The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.– George Orwell, Politics and the English Language
The drama which unfolded after the MLK50 conference put on by The Gospel Coalition (TGC) and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) has been intense. It is a discomforting and disheartening time for the Reformed community. Many Christian leaders I respect and listen to are divided on the issue that was raised at this conference: race relations.
Following right on the heels of the controversial MLK50 conference was one of the largest Christian conferences in America. This massive gathering of Christians, which takes place every two years, is called Together for the Gospel (T4G). Thousands from all over the nation, even from all over the world, gather to listen to some of America’s most popular preachers. A handful of the T4G speakers also preached in the MLK50 conference (Matt Chandler, John Piper) and many of the issues and themes discussed at MLK50 were brought into T4G. In my analysis, the T4G conference unexpectedly turned into a MLK50 sequel. There was even a panel discussion about MLK at the T4G conference. It was clear the organizers had a social justice agenda. Matt Chandler, David Platt, and Ligon Duncan all addressed the issue of ethnic relationships within the church, and I am very troubled by what I heard from some of the most famous voices from within American Christianity.
Unlike the other two, Duncan’s sermon thesis was not related to ethnic reconciliation; it was a wonderful sermon on holiness. I mean that, it is wonderful. It is an excellent sermon. However, he did make an application in the sermon related to ethnic reconciliation, which is when the wheels fell off.
Let me be clear: Ligon Duncan is a wonderful man of God, an excellent preacher, and a brother in Christ. I recommend him and have no ill will toward him. But, the specific application in his sermon application-which has gone viral-is unhelpful and uncharitable. And my thesis here is that he utilized political rhetorical techniques which only served to manipulate and confuse rather than move the conversation forward.
Being the Right Kind of Political
In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues.– George Orwell, Politics and the English Language
It is important to stop here and clarify my accusation. I am not calling the content of Duncan’s sermon clip political. Many may be doing that; I am not. When I say he is being political, I am not saying he addressed an issue that should not be addressed. Matt Chandler made an excellent point at the conference when he mentioned that his sermon on abortion went viral and everyone loved it. Yet, when he speaks about race, he is suddenly “political.” That is a valid complaint, and is not relevant to what I am saying. I am not decrying political topics being preached and addressed from the pulpit. Pastors will inevitably preach on topics that some may consider political. It is impossible to avoid this because all moral issues can be turned into political, social issues, so one cannot avoid being political in that sense. Douglas Wilson made this point in his book Empires of Dirt.
“Abortion and sodomy were sins long before they were constitutional rights. If a minister preached against them a thousand years ago, he was preaching against moral failings, and he was not being political. He was being public, but not political. When I do it, I am preaching against moral failings too, but I am also being political. What changed? It wasn’t the Decalogue. It wasn’t the history of the church or the history of preaching. It wasn’t the nature of the Gospel. It wasn’t me. Rather, it was the nature of the idol being challenged-and this idol aspires to omnipresence. We are told ad nauseam to keep our morality out of politics. It would be more appropriate to tell the idolmongers to keep their politics out of morality. Public morality need not be a matter of the legislator. But if the legislature concerns itself with everything, then any faithful Christian expression will immediately be concerned with the political.” (emphasis mine).
What I am criticizing is the use of rhetorical techniques being used to distort and manipulate a message. That is the kind of political rhetoric I believe Ligon Duncan is guilty of utilizing (whether incidental or purposeful).
In George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell describes how politics has played such a crucial role in the destruction of the English language. His critique is scathing and difficult to refute. Orwell has a section on meaningless words. He describes how words are used ambiguously or with a private definition so often that they lose meaning altogether. This is, in effect, what Ligon Duncan does with this his sermon application. Specifically, with the second commandment itself.
Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.– George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.“
Before explaining why I think Pastor Duncan fell into this political trap, allow me to offer some examples of the kind of political rhetoric I am going to accuse Dr. Duncan of participating in:
Every Earth Day (April 22), people from all over the world rally and march in major cities to participate in the “March for Science.” What does that mean, march for science? Are there large populations of people who deny the existence of the scientific enterprise? Are there large religious groups that think it sinful or immoral to study earth scientifically? What even is science?
When one studies the origin of this movement, it was primarily a response to Donald Trump’s cutting the budget of the EPA and questioning global warming climate change. Thus, those involved claim they are marching for “science,” but they mean something altogether different than “science.” They have phrased this march in such a way that to deny climate change, microevolution, or certain levels of political environmental regulations makes one “anti-science.” They manipulate people into their position through equivocation.
Because of this political technique, the word “science” has completely lost meaning. To be “pro-science” means absolutely nothing because it can mean absolutely anything. Notice how many people who are going to “march for science” will simultaneously believe homosexuality is a valid, healthy expression of human sexuality, allow unborn children to be aborted, and will even say a person with male chromosomes and male genitalia can be a female. This is not science at all. Nothing about any of that is scientific; but nevertheless, they self-identify as the “pro-science” crowd.
Probably more exemplary are those who refer to abortion as “reproductive rights,” or even more broadly, “women’s rights.” Killing another human being is being lumped in with “reproductive rights” and “women’s rights.” Therefore, anyone who suggests killing an innocent baby is immoral is now guilty of thinking women should not have reproductive rights. Apparently, asking the federal government to criminalize, rather than subsidize, tearing apart a baby limb from limb means one actually wants to see all women imprisoned and stripped of their rights. After all, being anti-abortion means you’re against “women’s rights.” Consequently, phrases like “women’s rights” and “reproductive rights” have lost meaning altogether. In many ways, the word “right” has lost its meaning.
Other words which have unfortunately died the death of political equivocation are words like fascism/fascist, racism/racist, intolerant/intolerance, bigot/bigotry, fundamentalist, Christian, and socialism. These have all lost their meaning because of this political manipulation game, and this is exactly what Ligon Duncan did.
Words, so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become, in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.– Nathaniel Hawthorne
Ligon Duncan began his application of the commandment to “love our neighbors as ourselves” by informing his listeners that racial tensions today would not be what they are if Reformed Christians in America would have applied this commandment to the institution of slavery in the 19th century. (Note how artificially placed this application is. Keep in mind, this sermon is not about race relations at all. Of all the applications he could selected, why this one? Then, of all of the wonderful things he said in this sermon, why did T4G showcase this portion? These rhetorical questions further demonstrate the agenda underlying this year’s T4G conference.) Duncan claims people refused to talk about the issue of slavery because “it was a divisive issue,” “harmful to unity,” and that it was getting into “politics and social life.”
Some have challenged his presentation of the history as being, at best, simplistic, and at worst, wrong. After all, there were church splits over this issue. It seems plenty were willing to talk about slavery and even fight over it. However, let’s take his view of history for granted and assume it is true. Where it gets political is when Duncan says that when these Reformed Christians were making these excuses for not addressing racism and slavery, what they were actually saying was,
“All the while, they were saying the second commandment doesn’t apply here.”
Who is the “they” in that sentence? Contextually, it is the reformed Christians of the 19th century. What is the “here” in that sentence? Contextually, it is the owning of slaves and the racism which comes with it. But then, the very next sentence out of Duncan’s mouth is this:
“And when you get all antsy when someone starts applying the second commandment here, it’s because they taught you well.”
Who is the “you” in this sentence? Clearly it is any Christian listening. Duncan is addressing us, his modern audience. Apparently, some people today have gotten antsy with applying the second commandment “here.” But, what is the “here” in his second sentence? Not slavery. There are no Christians today in the Reformed community arguing that we need to bring back African chattel slavery, so who today is getting “antsy” applying the second commandment to slavery? Duncan changed his topic. He is no longer addressing slavery, but the current racial debate surrounding these conferences. This is equivocation.
The fallacy of equivocation can be defined as:
A key term or phrase in an argument is used in an ambiguous way, with one meaning in one portion of the argument and then another meaning in another portion of the argument.https://www.txstate.edu/philosophy/resources/fallacy-definitions/Equivocation.html
Duncan just shifted definitions in one sentence. He conflated the issue of chattel slavery with all of the social justice issues Reformed Christians today debate. Apparently, to disagree with him, Platt, Chandler, Anyabwile, and the rest of the T4G speakers who addressed this topic at all merits being likened to slave-owners. Through subtle equivocation, Duncan changed definitions, and rather than being clear, and specifically explaining what the issues today are, and where those who dissent from him are wrong, he phrased his sermon in such a way as to make anyone who disagrees with him, or T4G at all, equal to a 19th century slave owner.
His language is sloppy and irresponsible because it is ambiguous and manipulative. The issue today is not about the morality of slave-owning or racism. Of course that is a clear violation of the second commandment. No one is getting antsy about applying the second commandment to slavery and kidnapping, and he knows that. The issues being debated today are the severity of racism within the Christian church, and methodology of addressing it. Those are the real issues, but Ligon Duncan politically manipulated the debate and turned it into a flattened, static, issue, where one is either on his side, or the slave-owners’.
Duncan does this again when he attempts to thwart accusations against himself that he is guilty of promoting Cultural Marxism.
“Friends, this isn’t some social gospel. There are a lot of things you can worry about in life, don’t ever worry that Lig Duncan groves on Cultural Marxism. This is the dadgum second commandment.”
Yes, of course it is not Cultural Marxism to believe that chattel slavery and kidnapping Africans is sinful. Of course applying the second commandment to kidnapping and slavery is not Cultural Marxism. Yes, the second commandment does apply directly to those issue. But those issues are not why people are accusing these men of Cultural Marxism. This is why his language is thoroughly political.
Christians who reject baby-murdering are not getting antsy about giving women their rights. Christians who question man-made climate change and evolution are not anti-science. And Christians who reject T4G’s critiques on ethnic reconciliation are not getting antsy about applying the dadgum second commandment. And the effect of this kind of rhetoric is that now, anyone who might have legitimate concerns about the way in which these men are handling ethnic reconciliation are now manipulated into assuming they are disagreeing because they have been brainwashed by their racist theological ancestors to ignore the Lord’s second commandment. This language stops the conversation. It convinces all dissenters they are actually racist, when in reality, many of them have very biblical points to be raised which do not contain a lick of racism or antinomianism.
Take another example from a very polarizing article, in which Thabiti Anyabwile said,
“I understand that [Martin Luther King Jr.’s] death gives us opportunity to reflect on his legacy. But it also gives opportunity to reflect on that twist in our soul that rose up and killed him. It gives opportunity to repent of the things some have with too much pride too often refused to admit is there. My white neighbors and Christian brethren can start by at least saying their parents and grandparents and this country are complicit in murdering a man who only preached love and justice.”
Many Christians in the Reformed community take issue with thinking they must repent of something they did not do. Many Christians take issue with being told they are guilty of pride by refusing to take credit for MLK Jr’s assassination. They even take issue with being told their grandparents are guilty of that crime. And to take issue with this article, written by one of the speakers at T4G, is nothing close to the same situation as 19th century slave-owners not wanting to talk about slavery.
Take one final example. The MLK50 conference wrote and performed a worship song with the following lyrics:
Father, we need our minds to be renewed by You cause it’s a daily fight to remind myself that I am worthy when microaggressions lie behind every other corner lurking.
Christians can protest the definition and reality of a term like “microagressions” without being accused of not wanting to apply the second commandment to racism. Christians can accuse promoters of “microagressions” as being Cultural Marxists without being likened to racist slave-owners. Microagressions are not a biblical category of hamartiology, and to say that publicly is not getting antsy over applying the second commandment to racism. Yes, many of us in the Reformed community are getting antsy about utilizing secular jargon like “microaggressions.” And Duncan would have you believe we are therefore getting antsy about the dadgum second commandment. but rejecting the social justice philosophy of Duncan, Platt, Chandler, and Anaybwile has nothing whatsoever to do with getting antsy about applying the dadgum second commandment to our neighbors who do not look like us.
All issues are political issues, but not all rhetoric is political rhetoric, and it’s in regards to rhetorical techniques that I say Ligon Duncan’s sermon clip, is far too political and divisive. It’s manipulative. And since I know Duncan would not want anyone to do this to him, his sermon ironically itself a violation the dadgum second commandment.
I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.– George Orwell, Politics and the English Language