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There’s been controversy in the NCFCA recently about the use of theological arguments in Lincoln-Douglas debate rounds, so much so that the NCFCA released an official letter addressing the issue. The verdict of the letter is, in my view, basically right. But the main rationale offered for the verdict is deeply misguided and has led to inappropriate behavior by competitors. In this post, I’ll explain what’s wrong with this rationale and identify a better one.

(Note: I mainly discuss LD in this post, but what I say below applies mutatis mutandis to TP and other debate formats.)

The Verdict

The verdict of the letter is that theological arguments should rarely, if ever, be used LD debate rounds.

As I said, this verdict strikes me as the right one. But the reason (or one of the reasons) for this verdict cited by the NCFCA is most definitely the wrong one.

A Poor Rationale

Here are some representative quotes from the letter:

“Using the Bible as a weapon, on the other hand, is to accuse one’s fellow Christian competitor of violating God’s Word simply by taking a position on a debatable philosophical question.”

“[D]ebaters should not make arguments that characterize one side of the resolution as unbiblical. This approach is not only disrespectful to the viewpoints involved, but it is disingenuous given the fact that debaters will all be arguing with conviction, passion, and the hope of winning from both sides of the resolution in each tournament.”

The rationale for keeping theological arguments out of debate seems to be this: making theological arguments requires one to weaponize and manipulate Scripture, to disrespect one’s opponent, and to be disingenuous.

This is false. In fact, it’s obviously false. Christians are often in the business of critiquing others’ views on theological grounds, and this needn’t involve weaponization, manipulation, disrespect, or disingenuity.

Here’s an example: Christian philosophers have written a lot about the question, “Are human beings purely material objects?” Some Christian philosophers think the answer is “yes”; others think the answer is “no.” And theological arguments play a prominent role in answering this philosophical question. For example, many of those who answer “no” do so in part because they think that materialism is incompatible with the doctrine of resurrection. If human beings are purely material objects, how can we continue to exist after our bodies are destroyed? And how can God resurrect us if we don’t exist any longer? Christian philosophers who answer “yes” try to address these challenges by explaining how it is possible for God to reconstitute material objects that once existed but no longer do. And so on, and so forth.

Obviously, philosophical questions like this one are controversial. But here’s one thing that isn’t controversial: there is absolutely nothing inappropriate, disingenuous, or manipulative about Christian philosophers holding each other to theological standards when answering such questions. Since Christian philosophers are interested in finding the truth, they are willing to draw on everything they know, including theology.

Obviously, this point extends to contexts outside of philosophy. Theologians debate about the boundaries of a biblical worldview, but they don’t thereby disrespect or manipulate each other. When your pastor says from the pulpit, “It’s common to think x, but x is in tension with what the Bible says,” he doesn’t thereby manipulate or weaponize scripture or disrespect you.

So, it’s pretty clear that appealing to theological considerations in philosophical contexts isn’t manipulative or disrespectful. Is it disingenuous?

That depends. Disingenuity involves deceiving others into thinking that you believe something you don’t actually believe. It is possible, of course, to be disingenuous in this sense when offering theological arguments in philosophical contexts. But I doubt it’s possible in competitive debate. That’s because no one expects you to believe everything you say in a debate round; competitive debate requires you to say things you don’t believe, because it requires you to both assert and deny a proposition – namely, the resolution – across rounds. So, if you make a claim during a debate round that you don’t personally believe, you haven’t thereby deceived anybody. The judge is perfectly aware that debate often requires you to defend viewpoints that you don’t personally hold. Indeed, that’s part of what makes debate a valuable activity: it forces you to embody the viewpoints of others.

So, it’s not at all disingenuous to offer theological arguments on both sides of the resolution, for exactly the same reasons it’s not disingenuous to offer economic, or philosophical, or geopolitical arguments on both sides of the resolution. Defending both sides of the resolution just comes with the territory.

Unfortunately, the rationale we’re considering has been used to justify some bad behavior on the part of competitors. The following is becoming a common strategy, at least in Lincoln-Douglas:

  • Try to force your opponent to admit that their position on the resolution, or their framing of the resolution, has theological implications during cross-examination.
  • Accuse your opponent of being manipulative, disingenuous, mean, the spawn of Hell, and so on and so forth, in virtue of the fact that their position on the resolution, or their framing of the resolution, has theological implications.
  • Win the round by default.

It should be obvious why this strategy isn’t constructive. But in case it’s not obvious: it’s in fact morally wrong to accuse people of wrongdoing when they are innocent of any wrongdoing, and merely offering a theological opinion during cross-examination is neither disingenuous, nor mean, nor manipulative, for all of the reasons we’ve considered. So, if you accuse your opponent of wrongdoing for offering a theological opinion during cross-examination, you are yourself guilty of wrong. The other reason this strategy isn’t constructive is because it detracts from the real educational purpose of debate. Speaking of the educational purpose of debate, let’s now consider an alternative, much better rationale for the verdict in the letter.

A Better Rationale

Why do LD debate? In short, because it teaches you a valuable set of skills. What are these skills? Making a complete list would be difficult, but here are two skills that belong on the list:

Skill 1: Learn to engage with philosophical arguments.

Skill 2: Learn to develop arguments that are broadly appealing to the members of a pluralistic, democratic society.

Here is why making theological arguments in LD rounds is inappropriate: doing so detracts from the educational aim of LD, because it prevents competitors from practicing Skill 1 and Skill 2. Theology and philosophy are different disciplines, so time spent making theological arguments takes away from time spent making philosophical arguments. It follows that the more theological arguments are offered in a debate round, the less time competitors spend practicing Skill 1.

Making theological arguments in debate rounds also detracts from Skill 2, because most members of our pluralistic democracy don’t share the theological assumptions of most NCFCA competitors and judges. So, those arguments aren’t broadly appealing in the way relevant to Skill 2. Thus, the more theological arguments are offered in a debate round, the less competitors practice Skill 2.

Of course, Skill 1 and Skill 2 aren’t the only valuable skills. Facility with theological arguments – call this “Skill 3” – is also valuable. But LD isn’t for learning Skill 3. That’s what the apologetics category is for. Importing theological arguments into LD just turns LD into a different iteration of the apologetics category.

Perhaps an analogy will help here. Imagine that all the TPers in the country collectively decided to switch to LD. Imagine, furthermore, that they all agreed from the start that they wouldn’t debate within traditional LD frameworks: they would instead offer policy proposals and defend those proposals using traditional TP frameworks, like the stock issues or net benefits frameworks.

This would be inappropriate. Why? Not because offering policy proposals and talking about the stock issues is morally wrong; it’s not disingenuous or manipulative or disrespectful. It’s just contrary to the spirit of LD. Our imaginary TPers would transform LD into a different event altogether – they would turn it into an alternate version of TP.

The same goes for debaters who make theological arguments in debate rounds. They are transforming LD into a different event altogether – they are turning it into an alternate version of apologetics.

This rationale justifies a different strategy for rejecting theological framings, one that avoids the pitfalls of the inappropriate strategy identified above:

  • Show that your opponent’s theological framing of the resolution is unphilosophical or would be unappealing to members of a pluralistic, democratic society.
  • Argue, on this basis, that your opponent’s framing of the resolution detracts from the educational purpose of LD debate.
  • Put forth an alternative framing that better serves that educational purpose.

This strategy doesn’t involve accusing your opponent of any wrongdoing. Rather, it involves identifying a genuine weakness of their framing of the resolution: irrelevance to the purpose of LD. I can’t guarantee this strategy will work every round. But I think it is a lot more constructive than the strategy we considered in the last section.

To the NCFCA’s credit, though their main rationale for keeping theology out of debate was the one discussed in the last section, they did acknowledge the importance of Skill 1 and Skill 2 in the letter:

“First, competitors should be mindful that they are debating in the public square. The judge may not be a Christian and therefore will not necessarily be inclined to think that whoever was “most biblical” should win the round. Although Christians should not shy away from standing on biblical truth in the public square, they should also be aware that for the general public, arguing about who is the most biblical is often irrelevant.

Second, the focus of the value resolution is primarily philosophy, not theology. Although theology will influence philosophy, debaters should stay focused on the philosophical question at hand and not get sidetracked into a theological debate. Therefore, we suggest careful counsel with parents and coaches regarding what the justification would be for using scripture as a warrant or in support of a claim, and we suggest that parents and coaches counsel young people to carefully consider the impact on everyone in the round.”

The moral of the story is this: making theological arguments in debate rounds needn’t be disingenuous, manipulative, or disrespectful. It is, however, a gigantic waste of time, given the skills LD is supposed to foster. If you want to grow as a debater, save theological arguments for apologetics.

Noah McKay is an NCFCA alumnus and a PhD student in philosophy at Purdue University. He has been coaching Lincoln-Douglas debate for seven years.

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