Category Archives: Abortion
In his comments on the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” John Calvin writes, “The purport of this commandment is that since the Lord has bound the whole human race by a kind of unity, the safety of all ought to be considered as entrusted to each.” As creatures made in God’s image, we are called to do whatever is required to “defend the life of our neighbor; to promote whatever tends to his tranquility, to be vigilant in warding off harm, and, when danger comes, to assist in removing it” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.8.39).
Calvin’s explanation highlights what the Christian tradition has often referred to as the commitment of “solidarity.” The sixth commandment, according to Christian teaching, does not merely prohibit outright violence. It calls us to do everything in our power to protect and preserve human life. Calvin puts it quite strongly: “if you do not according to your means and opportunity study to defend his safety, by that inhumanity you violate the law” (2.8.40). Note Calvin’s use of the word study. This is not simply a casual obligation. Unless we study and work, as individuals and collectively, to do all that we can to ensure the safety of our neighbors, we are guilty of inhumanity.
The Heidelberg Catechism teaches the same interpretation of the sixth commandment in Lord’s Day 40. The prohibition of murder not only means that I am not to “belittle, insult, hate, or kill my neighbor – not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds.” It also requires that I love my neighbor as myself, being “patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly to him,” and that I “protect him from harm as much as [I] can.” I am neither to harm or “recklessly endanger” a person made in the image of God.
In short, the catechism calls us not merely to be reactive against threats to the sanctity of life. We must be proactive in fostering the conditions necessary for life. We do this only when we stand in solidarity with one another in love, mercy, and friendship.
The Heidelberg Catechism makes it quite clear that these obligations do not merely fall upon human beings as individuals. On the contrary, government is armed with the sword for this very purpose: “Prevention of murder.” It is striking that the catechism does not merely say – as some Christians have said – that government is given the sword to punish those guilty of murder. It calls the government to use its power to prevent murder from happening in the first place. Government, too, is called to be proactive, not merely reactive. Indeed, protecting and promoting the sanctity of human life is the primary reason why we have coercive government at all.
Catholic theologians have described Christian teaching as protecting the sanctity of life as a “seamless garment” from conception to the grave. Protestant ethicists have emphasized the need for Christians to hold to a “consistent ethic of life.” This has several important implications.
Read the rest of this article here.
My (sort of) colleague at Calvin College, Micah Watson, has written an excellent piece at Public Discourse reminding pro-life human rights supporters why they should never support federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Watson explains why certain practices should never be accepted or promoted based on the values of principled pluralism, even though principled pluralism is good and necessary for liberal democracy. As he puts it,
Any morally acceptable pluralism will have to draw lines somewhere, excluding some groups while including others…. Our pluralism is broad indeed in the legal sense, as our commitments to freedom of association and freedom of speech extend to a host of groups with which no morally decent person should associate. Government funding, however, is a different matter. Government funding sends a positive message that the government’s partner in this or that venture is a reliable organization promoting the public good. Whatever complexity abides in some gray areas of public policy, as Ryan T. Anderson and Robert P. George write in the Harvard Health Policy Review, there simply is no understanding of the public good that can include funding organizations that perform and profit from the deliberate taking of innocent human life.
It’s an excellent piece, and one that will help us think more carefully about what we try to justify on the basis of principled pluralism. For instance, a growing number of Christians argue that the church should accept same-sex civil marriage as a legitimate expression of principled pluralism (see one report soon to be discussed by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church here).
As Watson demonstrates, however, if pluralism is to remain principled, it must have its limits. Ever since the Apostle Peter declared that “we must obey God rather than men,” (Acts 5:29), Christians have maintained that government’s authority ends precisely where it actively promotes injustice or immorality. It is one thing for government to tolerate slavery, abortion, adultery, poverty, or same-sex sexual relationships, for instance; it is another thing entirely for government to promote such phenomena. And whatever the government does, the church must continue to proclaim the justice and righteousness of the kingdom.
Watson is not writing about the church, per se, but he makes a strong argument that those who support the human right to life should insist that federal funding for abortion is outside the bounds of principled pluralism. You can read his whole piece here.
This is great news from the General Conference of the United Methodist Church yesterday. The UMC has repealed its forty year support for Roe v. Wade and for the pro-abortion Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
The UMC has never been as theologically “progressive” as other mainline denominations, but this sort of shift doesn’t happen by itself. It is the result of decades of hard work by faithful Methodists who never gave up on the denomination, despite all of its missteps over the years.
Conservative Christians often tell a narrative where denominations only decline, usually due to a leftward shift. It is a narrative of pessimistic resignation, one in which the only appropriate response to theological or ecclesiastical error is to split and start a new denomination. But Christ’s church remains Christ’s church, against which the gates of Hades will not prevail (Matthew 16:18).
This is why unity, hope, fidelity, and hard work remain our call wherever God has placed us. Kudos to those Methodists who never gave up.
Pope Francis’s visit to the United States has reminded Americans of the vital and positive role of religion in a healthy democratic polity. While pundits speculate on whether or not the pope’s visit will have any practical effect on politics, I remain hopeful that his words will do something to challenge the myth – popular among secularist liberals – that liberal democracy can survive without its religious foundation.
This is important because in a time when the numbers of the religiously unaffiliated (the “nones”) are surging, fewer and fewer people grasp just how theological are the origins and foundations of political liberalism. My politics students are always surprised to learn how central religion was to the political commitments and conduct of America’s founding generation, not to mention its pervasive role in federal and state governments throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The pope touched on liberalism’s dependence on religion early in his speech to Congress. Invoking Moses as both jurist and prophet, he declared to the representatives that “the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”
Echoing a speech by President Obama several months ago, he acknowledged that religion is often used for evil, but insisted that in America religion has typically served to strengthen society by encouraging fraternity and love. Thus he called Americans to act according to the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This rule, he argued, is the basis for human compassion for “human life at every stage of its development.”
Francis’s speech to the United Nations was even more pointed. While praising the UN for its role in promoting international law and human rights, he reminded his international audience that human rights depend on sanctity given each human being by God. The right to life provides the foundation for “pillars of integral human development” that are “essential material and spiritual goods: housing, dignified and properly remunerated employment, adequate food and drinking water; religious freedom and, more generally, spiritual freedom and education.”
There is, he claimed, “a moral law written into human nature” that demands “absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions.” Thus, he warned,
Without the recognition of certain incontestable natural ethical limits and without the immediate implementation of those pillars of integral human development, the ideal of ‘saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war’ (Charter of the United Nations, Preamble), and ‘promoting social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom’ (ibid.), risks becoming an unattainable illusion, or, even worse, idle chatter which serves as a cover for all kinds of abuse and corruption, or for carrying out an ideological colonization by the imposition of anomalous models and lifestyles which are alien to people’s identity and, in the end, irresponsible.
The pope was partly thinking about what nature teaches about the differences between men and women here, but he was also talking about the importance of protecting the environment.
[E]very creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures. We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it.
Thus it is a “certain sacredness of created nature” that calls modernity to embrace a “higher degree of wisdom, one which accepts transcendence, rejects the creation of an all-powerful elite, and recognizes that the full meaning of individual and collective life is found in selfless service to others and in the sage and respectful use of creation for the common good.”
Finally, returning to his American audience at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pope Francis invoked the truth of the Declaration of Independence that “all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that governments exist to protect and defend those rights.”
Yet rather than allow his hearers any sort of complacency about the rights to which liberalism is committed, the pope reminded Americans that “these or any truths must constantly be reaffirmed, re-appropriated and defended.” This led him to focus his speech on a right that has been much derided in recent years in this country, the right to religious freedom.
Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families. Religious freedom isn’t a subculture, it’s a part of every people and nation.
Our various religious traditions serve society primarily by the message they proclaim. They call individuals and communities to worship God, the source of all life, liberty and happiness. They remind us of the transcendent dimension of human existence and our irreducible freedom in the face of every claim to absolute power. We need but look at history, especially the history of the last century, to see the atrocities perpetrated by systems which claimed to build one or another ‘earthly paradise’ by dominating peoples, subjecting them to apparently indisputable principles and denying them any kind of rights… They call to conversion, reconciliation, concern for the future of society, self-sacrifice in the service of the common good, and compassion for those in need. At the heart of their spiritual mission is the proclamation of the truth and dignity of the human person and human rights.
To be sure, just as the state is responsible to protect the rights of religion, so believers are responsible to ensure that religion promotes the rights of others, “to make clear that it is possible to build a society where ‘a healthy pluralism which respects differences and values them as such’ is a ‘precious ally in the commitment to defending human dignity … and a path to peace in our troubled world.'”
These are salutary words indeed, much needed in the polarized world of contemporary American politics. Though I wish the pope had been more explicit about the way in which his convictions are rooted in the Gospel, his visit should remind all Americans, secular and religious alike, that, properly understood, Christianity and political liberalism are not enemies, but friends. In the world in which we live, they need one another to flourish.
I fear for future of American Christians if this country loses its liberal commitment to fundamental human rights, including the right of religious freedom, but I fear for the future of political liberalism even more. Pope Francis has reminded Christians that they ought to promote a Christian form of liberalism and he has reminded America and the world that political liberalism needs religion. I hope that Christians and liberals alike are paying attention.
The New York Times reports today that the Democratic Party across the country is erasing its ties with its founders. No longer will the annual party dinners commemorate Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson (as the Republican dinners commemorate Abraham Lincoln). The party wants to be more inclusive, and according to former Democratic Congressman Barney Frank, this is an honest nod to the fact that the politics of racial and sexual identity now trumps the classic Democratic emphases on democracy and economic equality.
Both Jefferson and Jackson were slave-owners, of course, and Jackson played a leading role in the forced removal of thousands of Native Americans from the southeast.
The commemoration of Jefferson and Jackson is as old as the Democratic Party, but it was Franklin D. Roosevelt who sought to mold the party’s image indelibly around them. Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence’s ringing celebration of human equality, and Jackson, the inspiration of modern democracy and the common man, were seen as powerful alternatives to the Republicans’ Lincoln in a time when FDR was trying to forge a coalition of farmers and working class Americans across the country.
But the opportunities facing the Democrats have changed. Now, while the Republican Party becomes increasingly white, the Democratic Party grows in diversity. Given the way in which identity shapes voting patterns, this is not good news for the Republicans. It may seem odd that a major American party would cut its ties with the founding fathers (If the Democrats have their way does America eventually erase Jefferson, Jackson – and Washington too – off its currency? Do the memorials go?), but partisan politics is about the present, not the past. In short, this is predictable.
But what is especially important about this shift is its symbolic meaning. You might think the erasing of ties to Jefferson and Jackson is fundamentally about their role as slave-holders, but the real meaning has just as much to do with the Democratic Party’s rejection of natural law. Remember, again, the words of Jefferson, once thought to be immortal, enshrined in America’s founding document:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
From whence do these rights – this equality – derive? From “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” as the previous paragraph declares.
It is no accident that the rejection of Jefferson follows only a few years after the Democratic Party committed itself to gay marriage. The establishment of gay marriage represents the culmination of a fifty-year long shift on the part of the Supreme Court – one enthusiastically supported by the Democratic Party – away from any sort of grounding of human rights and civil law in the laws of nature and nature’s God. Natural rights are out; civil rights are the rage. Natural law is dead; civil law is supreme. Given that morality has no objective reality to it – it is a human invention, not a reflection of a Creator’s purpose for creation – it can only be grounded in subjective reality: individual autonomy.
As Justice Kennedy wrote in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, “liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct.” Based upon this “autonomy of self” citizens have no right to use the democratic process to discourage, let alone criminalize, acts they deem fundamentally immoral. But as Robert R. Reilly points out, this formulation is unusual.
Why did Justice Kennedy not simply say that liberty includes these freedoms, or, … that liberty itself is rooted in unalienable God-given rights? Why the presumption of ‘an autonomy of self’ as the supposed foundation for it? What does this mean?
What it means is that the whole trajectory of the Supreme Court’s reasoning about matters of morality during the past 50 years – a span that encompasses the Court’s determination that an adult’s right to privacy (i.e., autonomy) trumps an unborn child’s right to life – constitutes a rejection of the very doctrine of natural rights and natural law that the founding fathers viewed as the foundation for human happiness. The Democratic Party may as well announce that it is erasing its ties with the Declaration of Independence in favor of a new commitment to the autonomy of self.
We have been here before, of course. When it embraced the infamous Dred Scott decision (which ran roughshod over natural rights in declaring that black people are not, in fact, persons at all) on the eve of the Civil War, the Democratic Party engaged in a short-lived experiment to see if a racist will to power could become the foundation for American government. Abraham Lincoln responded by appealing to Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration that all men are created equal, words that he said were prior in authority to the Constitution itself.
Lincoln recognized that while the founding fathers had their flaws (slavery!), it was in the doctrine of the founders that the purpose of America could be realized. The founders got a lot wrong, but they got the most important things right: natural law, equality, human rights as derived from the Creator, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Democrats’ determination to be a party of diversity and inclusion is laudable (and one that the Republicans desperately need to emulate!), but this is not the way to do it.
The Democrats’ desire to erase their party’s ties with Jefferson and Jackson is significant because it constitutes a symbolic rejection of the men who articulated and sought to embrace the self-evident principles of the laws of nature and nature’s God. This is not liberalism. It is the abandonment of liberalism. That’s tragic for the Democratic Party and it is very bad news for America.
Last week I highlighted the horror of euthanasia in Belgium, where physicians are now responsible for 5% of all deaths. This week we have the horror in America of a federally funded organization selling the body parts of aborted babies on the sly. You can watch the chilling video here.
As I argued last week, this is the product of a form of liberalism that emphasizes the dignity, not of every human being, but of every “person” who has developed to the point of relative self-sufficiency by virtue of the integrity of his or her autonomy. The unborn obviously do not qualify here. This sort of liberalism also increasingly denies that human beings have any obligations toward their creator. As long as you don’t hurt another person you are free to do what you want, even to another human being. This is Secularist Liberalism.
Selling body parts has a particular horror to it, but it is really no more abhorrent than the murder of the unborn is to begin with. An inconsistent society desires to permit the latter, while banning the former, but there will always be a few consistent individuals who are determined to push the limits. Is it an accident that the Huffington Post chooses this week to run an article claiming that 95% of women who have abortions do not regret it?
This presents all the more occasion for Christians to advocate a different kind of liberalism, one rooted in the Christian tradition. As I wrote last week,
Christian Liberalism emphasizes the dignity of every single individual human being by virtue of his or her creation in the image of God. Human life is sacred, according to Christian Liberalism, because each human being has been created in love for a relationship with God. Not only should each person’s life and welfare be protected and promoted, but each person should be taught how to find happiness in relationship to a loving God. Regardless of a person’s worldly circumstances, Christianity teaches, she can find her true destiny in Christ, in whom there is no male nor female, neither slave nor free, neither Jew nor Greek.
According to this ethic euthanasia and abortion are off limits and should be prohibited by the state. Institutions and practices fundamental to human well-being – such as marriage, education, religion, health care, and care for the poor – should be promoted.
This sort of liberalism still has currency. The more Secularist Liberalism leads modern western society into a moral dystopia, the more concerned citizens will be open to the Christian alternative. In short, we increasingly have unprecedented opportunities to draw the estranged back to the gospel by witnessing to the creation of every single human being in the image of God.
Christian political activists from across the political spectrum sometimes speak and act as if Christians should brook no compromise with the state on the particular issue with which they are concerned. Whether the issue is sustenance for the poor, protection for the unborn, the punishment of what scripture calls sexual immorality, or something else, the argument is made that on this point there can be no compromise: A Christian cannot vote for a libertarian or a Tea party candidate, or for a pro-choice politician, or for a politician who supports gay rights, etc. So the argument runs. I suppose we are all supposed to write in our favored names, be it Jim Wallis, Pat Robertson, or Doug Wilson.
It is certainly true that when it comes to proclamation and witness Christians should preach the whole will of God. As Timothy P. Jackson points out, no faithful Christian would willingly sacrifice fidelity to God to her own political or personal interests. We are disciples of Christ first and foremost. A Christian pastor is obligated prophetically to proclaim the whole word of God.
But that doesn’t mean civil government should enforce the whole will and word of God, as the great Christian theologians from Augustine to Aquinas to Calvin have all recognized. Unlike Judaism or Islam, Christianity offers no divine blueprint for politics. It sharply delineates the kingdom of Christ from political authority, the restorative ministry of the gospel from the limited preservative power of civil government, and divine law from human law. To put it another way, Christian theologians distinguish the perfect standard of God’s natural moral law from the way in which Christians, in service to their neighbors, apply that law to politics according to the virtues of love and prudence (not to be mistaken for self-serving pragmatism). As Jacques Ellul put it,
“Our task, therefore, is not to determine what law with a Christian content is; rather, it is to find out what the lordship of Jesus Christ means for law (law as it exists), and what function God has assigned to law.”
All of this may sound an awful lot like moral relativism. Wouldn’t it be best simply to advocate the implementation of the law of God, come what may? In fact, John Calvin pointed out, even the law of God itself, the Torah, limited the civil enforcement of God’s will to what sinful human beings could be expected to fulfill. Its severity was relaxed due to the hardness of human hearts, and it even regulated unjust practices in order to minimize their destructive consequences.
OK, you might think, we all know that civil government can’t enforce certain laws, such as the prohibition of coveting, or lust, and that Israel’s laws tolerated things like slavery. But surely government must enforce the big prohibitions, like the ones against murder, adultery, or theft, without compromise. In fact, Calvin recognized the limits of Israel’s civil law even here. The prototypical case was the Torah’s law of divorce, which Jesus himself said is ordinarily unjust even though Moses tolerated and regulated it due to the hardness of human hearts. But Calvin extended the principle to a myriad of other laws in the Torah, including laws that tolerated adultery, murder, and the abuse of slaves, that he believed failed to measure up to the standards of God’s natural law. These include:
- the law that permitted men to enslave and force into marriage women captured in war (Commentary on Deuteronomy 21:10)
- the law that minimized the penalty for a man who committed adultery with a slave (Commentary on Leviticus 19:20-22)
- the law that permitted soldiers to murder prisoners of war (Commentary on Deuteronomy 20:12)
- the law that permitted a man to sell his daughter into slavery (Commentary on Exodus 21:7-11)
- the law that permitted a slave to divorce his wife in order to attain his freedom (Commentary on Exodus 21:1)
- the law that minimized the penalty for slave-owners who mistreated their slaves (Commentary on Exodus 21:26)
- the law that tolerated and regulated polygamy (Commentary on Leviticus 18:18)
In all of these cases Calvin argues that although the conduct in question was patently unjust, God nevertheless tolerated it due to the hardness of human hearts, and even provided for its regulation in Israel’s civil law. His point is not to defend these laws. On the contrary, Calvin is more than willing to suggest that the Torah’s civil laws can and should be improved upon by in the laws of nations. The objective is not to seek the lowest common denominator, but to recognize that there are limits on what the state can do and should try to do. While the gospel may accomplish what is impossible for human beings, politics remains the art of the possible.
All of this suggests that many Christians would do well to reconsider their dogmatism when it comes to contemporary American politics. The questions facing citizens and politicians alike are complex. It is no easy matter to determine what forms of injustice or immorality government should tolerate, let alone how it should regulate them to minimize abuse. It is not always easy to determine which politicians hold their convictions about the limits of law in good faith.
Christians desperately seek certainty in these matters, but when it comes to politics certainty is a luxury. Here we do not have a clear divine blueprint for law or policy. Here we are in the arena of the virtues of love, prudence, and humility, which each person must seek to put on, in conformity to the image of Christ, as best she can, in good conscience.
In the meantime, Christians must remember that what the state is able to accomplish is not the limit of what human beings are expected to fulfill, let alone what the church should proclaim. Christ demands perfect justice and holiness from all human beings, in every area of life, and it is to that standard that he will hold us all accountable when he comes to judge the living and the dead. “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
The United States has some of the most permissive abortion laws in the world. Contrary to popular belief, even many western European countries are much more restrictive of abortion after the first trimester than is the United States. For instance, both Germany and France ban abortion after 14 weeks, while Sweden bans abortion after 18 weeks. In contrast, the United States Supreme Court declared in a series of rulings beginning in 1973 (Roe v. Wade) that states cannot restrict a woman’s right to have an abortion before the child is viable (around 24 weeks).
But times may be changing. Amid signs that the potentially pivotal justice on the Supreme Court, Anthony Kennedy, is open to a more liberal approach to protecting the rights of the unborn, a dozen states (as well as the U.S. House of Representatives) have passed laws banning abortion after 20 weeks. These laws would still be much more permissive of abortion than is the case in Germany, France, or Sweden, and they remain well behind American public opinion, but they nevertheless move the debate in a direction that would once have been inconceivable. And yes, protecting the right to life is indeed a liberal cause, if liberalism is rightly defined in terms of the “freedom of the individual and governmental guarantees of individual rights and liberties.”
What is making the difference? Americans are becoming increasingly (if slowly) more pro-life, in part due to growing conviction that unborn children are, in fact, persons. As the New York Times pointed out in an article on Thursday, part of the reason for this is new yet still controversial evidence that a fetus experiences pain as early after 20 weeks. The Times reports:
With these bills, the anti-abortion movement is tapping into a powerful strand in the complex tangle of public opinion on abortion. Support for legal abortion drops when people are asked about the later stages of pregnancy.
In a Gallup poll last December, 61 percent of Americans said abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy, but 27 percent said it should be legal in the second three months, and 14 percent in the final three.
Translated: According to consistent measurements, only one quarter of Americans think abortion should be legal after 14 weeks. Even the fetal pain laws that are based on controversial evidence fall well short of public opinion.
In a fascinating article at Slate a couple weeks ago William Saletan pointed out Americans support the 20 week prohibition by solid margins even according to the most carefully worded polls. Saletan writes:
The Post/ABC poll lays this bare. Here’s the full text of its question: “The U.S. Supreme Court has said abortion is legal without restriction in about the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. Some states have passed laws reducing this to 20 weeks. If it has to be one or the other, would you rather have abortions legal without restriction up to 20 weeks, or up to 24 weeks?”
It’s reasonable to speculate that the phrase “without restriction” alienated some respondents and made them more likely to choose the earlier time limit. It’s also possible that the passive language—“reduce” rather than “ban”—soothed people who might otherwise worry about a new abortion law. But it’s hard to believe that these factors could account for the enormous gap that resulted: 56 percent of respondents chose 20 weeks, while only 27 percent chose 24 weeks.
In fact, those numbers understate the pro-life tilt. Eight percent of respondents volunteered that abortion should never be legal. Two percent said they wanted an earlier time limit than 20 weeks. So the percentage of respondents who would have chosen 20 weeks if they’d answered the question as it was posed isn’t 56 percent. It’s more like 66 percent.
Saletan observes that whether or not fetal pain is mentioned, as well as whether or not the victim of the abortion is referred to as an “unborn child,” affects poll results. Indeed, he suggests, it may be that people are less interested in whether or not a fetus feels pain than they are influenced by the thought that the fetus is a child. As he puts it,
it isn’t clear to what extent people are moved by the risk of fetal pain, as opposed to fetal pain capability. Do they believe that a fetus capable of feeling pain is too fully human to kill? Or do they simply think it’s wrong to cause pain? There’s a simple way to force the issue: Offer them two choices at 20 weeks, an abortion ban or mandatory fetal anesthesia. What do you think they’ll say?
Saletan doesn’t answer the question, but it’s not hard to figure out what he thinks the answer is. As Walter Russell Mead has written, when it comes to competing rights claims, in the long run Americans always tend to fall in the liberal direction of protecting an individual’s self-determination. Whereas in the case of same-sex marriage this liberal inclination seems to support the Left, in the case of abortion it supports the Right. The more Americans think of the victim of an abortion as a human being, as an individual, the more they will want to see abortion restricted.
This suggests two things. First, the pro-life movement is wise to continue to emphasize the humanity of an unborn child. This claim is fundamental to the moral argument that abortion violates not only Christian convictions about human dignity, but basic liberal principles about the right to life. Second, the pro-life movement has a far greater chance of long-term success if it is politically flexible, seeking incremental changes rather than an outright universal prohibition of abortion. Indeed, the latter may never be possible.
This second point is hard for many people, especially Christians, to accept. If our politics is to be expressive of God’s law, if it is to be principled, how can we compromise at all when it comes to human life? Shouldn’t we take outright prohibition or nothing, and refuse all compromise? And of course, in the long run Christians should accept nothing less than full justice for the unborn, especially if the long run includes the Christian hope for the full establishment of the kingdom of God.
But politics is usually about the short run. It calls us to take into account not only what is ideal (i.e., God’s moral will), but what is possible; not only intentions (or virtue), but consequences; not only the hope of the kingdom of God, but a secular order that is as just as possible. And in the short run, in light of what is possible, it is clear that compromise is actually the best form of progress. A prohibition of abortion at 20 weeks is superior to a prohibition at 24 weeks. It leads us in the right direction. It has the support of the American people and potentially that of the Supreme Court because it is profoundly liberal. It may work. And consequences matter.
There is a distorted version of the two kingdoms doctrine out there that claims that if an issue is political, the church should not address it. The separation between the kingdom of God and earthly politics is absolute. God has given authority over the latter to the state, and the church should not question it.
Now I should say up front that I’m not aware of any major theologian who has actually advocated this version of the two kingdoms doctrine, except perhaps Emmanuel Hirsch. Luther clearly believed that a prince has the obligation to act justly and to protect the preaching of the gospel against fiendish opponents like the pope. He did not hesitate to preach the law or the gospel to earthly magistrates, nor did he hesitate to draw specific conclusions about the implications of the law and the gospel for the way in which those magistrates were to rule. And later Lutheran theologians and jurists if anything only tightened the relationship between state and church. The state was to rule according to God’s law, establishing and protecting the true church, guided by the instruction of pastors.
Many modern two kingdoms advocates, of course, challenge the old assumptions about the necessary ties between church and state, and about the responsibility of the state to enforce the first table of the law (i.e., prohibitions against idolatry, false teaching, blasphemy, etc.). But they do not challenge the idea that the church should preach the whole counsel of God – even when that counsel pertains to politics – so much as they challenge old assumptions about what Scripture actually says about politics. The central factor underlying this shift in emphasis is a clearer understanding of the differences between modern political states and Old Testament Israel. If the present form of Israel and the Davidic kingdom is the kingdom of Christ, manifest in the body of Christ (i.e., the church), then we should not be too hasty in drawing direct lines between the Old Testament civil law and modern politics.
That said, it is important to distinguish between two lines of argument, one legitimate, the other problematic. According to the first, the statement that the church should avoid speaking to matters that are political means that the church has to distinguish between God’s moral law and its application in civil law. For instance, the church should proclaim that the state must protect innocent life, but the church has no right to advocate its own ideas about how to organize a police force, or about how to try and punish murderers. The church must call the state to govern consistent with God’s moral law (and in fulfillment of its obligation to protect the weak), but it may not dictate to the state the myriad of ways in which it might act consistent with that law. This distinction is absolutely necessary if the church is to avoid politicization and preserve its moral authority.
According to the second line of argument, the statement that the church should avoid speaking to matters that are political means that the church cannot speak on matters that are politically controversial. According to this mindset, the church might ordinarily have the right to proclaim that the state should protect the life of the unborn, or that it should prevent a person from violently destroying another person’s property, but in the context of national debates over abortion (i.e., the United States in 2013) or state authorized pogroms against Jews designed for the good of Volk and Fatherland (i.e., Nazi Germany in 1938), the church should remain silent. One would not want to alienate people from the gospel, or to give the wrong impression about one’s motives.
Now I’m sure that there are some readers who will think that I have just violated Godwin’s Law, the law which warns against bringing up the Nazis in an ethical, political, or theological debate. Some people chided me in recent weeks for my bringing up the Nazis and the Holocaust on this blog at all. And to be sure, we should be very, very careful about how we use such history, or the lessons we attempt to draw from it.
But this history is relevant here for a very important reason. The German church often attempted to justify its silence before Hitler precisely on the basis of its two kingdoms doctrine. Anyone arguing that the church should maintain the two kingdoms doctrine needs to explain why this happened and why it was wrong. As a scholar writing my dissertation on the two kingdoms doctrine and associate teaching a course on the Holocaust, I have particular reasons to address the issue. In the next few weeks, therefore, you should expect more articles from me wrestling with the use of the two kingdoms under Hitler. If you don’t like them, you are warned. You don’t have to read them.
For now I want simply to emphasize that the two kingdoms doctrine teaches not that the church should avoid matters of public or political controversy, but that the church should limit its proclamation to what the word of God actually teaches. The two kingdoms doctrine warns not against the church speaking about politics, but against the church moving beyond the word in the name of politics. And I want to emphasize that those who say the church should refrain from addressing any issue that has been deemed by others to be political are not freeing the church from politicization. On the contrary, they are subjecting it to the very politicization they claim to fear. For if the church’s proclamation of God’s word can be muzzled by a regime or a democratic constituency, the church can be manipulated by that constituency. The kingdom of Christ has been made subject to the political kingdom.
Calvin warns repeatedly against this mindset in his commentaries on the prophets. Here I simply want to quote from his commentary on Micah:
Since then the prophets were the organs of the Holy Spirit, whoever attempted to silence them usurped to himself an authority over God himself, and in a manner tried to make captive his Spirit. For what power can belong to the Spirit, except he be at liberty to reprove the vices of men, and condemn whatever is opposed to God’s justice? When this is taken away, there is no more any jurisdiction left to the Holy Spirit. (Commentary on Micah 2:7)
We now see that the word of God is not bound, but that it puts forth its power against the highest as well as the lowest; for it is the Spirit’s office to arraign the whole world, and not a part only. ‘When the Spirit shall come,’ says Christ, ‘it will convince the world.’ He speaks not there of the common people only, but of the whole world, of which princes and magistrates form a prominent part. Let us then know, that though we ought to show respect to judges (as the Lord has honored them with dignified titles, calling them his vicegerents and also gods), yet the mouths of prophets ought not to be closed; but they ought, without making any difference, to correct whatever is deserving of reproof, and not to spare even the chief men themselves. (Commentary on Micah 3:10)
If the two kingdoms are genuinely to be distinguished, the ministers of Christ must be free to proclaim his word.
My friend and colleague Jimmy McCarty writes a very insightful piece on why Christians with identical theological beliefs come to some very different political positions, and why quite often lived experience, and specifically race, is the reason. Jimmy has been deeply involved in churches and social circles across the political spectrum, and he tends to understand the people he is describing. He writes,
As much as many want to deny it, race greatly influences the ways that people experience life in America. Of course, it is not only race which leads to these political differences (inner-city LA is quite different from Tacoma and its suburbs in a variety of ways), but race is a strong contributing factor to these differences.
Indeed, the Pew Research Center has demonstrated that race is a consistent factor in how abortion is viewed politically and morally, even among Protestants. White Protestants view it as morally wrong and believe it should be made illegal at significantly greater percentages than black Protestants. Based on the voting patters of white Protestants, especially Evangelicals, and black Protestants, it is safe to assume that these racial disparities continue across a range of political issues.
There are a variety of reasons for these disparities, but one (in the case of abortion) is surely the history of black women not being able to control their bodies throughout slavery and Jim Crow. It should be no surprise, and is totally understandable, that many black women in America don’t trust others (especially white men) to determine in advance what should be done with their bodies. White men have raped, killed, abused, and degraded their bodies for centuries, and many black women have not forgotten it even as most white people have.
In short, race impacts the experience of every American Christian. And these experiences directly influence the politics of many of the Christians in our churches. There is no straightforward way to translate the vast majority of Christian beliefs into political policy and to hold any political position as a sign of theological orthodoxy, as is increasingly becoming the case among many white Evangelicals, is a grave mistake. And, though many would not say it in this way, there are many Christians who write off a significant portion of other Christians who are racially different than them because of their politics.
In general I agree with Jimmy, as he knows. (Indeed, kudos to Jimmy on his embrace of the two kingdoms doctrine!) There is indeed “no straightforward way to translate the vast majority of Christian beliefs into political policy.” On the other hand, does Jimmy go too far when he says that “to hold any political position as a sign of theological orthodoxy … is a grave mistake”? To be sure, orthodox Christians fell on both sides of the antebellum debates over slavery, and they also fell on both sides of the battle over civil rights for African Americans. There were orthodox Christians, such as Confessing Church founder Martin Niemoller, who voted for Hitler. There are no doubt orthodox Christians on both sides of the abortion debate too. And I wholeheartedly agree with Jimmy that we should be much more careful about judging the faith of others on the basis of their political commitments. But that doesn’t mean that on any of those political issues there wasn’t a basic orthodox Christian position.
I’m currently working on a lecture and paper on the response of the German church to the Holocaust, and it seems to me that there must be lines, there must be principles, that Christians simply will not compromise. Otherwise we simply give credibility to those who, like the “German Christian” movement, want to claim the compatibility of Christianity with blatantly evil politics. Granted, most political debates are not like this. But what if one line that we cannot cross, one principle that we cannot yield, is the obligation of the state to protect innocent life? What if those Evangelical Christians (whether white or, as in the case of the elders of my church, black) who make the pro-life position the Christian position, are right?