Fallacies of Logic: An Analysis of ABC’s “20/20” View of IFB
By Dr. Charles L. Surrett,
Academic Dean of Ambassador Baptist College
Pastor of Emmanuel Independent Baptist Church
On Friday, April 8, 2011, the ABC television network broadcast, on their weekly “20/20” program, a journalistic view of Independent Fundamental Baptist churches. The conclusion they were trying to reach is that the doctrines of IFB churches lead to physical and sexual abuse, and that such churches should be considered to constitute a cult.
As a college-level teacher of Logic, this writer noted several ways that the fundamental rules of Aristotelian logic were broken by the network and the hostess of the program, Elizabeth Vargas.
One such rule is that “Evidence should be presented as fairly and completely as possible.” The fallacy which breaks that rule is called “special pleading,” which is intentionally presenting favorable evidence to one’s case, while at the same time purposely omitting unfavorable evidence. It is commonly practiced in courtrooms, where attorneys for one side of the argument present only that evidence which is favorable, and attempt to suppress evidence that is unfavorable. This is acceptable in the courtroom, because the whole truth should come out, if both sides do their jobs properly.
However, when ABC’s case was presented, it was totally one-sided, with a great deal of evidence that did not favor their argument being completely ignored. This may be sensational journalism, but it is not fair to present our nation with such a slanted view of those who call themselves Independent Fundamental Baptists. It is neither fair to the IFB churches and constituents, nor fair to the general public.
Elizabeth Vargas said there are currently “hundreds of thousands” of Americans in IFB churches. If we accept that assessment on the lower end of the scale, that should amount to a minimum of about a quarter of a million people in those churches today, and in reality there may be many more. Of that number, ABC showed two cases of young ladies who had allegedly been sexually abused by individuals who were members of IFB churches. If one were to accept that the allegations are true, and take into account that these allegations go back at least thirteen years, no doubt millions of people have gone through IFB churches in that same time frame. It would not be surprising, in any group of that size, to find some instances of abuse, due to the depraved nature of mankind. There was also reference to a website for people who consider themselves “survivors” of IFB churches and their supposed abuse. Nothing was said in the ABC report about the numbers of people whose lives have been dramatically improved as a result of the ministries of these same kinds of churches, such as broken homes repaired, alcoholics and drug addicts changed, children spared from child abuse, and workers becoming productive in society. In addition to the great spiritual work accomplished in these churches, the social implications could be recounted endlessly, with many testimonials presented as documentation. But ABC did not present these facts in their report, because it was not their purpose to balance the nation’s
view of IFB churches. Their agenda was to present the movement in as negative a light as possible, so they purposely practiced the fallacy of “special pleading.”
“Special pleading” was also done in the specific case of Pastor Chuck Phelps and Trinity Baptist Church in Concord, New Hampshire. A number of years after the alleged case of abuse, ABC was able to present a handful of former church members who gave their assessments of what had happened in a public church meeting thirteen years prior. ABC did not seem interested in the viewpoints of the hundreds of others who attended that same church service. ABC was content to accept without challenge the opinions of a very small minority of those who were actual eye-witnesses, and present to the nation that minority report as if it led to the appropriate conclusion.
ABC was also guilty of “special pleading” by failing to present information they had previously been given by both Pastor Phelps and the Christian Law Association, which documented that the Concord police and a social services organization had been told of the situation, which ABC alleges Pastor Phelps tried to “cover up.” The pastor accepted his responsibility by reporting the alleged abuse to the proper authorities, who apparently did not follow through with their responsibilities in the matter. Anyone who wishes documentation of this should consult the website, drchuckphelps.com, where it is clearly seen that ABC knew of this as early as July, 2010. If ABC were desirous of presenting “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” why did they not show Americans an interview of the mother of the teenaged girl who was at the center of the controversy?
Yet another example of “special pleading” was seen in a few short excerpts from sermons presumed (but not documented) to be quotations from pastors of IFB churches. There appeared to be three different pastors whose words were heard, without the contexts of those words being presented. While some of those statements seemed improper, they were not substantiated by Scripture, and were evidently the subjective opinions of those individual pastors. While multitudes of sermons by IFB preachers which are designed to build families, instruct parents in child-rearing, and help young people to avoid sexual disasters could have been cited to give a fairer representation of the IFB churches, ABC chose to omit that significant information.
A second fallacy of logic committed on the “20/20” program is termed, “argumentum ad hominem,” which attempts to disprove reasoning by discrediting the speaker. That is, appealing to a speaker’s undesirable traits is substituted for dealing with the substance of his reasoning. In ABC’s case, the attempt is to “disprove” the entire doctrinal position of thousands of IFB churches by noting undesirable characteristics of a few individuals. Thinking people can see through this kind of fallacious reporting.
A third rule of logic that ABC violated in this report states that, “nothing is true simply because a human being said so.” The statements of those who disapproved of IFB churches was accepted without challenge, despite the fact that “hundreds of thousands” (ABC’s term) of others would be likely to give opposing views.
A fourth rule of logic broken by ABC says that, “emotion is not an acceptable substitute for proof.” While emotion can be used to supplement proof, it cannot legitimately substitute for it. The network showed the tears of the two young ladies who opposed the IFB churches, but not the tears of those pastors, parents, and others who had given of themselves to help them. There was also an obvious attempt to play upon the emotions of viewers, to make up for the lack of complete information in these cases.
Logic was abused in the ABC report when they used limited observation to draw firm conclusions. The selected examples of two or three objectionable portions of sermons and two cases of sexual impropriety were intended to “broad brush” all who consider themselves to be Independent Fundamental Baptists as being susceptible, either as perpetrators or as victims, to physical and sexual abuse. There was an unveiled attempt to “warn” Americans against involvement in IFB churches. In addition to being very faulty logic, this is grossly unjustifiable and misleading.
The overall purpose of ABC’s “20/20” program on April 8, 2011 was to foist yet another fallacy of logic upon the American people. Using the “guilt by association” method, ABC seemed to indict all of the “hundreds of thousands” of IFB church members and their pastors, because they choose to identify themselves as Independent Fundamental Baptists. Perhaps ABC should be reminded of what the word “independent” means. It means that there is no organic connection between the churches they are attacking. There is not one standard doctrinal statement, nor are there universal standards of dress, music, and entertainment that apply to all IFB churches. Without an organic connection, no one individual, church, or group of churches has control over what others with similar doctrinal positions do or say. If all of the allegations against these specific churches were to be accepted as absolute truth (and that is by no means agreed to here), it still would not be a reflection upon other IFB churches, because there is no regulatory or disciplinary power that one IFB church has over any other. In similar fashion, it would be unfair to attack ABC news on the basis of abuses found in other news sources that are not affiliated with their network. ABC would not want to be held responsible for what is disseminated by every tabloid, blog, newspaper, magazine, radio or television station or network, and be condemned for abuses found in them. That kind of unfair treatment would certainly be analogous to what ABC has tried to do to IFB churches.
The “guilt by association” attempt was furthered when ABC allowed IFB churches to be represented as a cult. An article in the World Book Encyclopedia, from 1985, Volume 4, p 941, gives the following explanation in their article on “cults,” under the subtitle of “Characteristics of Cults”:
“Traditionally, the term cult referred to any form of worship or ritual observance, or even to any group of persons pursuing common goals. But publicity about cults since the middle 1900’s has given the term a more specific meaning. Today, cults tend to follow a living leader who promotes new and occult (strange and mysterious) doctrines and practices. Most leaders demand that members live apart from everyday society in groups called communes. Leaders claim that they possess exclusive religious truth, and they command absolute obedience and allegiance from members. Many cults require that members contribute all their possessions to the group.”
Since we today are well past the middle of the 1900’s, the current concept of the term, “cult,” takes upon the latter, more negative connotation, and should be examined, to see if IFB churches qualify. There is no “living leader,” except for the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and IFB churches could hardly be blamed for following Him! Since these churches follow a Bible that is ancient, their doctrines cannot be called “new,” or “strange and mysterious.” They do not live in communes, nor do they require people to contribute all their possessions. Their “exclusive religious truth” is not of their own subjective invention, but is extended to all who will accept the Bible as authoritative. Although there are some that demand more from their members than do others, it is not even close to the truth to assert that all IFB churches “command absolute obedience.” Each individual local church should be judged upon its own merits. Therefore, since IFB churches do not have any of the characteristics of a cult, it is dishonest and unfair to label them as such.
ABC seemed content, rather than using any clear standards for defining a cult, to allow a small group of people in a room to verbalize that they think IFB churches constitute a cult. Without any real evidence, then, the assessment of an extremely small minority is taken as an indictment against “hundreds of thousands” of people. Merely stating that some think IFB is a cult does not make it so! But then, that is another fallacy, called “begging the question.”
Instead of being wary of what they might hear in an Independent Fundamental Baptist church, as the “20/20” article so obviously intended, thinking people should become more wary of what they hear on ABC!