Our Current Dilemma: Many Christians Aren’t Pro-Life Enough

For decades, a pronounced majority of white evangelicals have reliably supported politicians who essentially regard all vulnerable classes except the unborn with contempt (and whose policies, at that, have actually done very little to protect the unborn). Now we are forced to choose between the rights of the most vulnerable and the rights of all but the most vulnerable.

I don’t presume to know who anyone should vote for. But some Christians seem to be approaching their vote with faulty reasoning or incomplete information. In particular, Christians that we might call “single-issue” voters reason as follows. “I must do everything I can, politically, do defend the unborn. So I must vote for the party or politician that favors outlawing abortion, regardless of their other policy stances.” Let’s stipulate that we must do everything we can, politically, to defend the unborn. Does it follow that we must vote for the politician whose party has been promising to outlaw abortion for the last four decades?

Law and Economics

Because the courts offer the most eligible path to outlawing abortion, and because it takes years for cases to make their way to the Supreme Court, it’s plausible to suppose that abortion isn’t going to be outlawed in the next few years—not before 2030, let’s say. So, between now and 2030 (at least), regardless of which political leaders we elect and which judges they appoint, abortion will be legal in the United States. (Incidentally, even if Roe v. Wade were overturned—which is objectively unlikely to happen for jurisprudential reasons, but certainly won’t happen in the next few years—we’d revert to a pre-Roe situation where states decide the legality of abortion within their respective jurisdictions. So as far as the judiciary is concerned, the best case scenario is most likely a conservative SCOTUS that permits states to reduce access to abortion providers via regulations, e.g. admitting privileges, making abortion marginally more difficult to access but not illegal.)

Some women who contemplate an abortion in the next decade might do so for reasons of economic hardship, in situations where the decisive factor in their thinking is affordable access to basic needs like housing, healthcare, food, etc. In other words, in at least some cases, there’s a relationship between economics and abortion. So we can prevent some abortions in the next decade by implementing economic policies that promote secure access to housing, food and healthcare.

And to the extent that Christians vote against such policies, we are failing to do everything we can, politically, to protect the lives of unborn children who wouldn’t have been aborted in a more pro-life and pro-family economic climate.

Some Christians will be skeptical of this reasoning. For instance, you might think that fewer abortions will happen in the long run if judges allow states to regulate abortion clinics out of business or, eventually, overturn Roe v. Wade.

It may be true that fewer abortions will happen overall with ideologically conservative judges. But it’s important to notice that the goalpost has now shifted. We’re no longer talking about doing everything we can, politically, to defend the unborn. Now we’re ignoring the abortions that we could prevent over the next ten years via a holistic approach to policy aimed at protecting vulnerable people in general, including the unborn, and talking instead about the overall number of abortions. In other words, we’re thinking along purely consequentialist lines, based on the principle that we should do whatever saves the most lives. I discuss the general problem with consequentialist moral reasoning here.

Basic Moral Principles

As for the specific principle that we should always do whatever saves the most lives (unborn or otherwise), consider the following. Imagine you’re a surgeon responsible for five patients who need a vital organ transplant—heart, kidney, liver, lung and lung, respectively. As it happens, all five patients have the same blood type and they’re all roughly the same height and weight. If you knew for certain that you could save all five of your patients by harvesting the vital organs of a single healthy person, should you do it? Of course not. You wouldn’t butcher one person to save five others; so it must be false that you should always do whatever you can to save the most lives.

Thus you’d need a different principle to justify voting for policies that occasion more economic hardship—leading to preventable abortions in the short term—purely for the sake of (possibly) reducing the overall number of abortions in the long term.

So even if your objective is to do the most you possibly can, politically, to protect the unborn, the choice isn’t as straightforward as a lot of Christians make it out to be.

Our Dilemma

As I said at the outset, I don’t presume to know how other Christians ought to vote. It’s complicated and messy. As believers, protecting the vulnerable should be our highest political objective, and there are none more vulnerable than the unborn.

This dilemma is both of our own making and totally unsurprising. It is of our own making because it is a product of the religious right’s fragmented conception of justice. And it is unsurprising because God doesn’t generally allow his people to select which sacred obligations to honor and which to casually ignore—particularly when we attempt to honor those that cost nothing and ignore those that threaten our material security and social standing.

So, my fellow pro-lifer, I respect and share your pro-life position; but if you’re not the least bit conflicted about which political party best represents your values, it’s possible that you’re not pro-life enough. Whichever way you decide to vote, I hope you won’t be swayed by the celebrity culture warriors who led white American evangelicals to the gilded political prison in which we now find ourselves—in which we are forced to choose between the party that promises to protect all but the most vulnerable and the party that promises to protect only the most vulnerable.

I don’t know what to say about this November. But I know that we should be wary of anyone with the audacity to tell us that it’s obvious how Christians should vote. The path out of our current political wasteland is paved with integrity—which is to say, a pro-life position that is integrated around justice for all, born and unborn alike.

What if America is just another empire?

What if America is just like all the other empires? What if America’s power and wealth aren’t a mark of divine favor, but merely a byproduct of empire-building?

And what if, by mistaking the fruits of empire for God’s blessing, Christian nationalists have gotten confused about what sorts of things God favors—confused about the features of our civilization that believers should make an effort to cultivate and amplify into the future?

For example, what if it’s just a very, very bad thing that our government systematically slaughtered and dispossessed indigenous peoples and desecrated their sacred places? What if that’s just all there is to it: no manifest destiny, nothing redeeming about it—just really bad?

And what if it’s just very, very bad that a lot of America’s early wealth issued from labor that was straightforwardly stolen from people who were kidnapped and sold into slavery. What if that’s just evil, full stop?

Read the Exodus account and ask yourself where you fit into the narrative. If you’re a white American evangelical, you’re not among the Israelites—plainly, you’re with the Egyptians. And why think the American empire is any different from that of Egypt, or Babylon, or Rome?

I don’t understand what Christian nationalists are up to, theologically speaking. I just can’t imagine the early Church concerning itself with Rome’s GDP or reputation on the world stage. The greatness of the Roman Empire was perfectly irrelevant to Christ and his followers.

Of course, as an American, I might concern myself with the American economy, national security, etc. But my concern for such things will be tempered by my Christian faith; it certainly won’t be a consequence of my faith. 

The notion that Christianity stands in a special relationship to America makes about as much sense as the idea that Jesus took on flesh to make Rome great again—which is to say, it makes no sense at all: it misunderstands what Christianity is about.

So when, as Christians, we see our nation pursue policies that threaten the well-being of orphans and immigrants in our midst, we really don’t have any business asking whether these policies are good for America. That’s not our concern.

Our concern should be for the ones oppressed, regardless of whether that concern is consistent with ephemeral notions of what makes America great.

Christ has no use for the cultural nostalgia of white American churchgoers: he doesn’t much care for the films of John Wayne. Christ simply doesn’t care whether America is great, or ever was or will be again.

“Black Lives Matter” v. “All Lives Matter”

Imagine you’re in a movie theater somewhere in Nebraska.

In the middle of the movie, your phone rings. You answer your phone and proceed to have a conversation at full volume. After about a minute, the guy behind you taps you on the shoulder and says, “Dude, we’re in a movie theater.”

You could respond in any number of ways. You might say, “No, we’re in Nebraska.” But this response isn’t appropriate. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone would offer this as a serious retort. For one thing, it’s possible to be both in a movie theater and in Nebraska (as you in fact are). So it’s not much of a rebuttal. For another, your fellow movie-goer has stated something obvious to you-namely that you are in a movie theater-because your conduct is that of a person who doesn’t recognize this fact or simply doesn’t care.

We state the obvious when someone’s actions are inconsistent with their having recognized the truth in question. “Dude, we’re in a movie theater” means “Dude, we’re in a movie theater: you should act like it.” Philosophers of language call this ‘conversational implicature’, which is just a fancy term for basic subtexts that competent language users naturally infer under normal circumstances. Under normal circumstances, when someone points out the obvious to us, we infer that we are doing something that suggests we are unaware of the obvious fact that has just been brought to our attention.

When we say, “Black lives matter,” there’s some conversational implicature at work. We live in a society that routinely functions in ways inconsistent with our having recognized that, among all lives, the lives of Black people matter. When we say, “Black lives matter,” we mean, “Black lives matter,” and you should act like it. When we say, “Black lives matter,” we are saying that institutions in our society do not function in a way that is consistent with the recognition that Black lives, specifically, matter:

When Eric Garner is suffocated to death in police custody and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it. When Freddie Gray dies of injuries sustained in police custody and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

When Trayvon Martin is gunned down while walking through a neighborhood and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

When Elijah McClain dies after being choked by police officers and injected with ketamine, and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

When Ahmaud Arbery is gunned down in broad daylight, on video, and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

When Breonna Taylor is shot 5 times in her own apartment by the police and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

When George Floyd suffocates to death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

So when, as a competent language user, you respond by saying “all lives matter,” one of two things must be the case. Either you’re not fully aware of how our public institutions treat Black citizens; or you are aware, and you’re okay with it–in which case, you are a racist.

Consequentialism, Christianity and Voting

I am dismayed by the number of evangelicals who publicly endorse a consequentialist approach to political participation—especially among pastors and those charged with supervising the theological training of pastors.

Consequentialism is vexed by the human inability to foreknow the consequences of our actions. For example, suppose that Christians were to adopt a consequentialist approach to voting. Over a period of about 40 years, let’s say, strictly as a means of achieving some policy objective, we might overlook or perhaps even encourage all manner of evil in voting for politicians who promise that if we’ll only give them more power, they’ll give us what we want. 

For all we know, once they finally have that power—once Christians have helped them take control of the House, the Senate, the White House, and appoint a majority of SCOTUS—these politicians will do exactly nothing to advance the promised policy objective. 

Where would we be then? Our identity fragmented, our witness in shambles, dwelling in an unjust society with iniquitous laws that we willingly embraced. All in service to a policy objective that these politicians never had any intention of delivering. (And why would they deliver? Then we’d have no reason to vote for them. By hypothesis, the only enticement they have is promising to deliver the one policy that we care most about.) 

Ultimately, we can’t know whether our actions will bring about the remote consequences that we intend, and it is foolish to suggest otherwise. Far too many evangelicals are engaging in exactly this kind of foolishness, to the moral and intellectual impoverishment of our witness. 

Consequentialism’s only guarantee is that its logic will require us to sacrifice our integrity on the altar of aspiration. Scripture commends integrity rather than utilitarian calculus—‘Thou shalt not lie’ rather than ‘Thou shalt lie only as a means to thine ends’.

Recommended Reading

Here are books I would recommend to those interested in questions at the intersection of moral and political philosophy, political economy, recent U.S. history, theology, evangelicalism, law and American politics.

Justice and the Social Order by Emil Brunner

Sovereign Virtue by Ronald Dworkin
The Evangelicals by Frances FitzGerald

Eclipse of Reason by Max Horkheimer
Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
One Nation Under God by Kevin M. Kruse
Redeeming America by Michael Lienesch
The Value of Everything by Mariana Mazzucato
Anarchy, State, and Utopia by Robert Nozick

Philosophical Explanations by Robert Nozick
Radical Markets by Eric Posner and Glen Weyl
The Problems of Jurisprudence by Richard Posner
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (2010) by Michael J. Sandel
Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood by Christian Smith
The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby
Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States by Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry
God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right by Daniel K. Williams
Under God: Religion and American Politics by Garry Wills
Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man by Garry Wills
Old Testament Ethics for the People of God by Christopher J. H. Wright

CRT: conservative evangelicalism’s latest Marxist chimaera

Recent discussion of critical race theory (CRT) in conservative evangelical circles has become a distraction from substantive issues of real concern—a chimaera, invoked by culture warriors in a transparent effort to preempt serious conversations about systemic racism.

In point of fact, the concept of systemic racism is used across a number of disciplines to describe a variety of different phenomena. Two general fields of application stand out. One has to do with psychology—racist attitudes and so forth. The other has to do with institutions.

Yet some politically conservative evangelicals talk as though the concept of systemic racism owes its existence to CRT; and they define CRT strictly in terms of theorizing about racist attitudes. Consequently, the notion of systemic racism is merely a contrivance of critical race theorists who wish to assert the ubiquity of racial prejudice among white Americans—an assertion that rings false to white evangelicals who reflect on their own attitudes and think to themselves, “Well I’m not a racist, so systemic racism can’t be real.”

Finally, the culture warriors point out that CRT is vaguely related, in ways that they can’t quite explain, to Marxism. The Gestalt that emerges from all this noise is that systemic racism is a myth—perhaps even a conspiracy—originating in the minds of godless Marxists who say defamatory things about white people and America.

And the culture warriors manage to elicit this reaction without saying a single word about systemic racism qua institutional injustice—which has nothing at all to do with CRT, except insofar as some critical race theorists happen to comment on the racial inflection of institutional injustice in the U.S.

It’s really a remarkable sleight of hand. It allows white evangelicals to dismiss all claims to do with systemic racism qua institutional injustice, without saying the first thing about, e.g., the federal government’s discriminatory housing policies that remained officially in force until 1968: policies that wrought all manner of chronic social infirmity—from school segregation to racial disparities in wealth and income, incarceration, etc.—tangible effects of injustice that impact the day-to-day lives of millions of Americans, many of whom happen to be our brothers and sisters in Christ.


A lot of the same white evangelicals who reject the notion of systemic racism qua institutional injustice also claim they’re praying for some sort of national revival. I’m not sure whether a modern nation-state is the sort of thing that’s eligible for a spiritual revival. But let’s set that to one side.

The God that I read about in the Bible will have nothing whatsoever to do with people who store up harvests sown with the seeds of injustice.

In fact, God detests the supplications of such people:

Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord! Why do you long for the day of the Lord? That day will be darkness, not light. It will be as though a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear, as though he entered his house and rested his hand on the wall only to have a snake bite him. Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Amos 5:18-24

So as long as you persist in denying that systemic racism is a problem, don’t worry about whether the government permits you to go to church, with or without a mask. Don’t worry about what kind of music you sing or whether you sing at all. Because none of it matters.

As long as you refuse to address systemic injustice, and willingly continue to benefit from it, God simply doesn’t want to hear from you. Your church is just a building where you meet up with your friends.

When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.

Isaiah 1:15-17

Regarding Matthew J. Franck’s Recent Op-Ed In Newsweek

On September 14, 2020, Newsweek published an op-ed by conservative pundit Matthew J. Franck, entitled Racism Is Real. But Is ‘Systemic Racism?’ Within hours, the piece had been removed from Newsweek’s website (the foregoing link provides an archive).

My initial reaction is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to assume that folks like Franck are arguing in good faith. There’s some funny business going on with the way that he uses definitions—which is, frankly, beneath the dignity of someone in his station. For example, he appeals at one point to dictionary definitions in explaining technical terminology—which is something I wouldn’t accept from a student in First Year Seminar.

Elsewhere, the distinction that he makes between ‘systemic’ and ‘systematic’ is, I suspect, helpful to no one. (Perhaps some people use the word ‘systematic’ when they mean ‘systemic’; but I doubt that anyone has the former in mind when speaking of the latter. There’s no substantive confusion there.)

In any case, my main concern about his argument is this. The term ‘systemic racism’—purportedly the subject of his article—is used across a number of disciplines to describe a variety of phenomena. Two general fields of application stand out. One has to do with features of individual or group psychology. The other has to do with institutions. The author defines ‘systemic racism’ entirely in terms of the former category. He then acknowledges, almost with a shrug, that phenomena in the latter category are a feature of our society—but not technically a form of systemic racism, per his definition.

Thus, by artificially restricting the scope of ‘systemic racism’ to the psychological phenomena discussed in some of the literature, Franck simply defines the other kind of systemic racism (to do with institutions) out of existence. The kind of systemic racism to do with institutions is, incidentally, the kind of systemic racism that most people who think seriously about this subject actually care about—at least in my field.

Overall, my sense is that arguments of this kind are simply a distraction. Instead of talking about how to rectify the kinds of injustice that well-informed people generally understand to exist, we are engaging in sophomoric, sterile conversations about terminology that do absolutely nothing to heal our political community: precisely the opposite, in fact.

Honestly, I don’t know quite what to make of someone in a position of influence who acknowledges the existence of institutional injustice in our society and chooses to spend his leisure patting white folks on the back, offering assurances that none of the “bad stuff” we see around us *technically* counts as systemic racism (provided we define ‘systemic racism’ just so). And insofar as Christ followers participate in this charade, it is to our eternal shame.

The Evangelical Allergy to Expertise

What do you think is going to happen when you tell three generations of Evangelicals that the scientists are lying to them?

This is the painfully foreseeable outcome of internalizing a false choice between faith and science. This is the fruit of decades spent browbeating congregants with the message that rejecting scientific consensus is an essential feature of their faith. This is the inevitable result of embracing the decadence of American consumerism and our society’s addiction to convenience—ironically, brought to us by the technological innovations of modern science.

We’ll take the magic cures—the meds for cholesterol, blood pressure and heartburn. We’ll gladly accept the gadgetry. We’ll be entertained instantly. We’ll ask Siri. But when Siri delivers unpleasant news and prescribes a remedy that involves mild inconvenience, the Evangelicals who believe that rejecting expertise is a legitimate option—and that immediate gratification is their God-given right—will simply refuse to be inconvenienced. Or, when finally forced to adopt practices designed to protect the vulnerable among us, the ones complaining the loudest will be Evangelicals.

Whether it’s COVID or climate, this is the legacy of the Culture War. Let’s hope that it won’t be the legacy of American Evangelicalism.

Man looking out at NYC from inside

COVID, courage and temperance

public health v. economy

The U.S. is dealing with two distinct but related crises. The first is a public health crisis: the spread of a pandemic virus. The second is an economic crisis precipitated by our efforts to mitigate the public health crisis. The public debate around these crises purports to be a debate about competing values: economics versus public health.

Some argue that the economic crisis has become so grave, with unemployment surpassing 20%, that governors should lift restrictions on businesses and accept the public health fallout as an unfortunate consequence of salvaging our economy. After all, they argue, we regularly sacrifice human life on the altar of economic gain. We don’t shut down the entire economy during flu season even though tens of thousands die from flu-related complications every year. We could reduce traffic fatalities to roughly zero if we lowered all speed limits to 15mph; but we don’t do that, either.

On the other hand, public health experts insist that resuming our economic activity now would be an unmitigated disaster. Without rigorous testing and contact tracing, the exponential spread of the virus would overwhelm our healthcare system. Hospitals would be flooded with COVID–19 patients, many of whom require intubation. Without adequate protective equipment, doctors and nurses would get sick (as many already have). Routine medical procedures like appendectomies and bypass surgeries would become increasingly difficult to manage. As local healthcare systems reach the limits of their capacity, doctors would be forced to deny treatment to those who are least likely to benefit from precious resources—gradually reducing the age at which patients are given access to ventilators and ICU beds, from 70 to 65, then 60, and so on.

dire warnings and bad science fiction

Public health experts are issuing dire warnings about the consequences of lifting social restrictions without a rigorous plan for testing and tracing. Meanwhile, some politicians and other non-experts regale the public with stories about a parallel dimension in which we all agree to put on our big-boy pants and go to work. As a cost of doing business, Grandma might be stricken with an exotic plague. These stories are pure science fiction—more precisely, bad science fiction, insofar as they are premised not on surpassing scientific consensus but completely rejecting it.

For the sake of discussion, suppose the experts are correct. (This supposition shouldn’t be too difficult to entertain—they are, after all, experts.) Within months of returning to work, there would be thousands more COVID-19 patients over the age of 60 slowly suffocating to death, without medical intervention, every single day. The death toll would grow exponentially, until either the virus runs its course—claiming somewhere between 1 and 2 million lives—or we relent and agree to start the process of social distancing all over again, at which point the number of COVID–19 deaths would continue to rise for at least a couple of weeks before receding.

Does anyone genuinely believe, even for a moment, that we would have a functioning economy in such a scenario? Of course not. It’s inconceivable. So the narrative about bravely risking our health for the sake of the economy is mere fantasy: there is no possible state of affairs in which our economy flourishes amidst the kind of devastation forecasted by experts.

the folly of “economics first”

The Chinese government learned this the hard way. They tried the “economics first” approach in Wuhan and it failed so spectacularly that COVID–19 is now a pandemic. Strangely, the most severe critics of China’s approach in Wuhan are among the loudest voices promoting the very same “economics first” strategy in the U.S. The economic lesson to be drawn from Wuhan is that the path to economic recovery runs inexorably through public health.

We will not be saved by showmanship or marketing gimmicks. The pandemic is indifferent to public opinion. And a miracle cure is not forthcoming. So, as we await the results of clinical drug trials, we need exactly what we needed a month ago and the month before that: testing and tracing. We must embrace the hard work of doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way—in a word, we need virtue.

wisdom, courage and temperance

Plato’s Republic addresses this matter at length. He divides the members of a political community into three estates: political leadership, soldiers, and everyone else. In a good republic, each of these classes exemplifies a cardinal virtue. For obvious reasons, the political class must have wisdom and warriors require courage. To the rest of us he assigns the virtue of temperance. For if the general public becomes addicted to the trappings of wealth, the wisdom of our leaders will be overtaken by the tyranny of collective appetite; and insatiable consumption will waste the courage of our soldiers on wars of conquest.

For present purposes, our political community can be usefully divided into three groups: political leadership, essential workers, and everyone else. Our lives depend on the courage of our essential workers—from doctors and nurses to deliverymen and grocery store clerks. And if we proceed with an intemperate “economics first” strategy, the courage of our medical professionals and other essential workers will be wasted on preventable waves of illness.


hiatus

There are a couple of reasons for my recent hiatus from the blog.

The reason for my absence over the past few months is the birth of my first child.

Additionally, a university press has expressed interest in publishing my book on evangelicalism, politics and institutional justice. So, as I emerge from the fog of new-parenthood, most of my writing energies will be devoted to the book project.

Although I don’t plan to post with any regularity until the book manuscript is complete (around the end of 2020), it seems likely that I’ll have occasion to comment on current events (especially in the SBC context); and I may post some early drafts of ideas that I’m working out for the book.

As always, dear reader, I appreciate your interest.