THE arrival of the “post-truth” political climate came as a shock to many Americans. But to the Christian writer Rachel Held Evans, charges of “fake news” are nothing new. “The deep distrust of the media, of scientific consensus — those were prevalent narratives growing up,” she told me.
Although Ms. Evans, 35, no longer calls herself an evangelical, she attended Bryan College, an evangelical school in Dayton, Tenn. She was taught to distrust information coming from the scientific or media elite because these sources did not hold a “biblical worldview.”
“It was presented as a cohesive worldview that you could maintain if you studied the Bible,” she told me. “Part of that was that climate change isn’t real, that evolution is a myth made up by scientists who hate God, and capitalism is God’s ideal for society.”
Conservative evangelicals are not the only ones who think that an authority trusted by the other side is probably lying. But they believe that their own authority — the inerrant Bible — is both supernatural and scientifically sound, and this conviction gives that natural human aversion to unwelcome facts a special power on the right. This religious tradition of fact denial long predates the rise of the culture wars, social media or President Trump, but it has provoked deep conflict among evangelicals themselves.
Liberal democracy in the West is on the fritz. The leader of the free world larded his recent news conference with false claims, while British legislators dither over their citizens’ reckless decision to leave the European Union. At the same time, nationalist, xenophobic movements across Europe are on the rise — promising, like Donald J. Trump, to stick it to those out-of-touch elites who don’t understand the common people.
What is a mopey, Trumpatized liberal to do? When I need solace, I head (in my mind, anyway) to two beacons of hope: Denmark and Canada. There, too, democracy needs fixing, and thoughtful people are trying to mend the alienation between policy makers and voters — to persuade the experts and the common people not to give up on one another. They have almost convinced me that they might succeed.
It won’t be easy. Even in Denmark, that progressive utopia, liberal confidence in democracy has frayed. The left-wing Social Democratic Party governed Denmark for much of the 20th century, but now it keeps losing elections. “We’ve lost most on this question of immigration, foreigners,” Kristian Weise, who heads Cevea, a center-left think tank in Copenhagen, told me. “The response in the party has been to move to the right, to match the rhetoric and policies of the xenophobic populist right.”
Mr. Weise lamented the progressive elite’s refusal to double down on liberal principles and plainly communicate those principles to voters. “People growing up after 1989 within the Social Democratic movement became very nonideological, because suddenly there were no longer the big contradictions,” he said. “Politics became both technocratic and also very spin-oriented.”
KATE Havard is taking a break from American conservatism. “I’m not sure what’s happening with my party right now,” she said from Jerusalem, where she is studying Hebrew. “I need a timeout.” When she returns to her job in Washington at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, she’ll seek refuge among a small group of young conservatives who believe that studying the history of ideas helps them keep Donald J. Trump in perspective.
Ms. Havard, 26, said that before she left for Israel, “we’d get together once a week to have a political philosophy study group,” to discuss ancient authors like Xenophon instead of bashing Obamacare. Studying the deep roots of “conservative principles” helps allay the fear “that just because there’s a politician ascendant who totally disregards these things, that means the end of the conservative movement,” she told me. “You have to be hopeful.”
A small but growing number of young conservatives see themselves not only as engaged citizens, but as guardians of an ancient intellectual tradition. The members of Ms. Havard’s group were alumni of a seven-week crash course in political theory offered by the Hertog Foundation, the family foundation of the Wall Street financier Roger Hertog. Attendees discuss authors like Aristotle, James Madison and Leo Strauss and hear lectures by scholars and policy experts. “Our curriculum represents what we think ought to be a high-level introduction to politics, one you rarely find in any political science department,” Peter Berkowitz, the program’s dean, told me.
The Hertog course is one of more than a dozen similar seminars sponsored by conservative and libertarian organizations around the country. Some last for months, others just a few days. Some recruit older participants, but most target college students and 20-somethings.
The syllabuses and faculty range from say, the secular Jewish milieu of Hertog to the libertarian Cato Institute to the Christian traditionalism of the John Jay Institute. But all these programs seek to correct the defects they see in mainstream higher education by stressing principles over pluralism, immersing students in the wisdom of old books and encouraging them to apply that wisdom to contemporary politics.
Liberals have their own activist workshops and reading groups, but these rarely instruct students in an intellectual tradition, a centuries-long canon of political philosophy. Why have philosophical summer schools become a vibrant subculture on the right, but only a feeble presence on the left? The disparity underscores a divide between conservatives and liberals over the best way to teach young people — and, among liberals, a certain squeamishness about the history of ideas.
CHAPEL HILL — The 2016 election pushed the boundaries of common sense in many ways. Here in North Carolina, Donald J. Trump — the religiously indifferent, penthouse-dwelling germophobe — somehow emerged as the victorious defender of the pig farmer and the country church. Meanwhile, our state Republicans spent huge amounts of time stoking fear, not about the sluggish economy or the deteriorating state of public education, but about the grave dangers of open access to public bathrooms.
Both political strategies worked. Absurdity always has its own logic, and in 2016 that logic is the great culture war of our age: thriving, liberal cities versus impoverished rural counties. Mr. Trump capitalized on the mutual alienation between the two North Carolinas. Meanwhile, state Republicans rallied rural voters with their latest anti-city scheme: House Bill 2, drafted hastily last spring after the city of Charlotte revised its nondiscrimination ordinance to protect gender identity.
Chapel Hill, N.C. — The first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump featured plenty of magical thinking, but it was a nonreligious event. Neither candidate mentioned God. The second debate may be no different: Voters see Mr. Trump as either a prophet or an angel of death, but the only religion that interests him is his own faith in his “winning temperament.”
As to Mrs. Clinton: The news stories that have dogged her — the email server; Benghazi; the “basket of deplorables” quote — don’t have much to do with religion. She has been private about her Methodist faith, and no earnest Sunday school memories will sway voters who view her as fundamentally untrustworthy.
Yet religion helps explain why Mrs. Clinton has struggled to unite the Democratic base. I’m not talking about the faithful who look for the resurrection of Bernie Sanders, but a real left-wing religious revival. Its prayers, preaching and theological battles look very much like the revival that energized the civil rights movement a half-century ago. Today’s revival is divided against itself, as it was back then.
This revival’s more moderate leaders can’t corral the young radicals who want revolution and who reject not just the Democratic nominee, but the basic assumptions of modern politics. The clash goes deeper than policy or strategy. It is a theological rift: Is religion founded in submission to unchanging principles or is it a protean revolutionary force, a tool of self-empowerment?
IN American politics, few forces are more powerful than a voter’s vague intuition. “I support Donald Trump because I feel like he is a doer,” a senior at the University of South Carolina told Cosmopolitan. “Personally, I feel like Bernie Sanders is too idealistic,” a Yale student explained to a reporter in Florida. At a Ted Cruz rally in Wisconsin in April, a Cruz fan declared, “I feel like I can trust that he will keep his promises.”
These people don’t think, believe or reckon. They “feel like.” Listen for this phrase and you’ll hear it everywhere, inside and outside politics. This reflex to hedge every statement as a feeling or a hunch is most common among millennials. But I hear it almost as often among Generation Xers and my own colleagues in academia. As in so many things, the young are early carriers of a broad cultural contagion.
The imperfect data that linguists have collected indicates that “I feel like” became more common toward the end of the last century. In North American English, it seems to have become a synonym for “I think” or “I believe” only in the last decade or so. Languages constantly evolve, and curmudgeons like me are always taking umbrage at some new idiom. But make no mistake: “I feel like” is not a harmless tic. George Orwell put the point simply: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” The phrase says a great deal about our muddled ideas about reason, emotion and argument — a muddle that has political consequences.
THE anti-gay ideology that has long held sway in American evangelicalism seems to be crumbling. Conservatives’ insistence that the Bible proscribes homosexual acts and their claim that protecting gay rights infringes on their own religious liberty have depended on another assumption not found in Scripture: that homosexuality is not a biologically rooted identity but a sinful temptation, an addiction that one must control.
The noisy backlash against the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage cannot mask the signs that this assumption is losing its grip. The most conspicuous indication that something is changing came in 2013 while Obergefell v. Hodges was still working its way up to the court. Alan Chambers, the president of the “ex-gay” ministry Exodus International, apologized to L.G.B.T. people for causing them “pain and hurt” and shut down his organization.
Exodus’s collapse was a media spectacle. It was a huge blow to those who insist that same-sex attraction can be “cured,” and an encouragement to the growing number of evangelicals, particularly millennials, who support L.G.B.T. rights. But some young Christians resist the notion that embracing queer sexuality as an identity — not a disease — permits them to embrace homosexual relationships.
These dissenters proudly call themselves gay or queer or bisexual. But they have turned to ideologies outside the conventional boundaries of evangelicalism — including Catholic theology and queer theory — to argue against both conservatives and liberals. They insist that the church should welcome gay people, yet still condemn homosexual acts. They have provoked a dispute that gets to the heart of the culture wars: a debate over the meaning of vocation that reveals the tension between modern assumptions about living a full life and older ideas about the sacrifices God’s calling requires.
LAST fall, as student activists around the country protested racism on their campuses, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas dismissed secular universities as havens for “leftist, coddled kids.” The protests proved that these schools teem with “psychotic Marxists,” declared “The Daily Caller,” a conservative website.
When conservative Christians map the culture wars, they cast secular universities to the far left periphery — the region that medieval cartographers would have marked “here be dragons.” A cottage industry of books with titles like “How to Stay Christian in College” has long warned pious 18-year-olds that college is a place where the “Prince of Deception” will set “spiritual snares.”
American evangelicals have a venerable tradition of painting the ivory tower as the bastion of unbelief and leftist ideology. As mainstream culture becomes more diverse and moves further away from traditional Christian teachings on matters like sexuality, we might expect evangelical students on elite secular campuses to feel more embattled than ever. Yet that’s not what I found when I spoke to a range of students and recent graduates.
Contrary to conservatives’ warnings about the oppressive secularism of the modern university, these students have taken advantage of their campuses’ multicultural marketplace of ideas. They have created a network of organizations and journals that engage non-Christian ideologies head-on. It’s true that many schools’ nondiscrimination policies have made life more difficult for Christian ministries that require student leaders to assent to a statement of faith. But some students have seized on this challenge as an opportunity.
BEFORE the semester began earlier this fall, I went to check out the classroom where I would be teaching an introductory American history course. Like most classrooms at my university, this one featured lots of helpful gadgets: a computer console linked to an audiovisual system, a projector screen that deploys at the touch of a button and USB ports galore. But one thing was missing. The piece of technology that I really needed is centuries old: a simple wooden lectern to hold my lecture notes. I managed to obtain one, but it took a week of emails and phone calls.
Perhaps my request was unusual. Isn’t the old-fashioned lecture on the way out? A 2014 study showed that test scores in science and math courses improved after professors replaced lecture time with “active learning” methods like group work — prompting Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist who has long campaigned against the lecture format, to declare that “it’s almost unethical to be lecturing.” Maryellen Weimer, a higher-education blogger, wrote: “If deep understanding is the objective, then the learner had best get out there and play the game.”
In many quarters, the active learning craze is only the latest development in a long tradition of complaining about boring professors, flavored with a dash of that other great American pastime, populist resentment of experts. But there is an ominous note in the most recent chorus of calls to replace the “sage on the stage” with student-led discussion. These criticisms intersect with a broader crisis of confidence in the humanities. They are an attempt to further assimilate history, philosophy, literature and their sister disciplines to the goals and methods of the hard sciences — fields whose stars are rising in the eyes of administrators, politicians and higher-education entrepreneurs.
In the humanities, there are sound reasons for sticking with the traditional model of the large lecture course combined with small weekly discussion sections. Lectures are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.
DONALD TRUMP’S high poll numbers among evangelicals have preoccupied the media for months. But the most interesting thing about his Christian fans is not their willingness to overlook the sins of a casino playboy. Evangelicals happily voted for a divorced man of uncertain faith once before: Ronald Reagan. What is most striking is that Mr. Trump’s campaign has exposed a rift within evangelicalism — a split between those calling for culture war as usual and those who say Christians must adjust to life as a minority in American Babylon.
Some evangelical leaders are content to follow old models. They promise, as Jerry Falwell and his colleagues in the Moral Majority once did, that Christians are destined to lead the nation in “a moral and conservative revolution.” David Barton, the activist and pseudo-historian who helped vandalize Texas textbook guidelines, promises that “America can reclaim greatness” if its citizens recover their Christian heritage. He now runs a super PAC backing Ted Cruz, but his pledge echoes Mr. Trump’s vow to “make America great again” — a slogan that resonates with evangelical voters who feel the country slipping out of their grip.
Yet some evangelical elites are rebelling against this vision. They have not shifted leftward, but they disown both the legacy of the Moral Majority and the populist demagogy of Mr. Trump in favor of a softer, more sophisticated approach to activism. They note the shrinking ranks of American Christianity but say that evangelicals shouldn’t kick and scream. They should embrace their new role as a moral minority instead.