the smell of strawmen burning

I enjoy talking with Rusty Reno — as I did just yesterday, here in Waco! — but he is, I have learned over the years, a frustrating person to argue with in print, because he doesn’t respond to what you write, but rather what he thinks you must have meant, or, worse, what he thinks someone of your type must inevitably mean.

Case in point: writing here in response to this article of mine, he writes:

Jacobs exemplifies the all-or-nothing approach to politics characteristic of Evangelicals. Seeking a theological voice in the public square, Evangelicals are tempted to discern direct divine warrants for their political judgments. This can lead someone to speak of God anointing Donald Trump to save our nation, and thus implying that no Christian in good conscience could have voted for anyone other than Trump. Alan Jacobs and other Evangelicals (Peter Wehner is a notable instance) are mirror images, describing Trump in ways approaching divine condemnation, implying that no Christian in good conscience could have voted for Trump.

In fact, more than half of my essay is devoted to a critique of the very “all-or-nothing approach” that Rusty says I exemplify. (Maybe he only read the parts of it that concerned him.) And here’s what I write in the conclusion to that essay:

What is required of serious religious believers in a pluralistic society is the ability to code-switch: never to forget or neglect their own native religious tongue, but also never to forget that they live in a society of people for whom that language is gibberish. To speak only in the language of pragmatism is to bring nothing distinctive to the table; to speak only a private language of revelation and self-proclaimed authority is to leave the table altogether. For their own good, but also for the common good, religious believers need to be always bilingually present.

Does that sound like an “all-or-nothing approach” to politics? You could only say so if you weren’t paying attention — perhaps because you think you know what “Evangelicals” are like. (Rusty typically says “Evangelicals” the way Victorian civil servants said “Hottentots.” The first thing Rusty ever said to me, many years ago, was that a talk I gave — on a subject that did not touch on evangelicalism at any point — reminded him why he’s not an Evangelical. One of the chief themes of his essay seems to be that, while he supported Trump — vigorously — he didn’t do it for the reasons that Evangelicals did.)

On another matter: Rusty writes, “Christians have theological reasons for not theologizing their political judgments.” Whether that’s true or not depends on what Rusty means by the odd word “theologizing.” If he means that Christians have theological reasons for not making their public arguments in explicitly theological language, then he’s simply restating my claim that “religious believers in a pluralistic society” should remember “that they live in a society of people for whom that language is gibberish.”

But I think he means by not-theologizing something like “not seeking a theocracy,” because from that point he goes on to denounce Christians who “expect the laws of our country to accord with the Sermon on the Mount” — though that is not a position I have ever held. Maybe he’s not even talking about me there, but if not, I don’t know who he is talking about. Does he think that’s the typical view of Hottentots? — I mean, Evangelicals? Hell if I know. All this is just orthogonal to the issues I raise, and the issues that matter. The whole essay, I’m tempted to say, consists of a smokescreen made from burning strawmen.

The sine qua non of this rhetorical strategy comes when Rusty sententiously declares that a post in which I said that I would vote for “the reanimated corpse of Adlai Stevenson” in preference to Donald Trump is deficient in “analytic sobriety.” Can Rusty really be that completely humorless? I would ask him to take a post like that a little more seriously and a little less literally, but I think someone may have used that line before.

So I’ve written a few hundred words here and I still haven’t gotten to any of the really significant issues we could be debating, such as the difference between prudence and pragmatism, or Rusty’s rather astonishing claim that “Trump’s campaign came as close to the platform of European post–World War II Christian democracy as any American candidate for president has come in two generations.” This is what happens when someone ignores what has actually been argued in favor of a fantastical caricature, presumably because the caricature is so much easier to refute. I’ve got a list of seven other ideas Rusty attributes to me that I did not state and do not hold, but it’s too depressing even to contemplate going over those. Whenever Rusty takes the trouble to represent my views accurately, and respond to what I actually argued, I’m ready for a conversation. Until then: as William Blake said, “Enough! Or, Too much.”