Suspicious Minds: Tougher Questions for Bill Keller & the New York Times
By Nancy Pearcey
Friday, Sept. 9, 2011
Republican presidential candidates have been put on notice: Your theological convictions are fair game in the upcoming election. Bill Keller, executive editor at the New York Times, fired the first shot in a fiercely debated column and blog in which he proposed “Tougher Questions for the Candidates.”
Perry, Romney, Bachmann, Santorum and Co. can answer for themselves, of course. But because Keller mischaracterized my book Total Truth, a correction is in order.
In a question to Michele Bachmann, Keller wrote, “You have recommended as meaningful in your life works by leading advocates of Dominionism, including Nancy Pearcey, whose book Total Truth warns Christians to be suspicious of ideas that come from non-Christians. Do you agree with that warning?”
Because I have already refuted the “Dominionist” charge here, I will let my earlier remarks stand. Except to add that responsible journalists ought to be more cautious about using terms invented by hostile critics of a group—any group.
I am amused, however, by the accusation of being “suspicious” of ideas. Keller seems to think that means a call to put on mental blinkers.
It means precisely the opposite.
Clearly Keller did not read Total Truth. He admits as much, stating that his questions are based on pieces in The New Yorker and The Daily Beast (which reveals abysmally low journalistic standards).
Anyone who actually reads Total Truth should recognize that it issues a robust call to critical thinking. The New Yorker quoted from the book but stopped one sentence short of this: “A Christian approach to any field needs to be both critical and constructive.” (p. 46)
Critical distance is essential, the book argues, because knowledge claims are often shaped by an underlying ideology or worldview.
In politics, of course, spin is ubiquitous. Public statements are often crafted not so much for their surface meaning or truth content as for their usefulness in advancing a political agenda. You won’t survive long in politics unless you learn how to read between the lines.
By the same token, it is hard to survive as a Christian, or a theist of any stripe, in a society whose public institutions are pervasively secular. Because secular ideas are often presented as neutral and objective, their ideological roots can be difficult to unmask. Total Truth offers tools for reading between the lines.
Ironically, in choosing the term suspicious, Keller stumbled onto a word that functions as a term of art among postmodern theorists—as in the catchphrase “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” It means that we should not naively take any claim at face value, but should dig down to the underlying ideological commitments, whether in politics, theology, science, or anywhere else.
The arch-liberal Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, invited me on his radio program “Culture Shocks” to talk about my latest book Saving Leonardo. When I said the book is intended to help readers develop critical thinking, Lynn broke in.
“Critical thinking?” he burst out. “Most people on the conservative Christian Right would say that’s one of the biggest dangers we have—this 'nonsensical' idea of critical thinking.”
Yet in an increasingly secularized society, those who find themselves compelled to think through their worldview commitments from the ground up are not secularists but theists. They must learn to weigh theistic perspectives historically, logically, and philosophically against the claims of prevailing secular worldviews.
And many are doing just that. A fascinating study by Fuller Theological Seminary identified the major factors in whether teens from Christian homes lose or retain their convictions when they go off to college. Surprisingly, the most significant factor is not whether the students join a church or campus Bible study. It is whether they work through their doubts and questions.
In other words, the students who survive are those who develop independent thinking. The researchers concluded, “Students who had the opportunity to struggle with tough questions and pain during high school seemed to have a healthier transition into college life.”
It may well be that these young Christian students wrestle with the tough questions of life even more deeply than establishment elites like Keller.
Keller writes, “It is worth knowing whether a candidate has a mind open to intelligence that does not fit neatly into his preconceptions.” But it is equally worth knowing whether Keller’s mind is open to intelligence that does not fit neatly into his preconceptions.
Significantly, Keller’s questions are addressed only to those on the religious right, not the religious left. And he ignores secular ideologies entirely. Yet the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century demonstrate that secular ideologies can produce consequences that are oppressive and inhumane on a massive scale.
We might conclude that Keller is less interested in launching an objective discussion on the relation between politics and religion than in advancing a leftist, secular political agenda that has its own choirs of true believers.
A little suspicion or critical distance is surely in order when reading the pages of the New York Times.
“Gimme that old-time secular religion” may be good enough for hard-shell secularists. But it is not enough to satisfy free-thinking Americans.
Nancy Pearcey is the author of the bestselling Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity and editor at large of The Pearcey Report. She is currently a faculty member at Rivendell Sanctuary in Bloomington, MN. Her latest book is Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, & Meaning. To inquire about media interviews, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Rivdendell Sanctuary at 952-996-1451.