Limitations of Freethinking

On Intellectual barbarism and literary Savagery.

“The war-whoop of the intellectual savages of our time is “Free Thought.”

Rev. Dr. D. S. Phelan, 1883
Why is White Evangelicalism at the center of the cult of Denialism?

In late 2020, in a talk summarizing the past year and making prognostications for 2021, a Bible teacher we follow hailed the notion of anti-conventional thinking and described himself as a “freethinker.” His declaration was in justification of a range questionable positions. Over time, it seems the church in general, has grown increasingly hostile to objective truth.

So to avoid confusion, careful awareness and thoughtful use of the term “freethinking” is appropriate. The case above is an abuse of the current meaning of the term. The pastor’s use is simply an inversion – perhaps in a mocking way – of the Webster’s definition. But his use fits a label applied to militant thinkers 150 years ago.

Today’s meaning goes like this:

Free·​think·​er | \ ˈfrē-ˈthiŋ-kər \: A person who thinks freely or independently : one who forms opinions on the basis of reason independent of authority - upon facts and objective truth. Especially: One who rejects or is skeptical of religious dogma.  ~ Webster's Dictionary.

150 years ago the term had the opposite meaning, being applied to anti-social, anti-intellectual activists. D.S. Phelan was a 19th century theologian and author. Of interest to us is his paper entitled “The Limitations of Freethinking.” (Cited below.)

“A Freethinker dabbles in theology, philosophy, political economy, history, physics – in any and every study that can be reached by a bullet of blatant negation.”

Phelan, 1883

Militant tribal nationalism spreads fear of the chains of regulation and tyranny of government. The perception is that freedom suffers. There is a pervasive theme of anarchy embedded in the movement to dismantle public welfare policy and neuter of Government agencies. These values are endemic to the Christian Confrontationalism movement. The following is by no means a comprehensive list of departures:

  • Staunchly anti-vaccination or at least inoculation wary, wont’ wear a face-mask, operating church in open defiance of public health policy/recommendations. Labels vaccination a step toward the “mark of the beast.”
  • Adherents of Qanon, 4Chan and like conspiracies.
  • Trump voters (against the scriptural warnings to not align with criminality and avoid the appearance of evil.)
  • “Stop the Steal.” Post election false claims. Equate current President / VP with Ahab and Jezebel.
  • ANTIFA is evil. Proud Boys are good.
  • Moralist. Legislate against the rights of others, ibid, to limit free choice, staunchly Pro-life.
  • Promote literal creationism and pseudo science in support of “young-earth theory.”
  • Unflinchingly cruel to “lessers” stating more than once “Don’t come to me if you need your tears dried or your nose wiped.”
  • Characteristically anti-intellectual. For example: “God does not call the trained, he trains the called.”
  • A PhD is mocked as an acronym for “Post Hole Digger.”
  • Numbers of congregants have re-discovered “Flat Earth” theory (no kidding.)
  • Predominance of anti-immigration / anti-refugee hatred. Non-inclusive cliquish hierarchy – few people of color.
  • Insular and not involved with the community

Does it seem as if history is repeating itself? A pastor inverting the Webster’s term “freethinker” in the service of denialism?

In the years after the Civil War, racism remained a primary power influence in the South. Politicians and the courts battled over discriminatory policies. Compromise with the truth of emancipation resulted in the Jim Crow era. Institutionalized denial and deception facilitated the spread of wrong thinking for 100 years. The piece below, written by a prominent theologian and published in 1883, decries these very issues. It might have been written in our time.

D. S. Phelan
Source: The North American Review , Sep., 1883. Link:

“A man has a right to his opinion; but not always. He has a right to his opinion if he is right.”

Fa. D. S. Phelan 1883

Why does the white evangelical church purposefully spread openly false, rational insurrection? Are their “ways of life” under threat? Cultural values of the 1950’s have eroded? What are Evangelicals “playing not to lose?”

In contrast, an honest assessment of the social and spiritual fabric of our culture begins with the Constitution. A government of the people by the people and for the people – by definition – includes LGBTQs, orphans (like alcoholics and addicts, adulterers…), immigrants and the poor. That inclusive government would treat criminals fairly and serve compassionate correction. Mental illness would not be a personal failure. Equal opportunity, justice and freedom for all. A Constitutional Social Order that serves the least as well as the greatest. Jesus ate and drank with the “least of these” – just such people as the powerful seek to disenfranchise.

“The intellectual barbarian sees chains in social customs and tyranny in all social order.”

Phelan, 1883

“Impure thought and toxic teaching is the ‘abomination of desolation’ standing in the holy place of God-like fancy, presaging the destruction of religion and the ruin and downfall of faith.”

Phelan, 1883

No wonder so many orphans of the Church – confused, hopeless, even angry – have strayed away from fellowship. Perhaps it’s because they sense the toxic nature of attending church; they refuse to be complicit, and truly know the voice of their Shepherd.

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