Saturday, March 05, 2011

I Write An Email To An Academic Hack (UPDATE)

A Facebook friend had linked to this Huffington Post piece and, since the link was provided, I checked out the survey report that was the source for the article. I was surprised, and somewhat dismayed, to discover the survey in question said none of the things the author, Phil Zuckerman, claimed it said. Furthermore, the description of various Christian believers, the thumbnail sketch of the history of conflict between more traditional, conservative Christians, and their various liberal opponents, was caricatured to the point of unrecognizability, with some pretty glaring errors of historical fact tossed in just to make it interesting.

Indiscretion being the better part of valor, I decided to send this doofus, who teaches sociology at someplace called Pitzer College, an email. Ahem:
Dear Sir,

I was led to your Huffington Post article, "Why Evangelicals Hate Jesus", and was amazed and saddened to discover, after reading the linked article from the Pew Research Center, that your description of the survey results, the provocative headline, and even some of the alleged history related in the article are quite wrong, misleading, and play upon stereotypes rather than fact. When reading the Pew Center article discussion its research on the Tea Party and religion, a couple points jumped out at me. First, it states unequivocally that "[t]he analysis shows that most people who agree with the religious right also support the Tea Party. But support for the Tea Party is not synonymous with support for the religious right." To support this assertion, the authors write the following in reference to the results of the survey: "An August 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that nearly half of Tea Party supporters (46%) had not heard of or did not have an opinion about “the conservative Christian movement sometimes known as the religious right”; 42% said they agree with the conservative Christian movement and roughly one-in-ten (11%) said they disagree.3 More generally, the August poll found greater familiarity with and support for the Tea Party movement (86% of registered voters had heard at least a little about it at the time and 27% expressed agreement with it) than for the conservative Christian movement (64% had heard of it and 16% expressed support for it)."

Your description of Jesus teaching "socialism" is the kind of lazy, thoughtless nonsense one would expect from someone who doesn't carefully study the subject in question, rather than a professor at a university.

Finally, the historical survey regarding the relationship between conservative evangelicals (did you know there are liberal evangelicals?) and various liberal mainline Christian churches, after jumping forward to the post-WWII era, makes the glaring mistake of moving "the Social Gospel" a generation forward, long after it had petered out as a source of inspiration. Furthermore, the criticism that anti-communism joined up with (non-existent) criticism of (non-existent) Social Gospelers in the 1950's misses a huge factual point; the most important American Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, was influenced strongly by the Social Gospel movement, although he took several steps to one side during the early part of his career. After the Second World War he, along with Arthur Schlesinger created Americans for Democratic Action, a left-leaning but also anti-communist organization of intellectuals and activists. Niebuhr spent much of the time after WWII actively criticizing some European theologian, most prominently Karl Barth, for their softness toward communism. To claim that it was only conservative evangelicals who were anti-communist is negated by actual historical fact.

The entire piece was so typical of someone who doesn't understand the complexity of American religious life (fundamentalists are not always evangelicals; evangelicals certainly are not all fundamentalists), the actual history of the various movements involved, and doesn't even take the time to read through the details of a survey before writing about it. Such is the state of American intellectual life today that this kind of thing is acceptable.

Thank you for your time,

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford
One can be critical of conservative evangelicals. One can be critical of all sorts of things. The thing I really dislike is when people who are supposed to be educated present information to people that is so wrong it wouldn't pass muster in an undergraduate research class.

UPDATE: So I was checking out some other stuff Phil Zuckerman has written that are available on-line. This piece in particular struck me as interesting, not least because the interpretation of the data showing a rise in non-belief across the board, including in the United States which had been impervious to the secularization of western Europe, is interesting. All the same, I came across the following paragraph that leaped out at me with blinking red-and-white neon screaming "BULLSHIT!!":
Every single 1st world nation that is irreligious shares a set of distinctive attributes. These include handgun control, anti-corporal punishment and anti-bullying policies, rehabilitative rather than punitive incarceration, intensive sex education that emphasizes condom use, reduced socio-economic disparity via tax and welfare systems combined with comprehensive health care, increased leisure time that can be dedicated to family needs and stress reduction, and so forth.
These same countries also share a certain historical background - official religions that support the ruling status quo that was, until the early- to mid-20th century, hostile to the needs of large parts of the population. Religious support for the fascist tyrannies across central Europe certainly didn't help. Already by the end of the First World War there was a strong popular reaction against established religious beliefs in various European countries, for the quite sound reason that they supported the slaughter across the continent.

That many western European countries simultaneously display a large disbelief in traditional religious faith and exercise various social policies most folks identify as "liberal" at the very least does not represent anything other than statistical correlation; the two happen to occur at the same time in various societies. One is not related to the other beyond, perhaps, being the results of various historical forces the authors do not come close to addressing.

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