About That Open Letter to *Christianity Today*

Two-hundred evangelicals condemned Christianity Today. Were they right?

Posted Dec 23, 2019

Since I wrote my article about Franklin Graham’s response to Mark Galli’s Christianity Today article, which called for the president to be removed from office, the response from the evangelical community has skyrocketed. Sunday, over 200 evangelical leaders signed an open letter condemning Galli’s article and sent it to Timothy Dalrymple, the president of Christianity Today. And this, it turns out, provides yet another perfect opportunity for identifying and addressing logical fallacies.

To see them, it will be useful to look at what one of the signatories, conservative radio host Eric Metaxas, tweeted before signing the letter.

“What makes the @CTmagazine editorial odd (if not preposterous) is that it implies those like Biden or Pelosi, who use the power of their offices to promote the murder of the unborn & the demonization of a biblical sexual ethic, less "morally troubling" than Trump & his tweets.”

The main mistake here is a strawman fallacy; Metaxas is recasting Galli’s argument, suggesting it says something it doesn’t say, to make it easier to attack. How so? 

First, Galli doesn’t imply anything about the democratic candidates; he doesn’t mention them at all and says nothing about their moral standing. He’s just saying that, given his impeachable offenses and "grossly immoral character," evangelicals shouldn’t support Trump anymore. Notice that, if Trump was removed from office now, Mike Pence would replace him as president and evangelicals could support him in 2020 instead. In a way, Metaxes strawmans Galli by presenting another fallacy: a false dichotomy (saying there are only two options when there are more). “It’s either Trump or the Democrats.” Clearly there are other options.

The second way Metaxas strawmans Galli’s argument is by minimalizing Galli’s concerns about Trump and exaggerating (what he sees as) the moral offenses of democrats. Thinking that abortion should be legal is not equivalent to “promot[ing[ the murder of the unborn.” Whether abortion is murder is a matter of philosophic debate (which cannot be settled scientifically) and many religious groups advocate against choosing abortion while still maintaining that it should be legal. (Some even argue that keeping it legal is part of the most effective way to reduce its frequency.)

Something similar could be said about the democrats’ position on homosexual marriage; it is not demonizing “biblical sexual ethics.” (Note that most biblical marriages do not involve just one man and one woman.)

But Metaxes also commits a version of the confusingly named “tu quoque” fallacy. The phrase essentially translates as “you also” or “you too.” In class, I call it the “two wrongs don’t make a right” fallacy. Usually people use it to excuse away their own failings by pointing to some failing of their accuser. For example, if your doctor says you need to quit smoking, then you probably do—even if your doctor smokes himself. The fact that you need to quit smoking is determined by facts about your health, not someone else’s habits. Your doctor might be a hypocrite, but that doesn’t change the fact that you need to stop smoking. If you say, "I don't need to quit smoking because you smoke too," you commit the "you too" fallacy.

But one also commits this fallacy when one tries to excuse away another person’s moral failings by pointing to the moral failings of someone else. And this is essentially what Metaxes is doing by pointing to the moral failings of democrats. Even if (as Metaxes assumes) the democrats are morally worse than Trump, it wouldn’t follow that Trump is morally upstanding enough to deserve evangelical support. It wouldn’t alleviate Galli’s worry that evangelicals are losing their moral credibility by making excuses for Trump's behavior. If your friend belongs to a cult that worships Charlie Manson, you can’t morally defend them by saying “Well, at least they don’t worship Jim Jones or David Koresh.”

I chose to bring this up because all of Metaxes’ mistakes can be found in the open letter signed by evangelical leaders that I mentioned at the opening of this post. In fact, it essentially does all three in one line:

As one of our signatories said to the press, “I hope Christianity Today will now tell us who they will support for president among the 2020 Democrat field?”

This strawmans Galli argument (suggesting he is saying evangelicals should support a democrat), presents a false dichotomy (other republicans, independents, and political neutrality are still an option), and even implies that the sins of democrats excuse away Trump’s moral failings.

But the letter also commits other mistakes. For one, as we used to say in debate, it “drops” Galli’s argument; it doesn’t engage with it. In defense of their support of Trump, the letter states that its signatories “are simply grateful” that Trump has “advanced policies” that they agree with (on issues from abortion to Israel). But Galli acknowledges this specifically.

“Trump’s evangelical supporters have pointed to his Supreme Court nominees, his defense of religious liberty, and his stewardship of the economy, among other things, as achievements that justify their support of the president.  …[but]… None of the president’s positives can balance the moral and political danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character.”

Galli knows this is why they support him. He is arguing it is not a good enough reason. The letter doesn’t address this argument at all. They just say, "Yep, that's why we support him." In debate, this kind of mistake would be enough to make you lose the round.

But perhaps most egregiously, the open letter commits a false analogy. It doesn’t defend Trump’s behavior or character, essentially admitting that Galli is right about that. Instead, it defends its signatories’ embrace of Trump by citing the way that Jesus embraced tax collectors and sinners.

“We are proud to be numbered among those in history who, like Jesus, have been pretentiously accused of having too much grace for tax collectors and sinners, and we take deeply our personal responsibility to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's --- our public service.”

Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov/wikimedia commons
Christ's Appearance to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection
Source: Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov/wikimedia commons

While I am no biblical scholar, I have had my share of theology and bible courses, and I know that Jesus would not have recommended putting Mary Magdalene (a prostitute with whom he associated) in charge of the Roman government. Jesus ministered to social outcacts because he cared about them; he granted sinners “grace” because they were repentant. Trump, by his own admission, is neither. The example of the Biblical Jesus does call evangelicals to minster to sinners, to not cast them aside like socieity has, to forgive them if they are repentant. It does not, however, call evangelicals to put unrepentent sinners in charge of the government, or to ignore or make excuses for their sinful behavior. The analogy simply does not hold.

None of this, of course, will heal the divide that is now happening within the evangelical movement. But it should help us all identify these kinds of logical fallacies when we see them.