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theview“Facts are our friends,” says evangelical leader Ed Stetzer, pointing out why we should not resist the facts, no matter what they might tell us. But what happens when people decide they only want “friendly facts” that fit into their preexisting worldview?

The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say, “You’re entitled to your own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.” He’d have been surprised to see that, in a world of social media and multiple news sources, many Americans now feel entitled to both.

Entitled To “Your Facts”

This development is bad news for our nation. One reason our society’s debates are so frustrating is because we do not agree on what is true. A satisfying debate takes place when two people observe a particular situation, offer a good interpretation of that situation, and then explain why their vision is the best way forward. In other words, we look at the facts, interpret the facts, and then push in a certain direction.

But in a world of constantly-flowing, often-contradictory information, we rarely get to have a satisfying debate because we don’t agree on what the situation is. You can’t debate a “good” interpretation or discuss the “best way forward” if there’s no common ground of agreement.

An Example from the Left

Let me give you two examples, one from the left and one from the right.

On The View a couple of weeks ago, the hosts interviewed Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina. When the question of abortion rights came up, Fiorina mentioned the sting videos showing Planned Parenthood harvesting and selling body parts from aborted fetuses.

Whoopi Goldberg stopped the conversation right there. “No one is harvesting baby parts,” she said. “Come on girl.” She would not let Fiorina go any further. Joy Behar was offended by the accusation. “That offends my sensibility to hear you say something like that when you know it’s not true!” (Watch the video.)

According to Whoopi, Nothing of the sort is happening. No one is harvesting body parts. No one is selling anything. The debate “ended” – not because of a satisfying discussion about that claim or what is “good” or “bad” or the “best way forward – but because Whoopi said, in effect, “We don’t agree on that fact.” No sense in discussing your opinions if you can’t agree on the facts.

The bad news for Whoopi is that even Planned Parenthood does not deny that they have sold the body parts of aborted fetuses. Whether you call the practice “harvesting organs” or “donating fetal tissue,” the “fact” is the same – the biggest abortion provider in the country was cutting up human fetuses and selling the remains. What’s more, the videos proved to be so controversial that the organization agreed to start donating the human organs free of charge. So now, no money will exchange hands, but little hands will continue to be exchanged.

Perhaps you attribute this abysmal interaction to the blood-pressure-raising atmosphere of The View. Or perhaps you see Whoopi Golberg as a liar deliberately seeking to lead the public astray. I do not assign those motives to her. I believe she truly believes her own facts and the media spin she has received from her self-selected news sources. She really does think Fiorina is just making up the “body parts” story.

Most likely, Whoopi hasn’t seen the videos. She takes for granted the news sources that make it sound like the videos were so “heavily edited” as to be completely fake. She is wrong, of course, as Planned Parenthood’s own testimony made clear. But here’s my point: we will never get to the substance of whether harvesting organs from aborted fetuses is good or best if we cannot even agree on whether or not the practice is real. 

We cannot debate what is good or best unless we agree on what is true.

An Example from the Right

Distortions can also take place on the right. For example, the Supreme Court has decided to hear the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor as they seek a religious exemption from the Affordable Care Act.

According to some of the articles and news stories I’ve seen online, it appears the Obama administration is “forcing” the Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for birth control and abortion-inducing drugs. Not true. No one is forcing the Little Sisters to pay for abortion drugs.

The debate is over whether or not the Little Sisters should be required to fill out a form of dissent that, in essence, triggers the coverage of abortion-drugs from other sources. Notice the difference. It is a question of complicity, not coverage.

Now, I want to be clear that I’m with the Little Sisters on this one. As an advocate for religious conscience laws, I don’t want these selfless servants to feel that they must be even slightly complicit in what they see as a great moral evil.

But we do ourselves no favors by mangling the facts of this case. Instead, we harm the cause of religious liberty, conscience rights, and fail to engage in satisfying debates over what constitutes the government’s “compelling interest” when we pass along articles that get basic facts wrong.

Never Sideline The Truth

I’m glad to see the previous generation’s three-channel monopoly of news go away. I’m glad there are multiple places to get news and information.

But I do worry that our intake is so diffused that no news is treated as even close to “objective” anymore. Even the “fact checking” sites, launched as a way of cutting through the clutter and giving providing facts free of interpretation, have been exposed as politically motivated, just another weapon in the arsenal of partisan politics.

The temptation for conservatives and liberals alike is to sideline the truth in advance of the cause. As Christians, we must resist such a practice. We are a people of truth. We should care about getting the facts right. We should be the least gullible people online and the first to challenge viral posts or Facebook videos that reinforce certain narratives with inaccurate information.

As Christians, we can be truth-tellers and truth-spreaders, but only if we are willing to do our due diligence in exerting discernment and caution. Let’s point the way forward. Because, if we as a society cannot agree agree on basic facts, then we will never be able to debate big ideas.


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12 thoughts on “Before You Debate, You Have to Agree”

  1. Meg Ishikawa says:

    Trevin, I agree with your basic premise, of course, but we seem to live in a time when truth is not honored as it should be. I guess this is nothing new. As Pontius Pilate replied to Jesus, seemingly with a cynical tone, “Truth, what is truth?” People seem to not care too much today when presented with truth. You seem to make reference to the political world which seems to have oozed into every other area we care about. But in an interview with Michaek Kruger entitled “How to Survive World Religions 101,” we are reminded that the world, the flesh and the devil have blinded the minds of the unbelieving. Fewer and fewer care about or believe in “truth” for truth’s sake. Yes,this next statement will be biased, but it seems that those who “lean right” care a bit more.

  2. Curt Day says:

    Please don’t confuse liberalism and the left. Liberals are capitalists who offer fringe benefits to society at large. Leftists are anti-Capitalists. Conservatives are Capitalists who offer either no fringe benefits to society at large or not as many fringe benefits to the same.

    1. Vi Brown says:

      This is an interesting way to describe liberals, capitalists, and conservatives.

      1. Curt Day says:

        Vi,
        I am speaking as a frustrated Leftist. While Conservatives like to group liberals and leftists together, Leftists see Liberals having more in common with Conservatives than with themselves because of their embrace of Capitalism.

        BTW, I thank Trevor for allowing my note because it wasn’t germane to the subject of his article.

  3. mwaniki chuchu says:

    I recently found a helpful way to think about this in the idea “The Intuitive Dog and Its Rational Tail,” quoted from Jonathan Haidt in his book Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, that if you ask people to believe something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding a reason to doubt your argument. He uses the analogy of “the elephant and its rider” to show that an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition.

  4. George says:

    I think you are far too generous in thinking Whoopi isn’t trying to lie. I think she deliberately lied when she said “No one is harvesting baby parts”. She’s a classic example of a liberal activist, who will say and do anything to accomplish something, in fact very similar to Obama, who is a serial liar. In this case, supporting abortion.

    Shame on Whoopi, who being black, should be more concerned that the majority of abortions are of black babies. Isn’t that sad?

    As for the Little Sisters of Mercy, it’s good to straighten out the fact that they wouldn’t be “providing” abortions, but would be “complicit” in providing abortions or contraceptives.

    In fact, gov’t shouldn’t even be involved, with mandating this kind of stuff. Contraceptives and abortions should not be basic human rights. If you want them, pay for them yourself. After all, no one is forcing you to have sex. Well, actually that’s not quite true, since if you don’t teach abstinence as the best course, then you pretty much give the kids free license to have sex.

  5. Vi Brown says:

    My experience tells me that too many people are not interesting in the truth or the facts if it does not support their argument, and it doesn’t matter if it it comes from the left or the right. We seem to have lost of the art of meaningful conversation and the ability to hear each side of the discussion. Whether we agree or disagree, meaningful information, ideas, and possible solutions can come forward out of a sincere discussion.

  6. Tyler says:

    Trevin,
    Your article reminded me of an essay from Michael Crichton 22 years ago entitled “Mediasaurus” (http://www.wired.com/1993/04/mediasaurus/). Crichton’s prediction of personalized media platforms has essentially come to fruition and his understanding of society at large to be unable to debate in a civil fashion is way ahead of its time. Your article in many ways brings to light several of the issues Crichton predicted would eventually occur.

  7. Mitchell says:

    You forgot about the other important part of a discussion: Using the same definitions for ALL words

    Think Bill Clinton – what is IS? SEX?
    Think the current Gender and Race Fluidity craze

    What does “force” mean? Am I forcing you when the only alternative is something you don’t want to do?

    What is a liberal, leftist, conservative, etc. I’ll be you’d get at least 3 or 4 definition for each just from your commentors.

  8. Philmonomer says:

    But I do worry that our intake is so diffused that no news is treated as even close to “objective” anymore. Even the “fact checking” sites, launched as a way of cutting through the clutter and giving providing facts free of interpretation, have been exposed as politically motivated, just another weapon in the arsenal of partisan politics.

    The temptation for conservatives and liberals alike is to sideline the truth in advance of the cause. As Christians, we must resist such a practice. We are a people of truth. We should care about getting the facts right. We should be the least gullible people online and the first to challenge viral posts or Facebook videos that reinforce certain narratives with inaccurate information.

    There is a good example of this right now on The Gospel Coalition’s website. It’s Joe Carter’s “Factcheck” of the Umpqua shooting.

    http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/factchecker-the-umpqua-community-college-shooting

    There is no reliable first hand account that concludes Christians were targeted (see my comments on the post). Indeed, there are reliable first hand accounts that conclude the opposite. Nevertheless, the “fact check” leaves the reader with the conclusion that Christians were almost certainly targeted.

    At this point, I don’t think the blog post will ever be updated. Even though the author says he will update it “as necessary,” and even though it will clearly leave the truth “sidelined.”

  9. Philmonomer says:

    I don’t have the time to think through this, but I think your example “from the left” doesn’t really work.

    That is, you say “Whether you call the practice “harvesting organs” or “donating fetal tissue,” the “fact” is the same – the biggest abortion provider in the country was cutting up human fetuses and selling the remains.”

    Sure, the fact remains the same. But it isn’t clear that Whoopi Goldberg was objecting to the fact. Rather, I suspect she was objecting to the characterization of the fact.

    If Carly Fiorina had said “donating fetal tissue” rather than “harvesting baby parts”–there would have been no disagreement from Whoopi Goldberg and others.

    So, I don’t think they were objecting to the underlying facts (as the post claims–that Whoopi Goldberg and others likely believe there is NO selling of fetal tissue), I think they were objecting to the characterization of the facts.

    But this is all just speculation (although reasonable speculation, IMHO), and your larger point that both sides do it, remains true.

  10. Robert Criss says:

    It is too idealistic to think we can come together to agree on foundations. How does one learn the art of pushing through the shut downs with a smile and winsomely laying down an argument the opposition may buy in to and pushing toward truth in a limited amount of time?

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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