MRBlog | The Rhetoric of Similarity: Republicans, Complementarians, and ISIS


By Thomas J. Whitley

First there was the response to President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast (I wrote a bit about that here), then there was the response to the response. I have noticed something of a trend in the latter responses and it is characterized by comparison.

I first noticed this in William Saletan’s recent Slate piece, For Christ’s Sake. The tagline for the piece is, “some Republicans would rather defend Christianity from all criticism than stand clearly against religious violence.” He briefly catalogues examples of this and groups into six categories “what conservative politicians, activists, and pundits have said about Obama’s speech.” These categories are: 1) The Crusades were justified, 2) The Inquisition wasn’t that bad, 3) Jim Crow is ancient history, 4) Islam is the enemy, 5) Islam commands violence, and 6) Christianity is the only true faith. In each Saletan offers examples and rebuttals. It is in the final category, Christianity is the only true faith, that Saletan compares these conservative Republicans to ISIS. After quoting from Erick Erickson’s piece, Barack Obama Is Not a Christian in Any Meaningful Way, Saletan has this to say:

That’s pretty close to what Islamic extremists say about Islamic moderates. There’s only one true faith—ours—and anyone who says otherwise isn’t a real Muslim. In this respect, the debate within Christianity mirrors the debate within Islam. On one side are Bush, Obama, and the millions of Christians and Muslims who reject religious conflict. On the other side are Santorum, Giuliani, Fox News, ISIS, and al-Qaida.

The comparison drawn between conservative Republicans and ISIS by Saletan is deliberate. Saletan is setting up a dichotomy here that has on one side “Bush, Obama, and the millions of Christians and Muslims who reject religious conflict” and on the other “Santorum, Guiliani, Fox News, ISIS, and al-Qaida.” Saletan does not explicitly say that the latter group accepts religious conflict, but the implication is clear. By comparing Rick Santorum, Rudy Guiliani, and Fox News to ISIS and al-Qaida, Saletan is instructing his readers in how to classify these conservative Republicans. Saying that what this group says is “pretty close to what Islamic extremists say about Islamic moderates” invites the reader to think, “These conservatives are extremists, like ISIS and al-Qaida.” Why else would such a comparison be necessary if that is not what Saletan wants his readers to think, or if that is not what he thinks himself? This is a rhetorical move to discredit these conservatives. By lumping them in with groups that immediately conjure up negative views, these negative views can seamlessly be transferred to these new objects. All that is needed is a mere suggestion of an association or similarity.

I had already begun thinking about how comparisons of this nature work when, on Monday, my Twitter and Facebook feeds were full of friends sharing a post from The Jesus Event, Who Said it? The Gospel Coalition or ISIS on Gender Roles. The author takes as his data a recently published ISIS “manifesto on women” and statements from conservative Christians that accept complementarianism (the belief that men and women should not be equal, but rather serve complementary roles). A quiz is provided at the end of the post ostensibly so that you can test your knowledge of the two groups, but it really serves to show just how “eerily similar” these conservative Christians are to ISIS.

The most interesting part of the post, however, is when the author, Tyler Tully, insists that he does not think conservative Christians are the same as ISIS.

Let me say from the start, in no way do I think that The Gospel Coalition (or complementarians in general) are the same as ISIS. And let me also be clear: ISIS is not symbolic of a “monolithic” Islam. I have several Muslim friends-all of who (sic) condemn ISIS (and other “Islamic” terrorist organizations) in the same way that I condemn “Christian” military groups for not being Christian. I do not wish to compare apples to oranges, but rather to show how eerily similar the rhetoric is between ISIS and TGC on gender roles.

The most obvious question to such a statement is why he would make the comparison in the first place, if he does not actually intend for the comparison to be productive. In other words, what does such a comparison tell us and why should we care? The answer is that he does intend the comparison to be productive and that this comparison is intended to taint complementarianism and those who espouse it. That is, he knows that the mere comparison serves as a means to discredit. This works in two ways. First, it is a short step from thinking, “They view women the same way this obviously evil group ISIS views women” to “they are obviously evil like ISIS.” Tully does not have to make this statement explicitly. The comparisons he draws between the two groups plant this seed in the minds of his readers and begin making the subtle connection for them. Second, by showing that the view of women held by complementarian Christians is “eerily similar” to those held by ISIS, the group’s views of women are necessarily called into question. Putting complementarianism in such a relief is designed to make the view look evil, barbaric, and outdated, just like ISIS.

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu spoke of the aspiration of every social agent “to have the power to name and to create the world through naming” (Language and Symbolic Power, 105). Saletan and Tully are engaging in this act of naming by juxtaposing conservative groups they oppose and ISIS, for they realize that the comparison alone is enough to malign and defame their opponents. Even with the caveats provided by Tully, such comparisons are neither neutral, nor were they intended to be.