The echoes keep reverberating from our criticism of Ryan Lizza’s piece on Michele Bachmann and our follow-up on his exchange with Ross Douthat. The latest reverberation is an interview Lizza did with Hugh Hewitt just yesterday. Hewitt discusses the interview and more here – Transcript here. The transcript evokes a few additional comments. Lizza did a review:
RL: Oh, boy, this was a few weeks ago. Well, here’s the back story. So what I wrote in a profile of Michele Bachmann, I noted that one of the influences she often talks about is Francis Schaeffer, a theologian who died in the 80s, and was very influential in bringing Evangelicals into politics. And one of the points that I made is that one of his last books, A Christian Manifesto, suggested that violence was appropriate, and specifically, if Roe V. Wade was not reversed. Now I took some heat for that comment, because a lot of folks, and many admirers of Francis Schaeffer, argued that I was misreading A Christian Manifesto, and that Schaeffer only called for civil disobedience, and not violence. And so Ross and I had what I think is a pretty civil exchange, about four or five volleys back and forth, going through A Christian Manifesto, and Ross arguing that no, Schaeffer never called for anything beyond civil disobedience, and me arguing that yes, indeed, if you read A Christian Manifesto closely, Schaeffer, one of the main things he does in that book, is lay out the criteria in extreme circumstances when violence, including the overthrow of the government, is justified. And so that’s the back and forth.
I think Douthat made a strategic error here. There was a reason the citation of Schaeffer mattered but to get balled up in an extended discussion of Schaeffer was to miss the forest for the trees. Lizza’s original piece was written in the middle of a clearly burgeoning effort on the part of leftie pundits to establish a meme about “Dominionists.“ They were all busy citing Schaeffer as the source of the apparent Dominionist movement. The movement was of course a straw man and the talk of it has largely died down. For disciples of Schaeffer, citing him in this fashion was something they took very seriously. As Lizza said:
One, there, for many Evangelicals, Schaeffer is an extremely, extremely important person. And it’s beyond just his philosophy, but there’s a sort of personal love for the man. And criticism of him is taken not just as a different subjective, or different take on the meaning of what he wrote, but as a personal attack on him, which I was certainly not doing, but which some conservatives accused me of doing. And I would say that’s probably the…so it’s one of those debates that I think I stepped in without quite realizing the sort of passion and energy on the side of people who sort of worship Schaeffer.
But in the end, use or misuse of Schaeffer was not the bottom line issue. Many a good author has been quoted out of context and misused for nefarious purposes. Conversely, there are some times good things that come from horrible, even evil, authors. What was really at issues was whether there really was a Dominionist movement, at least one that mattered, and whether Bachmann, or any other candidate, was a part of it? By getting sucked into the debate about Schaeffer, Douthat failed to do what really needed to be done which is establish that religious people can and should get involved in political action.
Getting involved in such a discussion reinforces the supposition of Lizza’s approach that just because you read somebody, even cite them, that you are, by implication going to agree with everything that author would say. It would be my hope that anyone seeking high office in this land, left, right, or center, has read both “Mein Kampf” and “The Communist Manifesto.” It is important to know history and especially the history of such wrong and evil things. I will not attempt to argue that they contain good ideas, but their influence on the world cannot be denied. To get deep into a defense of Schaeffer gives him more important to the Bachmann candidacy than he really deserves.
In a different vein, it is worthy of note that in the last Lizza quote, he uses taking things personally as a means of dismissing the attacks of some of his critics. And yet, his continued defense of his thesis concerning Schaeffer is heavily reliant on the representations of Schaeffer’s own son, for whom any opinion about Schaeffer and what he wrote would be definitionally PERSONAL.
But there is one thing that Lizza says the reveals that he does not yet really understand the religious viewpoint. As Hewitt says:
Because the MSM is so overwhelmingly secular, it generally doesn’t know what it doesn’t know on matters of faith. With a year ahead of us that will almost certainly see faith at the center of many important discussions, I hope the media elite at least tries to study up.
Lizza demonstrates that he has a lot of studying yet to do when he refers to “a different subjective.” People of faith do not believe in such things as “different subjectives.” Any person that studies for Christian ministry spends a lot of time studying things like hermeneutics and exegesis. Christians, and Jews before us, have worked for centuries to develop rules for understanding words precisely because we think there is a specific idea, and in some cases – truth, that the author intends to communicate. Our job is not to develop different subjectives but to determine with precision what the author intended to say and communicate.
Rhetorically, Lizza’s invocation of a “different subjective” is dismissive of, as opposed to argumentative with, those that disagree with him. But what he really fails to realize is that to appeal to such is to undermine his own argument. If Shaeffer’s meaning is to be understood as a subjective, then the accusations Lizza makes regarding Dominionism and the potential influence of Dominionist thought, presuming this straw man of a movement is real and based on Schaeffer, on Bachmann or any other candidate is equally dismissable. By relying ultimately on appeal to a “different subjective,” Lizza casts his own story not as reporting but as conjured hit piece.
I’m with Hewitt:
Candidates for president should be prepared to respond to any question, including a host of them concerning their faith. That’s the way our system works, even when the questions are far out of the ordinary realm of political conversation in the country. Often the response may be short and to the point: “I am running for president, not pope and I don’t make any claims to theological expertise.” Other questions are legitimate when asked a few times, such as those involving values and morals. Obviously prejudiced inquiries into specifics of doctrine or practice have to be shrugged or politely laughed off, and the public will be glad they are.
All of these sorts of questions, however, are loaded with risk for the candidates and especially for the journalist who is raising them.
Liza has discovered that risk firsthand, undermining himself while attempting to defend himself. That’s one of the things I like about religion. It does not, as so many on the left would contend, cloud thinking. It forces us to clear and concise thinking.