Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
The Righting America Blog | Righting America

The Ongoing Battle Over the Civil War, in Niles, Ohio

by William Trollinger

Presentation at the McKinley Birthplace Museum in Niles, Ohio.

Last Sunday, I was at the William McKinley Memorial Museum in Niles, Ohio – McKinley’s birthplace – to speak on “Statues, Flags, and the Ongoing Battle Over the Civil War.” Given McKinley’s role as a Union soldier, it seemed quite the appropriate venue, even if it felt a bit unusual to be giving this talk while flanked by the busts of twelve or so wealthy industrialists (who paid for the privilege of being thusly commemorated in the McKinley Museum, and who even wrote their own citations). 

I began by briefly mentioning the use of the Confederate flag by contemporary white supremacists. Then it was on to the Civil War. I started my discussion of the war by noting that – despite what many of us were taught – it really is indisputable that slavery was its primary cause. Along the way, I showed slides of South Carolina’s South Carolina’s and Mississippi’s secession resolutions. Within moments of beginning my talk, a white man sitting near the front interrupted my talk by loudly exclaiming that the war had nothing to do with slavery, and he also accused me of manipulating the secession resolutions by way of use of ellipses to serve my argument. I assured the audience that nothing I left out of the statements changed their central arguments about the necessity of secession on behalf of protecting slavery and told him that he should read the statements for himself (and add Georgia’s interminable secession resolution for good measure). I then went on to Confederate States of America Vice President Alexander Stephens’ infamous March, 1861 “Cornerstone Speech,” in which Stephens asserted that  

 African slavery was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution . . . The Constitution rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error . . . Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.

 I was again interrupted by the same (and increasingly angry) man, who announced that Abraham Lincoln said exactly the same thing, and that in fact Lincoln was as passionately proslavery as Stephens. In the politest tone I could muster, I said that was ridiculous.

 While there were no more outbursts, he remained upset throughout the entirety of my presentation (arms crossed and shaking his head), and he marched out early in the question-and-answer period.

 The ongoing battle over the Civil War, indeed. It is 2019, and yet many white Americans remain determined to hold on to the notion that the Civil War was not about slavery, but, instead, was an avoidable and unfortunate conflict of (white) brother vs. (white) brother. And this determination to see the past in this fashion seems rooted in a very deep desire not to see that racism and racial oppression is a central feature of American history.

 But my agitated interlocutor in Niles was very much in the minority. In fact, I have to say that it was a quite receptive audience (which may indeed have contributed to the his departure). And Niles is not an anomaly. The vast majority of folks I have encountered in giving Ohio Humanities presentations on Confederate monuments (and on the Ku Klux Klan) are people who want (as one person in Niles said) to know the “real” American history, warts and all. Of course I know these are self-selected audiences. But in this time of ascendant white supremacy and grotesque racism emanating from the White House, I am grateful for this measure of encouragement.


Why Conservatives Aren’t Wrong to Fear Evolution

by Sarah Olson

Sarah Olson is an undergraduate student majoring in microbiology at Oregon State University, and a member of the National Association of Science Writers. She works at a bookstore curating their science and math sections and reviews popular science books on her blog readmorescience.com. In addition to pursuing a career in science writing, Sarah frequently writes about the intersection of religion, feminism, and science. She currently lives in Corvallis, Oregon with her fiance. You can connect with her at saraholson.net and on Twitter and Instagram at @ReadMoreScience.

In a recent opinion piece for the National Review, conservative and evolutionary geneticist Razib Khan made a bold claim: conservatives shouldn’t fear evolutionary theory. Khan, an outspoken atheist who does not have a background in Christianity, argues that evolution and faith are inherently compatible because science and religion both seek to know truths about our world. “The science built upon the rock of Charles Darwin’s ideas is a reflection of Western modernity’s commitment to truth as a fundamental value,” writes Khan. “And many Christians well-versed in evolutionary science find it entirely compatible with their religious beliefs.”

I have been following Khan on Twitter for a while now, and I think he’s an intelligent and competent scientist. But his piece doesn’t grasp how problematic it can be for science to try to accommodate conservative religious beliefs, nor does it address why the majority of white evangelical Christians believe humans have always existed in their present form. Instead, Khan outlines “two major strands of evolution skepticism.” The first involves irreducible complexity and aligns with Michael Behe’s arguments; the second has to do with conservatives’ focus on disagreements about evolution among prominent scientists. He neglects to address the fact that in America today, many conservative believers are, in fact, creationists – and those who do accept evolution indicate they believe God had a role.

At first, it seems reasonable for Khan to conclude evolution and Christianity are compatible. As a conservative, he wants to reach out to the believers in his community who have doubts about the validity of evolution. But the question Khan neglects to adequately answer is why conservative believers would reject evolution in the first place. Telling readers that evolutionary theory is the “crowning jewel” of Western civilization does little to explore the depths of conservative fear surrounding the subject. Ignoring the fact that conservatives are more anxious than their liberal counterparts, Khan instead attacks liberals, claiming they deny “the very idea of human nature,” which Khan asserts is the binary male/female biological differences. This incorrect assumption betrays Khan’s lack of understanding about gender theory (not to mention organisms who change biological sex), and he loses sight of his main argument in order to console conservative readers with a wink-wink-nudge about ignorant liberals.

Communicating science to conservative believers is an important pursuit, but I worry Khan may not fully understand what he is advocating for. I am an undergraduate student and a science communicator, and although today I am an atheist, I was raised in a conservative Christian community that was antagonistic toward science. Because I understand firsthand how contradictory conservative Christianity and science can be, the first thing I noticed while reading Khan’s piece was that he seems not to have a firm understanding of Christian beliefs. The second thing I realized was that his piece is a perfect example of accommodationism.

As defined by evolutionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne in his brilliant book Faith Versus Fact, accommodationism is an attempt to reconcile the differences between religion and science in order to come to a compatible conclusion. Its fatal flaw is that one of the two must make compromises in order to “accommodate” the other’s assertions. For example, if a Christian is to accept evolution as fact, they must view the Genesis story as a parable. But many conservative Christians don’t take Biblical stories for parables: they see them as literally true, and even “proven” through scientific evidence. You don’t need to look any further than the Creation Museum or the Ark Encounter to realize how hard conservative believers are working to demonstrate that Bible stories are factual. If we asked them to regard the Bible as parable, what does that imply about these museums and the beliefs they exist to substantiate? And if you consider the opposite example – that a scientist must accept she cannot fully understand the mechanisms of evolution because a mysterious god played an undetectable role – then you’re left with shoddy science.

Another dangerous implication Khan’s piece does not consider is that, for conservative Christians, to regard Genesis as fiction casts a long and dark shadow of doubt on the validity of the rest of the Bible. As many conservatives understand it, if we don’t believe in instantaneous creation or a worldwide flood, who’s to say Jesus really died and rose again? If Christians don’t believe in those miracles, how can they also believe in sin and salvation? And if Christians don’t believe in miracles or salvation, why would they believe in an uninvolved deity when we have reasonable scientific explanations for the existence of our world and ourselves? As conservative Christians understand it, this is exactly how science can begin to undermine faith. So it is that they crusade against teaching evolution in public schools, and why they’ve established the fields of creation science and Biblical archaeology.

A 2016 study found that most scientists embrace a compatibility perspective. But how can this general acceptance of compatibility work? The authors conclude by proposing a “contact hypothesis,” which posits that intergroup prejudice can be reduced by having frequent contact between diverse groups for the sake of a common objective” (Religion Among Scientists in International Context: A New Study of Scientists in Eight Regions, Sept 1 2016). This is an interesting suggestion because it implies that scientists, whether they are personally religious or not, are inclined to get along with believers for the sake of a common objective.

This is where I find the most significant problem with trying to make science and conservative Christianity compatible: they can try to accommodate each other’s claims, but when it comes down to asserting a fundamental truth about the universe, one of them will inevitably undermine the other. Put another way, conservative believers can accept the theory of evolution, but they need to understand what that implies. If they believe God has a hand in evolution, they must also recognize that it is a scientific theory that holds true even if one leaves out God. And it is this fact – that evolution does not require divine intervention – is exactly why conservatives fear evolution.

No Jokes Allowed: Ark Encounter Sues Insurance Company over Damage Caused by Flooding

by William Trollinger

Exterior of Ark Encounter. Photo credit: Susan L. Trollinger, 2018

I have often wondered if one of the “Fundamentals of the Faith” – along with “Thou shalt believe in the inerrant and perspicacious Bible” and “Thou shalt obey your Husband” – is “Thou shalt have no sense of humor.”

I received a barrage of emails and texts from friends when the news came out that the Ark Encounter was suing their insurance company for not covering the damage caused by heavy rains in 2017 and 2018.

Not surprisingly, reporters have had fun with this story. See, for example, the May 24 Washington Post article, “Lawsuit: Flood damage at Noah’s Ark attraction in Kentucky,” which begins with these two sentences:

In the Bible, the ark survived an epic flood. Yet the owners of Kentucky’s Noah’s ark attraction are demanding their insurance company bail them out after flooding caused nearly $1 million in property damage.

One might imagine that the folks at Answers in Genesis might go along with the joke, might even take the opportunity to poke a little fun at themselves.

But no. In an article entitled “Faked News” – which on the AiG website is linked to previous articles such as “Local TV Station Airs Misleading Ark Encounter Story” and “The Secularist Media War Against the Ark Continues” – AiG/Ark Encounter CCO Mark Looy complains about the news coverage of the AiG lawsuit:

Here is what we’re sharing with the media, if they even bother to contact us . . . “Contrary to some reporting, the damage to certain ares of the Ark Encounter themed attraction was not caused by a ‘flood’ . . . The damaged areas have already been remediated, [and] the Ark itself does not sit next to the damaged area” . . . So now you know the REAL account!

In this article Looy specifically criticizes the aforementioned Washington Post headline. But what is stunning is that all of the salient details in Looy’s “REAL account” – including that the damage was caused by heavy rain, the damage has been repaired, and the Ark is not damaged – are in fact included in the Washington Post article.

There is no “fake news” here. There is just the mildest form of joking. But AiG is determined to cast this as yet another example of secular persecution.

It takes real work for fundamentalists in Trump’s America to present themselves as the perpetual victims. There is simply no time or space for humor. Especially self-deprecatory humor.

Love Over Hate in Dayton

by William Trollinger

Hundreds of Counter-Protestors Demonstrate Against the KKK in Dayton, Ohio. Image source: PressFrom

On Saturday afternoon, the Honorable Sacred Knights of Madison, Indiana held a rally in Courthouse Square in downtown Dayton. “Rally” is an overstatement, as only nine of them had the courage to show up. They were greeted by hundreds of counter-protesters, ranging from Antifa members and the New Black Panthers to local church groups. Taking lessons from what happened in Charlottesville in 2017, the well-prepared Dayton police kept the two groups apart. After two hours of being drowned out by chants — including “no Trump, no KKK, no Fascist USA” – and songs (including “Amazing Grace”), the little band of white supremacists slinked out of town. No violence, no arrests.

Two nights before the rally I spoke on “The Past and Present of the KKK and White Supremacy” at Precious Blood Catholic Church here in Dayton. Upwards of 300 people were in attendance. There was a significant police presence, but there was no incident (and afterward a couple of the officers thanked me for my presentation). While a good portion of my talk was on the Klan in Dayton in the 1920s, it was not surprising (given the apprehension about the upcoming rally) that most of the questions in the lengthy post-lecture Q and A had to do with the present:

  • Why are the Klan and Klan-like groups not officially designated as terrorist organizations?
  • What can we do now to ban or curtail future rallies by white supremacy groups?
  • How do we combat people’s indifference to injustice?
  • How do we get beneath the lies and the spin to know what political candidates really stand for?
  • How do we teach people to value other human beings?

In anticipation of the Honorable Sacred Knight rally, my old friend Rod Kennedy – formerly the pastor of First Baptist Church here in Dayton – penned a lovely short sermonic essay.  His conclusion was rather prescient:

Let the KKK come. Let them come to Dayton. I know a thing or two about Dayton, and the hateful spirit of the KKK will be met there with the spirit of goodness, equality, and justice. I know people there, courageous people who will stand against the KKK. As surely as the University of Dayton football team chased away the KKK in the 1920s,  the good citizens of Dayton will once again win the victory – as partial, contingent, precarious, and incomplete as it will be.

The Klan is Coming to Dayton (Again)

by William Trollinger

Flier for William Trollinger’s upcoming presentation at Precious Blood Church in Dayton, Ohio.

This Saturday, May 25, the Klan-affiliated Honorable Sacred Knights of Madison, Indiana will be holding a rally at Courthouse Square in downtown Dayton. Concerned about the possibility of violence, the city of Dayton filed a lawsuit in March in order to keep the projected dozen or so white supremacists from rallying in paramilitary fashion. This past week both sides agreed to a consent decree: the Honorable Sacred Knights are prohibited from bringing shields, bats, long guns, and assault rifles to Courthouse Square, but they are allowed to wear masks and carry sidearms.  

Of course, the Indiana white supremacists want to spark some sort of incident that they can then publicize via social media. So, the city, the University of Dayton (UD), and the Dayton unit of the NAACP are asking folks to stay away. On the other hand, Dayton’s New Black Panther chapter is calling people to Courthouse Square on the 25th to challenge the presence of the Honorable Sacred Knights.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of participating in a one hour radio roundtable devoted to the May 25 rally. This program was broadcast on WCSU – the Central State University radio station – and included Nan Whaley (mayor of Dayton), Derrick Foward (president of Dayton’s NAACP unit), Donald Domineck (head of Dayton’s New Black Panthers chapter), Dr. Gabriela Pickett (artist and member of Welcome Dayton committee), and myself. Perhaps the most interesting part of this expertly moderated conversation was the lively disagreement between Forward and Domineck regarding how to respond to the white supremacy rally (an exchange with resonances of Martin and Malcolm). Listen to the conversation, from WCSU’s Talk To Me below. (Note that the first six minutes include an interview with Sen. Sherrod Brown.)

While city leaders have asked Daytonians to stay away from Courthouse Square this Saturday, they have also mounted a United Against Hate initiative. UD has also hosted a series of events in response to the May 25 rally (and in response to the posting of several neo-Nazi fliers throughout campus), including a well-attended April 9 White Supremacy teach-in (sponsored by UD’s Human Rights Center).

This Thursday, May 23, I will be speaking at Precious Blood Church here in Dayton on the topic, “The Past and Present of the KKK and White Supremacy.” One of the points I will be making is that it makes sense that the Honorable Sacred Knights are rallying in Dayton. In the 1920s, this city was one of the nation’s great Klan hotbeds, with frequent rallies at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds (just two blocks from UD) that attracted tens of thousands Klansmen, Klanswomen, and enthusiastic spectators.

Of course, the white nationalists from Indiana can only dream of such numbers on May 25. But as I will also mention, the Honorable Sacred Knights is just one in a constellation of white supremacist organizations currently active in America, all of which can be conveniently and iconically grouped under the term “Ku Klux Klan.”  

It should go without saying that 26 months with Donald Trump as president has been a great boon to white nationalism. But Trump is much more the beneficiary of American racism than he is its creator.

That is to say, in the United States we have only just started coming to terms with the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. We have a long ways to go.

Science Denial, White Supremacy, and Two Escapes

by William Trollinger

“Flat Earth | Conspiracy Theory VOL.1” by Daniel Beintner is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

I keep saying it. The denial of mainstream science, white supremacy, and the evangelical attachment to right-wing politics were all well-entrenched in American culture long before 2016. But it was the election of Donald Trump that has attracted so many smart journalists and scholars to these topics, and now there is just so much to read on these and related issues. Below are three articles on science denial and white nationalism . . . and remarkably enough, all three pieces contain elements of hope.

Lee McIntyre, “Flat Earthers, and the Rise of Science Denial in America,” Newsweek

Drawing from his new book, The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science From Denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience, McIntyre argues that in this “post-truth” era, in which science deniers simply reject factual evidence, those of us who are interested in combating climate change denial need to “stop talking about proof, certainty, and logic.” Instead, we need to emphasize that what makes science, science, is the notion “that scientists care about evidence and are willing to change their views based on new evidence.” Most interesting here is McIntyre’s description of his efforts to apply this approach in discussions with attendees at the 2018 Flat Earth International conference in Denver, in which he pressed the question, “what would it take to convince you that you were wrong?” Bottom line? Face-to-face conversations are our only hope.

Sarah Olson, “My Parents Raised Me to Be a Science Denier, So I Educated Myself,” Leaps

In this fascinating piece Olson, who is currently an Oregon State undergraduate, and who blogs at readmorescience.com, describes her evangelical upbringing in which her parents homeschooled her in intelligent design, young Earth creationism, and a general skepticism of mainstream science. Upon entering public school she “became acutely aware of my ignorant upbringing,” but it was not until she left home and entered community college that she discovered her passion for biology and science writing. Interestingly, her parents have over time become more open to mainstream science, giving her “hope that people in deeply skeptical communities are not entirely out of reach.” Echoing McIntyre, Olson argues that “science communicators need to shift their focus from convincing to discussing,” as “people will only change their minds when it is the right time for them to do so.”

Rosie Gray, “A Former Alt-Right Member’s Message: Get Out While You Still Can,” BuzzFeed.News

Here is one of Katie McHugh’s infamous tweets: “British settlers built the USA. ‘Slaves’ built the country much as cows ‘built’ McDonald’s.” With her profile of McHugh – briefly an alt-Right media star – Rosie Gray provides us with a disturbingly compelling peek into the inner workings of white nationalism, a movement animated by, as the author points out, “the loneliness of the disaffected.” McHugh’s own loneliness was exacerbated by the level of her extremism, which even alienated some alt-Right compatriots. Now she says she has changed – giving some credit to her reading of St. Augustine – and she has a message for other white nationalists: “You have to own up to what you did and then forcefully reject this and explain to people and tell your story and say, ‘Get out while you can.’”

Taking Hate Seriously, or, Countering Christian White Nationalism

by Camille Lewis

Camille Kaminski Lewis is currently a Lecturer in the Department of Communication Studies at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. She holds a Ph.D. from Indiana University in Rhetorical Studies with a minor in American Studies. Her bookRomancing the Difference: Kenneth Burke, Bob Jones University, and the Rhetoric of Religious Fundamentalism, was a scholarly attempt to stretch the boundaries of both Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical theory on tragedy and comedy as well as stretch conservative evangelical’s separatist frames. The story of that publication is available at The KB JournalShe is currently working on a manuscript tentatively titled Klandamentalism: Dysfunction and Violence in America’s Most Romantic Religious Movements, while also compiling and editing an anthology – White Nationalism and Faith: Statements and Counter-Statements on American Identity – as part of Peter Lang’s Speaking of Religion book series.

Statue of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson being covered. Image courtesy of c-ville.com

In his first book, Counter Statement, Kenneth Burke explains that any idea contains its opposite, as if it houses an ideological pendulum. According to Burke, every principle “is matched by an opposite principle flourishing and triumphant today. Heresies and orthodoxies will always be changing places, but whatever the minority view happens to be at any given time, one must consider it as ‘counter.’”1  In other words, every tradition contains its own critique. Ideas are always in dialogue, bridging gaps that we may not have known existed until the bridges were built. And alongside those bridges are other implied ways to transfer and create meaning.

To foreground that pendulum and address our contemporary political climate, I am compiling and editing the anthology, White Nationalism and Faith: Statements and Counter-Statements on American Identity through Peter Lang’s Speaking of Religion book series. The text will include American speeches since the Civil War which wield religious arguments in order to affirm or dismantle white supremacy. William Jennings Bryan, Billy Sunday, William Ward Ayer, and Bob Jones, Sr. as well as Billy Graham, Barack Obama, and Reverend William Barber are just a few of the voices I want to include.

But first, this editor must tackle copyright permissions. I hired a student research assistant to help me along—thanks to a grant from the Furman Humanities Development Fund—but I didn’t want him to have to rub elbows with some of these characters. So I myself took on the first and worst: John Weaver, a Neo-Confederate infamously identified on the Southern Poverty Law Watch List. Weaver’s sermon “The Truth Concerning the Confederate Battle Flag” is the most frequently cited text defending the white “heritage” of the Confederacy. This sermon is the prominent touchstone for that perspective. Would he agree to a reprint?

I sent the email donning the detached, bureaucratic tone of a form letter. Within hours he responded. Read it for yourself.

Camil[l]e, first, I do not know you.  Second, I do not know in what context the message would be used.  Third, I am not interested in being labeled as a “white supremacist” nor being connected with the KKK or Aryan nation groups.  I do not belong to any of those groups neither do I hold their views. I have learned not to trust people who want to “use my materials” and then take everything out of context or present it in a liberal, leftist, humanistic light.  I know that Richard Furman was a sympathetic Confederate and that Furman supplied many soldiers for the South, yet, if I am correct, most of the history has been repudiated. His views on slavery have also been repudiated, I am sure, yet here is a reprint of his paper: https://confederateshop.com/shop/books/furman-and-the-baptists-on-slavery/.  I will not even consider granting permission until and unless I could see the context of the book as well as my message.

Pastor Weaver

Where to begin?

The series editor and I exchanged laughs and sighs. The entire melding of white nationalism and faith is right there in an eight-sentence email. “Oh well,” the editor shrugged.

But yet, I’m a rhetorician. I have to try. Weaver’s statement houses its own ideological pendulum, right? Can I, a “speech teacher” at an institution undergoing its own reconciliation with its slave-holding past, build a sufficient bridge between a Sons of the Confederate Veteran chaplain and myself? I had to try.

Pastor Weaver,

You are correct that we don’t know each other, but we do share a similar background. I, too, graduated from Bob Jones University. I earned a BA. in English in 1990 and an M.A. in Public Speaking in 1992. My husband and I taught there for 17 years—he in the Division of Music and I in the Division of Speech. He and I and our two sons are members in good standing at Mitchell Road Presbyterian (PCA) here in Greenville. We have been married for 29 years this summer, and, in addition to our living sons, we have four children waiting for us in Heaven.

To explain a little further, this volume I’m working on is an anthology. I want to include important public speeches and sermons since the Civil War. I intend to put speakers in dialogue with each other — to present two sides of the same conversation — with a contextual essay introducing each. Some of the pairs I have identified are Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Billy Sunday and the Princeton faculty, and Bob Jones Sr. and Billy Graham. I plan on including recent texts with Donald Trump and Barack Obama as well as Jefferson Sessions and Joe P. Kennedy III.

One additional pair that I know you would recognize is William Jennings Bryan and Andrew Cobb Erwin from the 1924 Democratic National Convention. I have quickly discovered that all Georgian gentlemen know of Erwin either through his father — Alexander Smith Erwin — or through his maternal grandfather — Howell Cobb. Erwin was the surprise renegade in that 1924 event, and I would argue that my students and other undergraduate speech students should know of his rhetorical prowess.Your sermon, “The Truth Concerning the Confederate Battle Flag,” is a significant text among all of these, and that’s why I’d like to include it in the volume. Within current conversations about Confederate memorials, I have found no other text quoted as often. Because of its influence, I consider it important among the others.

Whatever you decide, I will respect.

Best to you,

I have not heard back, and I likely won’t. Sometimes a bridge is built and lies fallow. Sometimes a pendulum stops swinging.

But this exchange points up the need and the possibilities within the anthology itself. When a political ideology such as white supremacy holds an entire nation in its thrall, we educated citizens are tempted to simply mock. In 1938, when the English translation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf was about to become a “Book of the Month,” Kenneth Burke warned his literati peers: “If the reviewer but knocks off a few adverse attitudinizings and calls it a day, with a guaranty in advance that [the] article will have a favorable reception among the decent members of our population,” the writer “is contributing more to our gratification than to our enlightenment.”2

So instead of “knocking off” a sneering meme on our newsfeed or shaking our heads among friends, Burke suggests we take the talk seriously. Similar to Burke’s challenge, our job, then, is to find all the available ways of making the white nationalist distortions of religion apparent, so that politicians of this kind will be ineffective in performing their swindle.

So how is John Weaver creating the same white supremacist drama as did William Jennings Bryan or Billy Sunday?  How have American rhetors since the Civil War constituted their white nationalism through religious rhetoric? And how have their contemporaries countered those statements? How can we now “put in” our “oar” in the continuing conversation over the last 150 years? Where do we stand next to our own American monuments so that we can create a better, more comic version of ourselves? With this anthology of statements and their contemporaneous counter-statements, I hope to craft and polish the same serious but comedic lens as Burke did with Mein Kampf.

1Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose (Berkeley: U California P, 1984) vii.

2Kenneth Burke, “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle,” The Philosophy of Literary Form (Berkeley: U California P, 1973) 191.

When the Juice is Not Worth the Squeeze: Distinguishing between Productive and Unproductive Conversations

by Emma Frances Bloomfield

Today’s post comes from our colleague Emma Frances Bloomfield, an Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who studies the intersection of science, religion, and politics from a rhetorical perspective. She received her PhD from USC Annenberg and wrote her dissertation on the similarities between science denial in the human origins and climate change controversies. She has written and presented on topics of the environment, digital rhetoric, narratives, political communication, and health. Her new book, Communication Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics: Religion and the Environment, is available now through Routledge’s series on Advances in Climate Change Research.

Communication Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics: Religion and the Environment

In this third post about my forthcoming book, Communication Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics: Religion and the Environment, I want to address the issue of how we can judge when climate conversations are likely to be productive and when they are over before they’ve even begun. My book primarily focuses on the rhetorical features of religious communities in relation to climate change and communication strategies for engaging them in conversation. While the vast majority of people I interacted with during the course of my data collection were open and willing to having conversations, some were less welcoming. In Chapter 2 of the book, I dedicate a short section to “A cautionary tale,” where I detail an interaction with a committed skeptic.

Because my research aimed to engage all types of people in climate conversations, I continued my conversation with this person far longer than I suggest others should engage people who exhibit similar characteristics. Based on that conversation, I outline in this post three primary markers of unproductive conversations. These features indicate that continuing to engage might not be worth the effort and may even backfire by providing the dialogue partner more ammunition for their skepticism towards environmentalism.

The first characteristic of unproductive conversations is the deployment of gatekeeping techniques. In my conversation with the hostile separator, they first asked me to solve a riddle about a tea party where people stated one thing about themselves. The separator continued that they would not engage with me about their views on the environment until I could determine “who is the Christian, who is the Environmentalist, and who is the Mad Hatter?” Even after I attempted to answer their riddle, they criticized me for not locating the correct answer, which was that there was no Christian or Environmentalist present. I could not follow the point of the riddle that the separator intended, but the riddle did function to derail us from the topic of the environment. Using gatekeeping strategies is also a feature of the Cornwall Alliance, an exemplar separator that I analyze in my book. In an interview with The Guardian CA President Calvin Beisner asked journalist Leo Hickman to read book Resisting the Green Dragon in its entirety before agreeing to the interview. When gatekeeping techniques are used, it likely means that the dialogue partner is not interested in a true, genuine conversation at all. Instead, those strategies may be used to unfairly test their dialogue partner and put up roadblocks to the topic at hand.

The second characteristic of unproductive conversations is the use of insults and ad hominem attacks. Even if people hold strong opinions about an issue, using insults, ridiculing others, and attacking people’s characters are rhetorical choices that should be avoided in productive conversations. In talking to the hostile separator, they used frequent insults such as calling my questions “ill-defined” and “leading,” and they accused me of being biased against Christians. Furthermore, they argued that my requests for conversations were part of “a trap” to “shame” and “force” people into “government regulated environmental compliance.” In starting a conversation with someone who holds these aggressive and overt views, I opened myself up to having to defend my integrity and intentions, again derailing the conversation away from environmental topics. If our dialogue partners react in this way, it is a likely sign that the conversation may quickly “devolve into elitist rants” or into “dueling ad hominem attacks and counterattacks” as Leah Ceccarelli warns. Instead of taking the bait and responding in kind, it would be more productive to find a different dialogue partner.

The third characteristic of unproductive conversations is engaging with someone who has a closed mindset. People often disagree on topics but can still engage in conversation. The key is that both parties must agree to rules of engagement (whether stated explicitly or not) to have a healthy back and forth, be respectful, and listen to one another’s perspectives. If people enter the conversation with a closed mindset, they may dominate the conversation, lecture the other person, and hear instead of listen. Former Vice President Al Gore recently visited UNLV’s campus and described some climate skeptics as reading from a “teleprompter.” This characterization is similar to Riley Dunlap’s assertion that some climate skeptics have their “minds made up” and cannot be reached through any means. Communicating with committed skeptics may look and feel like a “real” conversation, but instead, it more closely resembles someone reading from a pre-programmed script, which will not to lead productive engagement.

Similar to other scholars of climate change communication, I advocate that some dialogue partners, such as committed skeptics, need not be engaged or take up our rhetorical attention. For example, Karin Kirk argues that some people, whom she calls trolls, will never change their minds on climate change, and so we should focus on those who are more open and willing to engage. Of the nearly 50 people I had conversations with during the course of my book project, I only had one negative interaction with a committed skeptic. While there were certainly other committed skeptics who came across my calls for dialogue partners who chose not to engage with me, this lone interaction gives me hope that there are far more people that are willing to engage in conversation than “trolls” who are closed-minded. While we should keep dialogue and rhetorical listening at the forefront, we should also selectively attend to those who are truly open-minded and offer the most opportunity for productive discussion.

Communication Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics: Religion and the Environment is available now through Routledge’s series on Advances in Climate Change Research.

Talking with Climate Skeptics: How to Engage Separators, Bargainers, and Harmonizers (Part 2)

by Emma Frances Bloomfield

Today’s post comes from our colleague Emma Frances Bloomfield, an Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who studies the intersection of science, religion, and politics from a rhetorical perspective. She received her PhD from USC Annenberg and wrote her dissertation on the similarities between science denial in the human origins and climate change controversies. She has written and presented on topics of the environment, digital rhetoric, narratives, political communication, and health. Her new book, Communication Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics: Religion and the Environment, is available now through Routledge’s series on Advances in Climate Change Research.

Communication Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics: Religion and the Environment

My previous post explained my typology of the separators, bargainers, and harmonizers and their rhetorical features as analyzed in official organizational discourse and interviews. In this post, I provide brief overviews of my proposed strategies for responding to the disparate motivations and frameworks of each category. It is beyond the scope of this post to explain these strategies in detail, but I offer brief overviews and examples of dialogue in hopes of piquing readers’ interests to explore further.

I propose three strategies for engaging separators in conversation. The first is asking questions, where we seek to learn more about the root of our dialogue partners’ skepticism. The second is accepting premises, where we do not alter but instead embrace our dialogue partners’ driving values. The third is making it personal, where we redirect existing values to align with pro-environmental policies. In a conversation with a separator, I accepted their premise that Christians should primarily be concerned about evangelization but asked if Christians could also be environmentalists. During the conversation, the separator noted it was acceptable for “us [C]hristians to care for our common household” as long as we prioritize “faith and moral issue[s]” over environmental protection. For this separator, caring for the environment was not a negative behavior; it only became so when care for the environment displaced other concerns. In accepting the value they placed on evangelization, I was able to modify and expand the separator’s perspective to include environmentalism as compatible with evangelization.

I propose three strategies for engaging bargainers in conversation. The first is working within frames, where we do not seek to shift the conversation back to climate science, but instead remain within religious and economic frames. The second is joining the revolution, where we embrace the uncertainties inherent in scientific knowledge and measure current climate skepticism against scientific criteria. The third is employing examples, where we find concrete information and statistics from within bargainers’ frames that disrupt stereotypes and generalizations that bargainers may hold. In a conversation with a bargainer, I sought to disrupt their assumption that environmental policies would make life less comfortable. After discussing research I had done on renewable energy, the bargainer responded, “if sustainable and renewable power is the solution, I really don’t care where the electricity comes from as [long as] my computers and phones and tablets … work.” This bargainer assumed environmental policies would interfere with their everyday life, but during our conversation, my openness to listen to their concerns enabled me to speak from a position of trust and correct this perception.

I propose three strategies for encouraging environmental behaviors in harmonizers. The first is shifting frames from private to public, where we emphasize the importance of community and public behaviors. The second is communicating urgency, where we infuse the reality of climate change with immediacy. The third is thinking globally, where we build on the harmonizers’ ecological worldview, so that they may see that actively protecting a variety of different forms of life is implicated in Christian stewardship. These strategies largely build on harmonizers’ existing environmental values in order to encourage them to view their environmental behaviors as globally important. Many harmonizers I spoke with were already committed to personal changes, but they did not feel comfortable sharing them with others. One harmonizer I spoke to argued, “Even though God will instantly transform nature when Christ returns, that does not mean Christians should just wait for God to do the work when Christ returns.” This quotation reveals an interesting tension between environmental restoration and the apocalypse that repeated itself in my interviews.

The most prominent contributions of the book are the interviews that are examples of how people think about, talk about, and express themselves on these important topics. I greatly enjoyed my conversations and found that all my dialogue partners (save one or two) were respectful, open, and willing to talk; they showed me that we have far more in common than we might assume. Even separators and bargainers were concerned about the environment, wanted to invest in more eco-friendly technology (largely for economic benefit), and cared about long-term impacts. What was different were the labels people were using, and their perceptions of what it meant to adopt the term “environmentalist.” Willing to listen and be open to new information, my conversations and dialogues fostered mutual respect and understanding.

Talking with Climate Skeptics: How to Engage Separators, Bargainers, and Harmonizers (Part 1)

by Emma Frances Bloomfield

Today’s post comes from our colleague Emma Frances Bloomfield, an Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who studies the intersection of science, religion, and politics from a rhetorical perspective. She received her PhD from USC Annenberg and wrote her dissertation on the similarities between science denial in the human origins and climate change controversies. She has written and presented on topics of the environment, digital rhetoric, narratives, political communication, and health. Her new book, Communication Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics: Religion and the Environment, is available now through Routledge’s series on Advances in Climate Change Research.

Communication Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics: Religion and the Environment

In our ongoing conversations and controversies about the environment and climate change, it becomes ever more pressing to uncover and explore obstacles to progress and policy enactment. In my forthcoming book, Communication Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics: Religion and the Environment, I specifically address the sometimes productive and sometimes detrimental role that religion and Christianity play in public attitudes on the environment. While some may view religion as an impediment to climate change beliefs, I wish to tease out these relationships in order to disrupt monolithic assumptions about both climate skeptics and religious adherents. The primary goal of the book is to create strategies for engagement – to start and continue conversations – by better understanding various audiences and stakeholders in controversies over climate change.

In my theoretical justification for the project, I propose that environmental communicators should be audience-focused. Drawing primarily from work by Kenneth Burke on identification, Richard Johannesen on dialogue, and Krista Ratcliffe on rhetorical listening, I argue that our environmental conversations must focus on engagement and understanding, instead of coercion and persuasion. A key contribution of the book is my focus on seeking to understand skeptics instead of dismissing them out of hand. This approach opens up opportunities for genuine exchange and trust-building, in order to uncover underlying motivations and perspectives. I explore the potential harms of entering conversations with pre-conceived biases (on the part of both environmental communicators and climate skeptics), in the process making use of rhetorical theories that may help us achieve commonality.

In the book, I propose a typology for categorizing how Christians make sense of their relationship to the environment and their attitudes toward climate change. Instead of categorizing people based on the strength of their denial, my typology of separators, bargainers, and harmonizers is based on public discourse about climate change and my interviews and interactions with climate skeptics and members of the Creation Care community (Christians who support environmental advocacy based on their faith). The typology emerged from the worldviews, frameworks, and guiding metaphors that were shared amongst them. The typology is not meant to be exhaustive or exclusive but a new conceptualization of skepticism to tease out the interrelationships of Christianity and climate change.

The first category in the typology is the “separator.” Separators see a distinct, oppositional relationship between their interpretation and performance of their faith, and mainstream conclusions from climate science. Separators operate from within a “war” framework, which drives their discourse to be aggressive and highly polarized. For example, separators may accuse climate scientists of corrupting society’s morality or seeking to destroy religion’s influence. To outline the rhetorical features of the separators, I analyzed the public discourse of the Cornwall Alliance. The Cornwall Alliance draws a clear divide between their interpretation of Christianity and environmentalism, viewing them as incompatible. For example, Cornwall Alliance President Calvin Beisner argued that environmentalism is a “radical religion” and that Christians “must never conflate Biblical earth stewardship with environmentalism. The two are mutually exposed from – pardon the pun – the ground up.”

The second category in the typology is the “bargainer.” Bargainers negotiate their understanding of mainstream climate science with competing authorities, mainly religious and economic ones. Unlike the separators, bargainers are more likely to bring up scientific data and research as valid decision-making resources. However, they oftentimes undergo a bargaining process where that information is interpreted differently in order to refute mainstream interpretations. For example, bargainers may look at the statistic that 97% of scientists ascribe to anthropogenic climate change and interpret this to mean that there are still credible experts and scientists that are unconvinced. In substituting other authorities for scientific ones, bargainers operate under the framework of a revolution, where current understandings will be disrupted and replaced by further research. For example, the Acton Institute has argued that “an environmental ethic … rests firmly upon the foundation of both sound reasoning and divine revelation,” thereby framing reasoning and science as relying on Christian ideals.

The third category in the typology is the “harmonizer.” Harmonizers are not climate skeptics but are Christians who actively incorporate environmental protection into the performance of their faith. They are included in the typology to show the variety of ways, both negatively and productively, that religion influences environmental attitudes. Harmonizers are likely to see themselves as personally implicated in making environmental decisions, and they believe that Christians should be stewards of the environment. While there is little need to engage in conversations about the scientific reality of climate change with harmonizers, it is important to engage them on practical ways to enact their religious identity and make meaningful environmental changes. The Evangelical Environmental Network exemplifies the harmonizers’ ecological attitudes by noting the connectedness of all life. The organization’s goals include creating “renewed harmony and justice between people” and “between people and the rest of the created world.”

It is my hope that by book will appeal to different audiences at the intersection of the environment, communication, dispute resolution, collaboration, climate science, and faith. By pairing communication and rhetorical theories with practical solutions, the book aims to not only produce knowledge but contribute to progress in environmental conversations. Future projects should build on these ideas by further testing and refining the typology, exploring how other ideological identities intersect with the environment, and proposing additional strategies for engaging in environmental conversations.

Righting America Blog Categories

Subscribe via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Righting America blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.