A “red herring” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as:
2. fig. and in figurative contexts. A clue or piece of information which is or is intended to be misleading, or is a distraction from the real question.
In a political context, it is a phrase often used to describe an issue of little real importance that distracts from the real question at hand. When done on purpose, it is a kind of mental slight of hand or rhetorical trick and it has become so commonplace that I don’t think anyone notices it.
Consider my last post about the County Clerk not issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples. She claims she is not handing them out due to her religious beliefs. She has now been found in contempt by a judge for not performing her duties. I’m seeing comments by figures in the Christian religious community saying that the United States is beginning to criminalize Christianity.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In the context of the County Clerk, her religious belief is a troublesome red herring. The issue at hand is that, as an officer of the executive branch, the County Clerk’s job in this instance is to determine if a couple has met the qualifications for marriage according to state law. She is not being asked to perform a marriage, nor is she being asked to agree with a marriage. She is not being asked to perform a moral judgement. Her religious belief is a distraction from the real issue which would be the same even if she were an Atheist.
To illustrate, let us consider absurd alternatives. What if she were refusing to allow a mixed race couple to marry? No one would argue that she had a right to deny them on religious grounds no matter what her religion. What if she were Muslim and refusing to allow a Christian couple to marry because they were not married properly according to her beliefs? Would she be getting support from the same people on the grounds that her 1st amendment rights are being violated? What if she were an Atheist who did not believe in marriage? Can she refuse to issue license to everyone?
If you, dear reader, are a practicing Christian, and you truly want to be a useful member of the body of Christ, learn to identify and ignore red herrings. If you are convinced that homosexuality is wrong according to God, then focus on converting people to Christianity and let God deal with their soul. This is the real issue, not the specific action. Spending your time and energy trying to fight battles that have little or no meaning are what keeps you too tired to keep your hands up in the real fight.
Getting us to focus all of our attention on one thing while other important things are going on somewhere else is how magicians have been fooling people for a very long time. When hot button exciting issues like abortion, prayer in schools, or homosexuality pop up, they drown out all the other conversation. Sometimes Christians (Protestants anyway) forget that all sins are equally bad in the eyes of God and that their distasteful comments and disapproving stares at the teenager who had an abortion are at least as sinful as the abortion itself.
My personal suspicion is that people love to jump on the “big ticket” sin bandwagon whenever there’s a spot available because it lets them feel like they are on the “good team” when they are normally feeling like an outcast. The nut that beats up a homosexual gets to pretend he is doing God’s work. (Of course, since the nut doesn’t know what doing God’s work actually feel like, I don’t suppose they have any way to know the difference?)
Prayer in Schools: red herring. Yep. No one took prayer out of schools. It’s never been in schools legally. Though they may have had prayer in school, performed by school officials in many places (especially down here in the South) long ago when communications were less pervasive, public schools could never have official prayer legally according to the 1st amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; …
It is perfectly legal for students (or teachers) to pray in school. It has always been legal for them to pray in school. It is even legal for them to gather for prayer at certain times in school. It has never been legal for the school to have a prayer. This would violate the 1st amendment.
The End is Near: red herring. The end may, in fact be near. The curtain may fall before I finish this article. But people have been saying “the end is near” every year for the entire 2000 years since Christ’s ascension. It is clear that the disciples that were still there right after He ascended believed that Christ would return any day and certainly while they were still alive. And every generation since then has thought so and written books about why they were different or special and how the end was really near this time.
The World is Getting Worse Then Ever Before: also a red herring, keeping you thinking about how bad the whole problem is instead of what you can do yourself about particular issues. And it’s not true. Statistically, violent crime is down and has been falling in a steady decline since 1991. Abortion peaked in 1980 and has been on a steady decline reaching it’s lowest point in 2011 since it became legal. Teenage pregnancy is half what is was in 1990. The world is not worse. It just sounds worse because only the bad things get our attention. (Info from various places like The Washington Post; Guttmacher Institute; CDC; Dept. Health and Human Services: do your own research I’m not hunting it up for you.)
Creation Science: total red herring. This is a non-issue and complete non-problem for believers. I have no idea how it got whipped up into a live issue for real people. Unless you are an educated cosmologist, or at least have some advanced training in science or some related field, you have no business discussing what is taught in a science class any more than you do how mathematics is taught unless you know advanced mathematics. If you want to chime in on these topics, first get a degree in the appropriate areas, then form an opinion based on reasoned logic, and then you have a right to be heard. Otherwise, pay them no attention. If you are not comfortable with your children being taught science in school, then you should explain to them why you believe the scientists are wrong, but do not expect the scientists to say what you want them to say. This is ridiculous.
There are many, many more. On the whole, when we focus on an issue that has little real value but generates lots of comments, we should look for the force and effect. We should ask ourselves, “what happens if this issue is resolved one way or the other?” Is the Clerk’s refusal to issue a license to a homosexual couple going to get the couple to reconsider their choices? What is the end she is trying to reach?
“Red Herrings” are not red herring themselves. That is, it is not a non-issue that we spend time thinking and talking about non-issues. Our resources in time, money, and energy are limited. Every resource spent fighting an issue that is not a real issue is wasted. We could have spent some of that time or money elsewhere and maybe gotten something for it. Everything comes at a cost and we should consider the price we are paying for what we are getting.