Having yesterday expressed my bafflement at a genre of article after an instantiation thereof appeared at First Things, let me commend R. R. Reno’s “God Terms in Public Life.” It’s not what I thought. It’s better than that.
Every culture thrills to its favored words or concepts. In The Ethics of Rhetoric, Richard Weaver dubbed them “god terms.” They’re the argument-ending, conclusive words that we find intrinsically persuasive because they express our deep prejudices about what’s good and true and beautiful.
Weaver wrote The Ethics of Rhetoric after World War II. The god terms in his day were “progressive,” “democratic,” “scientific,” and so forth. If a local school board was unsure about changes introduced by the recently hired district head, he could reassure them with these god terms. “Our goal with this new plan is to provide the children of Muscatine with a progressive, scientifically-designed curriculum that draws on the very best of our democratic traditions.”
Changed god terms signal changes in culture. For example, the value of “scientific” has declined. Today’s brand managers are far more likely to describe a new toothpaste or shaving cream as “organic” than “scientifically proven.” Agricultural scientists and developmental economists can make excellent arguments about the virtues of genetically modified seeds. They allow increase yields while reducing the use of fertilizers, pesticides, etc. But the god term sweeps all these considerations away. Organic is good; its opposite is bad. Therefore genetically modified foods must be prohibited. QED.
Among todays God terms are “equality,” as in:
If you find that offensive, blame me for the example, not Reno, and go enjoy a thought-provoking angle on a chronic human condition.
* * * * *
“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)