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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Rhetoric in Action

Written by: on January 30, 2020

“At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. The Bible tells us, how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity. We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements, but always pursue solidarity. When America is united, America is totally unstoppable. There should be no fear. We are protected, and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement. And most importantly, we will be protected by God.”[1]

These words were spoken by President Donald Trump at his inaugural address on January 20, 2017 as he was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. In looking at the whole of his speech, Trump was trying to help the people of the United States feel connected to the new political authority by reminding them that America, once downtrodden and in disarray, was now a country for the people and by the people. His rhetorical effort was driven towards the idea of “Making America great again.”

 

In his book, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity has Shaped our Values, Nick Spencer highlights how rhetoric shapes U.S. politics, especially in combination with Biblicism sprinkled throughout. The book is a collection of essays designed to help the reader understand how Christianity helped to shape the values system of the Western world, starting with Europe and extending into the United States.[2] Spencer works with great material we’ve been reading lately, like Noll and Taylor, but what caught my interest most was his final chapter on “mere” rhetoric.

 

We know how powerful rhetoric can be; we hear it in the spoken word (“I have a Dream”, “Ask not what your country can do for you”, “I’m not throwin’ away my shot!”) and in our colloquialisms (“A picture is worth a thousand words”), and Spencer highlights this well. He reminds us that language, “If delivered in the right way or by the right person or on the right occasion, could transform the material content of a situation.”[3] But we see that the Bible is consistently being used on both sides of an argument, and often, it’s being used to give authority or blessing to what U.S. politicians are saying. It’s also consistently used to define standards of moral authority and judgement on the people.[4] This is evident in the inaugural address by President Trump. Trump is using the idea of “God’s protection” as a moral authority for total allegiance to the United States and its people. This idea of morality being defined in this way, moves rhetoric away from the spoken word into the lived experience of the people.

 

So what do we do when the lived experience don’t match the rhetoric that is spoken? Quite frankly, I see this all the time. I think this is why young adults have such a hard time with the Church – the words of the Church and the actions of the Church don’t match up anymore. The rhetoric has lost the ability to influence or even be considered in the lived experience of the people.[5] We’re now seeing on a national stage how the rhetoric of the man who encouraged us to dwelled in unity with each other might actually be in contrast his divisive and potentially harmful actions.

 

While I may not have a national stage, the words I say go beyond “mere rhetoric.” In my home, I have a set of seven and four-year-old eyes watching me and ears listening to make sure that my words and my actions are in alignment. I feel the responsibility to remind them that the words of Jesus weren’t just words, but his actions matched his rhetoric, in all things, and that the Church, while not perfect, is God’s plan A to demonstrate in word and deed the redemptive love of God. Our ultimate “bedrock” is not a total allegiance to the United States, but to God in all things. Those are some words I can get behind.

 

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[1] “Full Text: 2017 Donald Trump Inaguration Speech Transcript” Politico.com, September 20, 2017: https://www.politico.com/story/2017/01/full-text-donald-trump-inauguration-speech-transcript-233907

[2] Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity has Shaped our Values (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), Loc. 153.

[3] Ibid., Loc. 3086.

[4] Ibid., Loc. 3183.

[5] “Six Reasons Young People Leave the Church”, Barna Group, Sept. 27, 2011: https://www.barna.com/research/six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church/

 

About the Author

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Karen Rouggly

Karen Rouggly is the Director for Mobilization in the Center for Student Action at Azusa Pacific University. She develops transformational experiences for students serving locally, nationally, and internationally. She completed an MA in Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary and is passionate about community development, transformational service and helping students understand vocation and service. Karen is also an active member at the Vineyard Church Glendora where she is a small group leader and serves on the teaching team. She is also a mom to two sweet boys, wife to an amazing guy, and loves being a friend to many.

13 responses to “Rhetoric in Action”

  1. Mario Hood says:

    Love this, your insights are always amazing. I remember a motto we lived by growing which a lot of people knew which said, “sticks and stones may hurt my bones but words will never hurt me”. One day as I was saying this back (probably to my brother) I realized words do hurt. Sometimes words hurt more and for longer than sticks or stones. I think it’s even more important with the rise of social media that we know how much rhetoric has shaped and is shaping us and those around us. As you have noted it starts with us leading our homes/families and then grows from there.

    • mm Karen Rouggly says:

      Yes, Mario! I have always been a proponent of the fact that words hurt more! Broken bones heal, but sometimes the wounds made by words don’t. Such a good reminder.

      And thanks for the kind words!

  2. Hi Karen, words are indeed powerful. But when it’s not showing in action, the devastation it can wreck on culture is truly disastrous. Millennials and Gen Z see this in our families and churches and they don’t want to have anything to do with it. I know hypocrisy ranks as one of the top reasons young people are leaving the church.

    The author I quoted in my post, Meic Pearse sees this as one of the reasons why the “rest hates the West.” They see hypocrisy in the U.S. and they don’t want any of it — hence the challenge of modernizing without westernizing.

    But thanks to people like you we can turn things around. Time for you to get onto the national stage. 🙂

  3. mm Jenn Burnett says:

    I also found the chapter on rhetoric engaging and useful. As a non-American Christian I found Trumps speech particularly disturbing as he aligned the US with the people of God. Given Christianity is a global faith, to elevate a particular national collection of it is to elevate one part of the body of Christ above another. When God’s chosen people existed exclusively within one nation, such alignment might be defensible, but how now ought we to include God in our national, public orations? Is there still a place? And why do you think there has been a recent increase in biblical rhetoric in American presidential addresses when all indication is that the nation is growing more secular? Thanks for your wisdom Karen.

    • mm Karen Rouggly says:

      Such good questions, friend! It seems more and more that the coasts of the nation are growing less and less Christian, but clearly there’s a strong middle class in middle America that resonates with “Good Christian Teaching” otherwise Trump wouldn’t be where he is today. It’s challenging for sure!

  4. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    A great post, Karen! So, so true. Words have lost their meaning in so many ways as they are thrown around like ammunition and are so plentiful its exhausting. Young people are using their eyes more than their mouths. It is a critical reminder that the basics of Jesus’ gospel is enough to live by and honestly, to change the world with.

  5. mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    I love how you point out the two sets of eyes you have at home Karen. I find that children are the most “tuned in” to seeing that disconnect between what someone says and what someone actually does. Alas, we are seeing way too much “communal sin” with mere rhetoric today, thank you for pointing this out!

  6. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Karen,
    Oh that our actions would always match our rhetoric! Perhaps your children, watching your actions in the context of your rhetoric should personify the community of the Church. That is, I love and want to believe you, therefore, I am always watching you. May we watch one another in love to encourage, but also to assure the integrity of our words. Thanks again.

  7. Digby Wilkinson says:

    So, Karen, what should it mean to be Christian in America, and what might it look like to the observer? Especially given Spencer’s viewpoint.

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