The Reframing Game in “People to Be Loved”

The Reframing Game in “People to Be Loved” July 13, 2016

We were going to be talking about reparative therapy today, but someone in comments brought up a point that was so good that I wanted to circle back to it. It’s about how many Christians try to reframe issues in language that’ll work better for their arguments.

Using very positive language to describe a very negative situation or feeling is a tactic at least as old as Christianity itself. People who have power use this sort of language to make the powerless folks they (want to) control more comfortable with being controlled–and to sell a product that nobody in their right mind would ever want to buy if its nature were accurately described. It is at its heart a very, very Christian form of dishonesty.

The chair is a no. (Credit: Erwin Soo, CC license.)
The chair is a no. (Credit: Erwin Soo, CC license.)

One of the funniest examples in media that I can point to comes from one of the best American comedy shows ever made. Manager Ted’s scientists have come up with a desk chair using a new miracle fabric:

Linda: People are squirming. The fabric’s not comfortable.
Ted: Squirming? Or… Are they just enjoying it so much that they want their whole body to rub up against it?
Linda: Ted, I know you’re an R&D legend with magical R&D powers, but the chair is a no.

Better Off Ted, “Pilot,” 2009

Confuse Them and Lose Them: Christian Edition.

Most ex-Christians can probably remember plenty of times when one of our leaders used this strategy of reframing negative things as a positive to make them sound less onerous. I sure do. My pastor spoke often about tithing in terms that’d make even a pre-teen kid eager to chip in when the collection basket came around. Youth ministers generally are extremely good at getting kids totally excited about stuff that, under normal circumstances, they’d recoil from (like purity balls and other forms of abstention). When we got out of church and actually had to put those ideas into lived practice, suddenly we began wondering why we’d been so gosh-darned excited about it a few hours ago.

But as the religion continues to lose adherents, power, credibility and money, the efforts to reframe their negative ideas into positives continues onward.

The most common way to reframe an unsellable idea in Christianity is to make that idea sound just like its opposite, as if there are these two equally-compelling concepts that someone might choose between. Referring to Creationism as “a theory” and deriding the actual Theory of Evolution as “just a theory” is only one example of this type of reframing. You might also hear Christians reframe their religious belief by claiming that atheists totally believe in impossible-to-prove stuff too. This kind of reframing is meant to make their side of the issue look a little less wackadoodle.

Another common reframing tactic is to minimize or even simply negate the negatives about their unsellable idea. When you hear Toxic Christians talking about how slavery in ancient times wasn’t much worse than, say, working for minimum wage at a McJob, you’re hearing a desperate attempt to reframe an atrocity to make the Bible and its god sound a little less barbaric, immoral, and outdated.

“Encouragement to Lie.”

Ignoring the very obvious harm that their crusade against abortion brings about is another reframing example; in the right-wing Toxic Christian world, since only certain types of women ever seek abortions, they can reframe the issue in terms of “convenience” and the like to vilify and demonize those women–ignoring utterly that most women who seek abortions don’t fit into that mold and that countries that pursue crusades against abortion tend to be really iffy about lots of other human rights that these self-righteous crusaders would likely consider important to their own lives.

STILL A NO. (Credit: Shannon McGee, CC-SA license.)
STILL A NO. (Credit: Shannon McGee, CC-SA license.)

Often these efforts at reframing use and co-opt liberal language to say things that are deeply conservative in nature. For example, “religious liberty” is a reframing of Christians’ old Dominionist desires in a way that they hope will sound more palatable to people outside their tribe. It gives them just enough plausible deniability that they can continue their increasingly-doomed crusade against LGBTQ rights, while being totally transparent to their own ranks. For a short while–a really short while–it seemed like their effort was succeeding. Not anymore. The way Christians are using the term increasingly makes very clear that their one and only concern in the matter is to make a way for their particular brand of Christianity to dominate American culture and law.

In a similar way, calling their crusade against women’s reproductive rights the “pro-life” side was another such triumph of reframing. In truth, as most folks know by now, these “pro-life” crusaders aren’t actually all that interested in life in any form other than fetal. In fact, absolutely the only thing “pro-life” activists want is to force women to endure pregnancies against their consent. But framing the issue as one of “life” (implying that the other side stands for “death,” of course) makes them sound more authoritative and morally correct than they would sound than if they called themselves by the name that properly reflects their actual focus: “forced-birthers.” When surveys stay away from charged language, they discover that Americans’ opinions are not so easily pigeonholed.

Christians use reframing as a rhetorical tactic because it succeeds grandly. Tying together reframing efforts for both of the culture wars above, Eric Miller wrote last year:

Lewis cites the success of “right to life” as a key term of the abortion debate to suggest that “right to both a father and mother” would perform similarly in the debate over marriage.

Mr. Miller reports that one such author was “troubled” by how easy it is for an extremist to hide behind reframing efforts and seem much less dangerous than he or she really is, but even that author wasn’t troubled enough by that risk to tell his tribe to quit doing it. No, instead the answer was to do more of it, harder, than ever before! (That this supposedly-troubled author is involved with the Southern Baptist Convention might clear up a few questions you might have right now.) Indeed, Mr. Miller notes that arch-conservative Christian leaders and legislators use reframing language to sound more moderate and liberal than they really are–to the detriment of less-informed voters who elect these liars-for-Jesus to office and then wonder where their moderate, liberal candidate went once the entire state goes to pieces.

Well, yes, of course. That’s what dishonest reframing efforts are supposed to do: allow horrifyingly cruel Christians to pass themselves off as good, kind people, and to let those Christians encourage people to do things that normally they’d never, ever want to do. Eric Miller put it well: that this obfuscation in language amounts to little more than “encouragement to lie” in the hands of such dishonest and greedy, grasping, and compassion-less Christians.

I’d fully agree. There comes a point well past dishonesty when someone uses overly-positive language to describe a situation that is anything but positive. As always, though, Christians who are very motivated to do so can find some way to rationalize the most outrageous types of dishonesty when it comes to making themselves or their religion look good.

Testing Against Reality.

In Better Off Ted, Ted rethinks his position on the office chair when one of the test subjects goes berserk with discomfort and runs, screaming and frantic, from the testing hall. He was willing to amend his opinion when reality showed that even his best efforts to reframe the situation had failed. (His bosses put the chair into production anyway, but hey, at least he tried. This is Veridian Dynamics we’re talking about here.)

Still no. (Credit: sabreguy29, CC license.)
Still no. (Credit: sabreguy29, CC license.)

When we look at new phrasing offered up by Christians, we need to test those efforts against reality by asking what they really change, who benefits from positive perception, and what benefits will come to those who accept that rephrasing. Often we’ll discover, when we do this, that what we’re seeing is an attempt to pour an old product into brand-new boxes, slap a “NEW AND IMPROVED!” sticker on the front, and sell it to unwary consumers.

And we are well within our rights to call out these efforts when we encounter them. When Stan’s dad tries to reframe a situation in South Park, the show’s creators make very clear that the boy considers what his dad is doing to be less than honest:

Randy: Gang, I think maybe we owe God an apology.
Stan: Does this mean we have to go to church on Sundays again?
Randy: No. It means we get to, son. It means… we get to. [all of a sudden, one more piece of crap comes out his mouth]

South Park, “Red Hot Catholic Love,” 2002

Randy tries to reframe the requirement to go to church to sound like something they all love to do, that’ll be fun and exciting, and something to look forward to each week. But Stan knows the truth: he doesn’t especially enjoy going to church and views this requirement as unpleasant and onerous. He thinks his dad is spouting crap. And the show demonstrates this perception in a literal way.

When we encounter an idea that we normally would view negatively phrased in a way that is extremely positive, or vice versa, we need to be asking some questions about why this reframing is happening.

“A Cold and Dark Apartment.”

Preston Sprinkle devotes quite a lot of his book People to Be Loved to the idea that gay people should live in celibacy rather than seek or stay in fulfilling romantic relationships with members of the same sex. He clearly believes that this is the best possible option for them, because obviously (to him) people who seek or enjoy these sorts of relationships are committing a sin that will harm them eventually.

He uses the term “a cold and dark apartment” (p. 168) as a shorthand for the way that most affirming people view Christians’ demands for celibacy, then goes to lengths to reframe the idea in positive terms. He says that why yes, people do need people, relationships, and love in their lives, but that “all of this can be found apart from marriage.” (We’ll be talking about exactly this point next time, but feel free to unsheathe your claws on it beforehand. I am still just shocked that he tried to go there.)

Indeed, he thinks gay people will be totally fine with celibacy once they see “the beautiful freedom that singleness may bring.” (Quotes all come directly from his book.) “May bring,” you ask? Not will bring? Oh sure, he concedes, there are some freedoms that come with marriage too, including the freedom to have sex (since we all know that Christians never engage in non-marital sex!), but gosh darn it, “singleness also opens up a different sort of freedom and joy that married people miss out on.” Really! It’s soooo much “anxiety” to worry about childrearing and getting along with one’s spouse. And married people just can’t focus on “the community of God’s people” the way that a single person can. (Which is why his god requires that all “bishops” be single men–oh wait.)

Of one such gay Christian who bought this rhetoric around celibacy, he writes:

Instead of a cold, dark apartment, Matt’s future began to look like a sun-bathed playground with all sorts of unforeseen possibilities. Far from becoming a barrier to the good life, Matt’s singleness enabled him to plunge his face into the well of the abundant life Jesus promises.

Which is why you will not be surprised in the least to know that Preston Sprinkle himself is not married and would never get married.

Oh wait.

My bad.

He’s totally married and belongs to a flavor of Christianity that goes to incredible lengths to make sure to constantly stress the importance of marriage and family, and one which he imagines is full to the brim with loving and supportive Christians who’d be happy to be a surrogate partner for all these single, celibate gay people they imagine will be flooding back into their churches if only those churches can change the “posture” of their bigotry. (Oh wait again.)

This reframing effort might sound good for a little while to vulnerable gay Christians who are already inclined to think that being gay is some horrible sin they must try to overcome, but it’s beyond shocking to hear a fundagelical try to tell people with a serious face that someone can totally get everything that marriage gives them without actually ever getting married or that shucks being married is soooo hard too, so really they’re both totally valid but opposite lifestyles that someone might have. The sheer preponderance of evidence to the contrary makes his efforts sound grotesque if not utterly dishonest.

When we talk about Preston Sprinkle’s suggestions for gay people in his book People to Be Loved, I want you to keep in mind its attempt to reframe both singleness and celibacy as some grand and wonderful thing that is totally just as awesome as marriage is.

But I don’t think even Dr. Sprinkle believes his own reframing attempt.

He does discuss how unwelcoming churches are for single straight people, admonishing them for this attitude without offering them any concrete ways to fix the problem. But if someone finds themselves questioning his wisdom about how gay people must be single in this environment, if someone fails to purchase his attempt to reframe celibate singleness as some wonderful “sun-bathed playground,” Dr. Sprinkle makes sure to admonish them and chide them for daring to think that maybe they’re not being called by Jesus to live in that playground.

It is, after all, still a sin to be in a same-sex relationship in his world.

And there’s only one penalty for sin in that world.

If a Christian’s sales attempt fails, then you can bet that there’s always a horrible threat lingering in the background. Preston Sprinkle will try his best to make celibacy sound like a grand and glorious adventure that he was simply not personally “called” to endure enjoy, but if his marketing effort fails, he makes 100% clear that it’s still a requirement to him, like it or lump it.

We’ll see you next time, when we take up celibacy in the book. See you then!


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