Category Archives: pro-life
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.
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.
I’ve been reading Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World this week, and was therefore disturbed, if not entirely surprised, to come across this Huffington Post video describing the ‘ethics’ of Euthanasia in Belgian. In Belgium close to 1 out of every 20 deaths are the result of individuals with terminal illnesses or incurable suffering choosing to be killed by a physician. Yes, children too. There are all sorts of bureaucratic safeguards to make sure the process is not abused, of course. You can rest assured about that.
It was not long ago that virtually everyone in Europe and the United States would have found this scenario morally abhorrent, even dystopian. But this is the new reality. Has the Liberal West lost its moral compass?
Many Christians would say yes, but I think this assessment is mistaken. It’s not that the West has lost its moral compass. It’s that its compass is adjusted to point in a slightly different direction than it once did. Over time, that slight difference leads you to a very different moral terrain. But there is still a coherent rationale to it.
What we are seeing is the divergence of two kinds of Liberal individualism. On the one side is the more traditional Liberalism, what I might call a Christian Liberalism. 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.
A stimulating account of the origins of this kind of liberalism appears in Larry Seidentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. Its preeminent advocate in contemporary political theology is the Reformed philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff.
The second kind of Liberalism is developing into something we might call Secularist Liberalism. Secularist Liberalism emphasizes the dignity of every single human being who has developed to the point of relative self-sufficiency by virtue of the integrity of his or her autonomy. Human life is to be protected, according to Secularist Liberalism, because each developed individual is an end in and of himself and should always be treated as an end in and of himself. Society needs to be careful to avoid over-determining what is the good life for any particular individual. Each person’s choice of lifestyle and self-expression should be affirmed; all must be included.
According to this ethic abortion is a necessary evil because it is sometimes required to solve the clash of interests between an autonomous woman, who is an end in herself, and a fetus who has potential personhood, but is not yet sufficiently developed to possess autonomy. Euthanasia is acceptable, even to be preferred, because it partially restores death, that sensitive and yet inevitable event looming in every person’s life, to the control of human choice. Institutions and practices integral to human agency – such as sexual expression, education, health care, and care for the poor – should be promoted.
The primary philosophers associated with what has become Secularist Liberalism are Immanuel Kant and John Rawls, but its assumptions are now pervasive in western culture.
These two strands of Liberalism have much in common, of course, because the one gave birth to the other. (Tim Jackson likes to say that political liberalism is Christianity’s stepchild.) They share a commitment to the dignity of the individual, and support many common institutions and practices. What is more, most people are not so philosophically consistent as to fall entirely into one way of thinking or the other. Consider these as two types, types that are increasingly diverging in their response to contemporary issues of justice.
Christians are sometimes tempted to abandon liberalism because of the excesses of its secularist version, and some of our most prominent public intellectuals call us to do just that. But this is a mistake. We need to get back to promoting the beauty, integrity, and truth of Christian Liberalism. Once the unchallenged reign of Secularist Liberalism begins to lose its shine, once human beings begin experiencing the moral and social isolation of a self-referential individualism, I suspect more than just orthodox Christians will begin to thirst for more.
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.
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?