We’ve all at least seen it happen. We most likely have even participated in it from time to time. But it’s never helpful. Oh sure. We get a charge out of reading it when it’s our man delivering the zinger, but we all turn red and shout “Oh, Come on!” at the computer or TV screen when we are the recipient of it. Mischaracterization and misdirection are what I am talking about. Sometimes it takes the form of a straw man. Sometimes it takes the form of an ad hominem argument. Sometimes it looks like character assassination and just plain ol’ name-calling. I’m talking about things like, “That story can’t be trusted because you heard it on NPR” or “His scientific studies are all invalid because big oil companies are the ones paying his bills.”
But the mischaracterizations that are truly frustrating are those dealing with the intersection of religion and the public square. In an age of spin when a preponderance of media outlets lean toward a worldview that is hostile to the intersection of Christendom and the public spheres of life, Christians are certainly guilty of fighting fire with fire. Though this is understandable, it is far from excusable. Christians, we should resist succumbing to our spinful nature when forwarding misleading emails, posting blog rants that shove around straw men, and fostering mischaracterizations and ad hominem arguments instead of dealing with the questions at hand. But I can stand here and say this because we have an obligation to fulfill the ninth commandment… “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” There is an objective standard by which we can judge our actions, thoughts, and motives. To foster mischaracterizations is to live inconsistently with our standards.
However, the secular journalist, the humanist blogger, the agnostic author is under no such obligation. If we can consider the secularist’s modus operandi as being one that acknowledges matter in motion through time and according to chance as the objective standard by which their actions are judged, then there is no justifiable moral standard that obligates them to act one way moreso than any other. Honest reporting based on months of hard work and hard data are just as consistent with the secular standard of ethics as a flaming pack of lies dreamed up while smoking a joint is. Please note what I am NOT saying. The secular ethical “standard” doesn’t mean that they can’t do good and that they can’t be selfless and truthful. What I AM saying is that the secular ethic does not obligate anyone to anything.
So when the secular writer/blogger/journalist presents a truncated view of someone’s position, or when they set up a straw man to poke fun of him, or when they distract from the question at hand through attacking the person and not the issue, they are being consistent with their ethic. Mischaracterizing your opponent is permissable when matter and energy are ultimate. The secularist can read about a pro-lifer who wants to “impose their morality on society” (all law is imposed morality in case there are any who are fuzzy on this point) and use the mischaracterizing scare tactics of equating anti-abortion laws with Sharia (sp?) law. This might be frustrating, but it is consistent with secular ethics to do so. We should not be surprised.
But what we should do as Christians is learn to recognize the stinkers when they come across the screen. What we should do is either respond graciously and cogently or just deliver a great big horse laugh. On the one hand, we should respond graciously and cogently because we should be prepared to give a firm, respectful, well-reasoned response to those who make false claims about Christendom in the public square. Or on the other hand, we should just lean in and give a great big horse laugh at the abject foolishness of secular spin. We can laugh because foolishness doesn’t work in the long run. And after all, isn’t it completely obvious to everyone that the First Baptist Church down the street and the Taliban are SO much alike?