Before digging into a discussion of Christian thought and politics, we need to deal with some bad thinking that appears a lot in modern discussions about politics.
A few years ago, on a blog discussing issues surrounding my Alma Mater, a man indicated he voted for George McGovern because he was interested in civil rights, and stated that those who voted for Nixon did so because they were racists. I found this to be very interesting, but also incorrect. I’ve listened to various people over the years who voted for Nixon in 1972, and most of them spoke not about Nixon’s stance on civil rights, but about his foreign policy. This in fact fits with Nixon’s history. While Nixon was in congress he became famous because of his moderate anti-communism, his support for Whitaker Chambers, and his investigation into Alger Hiss which led to Hiss’s conviction for perjury when Hiss claimed he was not a spy for the Soviet Union. Additionally, his greatest achievement during his administration—right wrong or indifferent—was reopening negotiations with mainland China, and a 1972 treaty that led to temporary victory in Vietnam.
But the claim that people voted for Nixon because they were racists is interesting because it illustrates a particular fallacy in reasoning, a fallacy known technically as “argumentium ad hominem,” commonly abbreviated as Ad. Hom. Ad Hominem is an informal fallacy, which means a statement isn’t disproved by the argument, someone might be able to prove their conclusion by more legitimate means. Alternately, in politics, there are legitimate arguments that might appear to be ad hominem arguments; there are, I believe, three central issues in any election, the candidate’s political philosophy and the candidate’s character and the candidate’s capability to fulfill the duties of the office. Where ad hominem argumentation needs to be avoided is when it is applied to motives haphazardly in regards to another voter’s stance taken on an issue, philosophy, or the citation of a fact. There are a few problems with this type of argument.
Problem 1: Ad Hominem arguments are a modern form of acceptable stereotyping – Stereotyping is an odd thing in modern America, it is considered wrong to stereotype African Americans or Hispanic Americans, but perfectly acceptable to assume, without any individual evidence that anyone who drives a truck with a gunrack must be a racists. On what grounds is it wrong to stereotype some groups, but consider it ok to stereotype all southerners based on common attitudes from more than 50 years ago? So how do we really know the motivations of Nixon voters in 1972? We have their own comments on their motivations, which we can evaluate, but we have no means of reading hearts. In a sense, ad hominem is an acceptable for of expressing modern prejudices. When it comes to stereotyping, millennial outrage is, unfortunately, highly selective. Simply assuming, then, that Christian conservatives are either stupid or evil because they are conservative is simply arguing from a stereotyping. If it is wrong to stereotype racial minorities, then why is it justifiable to stereotype Southerners, conservatives, or for that matter people who live in trailer parks?
Problem 2: Ad Hominem Arguments avoid the actual issues by means of demonizing an opponent – one does not feel the compunction to debate facts or theories with those who are morally evil. – Beyond selective outrage, whatever one’s motive might or might not be, motivations have no bearing on whether an arguments is correct, incorrect or partially correct, this, how do we know the motives of Nixon voters in 1972? About the only sure way of knowing why someone voted the way they do. But let’s consider that by 1972, much of the major issues of the Civil Rights movement had been resolved, this is not to say that there were no major civil rights issues left to discuss, and there are different theories about how to advance America toward equality of rights going back to the debates between Booker T Washington and W. E. B. Dubois, but the fact that civil rights legislation had passed and was fairly secure means some people may not have thought it the issue of first importance that McGovern did in 1972.
We all have a hierarchial view of morality, certain things and relationships are more important than others (for example, my relationship with my wife has deeper ethical ramifications than most other relationships). But not only is there a hierarchy of morality, there is an urgency factor of issues. There are therefore periods of time, such as when the nation is at war, or faced with an existential threat that domestic issues are less important than international issues, and vice versa.
The intrinsic problems of ad hominem argumentation is that it avoids actually details of the discussion or debate. In all of this demonization, no one has really discussed an actual issue, in fact, because no one feels compunction to argue with a racist, bigot, communist, etc., no issues ever actually get discussed.
Problem 3: A Knife that Cuts both ways – A second problem with Ad hominem arguments, is the knife cuts both ways. I could also argue that McGovern voters liked his weak foreign policy because they were communist sympathizers, of course I have no more knowledge of McGovern voter’s motives than anyone else, but then what is good for the goose is good for the gander.
It should also be noted, however, that while in Congress, Nixon was a supporter of various civil rights bills. McGovern might have emphasized this in his campaign, he might have argued for a different set of solutions to providing civil rights to all, but this is not quite the same thing as stating McGovern was interested in Civil Rights and Nixon wasn’t.