by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. He pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years, after which he served as interim pastor of ABC USA churches in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. He is currently interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His seventh book, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, has recently been published. And book #8, Dancing with Metaphors in the Pulpit, will appear soon.
As I read Jerry Bergman’s attack on William Trollinger, I confess that I was less than interested, because he uses all the same argumentative tropes that occur when a creationist feels exposed, put down, or criticized. Like Ken Ham, Bergman mistakes criticism for personal persecution. The first line of his article reveals his insecurity and the “chip on the shoulder” that attaches to almost all evangelicals.
Why do creationist rebuttals sound the same? Why do they insist on garden-variety emotional responses? The writer is always feigning personal injury: His feelings are hurt. He throws around rhetorical terms that suggest his critic is illogical.
And in Bergman’s article, he reaches into the grab bag of an introductory public speaking textbook and inserts rhetorical tropes like “ad hominem,” “glittering generality”, and the feared “either-or fallacy.”
The most glaring rhetorical mistake in the article is the insistence that William Trollinger uses ad hominem arguments when the opposite is true. Bergman’s use of ad hominem arguments reminds me of David Barton writing a book called The Jefferson Lies when the book itself was filled with Barton’s lies, distorted facts, and misinformation.
A word about the rhetorical trope – ad hominem. Rhetorical scholar Jennifer R. Mercieca defines and explains ad hominem argument:
- Argument ad hominem (Latin for “appeal to the person,” attacking the person instead of their argument). Used by a demagogue to misdirect the audience’s attention and attack the character of their opponents. Ad hominem is a technique that shifts attention away from the issue by refocusing our attention on the person who raised the issue, or at a secondary level, on the demagogue’s attack on the person. If successful, ad hominem attacks prevent critical thinking, as our attention is no longer on the debated question and is instead on the person.
According to argumentation scholars Frans van Eemeren and Rob Grootendorst there are three variations of ad hominem attacks:
- First: “direct personal attack,” which “consists of cutting down one’s opponent by casting doubt on his expertise, intelligence, character, or good faith.”
- Second: “circumstantial attack,” which cast doubt on the “motives of one’s opponent for his standpoint” by making them appear self-interested or biased.
- Third: “tu quoque (appeal to hypocrisy),” in which “an attempt is made to find a contradiction in one’s opponent’s words or between his words and his deeds.”
And Bergman goes overboard when it comes to ad hominem attacks. The emotional dam bursts when he asserts that:
- “in examining Trollinger’s response, I was looking for evidence of mistakes of factual content in my article. However, it can be seen that Trollinger’s response was purely irresponsible name-calling from a militant anti-Christian who opposes Christian schools and the core Christian beliefs. Was Trollinger pro-Vietcong, omitting the atrocities committed by them?”
At last, an actual ad hominem argument appears, but it comes from Bergman, not Trollinger! Unpack this paragraph for evidence:
- Trollinger engages in purely irresponsible name-calling.
- Trollinger is a militant anti-Christian.
- Trollinger opposes Christian schools.
- Trollinger opposes the core Christian beliefs.
- Perhaps Trollinger was a secret Communist, supporting the Vietcong while ignoring the atrocities committed by those Communists.
Somewhere in the posteromedial cortex of what passes for the creationist’s mind lurks the ghost of the rabid anti-Communist crusader Joseph McCarthy. Rhetorically, you can’t get more ad hominem than this.
But Bergman, once he unleashed the throttle on the Ad Homimen train, can’t stop himself. He goes even further:
- “Trollinger’s article purports to be about me and my article on Darwinism and Vietnam, but I am not responsible for what others, who claim to be Christians but who do not live up to the Christian standard, say or do. His article not only attacks me personally but expands into a wholesale condemnation of the Christian church and modern Christians.”
Mr. Bergman can’t resist the name calling and the personal insults. He sounds more like Donald Trump – the king of nicknames – than a careful scholar schooled in reticence and humility.
Look in the mirror Mr. Bergman and ask thyself: “Mirror, mirror on the wall who is the most ad hominem of all?”
And the mirror will respond: “You’re looking at him, dude.”