The Mess of Politics: Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good

Controversy over two incredibly hot-button issues has spread over the Internet in the past few days, in one instance pertaining to the remarks of a prominent Republican senate candidate (and graduate of Covenant Seminary, the official seminary of the Presbyterian Church in America), and in another (less known) incident pertaining to the remarks of a prominent Reformed theologian. While in many ways the two instances are quite different, the controversies associated with each highlights a deeper reason for contention within Reformed and Evangelical circles: disagreement about where the line is between a moral stance that cannot be compromised and a prudential concession necessary in service of a higher good.

The first instance, the remarks of Missouri Congressman Todd Akin regarding “legitimate rape,” arises out of a longstanding tension within the pro-life movement. Should pro-life activists in general, and the Republican Party in particular, advocate the abolition of all abortions without exception, or does it make sense for Republicans to press instead for a policy that would ban all abortions except in cases of rape or incest? Should those in politics press for the gold standard of justice, at the expense perhaps of failure, or should they press for something less than perfect, though something ultimately achievable and far better than the status quo?

The second instance involves the suggestion of a Reformed theologian that a Christian might conceivably grant a place for civil unions to protect certain economic or civil rights, while adamantly opposing same-sex marriage or any dilution of the traditional institution of marriage. Should those concerned to defend traditional marriage, in other words, insist on the gold standard of no government recognition of homosexual relationships, at the risk of losing the whole struggle by virtue of alienating moderates, or should they concede the possibility of an institutional arrangement that is less than ideal in order to preserve what is most important, the sanctity of marriage?

There are some who are aghast at any suggestion that these are even open questions. Abortion is clearly unjust, and so we should only ever advocate policies that would ban it 100% of the time (except perhaps when it is necessary to save the life of the mother and the child would die anyway). Homosexuality is clearly evil and destructive, so we should never tolerate policies that even acknowledge the existence of homosexual relationships. To compromise on policy, for such people, is necessarily to compromise on principle.

Of course, there are others who find this mindset fearfully naive. Is it really the case that it is better not to win any ground at all on the abortion issue, then to achieve the passage of an abortion law that eliminates almost all abortion, while leaving certain unfortunate loopholes? Is it really true that it is better to lose the battle over marriage entirely than to have civil unions that grant certain economic or legal benefits to persons who are not married? What if those civil unions recognize partnerships regardless of whether they are sexual or not? What if they recognize close bonds between fathers and sons, or between two sisters, or even between roommates and friends who have no sexual relationship?

Then, of course, there are those who are sure in their opposition to homosexuality and to abortion, who even have strong opinions regarding the appropriate way for government to respond to these problems, and yet who acknowledge that however clear the moral principles may be, good Christians are bound to disagree regarding the various policy proposals available. In short, they recognize that policy is not the same thing as morality (though they are inextricably related), and that good Christians who agree on basic moral principles might legitimately disagree on the way in which those moral principles should be advanced or preserved in concrete policy.

Let me offer a simple example. In the antebellum South there was no support for the complete abolition of slavery. Even those who desired the abolition of slavery recognized that it was impossible because of economic constraints as well as of widespread public opinion. Nevertheless, in the early 19th Century various proposals were introduced calling for the gradual abolition of slavery, or for better laws preventing the abuse of slaves by their masters. Should Christians opposed to racial slavery have opposed these “gradual” laws because they were not perfect? Or should they have supported them because they made the situation better than it might otherwise be?

The problem with opposing compromises of this sort is that it often polarizes political debate to the point that makes genuine progress impossible. If the only options are abortion-on-demand or no abortion, this country is sure to remain committed to the former option. But if increased restrictions on abortion is a possible option, then we might move the debate in the right direction. Of course, the argument for civil unions is a bit different. It is hard to argue that civil unions move the homosexuality debate in the right direction, and at best adopting civil unions serves to prevent something worse from occurring. But it may well be the case that the vast majority of Americans would support preserving the traditional character of marriage if civil unions are made available to various other kinds of partnerships, including but not restricted to sexual relationships.

But my main point is that all of these decisions are about strategy and prudence, not principle. And it would be inappropriate for me to bind the conscience of another Christian (or of the church) in areas of prudence and wisdom. I may think my fellow Christian who insists on making the Republican Party platform reject all abortions without exception is naive politically, but I can hardly accuse him of being unfaithful to Christ if his conscience dictates his position. On the other hand, I may think my fellow Christian who is open to the establishment of civil unions is misguided about the implications of such an establishment, but if he is clear in his opposition to homosexuality and in his support for traditional marriage, yet maintains his support for civil unions for various economic or related reasons, I can hardly judge his position as being out of line with fidelity to Christianity.

What we need to be clear on, as Christians, is that often our disagreements are about policy or politics, strategy or circumstances, and not about theology or fidelity to Christ. We need to be careful not to judge one another when this is the case.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on August 22, 2012, in Abortion, Marriage, Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Mess of Politics: Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.

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