A Failure in Critical Thought–On Christian Support of Trump

There are two reasons to read the Babylon Bee, and the first is simply to enjoy the satire. Good satire, I might suggest, is a gift from God. It allows us to laugh at our sacred cows. Used in the right hands—much like the office of a court jester—it works to let air out of the balloon of our pretensions. It provides a necessary service in self-reflection and self-deprecation. At this game, the Babylon Bee has shown itself almost unmatched, and in some ways has assumed a near prophetic office in the church today. It speaks the truth, even when it hurts.

The second reason to read the Bee is to attend to what happens in the comments. The comments, when they encapsulate outrage and frustration at the satire, are potent mirrors for the inner beliefs of individuals. In other words, you learn a lot about people from their response to satire. If Acts 19 teaches us anything, it’s that if you want to start a riot, strike an idol. The Bee has an uncanny ability to strike our cultural (especially American) Christian idols, and consequently to arouse the rage of a surprisingly large body of Christians.

This was particularly in evidence in a July Bee post about Trump and the hemorrhaging staff from the White House offices. The headline was as follows:

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As the picture faithfully indicates, the article suggests that the president holds himself in a position of trenchant rejection that anything significant is going on while the offices of the White House burn down around him—i.e., while staff are fired in ever increasing numbers. As an example of the Bee’s satire, it probably doesn’t rise above the “moderately funny” category, and yet the response to this piece is, as I suggested, highly illuminating. It was illuminating because it revealed serious flaws in Christian critical thinking—more specifically, the almost complete lack of it. For each of the following responses, we will detail the suggestion which seems to underlie the comment, then point out the problem in critical thought that follows. So, consider the following responses. (Please note–occasionally individuals respond with satirical comments of their own. To the best of my understanding, all the comments that follow are genuine.)

Example 1: “So tired…!”

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Suggestion A: Christians ought to support the president. To be a faithful Christian means to show support for America’s president in some meaningful way.

The Critical Thought Problem: The Scriptures are filled with criticism of leadership—if you didn’t know that, I’d suggest you spend more time with the prophets—in fact, the Scriptures are critical not only of bad leaders, but even of the good ones! Remember that it is Nathan the prophet who calls out David for his sin with Bathsheba.

There is an additional problem with this suggestion, namely, that it exposes hypocrisy. I’ve got strong reasons to believe that the same Christians who are now calling for blanket Christian support of the President did not show the same support for President Obama. There’s a clear double standard at play here.

Suggestion B: If you criticize Trump, it means that you’d rather have had Hillary as president.

The Critical Thought Problem: Formally, this is a kind of non sequitur—it does not follow from my critique of Trump that I would rather have had Hillary as president. Critique of Trump is not support of Hillary, and it is a false equivalency to suggest that. This tactic is an all too common obfuscation in political debates. It’s like discussing the merits of a particular pizza (it’s too cheesy, not hot enough, flavourless, etc.), and in response you say to me, “Yeah, but would you rather eat arsenic instead?” No, no I wouldn’t. Arsenic wasn’t ever really an option for me. And furthermore, your suggestion that I eat arsenic isn’t really a meaningful advance in our discussion regarding the quality of pizza before us. What you seem to be saying is that, because I’m eating pizza, I ought to love the pizza no matter what and without criticism. There’s a name for the political system where you’ve got to support the leaders no matter what—it’s called Communism.

Example 2: “God Allowed It!”

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Suggestion A: To criticize the president is somehow to criticize God’s work.

The Critical Thought Problem: This logic rapidly decays into absurdity, because God also “allowed” Manasseh, Herod, Shalmaneser, Pharaoh, Stalin, and Hitler. God’s “allowing” of these individuals to operate on the field of history has never meant that God-fearing people ought to posture themselves in an attitude of support for the agendas of those individuals. Far from it! We are called instead to postures of radical faith and criticism of these agendas—the fundamental Christian stance is one of prophetic dissonance to the world.

Suggestion B: Criticism shows lack of faith in God’s plans.

The Critical Thought Problem: I refer you again to the Old Testament prophets.

Example 3: “Economy’s doing great!”

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Suggestion A: Benefits in one area mitigate concerns in another. If things are going well with respect to X, then stop complaining about Y.

The Critical Thought Problem: This seems to be advocating that we turn a blind eye to evil—very much like taking a bribe (which is expressly forbidden in Scripture!). Fundamentally, though, the Christian Scriptures instruct us to do justice and love mercy even at the expense of our financial position. We give an extra cloak if we have it, we don’t harvest to the edges of our fields so that others can eat. Economic benefits are at best of secondary importance to moral obligations. The very idea that interest is forbidden in the Old Testament suggests that we dare not make financial benefits the determining factor in our relationships and judgments. Proverbs 28:6 makes this explicit, “Better the poor whose walk is blameless than the rich whose ways are perverse.”

Example 4: “He wants to save unborn babies!”

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Suggestion A: The ends (stopping abortion) justify the means (Trump).

The Critical Thought Problem: It simply cannot be true for Christians that achieving a given end (ending an evil) justifies the capitulation with evil. Under such circumstances, whatever good is achieved will be itself tarnished by the evil actions committed to achieve it. It will be a soured victory. If we succeed in overturning Roe v. Wade through the instrumentality of Trump’s presidency, then at what expense have we achieved our goal? At what expense to our Christian witness? What does it say about our relationship to power? Will we try to force other Christian values on people by means of political power? What meaningfully separates us from totalitarian states? And what will happen when the balance of power shifts, and those on the other side of the political spectrum begin to pass laws that dictate our livelihood? To sell everything in order to defeat abortion—especially by means of one such as Trump—seems to me to be incredibly short-sighted.

Suggestion B: If I criticize Trump, I’m not sufficiently pro-life.

The Critical Thought Problem: This is all or nothing thinking. It suggests that unless I concur with you tactically, we can’t possibly have the same objectives and goals. But this is also patently false. I am staunchly pro-life, but I also believe that if we have to do violence to our moral witness in order to achieve our pro-life agenda for others, then we’ve corrupted that witness in the process. I am also convinced that while we may win legal battles relative to our moral agendas, if we lose the battle for the heart in the midst of that, we’ve lost more than we’ve gained. Social change is certainly part of our Christian life in the world, but always at the service of witness, and never at the expense of it.

The long story short is this: if you are offended by satire, then you need to ask yourself why. There’s a good chance the offense might point to something amiss in your heart. And if you can discover that—well, then the satire will have done its job.

8 comments on “A Failure in Critical Thought–On Christian Support of Trump

  1. David Tucker says:

    Good words. I would guess that the people on whose comments you based these words would not see the logic you present here. Hopefully others will.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Thanks, Dave. I agree, and while I hope posts like this will assist Christians to think more clearly (in general), maybe the only Christians it can help are those struggling to articulate these things to their peers.

  2. Jeffrey Fuller says:

    I love the bribery example in particular, Jeremy, because we’ve seen that one all over the place lately. The energy companies bribe us to accept their growing monopoly. Casinos and pot bribe us with contributions to education to accept their dubious contributions to society. Perhaps down the road we’ll see organized pimpdom bribe us with some community program to accept our support of prostitution.

    Sad!

  3. Critical thinking would have considered the long-term ramifications of supporting a self-confessed sexual profligate as president. It not only calls our witness into question, it carries the real possibility of strengthening the Democratic party in future elections by eroding respect for the GOP, in turn negating any argument for tolerating Trump to preserve the SCOTUS or pro-life movement. There will be more SCOTUS vacancies after Trump is gone.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      I agree–it’s very short-sighted logic.

      If you’ve not seen Ken Burns’s “Prohibition” documentary, I’d highly recommend it. It’s a fascinating case-study in legislating morality (from a Christian movement!) and the trouble it created.

  4. Great post Jeremy. Sadly I have to agree with your reply above, that at best this may help folks articulate these problems to their peers.

    One of my longstanding frustrations in the pastorate is that the bar for critical thinking is so low in the church, as if it is diametrically opposed to faith. When I encourage a parishioner to exercise critical thinking about something they have seen or heard, particularly on Christian media, I get that look that sideways look of suspicion. The problem is not just that there are gross logical leaps and contradictions being made but that the result is a twisting and narrowing of scripture’s otherwise clear witness.

    But exhortations to “critical thinking” aren’t much help since this is the language of academics, not the “volk”. Even though the flaws are glaring, naming them only seems to widen the divide between the congregation and those equipped to nurture it. It’s a conundrum … I mean, a problem.

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