Last month, at Slate.com, Jeremy Stahl collected some of the notable gaffes of Vice President Joseph Biden. Like “Bushisms,” “Bidenisms” are public statements that keep the White House staffers up all night trying to fix for the next day’s press.
Explaining the president’s concern to coordinate distribution of the stimulus money through local governments in early September, Biden responded to the claim that by law the federal government doesn’t have that kind of authority to work with states and cities. Inexplicably, Biden turned it into something like self-defense. “I have not bent the law,” he replied, “but I have let imagination take hold in some places where I think it’s consistent with the spirit of the law…Is that the best way of saying that? Yes…I should stop.” Indeed.
“The precise definition of Bidenism, like a Bidenism itself, is murky,” Stahl explains. The best ones “exemplify the bluster, excess verbosity, and fake charm of dumb politician stereotypes, yet they come from a seasoned politico who can also be clever and self-effacing.” Typically, Bidenisms are “awkward, inappropriate, or both” and can at least be interpreted as insulting, although they are often followed by self-deprecating attempts to deflect potential criticism of his remark. These follow-up remarks are often “just as cringe-worthy as the original statement.” He seems to be aware even as the remark leaves his lips that it is a “Bidenism.”
Stahl points out that a “Bidenism” is quite different from the “Bushisms” that used to provide late-night fodder. Where the former comes across as arrogant and condescending, the latter convey the impression of ignorance—sort of an Archie Bunker or Homer Simpson type of gaffe, according to Stahl. With Bushisms, you kind of felt sorry for the speaker; his goal, at least, seems to have been to be direct, clear, and forthright. On the other hand, Bidenisms seem more like an intentional murkiness that provokes unease with the speaker’s integrity.
I don’t know enough about either distinguished public servants to make character judgments. That’s not why this piece interested me. Rather, it makes me think of the rhetorical comparisons and contrasts between “fundamentalists” and “progressive evangelical” (read: Emergent) types.
Purveyors of the “old time religion” routinely misunderstood or at least overstated their case, often in the service of a very good cause with the best of intentions. Still, the gaffes—not only rhetorical, but theological—were dangerous. They tended to erode confidence in the positions that they represented. Passion and intensity of conviction is no compensation for ignorance, overstatement and bad arguments. And in many ways, this tendency to let the rhetoric get ahead of thinking prepared many thoughtful young people for a murkiness that is increasingly devaluing the coinage of ordinary language.
For the fundamentalists of yesteryear (and there are still some around), everything was easy to interpret. In fact, no interpretation was needed. Any God-fearing American knew that the Bible is a word-for-word dictation from heaven and that the nation was divided into clearly “saved” and “godless” compartments. But the Emergents know better. They may not be certain about the Bible or its central truths, but they are at least sure that they’re not sure—and that you can’t be either. Having just picked up a few summaries of summaries of “postmodernism,” they “get it,” as they often say themselves. Such boasts may have signaled bondage to modernist rationalism on the part of anyone with confidence in truth, but they’re perfectly justified so long as we’re the ones making them.
G. K. Chesterton once observed that in the past, humility used to settle on the organ of ambition. You were meant to doubt yourself, but not the truth. Today, however, he said that humility has moved to the organ of conviction. You’re expected to be sure of yourself, but to doubt the truth. Arrogance and condescension, followed by false humility, seems the order of the day.
I wonder if this is one way of interpreting not only the difference between “Bushisms” and “Bidenisms” but fundamentalism and liberal evangelicalism. No one can know everything. And no one can know anything perfectly. Even in Scripture, as the Westminster divines confessed, not everything is equally plain or equally important. Yet our Emergent brothers and sisters risk tilting the windmill in the other direction, as if the mere fact that every fact is interpreted by people within particular communities and shaped by certain prejudices means that you can’t know the same truth that a Sudanese woman today or a Jewish rabbi who lived long ago in Palestine.
So maybe it’s time to leave both versions of arrogance behind and become pilgrims again—people who know the Shepherd’s voice and follow him, even though they still haven’t found what they’re looking for. The world may still not be impressed, but I have a hunch that it’s at least going to be oddly—maybe even pleasantly—surprised to hear people speak with authority about the things that matter most precisely because they are following God’s external Word instead of the gaffes—whether ignorant or arrogant—that arise within themselves.