Many years ago, I publicly accused some folks I was sparring with of caring more about being seen as good Americans than about the doctrines of our church body, which occasionally come in conflict with American civil religion. My quote ran in a newspaper and I immediately heard from pastors I knew. They agreed with me on the underlying principle but they condemned my quote.
How could I possibly know what motivated these other people, they demanded? I’d broken the 8th Commandment, they said. They were right. Here’s how our catechism reads:
The Eighth Commandment Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.
Busted. It was a very embarrassing lesson, but a valuable one nonetheless. It’s one thing to disagree with the doctrines or political positions of someone and entirely something else to claim some special knowledge of their motivation.
Whereas I broke the 8th Commandment by accusing someone of patriotism, the former mayor of New York City Rudy Guiliani broke the 8th Commandment by accusing President Obama of not loving his country. He kind of, sort of admitted he’d been wrong to say that in a piece explaining his views in the Wall Street Journal:
There has been no shortage of news coverage—and criticism—regarding comments I made about President Obama at a political gathering last week in New York. My blunt language suggesting that the president doesn’t love America notwithstanding, I didn’t intend to question President Obama’s motives or the content of his heart. My intended focus really was the effect his words and his actions have on the morale of the country, and how that effect may damage his performance. Let me explain.
OK, fine. Enough words have been spilled over this. Many conservative commentators noted how the media — apoplectic with rage over this insult to Obama — had not noticed when Republicans and conservatives were accused of not loving their country or not being patriotic enough. Sometimes those insults came from the same reporters who were so upset with Guiliani.
That the media are a bunch of hypocrites on the “patriotism” issue simply means it’s a day ending in “y.” But the better comparison to conservative claims about insufficient patriotism is liberal allegations of “racism.”
For much of the last decade, criticism of the views of President Barack Obama, no matter how awful and extreme those views may be, has been tarred as being racist. Or anything conservative, actually. I’m going to use the latest example that I can find for this (MSNBC host Chris Hayes is the winner here), but the examples are legion. I suppose if you think that President Obama has good domestic and foreign policy ideas, you might be tempted to think opposition to those ideas can have no rational explanation, but it’s a childish maneuver. It’s the same as not understanding that President Obama’s ideas are quite easily explained as the standard, if terribly flawed, product of a progressive education.
It’s a couple years old, but Alan Jacobs wrote a great piece with general guidelines for deportment. It advises against ad hominem-type pronouncements and unfair summations of actual quotes. It encourages questions rather than inferences and suggests that we avoid pronouncements designed to shutter debate. Also, a recommendation to avoid speculation on motives:
Many of us find it difficult to believe that people could disagree with our political or social or religious views without being somehow corrupt or mendacious or cruel. So if someone previously known to be a staunch conservative takes a liberal, or liberal-seeming, stance on a particular issue, many of those who disagree will say, sagely and contemptuously, “Ah, he just wants to be invited to those Georgetown cocktail parties.” And maybe he does; but then, maybe he doesn’t. The point is: You can’t read minds and hearts, so you don’t know. But if you’re going to speculate on motives, why not consider your own while you’re at it? Maybe you want to think of yourself as the kind of person whose integrity is so great that you’re not even tempted by Georgetown cocktail parties. As Rebecca West once said, “There’s no such thing as an unmixed motive,” and that’s true of you and me alike. So let’s skip over the motives and focus on the ideas.
Yes, it’s certainly possible that someone opposes President Obama’s foreign policy approach with ISIS for no other reason than that he’s a racist. Not because the critic simply disagrees for any of the myriad reasons one might disagree with President Obama’s foreign policy. And it’s possible that Obama secretly hates the United States. Not that he is acting on the views of that large swath of Americans who identify as progressive because they believe it’s the best way to run the country. But even if these possibilities were true, you’d have no way of knowing it. So what’s the benefit of derailing arguments by calling people racists or America-haters?
Do we not have more than enough tangible things to fight about? Of course we do. So a challenge to the media and others who question motivations or police motivation questioning — how about we all work on putting the best construction on the words and actions of our neighbors and stay focused on the actual policy differences we have.