The Peculiar Case of Fake Christian Academia
How has something so clearly fraudulent gotten so popular?
From time to time, some group of American Evangelicals decides they need to make a knockoff “Christian” version of something that’s become too “worldly,” and we end up with either bizarre agitprop films like “God’s Not Dead” or “A Matter of Faith”, or legitimately dangerous trends like the “biblical counseling” movement.
Recently I’ve been fascinated by the fake Christian version of academia — a strange world that uses the language and appearance of “academic work” to disguise a complete lack of actual content. This primarily conservative phenomenon takes forms such as:
The creationist / “intelligent design” movement, as exemplified by the Discovery Institute.
The anti-“critical race theory”/ anti-“woke” movement, as exemplified by Neil Shenvi, Voddie Baucham, and Owen Strachan.
The fundamentalist wing of theology and biblical studies, as exemplified by Albert Mohler, Denny Burk, John MacArthur, and others.
Any of the myriad attempts to disguise climate denialism, panic over trans rights, anti-vax propaganda, etc. as “serious scientific discussion”
I want to be clear that this isn’t the same as “Christians in academia” or “Christians at Christian academic institutions”— as a Christian in academia, I certainly hope I’m producing real knowledge, and plenty of Christian academic institutions are doing real and important work! I have deep respect for the work of many Christian academics, including a whole bunch of personal friends as well as public figures like Francis Collins, Paul Niehaus, Kristin Du Mez, Willie James Jennings, and so many others.
This also isn’t the same as “academics I disagree with” — I disagree with (for example) development economist Lant Pritchett on a number of issues, but he does real research. As a result, I learn a lot from him even when I disagree (and, at times, I’ve started out disagreeing and his evidence has converted me closer to his position, which is exactly how academia is supposed to work!)
It isn’t even the same as “academics who produce low-quality work.” What separates “fake Christian academia” from “low-quality academia” is when the entire enterprise is essentially fraudulent, using fancy jargon and fake arguments designed to sound convincing for no purpose other than to convince ordinary people of things that aren’t true.
Why do I care about this? As a Christian, I believe that truth is fundamental to my faith (Jesus calls Satan “the father of lies”), and so when people spread deceit in God’s name, targeting members of my religion, it really bothers me. I’ve been thinking recently about two major questions:
Why has Fake Christian Academia been so successful, and is there anything we can do to stop these trends?
How do Fake Christian Academics disguise what they’re doing as “research”? Can we as a church teach non-academics to spot these tricks?
This post will focus on the first. Hopefully there will be a followup at some point on the second!
Why has Fake Christian Academia been so successful?
The world is full of people saying nonsensical things. As a math grad student whose last name is near the beginning of the alphabet, I occasionally receive emails from people who’ve found me online and want me to read their solutions to math questions that have been unsolved for hundreds of years.
I occasionally skim the things they send me, and by far the strangest thing about these “proofs” is that they rarely contain enough actual content to identify mistakes. Rather, it very quickly becomes clear that their authors have very little idea of what mathematics even is. They’re full of impossible-to-interpret statements along the lines of
The Collatz Conjecture unlocks the secret of quantum consciousness, as can be seen in the Holy Grail of Number Theory: 4 times Seven = 28, which connects the number of gospels (4) and the holy number of God (Seven) to create 28, which mathematicians agree is a Perfect number. Since 28 is halfway between two Fibonacci Numbers (21 and 34), we cannot solve Collatz without undoing the Fibonacci spiral, proving the theorem1.
Obviously this isn’t correct. But in the (possibly apocryphal) words of Wolfgang Pauli, “it isn’t even wrong!” It’s a list of mathy-sounding words arranged to look like sentences, and not much else.
When mathematical cranks write a bunch of pseudoscientific nonsense, their work disappears into junk folders and weird corners of the internet where each sentence is written in like five different fonts. But when “biology” cranks say stuff like “the second law of thermodynamics disproves evolution” or “sociology” cranks say stuff like “critical race theory is Marxist,” they get a platform and regular church speaking engagements.
The fact that these people exist does not surprise me. The real question to consider is why their writings exist outside of a few professor’s spam folders — why do they have such a following and, in at least some cases, significant funding?
I think the four ideas to have in mind are persecution narratives, fear, inexpertise, and power.
Persecution Narratives: The bible, many of whose books are written either to, by, or about marginalized people, talks a lot about persecution. Jesus talks regularly about how his followers should expect to face persecution if they’re genuinely following him.
This has created a bit of a complex in White American Evangelicalism, where the fact that we experience literally no persecution has led people to look for persecution in places it doesn’t exist. I’ve had people tell me, completely seriously, that the very act of legalizing gay marriage was “clear persecution of Christians” and even somehow “a violation of religious liberty.”
The best Fake Christian Academics lean into this, pretending that the people who criticize them are part of a vast anti-Christian conspiracy. (This technique is also regularly used by church abusers — see e.g. an anonymous Grace Community Church elder’s evil response to documented evidence (including a video) that John MacArthur excommunicated a woman because she left her husband after he repeatedly physically and sexually assaulted them.)
If we’re going to prevent this sort of false persecution narrative from taking root in our churches (and trust me, it has!), we need to be a lot more up front about confronting it, and that requires honest theology that really engages modern American power dynamics. I’m not saying we have to get in a full argument with anyone in our churches who feels like Christianity is under attack, but at least we could take a few sentences to register a serious disagreement instead of sitting in an uncomfortable (and complicit?) silence. (See e.g. Andre Henry’s series of articles on the book of Exodus for a thought-provoking reading of biblical persecution narratives today.)
Fear: Learning about evolution genuinely did change my view of the bible, and the resulting struggling with how to read Genesis led me to a much deeper faith. But what if instead it had led me, as it has to some of my friends, to believe the entire bible was nonsense and throw out my faith completely?
This is, as far as I can tell, one of the driving forces behind the creationist movement: the fear that evolution will lead people to lose their faith in God. We can argue about whether this is a reasonable fear, but I think recognizing it is important to understanding the creationist phenomenon. (I personally think that the creationist movement has done much more damage to the gospel, having watched plenty of friends in college go through the “well if my church lied to me about this, what else are they lying about?” process.)
You can also see this fear in the anti-CRT movement: if people start deconstructing the ways white supremacy has worked its way into white Evangelicalism, what if they deconstruct too far? What if they start to question white Evangelicalism’s inherent sexism or homophobia, and they stop holding views that I want them to hold? In Neil Shenvi’s words:
But once a white pastor endorses the view that he — as a white male — is blinded by his own white supremacy, unable to properly understand relevant biblical principles due to his social location, and in need of the “lived experience” of oppressed minorities to guide him, how long before someone in his congregation applies the same reasoning to his beliefs about gender? Or sexuality?
Many of the people in my life who’ve gotten sucked into Fake Christian Academia have expressed this kind of fear, and I think those of us in the church who want to promote truth need to find ways to assuage these fears.
Inexpertise: before leaving my old church, I had a handful of conversations with various leaders about some of the implicit and explicit racism I’d seen in the leadership and the congregation. During one of these conversations, our head pastor told me that I needed to read “both sides” of the “debate,” indicating that he felt a true Christian response was “somewhere in between” the antiracism side and the antiwoke side.
I can understand how you could come to this opinion if you knew nothing about sociology or statistics. There are two sides of a “debate” using fancy-sounding language, and there seem to be members of your church on both sides — if you aren’t capable of seeing through fake academic language, how are you supposed to know who’s telling the truth and who isn’t?
I don’t have a good answer to this question. What makes Fake Christian Academia so insidious is that most people don’t have the time or the relevant knowledge to distinguish actual research from confident-sounding nonsense and so get sucked into these sorts of disinformation traps. Some of them die as a result. Maybe the answer is just that actual academics have no choice but to be political to prevent this sort of thing from gaining too much of a foothold.
Power: it’s hard to talk about the White Evangelical church without talking about power, because (as Kristin Du Mez has expertly documented) many of the church’s current practices can be traced to small groups of men in power making decisions to preserve that power.
Say you’re an Evangelical leader, and you’re confronted by two people speaking academic language. The first says you have greatly sinned and that your words have harmed many people and you need to repent. The second says the first person is just being “divisive” or “culturally marxist” and you can safely ignore them.
Who are you going to be drawn to listen to? When you get to pick someone to speak to your church, who are you going to prefer? Thousands of small decisions like this, made by powerful people heavily invested in the status quo, start to add up, until the voices of 10 conspiracy theorists who tell powerful people what they want to hear outweigh the voices of thousands of actual experts and millions of victims of broken systems screaming that something needs to be done.
And when these decisions are made, not in a vacuum, but in the contemporary American context, where wealthy GOP-adjacent oligarchs have poured literally billions of dollars into media and disinformation schemes to maintain their grip on power?
Then the existence of Fake Christian Academia isn’t surprising at all.
This is the leg that scares me the most about Fake Christian Academia’s success, because it seems like there’s so little that can be done about it. Few of us will ever be able to rival e.g. Tucker Carlson’s platform or raw power.
But I think there are small ways to break the strangleholds of deceit-based power in the American church. Stop partnering with the Southern Baptist Convention or 9Marks or The Gospel Coalition or any of the other Evangelical organizations that regularly mistake “American conservative culture” for the gospel. Stop attending churches whose pastors care more about “Truth” than the truth. Stop letting the same small group of conservative white authors define your faith (happy to recommend some more diverse Christian authors if you reach out!)
It’s a challenge, and I’m not naive enough to expect the Fake Christian Academic world will disappear anytime soon. But I think both the witness and moral character of our churches both depend, in the long run, on our ability to distinguish this nonsense from the real thing.
I wrote this quote myself, but I promise it’s indistinguishable from a number of emails I’ve received over the years.