How Biblical Interpretation has influenced Anglo-American policies in The Promised Land

A review of Irvine Anderson’s Biblical Interpretation and Middle East Policy: The Promised Land, America, and Israel, 1917-2002, by Mac McCann.

In an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God” and famously suggested that the First Amendment built “a wall of separation between Church & State.” Writing the majority opinion for Everson v. Board of Education (1947), Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black built upon that, arguing that, “That wall [between church and state] must be kept high and impregnable.” However, no matter how “high and impregnable” that wall is or should be in theory, it’s undeniable that, throughout American history, religion has mingled with politics. In his 2005 book, Biblical Interpretation and Middle East Policy: The Promised Land, America, and Israel, 1917-2002, Irvine H. Anderson provides an illustration of how Biblical interpretation has influenced the Middle East policies of the United States and the United Kingdom.

Over the book’s 138 pages, Irvine H. Anderson, a retired professor of American diplomatic history specializing in the Middle East, discusses Biblical interpretation and how it’s affected American and British policies in the Middle East. Divided into two parts, the book starts by examining the Bible in Anglo-American culture, before transitioning to the more specific British and American policy. While the book focuses mainly on the period between 1917 and 2002, it discusses some of the movements and ideas as early as the 18th century that led up to that period, and most of his points are easily applicable to the world today, even after 2002. To be clear, Anderson doesn’t argue that religion has dictated or dominated Anglo-American policies; instead, Anderson simply argues that certain popular Biblical interpretations and influences “have created a cultural framework within which Zionist and pro-Israel lobbies could more easily function” (IX). In addition to the Biblical interpretations themselves, the influence of such ideas was also aided by the lack of, what Anderson called, a “real countervailing force,” since there was “no general knowledge of Islam, Arabs, or the Middle East among the electorate, no powerful Arab lobby, and limited understanding of the importance of maintaining healthy relations with friendly oil-producing Arab states in the region” (2).

In Part I’s Chapter 1, Anderson focuses on “Biblical Criticism and the Rise of Fundamentalism” (7). He opens by discussing how scientific and philosophical developments in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to the “historical/critical” method of analyzing the Bible by using “the emerging tools of archeology, history, and literary analysis” (7). In reaction to these advancements – which called into question the historical accuracy of the Bible – religious fundamentalism became much more prominent, as some held the idea that “if one doesn’t believe the Bible to be literally true, there is no moral anchor for the country” (7). For fundamentalist Christians, the more critical approach to the Bible “threatens the Christian system of doctrine and the whole fabric of systematic theology” since even if “one error of fact or principle is admitted in Scripture, nothing – not even the redemptive work of Christ – is certain” (17, 18). Then, he laid out some of the main ideas of what is known as Christian Zionism that have affected and influenced Anglo-American cultures and policies.

He first examines the idea of The Promised Land – the idea that God has given Israel specifically to the Jewish people. He briefly discusses some of the Biblical passages that have led to the idea. For example, Anderson points to Genesis 12, in which the Lord tells Abram (later known as Abraham) to go “the land of Canaan,” which the Lord will give to his offspring (10). Especially related to many Christians’ perspectives on Israel today, the Lord tells Abram, “I will make of you a great nation, I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse” (10). Such passages – or, at the very least, the ideas that they suggest – are still clearly influential today, even almost a decade after Anderson’s book was published. For example, according to the Pew Research Center in 2013:

“[T]wice as many white evangelical Protestants as Jews say that Israel was given to the Jewish people by God (82% vs. 40%). Some of the discrepancy is attributable to Jews’ lower levels of belief in God overall; virtually all evangelicals say they believe in God, compared with 72% of Jews (23% say they do not believe in God and 5% say they don’t know or decline to answer the question). But even Jews who do believe in God are less likely than evangelicals to believe that God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jewish people (55% vs. 82%).”

At this point, I should note that, although Anderson makes some of his strongest points early on in the book, he also reveals some of the book’s limitations. For example, Anderson betrays either his carelessness or his lack of Biblical knowledge by writing that “the first ten books of the Bible … [are] called the Pentateuch,” which simply isn’t true (15). Additionally, in a review of the book, Paul Merkley criticizes Anderson’s “biblical exegesis” as “disconnected, bouncing from one colorful point to another, showing no acquaintance with the traditional theological or biblical commentaries” (Merkley). While I agree that Anderson definitely doesn’t come off as the most brilliant Biblical scholar, I don’t think his arguments really require him to be a groundbreaking Biblical scholar. After all, even if some of his uses of Biblical quotes and passages aren’t the most theologically sound in the eyes of Merkley, the average Anglo-American isn’t a theologian either. As noted above, 82 percent of white evangelical Protestants “say that Israel was given to the Jewish people by God,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean that 82 percent of white evangelical Protestants can tell you the full and exact Biblical justification for their beliefs. Or, as Lawrence Davidson wrote in his review of the book, “Even if the average citizen is indifferent to the issues of the Middle East (and in terms of daily life most people assuredly are), there is no popular inclination to object to the policy-shaping influence of men like John Hagee, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell” (Davidson).

In addition to discussing the idea of The Promised Land, Anderson also discusses the complex idea of dispensational premillennialism. Largely based on Daniel and Revelation, as well as a few passages in the Gospels, dispensational premillennialism, Anderson explains, is an “interpretation of scripture as prophecy regarding the Second Coming of Christ and the End Times” (19). Here, as in most places, Anderson doesn’t dive especially deep into the textual support and justification of the idea of dispensational premillennialism, but, again, he wasn’t discussing the theology itself, but its impact on Anglo-American policy in the Middle East. He specifically points out the importance, in some End Times interpretations, of “the ingathering of Jews to the Holy Land as prelude to the events that follow, and the special role that they are destined to play in those events” (20). This idea, Anderson points out, has influenced many of the more fundamentalist Christians to so thoroughly support Israel as a country. While discussing this idea, and while discussing various ideas throughout the book, Anderson notes and generally explains the various interpretations of the mentioned passages; still, it’s the more fundamentalist interpretations that he focuses on.

In Chapter 2 of Part I, titled “The Promised Land and Armageddon Theology,” Anderson builds upon the ideas mentioned in the chapter’s title, but shifts the emphasis to the spread of the ideas rather than the ideas themselves. He highlights the rise of the Sunday school movement, which began in the late 18th century in England and its expansion into the United States and beyond during the 19th century. While the ideas of The Promised Land and the End Times etc. were not an all-consuming, dominating theme among 18th and 19th century Christians, Anderson recognizes that – and that was never what he was arguing. Instead, he discusses how a significant portion of the population was exposed to and taught those ideas early on in life. For example, supporting his idea of “a cultural disposition,” he points out that, “By 1851, 13 percent of the entire population of England, Scotland, and Wales were enrolled in Sunday schools,” and that some of the themes of the lessons dealt with Abraham, Joshua, Canaan, and various people and places related to The Promised Land and End Times ideas (34). With even more supporting evidence, he discusses how The Promised Land and End Times ideas were a constant in post-World War II Christian teachings and sermons in America (37). In addition to theological teachings and sermons, Anderson explains how more popular media, such as novels, books, and radio and television programs, have also helped spread the idea of the End Times in the second half of the 20th century in America (44-47). To be clear, Anderson doesn’t hesitate to admit that “it is difficult, if not impossible, to establish the exact impact of any one or all of these influences on the attitudes of the general public” (49). Still, he provides ample evidence that would definitely seem to suggest that there’s a connection between the ideas and the policies of the nations.

After establishing the various factors and influences behind the “cultural predisposition” in Part I, Anderson discusses some of the various impacts of that predisposition between 1917 and 2002, in Part II, “British and American Policy.” In Chapter 3, “The Balfour Declaration and the Palestine Mandate,” Anderson opens by discussing the British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour’s 1917 letter to Lord Rothschild, a prominent British Jew, which declared Britain’s support for the Jewish Zionist movement (53). He then describes the connection between Methodism and the Labour Party, before looking more specifically into the Balfour Declaration. Here, like in much of the book, he doesn’t go into nearly as much detail as he could have, writing that, since it’s been “so thoroughly analyzed by scholars over the years,” it’s “not necessary to enter into a detailed discussion” (57). But, again, he still strongly makes his points. Throughout the chapter, he describes some of the “long though muted history” of the idea of a return of the Jews to Palestine, as well as various factors leading up to the establishment of an independent Israel state after World War II (58).

In Chapter 4, Anderson focuses on “Truman, the Bible, Israel, Oil, and the Soviet Union.” Yet again, Anderson declines to go into too many details, noting, “The decision by Harry to recognize the State of Israel immediately after its creation in 1948 has been so well researched by historians that it would appear almost redundant to bring it up again” (75). Still, he provides enough evidence to support his claim that “by 1948 a highly effective Zionist lobby had been at work for over a decade and that it had appealed to an American concern for the plight of the Jews in Europe and a biblically derived understanding of Palestine as their historical homeland” (100). In contrast to the United Kingdom’s “perceived national interest (in this case, British war aims)” which “pointed in the same direction” as “a Zionist lobby, and a biblically derived predisposition … to support the return of the Jews,” the Zionist lobby in America had to compete with the Departments of Defense and State, which “were adamant in opposing premature recognition [of a new Jewish state] in the belief that it would seriously endanger America’s strategic position at the outset of the cold war” (58; 101). Still, despite that opposition, and while other factors played a role, Anderson argues that, like many other Christian leaders, “Truman’s biblical background clearly predisposed him to favor the return of the Jews to Palestine” (101).

In Chapter 5, “Christian Influence and Congressional Support of Israel,” Anderson focuses on the period after Truman’s recognition of Israel, the second half of the 20th century, especially in America. In the chapter, he reiterates one of his main points by quoting “one scholar,” who noted, “Confronted with the need to draw conclusions and make policy on the basis of ambiguous evidence, people tend to fit data into a preexisting framework of beliefs” (103). Through the Cold War and into the present, Anderson argues that, at least partly due to Biblical teachings, “a de facto alliance between the pro-Israel lobby and the Religious Right” has fostered the idea that Israel shares “the same cultural, religious, and political values as the United States” (129).

Finally, in the epilogue, Anderson briefly discusses “The al-Aqsa Intifada, September 11, and the Dynamics of Policy” but recognizes that “It is much too early to speculate on where America’s war on terrorism and the Arab/Israeli conflict will lead” (138).

Overall, I was a little disappointed in, what I saw as, Anderson’s relatively surface-level examination of the subject. However, I completely understand that it would be nearly impossible to cover such a wide range of ideas, people, and events in depth without making the book much, much longer, and therefore, arguably, less accessible. As Lawrence Davidson put it in his review of the book, “It does not break any new ground on the subject, but it does function as a valuable historical summary” (Davidson). While I accept some of Merkley’s criticisms of the book (such as the previously discussed issue of Anderson’s Biblical understanding not being as thorough as it could have been), I also agree with his general compliment of the book: “The substantive value of Anderson’s work lies in his insightful analysis of how this “predisposition” helped shape political policy at decisive moments in the establishment and consolidation of the Zionist agenda” (Merkley). Like Davidson, I found Anderson’s statements to be adequately supported, and, quite frankly, a bit frightening. As Davidson wrote, “Christian Zionist leaders lobby against negotiation, compromise, and peace. Thus, it can be argued that Christian Zionism stands as the antithesis of diplomacy. [Anderson’s book] makes this depressingly clear” (Davidson). At times, Anderson does occasionally seem to agree with Davidson, such as when he seemed to denounce America’s seemingly relentless support of Israel “despite warnings from the Department of State that too strong a tilt toward Israel could seriously undermine the American role as a peacemaker and jeopardize its other interests in the area” (129). However, while the book arguably wasn’t strong enough in its denunciation of some of the negative consequences of the influence of Biblical interpretation, its lack of inflammatory and/or combative tone might make the book more accessible to some who otherwise wouldn’t be as open to the book’s argument. As a whole, Irvine Anderson’s Biblical Interpretation and Middle East Policy is definitely a very thought-provoking and informative introduction showing that how the Bible is interpreted definitely is a factor in governmental policies.

 

Bibliography:

Anderson, Irvine H. Biblical Interpretation and Middle East Policy: The Promised Land, America, and Israel, 1917-2002. Gainesville: U of Florida, 2005. Print.

Davidson, L. (2010), Christian Zionism and the Formulation of Foreign Policy. Diplomatic History, 34: 605–609. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7709.2010.00874.x

Merkley, Paul C. “Biblical Interpretation and Middle East Policy: The Promised Land, America, and Israel, 1917-2002 (review).” American Jewish History, Dec. 2004. Web. 13 May 2014. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/ajh/summary/v092/92.4merkley.html&gt;.

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Christianity & Homosexuality

Written as a personal email to a Christian friend who is struggling with his sexuality, the following is an informal, conversational examination of what the Bible says about homosexuality, and whether or not it’s possible to be both gay and Christian. In honor of Paul’s epistles, I begin the letter with a personal greeting before going deeper into the issue.

Subject: Re: Does God hate how I love?

I’m honored that you trust me enough to discuss this incredibly personal – and incredibly important – topic of whether it’s possible to be gay and Christian at the same time. But before I put on my more formal scholar cap and discuss the Bible more specifically, I feel like I should be open about my personal stance. After all, you’ve always been honest with me, so I’d like to show you the same respect, even at the risk of being a bit too blunt.

Since we’ve discussed what the Bible seems to say about slavery before, you might remember the quote of an abolitionist: “Prove to me from the Bible that slavery is to be tolerated, and I will trample your Bible under my feet, as I would the vilest reptile in the face of the earth.” In the same way – from my perspective, at least – I personally find it easier to reject the Bible because of its homophobia (or what I interpret as homophobia, but I’ll go more into that later), rather than try to reconcile the idea of a ‘loving’ God with a homophobic God. And I’m not alone on this, a Public Religion Research Institute survey earlier this year found that nearly one-third of Millennials (ages 18-33-years old) who left their faith cited “negative teachings” or “negative treatment” of the LGBTQ community as a significant factor in their decision to leave organized faith. Additionally, the survey found that 58% of Americans – and 70% of Millennials – said that religious groups are “alienating young adults by being too judgmental on gay and lesbian issues.” Even without facing the struggle that you’re going through, I’ve come to terms with my lack of faith, and I have no doubt that you could find such comfort as well.

Again, I don’t think you should feel obligated to hold your faith if you don’t feel your religion accepts who you are as a person. After all, religion is much more of a choice than sexuality. However, I understand that that’s simply not the case for everybody, as I understand and respect how important your faith has been to you.

With that said, I’d like to discuss what exactly the Bible says about homosexuality, why some people think you cannot be both gay and Christian, why some people think you can be both gay and Christian, and, in the end, why it’s your decision more than anything else.

For all the attention and controversy surrounding Christianity and homosexuality, the Bible, perhaps surprisingly, rarely discusses homosexuality, only mentioning the topic in fewer than ten passages. Additionally, given the time when the Bible was written, the Good Book has many questionable (to say the least) ideas about sexuality, gender, marriage, etc., so we shouldn’t take the passages about homosexuality without thinking about them critically. But, yes, at face value at least, the Bible seems to consider homosexual actions to be sinful; homosexuality as a sexual orientation (as we understand it today) isn’t discussed in the Bible.

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18-19 in the Old Testament is sometimes cited as an indication that God condemns homosexual activity. Specifically in Genesis 19:5, the men of Sodom demanded Lot to “Bring them [the male angels] out to us, so that we may know them.” In that context, “to know” means “to have sex.” Later in the chapter (Genesis 19:24-25), “the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground.” It seems clear that God wasn’t happy with them. Many have interpreted God’s actions as a result of their homosexual activity. Even in today’s world (although the term is fading), non-procreative sexual activity is often negatively referred to as “sodomy.” Furthermore, while noting that it’s “deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action,” then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) wrote in 1986, “There can be no doubt of the moral judgment made there [in Genesis 19:1-11] against homosexual relations.” However, a few things should be noted when discussing this passage. First off, even if you believe that God condemned the cities because of homosexual activity, it’s important to understand that their actions are not the same actions as the way that most people practice homosexuality today. In contrast with today’s world, sex in Biblical times was usually for procreation or to show dominance over another person. Far from looking for a consensual and meaningful relationship that happens to be between people of the same sex, homosexual acts during the time period, such as the intended gang rape in the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, were often intended as a way to humiliate and dominate another man. Additionally, not all scholars even agree that it was the homosexual actions that led to the cities’ downfall. Some, such as Jennifer Wright Knust, claim that the intended homosexual gang rape was one of Sodom’s many sins – such as pride, hatred, injustice, oppression, inhospitality, etc.

In Leviticus 18-20, also in the Old Testament, homosexuality seems to be denounced even more explicitly than in Genesis. Leviticus 18:22 reads, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” And Leviticus 20:13 says, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” As if the verses alone aren’t clear enough in their disapproval of homosexual actions, such verses are seamlessly intertwined with verses denouncing other sexual interactions, such as prohibiting sexual relations with any animal – a comparison that’s often made today (unfortunately). However, while the verses about homosexuality seem pretty clear, other Leviticus verses, which we often reject, seem pretty clear as well. For example, Leviticus 20:9 says, “All who curse father or mother shall be put to death,” and luckily I don’t know of any Christians who suggest the death penalty for disrespectful children. Later passages in Leviticus seem to condone slavery, such as Leviticus 25, yet we’ve blatantly rejected that as a society anyway. Furthermore, thinking more critically about the rules laid out in Leviticus, recognizing that the Jews were a relatively small group, it would make sense for them to condemn non-procreative sex in order to promote a higher birth rate, especially with the high infant mortality rates.

In the New Testament, Romans 1-2 have often been cited to support homophobic interpretations of the Bible. Specifically in Romans 1:26-27, Paul seems to suggest that, as a punishment for worshipping idols, “God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” To some, this passage is clear; Dale Martin quotes Robert Gagnon who claims that Romans 1 “makes an explicit statement not only about same-sex intercourse among men but also about lesbianism.” However, as Martin notes, this passage, while seemingly a denunciation of homosexuality to some, seems to suggest that said homosexual actions were not deliberate choices, but punishment from God for their idolatry.

In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, also in the New Testament, Paul writes, “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.”  Even if you do think that homosexuality is a sin, it seems extremely unreasonable and unfair to lump “sodomites” together with “thieves” and “robbers.”  While there are questions over the translations of “male prostitutes” and “sodomites,” I don’t think any interpretation of this passage can justify its flaws.  For example, Martin argues that malakos, translated above as “sodomites,” actually has various meanings, and arguably refers most widely to the “entire complex of femininity.” Taking the phrase this way, rather than simply condemning homosexuals, it would seem to condemn “effeminate” males; and considering how the Bible, especially Paul’s letters, seem to portray women, this would seem to be a blatantly sexist insult. Additionally, the following verse, 1 Corinthians 6:11, has been used to justify “ex-gay” “conversion” therapy, which aims to ‘free’ people from their homosexual desires – which many professionals consider to be extremely demeaning and harmful. The now-defunct Exodus International, for example, used the idea that despite “what some of you used to be,” such as a homosexual, you can be “washed” and “sanctified” and “justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the spirit of our God.” Having interviewed multiple people who went through various ‘pray the gay away’ programs, some of what they went through is absolutely horrifying.

To be clear, no one has the right to tell you what you can or can’t consider yourself. If, after examining the various arguments, you do consider homosexual actions to be immoral, some people would suggest simply remaining celibate. After all, the Bible does seem to denounce homosexual actions, but homosexual attractions wouldn’t seem to be any more ‘sinful’ than heterosexual lust, which is also denounced in the Bible. It’s also extremely important to recognize that the Bible’s discussion of homosexuality doesn’t even touch on the possibility of a consensual, loving and supportive homosexual relationship, so it’s quite possible that you could remain a Christian even while living “a homosexual lifestyle,” as many gay Christians do today. As I’ve told you before, while writing about a variety of Dallas-Forth Worth churches last summer for the Dallas Observer, the church that I thought was truly the most “Christ-like” was the Cathedral of Hope, which is one of the largest LGBTQ-inclusive churches in the world, with thousands of members and almost 80-90% of their congregation identifying as LGBTQ. In the end, it comes down to whatever makes you feel the most comfortable.

No matter what you decide, know that I will support your decision, and I’m always here to help if you need me.

Sincerely,

Mac McCann

The Art of Rhetoric: Directing the World, One Soul at a Time

Ideas are powerful. But without words, ideas are limited. As Jarod Kintz wrote, “Ideas are like legs: what good are they if you can’t run with them, or spread them?” (The Days of Yay are Here! Wake Me Up When They’re Over).Clearly, words are important. Playing on Rene Descartes, the greatest orators are capable of the greatest vices as well as of the greatest virtues. At its best, rhetoric has been, and can be, used to inform, enlighten, and empower people and spread virtue – for example, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. At its worst, rhetoric has been, and can be, used to mislead, manipulate, and oppress people and spread vice – for example, Adolf Hitler, who noted in his Mein Kampf, “I know that fewer people are won over by the written word than by the spoken word and that every great movement on this earth owes its growth to great speakers and not to great writers.” Because rhetoric is so immensely powerful, it’s important to examine. In this essay, drawing upon some of history’s greatest orators as well as some of Plato’s dialogues, I will examine the art of rhetoric – which I define, as Socrates did, as a way of directing the soul by speech.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates considers rhetoric to be the true psychagogia, the techne of directing the soul by means of speech (261a). Additionally, Socrates notes, in the form of a question, that rhetoric “leads the soul by means of words, not only in law courts and the various other public assemblages, but in private companies as well” and that it’s “the same when concerned with small things as with great, and, properly speaking, no more to be esteemed in important than in trifling matters” (261a-b). Rhetoric, generally speaking, is merely a tool for expression and, if done effectively, a tool for persuasion – but a tool that’s important in all aspects of life. The rhetorical skills that enabled Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to inspire countless people to embrace equality also enabled Hitler’s rise to power. Still, those skills are the same skills that enable people to debate over what to have for dinner, to discuss which sports team is the best, and to ponder countless other trivial arguments.

While I agree with many, if not most, of Socrates’ points on rhetoric, I agree with Phaedrus’ view that “one who is to be an orator does not need to know what is really just, but what would seem just to the multitude who are to pass judgment, and not what is really good or noble, but what will seem to be so; for they say that persuasion comes from what seems to be true, not from the truth” (260a). In other words, one could say that the aim of rhetoric is to convince others of something, and not to find the unquestionable truth. In response, Socrates presents a thought experiment. If Socrates praised “the ass, which I called a horse,” as “a most valuable possession at home and in war,” it would be ridiculous – he praised the ass as if it were a horse – which it wasn’t (260). Therefore, according to Socrates, in the same way that it would be ridiculous to praise the ass under the name of a horse, it would be ridiculous (and lead to “no very good harvest”) to praise evil under the name of good (260). Of course, it can be ridiculous and quite possibly dangerous to mislead people through rhetoric. But rhetoric, as Socrates noted, is a way of directing the soul – not necessarily directing the soul in the most virtuous way. If the speaker’s goal is to convince the city to get horses, but his words direct the city to get donkeys instead, he has failed to achieve his goal. However, if the speaker’s goal is to convince the city to get donkeys – even if it’s not the best idea – and his words succeed in directing the city to get donkeys, then the speaker has succeeded in directing the soul in the direction that he intended to direct them – regardless of how wise of a decision it was. Furthermore, even if the speaker’s goal was to deceive his audience – rather than simply trying, in good will, to convince them to get donkeys – I don’t think the speaker has to have completely thorough knowledge of donkeys or completely thorough knowledge of what is right and what is wrong; as long as he can convince his audience that he knows what he’s talking about, it doesn’t matter if he truly knows what he’s talking about or not.

Building upon this point, I reject the Spartan quote stated by Socrates: “There is no genuine art of speaking without a grasp of the truth, and there never will be” (260e). First of all, I think Socrates’ discussion seems to suggest that “the truth” is something that’s clear, something that’s black-and-white. But as Oscar Wilde wrote in The Importance of Being Earnest, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Socrates himself understood that all he really knew is that he knew nothing. And for some things that seem to be nearly universally recognized as the truth, few, if any, rhetorical skills are needed to make that clear. I’ve never heard anyone give a speech making the point that the sky is blue. If one looks at the sky, it’s blue. Formal rhetoric, especially in today’s world, is arguably most commonly seen in matters of politics and/or religion – two of the most complex, diverse, and subjective topics. I have never heard a politician or preacher or anyone else using rhetorical skills to persuade someone that two plus two is four. Politicians, preachers, and most orators that I’ve heard typically discuss controversial topics, unclear topics, complex topics – topics over which the audience needs to be persuaded one way or the other.

With that understood, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ rhetoric should be judged, not by its truth, but by its effectiveness – its ability to persuade others. Furthermore, on many topics, it’s impossible to accurately judge the ‘truth’ of something in the first place. Religious leaders, throughout history, often make (generally speaking) some of the best speakers. But considering that faith, by its very nature, often deals with topics that are impossible to definitively prove, it would be impossible, as well as unnecessary, to claim that the “genuine art of speaking” requires “a grasp of the truth.” Additionally, often even when the truth is relatively clear, the truth is limited without rhetorical skills to spread the truth. Is it true that God created the world in seven days, as some Christians believe? Most scientists would agree that that’s extremely unlikely, if not blatantly false. Popular opinion is also divided on other issues on which scientists are in almost universal agreement, such as climate change and evolution. While many parts of the Bible are debatable, such as the idea of a literal seven-day creation, it’s indubitable that the Bible, with the help of orators preaching from it, has been one of the most influential works of all time. To be clear, I agree with Socrates that rhetoric without truth often leads to bad results. While it’s better than having rhetorical skills without truth, having the truth without rhetorical skills lacks power. Especially with global issues such as climate change, it’s not enough for most scientists to understand the truth – scientists alone cannot use that knowledge to solve the problems associated with it. In order to most effectively utilize the truth, the truth first needs to be spread – which requires rhetorical skills.

So what’s most important for successful rhetoric? While I disagree with Socrates about the importance of truth in rhetoric, I do agree with his argument that an effective rhetorician “must know the various forms of soul” (271d). I don’t think that the importance of understanding one’s audience can be overstated. For example, I think most people, especially in today’s world, would agree that Hitler was arguably as evil as a human being could possibly be. And many of the ideas that he preached and promoted and enforced were not the truth. But if anything, Hitler’s extraordinary rise to power was far more dependent upon effective rhetoric than truthful rhetoric.

In Phaedrus, as I’ve noted, Socrates seems to advocate a different view of rhetoric than what I’ve proposed. However, Socrates’ discussion of rhetoric in Plato’s Gorgias aligns more closely with my point of view. Socrates argues that, “for the orator and his rhetoric: there is no need to know the truth of actual matters, but one merely needs to have discovered some device of persuasion which will make one appear to those who do not know to know better than those who know” (459b-c). As Socrates also argued in Gorgias, rhetoric relies largely upon presentation, rather than substance. To be clear, for some people, rhetoric can undoubtedly be a “noble” endeavor “to make the citizens’ souls as good as possible, and the persistent effort to say what is best, whether it prove more or less pleasant to one’s hearers”; still, for others, rhetoric is nothing more than “flattery and a base mob-oratory” (502-503a).

In conclusion, rhetoric – the art of directing the soul by means of speech – can be used for both good and bad purposes. The view of rhetoric that I’ve presented allows us to understand the dual nature of rhetoric. Thus, we can recognize that it’s simply not enough to find the truth; we must actively and effectively spread the truth, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did. If we refuse to grasp the art of rhetoric, our ability to spread the truth will be outmatched by the people who have grasped the art of rhetoric, without grasping the truth – like Adolf Hitler. It’s important to understand the truth, as the truth will set us free. But unless we understand the art of rhetoric, we can’t effectively set the truth free.

Fixing the Unbroken

DISCLAIMER: Names have been changed and I was unable to verify some of the claims. Still, I think it’s a powerful personal story that needs to be shared to illuminate some of the hardships of the LGBTQ community.

* * * * *

One of the center’s staff members told Caleb Kent, then a 16 year-old junior in high school, to take off his pants and underwear and sit down in the chair.  Kent already knew from experience that it wasn’t his place to question orders.  He knew to just do what he was told.

The staff member then strapped Kent into the chair and attached electrodes to his genitals, one on each testicle and one under his penis.  The man then stood behind Kent as the silent, dark room was lit up with the images projected onto a screen.  But they weren’t just any pictures; they were of semi-nude and completely nude males.  With each slide, Kent’s genitals were shocked.

While it seemed to last forever, each electroshock therapy session lasted for about fifteen minutes, and they occurred about twice a week for the six months that he was at the center.  Afterward, little, if anything, was said.  He was simply told to get dressed and go back to group therapy.

The humiliation was agonizing.  The pain, of course, was beyond excruciating.  Still, he went along with it, too afraid to complain about it to anyone.

And that wasn’t even the worse experience that Caleb Kent endured during his time in conversion therapy, also known as reparative or ex-gay therapy.

* * * * *

Caleb Kent is now 31 years old and works as a landscaper.  He grew up in a very religious family, being the fifth generation to attend the Church of Christ, which, by Kent’s account, was very fundamental in many ways.  The services included no music and all dancing was considered wrong and unbiblical.  Women were not permitted to speak in church and were expected to conform to household roles.

Kent’s father worked in construction for most of his life, until 2003 when he started working in ministry.  Kent’s grandfather was a minister at the Church of Christ, and his grandfather’s brothers were leaders or ministers in the church as well.

Between construction and ministry, Kent and his family moved around quite a bit.  While he was born in Washington state, he also lived in California, Portland, Oregon, Dallas, New Mexico and Idaho while growing up.  For a little kid, Kent told me, “It’s always tough at first because you get attached to an area and attached to people, but I took it in stride.  I didn’t have much choice about the matter.”  Most of his childhood was spent in Idaho, where he moved around 6th grade and where he eventually graduated from high school.

Around the age of 12 he started having his first same-sex attractions.  He didn’t really understand why he felt that way and he kept it to himself, especially given that his family, like many people he knew in the conservative, religious Idaho, never really discussed sexuality at all, let alone homosexuality.  When his parents did happen to talk about homosexuality, it was exclusively negative, putting down or bashing gays.  For Kent, it wasn’t shocking to hear his parents say hurtful things about homosexuality because that’s what he expected from them.  After all, he was always taught that homosexuality was wrong.

At 16 years old, Kent brought his feelings to the attention of his minister, who set him up with a personal counselor.  Without his parents knowing, he met with the counselor twice a week for about four months.  They would discuss his attractions and study Bible verses that supposedly dealt with homosexuality.  For the counselor, Kent’s feelings were a behavior that needed to be changed, so he encouraged Kent to do things like wear a rubber band around his wrist and when he had homosexual thoughts he was instructed to snap the rubber band on his wrist, with the intentions of associating those thoughts with physical pain.  Did the counselor help?  “Oh no,” Kent told me.

“Being the very naïve teenager that I was,” Kent started looking at the men in exercise magazines around this time.  His parents soon put the pieces together and they weren’t happy, to say the least.  “It was Hiroshima.  It was a nuclear explosion,” Kent explained.  “Mom was just beside herself and dad was just fit to be tied.  I felt like crying.  I felt like I let everybody down at that point.”

His father, who had always been very stern and at times borderline abusive, “put the fear of God” in Kent.  He went and talked to their minister and was angry when he discovered that Kent and the minister had kept the earlier counseling a secret.  Realizing that Kent had already been to counseling, his father wanted a more aggressive approach.  That’s how Kent ended up in a Christian counseling center in Boise, Idaho, where Kent would attend after school three times a week for five hours.

Kent declined to name the counseling center, which is no longer in business, because he doesn’t want any of his fellow members to have to relive the trauma of it.

Along with fifteen other kids about his age in the center, Kent participated in individual counseling, group therapy and Bible studies.

With similar aims of the previously mentioned rubber band method, the center conducted group sessions where the group members stretched out their arms and would tap their knees whenever they had homosexual thoughts.  When they tapped their knees, a staff member would prick their arms with small pins, often until the kids’ arms were spotted with blood.  If the staff didn’t think that the kids were confessing to same-sex thoughts enough, the kids would be locked into a dark, empty closet for periods of about twenty minutes – a common punishment in the center.  For example, during one group session, Kent just naturally crossed his legs.  The counselor abruptly stood up and threw him in the closet and told him that he couldn’t come out until he learned not to cross his legs, which was seen as unacceptably feminine behavior.  On multiple other occasions, he was paddled multiple times for reasons such as talking about homosexuality in a positive light or hugging other group members.

While Kent’s not certain, he assumes that his parents at least had an idea of what was occurring at the center, but they thought they had to do everything that they could to ‘cure’ Kent of his homosexuality.  Still, Kent never complained about it to anyone, and does think that if his mother, with whom he was a very close until she died of cancer in 2009, knew the extent of it she would’ve pulled him out of therapy.

But neither Kent nor his parents would have ever guessed what else Kent would endure at the center – waterboarding.  During one group session he started bawling because he was overwhelmed by what he was going through.  The staff members pulled him aside and told him to stop crying, told him that there’s pain a lot worse than what he was crying for.  So they took him to a separate room, put him on an inclined table, and poured water on his face.  “The most traumatic counseling experience I’ve ever been through,” Kent noted the obvious, “to say the least.”

While he couldn’t confirm it, staff members told Kent, very matter-of-factly, that multiple of his fellow group members had committed suicide throughout his time there.  The kids couldn’t ask any further details and they weren’t allowed to talk to each other during the sessions either.  At first, Kent didn’t know how he felt about the news.  But the more he thought about it, he admitted, “I was kind of happy that they did commit suicide because they got out of there.”  His time there was hell, so he assumed that it was just as bad for everyone else.

After about six months in the group, he confessed that he felt that he no longer had homosexual feelings.  After being questioned and grilled about the confession, Kent’s parents eventually let him stop going to the center.

While at the time he did truly think that he had been cured, about a month later, his same-sex attractions were back to normal.

* * * * *

In November of 2012, after failing again and again to change his sexuality, Kent had had enough.  While living in New Mexico, he was “very depressed, very beside myself.  I felt like dirt, like trash.”  One night, he grabbed his bottle of almost 90 pills and scarfed them down.  “I just couldn’t live with these feelings of attration to a man,” Kent sighed.  “I just couldn’t do it. I tried to be what I thought was a good Christian at that point.”  His roommate came home to find him passed out on the kitchen floor and called 911.  Kent was rushed to the hospital, where his stomach was pumped.  That’s when he decided to move back to Dallas.

Arriving in Dallas in January, he moved in with a family friend who also happened to be a minister.  Still hoping to change his sexuality, Kent sat down with him multiple times and discussed homosexuality.  But when the minister resorted to the same lessons and same Biblical passages as Kent had heard over and over again, it finally hit him.  “I finally accepted who I am and I am gay and there’s no changing that.”

At the end of February of this year, Kent finally stopped attending sessions.  In March, after looking for churches as well as looking into the gay community of Dallas, he came across the Cathedral of Hope, one of the world’s largest LGBTQ-inclusive churches.

While he still battles with depression and anxiety, he’s much more comfortable with himself now.  His parents have made progress toward accepting him and his sexuality.

“My outlook is looking good.  There’s going to be some bumps along the way, of course, but it’s looking really good so far,” Kent smiled.  “I’m optimistic but cautious about what’s going to happen in the future.  We’ll just see what happens.”

How do evangelicals talk to, hear from, or talk about God?

Because the existence of God cannot be definitively proven, it requires faith.  Especially with the onslaught of scientific breakthroughs that have called into question some of the claims in the Bible, faith arguably requires more attention than it did in the past.  However, some surveys have found that up to 95 percent of Americans believe in some sort of a higher power, and even two-thirds of Americans think that angels and demons are active in the world. To strengthen one’s faith, as I will discuss in this essay, many people, especially evangelicals, talk to God, hear from God, and talk about God, (like many figures did in the Bible).

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