Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Political Church IV: Faith, Politics and Abortion

Continuing our pre-election discussion about the intersection between Christianity and politics, we must at some point face up to the abortion issue.  Over the past four decades, there is no political issue that has more completely absorbed the church's attention than this one.  As if to accentuate the point, the one debate question on the matter came during the Vice Presidential event, and accentuated the intersection of faith and politics over this issue:
This debate is indeed historic. We have two Catholic candidates, first time on a stage such as this, and I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion. Please talk about how you came to that decision. Talk about how your religion played a part in that.
It was a clever question, insofar as it put both candidates on the defensive.  On one hand, the Vice President is blatantly out of step with his church's doctrine, while Congressman Ryan must be careful not to provide fodder for his opponents' "War on Women" rhetoric.  You can watch the candidates carefully and uncomfortably tiptoe around the topic here.

The candidates' Catholic church has taken the strict pro-life position against abortion, without exception, as has much of the evangelical church.  Is this an "extreme" position?  In the context of the current debate, it certainly is.  That does not, however, make it wrong.  Much about Christianity is extreme--after all, Jesus was not sentenced to death for appealing to moderates.

Amy Hall over at Stand to Reason Blog suggests pro-life candidates learn to express their arguments in terms of human rights:
Now as a Christian, I do believe it’s my duty to protect the natural rights of human beings—to protect universal human rights—because human beings are the kind of being that’s valuable. But one doesn’t have to be a Christian to agree with universal human rights. There are many people of other religions, or no religion, who also want to uphold universal human rights.
The pro-choice argument on abortion is almost exclusively expressed in terms of women's rights, privacy, and whether or not one's personal belief should be "imposed on others".  Coat hangers are frequently invoked as horrific instruments used for illegal "back-alley" abortions.  Rape, incest and the health of the mother are frequently cited as the bastion against which the pro-life position must eventually crash and burn.

Already this year, two pro-life US Senate candidates have badly fumbled questions regarding rape and abortion, managing to come off as insensitive and insufficiently concerned about women's health.  In the case of the first, Todd Akin (R-MO) invoked a strange and creepy theory about how female biology "shuts down" pregnancies resulting from rape.  In the second, Richard Mourdock (R-IN) bungled his attempt to walk pro-life principals through a minefield prepared to trip him up.  His crime was really a failure to adequately explain a controversial but intellectually defensible position, as opposed Akin's ridiculous junk science.

Pro-life politicians need to be prepared for this question, because it is where their opposition will inevitably want to drive the discussion, though the CDC cites rape and incest as a factor in only 1% of all abortions. In this election they have been successful, as the abortion contest has been played almost exclusively on the pro-choicers' home field.  There have not been many public discussions this time around about public funding, parental consent for minors, or late-term abortions, for example.  These are questions on which the electorate is far more willing to consider reasonable restrictions, and in a fair treatment of the matter would be a part of any public policy debate.

Still, pro-lifers need to understand that debate will not always be fair, and so should be clear, confident and careful when explaining why we believe what we do ... yes, even in cases of atrocities such as rape and incest.  I'm sorry, but there's just no getting around it.  You cannot honestly argue that on one hand life begins at conception, then say that same life becomes expendable when circumstances are really hard.

First, everyone agrees that rape and incest are hideous crimes, that the perpetrators of which deserve punishment under the law, and that their victims require our utmost care and compassion.  Still, life that results from a criminal act is life nonetheless.  The baby has done nothing criminal, and does not deserve to be condemned to die for the heinous acts of another.  The challenge is to care for both mother and child regardless of the brutal circumstances.

Nobody can reverse the harm caused by rape or incest.  It may seem cruel to say that a crime victim may need to bear its consequences for nine months.  It is also cruel to say the baby must die to spare the mother this burden.  Compounding cruelty to one with cruelty to another does not resolve the problem.

All this begins with an understanding of all life as being "fearfully and wonderfully made" by God, "knitted together" and "intricately woven" within the womb (Psalm 139).  If we believe that to be true, the intellectually consistent position is to compassionately treat crime victims and to protect life regardless of how it began.  That will certainly involve some difficult and painful dilemmas, but such is the pain of sin in a fallen world.  In order to be salt and light, we must be willing to speak the uncomfortable truth both clearly and sympathetically.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Political Church III: The Baptist and the Mormon

As the election grows near, our quadrennial angst over political-religious overlap again grows palpable.  This week featured news of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association removing Mormons from their list of cults, which closely followed a highly publicized meeting between Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a Mormon, and the 93-year-old Reverend Graham.  In a word ... ugh.

Don't get me wrong.  I take no issue with Mr. Romney's religion as a political matter.  I'm of the opinion that electing a politician (or choosing a dentist, for that matter) is different from calling a pastor.  I don't worry that Mitt Romney has a secret, insidious plan to Mormonize the country.  He may very well make a fine president.

No, my disgust is reserved for what appears to have been a politically influenced calculation by a major evangelical group to change its stance on a doctrinal matter.  Short version:  less than a month before the election, a Mormon candidate visits the nation's most prominent evangelical minister.  The following week, the minister's public stance on Mormonism appears to soften.

Ostensibly this is all because the BGEA didn't want to "participate in a theological debate about something that has become politicized during this campaign." Well, how did that work out for you?  If you didn't want to open a can of worms, the recommended strategy would have been to avoid (a) having a press event with a major-party candidate, then (b) appearing to make major changes in public, theological positions related to said candidate three weeks prior to election day.

A year ago I wrote in these pages about the potential for a major-party Mormon candidate, and wondered at its effects on the evangelical community.  As I said at the time, "The fact that orthodox Christians consider Mormonism to be a non-Christian religion is hardly breaking news. Mormons reject the trinity and embrace a form of polytheism known as henotheism, which is to say they claim to worship one God while accepting that others exist. They believe that the God they worship was once a man, and that Satan and Jesus were both his children (and were therefore brothers)."

So no, we should not make the mistake of saying Mormons are just another Christian denomination with a few minor doctrinal differences.  We diverge fundamentally on the core issues of the person of Christ, the character of God, the way of salvation, and the text of Scripture.  

I further noted last year that every four years, "Americans are left to wonder how it came to the point where our politicians are being asked by reporters to weigh in on theology. Well, because somewhere along the line we decided that pastors should be endorsing political candidates."

Christians can and should vote, support candidates, run for office, etc. as they are so inspired.  But the church needs to keep in mind that our primary calling is to know and preach and exalt Christ.  Satan is more than happy to lead us into worldly preoccupations, through politics or otherwise.

As an aside, The Gospel Coalition has an interesting panel discussion on the topic of preachers and politics.  When you have 15 minutes, listen to the whole thing.

Is the Pulpit Political? from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.