A Call for Evangelical Rhetorical Accountability
The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA.org) was launched in 1979, in response to growing concern "over an increase of [sic] questionable fund-raising practices in the nonprofit sector." As their Web site explains, Sen. Mark Hatfield challenged "a group of key Christian leaders" to begin policing their own mission agencies as a kind of "Christian Better Business Bureau."
Perhaps 30 years later, evangelicals, because of "an increase in questionable rhetorical practices in the nonprofit sector," need to form the ECRA: The Evangelical Council for Rhetorical Accountability. Those of us who have a lot of pew time know ... not to mention those who listen to religious broadcasting and partake of religious literature, Web sites, and blogs (!) ... that such accountability is sorely lacking.
The need for an ECRA became clearer than ever to me this week when a beloved elder in the evangelical broadcasting community spoke out against Sen. Barack Obama. What is evident to me in this interchange is not just a difference in policy, but also a ...
... difference in rhetoric, defined as how one attempts to argue and persuade. In times like these -- dangerous times, election seasons, and so on -- we must not only scrutinize what people say and whether we agree with it, but also how they say it and whether we agree with their means of persuasion. I'm suggesting that we sharpen our sense of rhetorical accountability just as we sharpen our sense of financial accountability.
This week's "Beloved Christian Broadcaster Attacks Beloved Christian Presidential Candidate" headline reflects at least seven patterns of unhelpful discourse I frequently see among the religiously vocal, whatever their political persuasion. (Perhaps critical readers will find in these paragraphs similar lapses of which I am guilty, and perhaps they will be able to identify my lapses without committing lapses of their own.)
1. Inferring and Judging Motives (or: Do not judge - Matthew 7:1)
First, this Christian leader didn't restrict himself to making judgments on Barack Obama's statements; he inferred the candidate's motives and judged them as well. Consider his use of the word "deliberately" in this sentence:
"I think he's deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology."
While this august spokesman is certainly free to use words like "distorting" and "confused" to express his opinion about Obama's views (especially when preceded by the qualifier "I think"), is he equally justified in making the judgment that the candidate's motives were deliberately disingenuous and deceptive? Would it be equally justified -- or otherwise -- to say that this evangelical leader is deliberately distorting Obama's statements to fit his own worldview? Wouldn't it be sufficient -- and more biblical - for this evangelical broadcaster to fairly express Obama's views and restrict himself to accurately identifying where he disagrees and why, without "poisoning the well" by judging his subject's motives and integrity?
2. Scrutinizing the Biases of Others Without Scrutinizing One's Own Biases (or: Don't remove others' splinters before removing one's own planks - Matthew 7:3-5)
Second, the same sentence in question seems to reflect a belief that many religious rhetoricians share: that others are trapped within a "worldview," while they themselves are privileged to speak from a position of pristine objectivity and/or absolute truth. When in this way religious leaders are unwilling (or unable) to apply the same scrutiny to their own assumptions that they apply to the assumptions of others, they need to be held rhetorically accountable.
3. Logical Inconsistencies (or: In your thinking, be mature adults - 1 Corinthians 14:20)
There is an added irony in the evangelical leader's "deliberately distorting" comment: when a person speaks from within his or her worldview, his or her biases are normally unconscious, rendering it more likely that any distortion of which he or she is guilty would be unintentional rather than deliberate.
Similarly, according to Eric Gorski's AP article on this story, this evangelical elder "reserved some of his harshest criticism for Obama's argument that the religiously motivated must frame debates over issues like abortion not just in their own religion's terms but in arguments accessible to all people." It is hard to see how our democracy would be improved by framing debates in arguments inaccessible to those who are not already in agreement. The speaker in question didn't help us logically work that out.
4. Name-calling/Mockery (or: Don't stir up needless anger - Proverbs 15:1)
Which brings us to a fourth rhetorical problem. The evangelical leader in question -- whose attempts at persuasion I would judge as average or slightly above average in the world of religious broadcasting -- displays the common religious tendency to lapse into name-calling, which has predictable and unhelpful results. For example, he referred to Obama's approach as "a fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution." This tendency to mock the opposition might be deemed excusable if it were a rhetorical icing on the cake of solid analysis, but lacking that analysis, it can hardly be called an improvement over the thoughtful speech by Sen. Obama, given at an event at which I was present in 2006, which was being criticized by the respected evangelical speaker.
5. Misrepresenting Your Opponent's View (or: Do not give dishonest evidence - Proverbs 12:17)
Add to the problem of icing without cake a fifth problem: an unhelpful misappropriation of the reductio ad absurdum argument. Rather than legitimately showing how an opponent's argument will lead to an absurd outcome, this approach, via an informal fallacy or straw man argument, unfairly renders the opponent's statement into an absurdity from the start. In this week's news story, this "incipio ad absurdum" took the form of a rhetorical question:
"Am I required in a democracy to conform my efforts in the political arena to his bloody notion of what is right with regard to the lives of tiny babies? ... What he's trying to say here is unless everybody agrees, we have no right to fight for what we believe."
Of course, Obama was not requiring anything of the sort. He was merely saying that if religious leaders would like to persuade their fellow citizens so they will vote in sufficient numbers to make policy change possible, religious leaders will need to do so in language that their diverse audience will understand. And they must argue from assumptions that are widely shared, or in the absence of sufficient shared assumptions, they must do the hard work of arguing for those assumptions with sufficient rhetorical skill -- and integrity -- that the wheels of democracy will roll in their direction. Which brings us to a sixth common rhetorical problem ...
6. Confusing Democracy with Theocracy (or: Don't pre-empt discernment by claiming "God says ..." - 1 Thessalonians 5:20-22)
Simply put, in our form of democracy, religious leaders can't claim to speak for God and thereby be exempted from the responsibility of making persuasive arguments. Contrary to the assertion implied by the speaker's rhetorical question, nowhere did Obama say that the evangelical elder in question doesn't have a right to fight for what he believes. Rather, the senator suggested that appealing to religious authority will not win the day in a democracy where all do not share their version of religion. I'm certain Obama would defend -- as a right inherent in free speech -- the beloved evangelical elder's right to argue ineffectively and unpersuasively if that's what he feels he should do; what Obama was critiquing was the demand that religious leaders also have the right to "win" through ineffective and unpersuasive argument based on appeals to authority that are not widely shared.
In a monarchy, maybe, and even in an oligarchy, corptocracy, gerontocracy, or theocracy, unsubstantiated appeals to authority can win the day ... but not in a democracy of the type fostered by our Constitution. Religious speakers -- whether they be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or whatever -- must realize that freedom of religion doesn't mean that a religion is free to impose its rules or norms upon the Constitution or those who vote under its auspices. They are free to speak, influence, argue, and otherwise work for the acceptance of their ideas in a civil public square, but not to demand acceptance of them without persuasion.
If a set of values were to be expressed in public policy in biblical times, one would have to persuade a king. Today, having dispensed with monarchs, our Constitution requires that we persuade a majority of voters.
7. Name-Appropriating (or: Calling yourself something doesn't make it so - 2 Corinthians 10:12)
I noticed another important rhetorical problem last night in a CNN discussion about this story. A friend and colleague of the evangelical elder in question came to his defense, repeatedly using the term "orthodox" to describe their shared views in contrast to Sen. Obama's. I couldn't help but think that Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians would consider many of this colleague's conservative evangelical views -- for example, regarding Apostolic Succession or the autonomy of independent local churches -- to be unorthodox. Anabaptists would consider their views on warfare and torture unorthodox. Mainline Protestants would consider their views on women in ministry unorthodox.
Similarly, it was standard orthodoxy in various eras of church history -- in the sense of being a belief held everywhere, by all, and always (up until that time, anyway) -- to believe that the relics of martyrs had miraculous power, or that God was impassible (meaning incapable of feeling emotion or suffering pain), or that no Christian could serve in the military, or that slavery was a God-ordained institution, or that celibacy was superior to marriage. It's clear that at some levels at least, what is considered orthodox changes over time. While claiming the label orthodox (or any other desirable label) can give one an air of authority and legitimacy, so can presenting a fabricated resume. Saying something loud and often and on television or radio doesn't make it so.
I was saddened this week by this beloved evangelical leader's religious and political rhetoric, sad for the example it sets, sad for the opportunity it misses for constructive Christian and civil dialogue, sad for the way it plays into a lot of old, ugly, unholy politics. But even sadder, his rhetoric wasn't far below what is commonly acceptable in many religious circles: it was more or less typical. And sadder still, many people who see the value of above-board financial practices seem oblivious to poor rhetorical practices, as if truth were less valuable than money.
Unless this leader and his political and religious allies can lift their level of discourse, their shared good ideas will be discredited along with their bad ones. The same goes for all of us. And unless more of us become more scrupulous regarding how arguments are made -- even if we agree with the point they're trying to prove -- we will become less able to tell the bad ideas from the good ones.
So, whether my modest proposal for an ECRA is deemed wise or foolish, literal or figurative, ironic or to be taken at face value, I hope it makes its rhetorical point. One wonders what it will profit evangelicals -- or religious people of other traditions -- to have financial accountability while they squander their rhetorical integrity as honest and trustworthy bearers of truth.
Brian McLaren is an author and speaker and serves as Sojourners' board chair. You can learn about his books, music, and other resources at brianmclaren.net.