By Andrew J. Spencer
Whatever authors may hope to accomplish, it is often at the edges of their argument that the most illuminating or even alarming points are found. The center stream of a book or journal article is typically well structured, carefully worded, and shaped in a way that draws the friendly reader onward and allows the critical reader to follow the argument based on the author’s assumptions.
At the fringe of the argument the means of argumentation are often revealed, which may uncover the equally significant motivation for making the case.
Recently I came across a profound description of the nature of a fundamentalist, according to a critic. In his book, A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future, Roger Gottlieb explains how he views religious fundamentalism:
Fundamentalism arises when people are threatened by dramatic and seemingly uncontrollable change. Undermined by secularism, women’s rights, technology, consumerism, and increased encounters with people of different cultures, the fundamentalist cannot accept a world in which all traditions, including his own, have become a matter of choice.
It is that last sentence that carries the most significant freight and helps to explain some of the venom in public interactions over recent contentious social issues. It also helps to redefine the nature of the obstacle to real dialogue in the public square.
Gottlieb makes it clear that he is concerned with a “fundamentalism” that is epistemic; he’s concerned less with what the fundamentalists believe than why they believe it. He attributes the flaws in the philosophical system of so-called fundamentalists to a will to hold onto power:
Facing forces that diminish his meaning, status, and social power, the fundamentalist grasps at a vision of an eternally fixed and universally true source of authority to stem the tide.
Based on this assessment, the societal conflict between religious conservatives and social revolutionaries is not doctrinal; it is a conflict over power. When viewed through this Nietzchean lens, the vitriol that is spewed in the public square becomes more explicable.
If the chief desire of the political pundit is merely to force the populace to accept a new set of traditions—which are viewed as entirely a matter of choice—then bludgeoning the opposition into submission through social ostracization, shaming, and sometimes harassment, becomes not only acceptable but perhaps the preferred means of argumentation.
This helps explain why in recent debates over contentious social issues there has been very little emphasis on the ideas themselves and much more concern with discrediting the character and motives of the opponents, especially if the opponents in question represent the socially conservative perspective. The rationality of the opponents beliefs are irrelevant; it is no longer a question of finding truth, but of constructing a meaning that is suitable to the revolutionary forces in society. Since there is no source of universal authority, truth itself is unpinned and power becomes the main currency in the marketplace of ideas.
This reality was highlighted in a recent book by Alice Dreger, who is an advocate for intersex rights. In her book, Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science, she documents several stories, including her own, of academics being attacked for presenting evidenced based arguments that differ from the accepted norms and perhaps offend the social norms of another group.
By her account, she has been academically discredited and even physically threatened by others who disagree with the way she set about being an advocate for intersex rights. Dreger made the “mistake” of pursuing medical reform through empirical evidence rather than crafting an identity narrative. This put her on the outs with the social forces of the sexual revolution and caused her to be viewed as a threat to their power.
Dreger argues against undermining epistemological foundations and for pursuing an objective truth, despite the difficulty of actually achieving it:
Objectivity is easily desired and impossible to perfectly achieve, and some forms of scholarship will feed oppression, but to treat those who seek a more objective understanding of a problem as fools or de facto criminals is to betray the very idea of an academy of learners.
For her, this is really an ethical issue. There can be no justice without seeking truth:
Evidence really is an ethical issue, the most important ethical issue in a modern democracy. If you want justice, you must work for truth. And if you want to work for truth, you must do a little more than wish for justice.
Epistemology—the study of the way of knowing—thus becomes a social justice issue. In order to impact minds and actually have debates about the core issues, we first have to help our debate partners to understand that there is more to our arguments than a will to power. That is certain to be a long, slow process and cannot be accomplished if we evidence a will to power in the face of the opposition’s show of force.
As Russell Moore argues in his recent volume, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel:
We don’t persuade our neighbors by mimicking their angry power protests. We don’t win arguments by bringing corporations to the ground in surrender. Frankly, if we had that sort of cultural cachet, corporations would already have market-tested it, and found ways to curry favor with us while keeping their immoral practices subterranean. Let others fight mammon with mammon. Let’s instead offer a word of faithful witness that doesn’t blink before power but doesn’t seek to imitate it either.
If we are being faithful to our calling to be salt and light in the world, our desire to present truth to others is not a quest for power. This means that we cannot use coercive power to make our case. To do so is, contra Ephesians 6:12, to take up arms against flesh and blood. In other words, we cannot respond to the barbs of those seeking to undermine our honest understanding of truth with equal force.
If our pursuit of a just social order represents the center of our argument, then the means we use to make the case for that social order are the fringes of the argument that reveal much more of our hearts and motivations. We must, therefore, groom the whole argument—the means and the message—if we are to make a coherent apologetic for justice in the world.
Andrew J. Spencer is Director of Assessment and Institutional Research at Oklahoma Baptist University and a PhD candidate at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is writing his dissertation on Christian approaches to environmental ethics. He blogs regularly at www.EthicsAndCulture.com and frequently writes for the blog of the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics. You can follow him on Twitter.
The views expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of B&H Academic, LifeWay Christian Resources, or any employee thereof.
 Roger S. Gottleib, A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
 Alice Dreger, Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science (New York: Penguin Press, 2015).
 Russell Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel (Nashville, Tenn.: B&H, 2015).