Why Liberal Religious Arguments Fail

A lot has been made recently of a pair of efforts to turn the Republican Party’s ostentatious religious posture against it. In early June, conservative Republican Rep. Paul Ryan was handed a Bible flagging passages on the poor in response to his heavily-criticized budget proposal, followed closely by the American Values Network’s “must-see” video claiming to debunk the notion that Ayn Rand’s ideas can be reconciled with Christian teaching. The AVN people exulted that they had boxed Ryan into a corner: that, logically, he must repudiate either Rand or Jesus.

In these very pages Sarah Posner dived deeply and revealingly into the many potential problems of dueling biblicisms, but I want to look more closely at the broader problem of seeking to debunk or refute or demolish the religiously-grounded views of others. It’s important for me to say immediately that I rank chief among sinners in this regard. I love, love, LOVE telling others how puny and undeveloped their ideas are, and in particular how little they comprehend of the Bible’s great themes of exodus and liberation. (Really—you can check my greatest hits here at RD if you doubt me.) And yes: I am, in fact, using argument here in order to make the point that argument is generally unhelpful, particularly in respect to religiously-tinged viewpoints. God help me, I can do no other. 

Ideation and argument are mother’s milk to many of us, and especially to those of us nurtured in what I will shorthand as The Wordy Anglo-Protestant Tradition—a tradition that also inflects significant parts of American Judaism. When something moves us or provokes us, what do we do? We write a manifesto or a platform statement or a treatise.

We issue declarations. We ask people to sign our statement; join our remonstrance. 

And, just as massive rocks along the shore repel the pounding waves and reduce them to mere mist, our adversaries—especially our religious adversaries—pay not the slightest attention to our remonstrance or declaration, no matter how rock-solid our reasoning.  

I am not proposing that we stop arguing, because I don’t think we can. We are addicted to argumentation. I am proposing, however, that we pause to consider how ineffective such wrangling is. Which also means pausing to consider how small and pathetic it can be when people crow about the points they imagine they’ve scored by means of supple arguments and clever ripostes. Calling the AVN video a “must-see” triumph of faith-based Ryan/Rand demolition is just such a hollow claim. 

We can see how ineffective our argumentation is by looking at the interminable debate over whether to welcome LGBT persons as full and equal members of congregations—not to mention as ordainable leaders, marriageable people, and members of normal families.  

Every poll and every wise observer points out that gay-affirming folks have not been winning on account of superior arguments, whether arguments from the Bible or theology or science. They aren’t winning on account of their superior debating skills. They’re winning by being present and visible in faith communities: by coming out in ways that clergy and congregations can’t ignore. Gay people are winning because straight people who love and respect them are coming out right along with them.  

The classic instance is the faithful older church woman—a devoted and beloved member of the community—who, at just the right moment in a congregational meeting, stands up and says, “Well, friends, I guess we can argue about all of this until the cows come home. All I know is that ________, my ________, is as dear a child of God as I will ever hope to be.” She then goes on to tell the story of she found out about ________, how they stayed close, and how her heart was changed. Bingo. Are we ready for the vote? 

Frank Marinelli, the reformed anti-gay campaigner, recently confessed to Welton Gaddy on “State of Belief” that his earlier convictions about homosexuality were untempered by any actual encounters with gay people: “I understood their talking points, I understood their case, but I chose not to accept it because I didn’t see how it was a real issue that was directly affecting real people.” 

You will say that I am cheating by choosing such an obvious example. I have another.

I participated for a time in a Los Angeles-area peace and justice group, an interfaith group filled with good and righteous people. Following the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, it was decided that we should be reaching out to area congregations to ask if we could provide them with guest speakers who would then tell the members of those congregations just how wrong and pointless the war and occupation was. There were few takers. Meanwhile, but on a separate track, this same group was establishing relationships with returning soldiers and military family members who opposed the war. I suggested that we might ask congregations whether they would care to hear from a service member or a military family member, someone who would simply tell their story, rather than hear from one of the well-briefed peaceniks. My suggestion was rejected, as this would have deprived the peaceniks of a chance to sound off about how wrong (how very wrong) George W. Bush and Don Rumsfeld had been in regard to principles of international law. I withdrew from the group shortly thereafter. 

What is the point here? The point is that there IS no point to endless argumentation. Hearts and minds don’t change that way. They change when we share our stories and when we become present in a different way to those whom we wish to influence. The further point is that hearts change before minds do. It rarely works the other way around. 

And now some scientists believe that we don’t actually argue to arrive at clarity or truth—argumentation is a “social adaptation,” they contend: we are in debates to win, and we will readily use flawed arguments if we think they will sway the other side. Irrationality is not merely a “kink” in the process of truth-seeking. I think it noteworthy that the scholars from France and the U.S. who looked into self-serving argumentation endorse the kind of small-scale deliberative democracy espoused by philosophers like Rawls and Habermas: small-scale collaborative forums that can help “overcome the tendency of groups to polarize at the extremes and deadlock.” This is also precisely how I believe interlocutors with sharply differing theo-political views should be attempting to engage one another: in respectful small-scale conversations, not by tossing fusillades across the barricades. 

It interests me that the very same Anglo-Protestant tradition I fault for its bad habit of prolix argumentation contains within it a sub-tradition that reflects and honors a different form of wordy discourse: the sharing of individual faith stories or faith journeys. (And someone please help me here, because it may be that this alternate tradition comes more from the Anglican/Methodist side than from the Lutheran/Calvinist side, or it may be that telling faith stories is a peculiarly American thing—I just don’t know.)

In any case, because gathering to share our stories clearly does have such impact it’s that much more surprising that such sharing almost never happens at the level of big intra-religious conflicts over economic policy or torture or immigration or health care. Yes, the storytelling business is messy and diffuse. It doesn’t lend itself to sound bites as readily as the “I’m right/you’re wrong” confrontational throwdown does. But religious progressives in particular might well benefit from going this route, because so many of us have journeyed farther and over rockier ground than have our conservative counterparts.  

Storytelling is already powerful when we hear the stories of others, but it starts to become transformative when echoes and parallels among individual stories begin to create what feels like our story. Now try to tell us that we’re wrong on the facts—that we’re wrong on points. Good luck with that.  

Effective community organizers invariably give the people they’re organizing plenty of time to voice their own narratives, the warp and weave of their struggles. And as this goes on, you can see others in the room begin to nod and sometimes whoop their identification with the story.  

I don’t want to leave the impression that only progressives have good individual stories, plus a slamming big story, to tell—conservatives are past masters at painting a picture and forging a narrative about how the world works. Remember too that our big stories don’t have to be logical in ways that Wittgenstein would approve; they just have to be internally neat and emotionally satisfying.

Like this:

Good people tend to have money, because why would they be rich if they were not good? Conversely, there might be something wrong, some moral deficiency, in those who aren’t doing well. Government may also be holding them back—sapping their initiative. Government is almost always a threat to individual achievement and to competition: to what made American great, in other words. God surely smiled upon the old laissez faire American Way—but God cannot be pleased by our drift into Big Government and a nanny state. We need to restore America’s greatness, blah-di-blah-blah-blah.  

It is pure folly to imagine that conservatives, and especially religious conservatives, will be prepared to surrender their viewpoint based on, for example, the trifling fact that the Bush tax cuts for the rich and corporate tax cuts cannot be correlated to any expanded economic activity or job creation. Conservatives who benefit very directly from the economic status quo have a vested interest (literally) in sticking to their story. When people believe additionally that God has ordained or sanctified the economic status quo, we can totally forget about shaking them loose via factual argumentation.  

There is one more huge deficiency with liberal argumentation. It’s the facts-but-no-feelings problem. I recently heard a preacher quote the old observation by Archibald MacLeish on the danger of having no feelings around the knowledge we possess. These days we have dozens of progressive think tanks, all eager to tell us how gruesome the unemployment and discouraged worker numbers continue to be, and how desperation and depression are taking their toll for millions who struggle for a livelihood. If there is any passion at all in these recitations, it is a passion in the head. Better than none, I suppose. But if we want to galvanize people who themselves are not struggling around the grim state of the economy, reeling off the facts won’t cut it. People must be invited to engage directly with those who suffer: that is where transformation can begin. 

So yes, religious progressives should at least try to temper the bad habit of imagining they can reason their way, debate their way, to greater power and reach. That’s mostly a fool’s errand. And we should maybe also take a lesson from our own formative stories.  

For the vast majority of Americans there’s the example of the ultimate non-debater and storyteller… That guy. They said that he spoke “not as the scribes, but as one having authority.” What does it mean? I like to think it means that he was not debating (except just once in a while when greatly provoked). For the most part he was teaching and demonstrating. He was mixing it up high and low, becoming fully present to friends and enemies alike. Spinning out all of those parables. Hunkering down and scratching his finger in the sand. Laying hands upon the sick. Getting in and out of boats. Going off to pray alone, sometimes weeping alone. Breaking bread and seeing to it that there was enough wine to go around. Laughing, eating, making bad puns.  

When he was gone, did they first remember his list of religious instructions? Did they remember his debating points against his adversaries? Eventually they remembered these things. But first they remembered the Good Shepherd. Archaeology shows that long before the cross became the symbol of the church, his symbol was the picture of the shepherd with the lost lamb wrapped over his shoulders. His words were remembered, too. But they were recalled most vividly around a table of bread and wine and within a ciborcle of people doing what he taught them to do, not saying what he taught them to say.  

Did he win over heart and minds? You bet he did. As do many others today who have the good sense to show it more than they say it.  

We could do worse than to learn from our great storytellers while looking somewhat askance at our great debaters. The clash of competing views is attractive, and it’s endlessly entertaining. But it will always be the people with compelling stories—and with big hearts to match—who get us to rise up and follow.

peterlaarman@gmail.com'

Peter Laarman is a United Church of Christ minister and activist who recently retired as executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting in Los Angeles. He remains involved in numerous justice struggles, in particular a campaign known as Justice Not Jails that calls upon faith communities to critique and combat the system of racialized mass incarceration often referred to as The New Jim Crow.