Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Stephen Carter on the ACLU

I came across this interesting article in Christianity Today by Stephen Carter. Carter is a professor at the Yale Law School and a devout Christian who generally opposes the ACLU’s establishment clause position. But he writes in Christianity Today against the unprincipled demonization of the ACLU by so many of his fellow Christians. He begins by pointing out that while he disagrees with the ACLU on many establishment clause issues, when it comes to free exercise issues they are generally correct:

I would like to say a word in defense of the American Civil Liberties Union. Christians–including me, both in the pages of CT and elsewhere–often criticize the ACLU for advocating separation of church and state in ways that seem less grounded in the Constitution and in history than in an ideological desire for a religion-free public arena. On the other hand, I shudder when fellow Christians blithely dismiss the organization as fundamentally biased against them. Some call it the Anti-Christian Liberals Union or the Anti-Christian Litigation Unit. There are other, less friendly acronyms as well. I think the ACLU is wrong to oppose religious expression in the public square, but being wrong is not the same as being evil.

More to the point, the ACLU is often right about the First Amendment’s free exercise clause, taking on fights that others refuse. It might surprise some critics that the ACLU defends the free speech and free exercise rights of, well, Christians.

But he has a larger purpose in mnid, and I think it’s an important one. He wants to make a statement about the tendency of people on both sides to demonize their opponents. Decide that your opponents are purely evil rather than mistaken and all bets are off. You will do precisely what the STACLU crowd does, and what many on the far left do as well – you’ll either fall for any criticism anyone makes of your enemy, no matter how unsupported it is by the evidence, or you’ll reach the point where you don’t really care whether a criticism is accurate as long as it makes Them look bad.

Yet I must confess that, although I am pleased to balance the record, defending the ACLU is not my primary purpose here. I am more concerned about a habit of mind that seems to be growing among my fellow Christians, both political liberals and conservatives. That is, we seem to mimic the secular world’s conflation of disagreement with wickedness, as if not sharing my worldview places my critic outside the realm of rational discourse…

Now, I have often been described as a liberal myself–although rarely by liberals. Once, after I gave a talk at a small Christian college in the Bible Belt, a concerned student carrying one of my books approached me. He had enjoyed the lecture, he assured me, but something in my book troubled him. He flipped to a page on which I had complimented something President Bill Clinton had said. The student then turned to me, the look of worry still on his face, and told me I must have written this because I was, really, a liberal. This student believed it was impossible for the good guys–the way he said liberal told me that liberals were not among them–to say anything positive about President Clinton.

The host of a popular syndicated Christian radio program once told me that he had received death threats–not just a few, but a lot–during the Clinton administration. His sin? Reminding listeners of their obligation to pray for those God had placed in positions of authority, whether or not they happened to agree with their policies.

I see this all the time, from all sides of the political arena. I see it in those willing to accept and peddle arguments against their opponents that are just plain false. I see it even on my own side of the evolution/creationism debate sometimes, and it bothers me greatly. It’s a natural human tendency to evaluate arguments against a position we oppose in a more lenient fashion than we do arguments against our own position. If it sounds remotely plausible and it involves someone we deem our opposition, we’ll tend to buy into it without demanding the same level of evidence we would demand if it was about us instead.

But rational people, people who care about truth and accuracy, must fight this tendency. We must try and evaluate every claim using the same criteria. Does the evidence support it? Are the conclusions drawn from the evidence logical? Any claim that fails to meet those criteria should be rejected, regardless of whether it supports our agenda or not. Likewise, any claim that withstands that scrutiny should be accepted as valid, regardless of whether it supports our agenda or not. None of us will ever be Mr. Spock, but we should strive to evaluate all arguments as though we have no stake in the outcome. Some, like the STACLU crowd, make no attempt at all to do so; we should not emulate them.


  1. #1 Jim Babka
    June 16, 2006

    Ed, you are to complimented for this piece. It’s so easy to lose sight of this principle. Bravo to you.

  2. #2 Dave
    June 16, 2006

    A devout Christian at Yale Law School?

    Where’s all that liberal bias in academia Michelle Coulter and Ann Malkin are always going on about?

    Clearly, this guy is no Christian if he’s an academic. He must be lying.

  3. #3 Ed Brayton
    June 16, 2006


    I wish I could say I’ve never lost sight of that principle, but I have. We all have at times.

  4. #4 Chance
    June 16, 2006

    I agree Ed, excellent post.

    I think he wrong about this however:

    i That is, we seem to mimic the secular world’s conflation of disagreement with wickednesss

    I’m not sure how to word this exactly and have it make sense but I’ll try. The ‘secular’ world first off does no such thing as conflate disagreement with ‘wickedness’. Oh I’m sure some due but I see mostly rational discourse on most matters. I do see conflation of disagreement with wickedness coming from most religious groups virtually all the time.

    Rational people discuss gay marriage. cloning, etc without resorting to condemnation as is common in religious circles.

    Also and this is my bigger point. People like this fellow who are doing a very important and correct thing in this article make a division between themselves and the ‘secular’ world when in fact their attitudes and behaviours are shaped by this world. They are not seperate from it but rather a segment of it. Saying one is a devout Christian, Muslim, whatever has virtually no meaning as to me people behave as people behave. If by devout we mean a weekly church attender, fine. But it can’t tell us anything about the individual at all.

  5. #5 Ed Brayton
    June 16, 2006

    I agree, Chance, that was an unsupportable statement. If anything, I think religion tends to encourage the kind of demonization he is objecting to, far from being some sort of mimicking of the “secular world”.

  6. #6 nicole
    June 16, 2006

    I agree with Chance here too. My first thought on reading that line was that it rang so false, because the really “secular” don’t have the same concept of “wickedness” at all. It is such a loaded term, at least for me, and a very un-secular idea to my mind.

  7. #7 JS
    June 16, 2006

    One post that’s going into my bookmarks folder.

    If only I had a € for every time I’ve seen someone with a correct conclusion use a horridly stupid argument…

  8. #8 Spike
    June 16, 2006

    Ed wrote, “I see it even on my own side of the evolution/creationism debate sometimes, and it bothers me greatly.”

    Me, too. Spend a little time at Panda’s Thumb, and you’ll see all kinds of demonsizing of the opponents, among the high quality science and logic explaining evolution and dismantling the ID “arguments.” Most of the posts by “our side” on anti-evolution are nothing but demonization, excused by saying, “Oh, well, but it’s just so -fun-.” If so, then how are you any different than Ann Coulter?

    I, also, fall for it sometimes, and should be called on it every time I do.

    When at my most noble, I believe that if an argument is good, right, correct, accurate, etc., then there is no need to use personal attacks or any other kinds of hyperbole or logical fallacies to “defend” it. Doing so indicates that perhaps you really don’t have a good argument in the first place.

    What if we all adopted a personal rule that we would never vote for policitians who wasted time on personal attacks against their opponents and voted only for those who said, “These are the issues I’m running on, and these are the reasons why I’m the person to act in your behalf on those issues.” How many candidates would actually get elected, and what would we lose not having them in office?

  9. #9 sixteenwords
    June 17, 2006

    Excellent piece, you hardly ever get anyone saying both sides are wrong.

    I don’t think I’ve seen this said more than a dozen times today, so far.

  10. #10 dogscratcher
    June 17, 2006

    Its that darn Aristotle and his “A or not A” logical dichotomy. Personally, I prefer my logic fuzzy.

  11. #11 Ed Brayton
    June 17, 2006

    sixteenwords wrote:

    Excellent piece, you hardly ever get anyone saying both sides are wrong.

    I don’t think I’ve seen this said more than a dozen times today, so far.

    Ah, sarcasm in defense of sophistry. Was it true the dozen times you heard it, or false? If it’s true, does it matter how many times it’s said? Often times, both sides in a dispute are wrong, each engaging in sophistry and empty rhetoric to defend their positions while ignoring a logical third alternative. So when someone says that both sides in a dispute are wrong, all that really matters is that the accusation be correct, regardless of how many times you may have heard it said before.

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