Today Hillary Clinton testified before the House Committee on Benghazi, and in preparation for that event the American public has been inundated through social media with accusations that this is motivated by Republican activists seeking to undo Hillary Clinton. Yet, the question itself of the Republicans in the house and Senate is ultimately immaterial to the question of what actually happened in Benghazi and for that matter to the question of whether the former Secretary of State’s private e-mail server was a violation of the espionage act.
Since my point is not political (I have not yet watched the testimony and likely won’t), the same is also true for much of what is heard on conservative talk radio, conservatives often note, when discussing a particular program or legislative proposal that President Obama is a Socialist. Yet, the question of whether Obama is a Socialist is, perhaps of interest in an election, but it doesn’t actually tell us anything about the given proposal. The President might like eating oatmeal for breakfast, but that does not mean that we should boycott oatmeal on the principle. The actual question of any piece of legislation is not who proposed, the question is whether the goal of the legislation is a good one and whether the legislation will actually accomplish that goal. The rest is political theater.
More and more, as America experiences a new pseudointellectual enlightenment, we see more and more political theater. This type of political argument has become enshrined in the national debate, but it is a type of “ad hominem” argument, that is, it makes the point by arguing against the person rather than arguing the actual point the person is making.
Motivations and Truth
There are two major problems with arguing from someone’s motives. First, as I noted above, motives don’t tell us about the actual truthfulness of the facts or the validity of the case being made. I might, out of a desire to hurt someone’s feelings, tell someone that they are in need of remedial lessons in logic. My motives are wrong, but that person might very well need remedial lessons in logic, and in fact, if they took those lessons their life might very well be better off. Similarly, a person might run for office out of purely selfish motives, but in order to maintain his seat he might very carefully choose the course of action that will produce the best results for the most people in the long term, reasoning that this will be the best means to continue in office. In both cases, we can’t simply dismiss what someone says because of our perceptions of their motivations.
Secondarily, another person’s motivations may often be difficult to identify. We have all been in situations when someone made a comment about our motivations, and that person was simply wrong. Often in matters that are highly controversial we see arguments in terms of sound-bites, if someone who we know can make mistakes in understanding our motives, how much more careful should we be in judging the motives of someone we don’t know, and only see in the carefully produced and manicured media of our day? The problem with motives is that we can’t be certain we know the motives and that our own biases aren’t influencing our perception of others. This indeed is why motive arguments are so tenuous, and truthfully everyone can raise them – one might very well question Mrs. Clinton’s motivations in question Trey Gowdy’s.
Motivations and Homophobia
Why go into this rather estoric argument in logic and politics? Because in one of the major nexuses of Christianity and politics, this ad hominem questioning of motives has become a major argument. It is often argued that Christians are homophobic, and that an irrational hatred of homosexuality motivates Christian thought. As I have argued in the past, this is not true, as a Christian I don’t hate homosexuals, I pity them. My motivations in political opposition in areas of same sex marriage is focused on two specific issues – first my belief that this is a threat to religious freedom, and second, that this is detrimental for the gay couples themselves. My view of homosexuality is that it is similar to addictions, and as such I believe that society’s choosing to condone homosexuality is, in many senses, enabling on the level of the mother who protects her alcoholic child from the damage of his choices, and ultimately cripples him. You might well choose to disbelief the sincerity of this statement of my motives, but that isn’t ultimately the point.
But since you can’t judge my motives, and if you think me self-deceived in my own self-assessment.; let me offer a different tact – my motives are immaterial to the question of homosexuality. Christians believe the Bible to be true, and the Bible clearly states that homosexuality is wrong. The homosexual has two legitimate strategies to argue against the point, rather than against the man. The first is to argue that Christians have misunderstood the Bible, but while this approach is popular in the culture today, it doesn’t stand up well under careful scrutiny. The second approach is to prove that Christianity itself is untrue, which can be done by disproving the resurrection of Jesus Christ, without assuming naturalism in the process (this would be a kind of logical error known as begging the question). I think the homosexual will have a hard time disproving either, but it is my hunch that if they carefully examine the evidence, they might just become Christians.