Planned Parenthood is exposed for trafficking aborted baby parts. Bruce Jenner changes himself into Caitlyn Jenner and the culture lauds him as courageous. The United States Supreme Court in a landmark decision, recognizes homosexual marriage. In the midst of the maelstrom of change in American culture, traditional Christian beliefs and values are no longer the norm but the exception. The Christian now finds himself having to defend his beliefs against a vocal and aggressive liberal agenda that seeks to remove any vestige of Christianity from our culture. If there has ever been a time in America where the believer must be ready to give a reason for his faith, it is now.
But, just how do you argue effectively in the midst of a cacophony of competing ideas? I want to provide some tips to keep in mind as you engage our culture. In doing so, I will use George Stephanopoulos’ recent interview with Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, as a test case. Richards’ argumentation is indicative of what you can encounter in our culture and of what to avoid when developing your own arguments.
When you are engaging someone else about any cultural issue or objections to Christianity, there are several things to keep in mind that can help you effectively address their objections or issues. In particular, there is the receiving aspect of engagement where you listen to and process the arguments of others. Then there is the answering aspect where you address an issue with your argument. Let us first look at the receiving aspect of engaging the culture.
Listen to the opposing argument. Too often Christians talk past those of different viewpoints because we fail to pay close attention to their objections and issues. Though the Lord can use you despite any mistake, you strengthen your case when the other person knows you hear their argument. Listening to another’s argument entails that you hear what they are saying and not saying.
One’s argument consists of his claim and his stated reasons of support (or premises). Yet, when you encounter an argument, there is more than meets the eye. Undergirding every argument is the arguer’s unstated reasons and presuppositions—basic beliefs that are taken for granted. When you encounter an argument, listen for what the arguer is not saying. Detecting the arguer’s unstated premises and presuppositions may give you more headway in addressing the real issue at hand.
The PP interview and logical fallacies
In her July 26 interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week, Cecile Richards defended the actions of Planned Parenthood doctors caught on camera allegedly negotiating prices for aborted fetuses. According to Richards, the doctors have done nothing wrong, and what Planned Parenthood doctors really offer are basic healthcare services for women. What Richards does not state in her interview—that which necessarily informs her claim—is her views on the nature of man and on what constitutes a basic human right. To adequately address Richards’ interview, you would need to deal with her unspoken premises in order to make any progress in exposing and defending the truth.
Analyze for possible logical fallacies. A basic logic course can equip you with the most common fallacies committed in everyday arguments. If you have taken a logic course, but time has erased what you have learned, there are excellent books and web resources that can refresh your memory. What you basically need to look for, however, are the following fallacious methods:
1. Attacking the arguer, not the argument. The easiest thing to do when answering an someone’s argument is to attack their character or to bring up circumstantial issues that are not related to the point at hand. In short, does the other person shift the focus away from the topic in their argument? (And a word of caution to you – do you employ such a method in your own argumentation?)
Consider again the Richards’ interview. Rather than address the pressing issue (was the content of the released videos true?), Richards quickly shifts attention to those behind the videos, labelling them as “militants” and “extremists,” as well as grouping them with those who have bombed abortion clinics and murdered abortion doctors. By attacking the credibility of those who released the videos, Richards essentially neglects the real issue of the interview to take the spotlight away from her. Such a move, however, is fallacious as her argument does not address the claim made by the released videos.
2. Distracting the audience. Here the arguer at least stays on topic (in general), but subtly shifts the focus to a simplified version of the another’s argument. The arguer then attacks this simpler argument in order to bolster his own claim. Usually the subtle change is such that the audience, if not careful, can potentially accept the arguer’s claim despite its fallacious argument (this is another word of caution for you as well—stay on topic.).
Richards’ modus operandi throughout her interview is to shift the focus to a related but irrelevant topic. George Stephanopoulos raised questions regarding the content of the released videos: Do Planned Parenthood clinics profit from selling parts of aborted babies? Have the doctors who appear on camera been reprimanded? How many clinics are known to harvest fetal parts and profit from them? Richards answers the questions, but consistently directs the audience to the menacing authors of the videos and to the numerous health services Planned Parenthood offers to women. In short, Richards’ answer to the charges brought against Planned Parenthood does little to bolster her claims.
3. Using unclear language. A problem with printed or recorded arguments is that, if the arguer is not careful to be clear, the audience can mistake the meaning of a word or idea intended by the author for another meaning. Words that are ambiguous (they have more than one distinct meaning) or vague (they have an indefinite range of meaning) can be misinterpreted if the arguer fails to explicitly define them or clarify the context in which they are used. When the arguer is not present, it can be difficult for the audience to know the intended use behind such problematic words.
Euphemisms are problematic as well. Euphemisms are words or phrases that attempt to “soften” words or phrases that are harsh, disturbing, or socially unacceptable. In her interview, Richards uses the euphemism “unintended pregnancy” for those women who visited Planned Parenthood for an abortion. By labeling the pregnancy as such, Richards attempts to paint abortion in a more positive light by implying women have the choice to end an unintended or unplanned pregnancy. The abortion, then, is not about the baby, but about the woman’s choice. In part 2, I will unpack the answering aspect of the argument.
J. Daniel McDonald, Ph.D., serves as adjunct professor of Christian Worldview and Apologetics at Boyce College.
Editors’ note: Part I of this two-part series was published on Tuesday.
Engaging the culture involves more than the picking apart of opposing arguments. While this is important, you must develop and use well-reasoned arguments. It is far too easy to point out the faults and inaccuracies of someone else’s argument, but to make this your only method does little in advancing the truth. You must be ready to give an answer for what you seek to correct. To help you toward this end, here are four fundamental tips related to the answering aspect of engaging the culture.
1. Provide the solution, not just a critique. This may sound like I am being repetitive, but it is worth repeating. Don’t stop at pointing out your another’s faults (regarding his argument). For instance, I recently read a Twitter post where someone claimed that a particular theologian’s argument committed the straw man fallacy, thus undermining his argument and essentially all of Scripture. The tweeter failed to provide an explanation as to why the theologian committed the straw man fallacy. Merely labeling an argument as fallacious is nothing more than name calling. If an argument is fallacious, explain why.
But, do not stop there. Pointing out a fault without offering a corrective is like a dentist removing a cavity without putting in the filling. Sure, the patient no longer has the cavity, but without filling the hole properly, the patient will have worse dental problems in the long run. To fix the problem, the dentist must add a filling after removing the cavity. Likewise, you must offer a corrective or a solution after pointing out a fault in another’s argument.
With regard to the Richards’ interview, it is easy for Christians to lambast Richards for her views on abortion and the actions of Planned Parenthood. We do little by way of bring truth to light if we focus only on the weaknesses of her argument. Instead, build a case that demonstrates how Richards’ claim is untenable and how the argument made by the Center for Medical Progress demands action.
2. Be informed. Know what you are talking about. Facebook and Twitter are excellent mediums to use when engaging cultural issues. The temptation, though, is to jump into a discussion and rely solely on hearsay or personal experience. Another temptation is to provide immediate responses to keep the upper hand or momentum.
Take the time to research the topic at hand. If you are unfamiliar about a particular issue, do some research and think through your response before replying. Peter’s instruction in 1 Peter 3:15 implies that we reflect carefully upon why we believe what we believe and how we answer objections to the faith. We can apply this principle to our cultural engagement as well; we are to be ready to defend the truth, whatever the situation.
Will you be able to answer successfully every charge? No. Will you make mistakes when defending the Christian faith? Yes. But this should not stop you from preparing well to give an answer for your faith. Jesus Christ promises the Holy Spirit to guide you when you face opposition, but he also instructs us through Peter to prepare for such times. He will bless your work.
3. Let emotion support, not carry, your argument. The ongoing controversy with Planned Parenthood ought to anger you. It is natural and biblical to be outraged at the murder of helpless babies and the trafficking of human parts. You ought to be disgusted at the recent videos of PP doctors and the attempt by Richards to justify their actions. God has created us to experience emotions, and these emotions spur us into action. Care must be given, however, to not let your emotions carry the force of your argument.
Allowing emotion to carry the day can lead you to create a fallacious argument. Excessive emotion can inhibit your ability to think clearly, can lead you to attack you’re the other person as opposed to their argument, and can do more harm than good against those with differing views. A reasoned argument undergirded by a proper expression of emotion can address not only the opponent’s mind, but their heart as well.
4. Pray. Our Lord Jesus Christ did nothing without prayer. He prayed before choosing the 12 disciples. He went away to a mountain to pray after feeding more than 5,000 people. During the hours leading up to Jesus’s arrest, our Lord spent agonizing hours in the garden praying to the Father. If Jesus Christ prayed often about his ministry and about those to whom he ministers, so should you pray that the Holy Spirit will guide your thought process and your cultural encounter. Ask that he would work in the heart of those who propagate falsehood, open their eyes to their need for salvation through Jesus Christ. Through prayer, you walk in the power of the Holy Spirit and submit yourself to the will of the Lord; without prayer, you walk in the futility of your own strength.
These tips are by no means exhaustive. They do, however, touch upon key factors to keep in mind when engaging our culture. As a student at SBTS or Boyce College, you have the privilege of sitting under professors who give you the tools necessary to face an unbelieving culture with the power of the gospel. Your Old and New Testament courses saturate you with the truths of God’s Word as you delve into the riches found from Genesis through Revelation.
Theology professors ground you in the essential doctrines of the faith and the reasoning behind such doctrines. Missiology and evangelism courses get you out of the ivory tower and into the trenches of spiritual warfare, applying what you have learned for the salvation of lost souls. Preaching and church leadership professors guide you in the art of shepherding and teaching the people of God. Your Christian worldview and apologetics professors teach you, in part, how to argue effectively in the defense of and propagation of the gospel.
I encourage you to take advantage of your time here at seminary or Boyce. We are in a day and age where all Christians must be apologists. You will face objections to the faith that will require every resource you have to answer in defense of truth.
J. Daniel McDonald, Ph.D., serves as adjunct professor of Christian Worldview and Apologetics at Boyce College.