by William Trollinger
“Everyone got woke in the 2016 election.”
So said Andre Johnson – Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Public Address at the University of Memphis – at the final keynote panel at last weekend’s Rhetoric and Religion in the 21st-Century Conference in Knoxville. And while this does not apply to Americas en masse – after all, 42% of Americans still support Donald Trump — it did seem the case at the conference. Almost every session and every conversation that we participated in was energized by the deep-felt conviction that there is no more important task for scholars of rhetoric than to explain Trump’s election and Trump’s ongoing support (particularly among white evangelicals). As one conferee said to us:
With the 2016 election I realized that my previous scholarly interests were not only irrelevant, but even narcissistic. I have changed my entire research trajectory, all in an effort to understand and critique how we got to this place.
Certain questions came up again and again at the conference: What happens when persuasion doesn’t work? How do we think about the fact that our reasoned arguments seem to go nowhere? How do we respond when we find that we have crashed into the limits of our ability to connect with the other? What do we do when, as one scholar plaintively observed, words seem to have no impact?
All of this can be reduced to the question of whether those of us on the outside are able to have a productive dialogue with politicized white evangelicals and – as came up regarding our conference paper on Ark Encounter – young Earth creationists. In response to our previous post on the Rhetoric and Religion Conference, Mark Masthay – University of Dayton chemistry professor and rightingamerica contributor – sent me this email:
This was an especially nice and interesting essay, Bill. I find the topic of having civil discussions with fundamentalists interesting. I got an email from one – and one who was very influential on me as a teenager – yesterday. He said in the email that the upcoming midterm election is extremely important, and that we should “vote values not party.” The attached letter, which provided more details, touted a straight, highly Tea Partyish Republican line. I think I could have a (moderately) friendly conversation with this guy, but he would treat me as being somewhat nonChristian or delusional. I guess that’s fair, because I regard him as being not very thoughtful about his positions.
At the conference we had the great good fortune of participating in the “Religious Rhetoric and Public Leadership” seminar, presided over by the ever-gracious Martin Medhurst, Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric and Communication and Professor of Political Science at Baylor University. In the seminar – which met over all three days of the conference — our conversation returned again and again to the matter of white evangelical support for Donald Trump. As a number of participants noted in one way or another, the rhetoric of contemporary white evangelicals is not aligned either with the Bible or with traditional evangelical beliefs.
But if this is the case, then how are folks like the Red Letter Christians – whose appeals are explicitly based on taking seriously Jesus’ words in the Gospels – ever going to have productive dialogue with their evangelical brothers and sisters?
Near the end of the final keynote panel Andre Johnson made the point that we need to recognize the limits of rhetoric, and accept the fact that there are times we have to walk away from the conversation. In response another panelist, T. J. Geiger II, Assistant Professor of English at Baylor University, agreed that there are rhetorical limits – sometimes efforts at persuasion or even conversation seem to go nowhere – but he also pointed out (and Johnson agreed) that in the future (maybe years out) one’s argument may bear fruit. One never knows.
Contingency. All of us who have taught for any length of time in the humanities or social sciences have had the experience of students who adamantly resist this or that point in the lecture or readings, and who then, years later, let us know that they had changed their minds. (Here’s one example.)
As regards white evangelicals, it seems that – at least in the long run – the rhetorical strategies of Jim Wallis and the Red Letter Christians are the best strategies. While white evangelicals may seem to be so tied to Christian Right politics that the words of Jesus in the Gospels are not able to break in, there is no getting around the fact that, to be evangelical, one has to reckon with the Bible.
Who knows what the future holds.