Every culture thrills to its favored words or concepts. In The Ethics of Rhetoric, Richard Weaver dubbed them “god terms.” They’re the argument-ending, conclusive words that we find intrinsically persuasive because they express our deep prejudices about what’s good and true and beautiful.
Weaver wrote The Ethics of Rhetoric after World War II. The god terms in his day were “progressive,” “democratic,” “scientific,” and so forth. If a local school board was unsure about changes introduced by the recently hired district head, he could reassure them with these god terms. “Our goal with this new plan is to provide the children of Muscatine with a progressive, scientifically-designed curriculum that draws on the very best of our democratic traditions.”
Changed god terms signal changes in culture. For example, the value of “scientific” has declined. Today’s brand managers are far more likely to describe a new toothpaste or shaving cream as “organic” than “scientifically proven.” Agricultural scientists and developmental economists can make excellent arguments about the virtues of genetically modified seeds. They allow increase yields while reducing the use of fertilizers, pesticides, etc. But the god term sweeps all these considerations away. Organic is good; its opposite is bad. Therefore genetically modified foods must be prohibited. QED.
“Democratic” has also lost a bit of its cachet. Today our political or social god term is more likely to be “diversity.” Brandeis University’s mission statement acknowledges the founding support of the Jewish community. It then goes on to say that the university “welcomes students, teachers, and staff of every nationality, religion, and orientation,” and in so doing “renews the American heritage of cultural diversity, equal access to opportunity, and freedom of expression.” Notre Dame’s mission statement affirms its Catholic identity, but also bows to the god term, reassuring us that the university “is enriched by the presence and voices of diverse scholars and students.”
“Inclusive” is another contemporary god term, one that serves as a handmaiden to diversity. Thus one of the guiding values in the University of Illinois mission statement: “Be inclusive, treat each other with dignity, and respect and promote citizenship.” And it’s not just academia. Management consultants like to talk about the business advantages of diversity, as well as the virtues of “inclusive leadership.”
Still another god term is “transgressive.” In decades past we used “experimental” to suggest something that would advance science or in some other way lead to progress. Now we’re less invested in science and progress. We want liberation, and thus the virtue of transgression. It’s not just new; it’s thrilling.
As Weaver recognized, god terms don’t add up to a coherent system of thought. In his day, urban planners took an imperious approach. Science tells us what’s best for city-dwellers. Democracy had nothing to do with the process that brought us housing projects.
The same goes for our god terms today. Genetically modified corn is by any measure the very ideal of transgression—a violation of nature!—yet it’s a sin against “organic.” And then there’s the fact that reality is so often otherwise. It’s commonplace that the more fervently institutions proclaim their commitment to diversity the more likely they are to be filled with people who have exactly the same political, social, and moral views.
Incoherence and contradiction are inevitable. God terms emerge out of our collective, public imagination, as it were, not a thought-out philosophy. And that imagination reflects the often-weird confluences (and collisions) of ideas, projects, and movements that make up the history of our culture.
It’s therefore important to realize that god terms are not the premises in arguments, nor are they conclusions. You won’t find very many people trying to prove the organic beer is better. Just by being organic it’s better. The same holds for other god terms. At faculty meetings I sometimes queried colleagues about just what they meant by “diversity.” Why was it so important, and what exactly would it require in the way of policies? This usually led to stuttering expressions of thinly veiled horror that I might be a heretic.
Transgressive? Given the utter dominance of modern and postmodern approaches, wouldn’t a classically designed building in New York be the most transgressive thing to build? Again, this confuses the god term with an independent concept that has actual meaning. The same holds for “freedom,” a favorite god term on the political right these days, as the incoherent government-as-enemy-of-freedom sensibility so richly demonstrates.
We cannot argue with god terms, a fact Weaver sought to bring to the fore with his phrase. It’s a dream of reason—itself an older, Enlightenment god term—to imagine we can reduce politics to syllogisms. There is a sacred dimension to public life, one with orthodoxies and heresies, godly incantations that bring applause and Satanic verses that cannot be spoken. We know them intuitively, which is why in the cases concerning gay marriage before the Supreme Court the lawyers on one side have and will continue to openly proclaim the god terms of their cause (equality, non-discrimination, etc.), while the other side seeks an outcome that dare not speak its name.
We need to keep Weaver’s insight in mind. Yes, politics has a practical dimension. Campaigns can be run well—or poorly. Laws can be well crafted—or not. Constitutional lawyers can argue more or less effectively. But all that operates within a larger imaginative universe. The future turns on god terms. Our political environment would be very different if we thrilled to “discipline” rather than “transgression,” “justice” rather than “diversity,” or to “integrity” rather than “inclusion.” That’s a difference campaign contributions, Karl Rove, and political action committees cannot achieve. It requires a politics of the imagination, one that alters our metaphysical dreams and reshapes our god terms.
R.R. Reno is editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.