Sunday, May 16, 2010

Straw Wars


The Straw Man argument is a logical fallacy. You hear it a lot on political talk radio. It goes like this: Party A makes a recognizable caricature of Party B's position. Party A then argues against the caricature as if it were Party B's position. Straw Man arguments can carry a certain emotional resonance. They can even fool the inattentive. But careful observers will recognize that while Party A has kicked the stuffing out of a straw man, Party B's true position is left unscathed.

I came across a classic straw man on the Faithful Transition website. If you are not familiar with it, the website's masthead describes its purpose thus:

Sponsored by the WordAlone Network, this website is meant to provide guidance to individuals and congregations who are seeking to affiliate with LCMC (Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ) and/or the new church body NALC (North American Lutheran Church) being designed by Lutheran CORE.

I actually do not object to Faithful Transition's purpose. For those whose conscience is so bound that they can no longer remain members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), some helpful guidance might be useful. But about that straw man, the cartoon below was posted on May 15 by Pastor Steve King under the title "We've Hit What?"

I have to wonder just how this cartoon furthers Faithful Transition's stated purpose. Maybe half-truths, misstatements and distortions of this sort make it easier for the disaffected to leave the ELCA.

Understand, I am about as ELCA as a person can get. I agree with the 2009 Churchwide Assembly decisions regarding sexuality and standards for ordination. I even agree with the "local option" which allows congregations to refuse same-sex partnered clergy. I know that this cartoon is supposed to represent the ELCA's positions, but frankly, I do not recognize myself in it.

I have a strong understanding of biblical authority. It is not identical to WordAlone's, of course. I like to think that it is more reasoned and consistent. I reject "Lack of Biblical Authority" as a label that sticks to the ELCA.

I have argued elsewhere against the idea that the ELCA has embraced Universalism. So, "Universalist Rejection of Christ" is nonsensical as far as I'm concerned.

As for "False Gospel of 'Affirmation'" I am not entirely sure what that means. It is another rather nebulous charge along the lines of "Gospel of Inclusion" or "Gospel of Conformity." I would guess that "Affirmation" is supposed to mean something like Gospel without Law. If so, then this, too, is a distortion of both my position, and, as I understand it, the position of the ELCA.

When I first saw the cartoon, I thought, "Two can play at that." So I did Google search for images of icebergs, found one at this website, and used MS Paint to add some text. The result:

When I got done with my little art project, I looked at it and thought, "I'll bet that WordAloners looking at my cartoon would recognize themselves in it about as much as I recognized myself in their cartoon." Building straw men is fun. Kicking them to bits is even more fun, but in the end, what purpose does it serve? It only occasions anger and creates division. It may also violate that pesky Eighth Commandment, you know, the one about bearing false witness.

So, here's the deal. WordAlone, cut the crap. If you must leave the ELCA, leave. If your conscience is bound so that you must stay and disagree, then stay and disagree. But let's all quit building straw men, shall we? Let's show a little respect for one another's positions.

I mean, I will if you will.


  1. You're forgetting a lot of the Straw MEN being hurled at the ELCA.y favorite is:

    The ELCA is eliminating the book of Genesis from the Bible because it no longer believes in Creation.

    This is one that gets hurled around by the antiELCA side of my congregation. To quote Kyle Broflovski's mom (from South Park) WhawhaWHAT?

    You're right about the iceberg. The CWA decision is just the rallying point. As long as bound consciences are respected, you can take or leave it if you want to remain a member of the ELCA. There is no rule preventing anyone from leaving it their conscience is so bound that this is a deal-breaker.

    But enough with the throwing anything and everything against the wall in the hopes that some criticism will stick.

    If one to keep flinging things, aren't there other denominations and sects that will fit one's personal definition of biblical authority.

    And with that, I shall end with a sigh.

    Btw, I liked your essays on Job. Insightful and rather helpful.

  2. Thanks, Kelly.

    I've been thinking about forming the BrantAlone network. I'm sure no one else would join...but that's the point.

  3. Was your iceberg supposed to represent a counter strawman, or what you actually believe about Word Alone? Cause it looks quite a bit like the charges leveled by Jon Pahl in his recent article. It sounds quite a bit like the charges leveled against opponents of same sex marriage at the synod assemblies I have attended over the last 10 years. However, you left out misogynist, segregationist, slave owner, apartheidist, and Nazi collaborator. Word alone is actually attempting to show what theological issues are at stake for them. Your camp has been quite good at building straw men for some time, over twenty years in fact. Give Word Alone a little time to catch up.

  4. Hi Anonymous,

    Thank you for a witty reply to my post. I particularly like the bit about "Nazi collaborator." "Segregationist" gave me pause, though. If we think about it, the ELCA's "local option" policy creates a sort of "separate but equal" status for same-sex partnered clergy which might more accurately be deemed "segregationist."

    Just something to tug one's chin over.

    Was my iceberg a counter-strawman? I'd actually describe it as an electronic fit of pique. There are some points in it that I think are defensible. I made my iceberg, though, as a reaction to the ambivalent feelings of anger, bemusement and sighing resignation that WordAlone's iceberg occasioned in me.

    More on target though, let me ask: Do you think that my iceberg accurately represents the views of WordAlone? How did you feel when you saw it? I would guess that WordAloners react to my iceberg about the way I react to theirs. And that is the point of my post.

    This kind of accusatory negativity only exacerbates divisions.

    The only point I consciously took from Dr. Pahl was "American Civil Religion." (Dr. Pahl does offer some substantive criticism of CORE's theological underpinnings which I hope to see honestly engaged by someone of his scholarly status. So far all I have seen is reactions to his bare-knuckles tone.

    Marriage counselors teach embattled couples to make "I" statements and not "you" statements. For example, "I don't think we can afford a big screen TV just now." instead of "You're going to bankrupt us with your extravagant spending." Or, "I calculate that we could pay a big screen TV off in less than a year" as opposed to "You're just being a cheapskate."

    Do you see the difference?

    What I would like is to see both "camps" (to use your word) in this debate make more positive assertions and less negative accusations.

    Finally, I want to point out that the debate about sexuality has been ongoing for some time. It predates the existence of WordAlone, and CORE, and Soulforce and ELM. Both sides have had more than 20 years practice making straw men (and sometimes legitimate arguments) but back in the day we were all just "ELCA."

    God bless.


  5. Apartheidist, Segregationist and Nazi Collaborator and the others I mentioned were not jokes. They are charges that were made in my presence from the floor of a synod assembly.

    I'll admit that Word Alone is often ham fisted in its rhetoric, painting with too broad a brush and engaging in hyperbole. However, I did not see the Iceberg as an attempt to define what YOU believe, but what concerns the members of Word Alone have about the theological trends in the ELCA. I'm not a member of Word Alone share some of those concerns.

    As Lutherans, we often talk of "making the proper distinctions". For instance, when you use terms like "legalism" or "bibliolatry", I doubt you mean that Word Alone has consciously decided to adopt either position, but that by failing to make the proper distinctions, they have drifted toward those positions. In the same way, and speaking for myself alone, I would say that by failing to make the proper distinctions, some in the ELCA have drifted toward Universalism, Cheap Grace, and Enthusiasm.

    As far as your iceberg goes, the only term I find offensive is Homophobe. The others can be rationally argued, but Homophobe imputes motive to another person and questions that person's character. It is the equivalent of a ad-hominem attack.

    I believe it was Alisdair MacIntyre who introduced the distinction between Causes and Reasons. Too often we seek to argue against another peron's position by uncovering the environmental, cultural or psychological causes of their belief. The assumption is that if we can find the Cause of a belief, we have demonstrated that that person has no good Reason to hold that belief.

    In this debate in the ELCA it would be helpful if we focused on the Reasons that our interlocutor gives for his or her position and not the Causes that we suspect underly their position. You are correct that the failure to do that will not help the case the Word Alone is trying to make.

    David (Anonymous) Charlton

  6. Hi, David...

    And welcome. It's good to have a name to attach to your remarks.

    I have to say, your synod's assemblies must be a great deal more raucous than mine. The language of "Nazi collaborator" is so outrageous and over the top that I had to assume it was a parody.

    I like the distinction you make between causes and reasons. It may help the Church to carry on civil conversation and to "put the best construction on our neighbors' actions."

    I also think that you are onto something regarding proper distinctions. I think that is plain that the "Gay Divide" as Susan Hogan calls it at is not just about sexuality. There seems to be wide agreement that it is also, and perhaps moreso, about scriptural authority. Also underlying the discussion is an old disagreement about the uses of the Law which has troubled Lutherans for a long time. (Note to self: It's time to dust of the Augsburg Confession and reread the section about the uses of the Law).

    As for homophobia, it is a difficult word. Its current use no longer coincides with its etymology. I think that, just as we speak of institutional racism or institutional sexism, it is possible to speak of institutional homophobia in a way that does not constitute an ad hominem attack.

    At any rate, I do not mean to impugn the motives of WordAlone, CORE, LCMC, NALC or any of their constituency. I believe that the majority of them are sincere and have good motives. Likewise, the people of SoulForce, ELM, etc. are sincere and have good motives. The problem is we are all sinners...oh, and we happen to disagree.

    Emotions run high in this debate. Ramped-up rhetoric serves the purpose of those who seek division.

    Anyway, I appreciate your contribution here.

    God bless.


  7. Hi - I've read your blog for a while. This is an interesting comment thread and I feel the need to chime in for the first time.

    I have a hard time with "homophobe" too, but for a different reason. I sincerely believe, as you do, Brant, that we are to assume the best intentions of our fellow believers. But I think we also need to call things what they are. It's difficult because I have heard and read some truly hateful and - yes - homophobic screeds from opponents of the CWA decisions. It doesn't upset or surprise me necessarily - we are all products of a culture and a church that is homophobic and transphobic, and I know that I am not perfectly free of prejudice either. None of us are. However, it seems, bizarrely, that it's almost worse to call someone's comments or actions homophobic than it is for opponents of the CWA decision to say toxic, hateful, homophobic things. There's something wrong with how we discuss this issue, and I think there is particularly a problem with the way that some folks use "bound conscience" as a way to make any bigoted comment they want without having to listen to anyone's criticisms.

    Anyway, thank you for allowing me to vent my frustration.

  8. Ann,

    Thank you, first, for reading me for "a while." I'm still surprised that anyone wants to read my little essays, or that they would come back more than once.

    Thank you, second, for your contribution to the comments here. I don't think you and I are far apart in our understanding. In my lexicon "homophobia" means discrimination against homosexuals.

    I think that what David was getting at is that calling someone a homophobe impugns their motives. It is like saying "You don't support the ELCA because you just hate gays." While this may be true in some instances, it is not universally true and I can understand why some of the people who do not agree with the CWA'09 decisions would take offense at being called homophobic.

    It is a matter of those "You" statements versus "I" statements. It is not so far different from my reaction to being called accused of "Universalist rejection of Christ."

    On the other hand, I think that it is fair to label as "homophobic" doctrines and policies that result in homosexuals being treated as lesser persons. This is not an ad hominem attack, but an appraisal of the consequences of specific words, attitudes and teachings.

    Please, Ann, feel free to vent your frustrations in my comments threads any time.

    God bless.


  9. Hi, Brant -

    I'm wondering if 'heterosexist' might be a viable alternative to your use of 'homophobic.' I'm a student of a ecumenical progressive seminary, and that's the language we tend to use for policies/institutions that discriminate against folks who are LGBT.

    Just a thought.


  10. Thanks for a helpful suggestion, Val. My use of the word "homophobia" in the original post was intentional. Since then, we've been discussing the term which is, frankly, offensive to those who are called "homophobes." "Heterosexism" may better express a sense of institutions and policies that have a discriminatory effect. I'm not sure that it is less offensive to call someone a "heterosexist" than a "homophobe" but we are, after all, talking about issues, not personalities.

    I also like the word "heteronormative" which is powerfully descriptive and, surprisingly, is in Blogger's spell checker.

    God bless.


  11. Pr James HarbaughJune 1, 2010 at 3:52 PM

    Dear Brant,

    This is the coolest posting I've come across on the net today,

    "Ein" veritable "fest of bergs."

    And, while we're at it, how much do we have to tip icebergs anyway? Is Ten percent enough?

    O.K. I'll go away again.

    But, before that, I agree that the debate has been long on straw(men), short on law: whose "uses" (as discussed in the Smalcald Articles and the Formula of Concord) are the unaddressed issue on all fronts in the debate.


  12. Jim!

    We've missed you on Tuesday mornings! We've even missed your puns.

    If you would like to write a 500-1000 word piece about the uses of the Law, I'd be glad to have you for a guest-blogger.

    God bless you!