Loving God and Neighbor in Christian Political Discourse (Part 2)

political-discourseIn my first post on this topic, I expressed my concern that evangelical political rhetoric often goes astray by raising the stakes of the election to unwarranted levels. One of the temptations to which we can succumb when that happens is to violate the third commandment and take the Lord’s name in vain by using it to manipulate others. The failure to honor God in this way of using our language is bad enough in itself, but beyond that, seeking to manipulate others with our rhetoric is also a violation of the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

Manipulation breaks down community because it violates the integrity of the other or others to whom we are speaking. Manipulation sees others as objects to be used, and not as responsible image-bearers whom we are to love; it treats them as means rather than as ends. And even when the end may be deemed to be good, to treat human beings as instruments is a violation of their personhood, a failure to give the respect due them as bearers of God’s image. We owe others love (Romans 13:8). Paul, in a passage often overlooked (ironically, because it is often used manipulatively) reminds us that love “does not insist on its own way,” and “rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:5-6). Manipulators by definition insist on their own way, and are notorious for trampling over truth in order to achieve it.

I want to be clear that I see a difference between persuasion, which is a legitimate use of language, and manipulation, which is a sin. To be sure, there is a rather wide swath of real estate along the border, and what one person sees as passionate persuasion another may think crosses the line into manipulation. Nevertheless, rejecting the fallacy of the beard, I think they can be distinguished. Drawing on categories from classical rhetoric, genuine persuasion is the aim when a virtuous speaker (ethos) demonstrates respect for truth and uses sound reason (logos) to discipline his emotional appeal (pathos).

Of course I cannot resist adding here that Augustine, in his De Doctrina Christiana, emphasizes that the proper mode of persuasion in Christian communication is the sermon, which has as its primary goal teaching the truth discovered in Scripture. And to what end does Augustine think God has revealed that truth? You’ve guessed it: the love of God and of neighbor. True persuasion, then can only occur when the speaker’s aim is to encourage his or her hearers to know and do what is good, viz., to love God and neighbor.

I would submit that precious little of the political discourse being produced by Christians this year has had the aim of teaching truth with the goal of persuading other Christians to greater love of God or neighbor. One of the ugly facts of this presidential campaign–one that has often been noted–is that much of its rhetoric revolves not around love, but around hate. Leaving the rhetoric of the candidates themselves aside, it is clear that many Christians hate one or the other of the major candidates (or both of them!), and the goal of their speech is to get others to vote so the candidate they hate most will be defeated.

I don’t mean to be uncharitable. I think there are Christians who are convinced that their understanding of the situation is true, and are seeking to truly persuade others of that. But in many cases I think their confidence rests on partial truths, fallacies, and sometimes outright lies. In such cases, their rhetoric moves beyond persuasion to manipulation because it fails to rejoice with the truth. It fails on the level of logos. For example, a commonly repeated argument is that one must vote for one of the major party candidates (say, Donald Trump) because not to do so would be tantamount to voting for the other (in this case, Hillary Clinton). This is a variety of the false dichotomy fallacy, and represents illogical (and therefore, untrue) thinking. One who seeks to influence another to action on the basis of this argument is appealing to falsehood, and is thereby seeking to manipulate, not to persuade.

I can anticipate some objections to this. Some may reject that it is in fact a fallacy. I won’t attempt to refute that here, but I’ll refer you to someone who has. Another objection, one I will tackle, is that the person making this argument may not know it is a fallacy, and they are seeking to persuade in good faith. If this is the case, the person making the argument is misinformed, and I am willing to concede that his or her intent may not be to manipulate. Nevertheless, in the end the person is still arguing on the basis of a falsehood, and the argument is invalid. Now, no one knows everything, and “honest” ignorance in this matter may be excusable as a regrettable mistake. But there are two cases that I think are not excusable, either of which renders the person culpable of manipulation through a failure of virtue (ethos).

The first is when the person making the argument ought to know better, but does not give due consideration to whether what he or she is saying is true, either through negligence or laziness. This is particularly serious when the person making the argument is a pastor or other leader, who because of his or her position exercises proportionally greater influence than a private individual. When a famous pastor or a radio personality or a theology professor does not do the work necessary to confirm that the evidence and arguments he or she uses are true and valid, it indicates a failure of virtue. One who is in a position of influence and authority has a moral obligation to verify that what he or she is saying is true. As James warned, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness (James 3:1).” I think this applies equally to a preacher using a false illustration as to a Christian leader using false information or fallacious arguments to promote a particular candidate. In both cases, the speaker has failed to do his homework, and demonstrates a deficiency of virtue.

The second is worse yet. There are cases where a speaker does not perpetuate falsehood due to negligence or laziness, but rather through a deeper character flaw–a resistance to, or even a defiance of the truth. This is a common problem of fallen humans, and Christians are certainly not immune to it. Unfortunately, it has become particularly apparent in Christian political discourse in the last several weeks, and I will address that in the final installment of this series.

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