by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. And his sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – has just been published by Wipf and Stock (Cascades).
Science has a dodgier relationship with rhetoric in the alternative world of evangelicalism than ever before. Suspicion, not trust, dominates the evangelical approach to mainstream science.
Evangelicals are more likely to say of a scientific reality, “It’s just a theory.” In fact, the suspect rhetorical claim, “It’s just a theory, and we are going to win,” stands as the essential argument of evangelicals, an argument supplanted by distortions and misinformation.
There’s no surprise here, because the evangelical response to mainstream science has been rocky for the past 150 years. Evolution first garnered the sustained opposition of evangelicals in the late 19th century. Not much has changed since the evangelicals made the decision to reject evolution.
Evangelicals have a penchant for choosing the wrong enemies and then going to war with inadequate weapons. In this case, evangelicals, having failed to produce any actual scientific theory of substance to rival evolution, turned to spurious rhetorical attacks in what can only be seen as an anti-science snit fit. Evangelicals are simply screaming, “I don’t like mainstream science. I don’t like it at all.”
Ever since Stephen Toulmin and Thomas Kuhn squared off in the intellectual bout as to whether science is “evolutionary” or “revolutionary,” the rhetorical nature of science has blossomed into a full-fledged discipline within Communication Departments. While the developments of rhetoric and science in the academy have expanded dramatically, evangelicals continue to make the same tired old rhetorical arguments against mainstream science.
But while their arguments are tired (and tiresome), evangelicals are doggedly determined to undo mainstream science. Evangelical preachers constitute a resistance movement operating within churches and media to undo the nation’s confidence in mainstream science. Preachers resist with sermons from pulpits across the country, with protests at local school boards and state boards of education about science textbooks, with petition drives, and with media pronouncements.
And their persistence has paid off. The evangelical movement against mainstream science has led to many Americans rejecting evolution, protesting vaccinations and masks, and denying climate change. On the surface rejecting evolution doesn’t seem to hold the same dangers as rejecting the science of dealing with infectious disease or climate change, but all three of these stances throb with unprecedented dangers to human life. This movement against mainstream science dramatically increases precarity for the human species.
Decades of climate and geological research have coalesced in consensus about the precarity that threatens not just publics, but humanity as a species: the Anthropocene. “In the Anthropocene,” note G. Mitchell Reyes and Kundai Chirindo, “the precarity that had been the nearly exclusive preserve of people occupying the bottommost rungs of human society is becoming generalized to most if not all humans—though not in equal measure.” The challenge of the Anthropocene is that it signifies precarity at the biological or species scale. It indexes the fact that we (and our various publics) “have now ourselves become a geological agent disturbing [the] parametric conditions needed for our own existence.” In other words, the Anthropocene renders all publics precarious.
The sense of precarity—feeling at once exposed to, vulnerable to, dependent upon, and impinged upon by others–is itself a function of an interdependence Judith Butler recognizes as a condition of living. “One’s life,” Butler observes, “is always in some sense, in the hands of the other.” This cultural or socialized precarity, in other words, is an inescapable fact of being human and of the publics humans constitute.
The scariness for me is the sense that our lives are too much in the hands of the propagators of an anti-mainstream science propaganda that is promoted by non-scientists at the helm of multi-million-dollar media enterprises that spout out anti-mainstream science messages on a daily basis.
The most obvious example here is Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis.
The evangelical opposition to the science of climate change has produced a battalion of foot soldiers shouting, “How dare you interfere with my ‘right’ to drill for oil in environmentally sensitive areas, to burn more coal, to oppose the development of alternative energy soures, to my business’s ‘right’ to pollute?” Evangelicals end up siding with the “bottom line” of out-of-date energy businesses (coal and fracking companies).
Evangelicals are promoting reckless fantasies. As the earth chokes to death on our own self-induced toxic fumes, evangelicals are in big church buildings, waving their arms, and singing “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Not for evangelicals is a sense of our interdependence with all peoples and all species.
Evangelicals can’t stand to be told that they don’t have the right to dangerous opinions that threaten the existence of the planet, or that they don’t have as much epistemic right as anyone else on any topic. They seem intent on insisting that they have the right to an opinion on climate change as if it were a discussion about whether to wear a red sweater or a black sweater to church. “Who are you to tell me that I have to agree with some scientists or even the entire phalanx of the scientific community?”
The rhetorical argument of the evangelicals reduces to two basic commitments: a love of big business and profits (Jesus called it the maniacal pursuit of Mammon); and, the freedom to have life-threatening opinions (to hell with the facts). The people who swear that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” now end up believing what they want to believe.
Evangelicals have in the past had a basic commitment to the requirement that humanity should rein in some of our appetites (sex, drink, drugs come to mind). But now they are dogmatically insisting on the right of an unabated gorging of all our appetites in relation to the environment.
Perhaps it is time for evangelicals to have a new reading of their favorite verse of Scripture that feeds their massive homophobia: “Even since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature have been understood …. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to God but they became futile in their thinking.” God has given them up to exchanging the truth of science for a lie and a fake freedom. God has given them up to exchanging the natural inclination of being good stewards for the unfettered passions of destroying the earth for the sake of human greed. They have become insolent, haughty, foolish, heartless, ruthless people. Knowing the truth, they deny it, and they applaud others who join them in climate denial.
Evangelical arguments end up as the junk food of rhetoric. Denying truth. Rejecting reality. Endangering humanity as a species. Refusing to be good stewards of the planet. This is the evangelical message, and this is a rhetorical perversion.
But the rhetorical arguments/tropes/assertions of evangelicals against the house of mainstream science is but the sound and the fury of a hurricane-force storm. “The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock (truth)” (Matthew 7:25).
Their nonsense will be proven wrong. But in the end we, all of us on this planet, will pay.