Sara Lippincott, who worked in the New Yorker’s famed fact-checking department from 1966 until 1982, once told a class of journalism students that, “Each word in the piece that has even a shred of fact clinging to it is scrutinized, and, if passed, given the checker’s imprimatur, which consists of a tiny pencil tick.” Such excruciating attention to detail is rare nowadays—even at the New Yorker. The publication should have brought Ms. Lippincott in from retirement for Ryan Lizza’s recent article Leap of Faith.
The excruciatingly long (8,300 word) feature is intended to be a magnum opus of revelations about presidential candidate Michele Bachmann. And indeed it does break new ground. Did you know that in a speech about her family moving to Iowa in 1857 she confused a plague of grasshoppers with a plague of locusts? Yes, you and I know that locusts are grasshoppers; Lizza and the New Yorker fact checkers probably do too. But if you put the words in scare quotes and imply that they are different you can give the impression that Bachmann somehow made a mistake.
Had Lizza simply stuck to such idiotic “gotcha” tactics I wouldn’t have given the article a second thought. I don’t have much interest in the presidential campaign of Bachmann (or anyone else right now) so I don’t feel the need to defend her. But Lizza trespassed on a subject that I do care about quite a lot, my intellectual hero Francis Schaeffer.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, Schaeffer’s work provided an opening to the intellectual depths of Christianity that had been sorely lacking in conservative Protestant Christianity. Schaeffer helped to restore the value of developing a Christian worldview and offered the intellectual tools that evangelicals needed to properly engage with the secular culture. The effect of his legacy still reverberates through evangelicalism. His influence shaped hundreds of evangelical leaders, including Chuck Colson, Jack Kemp, Ron Sider, Mark Noll—and Michele Bachmann.
Lizza includes a 1,200-word section explaining Schaeffer in terms intended to make him—and by proxy, Bachmann—appear to be an anti-American theocrat. This is quite a feat. Despite the fact that Schaeffer was a respected evangelical leader and the subject of numerous scholarly monographs, Lizza appears to have cribbed all his information about the theologian from liberal activists.
However, the article does have one redeeming value: professors and students of journalism now have a prime exhibit for what not to do if you want to be taken seriously. Here are four primary lessons that can be learned from Lizza’s piece:
Lesson #1: Make sure your quotes say what you claim they say — If you put words in quotes and credit them to a speaker, make sure you understand the context. For example, Lizza writes:
Francis Schaeffer instructed his followers and students at L’Abri that the Bible was not just a book but “the total truth.”
Schaeffer’s use of the phrase “total truth” refers not to the Bible but to Christianity. The quote is not taken from his books but from an address Schaeffer gave at the University of Notre Dame in 1981. The actual quote is:
Christianity is not a series of truths in the plural but, rather, truth spelled with a capital “T.” Truth about total reality, not just about religious things. Christianity, biblical Christianity, is Truth concerning total reality — and the intellectual holding of that total Truth and then living in the light of that Truth.
Lesson #2: Ensure that you use reliable sources — As I mentioned, Schaeffer has been the subject of numerous studies. There are dozens of qualified and reputable scholars who would be willing to explain his thought and influence. Unfortunately, while Lizza did find a PhD to provide a quote, he chose one that is known for being an unreliable source. Lizza writes,
[Schaeffer] 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.”
First, there is no “school of thought” known as “dominionism.” The term was coined in the 1980s by Diamond and is never used outside liberal blogs and websites. No reputable scholars use the term for it is a meaningless neologism that Diamond concocted for her dissertation.
If Lizza had done his homework he would have found that Diamond’s mid-1980s “scholarship” is neither timely nor credible. For example, Diamond bases her contention that Schaeffer is a “dominionist” on his book A Christian Manifesto. The problem is that rather than claiming that “Christians alone, are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns”—Schaeffer says exactly the opposite:
[W]e must make definite that we are in no way talking about any kind of theocracy. Let me say that with great emphasis. Witherspoon, Jefferson, the American Founders had no idea of a theocracy. That is made plain by the First Amendment, and we must continually emphasize the fact that we are not talking about some kind, or any kind, of a theocracy.
In the Old Testament there was a theocracy commanded by God. In the New Testament, with the church being made up of Jews and Gentiles, and spreading all over the known world from India to Spain in one generation, the church was its own entity. There is no New Testament basis for a linking of church and state until Christ the King returns. The whole “Constantine mentality” from the fourth century up to our own day was a mistake. . . . Making Christianity the official state religion opened the way for confusion up till our own day. But through the centuries it has caused great confusion between loyalty to the state and loyalty to Christ, between patriotism and being a Christian. We must not confuse the Kingdom of God with our country. To say it another way: “We should not wrap Christianity in our national flag.”
By the way, the first paragraph of this quote can be found on the Wikipedia page for Schaeffer. Had Lizza merely been as diligent as a college freshman plagiarizing a term paper he would have discovered his error.
Lesson #3: If you claim something is said in a book, make sure it is said in that book — This is related to Lesson #1. It’s not that hard to track down sources when they are in print. If Lizza had taken the time to actually read the book he wouldn’t have made this bizarre claim:
In 1981, three years before he died, Schaeffer published “A Christian Manifesto,” a guide for Christian activism, in which he argues for the violent overthrow of the government if Roe v. Wade isn’t reversed.
Anyone who has read the book knows that it says nothing of the sort. Throughout A Christian Manifesto Schaeffer advocates the use of “force”: “Force, as used in this book, means compulsion or constraint exerted upon a person (or persons) or on an entity such as the state.” [emphasis in original]
But couldn’t this mean “violence?” Schaeffer says no. In the only time that the word “violence” is used in the book, he condemns its use:
Two principles, however must always be observed. First, there must be a legitimate basis and a legitimate exercise of force. Second, any overreaction crosses the line from force to violence. And unmitigated violence can never be justified.
Throughout the book Schaeffer makes it clear that the way to oppose abortion is through non-violent civil disobedience. His strategy includes a human life amendment, overturning Roe v Wade in the Supreme Court, and legal and political actions against abortion providers. If all else fails, he says, the State must be made to feel the presence of the Christian community by using a fearsome tactic: “doing such things as sit-ins in legislatures and courts, including the Supreme Court.”
If it can’t be found in the book, where did Lizza get the idea that the book advocates the “violent overthrow of the government?” Only one source could come up with a claim that stupid and dishonest: Francis Schaeffer’s estranged son Frank Schaeffer. In a 2008 blog entry for the Huffington Post, Frank says:
. . .when my late father -- Religious Right leader Francis Schaeffer -- denounced America and even called for the violent overthrow of the US government, he was invited to lunch with presidents Ford, Reagan and Bush, Sr. [emphasis added]
I won’t go into all the reasons that Frank Schaeffer is an unreliable source. Better men than me have spent thousands of words proving that Frank has lied about his father’s legacy. This is but one more example of the depths of which he will stoop, even when the evidence is open for examination. However, in his article, Lizza says that he talked to Frank and includes a lengthy quote from him. There is no doubt that Lizza took the “violent overthrow” claim from Frank’s blog post—there is no other source for the claim. Perhaps Lizza can explain why he used the words of the son and attributes them to the father.
Lesson #4: Don’t rely on fact-checkers to save you – If you lack journalistic integrity and basic research skills, even the world-renowned New Yorker fact-checking department can’t save you from embarrassing yourself.
Joe Carter is Web Editor of First Things and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.
Ryan Lizza, A Leap of Faith
Frank Schaeffer, Obama's Minister Committed "Treason" But When My Father Said the Same Thing He Was a Republican Hero
Matthew J. Milliner, Crazy for God
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