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 latest thing 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 Bible; southern racial strife was largely overcome because people like Martin Luther King, Jr., tirelessly and persuasively argued from 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
Brian Mattson, Ph.D. (University of Aberdeen) serves as Senior Scholar of Public Theology at the Center For Cultural Leadership, and as a Principal of Dead Reckoning, a digital entertainment brand focusing on Christianity and culture for a Millennial audience.