Saturday, September 12, 2015

Bartlet's BS: How to Argue Mo' Better.

This is making the rounds again, with a new caption:

Before you get all self-congratulatory about what you perceive as the brilliance of this rebuttal, know that it's bullshit. It's intended to shame, not to convince; and it does so with a bogus interpretation of Christianity that is easily dismissed by Christians who recognize its flaws when Atheists do not. (And stick with me here, because whatever side you're on, I'm probably not going where you expect.)

Since the Atheists have decided to engage in a little Sunday School lesson, here's one[1]. I often find myself having say something like the following when speaking with not just Atheists, but Fundamentalists as well. A quote from Deuteronomy chapter 5:
"And Moses called unto all Israel, and said unto them, Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the ordinances which I speak in your ears this day, that ye may learn them, and observe to do them. The LORD our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. The LORD made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day.  The LORD talked with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fire, (I stood between the LORD and you at that time, to shew you the word of the LORD: for ye were afraid by reason of the fire, and went not up into the mount;) saying, I am the LORD thy God..." [followed by the "Ten Commandments"]
There were a few sequels. [2]
Pay attention, please: "In your ears". "This day". "With us". "Not... our fathers", "With us", "Even us". "Here". "Alive this day". "With you", "Face to face".

Who do you think that message is meant for? The Bible certainly has a lot of subtexts and allegorical messages with multiple meanings. THIS ISN'T ONE OF THEM. Moses bent over backwards to make this point so excruciatingly plain that I think you have to be either completely blind to the existence of the verse, or actually trying to fail in order to get it wrong.

This Covenant and the Law... of which there are 613 laws... are intended for the people present at that place and moment of time and their descendents. Uncle Yusuf's not here? He's out.

There is no stigma to being "out" of this deal. Jews don't think that Gentiles are horrible people for not keeping the Sabbath because they know that Gentiles don't have to. They don't think non-Jews can't get into Heaven. The LORD is the LORD, and he can take whoever he jolly well pleases without your permission or approval. This verse is why Jews don't proselytize. It's not for YOU.[3]

Pointing this out isn't confrontational; it's informational. If you think that Christians must follow a law simply because it's written in the Old Testament, you're mistaken. If you think that Christians are hypocrites simply because they don't follow this or that Old Testament law, then you're likewise mistaken, and every argument you make based on that presumption fails.

Jesus brought a different simpler message for the rest of us:
"...The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:29-31. Also stated in Matthew 22:36-40)
For sure, He does start with "Hear, O Israel", as He is following the formulation called Shema Yisrael... this is the heart of Judaism, and He was talking to a Jew. But that audience is expanded when He commands his followers to go out to all nations, "Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen." (Matthew 28:20). And that's what we should do. Teach, not enforce (Matthew 13).


The problem with the President's rebuttal in the clip is that it perpetuates the myth that any of the levitical laws are tenets of the Christian religion, simply ignored by hypocritical followers out of personal choice or convenience. To be sure, there are ignorant hypocrites out there. But the argument fails when applied to actual Christianity rather than the "straw man Christianity" of a Hollywood screenwriter. It is based on a false assumption. As all but a few Christians immediately see the false premise, the only thing it convincingly does is portray Bartlet as a braying jackass. The sound is quite appealing within that species, but to few other creatures.

Now, if the President wanted to actually make his point and not just make an enemy, then he'd have pointed to Leviticus 5 as I just did, AND to Mark or Matthew. Then he might say something like this:

"Although you may view homosexuality as a sin, nowhere did Jesus give you the right to persecute those that commit that sin. You are, in fact, commanded to love those people anyway. God will judge them Himself when the time comes, and He will be merciful or not as He desires. But you're wasting your time worrying about their sins and not your own. Read Matthew 7:5, because it speaks to all of us on this subject:
"You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye." 


Personally, I see it as this: the Christian institute of marriage is between men and women. Jesus confirms it. As such, marriages are performed before God for His blessing. But a secular marriage, even one between a man and woman, isn't a marriage in that sense. My church will consecrate those marriages that are marriages conforming to our beliefs. But my church is not in the habit of denouncing marriages that are performed in other churches, in accordance with other beliefs.[4] If their license may be denied on one point of faith, why not any other? Why not to a Hindu who has many gods? Why not to an Atheist, who has none? On what basis should we selectively pick and choose which Biblical precepts to apply? And if those who do the picking and choosing are not me, then why should they not deny that license to me? This is the argument which President Bartlet so ineptly attempts to make.

We cannot prevent the marriage of those outside our religion, nor should we be allowed to in a country that recognizes our natural right to freedom of religion. The County Courthouse is not my church. The Clerk of Court is not my priest. The licenses that are issued there are now and always have been for secular contracts called marriage, not marriage as defined by any particular religion.

And while we as individuals are free to exercise our religion, our GOVERNMENT is not. In the pursuit of her duties, a Clerk of Court is not acting on her own behalf in accordance with her own beliefs. She is acting as an agent of that government, which is stringently prohibited from interfering in religious matters. Thus, even if one does not accept the valid argument that government-issued marriage licenses represent secular contracts; one must allow that as a religious matter, agents of the government cannot interfere. Remember, we're not talking about just you... If I were in the position where my religion prevented me from acting as a properly impartial agent of the government; if the the free exercise of my religion denied the very same freedom for many, many applicants; then it would be obvious to me that the only ethical resolution between my conflicting responsibilities to God and the State would require that I remove myself from the State and devote myself to God.


By the way, this is why I think that the government shouldn't be in the business of marriage at all. "License" means "permission", and I see no reason on this green Earth why as a free human being I should have to beg for the permission of the State to marry. I do not seek the legalization of gay marriage for the same reason that I do not favor the legalization of any marriage. In defense of my own religious freedom, I do not recognize the right of the government to "define" what marriage is or is not. I believe the very concept is prohibited by the First Amendment, and that the practice represents one of the first of many erosions of our liberty. Further, it presumes that a thing should be illegal unless permitted, and that is a grave error of judgement, contrary to the concept of a Free Society. I want the State out of marriage completely.

[1] Obviously my theology may differ from yours. Even among Christians, views vary widely. But when faced with a conundrum I've found it most useful to go with a plain reading of the text. Edicts, canons, councils, and interpretations have often done as much to confuse a topic as to explain it, and often creates dogma where none exists in the Biblical text. If, for instance, you are a Christian who argues that you are still bound by Mosaic law, I believe you are at an argumentative disadvantage, as you are now required to explain why you hold that view when the scripture explicitly states that you are not.

[2] Illustration of Moses from More Good Foundation via Flickr

[3] Acts 15:19-29 expresses the minimum requirements for Christians: "that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.." Clearly, the whole of Mosaic law is not contained in that short sentence, which limits itself to those things which not only honor God and do not exceed the teaching they were commissioned to spread, but which make it possible for those Jewish believers in the early Church to interact with them

[4] Indeed, as a matter of course, Christians honor the validity of marriages outside their faith. Law or no, it's not OK to covet a pagan's wife. Despite it not being a "Christian marriage" it is always treated as a valid one. If you choose to think this attitude is demeaning rather than respectful, I invite you to imagine a world in which the contrary is true; where someone of another faith does not recognize your marriage and deems it OK to rape the women of infidels. You really don't have to imagine it, as this is expressly allowed in Islam. Here's the verseHere's the clerical rulingHere's the hadith (historical context). And do make sure you check several translation boxes for that verse. Muslims often chide Christians for having multiple translations, but so do they, and some of them are quite deliberately obscure. The clerical ruling, however, never is. 

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