Proof Texting the ACA
I, like many of you, read a lot of commentary on yesterday’s Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act. I was struck by the complaints from the opponents. They seemed strangely familiar. It finally hit me why. I have for many years read the same sorts of arguments on the Bible. These people are proof texting the ACA.
Proof texting is the bastard grandchild of the Reformation. The Reformation critique of the Catholic church was that it had, over the previous millennium and a half, attached a bunch of extra stuff to itself, like barnacles accreting to the hull of a ship. It was time to scrape them off. But how to distinguish true doctrine from the extra stuff? The Bible was accepted as the authority: hence Sola Scriptura.
They initially and naively thought that this was sufficient: that any educated person of good will would read the Bible and come to the same answers to all important questions. That didn’t work out so well. An important division was over the nature of the eucharist: the real presence of Christ versus symbolic remembrance. There is a story that Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli had a meeting to try to work through this. Luther set a placard on the table in front of him with the words “This is my body” (presumably in Latin), a Biblical text from the Last Supper. The meeting didn’t go well, and the rift exists to this day.
Luther’s use of that snippet of text was shorthand. He and Zwingli were both educated men who knew the Bible and knew the issues and the arguments pro and con. Luther was making an initial position statement, using that snippet to stand in for a much longer discussion, as Zwingli understood full well. It is like the old joke about the retired comics’ home, where the residents know all the jokes so well that they assign them numbers, and make each other laugh by calling out the number. (A visitor tries this, calling out “29!” Dead silence follows. Then one of them says “Well, you know, some people just can’t tell a joke.”)
Proof texting looks very much like this, but is the dumbed down version. The snippet doesn’t stand in for a much longer and sophisticated argument. It is the argument. The way this works in practice is you have a position that you want to claim is “Biblical,” so you comb through the Bible looking for some verse that seems to support your position. It need not actually do so, because you aren’t reading the verse that comes before it or the verse that comes after. You aren’t looking at the entire book it comes from, working to discern the point the writer was making. You certainly aren’t looking at it within the overall arc of the relationship between God and humans as revealed in scripture. You simply find a snippet that looks good, and declare that this proves your position.
The implied premise is that the Bible is a collection snippets, each one a self-contained proposition, and each one TRVTH. The beauty of this technique is that you can prove anything you want. The Bible is in reality an anthology of literature written over the course of centuries, with books of different genres and different purposes, and in some cases holding a debate with other books. Even if you were paying attention to the argument the writer was making, it would be easy to find support for any number of contradictory positions. Lower your standards down to pure proof texting, and it is trivial to “prove” anything you want.
The argument in King v. Burwell is just such pure proof texting. Opponents to the ACA searched through the text to find a snippet that, taken out of context, seemed to support their position. All the indignant huffing and puffing at the ruling is the same as the huffing and puffing we get in the church: Words have meaning! This snippet of text I have dredged up and yanked out of context is perfectly clear! You pointy-headed liberals are denying clear TRVTH!
feh. This is barely fit for the kiddie table. The adults are trying to hold an adult conversation.