It is hard for us on this side of the Atlantic to understand how and why so many people in the States reject stories in the media because Donald Trump calls them ‘fake news’. Alongside the claims of fake news there has been extraordinary growth of conspiracy theories. One story that was spread through the Internet before the election concerned Hillary Clinton. She was supposed to be involved in a paedophilia ring centred on a pizza joint. An enraged armed Republican turned up at the address provided and declared himself ready to root out this great evil. He found nothing there so in his frustration he fired his shotgun at the ceiling. It could be claimed that the American public has been subjected to far more in the way of conspiracy theories, confusing truth claims and misinformation than anything we have experienced in this country. Perhaps our exposure to the BBC, in spite of its faults, has given us a sense that objective news reporting is at least possible. I want to explore with my readers some ideas about the way that many people in America seem prepared to believe or disbelieve news stories without demanding factually based evidence.
The ideas that I am sharing in this post are not my original thoughts. They come out of one of the many commentaries that I am reading on the present surreal political situation in America. The line of argument that I am following would suggest that we must look to the religious roots of contemporary right-wing American politics to understand what is going on today. This religious dimension may help us to comprehend something of the bizarre credulity of so many rightist American electors. When we go back to the 1970s we find the beginnings of a strong alignment between the evangelical Christian right and the Republican Party. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. Most of these same voters are still strong supporters of Trump and tolerate his hazy grasp of truth and limited understating of the meaning of fact.
To understand further this alignment of Republican politics and conservative Christian teaching, we have to go back 90-100 years. This is the period when a series of pamphlets were published in the States supporting the ‘fundamentals’ of the faith. The writers and readers of these statements of conservative doctrine became known as fundamentalists. The issue that they faced was the way that their conservative doctrinal statements were diverging more and more from mainstream culture and thought. These pamphlets were thus an attempt to restate what is believed by orthodox Christians and to push back the tide of modernism which seemed such an enormous threat to their beliefs. Of the two greatest challenges to the conservative understanding of Christianity at that time, the first was the widespread acceptance of the theory of evolution. Alongside this was the acceptance by most denominational Christian leaders within liberal traditions of what is loosely called ‘higher criticism’ of the Bible. The pamphlets denounced both these ideas as totally unacceptable. Many Christians thus were preparing themselves for a long fight against these findings of science as well as the broad cultural acceptance of historical and social methods of biblical scholarship. The findings of scholarship would of course produce quite different ideas about the Bible from their own. When the fundamentalist teachings about the Bible were rejected by main-stream universities and seminaries, conservative groups were forced to found their own Christian colleges. Scholarship and scholars, whether in biblical studies or mainstream science, became perceived as a despised elite. It would not be too strong to suggest that fundamentalist thinking represented a strand of anti-intellectualism which has survived to this day. Mainstream scientific ideas, particularly in the realm of biblical studies and evolution seem to many Christians to be in the category of ‘fake news’.
Suspicion of experts and mistrust of the educated class is a strong social reality in many parts of the States today. Donald Trump’s message of mistrust towards the elite, the ‘Washington swamp’ and traditional sources of authority went down well in the campaign. Possibly as many as 30% of the population can be counted among this anti-intellectual group which would also in many instances support Christian fundamentalist ideas. Trump has tuned in well with this Christian cultural minority – one which has always been out of step with mainstream thinking. For these folk, members of the Christian Right, sources of truth have been found in sermons, Christian media and their own right wing news outlets. It is possible to study in a Christian school and then go to a Christian college without ever having any of your fundamentalist assumptions challenged. In summary, there has always been a powerful minority in American society who effectively reject education in the way that I would understand it. They care nothing for the rules of debate and the appeal to facts in making up their mind on any subject. Many Christians take great comfort in the passage from Paul when he talks about the wisdom of the world being overturned by the foolishness of the Cross. That is the cue for them to reject science, history and all other forms of analytical study.
Fake news and alternative facts are all part of a worldview which does not want to involve itself in the normal processes of responsible decision making. Looking at Donald Trump, one sees an individual who seems to float between an idea he has formed from listening to the television and some ill digested product of a flawed political instinct. The situation in America is today dangerous because it is hard to see how proper debate can ever take place. The problem for government is that many discussions are presumably taking place without agreement as to what are the facts on which final decisions should be based.
57% of American evangelicals today reject evolution and this, as far as we in the UK are concerned, is an irrational position to hold. How do you debate political and social questions with someone who rejects a major building block of modern scientific knowledge? How do you evaluate what is fake and what is real when people are building a worldview around something as irrational as young earth creationism? Irrationality in religion, I would claim, has helped to create the present extraordinary situation in American politics. Sadly and dangerously similar ideas based on no evidence reside in the head of the President himself. Donald Trump does not have a particularly strong record as a Christian, fundamentalist or otherwise. But he has gathered around him extremists such as Stephen Bannon. One of the most dangerous notions reported to be held by Stephen Bannon is that foreign policy should be conducted against the background of an impending apocalyptic clash of civilisations – Christian and Muslim.
Thinking people in the UK are almost universally puzzled and concerned about the craziness of current American politics. We would claim that the anti-intellectual bias of American conservative Protestantism is what has help to create the current situation. Let us hope that there are sufficient numbers of clear thinking individuals who can be promoted into positions of power in the government. Such are needed to ward off the dangerous workings of paranoid fundamentalist thinking that exists inside the brain of Donald Trump and those immediately around him.