Reacting to the unprecedented degree of rancor and acrimony in American evangelicalism today, many evangelicals have called for civility and friendly dialogue. But it is possible, and I think quite likely, that civility in evangelicalism is not enough for a peaceful and principled discussion between differing groups. Though perhaps not immediately obvious, civility in discourse can conceal rhetorical advantages and disadvantages and even strengthen them. Settling only for civility then might be quite naive, for civility in discourse does not necessarily mean equality in discourse.
I’ve argued elsewhere that social justice evangelicals employ certain socio-rhetorical devices, taken largely from the broader public discourse, that advantage them over their opponents. It is not just that these devices conceal a lack of reason; they are substitutes for reason; and they work best in civil public discourse. Civility is therefore not a sufficient condition to preclude all rhetorical advantages in public discourse. In this essay, I uncover one critical advantage enjoyed by the social justice advocates in evangelicalism.
Moral Impressions and Christianizing Devices
The social justice talk in evangelicalism is remarkable for the absence of systematic thinking on the pertinent questions of justice. One rarely encounters precise and detailed theories of justice and careful applications. Rather what we find is very similar to what Thomas Bradstreet identified in his article here on evangelical political theology. Evangelical moral reasoning is very much like their political theology. Rarely does their moral reasoning begin with moral principles and systems and then logically proceed to conclusions. Rather their thinking begins with an impression or reaction of goodness or badness; and then, as part of their moral thinking, they supply a broad principle, which serves only to christianize the impression. That is, the principle (or line), which I will also call the “christianizing device,” elevates the impression into Christian public morality. The actual moral conclusion or determination precedes the moral principle. So their reasoning has a two-step sequence:
1) Have a negative, moral reaction to something, a reaction that one is socialized to perform (perhaps on social media) upon encountering some event.
2) Christianize the moral impression by confidently stating an extremely broad principle or statement from the Bible (“love your neighbor”) or some other Christian-like statement without any attempt to make distinctions or qualifications or systematize or consider competing goods.
This moral thinking does not begin with a nuanced principle and then proceed to a moral conclusion. Rather the conclusion is already decided due to one’s moral socialization and the principle is subsequently supplied. The principle serves however not as a reason for the impression (though it publicly appears as a reason) but to elevate the moral impression or reaction into Christian public morality. The moral conclusion (viz. this is good, bad, or morally indifferent) is already determined inwardly (via socialization) quite apart from reason, and the christianizing device is the outward expression of that inward determination. But again the device does not actually function as the basis for the moral determination; rather it is the means by which that determination is brought into Christian morality.
This means that the basis of the evangelical leaders’ (and also their followers) moral determinations is not a consistent principle or even principles at all, and hence what one considers good, evil, or morally indifferent is ultimately an incoherent set of latent impressions waiting to be triggered by events. And since the principle is logically subsequent to the moral impressions, it doesn’t matter that it could justify practical absurdities. In other words, it is irrelevant that a consistent application of the principle would lead to all sorts of absurd outcomes, policies, actions, etc. For example, if one were to react to a restrictive immigration policy by affirming, without any distinctions or nuance, “the universal dignity of all people” or by saying that Christians ought to “love your neighbor,” then how can any immigration restriction or even the illegality of border crossing stand up to the demands of Christian morality? But the logical consequences of the supplied principle are irrelevant, because it doesn’t function in their reasoning as the determinate of their moral conclusions.
There are two levels of moral socialization shaping the reactions and thinking of evangelicals: one from the general public and the other from evangelical leaders. The former supplies the emotive basis of their morality—the sort of internal habits of moral reaction and outrage—and the latter provide a set of principles and lines that serve as christianizing devices. Evangelical leaders provide what elevates moral determinations, but not what grounds them. Evidence of the evangelical leaders role is not difficult to find, especially on twitter (see here, here, and here). Also read this satire. The short aphorisms of twitter socialize people, not into moral reaction, but into a particular, christianized way of expressing those reactions. Hence, social justice evangelicals do not shape or develop evangelical moral reasoning; they merely supply the language to express what they acquired elsewhere. And social justice evangelicals do more than provide a set of lines; they react and express before their followers, socializing them into the two-step process. They inculcate in others this faulty method of moral thinking.
How does this provide a rhetorical advantage over their evangelical opponents?
Since their moral conclusions are already socially acceptable (and their opponents’ are not), they can simply assume the moral conclusion and therefore do not have to undergo the hard work of moral reasoning – they are, after all, with society on the question. And being socially acceptable, the conclusion is asserted as obvious, lacking the necessity of demonstration. The opponent, however, is forced to do the hard work of contradicting and demonstrating; and at the popular level, especially today, there is a negative prejudice towards anything requiring demonstration. The feeling of what is right combined with a simple (and yet broadly and absurdly applicable) line trumps the complex, systematic, and demonstrative.
The privilege to use the christianizing devices is an additional advantage. Since the device does not function as that from which the moral conclusion is derived but rather as that which socially elevates the impression to Christian morality, it can simply be an undeniable Christian truism (“all are made in the image of God”) or bible verse. The opponent is therefore in a position only to deny the undeniable, for he must treat it as the reason offered for the moral conclusion, despite the fact that the device does not serve that purpose for the one asserting or for his or her followers. The opponents are then forced to contend with an undeniable statement offered for a predetermined moral conclusion. I’d say that is quite the disadvantage.
But even still, the opponent is already wrong prior to engaging in argument, because the force of the evangelical social justice advocate’s argument is rooted not in the principle or line but in the social acceptance of the moral reaction or impression. The opponent is not contending with reasoned argumentation, but with emotivism. Hence, he is placed in an almost impossible position, and yet he is placed in this position with seemingly perfect civility.
Social justice evangelical advocates also have the advantage of positivity. The christianizing device, after all, is typically true (in a very basic way) and positive: “help the marginalized,” “lift up the downcast,” “love the unlovable,” “love your enemies,” “the church is a place of welcome to all people” etc. The rhetoric is designed as a sort of Kafka Trap: questioning either the form or the content of the pseudo-reasoned argument is itself a denial of the undeniable and positive principle. To deny the moral reaction is to affirm the opposite of the christianizing principle: unloving, rejecting the marginalized, denying human dignity, hating enemies, unwelcoming church, etc.
In addition, the christianizing line often serves as a sort of passive aggressive attack on those who lack the moral impression. Those who react (or think) differently do not love their neighbor, do not have the heart of Jesus, do not love their enemies, etc. There is already therefore a subtle incivility present in the rhetorical advantage.
Whether used wittingly or not, the christianizing device serves as a sure means of winning. Those unable to see past the vacuity of the reasoning are forced or compelled to accept the moral verity of the moral reaction, to adopt the device used to express that reaction, and adopt the two steps outlined above as a legitimate form of moral thinking. It is effective and expedient rhetoric, but wholly unprincipled. Even worse, it forms habits of thinking among evangelicals that are bad for them. Indeed, it is an abuse of the mind. The social justice evangelicals use and enforce rhetoric that harms people.
Civility is therefore not enough. Civility by itself strengthens already existing rhetorical advantages, privileges, and power. True civility requires social justice evangelicals to expose and admit to the sorry state of their rhetoric and the power it affords them. But it is more important to recognize the danger of the rhetoric. The two-step process of evangelical moral reasoning does very little, and perhaps nothing, that enables evangelicals to resist the world’s moral influence. They will shift and progress with the moral doctrines of the world; and the superstructure of christianizing devices, which are extremely broad in the possibilities of their application, will always fulfill its purpose, regardless of the impression—it will always christianize and elevate moral conclusions into Christian morality.
What evangelicals need most today is actual moral reasoning, one that recognizes complexity; clear distinctions; clarified principles; competing goods; the penultimate and ultimate ends of the civil, ecclesiastical, and domestic societies; a multiplicity of responsibilities and duties; and prudence. Evangelical leaders, especially social justice evangelicals, use the sort of rhetoric that precludes such moral reasoning, and instead they socialize their followers into a fallacious, cheap, and harmful moral rhetoric—one that is more effective in winning than in discovering and communicating moral truth.