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Persuasion, the Therapeutic, and Young Evangelicals

December 20th, 2010 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Conor Friedersdorf chimes in on Sessions' post:

What I like about the attitude that Sessions suggests – persuading parents rather than condescending to them – is that respectful efforts at persuasion leave the person engaged in them open to being transformed , whether by being shown that they are in error, or else that they are correct but needful of nuance. It's an insight that would seem to apply to people of all faiths, or none.

I obviously agree with this, since I had originally suggested that young evangelicals have our parents to thank for our success.  Yet as I reread what Conor quoted, I realized that "persuasion" takes many forms.

Consider David's language about traditional evangelicals:

I’m fairly skeptical of the church’s willingness to listen to these “next Christians"...We may have been inculcated with science denialism or bigotry or more difficult emotional things like self-hatred and repression....It’s important that every Christian who faces the inevitable bitterness that results from breaking out of a small-minded worldview...

I'm not totally opposed to these sorts of psychologizing moments, but they do seem rather unhelpful for actually winning people to our positions (though they do start a good conversation!).

David's skeptical disposition toward the movement he wants to sway may have good reasons, but it's also the sort of skepticism that's better left aside when actually engaging in the work of persuasion.   What's more, the psychological overtones of "science denialism," "bigotry," and "small-minded" moves the conversation away from the intellectual merits (or lack thereof) of evangelical views of creation, gay marriage, etc. toward the potential pathologies that motivate those positions.

Historically, rhetoric has been paired with reason and so aimed at persuading people of the truth.  Yet the ubiquitious therapeutic orientation of our society has reoriented the rhetoric that we deploy away from the reasons that we have toward the reason we have them.  Explain someone's motivations, and you can explain them away.  As a result, our public conversation can't proceed along substantive lines, as we've got too many issues to work out.

The bitter irony is, of course, that this sort of psychologizing of those with whom we disagree actually makes persuasion more difficult, not less, as it refuses to acknowledge even the slightest separation between the positions that are held and the people that hold them.  The therapeutic, which young evangelicals mostly haven't escaped, actually deepens the divisions between parents and their college-educated children who come to disagree with them.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.