The author of Total Truth and Saving Leonardo shares her thoughts on the New Yorker’s controversial and disparaging profile of Michele Bachmann, a profile that (some say) tried to marginalize Pearcey and her one-time teacher/mentor Francis Schaeffer.
This interview was conducted Aug. 16, in the week following the appearance of the New Yorker’s article “The Transformation of Michele Bachmann” (titled “Leap of Faith” on the New Yorker’s website). The article stirred much controversy as Nancy Pearcey was identified as an influence on Michele Bachmann (Pearcey’s Total Truth was described by Bachmann as “a wonderful book”). Referring to Pearcey’s former teacher and mentor Francis Schaeffer, the New Yorker applied a label of “Dominionist” (a term that has been met with mystification in some quarters and with sharp denunciation in others). Pearcey herself came up for some broad-brush treatment in the article—treatment that has left Pearcey supporters fuming. In this Q-and-A, Nancy Pearcey gives her side of the debate.
Jesse Mullins: As certain commentators have already indicated, you and your work have been mischaracterized in the New Yorker profile (Aug. 15) of Michele Bachmann. In broadest terms, what have been the effects of that mischaracterization?
Nancy Pearcey: If you Google my name right now, you’ll get [search results showing] pages and pages and pages of articles by hostile sources—articles on hostile websites and news publications. This is still a very live issue. You’re starting to see, here and there, some Christians starting to respond to it. It’s not going to go away overnight. But this particular issue, relating to the New Yorker, is going to blow over eventually.
The thing that people need to understand is what the New Yorker article is really getting at. The author, Ryan Lizza, was on NPR [National Public Radio] right after the article came out. [For that interview, which comprised an installment of NPR’s Fresh Air program, called “Books and Beliefs: Shaping Michele Bachmann,” click here.] He made it clear that what he was attacking is the very concept of a Christian worldview. In other words, he is not really attacking a very small, fringe group called “Dominionists,” or so-called “[Christian] Reconstructionists,” as he appears to be doing. He is really attacking anyone who holds a Christian worldview. Because on NPR, referring specifically, by the way, to my book Total Truth, he said that the very dangerous idea he is trying to expose here—and this is a quote—is that “Christians should not just be go-to-church-on-Sunday Christians. Their religion should permeate all aspects of life.”
And so this is why it is so serious. It’s because this is really an attempt to disenfranchise any Christian who says, “Christianity is not something that I keep limited to Sunday and to worship ceremonies in the church. It is something I understand as a total framework, a worldview, a philosophy of life—and it informs everything I do.”
That’s what they [the New Yorker] see as “scary” and theocratic. And that is not just attacking Michele Bachmann. That is attacking any who believes that they are a Christian, who hold that Christianity is meant to be true for all of reality.
Now, that was his [Lizza’s] rephrasing of it [of the New Yorker article’s content] on NPR. Michele Bachmann has gone on the record saying that my book Total Truth was a source of inspiration for her—and obviously he [Lizza] addresses that to some degree. But here is how he described it… here is his serious indictment of the book: “The book teaches readers how to implement Schaeffer’s idea that a Biblical worldview should suffuse every aspect of one’s life.” You and I would read that and say, well, sure, that is what a worldview does. That is what all worldviews do. It is not just Christianity. It is any worldview.
A lot of people are not really aware of their worldview. People who hold a specific “ism” usually are. A Marxist is much more intentional about… the Marxist conception not just about economics but also politics and the family. And technology and industry… and so on. Marxists are found in virtually every department on the university campuses today, because they think that there is a distinctively Marxist perspective in every area. Postmodernists are permeating almost the entire college campus today, because there is a particularly Postmodern viewpoint on almost every discipline. Feminists can be found [upholding] feminist perspective in virtually every area. So every “ism” functions this way. It functions as sort of an interpretive key that is applied to every area of life. So if you and I were to read this statement of his, [our reaction is like that] “We don’t see what the problem is, this is what a worldview does.”
Is there some problem with Christians thinking that some systems of thought are false? When we hold a belief—by definition that means that we believe that all contrary beliefs are false.
JM: There was more that was said against Total Truth, was there not?
NP: He [Lizza] goes on and quotes from Total Truth where I stated that the overall systems of thought constructed by nonbelievers will be false. In other words, I acknowledged that, as Christians, we don’t throw out everything that non-Christians say, obviously. People are made in God’s image, we live in God’s world, and… people can be very good scientists and very good doctors and very good businessmen and so on. That is part of what Christian worldview would say. But then I said that they [non-Christians] may get their individual facts right, but if you are looking for an overall system of thought—I am quoted as saying—then their [non-Christians’] overall system would be false. And once again [laughs], you and I would say, okay, what is the problem with that? Is there some problem with Christians thinking that some systems of thought are false? I mean, everybody thinks some things are false. That is, unless you are so open minded that your brain is falling out, to use that cliché. When we hold a belief—by definition that means that we believe that all contrary beliefs are false.
So… It is a little troubling to figure out just what it is that bothers Lizza about this. And why he thinks that this indicates that there is some kind of theocratic impulse [involved]. Because, what I am trying to do [in her book Total Truth] is show that this is just how all people think.
JM: I agree. And in reading the New Yorker story, I was surprised by how obvious his agenda was. It was to cast Michele Bachmann in an unfavorable light. And I was really surprised that the New Yorker, knowing their history—which has been that in personality pieces like this, they’ve tried to be a little more balanced, even to the extent of throwing in some glowingly favorable remarks, and some remarks calculated to extol someone’s best qualities. But in the midst of all that, they might mix things up with some statements that, like Rizza’s, are negative, and so you might come off with a generally negative impression. But this didn’t seem like a story like that. This didn’t seem like a story that wanted to give an impression of balance. This seemed like a story where, from the very start, every event, every little turn, was twisted into yet another negative treatment.
NP: Yes, I think so. There is a history of books that have twisted Christianity to such a degree and not just the term “Dominionism.”
[EDITOR: The New Yorker cast Schaeffer as a “Dominionist” and therefore, by extension, suggested that Nancy Pearcey is one as well, though Nancy went on the record two weeks ago saying that she had to look up the term because she was unacquainted with it.]
NP (cont’d): Apparently “Dominionism” came from Sara Diamond. [Diamond is the author of Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Political Right and Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States.] She is the one who coined the term or at least redefined it to include a whole host of people who do not think of themselves as Dominionists. I don’t think it is a good idea to focus on the term “Dominionism,” because it is just one of the many labels that critics have come up with. There are others, like “Christian Nationalism”—again, a label that no Christians ever called themselves. That one was invented by, or is at least used by, Michele Goldberg in her book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. And another term is “Christianism.” And so hostile critics, people who do not like the impact of evangelicalism in American life, have come up with a variety of terms that they apply. That they apply hoping that it will stick! [laughs]. And that will disenfranchise and discredit and marginalize Christians by painting them as anti-democratic, and painting them in the most wild-eyed, extreme terms possible—as people who want to just take over the country and impose [laughs] a Christian type of sharia law, to hear them speak.
[EDITOR: The New Yorker expressed matters thus: “Francis Schaeffer instructed his followers and students at L’Abri [Schaeffer’s famed sanctuary/retreat in Switzerland] that the Bible was not just a book but ‘the total truth.’ He was a major contributor to the school of thought now known as Dominionism, which relies on Genesis 1:26, where man is urged to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Sara Diamond, who has written several books about evangelical movements in America, has succinctly defined the philosophy that resulted from Schaeffer’s interpretation: “Christians, and Christians alone, are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns.” This statement became a touchstone in the NPR interview with Lizza. Host Terry Gross cited it more than once. Yet notice—Schaeffer is called a “major contributor” to Dominionism by the New Yorker, but Nancy Pearcey, a former student of Schaeffer’s and an authority on his work, had never heard such a thing. The New Yorker defines Dominionism for us, but the magazine relies on a critic of so-called Dominionism for that definition. Maybe that is necessary, because Dominionism seems to have few professed adherents.]
NP (cont’d): And so, I think that, because of that history, Ryan Lizza did not himself have to invent the story line. The story line was out there. And that is what we have to understand about so much of journalism today—and you’re a journalist, you probably know this from the inside—but there is a story line or paradigm that gets established and once it is established you don’t find too many journalists who break out of it. Once there is a story line that Christians are really at heart scary theocrats who are just waiting to take over and to impose very restrictive laws, from the top down, well, that has become the story line.
Some journalists rarely will question it, and they’ll fit the facts that they can find into that story line. And if the facts don’t fit, they almost don’t even notice them. That is how powerful a story line can become. You don’t even notice the facts that don’t fit. You only notice the facts that do fit. And this is what you are seeing a lot in the media treatment of Christians all across the board. Here [in the New Yorker article] is a good example…. The only source that he really cites is Sara Diamond. Now, he basically tips his hand that he is writing from the story line that has been set out by her and by some of these other writers. This is a story line that has been around since… when? The 1980s? President [George H.W.] Bush. That’s when you first started seeing people saying, “Who are these evangelicals? And how come they suddenly have some political power?”[laughs]. The backlash was extreme. So that’s where, I think, we can understand Lizza. He has a built-in story line and it directs his thinking. It directs his interpretation of all the facts, and he never really questions it.
For Jesse Mullins’ opinion piece on the New Yorker / Bachmann / Schaeffer / Pearcey controversy, see this page.
JM: Yes, that was the impression I had. I was surprised that the Bachmann camp had included the New Yorker in that kind of close-quarters access.
NP: They seemed to have opened their bus to anybody. It seems to me that they are somewhat uncritical. They may not be totally aware, yet, of just how hostile people can be. You notice that Lizza himself said [in the NPR interview,] that Bachmann, on a personal level, was warm, friendly, and funny—that he liked her sense of humor. And even from this New Yorker article you could also tell that her husband was also chatty and friendly and open.
I think what the Lizza piece also shows is how little journalists think they need to know about religion in America, whether it is evangelicals or any other group. Apparently, roughly 30 percent of the American population is evangelical. And so that is very strange, that journalists would have so little knowledge of that [of evangelicalism]. So, the fact that they [media hostile to evangelicals] could think that a term like “Dominionism” could apply to, for instance, evangelicals—to such a wide swath of Americans—shows that they have very little education and very little interest in learning about what really motivates and drives various religious groups. In fact you will see it [“Dominionism”] applied to almost all religious conservatives. If you go to liberal websites, you will see it applied to conservative Catholics and Jews and even to some secular conservatives as well.
JM: It does seem to me that there is a tremendous amount of peer pressure in media outlets to toe the party line in anything you do… and I think studies typically that show that 85 percent of journalists are liberal. In such cases, if you don’t write with a liberal slant or at the very least, you risk your job.
NP: One journalist friend of mine told me a story of covering something that was controversial… and she didn’t have enough background to even know it was controversial. So she played it straight. She told what this side said and what that side said. And she was absolutely savaged when she got back to the newsroom. Because she was asked, “Don’t you know the correct story line on this? You are supposed to show that the liberal side of this particular issue as correct and the conservative side is way off.” Off their rockers [laughs]. Totally indefensible.
So, yes, I think you are right. Those various surveys of journalists have always shown that they tend to come out very much on the liberal side of things. And let’s face it—everyone has a difficult time really listening to people they disagree with… really paying attention, really portraying them fairly. I think this is a human trait. So I am not complaining that they are being liberal media so much as I’m saying that I’m concerned that there is such a uniformity in media. So that uniformity means that they are all working from that same story line and they reinforce it in each other and it becomes, like you said, a kind of peer pressure and the result is that it is very, very hard for them to treat people fairly that they don’t agree with and who are unfamiliar to them.
JM: Now, as for the New Yorker piece, beyond the question of how you were portrayed there, there is the additional matter of how you have been further dissected on the internet by people who only know you through what the New Yorker said about you. Can you say anything that would indicate the extent to which your own views have been miscomprehended?
NP: Besides what I said earlier about how Lizza quoted me [“Although non-Christians will get a lot of things right, the overall systems will not be right”], there was this [further quotation from Total Truth as quoted by Lizza:] “Because if the system is not built upon Biblical truth, it will be built on some other ultimate principle.” And so many people [on the internet, debating these matters] picked up that concept of “Biblical truth.” And they would quote just that one phrase, as though, somehow, that proved how monolithic it all was [“all” being the presumably sweeping changes to society that Bachmann supposedly would bring].
Thing were just sort of implied. It was implied that these [Christians] are people who want to bring the Bible into all of life. That these are people who want to impose it “top down” through the government. And [yet] when I talk about Christian worldview, I talk mostly about personal integrity… that whatever you believe is true, having integrity means trying to live it out consistently across the board. It’s Socrates’ dictum—that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” And once you’ve examined your ultimate convictions, [it becomes a question of] what do you think is ultimately true? Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What is life all about? When you have come up with what you think are the answers to that, it is a matter of integrity, then, to live it out in every area of your life. And so I think of worldview more in those terms of personal integrity. But it came up in the NPR interview, and it’s kind of interesting, when Lizza said that I write about how your Christian convictions need to permeate your entire life, the host, Terry Gross, says, “Well, what I am wondering is, does she mean that your faith needs to permeate your life, or that your faith needs to permeate the United States government?”
Christians do have the right to bring their convictions into the public arena, just like secularists and Marxists and feminists and Darwinists and everyone else.
So that is where I think a lot of the misunderstanding is. The assumption that, if you talk about Christian worldview, what you are talking about is, “I’m going to grab the reins of government and impose this… by coercion, top down, into the legal system.” And that is not what Christians mean by a Christian worldview. I think that would be the major misunderstanding.
JM: So, are you of the opinion that it is not good for Christians to try to defend themselves against this charge of Dominionism?
NP: One of the things [reactions] that I think has been a mistake, is that a lot of Christians have gone and responded to it—debating the exact meaning of Dominionism. They’re out there saying, “What is Dominionism?” and “What is Reconstructionism?” and so on. And I think that is a mistake, strategically. It lets the hostile critic set the agenda…. Because the real problem is not Dominionism. The real problem is that Christians do have the right to bring their convictions into the public arena, just like secularists and Marxists and feminists and Darwinists and everyone else. So we need to resist following the course set out by the critics, and [instead] say, “No, that’s not the issue. The issue is you are trying to discredit the very notion that Christians can bring their views into the public arena, so let’s talk about that.” By talking about Dominionism, Christians are also put on the defensive. Which is of course a weak position. Most Christians are not “Dominionists.” So what are they going to say? “I’m not one of those! No, no!” [laughs] “I’m not a dominionist.” We know how well it worked when Nixon said, “I am not a crook.” It’s not any type of stance. That’s part of what makes this so pernicious. It’s people like Sara Diamond saying, “A lot of people don’t even know they are being influenced by Dominionism.” That’s like Freud saying, “You don’t know you are being driven by erotic forces unconsciously.” I think it’s a very disrespectful view of people. But… the only way to drive out that kind of false story is to put out a true story. [We have] the false story that Schaeffer—since Schaeffer is the main intellectual leader that they are naming here, in terms of Christian worldview—was influenced by some wacky American theologian named Rushdoony. Ross Douthat’s article “Theocracy, Theocracy, Theocracy,” First Things] had a very good line. He wrote, “All roads lead to Rushdoony.” [laughs] A very marginalized, very fringe person whom very few of us even know about. But we are being told that we are all, whether we know it or not, being influenced by Rushdoony. Okay, the only way to drive out a false story like that is not to get defensive and say “No, no, it’s not true.” Rather, it is to go on the offensive and put out a true story. You don’t drive out a bad story until you put out a good story—a true story. That is why I focused, in Human Events, on saying that Schaeffer was not influenced by some wacky American theologian. He lived most of his adult life in Europe. And he was very much influenced by European thought, and particularly the thought of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd. These were not some kind of far-out fundamentalists. Kuyper was prime minister of Holland and the Father of the Free University of Amsterdam. And Dooyeweerd was a systematic philosopher. And these guys were serious heavyweights, in terms of their own intellectual expertise. So if people want to deal with Christian worldview thinking, they need to deal with it from the perspective of… identifying its true sources and dealing with those ideas. Even Schaeffer was a popularizer. You need to go back behind Schaeffer and understand Dooyeweerd. And behind Dooyeweerd is all of Continental thought.
There are two major streams in philosophy. There is what is called Analytical thought. And there is Continental thought. So [with Continental thought] you are talking about a major stream of thought that has influenced not just Christian worldview but a whole host of other philosophers as well. You need to get the big picture… People need to go to the true source and deal with the serious ideas underlying the worldview movement instead of trying to discredit it by linking it to something like Dominionism that has absolutely no historical causal connection.
JM: I guess I’m coming back to the same point… but is there is anything that could be said to indicate that your side has not been heard? I mean… let’s put it this way: Who is calling you? I mean, I’m calling you, but I’m a guy in Abilene, Texas. Who out there in major media is calling you to get your side?
NP: I know! [laughs] That’s what I was going to say. If you want to know whose side is being aired, just Google it. I thought I would Google it and see who has referred specifically to me. Who has picked up my name. And I find pages and pages and pages on Google and hardly anyone giving a supportive perspective. I know that there are a few in the works still. One journalist wrote to me who is writing something. But that is the thing—it is up to us [to get their own side heard]. The major media is not calling us. Schaeffer is dead and I am identified as the main proponent of his views, and who is calling? You are right. If they could have called me before even writing the piece—if Lizza can identify me as a main proponent of a view he is critiquing—shouldn’t he have called me?
If somebody calls you, and says that you belong to some group, a claim that has no basis in fact, it is not your job to do research or to make the case why you are not one of them. The better strategy is to take the opportunity to explain what your position is and what your convictions are.
JM: Yes. There should at least have been some indication in the article that balance was sought, and that the opposing side had a chance to speak for themselves. Even if the “opposing side” does not offer a defense, the journalist can insert “declined to comment” and readers will know that the writer at least extended equal opportunity.
NP: Yes. I actually got an email from a Christian journalist, saying, “Why don’t you give me several points on what Dominionism teaches, and why you aren’t one.” And I said, “Why should I do that? It’s not my job to defend myself against a [philosophy] I’ve hardly heard of and that I’ve never studied. That’s not my job. I personally have no obligation to go out and research a subject, a term, that I am being accused of—when I know very little about it and have very little interest in it. So I went back to them and told them I don’t think it’s a very good strategy either. For the reasons I said earlier. That’s what I mean when I say that Christians are letting their critics set the agenda. Here was a Christian journalist who was trying to get me to go out and do research on a subject. You know, if somebody calls you, and says that you belong to some group, a claim that has no basis in fact, it is not your job to do research or to make the case why you are not one of them. I think the better strategy is to take the opportunity to explain what your position is and what your convictions are. And in this case, what a Christian worldview really is, and what it means, and why it is that Christians have a right to bring their worldview into the public debate just as much as any other group that holds a perspective of one kind or another.
JM: One more question. Can you say something about your transition to Minnesota? [Ed.: Richard and Nancy Pearcey took new positions this fall as faculty tutors at Rivendell Sanctuary in Bloomington, Minn., moving there in June from their home in the Washington, D.C. area.]
NP: Well, it ties in, because when we talk about Christian worldview, it is easy to misunderstand. In fact, to personalize matters, I just got an email from a guy who himself is a Christian, but who said, “What do you mean about this ‘worldview’? And he put it in quotes. “Are you saying we all have to hold a conservative position?” I said, “Of course not! But you have the intellectual freedom to go to scripture, and work out what you think it says, build your case, and then we’ll have friendly, in-house debates when we try to persuade one another.” But Christian worldview is sometimes taught in a way that suggests that it is just a matter of learning the right answers to the issues of the day, learning by rote memory the correct perspective on all the “isms” that are out there today. And what I appreciated about Rivendell Sanctuary is that they do teach from a more Socratic method. They are interested in teaching you to think, to think clearly, and to have good reasons for whatever you do hold. So that you have good reasons, you have thought it through, you can analyze ideas, you can find logical fallacies, you can build valid arguments.
There is an awful lot of emphasis [at Rivendell] on learning how to think correctly and think clearly. A much more Socratic method. It’s not lecture based. The students here do not sit there with their laptops and you talk and they take notes. It’s not like that. The students are invited to really dig into classic literature. The “great books.” The books that have been really foundational in forming Western Civilization. Invited to think through them. What do these mean? What do you make of it? And to learn how to think independently. Our first module is critical thinking. Before you study anything, before you get into any subject area, we spend several weeks on just learning critical thinking. That is a true understanding of Christian worldview—that God has given us our minds, and He expects us to use them! And that we want to give each other intellectual freedom to use our minds, and to think things through for ourselves. To learn to think for ourselves.
For Jesse Mullins’ in-depth personality profile on Nancy Pearcey, including insights from David Limbaugh, Marvin Olasky, and a handful of other sources, click here.
For The Pearcey Report, the news-and-commentary website maintained by Richard and Nancy Pearcey, go here.
Posted Aug. 30: Opinion piece entitled “The New Yorker Takes Aim on Michele Bachmann, Francis Schaeffer, and Nancy Pearcey – and Misses”