inevitably interpret it that way. It means that there are strong head-winds, if you are an evangelical, away from thinking of yourself as part of the epistemic shared world. It’s not impossible to overcome those head-winds, but it isn’t easy. To be evangelical but not intuitionist is very difficult.