Book review – “Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics

by Neil Rickert

I recently received a copy of “Broken Words” (by Jonathan Dudley).  I have learned a lot from reading this book.  It is a book about the disputes that underlie the cultural wars that have been poisoning American political discourse over the last 30 years or so.

The main topics discussed are the disputes over abortion, over sexuality (particularly gay, lesbian and similar issues), the disputes over global warming and the disputes over biological evolution.  However, this is not a book about political intrigue in Washington.  It is more about the shifting sands of the theology of conservative evangelical Christianity.  That theology could change so much is remarkable, given the claims of evangelical Christianity that their theology is derived from the timeless word of God.

The author

Jonathan Dudley briefly tells his story in the opening chapter.  He grew up in a family of conservative evangelical Christians, then attended Calvin College which is itself an evangelical college.  He the went on to study at a seminary, and later went to medical school.

Dudley found his knowledge broadened at Calvin college and at the seminary, giving him a deeper understanding of evangelical theology and its history.  It is from that broader perspective that he has written this book.  And, as a result, he gives us a clearer understanding of the issues that are engaged in the culture wars.

Scholarship

I have lived through the culture wars, which gives me some knowledge of the topics covered in the book, though not nearly as detailed as what Dudley presents.  While reading through the chapter on the abortion controversies, I noticed that Dudley provided a lot of detail that I had not known.  I wondered what was the basis for what he wrote.  There were no footnotes and no citations.  So I scrolled toward the back of the book, where I found a substantial list of notes on the text.  And those notes are chock full of references to source material.

I am not an historian, so I do not count myself able to judge the quality of scholarship.  However, in places where I am familiar with the literature, Dudley’s references do seem correct.  This book appears to be well researched with original sources clearly identified for the benefit of readers who wish to do further study.

I expect that it is impossible to write a book such as this without revealing some of the author’s opinions.  However, Dudley has done a rather good job of keeping expressions of opinion to a minimum.  His use of the word “abuse” in the subtitle of the book already reveals something about where he stands.  He stands with those who value truth.  Most of the text is free of polemics.  In the epilogue, he does open up more on his own opinion.  And that is where he makes it clear that one of his strongest concerns is with what he sees as the corruption of evangelical Christianity that has occurred during these disputes.

Abortion

The chapter on the issues around abortion was the one that I found most eye opening.  What surprised me, was the extent to which conservative evangelicals have changed their theology, in order to be able to build a pro-life movement.

It has long been Catholic theology, that human life began at conception and that a soul was present from the time of conception.  However, as Dudley documents, traditional evangelical thought was that the personhood did not arise until later, perhaps at birth or at quickening (when the pregnant mother begins to feel movements).  To me, that looks like an opportunistic change in theology, in order to support some kind of political alliance between conservative evangelical Christianity and the Republican party.  I am inclined to see that as a Faustian bargain, one that has damaged both evangelical Christianity and the Republican party.  We saw some of the effects of that damage to the Republicans in the recent election.

Dudley traces through some of the arguments and traditional views, with supporting Biblical quotes for those various views.  This is the part of the book that I found most informative.

Gay and Lesbian issues

Chapter 3 discusses issues of sexuality.  Conservative evangelicals make a huge issue out of this.  I have never understood why.  Evangelicals often point to the Ten Commandments, but those commandments do not say anything at all about homosexuality, though they do condemn adultery.  Yet, to listen to evangelicals, homosexuality would see to be a far more serious sin than adultery or telling lies (bearing false witness), both of which are included in the top ten list.

Dudley goes through the various arguments and theological positions on the issue.  And that only further underscores the mystery of why evangelicals see this as such a serious issue.

Global warming

Environmental issues are the ones where I find it hardest to follow the reasoning of conservative evangelicals.  As Dudley documents, there is no clear Biblical position.  There are verses that could be quoted to support either side.  But, to me that misses the point.

As I see it, the global warming issue is a clear moral issue.  In fact, I see it as one of the central moral issues of our time.  We surely have a moral obligation to our children and to our grandchildren, to leave them a world where they can live quality lives.  And even if the science is not 100% certain, the risk of serious impending danger is so great that we cannot afford to ignore it.  Yet ignore it is what conservative evangelicals do.  To me, it is difficult to understand how a group that claims to represent “The Moral Majority” could take such a morally questionable view.

Dudley does not say much about the moral issue.  As I have previously indicated, he is mainly concerned with providing a history of evangelical thought on the topic.  And that, he does.

Biological evolution

The issue of evolution is perhaps the one where I have the most experience.  I have been debating creationism over the Internet for a long time.  So I am quite familiar with creationist arguments.  To me, those arguments seem appallingly wrong.  And by that, I do not merely mean that they are scientifically wrong.  I see them as theologically wrong.  It seems to me that creationist arguments require reading the Bible in a way that it was never intended to be read.

Dudley goes through the arguments, both scientific and theological, that are used by creationists.  In particular, he documents the change of view, much of it dating from 1960s publication of a creationist book by Henry Morris and John Whitcomb.  He basis part of this on the work of Ronald Numbers who has previously documented the history of creationism.  He also updates that with newer creationist arguments that go under the name “Intelligent Design.”  And, as in other chapters, he goes through the theological arguments and the changing of evangelical thought to support their current creationist positions.

Recommendation

“Broken Words” is a book worth reading for anyone interested in the culture wars or in the shifting theology that has been used to support the positions of the social conservatives.

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