Debate scholarships paid for a good part of my college education. Learning to make a coherent argument, buttress it using credible research, and defend it extemporaneously have been invaluable skills over the years.
But I’m now wondering if my years of labor in the vineyards of logic and evidence were worthwhile.
In our time, we are seeing the diminishment, if not the death, of logic as a compelling force for persuasion. Aspersions weigh more than reason. Words burdened by implicit cultural meaning have greater standing than any syllogism. Appeals to emotion, however vulgar, are applauded. Rational responses to difficult questions are not only drowned out but portrayed as the worst of all things in a post-moral society: “mean.”
In Remaking the Modern Mind, the late theologian Carl F. H. Henry wrote, “From the very first, Christianity appealed to the intellect. Revelational theism has never offered itself as an escape from rationality; rather, it has insisted on the subrationality or irrationality of all other views of reality.” Put a bit more simply, Christian faith demands intellectual rigor and assumes rationality. Without reason, Christianity no longer represents what its founder asserted himself to be: the Truth.
This kind of commitment to reason and truth should characterize our public debates, but increasingly it does not. Consider the debate on homosexual marriage. Supporters of sustaining the historic definition of marriage as a legal covenant between one man and one woman, for life, are accused of bigotry because we oppose the redefinition of the institution. The accusation of bias usually runs something like this:
A) Homosexuality is private and/or genetic; therefore,
B) it is either amoral or a positive good.
C) As such, it must not only be tolerated but actively affirmed in civic life and law itself.
D) Due to its organic origins and/or positive outcomes, homosexual marriage is benign and to oppose it indicates bigotry.
E) Ergo: If you oppose redefining marriage, you are a bigot.
While the extent to which homosexuality is a genetic trait is often overstated, nothing in the Christian moral tradition hinges on this question. Neither homosexual conduct nor extramarital heterosexual intimacy are ever honoring to God or to those who bear his image. The Bible limits the scope of moral sexual intimacy to heterosexual intercourse in marriage. That’s it.
Someone might respond, “Believe what you want! Just don’t impose those beliefs upon those of us who want change.” And it’s here that argument often grinds to an embarrassed halt: Our national allegiance to individual freedom makes a negative response seem narrow, even cruel.
But what if it can be demonstrated from human biology, myriad sociological data, and simple reason that same-sex marriage is an oxymoron? And what if I want to bring beliefs so derived to the arena of public policy?
Marriage is about procreation and union, about two disparate genders complementing one another for the sake of children and human fulfillment (not only sexual but neurological, emotional, etc.). Same-sex marriage erodes the very purpose of marriage as a social institution and trivializes the intellectual, psychological, and biological distinctions between men and women.
Marriage is not just about consent (my same-sex partner and I want to be married) and affection (I love him/her). If consent and affection are the only criteria for marriage, then any kind of volitional relationship qualifies as a marriage, be it polyamorous, polygamous, “monogamish,” or something else.
It is at this point that reasoned debate begins to decay and epithets are hurled by proponents of redefining marriage with almost invariable predictability. That’s because, ultimately, this debate does not employ reason, logic, biology, or concern about the optimal well-being of children. It is about a minority that wants not only tolerance but affirmation, to which end it will exploit a host of emotions (guilt, sympathy, fear), magnify the most extreme examples of vitriolic attacks as representative of all opposition, and try to silence—not rationally defeat, but silence—all arguments not in keeping with its desired goal.
Some homosexuals have been wounded by believing Christians, whose unintentional insensitivity and, occasionally, deliberate offensiveness have caused pain. It is natural that such experiences will surmount even the sweetest, most imperturbable reason and inform one’s perspective.
At the same time, some Evangelicals are quick to internalize whatever criticisms are thrown their way. They accept the acid rubrics of their critics as a form of penance, often without wondering if the accusations are justified.
Sometimes, they surely are. But in our efforts humbly to hear what our critics are saying we sometimes go to the other extreme of accepting as valid whatever charge they lay against us. We do them no favor if we accede to a lie for the sake of soothing a perceived hurt.
Truth can have a sharp edge and, however gently applied, can still cut. This is a reality of Christian life, and the fact that not everyone receives truth well doesn’t instantly mean that we have conveyed it unlovingly.
Of course, not all advocates of same-sex marriage call those who disagree bigots, homophobes, or haters. Yet many do, regularly, and with purpose: They are uninterested in a rational discussion about the issue, but rather at any cost want to achieve their goal of full legal and social affirmation.
Although the debate over marriage is a clear and current case in point, the dearth of reason is endemic to the public debates of our time. From abortion (“It’s not a child; it’s a fetus”) to education (“How can you be against Policy X? It’s for the children”), feeling triumphs over thought, and clichés reign over clarity.
Certainly, passion cannot be segregated from all deliberation. Emotions about deeply personal and political matters run deep, and to suggest they can or should be eliminated from such debates is silly and even anti-human. Yet when one’s desires place reason in a wholly subordinate position to feeling, honest discussion and rational outcomes can be made very difficult.
The sticking point in all of this is that when it comes to contested issues of moral value, one side wins and the other loses. It’s not like two sides debating a highway appropriation—one side wants to spend $10 billion, the other $8 billion, so they settle on $9 billion. Rather, such socio-moral issues as abortion on demand, the nature of marriage, and the rights of conscience and religious liberty offer us no intermediate policy outcome.
Christians, then, should make their arguments carefully, winsomely, graciously, and firmly, in the hope that “the law written on the heart” will overcome emotional prejudice, intellectual laziness, and moral compromise. When we lose, we have no choice but to keep making our arguments.
We are called not to political success but faithfulness to God. If we are attacked because we’ve spoken or acted like jerks, then we need to repent, seek forgiveness, and better wed truth with love. But if we suffer for Jesus’ sake, for the faith once delivered and the truth revealed with finality, we are blessed, not cursed.
Reason for the sake of truth is essential. Peter charges us to articulate it whenever asked about our faith in Christ, and then continues: “Keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame. For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong” (2 Peter 3:15-17).
We abandon reasoned argument, and succumb to story-telling for the sake of emotion, at the cost of the gospel. Let’s not.
Rob Schwarzwalder is senior vice president at the Family Research Council.