Frank Bruni is Past the Point of Argument

April 10, 2015

Opinion editorials contain opinions. They rarely contain only opinions. Columnists generally make some attempt to explain his or her views and to marshal arguments and evidence designed to persuade readers why they, too, should hold certain opinions.

On April 3rd, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni managed to pen an entire op-ed column filled with nothing but the opinion part. Entitled, “Bigotry, the Bible, and the Lessons of Indiana,” Bruni boldly asserts that “homosexuality and Christianity don’t have to be in conflict in any church anywhere.” This is a risible claim, given that every Christian community worldwide for the past 2,000 years (until about yesterday) has been unequivocal on the matter. So what arguments does Bruni advance for his thesis? Actually, there’s only one, and I’ll summarize it: Some Christians have changed their minds to agree with me, and therefore everybody else had better follow suit. Or else.

This is not hyperbole. That is the sum and substance of Bruni’s entire case for why Christians must be “made” to remove homosexuality from the “sin list.” It might look like Bruni is offering other arguments; for example, he makes an appeal to “authorities” like David Gushee, Jimmy Creech, and Matthew Vines. But that’s just another way of repeating his premise: “Some Christians have changed their minds to agree with me.” He refers to recent polls, which always gives the allusion that some strong evidentiary basis is bolstering the argument. But it is just another repetition: “And lots of other people have changed their minds to agree with me.”

So how does he get to his “therefore”? What is the logical connection between “lots of people agree with me” to “everybody else ought to be made to agree with me?” There isn’t any logical connection, and Bruni doesn’t even attempt to make one. In place of an argument, from top to bottom, Bruni’s column is an astonishing list of pure ex cathedra pronouncements. Here are a few worth observing:

1. Adhering to biblical sexual ethics “prioritizes scattered passages of ancient texts over all that has been learned since—as if time had stood still, as if the advances of science and knowledge meant nothing.”

Well, “prioritizes” means that Christians believe and submit to it, and “scattered” means you can find it all over the Bible, beginning, middle, and end. Bruni thinks people shouldn’t believe it, but why? Because they’re “ancient.” He doesn’t offer any examples of scientific discoveries that have settled moral questions, but since they can’t (description is not prescription—“is” cannot, by itself, provide you with a moral “ought”) that bit of rhetoric is literally meaningless. * This is purely a matter of arbitrary chronology: For Bruni, newer equals better, recent equals enlightened.

* Although, as a thought experiment, I wonder if the advances in the science of embryology has changed his views on abortion; or does such newfound knowledge mean “nothing” to him?

I’m reminded of Denny Crane, a character brilliantly played by William Shatner a few years ago in the shows The Practice and Boston Legal. Crane, suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s, would endearingly stand up and offer completely nonsensical arguments in court, always leading up to his final clinching argument: simply stating his name. “Your Honor, Denny Crane.” That’s pretty much what we have here: “Newer is always better than older… Frank Bruni.” Actually, Denny Crane was so harmless and adorable I’d be inclined to believe it if he said it. But Bruni doesn’t have that kind of goodwill, not when he’s threatening people with the loss of their livelihoods and liberty.

2. Adhering to biblical sexual ethics “disregards the degree to which all writings reflect the biases and blind spots of their authors, cultures and eras.”

I would assume “all writings” includes his own, but I suspect Bruni hasn’t thought very deeply whether he personally or his culture and era more broadly has any biases or blind spots. And it would be nice if Bruni would outline just how he knows whether some view or another is a result of mere biases or blind spots—as it stands, the only method for discriminating seems to be chronology. And he does seem to really believe that the latestthing to be said is the truest thing to be said. This might explain the weird emphasis he places on the timing of the various books he cites: Gushee’s book was published “late last year.” Another book was “published in 2013.” And another, “published in 2013.” “Then,” he writes, “there’s the 2014 book” by Matthew Vines. Recent vintage seems to matter to Bruni, and that is just bizarre. Mein Kampf was written more recently than nearly every piece of classic literature. I don’t think we should conclude anything from that fact.

Further, this sentence strongly suggests that Bruni has never read any orthodox Christian engagment with the ancient texts of the Bible. In truth, orthodox scholars arguably spend too much time wrestling with the cultural context and historical eras of the biblical authors, at the expense of its transcultural application. Be that as it may, nobody can justly read, say, Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice (scholarship’s gold standard) and accuse him of “disregarding” cultural and historical context.

3. Adhering to biblical sexual ethics “ignores the extent to which interpretation is subjective, debatable.”

Anyone who thinks orthodox biblical scholars are somehow blind to how presuppositions and precomittments affect the hermeneutical task is (to put it bluntly) wholly unfamiliar with Christian scholarship. Particularly (but hardly exclusively) in the aftermath of postmodernism, scholarship has been well-nigh obsessed with the question—and not in a purely reactionary way, either. An evangelical stalwart like Kevin Vanhoozer dedicates his voluminous life’s work to exploring how to read biblical texts without simply finding there what you expect to find, Anthony Thiselton writes dense tomes on hermeneutics the average New York Times columnist couldn’t even read, much less comprehend, but Christian scholarship is ignorant. There is ignorance going around, but not on the part of Christian scholarship.

Oh, and keep your eye on this one. Because after telling us that the Bible is obscure and that nobody can really know what it teaches, Bruni will quickly abandon that idea: He praises Matthew Vines for “his eloquent take on what the New Testament — which is what evangelicals draw on and point to — really communicates.”

4. To avoid being tedious, I’ll summarize a bit: No such column would be complete without assertions that Christian believers are unthinking, enslaved to prejudice, homophobic, and just itching to discriminate against gays. There is no argument and no examples offered in support of any of these claims. They are sheer declarations designed to cast his favored public figures (those who have changed their mind to agree with him) as enlightened ones, and the entire constituency they’ve left as ignorant, bitterly clinging rubes.

5. Regarding that constituency, Bruni wholeheartedly agrees with David Gushee that “Conservative Christian religion is the last bulwark against full acceptance of L.G.B.T. people.” Speaking of blind spots and biases, Bruni and Gushee have weirdly blinkered out the billion and a half Muslims who are not exactly known for accepting the LGBT agenda. Be that as it may, notice the curious phrase, “full acceptance of LGBT people.” This is willfully misleading. All people are welcome in Christian communities. Let me repeat that: all people are welcome in Christian communities. It is the behaviors associated with the letters L, G, B, and T that are problematic. But it is all too common these days for people to believe that (some) behaviors equal “identity.” So, yes, Christians have problems with sexual immorality, and lying, and thieving, and drunkenness; they simply refuse to allow people to define themselves by their sins (think for a moment about what a gloriously humanitarian impulse that is). And, it bears mentioning, so does Frank Bruni. That why there’s a (some) in the sentence above. He isn’t about to allow pedophiles and rapists to latch on to the “I was born that way; who are you to judge?” mantra. Of course, Christians happen to be in the enviable position of having a rationale for denying them the claim; I’m not sure what the sexual revolutionaries can plausibly say.

6. What about those appeals to his chosen experts? Bruni makes no effort to argue that they are correct in their reinterpretations of Christian ethics; his point is simply that they have changed their minds. And, therefore, so must everybody else. But simply reporting their reasons for changing their minds is not the same thing as advancing their arguments. It doesn’t follow.

Notwithstanding, we are told by David Gushee that Christians have changed their minds about slavery and contraception; therefore, they should change their minds on sexual ethics. But let’s get something straight: people changed their minds about slavery because people like William Wilberforce tirelessly and persuasively argued from the Biblefrom the Bible. Because—and this should be obvious—the Bible was on their side. The people to whom Bruni turns are saying something pretty much 180 degrees different: ignore the Bible. It’s an archaic book, and its sexual ethics should be abandoned for an “enlightened” view. That is the argument. This is one reason (among others) it is perverse to attempt any kind of harmony between a pro-LGBT argument and arguments against slavery or Jim Crow: one embraces the Bible, the other rejects it.

Contraception is a telling example mainly because of its irrelevance. There is no clear, obvious, or sustained emphasis on the matter in the Bible; therefore, it has been and remains a debated question in Christian circles, particularly in Evangelical Protestantism. This has virtually no relationship to whether homosexual behavior is acceptable because the Bible contains, by contrast, a clear, obvious, and sustained emphasis on sexual matters. Moreover, this all misses a rather important point: no Christian endorses contraception while believing that the Bible teaches otherwise. And that is what Gushee and friends are asking Christians to do.

Next, ex-United Methodist Minister, Jimmy Creech, informs us that the Bible “clearly teaches” that “women are second-class, inferior and subordinate to men.” Well, the Bible teaches no such thing; it’s a gross caricature and he knows it. I’d be perfectly justified moving on, but I wish to point out that the single greatest factor for the elevation of women from their often brutal subjugation in the ancient world was the Bible, particularly its teaching on marriage. Let’s hashtag that one: #ArgumentFail.

Finally, Matthew Vines provides an “eloquent take…on what the New Testament really teaches.” Vines certainly is eloquent, but he has no expertise in any field relevant to the question at hand. That doesn’t stop Bruni from serving as his ventriloquist:

Evaluating [the New Testament’s] sparse invocations of homosexuality, [Vines] notes that there wasn’t any awareness back then that same-sex attraction could be a fundamental part of a person’s identity, or that same-sex intimacy could be an expression of love within the context of a nurturing relationship.

Notice that Vines doesn’t argue, he “notes.” Never mind that everything Vines says here is dubious and hotly debated; for Frank Bruni, it is a mere matter of “noting.” He goes on:

“It was understood as a kind of excess, like drunkenness, that a person might engage in if they lost all control, not as a unique identity,” Vines told me, adding that Paul’s rejection of same-sex relations in Romans 1 was “akin to his rejection of drunkenness or his rejection of gluttony.”

“Vines told me.” And Bruni listened, and didn’t question any of it. Finally, “Vines said that the New Testament, like the Old Testament, outlines bad and good behaviors that almost everyone deems archaic and irrelevant today. Why deem the descriptions of homosexual behavior any differently?” Bruni obviously doesn’t read any of the relevant literature, since this last question has been answered ad nauseam (Answer: The Bible treats them differently). He prefers to pick up the phone and get his talking points straight from non-biblical scholars. There’s a term for this kind of uncritical acceptance of dubious claims, a phrase I learned from Bruni’s own Op-Ed: “unthinking obeisance.”

7. Finally, if public opinion polls are sufficient to tell us what is morally right (and that is the only reason they are invoked in the column), then why did Frank Bruni oppose California’s Proposition 8? Isn’t an actual vote more significant than a mere poll? Was Bruni celebrating as state after state successfully passed marriage amendments? Or is it the case that everyone should fall in lockstep only with pluralities who share the enlightened views of Frank Bruni?

Well, in his closing paragraph he finally drops all pretense:

[Mitchell] Gold told me that church leaders must be made “to take homosexuality off the sin list.” His commandment is worthy — and warranted.

That makes at least two New York Times employees publicly calling for the forced coercion of people with religious consciences. And if Bruni’s editorial is any indication, they’re past the point of bothering with an argument.

Brian Mattson

Dr. Brian Mattson was born, raised, and currently lives in the State of Montana. Educationally, he obtained a B.A. from Montana State University-Billings, an M.A.R. from Westminster Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from the University of Aberdeen (Scotland).  He now servse as Senior Scholar of Public Theology for … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24