When bombarded with a new (to me) idea via independent sources in less than 48 hours, I tend to do a double-take. I wonder if the multiplied coincidences might be providential winks from God, calling me to pay attention. Maybe. Or maybe not. But I pay attention anyway.
So in the space of less than a day, friends and family in altogether different contexts nudged me into awareness of the 'No true Scotsman' fallacy ... I was alerted to recent examples and realized that I've often encountered it unawares. I'm recording my observations here because I think others may also benefit from recognizing this fallacy at work, especially as it pertains to faithfulness to Christ and the gospel.
The 'No true Scotsman' fallacy (faulty reasoning) appeals to purity as a way to dismiss critiques in one's position or flaws in one's argument.
The idea is that no matter what you believe or however valid the critiques against it, when challenged, you can simply move the target so that the critiques can't apply to a supposedly 'true' or 'real' example. Any evidence or examples given to verify the critique are dismissed as caricatures or 'straw men' of the 'true' version.
This kind of post-rationalization renders all criticisms invalid. It also makes the 'No true Scotsman' fallacy quite dangerous, because those who use it are no longer open to correction and become impervious to critique. That means it can also serve as a handy shield for dysfunctional movements or belief systems, especially those with a puritan bent.
You can often sniff out the 'No true Scotsman' fallacy when you offer a critique and are charged with 'creating a straw man.'
Let's use a clear and recent example that I'll use precisely because I trust this author's motives and I am inclined to agree with him. Nevertheless ...
Thomas Kidd wrote an article entitled "The 'Evangelicals' Who Support Donald Trump." It's well worth reading, both because the author raises very important questions, but also demonstrates the fallacy I'm describing.
In the article, the author attempts to deny the claim that "so many Evangelicals" support Donald Trump. He claims that the term "Evangelical" has been co-opted by those who self-profess as Evangelicals because (i) they vote Republican, or (ii) they watch Fox News, or (iii) they identify as Evangelical regardless of their theology or church involvement.
[In this article, I'm capitalizing Evangelical when I refer to the movement or tradition, whereas I use the lower-case evangelical as an adjective for those who might faithfully adhere to the 'evangel' -- the good news of Jesus Christ].
If I understand Kidd, his argument is essentially this:
Critique: Why do so many Evangelicals support Donald Trump?Counter argument: There's no need to panic, because 'true Evangelicals' would not support the likes of Donald Trump!
The author's argument is that true Evangelicals would not be so silly or shallow. He wants to say there is a big difference between true evangelicals (those who follow Christ) and the broader phenomenon or movement self-described as Evangelical. So far, so good. I think that's demonstrable.
But even if I were to offer example after example of Evangelicals (in the movement) who are both evangelical (definitely believe the gospel), yet also fit the 'Trump-Fox-'Merica' or 'Duck Dynasty Christian' stereo-type, Kidd's counter-argument is that they are simply not 'true Evangelicals.' In his own words,
It is a matter of rooting out corrupt influences which blur people’s understanding of what “evangelical” means, and more importantly, what the message of the Christian gospel is. Sorry, folks, but the gospel has nothing to do with the Republican Party, Fox News, or the United States of America.
He advises: (i) Don't panic. (ii) Do distinguish between authentic evangelical faith and American civil religion. Excellent. And yet ... while I actually agree in principle with his last statement, the article obviously commits the 'No true Scotsman' fallacy. And because it's an actual fallacy, I'm afraid the author inevitably corners himself into a wheat and tares dilemma.
First, he's created an awkward call to 'root out corrupt influences.' Awkward because I wonder who will arbitrate this 'rooting out.' Who is the 'true Evangelical' -- which is the pure remnant --that can rightfully act as judge and jury of who or what is corrupt? Who gets to determine the true definition of 'evangelical'? By what criteria is an influence considered 'corrupt'? Historically, the puritans who've thought to do so -- those confident about establishing the boundaries and dictating the rules and rooting out the impure -- well, more often than not they became the corrupting influence. Indeed, don't most of the historic heresies and modern cults begin that way?
Nor is this a new problem ... recall the parable of the Wheat and Tares? What happens if we start pulling up what we think are the weeds? (Matthew 13:24-30) On the other hand, what happens when you don't? It appears like a double-bind where either the servants mistakenly destroy the wheat or the weeds end up choking it out. Jesus opts for the latter risk. In fact, he issues a direct warning and instruction: "No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them." He was about correction rather than exclusion (and to be fair, the article can also function that way).
If we ignore Jesus' warning, Kidd's logic can actually turn on and turn out many of our Evangelical brothers and sisters. Like so:
- "The gospel has nothing to do with the Republican Party, Fox News or the USA."
- Many Evangelicals believe their faith has much to do with the Republican Party, Fox News or the USA. That is, many of my friends believe 'true Evangelicals' should and must always vote Republican; they only trust Fox News to represent Evangelicals fairly; and that America is exceptionally blessed as God's nation to display his glory, insofar as it remains faithful to the Evangelical faith.
- Therefore, the gospel has nothing to do with many Evangelicals. [note: double-check this syllogism for fallacies of its own]. That is, the author is asserting that many Evangelicals are not evangelical. But the observable criteria is actually based not on adherence to the gospel ... rather, that they don't cheer for Trump, watch Fox or confuse the gospel and 'Merica (because 'true evangelicals' don't do that).
Respondent 1: I'm sympathetic to what the author is trying to do, but I think the problems of American Evangelicalism are deep and well-entrenched. I don't find it at all surprising that significant numbers of Evangelicals enthusiastically support Trump... and they do! Somewhere along the way -- Cold War days, Moral Majority days, the rise of Fox News -- American evangelicalism confused Americanism for Christianity. It's not a small problem.
Respondent 2: I guess I am trying to defend that segment of people in our "evangelical" world -- my church, your church, our families... -- That are living out the euangelion in beautiful ways and are nothing like the typical "Evangelical." Maybe you are right... maybe the term and the majority of those who self-identify with it have morphed into "something else." Sad. [Note how the respondent must distinguish between 'typical evangelicals' and the Kidd's 'true evangelical.']
Respondent 1: I think the term "Evangelical" has become so associated with partisan politics and the culture wars that it is beyond rehabilitation. (Except in theological circles as a technical term.) [Note how this respondent concludes that the term 'Evangelical' as it is most commonly used in America is now so different to the author's historically accurate 'true evangelical' that its common usage determines its current meaning ... and must therefore be abandoned.]
Points to Ponder
- Is "evangelical" as a term beyond retrieval? With its original associations with the gospel, is it too early to discard it?
- Have "Evangelicals" as a movement lost their way? Are they no longer truly evangelical? Where and why did they run aground?
- What about the many Evangelicals who remain evangelical? How might they best address their ongoing and worsening P.R. disasters?
- Who are the non- or post-Evangelical evangelicals? That is, in which other movements has the evangel been faithfully retained?
- What is the evangel? Who decides? What do you believe to be the evangel? Why? If not on your own authority, whose?