Why the Right is anti-intellectual

By Jonathon Van Maren

“The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words,” GK Chesterton once wrote, “have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared. There are a large number of cultivated persons who doubt these maxims of daily life, just as there are a large number of persons who believe they are the Prince of Wales; and I am told that both classes of people are entertaining conversationalists.”

This observation cuts right to the heart of one of the most incessantly repeated accusations that we hear leveled against conservatives today—that not only are we “unintellectual,” we are “anti-intellectual.” Salon, The Huffington Post, MSNBC, and virtually every other left-leaning news outlet delight in insinuating that conservatives, especially Christians, are stupid, while they themselves are the intellectual descendants of the Enlightenment (and monkeys, of course), and that we must all be condescendingly cajoled out of the Dark Ages into the rainbow-spangled present. Late-night show hosts make these jokes so often that even the late atheist Christopher Hitchens got tired of HBO’s Bill Maher calling George Bush, a graduate of both Harvard and Yale, stupid, noting to the jeers of the offended audience that these were now “the jokes stupid people laugh at.”

Unfortunately, there has been no shortage of prominent conservative spokespeople that seemed to confirm left-wing mockery. Sarah Palin’s impressive 2008 speech at the Republican National Convention, for example, gave way almost immediately to a never-ending train of cringe-inducing interviews highlighting her ignorance on virtually everything—and yet, many intelligent conservative commentators doggedly stuck by her even as she turned from political candidate to reality show huckster. Perhaps it was loyalty, or perhaps it was because she shared a few of their views, but even long after it became obvious that that she had nothing substantive to say—and even wrote a number of books saying it—Palin’s star burned bright for far too long.

The example of Sarah Palin may be illustrative in some way, in that because social conservatives are a minority in 21st century America, they have a damaging tendency to latch on to anyone with a modicum of star power that might hold a few of their views. When beauty contestant Carrie Prejean announced at the Miss USA pageant in 2009 that she was opposed to same-sex marriage, she was instantly embraced as a social conservative celebrity, even making it onto a calendar of conservative women alongside intellectual titans such as Phyllis Schlafly. It boggles the mind that social conservatives would, for even a moment, anoint as their spokesperson a woman whose achievements in life thus far had been prancing around on a stage wearing virtually nothing for a panel of judges, a part of the repulsive soft-core porn beauty pageant industry. When it turned out, as we all knew it would, that she was not particularly intelligent, and that sharing one point of view did not qualify her to man the microphone for social conservatives, she was quietly—although slowly and painfully—shown the door.

It is because social conservatives, and indeed Christian views are so counter-cultural that right-wing media sources and conservative organizations have developed this habit of seizing on off-hand quotes by celebrities or other cultural figures and loudly pointing to them as evidence that our views are, perhaps, not as stupid and uncool as the rest of the entertainment industry, the media, and much of academia likes to claim we are. Unfortunately, this rarely, if ever, works in our favor.

Market forces, too, have a lot to do with the dumbing-down of our political discourse. Even many intelligent social conservatives, in an era where clickbait is king and the perpetual outrage machine is roaring, willingly conform themselves to the cultural caricatures that they are so often presented as. Ann Coulter, for example, is a whip-smart and scathing commentator whose early books, such as her book condemning Bill Clinton, almost read like comprehensive legal cases. In person, as I discovered upon meeting her, she is quite a delightful person. But over the past several years and half-dozen books, she has turned into a somewhat screechy provocateur, saying incendiary things that are at times unpalatable even to her original fans who loved her precisely because she was so inflammatory. I sometimes wonder if there is no modern conservative equivalent of William F. Buckley’s cerebral TV show Firing Line because there is no modern conservative equivalent of William F. Buckley, or because there are simply not enough viewers left to make such a show successful. This, of course, is not a condemnation of conservative media specifically as much as it is media overall. Market forces indicate consumer attitudes rather than ideological ones.

But I make those points in order to make this one: Conservatives, especially social conservatives, have very good reason to be suspicious of academics. Being healthily suspicious of many intellectuals has unfortunately evolved in many ways into suspicion of intellectualism in general is because for years, many universities and other intellectual establishments have been busily attempting to destroy the influence of Christianity, discredit the traditions that have served Western civilization for centuries, mock those who insist on “clinging to their guns and religion,” and serve as institutions that function as places for secular humanists to cultivate their own ideology rather than institutions of higher learning. For evidence of that, William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale and Nathan Harden’s more recent Sex and God at Yale are definitive—not to mention Allan Bloom’s brilliant eulogy for classical education, The Closing of the American Mind.

For most social conservatives and Christians, universities are often the place where their sons and daughters go to find their worldview and their beliefs relentlessly mocked—and probably censored. (Those who deviate from the secular orthodoxy on issues like abortion will find that relativism applies as much to freedom of speech as it does to how much we value human life.) Many of those sons and daughters, as the result, abandon their values under pressure. And this, as I have heard many academics state quite openly, is their entire purpose in teaching in the first place. As Buckley observed, “One must recently have lived on or close to a college campus to have a vivid intimation of what has happened. It is there that we see how a number of energetic social innovators, plugging their grand designs, succeeded over the years in capturing the liberal intellectual imagination. And since ideas rule the world, the ideologues, having won over the intellectual class, simply walked in and started to run things. Run just about everything. There never was an age of conformity quite like this one, or a camaraderie quite like the Liberals’.”

Or, more succinctly: “I would sooner be governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than by the two thousand members of the faculty of Harvard.”

It is this trend that, over the past few decades, has slowly influenced the conservative mainstream from being anti-specific-intellectuals to in many cases scornful of intellectualism itself, as a snobby, post-modern habit of secular-leftist types. It’s why there is so much folksy, down-home, Duck Dynasty posturing by conservative politicians. It’s why “elitist” is now a dirty word for most conservatives—“elitism” used to be shared by philosophers like Harold Marcuse and Russel Kirk alike. Now, the left has claimed that territory, and conservative intellectuals are often beleaguered and under fire. As result, anti-intellectualism has been embraced, to the detriment of our movement.

It often puts those of us who work as activists in a difficult position. I can recall, for example, staying with a wonderful family in the Southern United States over five years ago. The house was tiny, and full of happy children. Some of them slept on the floor to give the pro-life activists who had come to their city a bed to sleep in, because they were so grateful and thrilled that people were going to fight abortion on their turf—and no sacrifice was too great to make for the pro-life cause. At the same time, I cringed as I heard some of the most brutal historical inaccuracies quoted as fact—Abraham Lincoln owned slaves? Really? I felt so torn. Many of the university students I would debate would have scorned these good, kind, and dedicated people. But in almost every way that counted, they were the wise ones.

Who, after all, is more foolish? The hard-working, everyday men and women who knows that boys are boys and girls are girls, that men and women complement each other in a beautiful and almost mysterious way, that babies should be loved and not butchered and discarded behind abortion clinics, and that God created a world in which there is justice, hope and beauty?

Or is it the academic elites and their millions of witless sheep who believe that your genitals are irrelevant to your gender, that men and women are the same, that a child yawning and smiling and sucking his thumb in the womb is a non-entity that can be dismembered and tossed out, and that our fine-tuned world is a cosmic accident in which justice, hope and beauty can only be pleasant fictions we have conjured up to distract us from the inevitable abyss of oblivion?

This brings me back to Chesterton’s observation: In many ways, it seems as if the world is going quite mad all around us—and each new bizarre idea, no matter how reprehensible, or illogical, or perverse, has been championed by swarms of academics falling all over themselves to embrace it, lest they be found in violation of the new Orthodoxy of Your Own Personal Feelings. In this world, being pro-life means you are a misogynist, but pillaging the aborted corpses of pre-born children for body parts to sell to research labs is not only ethical, but compassionate. In this world, the suggestion that mothers and fathers may have something unique to offer their children is not common sense, but a homophobic heresy. In this world, hitting and mauling women is okay—as long as it’s in the bedroom, and as long it turns you on.

In the words of the Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Romans: “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.”

The secular Left is going to scorn social conservatives, and they are going to demonize us—but we don’t have to provide them the ammunition to do so. One of the things I try to highlight when I’m training our interns at the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform or speaking to various groups is that the facts are on our side—and so are the best arguments. It is contingent on us, as an increasingly despised minority, to ensure that we can respond compassionately and intelligently to the ludicrous accusations leveled at us by the culture we live in. The secular Left lives in a world in which reality is the enemy, predicated on the belief in complete and total personal autonomy and the “right” of each and every person to live in a world of his or her own construction or fantasy. Only those who point out that the emperor has no clothes are told that their worldview is an invalid one, but we must be prepared to do just that.

I see Christians and pro-lifers time and time again falter and retreat in the face of the ridicule of the secular Left, and many people swayed by feeble arguments painted over with a patchy veneer of tolerance and intellectual respectability. We need to study, to read, to educate ourselves, and be prepared to defend the truth—because we’re going to have to do so in order to prevent more people from buckling under the pressure of the relentless mockery and condescension coming from those who believe our views are not only false, but repulsive and stupid. Our children, especially, will need this education in order to grow up in a culture hostile to Christianity. Those who still understand the most basic truths about human dignity, human life, and human well-being must be prepared to defend those beliefs.

Anti-intellectualism, while understandable, is not the answer—and will only exacerbate the problem. As Augustine of Hippo once said, “The truth is like a lion; you don’t need to defend it. Set it loose and it will defend itself.”

5 thoughts on “Why the Right is anti-intellectual

  1. Helen Dietrich says:

    The truth of the humanity of pre-born babies is obvious, especially with recent scientific developments like 3D sonograms. The truth that millions of little humans have been murdered is heart-breaking. If the truth is on our side concerning abortion….and biologically and medically – it is……then please be careful when commenting about such things as evolutionary biology. Anyone who has a rudimentary knowledge of evolution is aware that nobody in the field says that humans evolved from monkeys. Organisms evolved from ancient common ancestors, not current organisms. This comment in the article just promotes the unintellectual stereotype. Please do not lump all Christians, or Conservatives into a category that denies geology, anthropology and biological science. We can be highly intellectual, and Conservative, and pro-science, and pro-Life all at the same time. Thank you for an otherwise excellent article !!!

  2. GreyWolf says:

    Interesting read, of course from a left point of view. anti-intellectual are we ? riiiiiigggghhhhttttt! Let me begin by stating that I will bet you , that I have far more education , than you ever will have, I have as of now 17 certifications , and 4 degrees. I am as intellectual as they come, I thirive on knowledge. So, let me share , the left , is closed minded, lies, cheats, and ,yes, even steals it’s way to the top. Failing that , it resorts to gravedancing, innuendo, and re-iteration of the same old same old over and over again , like a broken record. Promises, promises and more promises , but never delivers. anti- intellectual? To you , Sir, I say “thou art a fool”

  3. Benedict Williams says:

    A beautifully observed piece – thoughtful and extremely eloquent. God bless you in the important work you are doing to promote dignity, decency, & true Christian values.

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