In his newest book Histories and Fallacies: Problems Faced in the Writing of History, Carl Trueman presents two versions of the genetic fallacy in action. Interestingly, they both are used by Christians to support their view of our nation, but perhaps not surprisingly, for different ends.
In case you’re a bit rusty on what the genetic fallacy is, it is “the error of allowing the origins of something to determine its current nature or meaning” (pg. 158). The first example Trueman himself admits is easy to resonate with:
I confess to having a particular soft spot for this fallacy because it is such a useful stick with which to beat the Americans, and no Englishman trapped in the former colonies should ever miss an opportunity to do that. (pg. 158).
As you might have already known, Trueman is British but is currently on faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He goes on to describe this particular version of the genetic fallacy:
Thus, I am always happy to remind American friends that, when things go wrong in the States, or politicians are shown to be venal and corrupt, this is exactly what one should expect from a nation which, in terms of its origins, is the result of an illegal colonial rebellion, orchestrated by a gang of rabble-rousers who had no respect for the established, legal, and God-given authorities set over them. A nation born in such circumstances is doomed to be a mess (pg. 158).
Interestingly, I’ve found myself thinking this at times and often you may hear this kind of sentiment expressed by people reacting to the Religious Right and the identification of America as either “the” Christian nation, or somehow a nation chosen by God analogous in some way to the relationship the nation of Israel had in the Old Testament (although never quite directly described that, at least not anymore).
Where it gets even more interesting is that those who typically argue for a special status being attributed to America are also guilty of a genetic fallacy:
Take, for example, the most radical wings of the Christian America movement where the argument is (pace my own favored use of the genetic fallacy) that America was founded by men motivated by and large by their commitment to the Christian faith and their desire to build a Christian nation. Thus, America was and is – or at least, ought to be – a Christian nation, and her founding documents embody Christian virtues. This leads to interpretations of the present that can engage in simply in anachronistic value judgments on actions and events; or perhaps in a more sinister way, connect America to events in biblical prophecy, God’s providential plans for the world, etc (pg 159).
Notice how in both of these cases, there is a real historical basis at the beginning of the argument. The first is framed somewhat negatively, but let’s admit it, America is in some way founded on rebellion. The colonists in many ways had it much better here than they did in England, and they did rebel against the authorities God had placed over them. But on the flipside of the coin, they didn’t particularly think of what they were doing as ungodly rebellion but did think they were founding a Christian nation based on Christian virtues. As Trueman notes, it can be debated how distinctively Chrisitian some of those virtues are, but nonetheless from the founding fathers’ writings at least we can see they at least intended to frame what they were doing in that way.
In both cases though the fallacy is moving from a historical reality to then explaining the present in a way that is bound to that reality. Because x was true in the past, therefore we should continue to expect y to be true in the present and the future. However the burden of proof in writing history or making historical pronouncements is demonstrating the causality of that past event to the present circumstances. To just posit that it is the case is what constitutes the genetic fallacy.
Trueman had a lot of interesting things to say in this book, and if you are interested in reading history, you ought to take the chance to read this new book. I’ll offer a little more extended review of it tomorrow.