Critical Evangelicalism

A good deal of attention has been paid to two recent columns by William J. Stuntz, a professor at Harvard Law School, in which he suggests some unusual similarities between intellectuals and evangelicals, or the "academic left" and the "Christian right." (Even Mr. Kotsko has linked to these articles, albeit with some reluctance.)

I have been thinking lately of another surprising "site" (to borrow an annoying term from sociology) where these polarized spheres might intersect: the area of critical scholarship.

Very generally, critical theorists seek to uncover oppressive power arrangements through a number of techniques, including the close reading of texts to reveal how the language of those in power is used to marginalize certain groups in society. Much of what falls into this loose category can be traced in one way or another back to Marx, who was basically interested in challenging the dominant order of society. (I realize there is much more to marxism than this, but I'm generalizing here.)

Of course, most marxist scholarship has no love for Christianity, since it has been the dominant order of Western society for so long. But is this really the case any more? The recent election and all the talk about "moral values" aside, it would seem that the materialist or naturalist worldview (sorry for using that word, but it seems appropriate) has gained considerable ground since the Enlightenment, at least among the educated class. And while the educated class may not run society in the same way the church once did, it certainly exerts considerable influence--especially through the media.

Jurgen Habermas was one of these theorists who was especially concerned with how the "technical interest" in contemporary capitalistic societies could lead to oppression. A biotech company, for example, is motivated by profit to create certain technical products, like genetically modified tomatoes. This motive could lead to the oppression of other members of society--say, a small farmer in Brazil who can't sell his tomatoes to supermarket chains because they aren't plump and juicy like the fake ones. I'm sure you can imagine any number of these scenarios.

The critical theorist's view of this situation might be that science is an inherently social enterprise, and therefore its power is just socially constructed. We shouldn't necessarily privilege scientific expertise over "lay expertise" (another annoying sociological term, but useful nonetheless), because scientists often have unsavory motives of their own.

Anyway, here's one example of how critical theory might apply to the Christian right: intelligent design, or the idea that complex biological systems cannot be explained by Darwinian natural selection. Contrary to what you might read in the New York Times, this is not "creationism dressed up in a cheap tuxedo." I agree that it is not "science" in the normal sense of the word, because it doesn't seem to offer a competing theory--it just offers criticisms of Darwinian theory. But many scientists who are not identifiable Christians have challenged Darwinism, and it's not fair that challenges coming from anyone other than Stephen Jay Gould are dismissed as creationism.

A number of major media outlets (not all, to be fair) have treated ID condescendingly because some prominent scientists tell them to, and science reporters are influenced pretty heavily by the scientific establishment. These same scientists also control the peer review system, so they can effectively keep anything tainted with ID out of the best journals (and then say that ID scientists are not legitimate because they have no publications). It could easily be argued that these scientists are using their power structure to marginalize a particular group of people. And this happens all the time, to scientists of all stripes who are outside the accepted paradigm.

None of this is to say that I think ID is solid science. I have my reservations, but I'm not a biologist so I'll reserve judgment for now. I hope, however, that this illustrates the point. Christianity is certainly not the only ideological power structure in Western life, and the "technical interest" does not just oppress poor farmers.