by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is now the interim senior pastor at the Upper Merion Baptist Church in King of Prussia, PA (which is also an American Baptist church) while also teaching homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his sixth book: The Immaculate Mistake: How Southern Baptists and Other Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump.
There are abundant reasons to applaud the attempts to engage in rational discussion with evangelical Christians. After all, we are all members of the same family and have been grafted onto the same tree of life with our brothers and sisters of Judaism. We all worship Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God; believe in eternal life, amazing grace, and the Word of God. For years I have made attempts to have ongoing conversations with persons who are variously categorized as evangelicals, conservatives, or fundamentalists. These attempts have not, in my estimation, accomplished much if anything. I find myself at the end of arguments, or what Richard Lischner calls “the end of words.”
Some of these conversations have been of the social media variety. For example, I frequently write opinion pieces on Facebook. In a quick survey of some of these posts I realized that certain buzz words or topics provoke emotional outbursts.
For example, I recently wrote a piece encouraging people to vote because the majority of Americans support the policies that Democrats are promoting. The responses were less than helpful:
This Effeminate > (Rod Kennedy) claims to be a Baptist Preacher > and a Demokrat! PREACHER that Promotes Torture and Murder of Unborn Children? DEMONIC POSSESSION > SATANISM! SODOMITE MARRIAGE PROMOTER? HELL AWAITS YOU > And Your Sick Church! Read his rant for yourself. Special Rights for Sodomites? Abortion > Torture and Murder of Unborn Children?
And No Marvel: For Satan Himself transforms into an Angel of Light.’ Corinthians/AKJB.
No Demokrat is a Christian.
The subject of my writing doesn’t matter because the “buzz words” have energized an emotional response from my conservative “friends,” what Richard Weaver dubs as “devil” terms (which in this case is literally true).
One of the problems here is the insistence on certainty and uniformity that prevails among conservative evangelicals. In fact, the rhetorical goal of conservative evangelicals is uniformity in the most critical sense, what Kenneth Burke calls “identification.” Burke says, “You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his.” Burke notes that there are aspects of persuasion such as “mystification,” “courtship,” and the “magic” of class relationships. Members of a group promote social cohesion by acting rhetorically upon themselves and one another. As Aristotle put it, “It is not hard to praise Athenians among Athenians.”
For example, a conservative Christian congregation may be willing to listen to Francis Collins, one of America’s foremost scientists, give a talk because they know he is an evangelical Christian. But the moment he starts to make the case for evolution, the congregation turns him off and turns against him. Rhetorically, he cannot “identify” with the audience because they are already predisposed to mistrust anyone who believes in evolution. The audience in this case refuses to identify with Dr. Collins as a fellow believer and stamps him as a disciple of Satan.
Dr. Collins is perceived as a threat to the “substance” of the congregation. Burke reminds us that “substance” in the old philosophies, was an act; and “a way of life is an acting-together; and in acting together, men have common sensations, concepts, images, ideas, attitudes that make them consubstantial.” Breaking through these tribal scripts may very well be impossible.
But perhaps we need to consider the difference between persuasion and communication. I would agree that we may not be able to communicate with supporters of President Trump, even with religious, biblical, and theological arguments. On the other hand, we are still capable of continuing to use all the available means of persuasion. As Aristotle insists, this is the essence of rhetoric.
My conclusion is that I am not bound by the strictures of the conservative evangelical “script.” I am free to persuade with as much logic, emotion, and credibility as possible, and I will continue to make all the possible persuasive attempts to articulate an alternative vision to that of conservative evangelical Christians. I will do so through a rigorous study and proclamation of the gospel of Jesus through the interpretative grid that is my mind and heart. In this way I avoid unnecessary confrontation and I am not responsible for whether or not I am communicating with my opponents. I will leave those results to the Spirit of God and to the word of God which is sharper than a two-edged sword and cuts both ways. I will do so as I continue to work out my salvation with fear and trembling.