Insistence Is Not Evidence: A Final Reply to Tom Ascol

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Recently I posted the fourth in my series of comments regarding “social justice” in which I engaged Tom Ascol as a representative of what I called the “anti-social justice” perspective. My basic argument in that post was that no “social justice movement” exists in evangelicalism. By “movement,” I meant an organized effort with identifiable leaders and goals.

In the post, I took issue with the evidence Tom cited in a brief presentation he gave on the subject of secular progressive ideologies affecting Western civilization and evangelicalism. Tom has kindly responded to my critique. He has expanded some of his argumentation and listed other incidences he believes make his case.

So here’s where we are:

  1. Tom says there is a social justice movement enticing and affecting evangelical churches;
  2. I say there is not such a movement.

What’s vital in such an impasse is an examination of the underlying evidence for the claims, especially for the positive claim that a movement does exist. What we are now debating is not whether the phenomena Tom describes is good or bad (it would be very bad) or whether one should oppose it or support it (one should oppose it strongly). What we are debating in order to break through the impasse is the underlying evidence and the basis on which we judge evidence. That’s where I’ll focus in this post while replying to Tom along the way.

As I mentioned in the original post in this series, I don’t intend to have a long back-and-forth about these issues, and I hope to draw a close circle around the conversation by simply addressing the persons I’ve critiqued rather than be drawn into a much wider and usually less focused conversation. With that reminder, this will be my last comment in exchange with Tom after which I’ll give Tom the final word and happily move on to my final planned post.

Equal Weights and Measures

At bottom, Tom’s approach (and that of others who share it) fails on three counts:

  1. It fails to ask, “Is this true?” and “How does the author know it?”
  2. It fails to put forth compelling evidence of a movement beyond anything circumstantial.
  3. It fails to apply the same methodology and standard to itself.

Let’s take these in turn.

Is It True? On the first point, consider Tom’s listing of Ekemini Uwan’s comments at the Sparrow Conference. He offers it as proof of secular social-justice ideologies infiltrating evangelical spaces. It’s true that Ekemini’s comments have much in common with the fields of whiteness studies and CRT. She uses “whiteness” not as a reference to skin color or even race but to a social ideology rooted in power and greed. But that’s a view at least as old as Frederick Douglass’s writing, well before CRT/IS, cultural Marxism, or today’s social-justice trends. Her view is rooted much more firmly in the Black sojourn in the United States than errant academic disciplines.

But the real questions regarding Ekemini’s comments (and those of Anthony Bradley that Tom mentioned) are: Is this true? And, how does the author know this?

Her statement was and is true (for a crash course see here, especially here or here). It’s an unpleasant truth. A hard truth. A difficult-tohear truth. But it is true nonetheless, and we know it to be true simply by reading the laws of this land from the Constitution itself down through to the end of Jim Crow and the passage of suffrage laws for women and people of color. That whiteness is an ideology rooted in greed and power is a matter of historical and legal fact. That we don’t like how it’s said or care for the particular terminology or associate the terminology with other ideologies doesn’t change its veracity. If we get caught up in tone and word policing rather than the substance of the claim, then we miss something foundationally important—the truth.

While I was happy to express support for Ekemini following the Sparrow Conference and am happy to support her claim now, the issue presently under discussion is whether Tom’s method holds under scrutiny. Because the method employed to make the case that a “social-justice movement” exists doesn’t stop to ask first questions—is it true and how do they know—it’s a method flawed from the outset. We cannot avoid the sense that what people are being asked to do is accept some person’s umbrage for evidence without actually understanding the basis for another’s claims. That won’t do.

Is It Evidence? On the second point—and to me, this is a critical point—no one has yet defined the basis on which we are to judge any evidence. But in every field of human inquiry we have standards for weighing evidence. For example:

  • In psychometrics, correlation is not causation. To prove something has causative power you must demonstrate that the relationship is not one that occurs by chance or randomly but systematically. You must arrive at some measure of confidence (technical term) for your research findings.
  • In philosophy we’re taught to avoid genetic fallacies, a fallacy that’s based on someone’s or some argument’s history, origin, or source. Simply identifying a source or an origin does not mean any current user uses the term or idea in precisely the same way a previous user did or does.
  • In the physical sciences, we have rules of science that rely on objective observation, test, and retest. A single instance or an unobservable phenomenon does not provide sufficient evidence for making scientific claims. Theories must be tested with experiments.
  • In law we must observe rules of evidence, which include meeting a burden of proof that ranges from reasonable suspicion to preponderance of the evidence, clear and convincing evidence, or beyond a reasonable doubt.

In this “debate” thus far, the rules of evidence have not been specified. Sometimes people note a correlation or a suspicion and pronounce with certainty that a movement or an infiltration is there. I think that’s largely what’s happening when people claim a “movement” exists. Some look at the number of followers on Twitter or the number of returns on a search as “evidence.” But raw numbers tell us nothing about whether those Twitter followers agree with the one they follow or whether the followers were even purchased. Raw numbers of “hits” on searches tell us nothing about whether the content of the hits were for or against the subject searched.

The entire discussion is being built on an inadequate evidentiary approach. We have a low bar that actually breaks the rules of evidence in most every field, and it proves too much.

Is It Impartial? By “proves too much,” I’m referring to my third point above. If we use the standard of evidence Tom and others use, then we’re in a position where impartiality requires we apply those same standards to Tom and others. But that surely would lead to conclusions they would want to reject.

Let me illustrate what I mean. Tom leads an organization called “Founders Ministries.” It’s a reference to the theology and ministries of the founders of the SBC. Founders is dedicated to calling the convention back to the theological commitments (doctrines of grace) of those founders, among whom were men like Basil Manly Jr, who owned 40 slaves. Manley would not be the only early leader of the convention who owned slaves. In fact, the convention was formed following a split on the question of slave owning. You could say the SBC was the pro-slavery denomination. Its flagship seminary, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently issued a report documenting that institution’s history on the question of slavery and racism. The report indicates that the seminary’s founding faculty—James P. Boyce, John A. Broadus, Basil Manly Jr., and William Williams—all held slaves and, in some cases, actively defended the practice. Yet such men are cited in books and sermons as heroes of the convention and of evangelicalism.

Now, here’s the question: Are we to attribute all the beliefs and commitments of the founding leaders of the SBC and Southern Seminary to Tom as a leader of “Founders Ministries”? If a person expresses indebtedness to Boyce, Broadus, Manly, or Williams for their writing on some subject, are we to attribute to that person anything or everything we find repugnant in Boyce and company or their writings on that subject? I would answer an emphatic “No” to both questions.

But Tom argues in his response that “it stands to reason that anyone who has been shaped by that book [referring to Critical Race Theory: An Introduction] and enthusiastically recommends it as a “necessary” book is doing so for reasons other than merely ‘illustrating the other side’s viewpoint.’” I suspect that applying that standard to Tom using the slaveholding founders he enthusiastically recommends and think necessary for an entire denomination would result in Tom crying, “Foul!” I think he would be right to do so without some compelling evidence beyond book recommendations and even beyond an admission that those founders had shaped his view in some way on some things.

I trust that the charitable reader would not attribute one author’s beliefs and commitments in toto to someone who appreciates that author. I trust the charitable reader would not conclude that quoting these writers favorably in one area means the person doing the quoting would agree with these writers in every area or even agree with them on all they wrote on the topic quoted.

Or, let me switch the example. Tom expresses concern that “Western civilization” is under attack and being undermined by “godless ideologies.” As a defender of “Western civilization,” are we to infer that Tom would support everything that comes under that label? Not to be too pedantic, but “Western civilization” has a long heritage of godless ideologies. Cultural Marxism, for example, originates in “Western civilization.” But Tom clearly rejects some things under that banner, and it would be charitable for us to assume he would. It would be charitable for us to believe the best about Tom, that he would test what is good and toss the rest.

Charity demands Christians extend to others the judgment we want for ourselves, lest we be guilty of what we charge others with (Matt. 7:1-5; Rom. 2:1-3). Even when a Christian brother or sister approvingly quotes a non-Christian, we ought to first ask whether or not the quote—whether from a Christian or a non-Christian—is, in fact, true. We ought to assume the best of a brother or sister as we go on to inquire about the Christian’s reasoning.

The methods employed by those who oppose the influence and incursion of “social justice” do not extend such charity. Nor does it use clearly defined, solid rules of evidence in making its case. Nor does it apply the same standards to their own writings and the influences one might suggest are reflected in them. The inconsistency and inadequacy of the approach invalidates the entire enterprise. It’s unequal weights and measures.

Linguistic Blind Spots?

Tom expresses concern that I mischaracterized some of his words, especially those regarding Jarvis Williams. He says he doesn’t think he’s “ever said that ‘evangelical institutions are about to be overrun by godless pagan philosophy’ or that Jarvis Williams is ‘smuggling in’ CRT to Southern Seminary.” He writes, “I am quite confident that I have never called Dr. Williams a ‘cultural Marxist.’”

I take Tom at his word when he says he did not intend to disparage Jarvis or his motives.

But I don’t think I’ve mischaracterized Tom. First, Tom regularly uses the “Trojan horse” trope to describe what he believes is happening in evangelicalism. “Smuggling” may be my word choice, but a “Trojan horse” is entirely about smuggling things into a camp. I don’t see how you can use that phrase so often and with such intensity without communicating some clandestine effort akin to “smuggling.”

Tom denies asserting that evangelical institutions are being overrun. But in the video I critiqued, Tom states, “This new pagan religion is making vast inroads in evangelical churches.” “Overrun” and “vast inroads” seem to be semantic equivalents. Tom concludes the talk by returning to the shipping metaphor he used in his introduction. He says, “The good ship evangelicalism and the SBC has been severely damaged,” presumably by the water of godless ideology seeping into the ship. These are word choices and pictures that communicate pretty powerfully something more than mere influence but an actual incursion.

I happily accept Tom’s more measured statement of his intent. But I would like to suggest he may be connoting much more than he intends given the actual language he’s using.

That applies to his characterization of Jarvis as well. After 11 minutes of warning about “godless ideologies” and Satanic devices, one can hardly offer Jarvis as a case in point without impugning Jarvis’s motives or suggesting he’s a “cultural Marxist.” The problem was not my summation; the problem was Tom’s pejorative argument and his definite association of Jarvis with it.

If impugning Jarvis’s motive and associating him with cultural Marxism is not Tom’s intent, it seems a clarification and an apology are needed. Comments like those in the video have definitely given a false impression of Jarvis, and a good number of people seem to have reached judgments of Jarvis that Tom denies were his aim. There is a difference between intent and impact, and sometimes we must attend to the impact even if we intended something different.

From ‘Movements’ to ‘Tools’

Later in his reply, Tom writes: “If by ‘movement’ [Thabiti] means a coordinated effort by evangelicals to make social justice something that will undermine or supplant the gospel, then perhaps he has a point.”

That is what I meant by “movement,” as evidenced by the contrast with the “anti-social-justice side” that concludes my original post. Tom appears to concede the point.

But then he switches the language from “movement” to “tools.” He cites Resolution 9 as evidence of the adoption of “tools” and argues “that even if there is not a formal evangelical social justice movement there is enough evidence of influence from godless ideologies on evangelical teachers and entities to warrant concern.”

Christians ought always have a healthy concern for ungodly influence on their teaching, teachers, and entities. As I said in the original post, wherever such things exist the faithful Christian is bound by the Bible to oppose it. But what we’ve seen thus far does not amount to a healthy concern. It’s been unhealthy precisely because the evidence is not there and because Tom seems to deny any explanation other than his own theory.

Resolution 9 champions the authority and sufficiency of scripture and makes these “analytical tools” subservient to the Bible. I understand that Tom rejects the use of the “tools” in any fashion. But I reject the notion that the mere use of a tool necessarily involves the adoption of an anti-biblical system the tool comes from or necessarily indicates the incursion of a formal theory like CRT. We all participate in capitalism despite its ungodly uses and unbiblical moorings. But in using the tools of capitalism we are not thereby becoming ungodly capitalists destined to be wolves of Wall Street. That’s even less the case when our resolutions and statements explicitly call us to hold fast to the Word of God as the only sufficient “tool” for addressing humanity’s most fundamental problems as Resolution 9 does.

Shifting the focus from “movement” to “tools” doesn’t help Tom’s case much at all.

Insistence Is Not Evidence

What needs to be recognized is that insistence is not evidence. Saying something repeatedly and loudly does not thereby prove the existence of something or the truth of a claim.

Take, for example, Tom’s expanded critique of Eric Mason’s work in Woke Church. Tom gives a fuller quote of something Eric wrote in his book, emphasizing the phrase—”without which persons will not be receptive to the gospel message.” Tom then concludes, “Mason’s statement makes the pursuit of social justice a sine qua non to people coming to Christ.” Again, that’s Tom’s assessment of Mason’s writing, not what Mason actually argued. He’s insisting that his view is what Eric must mean.

We ought to resist the tendency to conflate what people said or wrote with what the critic insists they must mean. So, I took the liberty of texting Eric to ask, “Would you say or have you ever said ‘the pursuit of social justice is a sine qua non to people coming to Christ”? Mason’s unequivocal reply was, “ABSOLUTELY NOT.” He went on to add an unsolicited expansion: “I’d say it’s a helpful witness to the gospel and the love of God to the world.” In other words, it’s an apologetic, not the evangel. So, Tom’s comments completely misrepresent what Mason actually thinks, believes, and practices. Tom insists his explanation is the correct one, “even though Mason may not see it that way,” and as far as we know without asking Mason to verify. That’s not evidence, beloved.

Or, for another example, consider this comment regarding Matthew Hall: “A commitment to CRT is the only reason that Dr. Matthew Hall, provost at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, can openly confess, ‘I am a racist,’ and not immediately resign his post.”

Tom insists there’s only one explanation for Hall’s service at Southern given his admission. But far from being the only reason, I can think of several others. Such confession and continuance might be the result of honest self-reflection in an institution that just published a report doing the same kind of reflection. Such confession and continuance might also be the kind of integrity, conviction, humility, repentance, and forgiveness that ought to characterize Christians and Christian institutions. We could go on listing other plausible explanations. Tom’s insistence that CRT must be the explanation falls flat.

Those who know Matthew Hall know him as a godly, humble, thoughtful man with the courage of his convictions. He’s the kind of man you’d want as a provost, modeling godliness to students and staff, following the truth wherever it takes him. Hall can arrive at an assessment of his own life without CRT being the only reason for said assessment and continuing in his post. If Hall should step down, then it seems to me we had better remove the names of Boyce, Manley, and others from Southern’s campus—men with far less integrity and character than Hall, who not only failed to admit their racism but actively defended it. If the choice is between an SBC that names slaveholders as its heroes and names parachurch organizations after said slaveholders, or a man like Matthew Hall who humbly confesses his sins with nothing to gain and much to lose, then give me Matthew Hall any day.

My point is not that the names of Boyce, Manley, Williams and Broadus be removed; my point is that the likes of Hall be included without the disparagement of unfounded allegations as a necessary correction to the founders’ lives and doctrine.

Without compelling evidence, Tom’s depictions of the viewpoints of saints like Jarvis Williams, Ekemini Uwan, Matthew Hall, Anthony Bradley, and Eric Mason are libel and slander. We should demand a higher bar of proof demonstrating the “influence” of “godless ideologies” than merely objecting to language or insisting on our interpretation of what they “must mean.”

Unconvincing Conclusions

Tom writes, “I don’t think [Thabiti] has sufficiently understood the evidence I set forth in my arguments and for that reason I find his conclusion unconvincing.”

I think I understood Tom’s argument (as he admitted multiple times), and I think I understood Tom’s “evidence.” I simply don’t think what he has offered is evidence of any compelling sort. As I’ve already said in this post, if we are to take it as compelling evidence then we need to apply it even-handedly. If we do apply their method even-handedly, then I suspect a lot of people should be more alarmed about the evidence of racism and white supremacy in evangelical churches, and how racism and white supremacy gave rise to responses like CRT, intersectionality, and the like. If we apply this standard evenly, then it seems to me we should pull up the root of the problem—racism and white supremacy—rather than solely battle symptomatic responses to it like CRT.

But as it is, I’d rather see a higher burden of proof, more charitable judgment between the saints, and openness to the possibility that people arrive at judgments based on things other than CRT—like biblical teaching, consideration of history, and so on. May the Lord make us more generous in our view and treatment of others, especially those we disagree with.

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