This morning Etiquetteer was drifting casually through his archives and found this query from last year's election cycle that somehow didn't make it into print. So here it is now: Dear Etiquetteer:
We're in an election year, and I'm hearing a lot of rhetoric about the Founding Fathers "original" intentions of founding the United States as a Christian nation. Of course they never had ANY such intention and explicitly excluded all references to Christianity in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The two people to whom I've spoken about this got very belligerent and almost yelled at me about what God wants for this country. So my question is, how on earth can I debate with someone who is so stubborn about their views?
The kind of person it sounds like you've encountered is what Etiquetteer would define as a fanatic. You raise a number of very important issues, but the first and most important thing Etiquetteer can tell you is this: when you go up against a fanatic, you are fated to lose. Fanatics do not listen to reason. Period. So no matter how well-reasoned your argument, they will undoubtedly find a way around it, or a way to use it to reinforce their own views. So choose your battles wisely, and don't expect to change anyone's minds.
Fanatics come in all stripes and embrace all creeds, colors, and dogmas. From conservative Christians who will only be satisfied when America is a Christian theocracy to proponents of cold fusion to boycotters of grapes, every cause has its fanatics. Really, Etiquetteer suggests that you shun these people. Don't engage them in conversation at all. Leave the room. Frequently they melt down under their own frenzy. On the other hand, some might suggest, that's how Adolf Hitler came to power.
If you're really intent on engaging in thoughtful, reasoned discussion, however, Etiquetteer has a few tips. First, and most important, keep calm. Etiquetteer's dear mother has always said "When you lose your temper, you lose your point." And Etiquetteer has seen, time and again, how very true that is. (The corollary Old Saying to this is "Give a man enough rope and he'll hang himself," but that's not something Etiquetteer's dear mother ever said.)
Next, stick to the facts. In the specific example you cite, you can always say "It's interesting you should mention that since the Founding Fathers deliberately excluded reference to Christianity and all other belief systems in the Declaration of Independence. When did you read it last? And what do you think of that?"
Last, but far from least, consider the situation with a sense of humor. Fanatics can be hilarious when they get going! Read some of H.L. Mencken's essays when he refers to the "booboisie" to get in the mood. And keeping your own sense of humor will keep YOU from turning into a fanatic, too.
Etiquetteer will be more than delighted to receive your questions about all sorts manners (and the people who make or break them) at queries_at_etiquetteer_dot_com.