The secular media usually ignores the thousands of pastors, missionaries and church volunteers who gather every summer for the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. This year is different. Everyone from PBS to the Huffington Post is buzzing with anticipation — and not because they are awaiting the tedious discussion of committee reports and budgets necessary to manage the country’s largest evangelical denomination. The reason for all the excitement is this: the 2012 convention, which opens Tuesday in New Orleans, will elect a black man as president for the first time in Southern Baptist history. This is no small thing for a denomination that separated in 1845 from its northern brethren in order to defend the right of Southern slaveholders to serve as missionaries.
Secular Americans’ worst fears have come true: there is now scientific evidence that evangelical churches brainwash believers. They don’t merely teach that Adam and Eve actually existed and that gay marriage is an abomination. They change the way their members’ brains work. But T. M. Luhrmann, a psychological anthropologist at Stanford, argues that this is not as insidious as it sounds. On the contrary, mental conditioning has a noble lineage in the history of religion, and even (or especially) in this modern age, it can help humans flourish. “When God Talks Back” explains how rational people living in the 21st century can believe that God speaks to them — and why the rest of us should take them seriously.
The central question of the culture wars that have raged since the 1970s is not whether abortion is murder or gay marriage a civil right, but whether the Enlightenment was a good thing. Many evangelical Americans think the answer is no, according to “The Anointed,” a field guide to the evangelical experts you haven’t heard of — but should.
Many evangelicals, Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson say, get their information on dinosaurs and fossils from Ken Ham, an Australian with a bachelor’s degree from the Queensland Institute of Technology. Ham believes human reason should confirm the Bible rather than reinterpret it, and teaches that God created the world a few thousand years ago. His ministry, “Answers in Genesis,” includes a radio program broadcast over more than 1,000 stations, a magazine with a circulation of 70,000 and the multimillion-dollar Creation Museum in Kentucky. While other evangelicals — for example Francis Collins, the born-again Christian who runs the National Institutes of Health — offer more nuanced perspectives on science’s relationship to the Bible, Ham commands a far larger audience.
When it comes to history, many evangelicals reject the world-class historians in their own fold — such scholars as Mark Noll and George Marsden, who advocate a balanced account of Christianity’s role in early America — in favor of the amateur David Barton’s evangelical makeover of Washington and Madison.
For the past three and a half years, Republicans have struggled to explain a great conundrum. If they are the party of authentic America with a mystical connection to the will of the people, then how, exactly, did Barack Obama get elected president?
Some Republicans have come up with an answer that allows them to avoid facing the unpleasant reality of their own party’s failures: Obama must be a great deceiver. He won the White House by subterfuge.
Claims that Obama concealed nonnative birth or faith in Islam failed to gain mainstream traction, but conservatives like Sean Hannity were more successful in labeling Obama as covertly “anti-American” based on his association with the incendiary pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. By this logic, Obama was a paragon of Christian piety. He “savored” every word on Sunday mornings and would surely govern by these traitorous principles: his beliefs were dangerous because, well, he really believed them.
Last month, when prominent evangelical pastors and political activists emerged from their Texas powwow to announce that they had anointed Rick Santorum as their standard-bearer, the blogosphere pronounced the endorsement too little, too late, and kept all sights firmly on Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich — until this week.
Santorum’s string of victories on Tuesday took the mainstream media by surprise: he is so extreme that they have had a hard time taking him seriously. His theocratic statements seem self-caricaturing. He has asserted that the right to privacy “does not exist,” equated homosexual sex with “man on dog” relations, and compared the campaign against same-sex marriage to the war on terror.
Yet Santorum’s surge in momentum as the primary campaign moved to the evangelical heartland was a long time coming, and not because his social positions are an exercise in garden-variety bigotry. Evangelicals’ embrace of Santorum illuminates a crucial shift in American political culture: their honeymoon with the Tea Party seems to be over. They have turned away from the cries for small government and liberty — about which they have always been ambivalent — to rekindle their love affair with theocratic Catholicism. Santorum’s statements reflect not knee-jerk prejudice, but something much more powerful: philosophically reasoned prejudice, based on centuries of Roman Catholic natural law.
Do you want to optimize your life? Start your morning with a kale-garlic-ginger smoothie, or better yet, meditate and fast until noon. Next, hit the gym for your mixed martial arts workout and take a cold shower to activate your immune system. Then plan this summer’s vision quest: Maybe you’ll head to the jungles of Peru, where a shaman will brew you some mescaline-laced psychedelic tea — don’t worry; the intense nausea means you’re grasping new dimensions of reality.
Next, read a book on evolutionary psychology to remind yourself that you’re just a social primate with genetically programmed urges. Then read some Stoic philosophy to control those urges. Take ownership of your day and soon enough you’ll be a millionaire, running your own lifestyle coaching empire.
On the surface, this is the message of a new generation of wellness gurus, a network of podcasters centered in the Austin, Tex., area and Southern California. Yes, they are easy to mock, and their gospel of health, wealth and contentment comes with the usual moral hazards: Too much faith in self-improvement glosses over structural injustices that place real limits on what’s possible for many people.
A recession might be just around the corner, but for experts in the field of “authoritarian studies,” these are boom times. Jonathan Weiler, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has spent much of his career studying the appeal of authoritarian figures: politicians who preach xenophobia, beat up on the press and place themselves above the law while extolling “law and order” for everyone else. He is one of many scholars who believe that deep-seated psychological traits help explain voters’ attraction to such leaders. “These days,” he told me, “audiences are more receptive to the idea” than they used to be.