Further thoughts on World Vision

There is much more that can be said about the recent turn of events with World Vision, who has now reversed course.  I took to Twitter last night at the goading of Sarah Posner to say a few things about it.  Sarah and I don’t agree on much (we learned we have 72% cacao chocolate in common!), but I enjoy disagreeing with her so much that I yielded.

And, let’s face it, I’m just a sucker for long-winded rants about anything.

And all the people said “amen” to that last one, no doubt.

You can see all the other tweets and conversation that went on after that.  I’m grateful for the kind words that many people gave the verbal ramble.

Finally, at the risk of overstaying my own welcome at my own blog, I want to excerpt a bit from a comment I wrote in the previous discussion.  I think it’s important for understanding some of the broader issues at stake in the conservative concerns about World Vision’s original decisions.  It by no means captures every nuance of the decision, but hopefully clarifies my thinking about this a little more.

“It’s not at all obvious to me that the decision to withdraw funding from World Vision entails that there is *more* concern for opposing homosexuality than for helping children. I bet we could find lots of reasons to think that’s just not the case among conservative Christians. For one, if we compared the aggregate donations that go to World Vision and other poverty-based organizations to those set up to deliberate oppose “gay marriage,” I suspect we’d see conservatives give FAR more toward poverty services.

Second, let’s remember that World Vision is as large as it is in part because the very people who now have qualms about continuing to give gave for years. That is, if nothing else, a prima facie sign of a serious commitment to ending poverty. To claim that conscientiously withdrawing support is a sign of no longer caring about children, etc. seems to single out one particular moment in their relationship with the organization and ignore that past history.

But thirdly, and probably most importantly, I think your claim about them caring more about gay marriage rather than children only goes through if they were to give up funding poverty relief COMPLETELY rather than transfer it to a different organization that does equivalent, even if not identical work. There may be reasons why people who started a funding relationship with WV should continue: but if they move to (say) Compassion, that is not a sign that they no longer care about the children they once supported.

In a hypothetical case, suppose that a person decided that Compassion was more effective than World and so transferred their funding. No one could possibly accuse that person of not caring about poverty relief. So the sheer fact that people are ending sponsorships with WV does not entail that they care *more* about stopping gay marriage than they do about poverty at all. I think, to be honest, the claim [that conservatives care more about doctrine than children] only goes through if World Vision is the only sort of organization that does what it does. But it isn’t.  world vision

The better understanding is, I think, the one I gave in the original post. People give to World Vision because they care about ending poverty *and* contributing to evangelistic work. The disagreement with WV is on the latter half of that formula, not the first half. And so switching organizations on grounds that they have reasons to believe that other organizations will meet both aims better than World Vision simply has no bearing on their commitment to the first half.

I would note that all of this means that I think if a person simply stopped giving money altogether rather than changing the recipient that would be a reason to think that [the interpretation that they care more about doctrine than people] is right. But given that these are people who have (in many cases) given freely and willingly for years, I’m highly dubious that people are going to give up their charitable contributions toward children in need altogether, rather than transfer them.

You can see the whole conversation here (including a rejoinder that I haven’t had a chance to respond to yet).  I’d also note that this comment was not meant to contradict my argument that conservatives can and in most cases should keep up support for the individual child they have forged a relationship with.  Rather, it is simply trying to show that the abstract claim that stopping support for a child entailed a prioritization of doctrine over children is faulty.

Again, that is by no means a comprehensive analysis.  I probably won’t put that together…ever.  But it’s a start toward clarity…I hope.

On whether Christians should keep supporting World Vision

World Vision USA has altered their employee handbook to allow them to hire members of committed same-sex unions.  As I noted on Twitter, I find their rationale incoherent, but not terribly surprising.

Of the various threads I could take up, though, I want to focus on the decision which many conscientious Christians who deeply disagree with World Vision USA’s decision now face:  should they continue on supporting the child that they had been, or should they send their donations elsewhere?  world vision

It’s important to note that the question is not strictly financial.  As with many organizations, the funds an individual contributes in support of a child do not go to that child directly.  They are “pooled” and sent to support the community which the child lives in.  Similarly, the contributions are used to justify additional grant money from governments that are thrown into the various pools as well, all of which provides help for the community and from which the child benefits indirectly.  This is not uncommon:  it allows World Vision to maximize the impact of the money by focusing on the structural issues within a community that contribute to everyone’s flourishing.

Obviously, the careful structure would make the “child support” rhetoric less punchy and useful for raising donors. But it also means that when an individual withdraws support, the community which had been the recipient incurs some financial loss, but that loss is spread across the whole of the community (rather than, say, a particular child no longer receiving a $35 check every month).  Of course, if individuals withdrew their support en masse a significant impact would be felt. But the effect of pooling funds means that responsibility is pooled as well.

I mention all that only so we are clear on what the decision is at stake.  There are other factors that matter, too, though. Most importantly, supporting a child frequently means establishing some kind of relationship with them through letters, gifts, and other communications that are meant to support a child’s well-being directly.  Sometimes these are quite robust, and can provide important emotional and spiritual levels of support to the child who is the recipient of them.  It is also here where many people will feel the dilemma the strongest:  regardless of whether the child might suffer any serious material loss (because of the pooling effect), there may be a serious loss and confusion that withdrawing support would introduce. And there may be a genuine loss of relationship and of instruction within the donor’s own home with one’s own children, and so on.  There may, in some cases, be a real loss of possibilities of evangelism:  the harvest may have been ripened due to years of sowing and watering, and walking away may remove one significant factor which may contribute to the eventual reaping.

It’s important to underscore how important this is for the decision:  to ignore it would be to reduce every bit of giving that had gone on to a strictly financial transaction.  But charity ought not be purely monetary.  To view it as such is to corrode the practice of giving for the giver, not just the organization who receives it.  It would undermine the entire logic, and would do harm to whatever organization the donations were transferred to, as the new relationship between the donor and the organization would be established on strictly monetary and utilitarian grounds.  Prioritizing the relationship with the child in the decision about whether to withdraw support or not locates the financial considerations in their appropriate position:  as important, but by no means all-important.

All this could be mitigated, of course, if World Vision USA opened up pathways for people to continue to correspond and send packages to children without sending money to World Vision USA itself.  Such a possibility would allow for many people to keep up the kind of support they prefer to give directly, without necessarily entangling them in supporting a ministry that they (rightly) think has made a decision that is deeply inconsistent with the Gospel it has taken upon itself to proclaim.  If made available, I would commend such a possibility without hesitation or reservation.  The loss of funding for particular communities might still leave them with fewer resources than otherwise–but directly supporting the child might offset some of the lack they experience.

But presuming that option is not available, there are other complicating factors for the decision.  Jonathan Chan pointed out to me on Twitter that WorldVision’s local support teams are dependent upon the country for their leadership, which means they have no structural relationship with the decision that WorldVision USA has made.  So World Vision USA’s decision may not have any material or substantive impact on the work they do elsewhere, or World Vision’s other branches faithfulness to the Gospel.

All this makes for a relatively thorny problem.  But one possibility that Christians should avoid, it seems to me, is simply ignoring the difficulties altogether on the pure grounds that World Vision USA saves lives.  Many organizations save lives, and the Christian who gives money to World Vision USA is unquestionably committed to doing so.  But they are committed to more than that, which is why they have chosen to give to World Vision rather than some other organization.  Indeed, it may be those additional motivations that prompts in some cases the giving to be genuinely sacrificial:  removing them alters the entire character of the giving for many Christians.  World Vision USA is good at what they do:  but they are not the only organization that is good at what they do.

Even if a Christian decides that it is right to continue giving, they ought do so cognizant of the changes that have gone on and the potentially altered character of the organization which they are supporting.  And if they decide it wrong to continue giving (even for a temporary season), then their decision should not be construed as one that is necessarily unsupportive of children.  Publicizing the end of that giving seems to me both noxious and wrong:  but so then does publicizing the beginning of such a relationship as well.  We cannot take too seriously the danger that by broadcasting the goodness of our deeds we have our reward in full.  There is no harm in pursuing a good with sobriety, modesty, and quietness.

None of that, of course, answers the question of what a Christian should do given the competing claims and goods at stake.  There is a sense in which a pure claim to fidelity to the Gospel might impel them to quit giving immediately:  I think that response is understandable, but given the substantive conditions I’ve outlined above, not entirely warranted in every case.  If a person has only two months ago started sending money and corresponding, ending it would not nearly be as significant as someone who has corresponded with a child for six or seven years.

What, then, should a Christian who thinks World Vision USA has made a grave organizational error do?

The first thing to do is, of course, inform World Vision USA of your conclusion and the difficulty they have subsequently thrown you into.  Angry, belligerent emails and phone calls are not a Christian mode of response. But level-headed, patient, and clear reasoning can be.  It would be prudent to ask for World Vision to set up pathways for people who have decided they can no longer give to continue corresponding and supporting their child directly, as a sign of their willingness to help those who disagree with their new vision carry on those modes of communication that first and foremost make World Vision a Christian organization, even if it costs the organization a great deal of money and time to ensure that it can happen.  Opening up such pathways would convey World Vision’s commitment to unity of the right sort, namely that which respects and seeks to maintain lines of communication within and across real and substantive disagreements that it recognizes must be maintained.

Second, it seems to me that continuing to give in a situation where there has been a substantive relationship established with a child would be appropriate, at least for a season.  Given that education and formation happens at the local level, and that the other branches of World Vision are not beholden to World Vision USA’s decision, there is nothing substantive lost by maintaining support temporarily. The boundaries of a “substantive relationship” are, of course, somewhat fuzzy.  In the abstract, what sort of relationship qualifies is impossible to discern.  But some sort of differences are obvious, as I noted above, and those differences introduce genuine and substantive reasons for acting that must be accounted for in this case.

But I would add a qualification to this, if support continues:  I would notify World Vision USA that the continuing of support is for the purposes of the child alone, and that when the financial-support relationship comes to an end (as it does automatically at age 21, and at other ages for a variety of reasons) it will not be renewed or transferred to another child, but will be taken to another organization.  There would be two ways to look at this sort of communication:  either it could be seen as ‘holding World Vision hostage’ by threatening to remove financial contributions, or it could be a form of ‘informing World Vision USA of a decision so they can make alternate arrangements’.  Which description belongs may depend entirely on how the communication is given:  non-profits need to know how to project their finances, and giving them some advance warning that support would be withdrawn at least allows them to seek alternative means of funding in the interim.

But the effects of these sorts of organizational decisions are often slower moving than internet responses or commentary.  The  logic of the traditional marriage case depends upon a commitment to something like a “moral ecology”, but that means that the effects of certain decisions are not often known until several generations later.  Analogically, this sort of symbolic move will have a substantive effect on the moral ethos of World Vision USA, but the fruit in its own organizational life and in its relationship to the broader World Vision organization (the structure of which is not entirely clear to me) may not grow for a while. For those who are committed to supporting particular children, that delay is a benefit, as it allows support to continue while still expressing a fundamental disagreement and communicating to World Vision USA the reasons for such a disagreement and the end-point of any future support or help.  It’s a slow withdrawal, to be sure, but we are to be patient in doing good, even when doing good demands changing the recipients of our support.

Third, I would begin any new contributions with another organization and encourage those who ask to do the same.  Food for the Hungry, Compassion International, and others do similarly good work to World Vision.  Best of all may be your own denominational support structures, which presumably are accountable to the body where you worship.

There are doubtlessly other paths through, and unquestionably many people will object to various elements of what I have written above.  Some may claim I am either making too much of a trivial issue or compromising my fidelity to the Gospel.  But what we ought not do is ignore the various and complex issues at stake for many Christians.  Seeking the right here means remaining attentive not only to our sense of moral integrity, but to the good of World Vision USA, the child that we may have folded in some way into our lives, and the communities where they live.  Any counsel that does not attempt to bring coherence and unity toward those aspects is too stunted to be useful.

Hesitation about Rights and the Need for a Mutual Defense

Adam and Eve made for themselves fig-leaves, but God made for them coats of skins. If justice is the coat of skin with which God has clothed vulnerable and mutually aggressive postlapsarian humanity, rights are the fig-leaves with which they propose to clothe themselves. One difference between the two garments is that the coats of skins are more opaque, and so is justice. It does, indeed, defend us; but only when we allow ourselves to be clothed in it whole and entire; if our concern is with defence instead of justice, we will never achieve justice, and so will never achieve a sufficient mutual defence either.

The above, from Oliver O’Donovan, is worth meditating upon in the context of disputes about what sort of stability and harmony our society should be pursuing.  I’ve not given up on the notion of “rights” as O’Donovan has–in case anyone wishes to dispute whether it is possible for me to disagree with the man–but the cautions that he notes have been working at me in a variety of ways the past few years, especially as the conflict between sexual liberty and religious liberty seems to be proceeding apace.

But it is that last sentence that I find haunting, as it illuminates a peculiar kind of danger that comes upon us in the middle of conflagurations like those we’ve been through recently.  It is easy in the disputes over religious liberty for those with conservative instincts (like me) to shift into a mode that subtly shifts our first concern away from justice and toward the  preservation of a space where people are free–to be unjust. Yes, even that.  Not every wrong done demands the public recognition and legitimation that the law provides.

The preservation of such a space is its own kind of justice, to be sure:  we will all lose if every dispute over cakes ends up in the courts, even if we do not necessarily feel the loss.  But the danger of pursuing this strategy as a form of protecting a business owner’s particular rights is that it disposes us to be inattentive to the grievances that are being claimed.  The conflict between rights also potentially shifts the attention toward the bearers as individuals, rather than attending to what is done by those agents in a particular situation and judging accordingly.  Such a disposition may in fact increase the claims of grievance and the underlying hostilities at work.

That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t seek legal protections for business owners, or anyone else.  In doing so, we preserve a space for non-legal or political resolutions to disputes.  But we should be attentive to how our defense of the freedom to do wrong sits with the substantive questions of what is just, and how our first and primary concern must always be with the just so that we can ensure–as much as possible–that every citizen is a participant within it.

On Religious Liberty: A Dialogue with Sarah Posner

I don’t agree with Sarah Posner on much of anything, but she is fun to talk to.  As we both followed the recent scrums about the nature and extent of religious liberty with considerable interest, we decided that a conversation would be fitting and good.

What followed is an hour of sparring that is, I think, worth your time.  Thanks for watching.  Feedback (good or bad) is most welcome.

On the meaning of “Heterosexuality”

Over at First Things, Michael Hannon has a long essay arguing that we ought to move beyond our dependency on ‘sexual orientation’. He writes:

“These [conservative] Christian compatriots of mine are wrong to cling so tightly to sexual orientation, confusing our unprecedented and unsuccessful apologia for chastity with its eternal foundation. We do not need “heteronormativity” to defend against debauchery. On the contrary, it is just getting in our way.”

I’m on board with the general useleness of ‘orientation’ as a category for self or moral reflection.  In fact, I would go a step beyond Hannon and raise questions about the entire “identity” regime, as it tends to be less useful for getting about in the world than people sometimes think. The language of character, virtue, vice, desires, acts, intentions, obligations, goods, and the rest of the forgotten language of moral analysis is still abundantly fruitful for self-knowledge and for understanding society.

Hannon commends the old way of analyzing sex in relation to its created ends, but also seems to want to hold on to all the language of identities: “I will have all sorts of identities, to be sure, especially in our crazily over-psychoanalytic age. But at the very least, none of these identities should be essentially defined by my attraction to that which separates me from God.” One way of ensuring that doesn’t happen might be to not fragment ourselves into a bundle of mini-”identities” to begin with.

I have other worries, though, about Hannon’s essay. For instance, while he notes as an aside that heterosexuality and homosexuality are mutually interdependent as categories, he deploys his strongest rhetoric against ‘heterosexuality’ and ‘heteronormativity.’  (Or so it seems to me, anyway.  Your reading may vary.)

There’s a way in which Hannon’s understanding is almost right: I have argued that in evangelical circles the rampant and often unnoticed sexual idolatry starting in the 1960s undermined our ability to negotiate and respond to the challenges of homosexuality that arose within our community the past two decade. So I have a lot of sympathy for the notion that an overwhelming focus on other people’s sinful desires blinds us to the troubles in our own lives.

But it was not a peculiar attachment to ‘heterosexuality’ that stood beneath this idolatry, so much as a pursuit and defense of sexual pleasure within marriage as an apologetic against the sexual liberation movement. The vice is no more laudable, of course, and has produced its own harvest of rotten fruit. But if we are to find the solution to conservative Christianity’s troubles, it is important to appropriately identify the disease. Hannon’s suggestion that the problem is an attachment to ‘heteronormativity’ both fails as a diagnosis and misconstrues how identity formation happens in each respective ‘orientation.’

Consider Hannon’s opening claim: “Nevertheless, many conservative-minded Christians today feel that we should continue to enshrine the gay–straight divide and the heterosexual ideal in our popular catechesis, since that still seems to them the best way to make our moral maxims appear reasonable and attractive.” Hannon expands this with the bit I led off with above: that these conservative-minded Christians are “wrong to cling so tightly to sexual orientation…”

If by ‘heterosexual ideal’ Hannon means the proposition that marriage is between a man and a woman, then yes, conservative-minded Christians are clinging tightly to that. If it means that the *norm* for human sexual desires is that they are brought into conformity with the notion that marriage is between *one* man and one woman, and habituate themselves (as much as possible) so that those desires are *stably directed* toward one’s spouse or future spouse, then yes, conservative-minded Christians are invested in that too.

But ironically, it is many of those ‘conservative-minded Christians’ who have been the loudest objecting to the very ‘orientation’ conception that Hannon wants to toss overboard. The notion of a “gay Christian” is controversial among many evangelical circles, for instance, not because they are willfully ignorant that some people have stable desires toward members of the same-sex–as the laughable misreading at Slate managed to suggest today–but because they worry about how those desires are further integrated person’s character and self-understanding by incorporating the ‘gay’ nomenclature into their self-description. That’s Hannon’s reason for being worried about it, too.  But the irony is that the same people that Hannon would accuse of being wrapped up in being “heteronormative” who are most likely to be on board with his concerns.

Or maybe not.  To be honest, I have no idea which heterosexuals Hannon has in mind in his critique of them or how exactly their heterosexuality breeds the vices that he attributes to it. For instance, Hannon writes, “The most pernicious aspect of the orientation-identity system is that it tends to exempt heterosexuals from moral evaluation.” I have to confess that sentence made me laugh. Anyone who has spent a day on an evangelical college campus talking with students would realize that there is no temptation to exempt heterosexuals from moral evaluation. The disputes and arguments that the Christian community has seen over the past year about “modesty” are only one small part of the incredibly stringent moral code that exists within the evangelical world about any form of sex. Guys spend hours in their “accountability groups” rehearsing the litany of struggles around pornography and those who venture into sexual activity often have to keep it under wraps from peers and friends. All this has troubles of its own, to be sure. But the notion that conservative Christians who embrace the orientation paradigm are laissez-faire about their own sexual morality simply does not fit the facts.

Hannon goes further, though, and suggests that “the self-declared heterosexual” who makes themselves a member of the “normal group” displaces Jesus as the norm for moral reflection and so is the “height of folly.” He goes on: “But heterosexuality, in its pretensions to act as the norm for assessing our sexual customs, is marked by something even worse: pride, which St. Thomas Aquinas classifies as the queen of all vices.”

Now, it may be the case that a self-identified heterosexual allows their heterosexuality to displace Jesus as the norm for moral reflection. The question, though, is whether that displacement is necessarily tied to the conceptual framework of heterosexuality. That is a much harder argument to make, and I don’t think Hannon has succeeded at it, precisely because he overlooks the differences between how “heterosexual” and “homosexual” function as identifiers in their respective communities.

Hannon’s claim emphasizes those who take ownership of the “heterosexual” label: his polemic is against those who are “self-proclaimed” as or people who are “identifying as” heterosexuals. But few heterosexuals think of their own sexual identity the way those with same-sex attraction tend to think of themselves *as* gay or lesbian. Their majority sexuality is simply the tacit backdrop on which people live out their lives rather than that-by-which they are differentiated.

My friend John Corvino will sometimes talk about heterosexual folks who take a line akin to “it’s fine if gay folks do their think, so long as they don’t flaunt it in public.” Only “flaunt it” happens to mean holding hands, or kissing, or doing what opposite-sex couples do in public all the time. Many heterosexual folks don’t feel the asymmetry, as we are unaware of the extent to which sexuality structures our lives outside the bedroom. But that also means the emergence of heterosexual desires in a person lacks the same kind of formative power that the emergence of opposite-sex desires often has. I doubt most “heterosexuals” would ever recognize themselves in the term, at least not without someone who makes it a question for them: they don’t need to, precisely because being a part of the “normal group” frees them from the burden of self-ascription.

Which means that if such a pride does exist within heterosexuals, it must either be so tacit and structural that it is invisible to them and so outside the boundaries of conscious repentance or it is not structurally tied to their “heterosexuality.” The latter is more likely. The notion that pride necessarily accompanies “heterosexuality” is a difficult argument to make. If orientation as a category *does* exist for ethics, then on the traditional Christian view there is nothing *per se* wrong with being ‘a heterosexual,’ if by that we mean ‘a person whose sexual desires are generally stable in being directed toward the opposite sex under certain conditions.’ There are other questions to ply toward those desires, as I noted above conservative Christians so frequently do. But as the Catholic catechism would put it, the sexual inclination toward the same-sex–whether stable and recurrent or not–is itself “objectively disordered.” Heterosexuals may be prideful, and may be proud that they do not have same-sex attraction, but the pride has little to nothing to do with the substance of their “orientation” or its role in identity or social formation.

In fact, “heterosexuality” only seems to dethrone Jesus as the norm if we think that Jesus’s life and ministry somehow subverts the normative (creation) order of opposite-sex sexual desires, even if we don’t then describe those desires as an “orientation.” The singleness of Jesus does not put same-sex desires and opposite-sex desires on the same moral plane. It is, after all, not simply sexual acts that Christ suggests he is interested in, but the whole stable of thoughts, intentions, and dispositions that make up our inner life. These also need reformation, to be brought to conformity to the witness of the Gospel not only in the manner that we have them but also in their objects.

Recurring sexual desires of any sort are not themselves a sign of holiness: but recurring sexual desires toward a member of the same-sex raise questions that such desires toward a member of the opposite sex do not. Eliminating the aspect of “recurring stability” from those desires–or what has come to be known in shorthand as our ‘orientation’–doesn’t eliminate the deeper “heteronormativity” implied in the logic of Scripture. If nothing else, Jesus has a bride, and there is no understanding his life as the pattern for our lives without grasping the deep, mutually fulfilling stable and recurring desires at the heart of their union.

“Heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” need to be done away with. Hannon and I agree on this. But the reasons we provide for tossing them overboard still matter, and we ought be careful what we send over with them.

The Politics of Silence: Questions for Peter Leithart

It was just over a year ago that Louie Giglio withdrew from participating in President Obama’s second inauguration because of the uproar surrounding his twenty-year-old comments on homosexuality.

Since then, much of substance has changed in America’s culture wars, even if each side’s rhetorical posture has not. Facile cliches about history and bigotry still get tossed about by pro-gay activists, while conservative concern about the steady marginalization of traditional views from the public square reached a new pitch this past December when…well, we all remember that one, don’t we?

Faced with arguing that our society’s current trajectory leads toward more stringent regulations for Christianity’s public action, conservatives have been forced into taking up the unenviable task of making much of what seem otherwise to be relatively harmless offenses. The response is understandable: liberals have also amplified the errant words of conservatives, deploying activists and petitions to pressure people into complying. But conservatives are still stuck somewhere between the rock and a hard place: if we use examples of our eroding position, the easy rejoinder is simply that we’re losing advantages we once enjoyed. How conservatives persuade the hesitant, uncertain majority that there are genuine grounds for concern for the future without playing “Chicken Little” is a genuine dilemma.

This is particularly true of the so-called “millennial evangelicals,” for whom the purported “fearmongering” of the Religious Right is often the only thing we know about evangelical politics in the 80s and 90s. In such a context, using situations like our most recent turmoil to demonstrate what’s at stake has a counterproductive effect. The truth delegitimizes the messengers precisely because the audience is already numb to it. Thunderous denunciations issued often enough eventually start sounding like that incomprehensible teacher on Charlie Brown.

One alternative to speaking up in such moments is silence, an alternative that I have tried to defend in a limited way before. But that has troubles of its own, as Peter Leithart recently pointed out at First Things:

At the crucial moment, Jesus submitted in weakness and humility, and in weakness and humility he won his greatest victory. When we ignore the lead-up to the cross, though, we miss the politics of Jesus altogether. Submission comes at the end of a life of very public proclamation. To follow Jesus from the beginning, we need to be faithful in exposing the idols of our world, and joyfully accept whatever consequences come. If we don’t follow Jesus at the beginning, we’re unlikely to have an opportunity to follow him to the end.

If we start with silence, we’ll countenance injustice and accommodate to wickedness. More seriously, if we start with submission, we are not actually following Jesus. We end up in the company of Niebuhr, with a Jesus who is no use in the conflicted world of power. It’s an ironic place for a politics of Jesus to find itself.

Everything Leithart says here is right. But it raises questions on which the shape of our lives and proclamation *now* depends. Who is the “we”? Is it the individual Christian, the writer with the blog, the ordained minister or priest, or the members of the nebuluous and diverse social movement known as “religious conservatives”? Are we now at the middle of Jesus’s story, or somewhere nearer the end? Is the “public proclamation” the announcement of the Word of God, the legal defense of traditional marriage, or some sophisticated combination of the two?

At a minimum, it’s important to remember that we do not each individually enact the life of Jesus on our own, nor do our traditions or communities start anew at the beginning of the life of Jesus in our relationship to the world at the beginning of each new (religious) year. We live in a moment that has been partially shaped by our forefathers, for good or ill, and our own obligations and duties determined partly by their doings and failings. If we are invested in the promotion of life, religious liberty, and marriage, then we are only at the beginning of our proclamation if we ignore those who went before us. (Many of my evangelical peers, embarrassed by the Religious Right’s errant words and repelled by their ethos, would be happy doing just that.) It may be the case that the end of Jesus’s life is more instructive for our present moment than Leithart allows.

I myself find myself uncertain about the task before us. Knowing when to speak and when to stay silent is an art in which I have much learning before me. But I raise the above questions because I am confident that if we do not open ourselves to the possibility that this moment demands our political silence, then we risk allowing our speech to be droned out by the storms and tumult of our current controversies rather than being shaped by our faithfulness to the Word of God.

“Political silence” is a necessary qualification, for there is a sort of public speech which we are enjoined never to give up on as Christians: prayer. This too is a political act, in its own way, as is the whole worship of the church. And it is there that true resistance happens, where the triumphal announcement takes on a power that cannot be quenched, and the true scandal of the world must be found. If we are to make our arguments, we must first make our intercessions.

All of our activity and speech must be suffused by a hopeful waiting, by an expectation that the idols will fall down and the people be saved by an effort that is not of their own. At the center of hell Dante’s Satan traps himself in ice precisely by fanning his wings while working to escape. In Lewis’s dystopian novel That Hideous Strength the merry band of dissenters lives in cheerful preparation for movement by forces inexplicable to this world. The denoument comes with rather little visible activity of their own. The wrong so often overreaches and defeats itself by its own bluster.

On the Number of Zygote Deaths and the Meaning of Pro-Life

What does it mean to be “pro-life”? Judging by the recent conversation about contraception, it would be easy to think that the point and purpose of the pro-life position is to reduce abortions in the world.

But as important as that is to pro-lifers, it by no means encapsulates the entirety of the pro-life position. In a brief but punchy essay, Frank Beckwith sums up the point:

The truth, however, is that the prolife position is not merely about “reducing the number of abortions,” though that is certainly a consequence that all prolifers should welcome. Rather, the prolife position is the moral and political belief that all members of the human community are intrinsically valuable and thus are entitled to the protection of the laws. “Reducing the number of abortions” may occur in a regime in which this belief is denied, and that is the regime that the liberal supporters of universal health coverage want to preserve and want prolifers to help subsidize. It is a regime in which the continued existence of the unborn is always at the discretion of the postnatal. Reducing the number of those discretionary acts by trying to pacify and accommodate the needs of those who want to procure abortions—physicians, mothers, and fathers—only reinforces the idea that the unborn are objects whose value depends exclusively on our wanting them.

In a post that I’ve seen referenced a few places, blogger Libby Anne follows Sarah (last name not given) does a bit of math and contends that fewer zygotes wind up dead when women use birth control than when they don’t.  Here’s the conclusion from Sarah:

So let’s get this straight, taking birth control makes a woman’s body LESS likely to dispel fertilized eggs. If you believe that life begins at conception, shouldn’t it be your moral duty to reduce the number of zygote “abortions?” If you believe that a zygote is a human, you actually kill more babies by refusing to take birth control.

If it were the case that the pro-life view was simply constituted by the number of people who lived and died, then Libby Anne and Sarah might have a case. But there are qualitative moral differences between the two. Suppose that two people are nearing death. In one case, we do nothing at all. In the other, we act in such a way that we know will erode the conditions for their ongoing life. Perhaps we put something in the air conditioner that makes it hard to breathe, or put a clamp on the tube that is feeding them food. In both cases, the patients die—but one died without our involvement, and the other died within conditions that we created. It’s true that they both would have died anyway. But the analogy is meant to show that the life or death of the person is not the only criteria by which we judge the morality of the action.

Now, there are two things worth saying about the above analogy. First, someone might claim that by taking birth control they are not in fact intending the death of the zygote: they are only intending that any zygote that *might* have been created to not be created. And that’s a fair claim. Second, it is an analogy where we know (with considerable likelihood) that both people are going to die. In birth, we don’t know if we use contraception whether the zygote will continue living or be “flushed out.”

Happy pro-lifers for the win.

Happy pro-lifers for the win.

These two counterclaims, though, actually mean less than they might seem on the surface. For one, even if in the above analogy I am not intending to kill the person I’m still responsible for creating the conditions in which they died. And given that we do not know whether the zygote would live or die *without our involvement,* if the zygote dies we take on responsibility for the death that we would not have otherwise precisely because of our action in the matter. To put it bluntly, our intentional acting is what distinguishes the abortificient from the natural death and which creates a degree of moral gravity about the situation that would not occur otherwise.

That’s an argument, but beneath it stands the principle that we tried to establish at the beginning: the prolife position is not measured by the number of zygotes that survive pregnancy or not, but by the quality of our wills and decisions inasmuch as they relate to human life. Hypothetically, if a couple knew that by not using an abortificient every zygote they had would die and be “flushed out”, but if they used an abortificient and one of the children lived, using the abortificient would still be wrong. Why? Because the decision would have been one that would have been contrary to the presence of human life and because the morality of the decision is not determined solely by the consequences that result from it. To deploy the classic anti-consequentialist conundrum, if we could demonstrate that statistically killing one innocent person would save the lives of a hundred or thousand others, that would not make the intentional taking of human life right or good.

One final point: let’s suppose for a second that it’s simply uncertain whether in my analogy the person died because they were really old or because we put the hypothetical clamp on their feeding tube. Analogously, it may be uncertain when someone is on contraception whether any given zygote is “flushed out” naturally or because of the drug’s effect. (Again, statistics don’t matter—action and involvement does.) In such a case, a strong dose of ethical humility would entail that we should err on the side of not involving ourselves in the process, *even if* statistically more humans die as a result. Theologically, we can entrust ourselves and our decisions to the providence of God, and contend that we have knowingly kept ourselves free from even the possibility of intentionally creating the conditions that caused the death of human life—of doing evil that good may come. We cannot have too much integrity of the will in this world.

Update:  Guttmacher has a study out saying that the abortion rate has decreased to its lowest point since 1973 and credits contraceptives for part of that.  It’s obviously good news that the rate is dropping.  Predictably, it’s being deployed as a reason why the pro-life movement should support the contraception mandate.

The Evangelical War on Contraception

If you haven’t heard, evangelicals are currently campaigning against contraception.

Oh, you haven’t? Well, I can’t blame you. After all, it was only two years ago when a evangelical theologian seriously proposed that churches should give out contraception to single Christians because that supposedly reduces abortions and evangelical attendees responded with a collective, “Um, sure, why not?!”

But since then, we’ve all followed along as Hobby Lobby and others have sued the government for imposing requirements that they include certain drugs in their insurance plans that Hobby Lobby contests have an abortifacient effect. The case is fundamentally about the religious liberties of corporations and their owners, but I suppose we can all be forgiven for overlooking that since the trouble is the “HHS contraception mandate.” Look, the name! They’re objecting! War on contraception! See how easy this whole business is?

Now, I have to confess to feeling the tiniest bit of cheer at the news that evangelicals are thinking hard about contraception, even if the evidence for it is a tad thin. If all of these confusions prompt a more serious and sober evaluation of its use, then so much the better.

But such evaluation needs to happen on different, more properly moral terms than the pragmatic and consequentialist modes of reasoning that are endemic within the evangelical world. We ought to think about what contraception is and what it does within a marriage, what sort of mindset and form of life it engenders, what type of commitments are embedded within the practice and within the communities where it prevails.

Even if particular forms of contraception are licit, they ought not be adopted unreflectively. These matters are far too important for assumptions, yet how many evangelical engagement counseling programs involve careful, deliberate consideration of the questions involved? “The church never talks about [x]” is a sure sign that the church talks plenty about [x] and whoever utters that just isn’t paying attention. But for many evangelicals contraception remains the unquestioned option—and in some cases, unquestionable—option. I’ve heard prominent evangelicals start their defenses of public funding for contraception by saying, “Well, I’m an evangelical, so that means I’m okay with some forms of contraception.” Well, then. That settles it.

Now, among the internet’s response to Hobby Lobby it’s been popular for young evangelicals to run about saying that contraception reduces abortion, so obviously we ought to support more access to it as a social policy. Rachel Held Evans is the latest exponent of the view, but Jonathan Merritt and I have been around it on Twitter as well. The argument sounds awfully nice to the happy, half-informed, pragmatically minded, pro-life evangelical’s ears: we’re against abortion, contraception means less of it, let’s all go have cake.

But there are troubles with this sort of reasoning. (I mean, you know what else would reduce abortions? Killing people. It’s foolproof. ) The study that has become the go-to source on the question simply isn’t as watertight as it seems in the headlines and news reports. And Michael New’s commentary doesn’t even mention that at least some of the IUDs that were handed out have an abortificient effect. Even Planned Parenthood acknowledges that IUDs sometimes have a post-conception effect: that is, if life begins at conception then they are abortifacients.

But it’s easier to find a study that proves the point and call it a day, so let’s call to the stand one of our own. Now, if you think that increased access to contraception would reduce abortions, then it would make sense that better access to emergency contraception would do the same. Only it turns out that’s (maybe) not the case. While sales of Plan B doubled in 2006, and then again between 2007-2009 because laws changed to allow pharmacies to sell it without a prescription, abortions and pregnancies stayed the same in the places where access laws were passed.* Why? Well, the authors muse, “[emergency contraception] may induce a behavioral response that leads to more sexual encounters, and hence, more pregnancies.” Given the rates of birth and the size of the population, it doesn’t take that many more people statistically to have sex more often to keep the pregnancy rate the same. (As to what this means for America’s falling birth rate, well, draw your own conclusions.)

But here’s the real kicker: emergency contraception dropped in price and became easier to access when the pharmacy replaced emergency rooms as the point of sale, but reports of sexual assaults decreased as well. The authors are appropriately cautious, saying that the evidence is “suggestive.” But it makes some intuitive sense: nurses and doctors get trained to ask about such things, while pharmacists do not. The authors suggest that to “mitigate this impact, new policies may be necessary to encourage crime reporting by sexual assault victims that visit pharmacies.”

'Hobby Lobby in Macedonia, Ohio' photo (c) 2013, Nicholas Eckhart - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

If you think they’re protesting contraception, you’re doing it wrong.

Now, is it fair to extrapolate beyond the fact that emergency contraception doesn’t decrease abortions to other forms of contraception? It’s not a straightforward deduction, by any means. But then that’s just my point: the soft consequentialism that stands beneath the social sciences is far less useful for thinking through these things than it seems, and far more potent in the hands of news commentators and writers than it should be. At its best, social science is a discipline that digs up lagging indicators, a kind of empirical history. But the casual observers of culture that make up the commentariat don’t have the discipline even to wait for the academic cycle of evaluation to do its work. What’s that? There’s a study that says the hook up culture doesn’t exist. Now we know!

I could go on, but at this point I feel obliged to simply turn the microphone over to Helen Rittlemeyer, whose excellent essay on the social sciences is germane to all this. A teaser, so you can hear what good prose sounds like, but go read the whole thing:

Lesser pundits and journalists parrot academic studies as if they were unimpeachable, even when the resulting headlines are as absurd as “Racial Inequal­ity Costs GDP $1.9 Trillion,” “Feminists Have Better Sex Lives,” or (my favorite, courtesy of Yahoo! News) “Holy Water May Be Harmful to Your Health, Study Finds.” Even Ross Douthat, generally reputed as a moralist, can be caught buttressing with social­ scientific evidence a claim as uncontroversial as that serious downsides attend being a pothead: Excessive marijuana use, he reports, “can limit educational attainment, and with it economic mobility.” The im­pression left by these sorts of citations is not rigor so much as lack of confidence in one’s assertions, and persuasion, like seduction and stand­up comedy, is 90 percent confidence.

*Author’s note:  Thanks to a commenter, I’ve edited this sentence for clarity. 

How our Questioning Begins: A reply to Fare Foreward

“How then shall we begin?”

Among the questions that a writer must answer, that is perhaps the most difficult. When it is time to make an ending, we have the entire body of work to that point to draw from to find what might fit. Good ending should unfold from what has already come; they ought do something new, but that newness ought help us appreciate and understand the old with a greater intensity and awareness. But beginnings, well, beginnings are a miracle.

The End of Our Exploring Matthew Lee AndersonAt the excellent journal Fare Forward, Jordan Monge has written the most thorough and critical review of The End of our Exploring that I have seen. Her objection, as I understand it, is that I do not adequately explain how we get going in the life of questioning well and so offer rather cold and unhelpful counsel to those who might not be as “far along” as I purportedly am.

I’m not sure if it’s fair to claim that we are open to the possibility that we are truly wrong if our purpose is to simply affirm what we believed at the beginning. C.S. Lewis suggested, “If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth – only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin and, in the end, despair.” Anderson seems, at a deep level, to understand this. He critiques an immediately defensive posture and suggests wrestling with questions more deeply with great patience. But he also seems to put too much stock in Eliot’s promise that we’ll arrive where we began.

In that sense, I think his book speaks far too much to people who have already gone through the doubting process and far too little to people who are just beginning it. It seems like the sort to get head nods—yes, this is what exploring is like—from those who have been through the process of exploring and come out faithful on the other side. But I can’t imagine anything but incredulous stares from those beginning the journey or coming from a more skeptical starting point. Those who share his experience may rejoice in having found a compatriot whose voice resonates, but those outside could find this an echoing chamber as hollow as the churches they’ve left.

It is true that I write from the conviction that Christianity is true, all the way down and backwards and forwards, and if that presupposition provides little comfort or counsel to those who disagree with it then I can only respond that the book was never written for them. Monge’s review registers disappointment for that limitation, as I fail “to justify why we should be engaged in the project of questioning from a Christian perspective.” But one can only fail at something that one attempts, and nowhere in the book did I give any indication that persuading the unconverted was part of my aim. I am tempted to respond with something like a Chestertonian warning that she need only ask and I will write another book.

Still, how people move between outlooks—undergo intellectual conversions—is a difficult problem. It extends at least back to Plato, who wrestled in the Phaedo about whether these things can be taught. I alluded to it in mentioning the curious opening to Dante’s Divine Comedy, where he begins his journey—but how? “Just as Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy begins with him waking to find himself lost in a dark wood—a curious phenomenon, for how can one awake and find himself lost?—so the first step of return begins when we recognize and say that we too have gone astray. We begin from where we are, even if we start from nowhere.” (43)

Or as I say later, “intellectual conversions feel like a sort of homelessness. Our framework orients us in the world: it is how we decide through our reflection and deliberation whether we will do this or that. Calling it into question destabilizes us; our sense of balance and place gets thrown off. And we lose our “insider” status in the communities that shared those commitments, which introduces a new level of unfamiliarity. Such periods of transition can be very difficult and feel very isolating” (95-96).

My counsel there is not terribly substantive, because conversion is not the main point of the book. But the double exhortations to Entishness (“don’t be hasty!”) and gratitude are the sort of dispositions that I think those in the middle of intellectual upheavals should attend to, if only because the repudiation that a conversion necessarily entails is fraught with emotional and spiritual dangers.

But Monge goes pretty far awry in her discussion of doubt and questioning and her reading that I said some questions were “sinful.” As she puts it:

“The problem with this distinction is that particular questions may provoke doubt, because they call into question the character of God as loving and just. How could a God of love command the killing of every man, woman, and child? Why would God condemn to torturous, eternal fire those whom he loves? How can God hold people to account if we don’t possess free will, if he hardwired us to be this way?

Anderson is right that such questions come from particular places. They aren’t neutral. (Take the last question—it assumes that free will doesn’t exist, that God is responsible for all our negative hardwiring, etc.) But just because such questions come from a place of hostility or severe doubt doesn’t necessarily make them bad questions to be asking. They are questions that make us challenge the foundation of the faith: who is God and what is he like?”

I make no judgment on whether those questions are themselves right or wrong, in part because such things cannot be decided in the abstract. I have written before about how to think about the difference between good questions and bad. But I will simply note that it is absolutely right that because questions “come from a place of hostility or doubt” does not make them bad questions. However, it may mean that they are being asked badly. The intentions beneath the questions matter too, not just the forms. Or as I say in the book:

“The man who asks whether God’s mercy allows for justice may be asking a sincere question and faithfully opening himself to the creative destruction of his own false ideas or to a deepened understanding of his true ones. His questioning may be rooted in love and aimed at his growth. Or he may be clinging to the final vestiges of his rebellion, making a final desperate stand against the holiness of God. Or he may be merely playing a game, reducing God to an abstraction for his own intellectual satisfaction. *These possibilities and countless others stand beneath every inquiry that we make.”

Monge’s real worry is whether I am supportive of “questioning the foundations” of our faith, or whether my exhortations to do so are simply a conjuring trick.

“It’s unclear to me, however, how much Anderson thinks we should really probe the foundations of our faith. On the one hand, he says that exploring the possibility of the resurrection and its historical details “is simply the drama of seeking understanding, a drama constituted by the possibility that we might end up on the wrong side of the ledger.” Yet it seems that the purpose of such inquiry is simply deeper affirmation of one’s original purpose. “By reopening our commitments and being willing to inquire into them again, we will remind ourselves why we held those commitments in the first place,” Anderson writes.”

I take it that if it turned out Christianity is not true, we would “end up on the wrong side of the ledger.” But if it is? The commitment to Christianity’s truthfulness means that the inquiry is not a 50/50 proposition, wherein we weigh these things up in a balance and start from—nowhere. We start in the middle, with commitments, and either deepen those commitments or repudiate them. The opposition between the pursuit of understanding and the question of truthfulness is Monge’s, not mine.

If I put confidence in Eliot’s suggestion that we will end up where we started, it is only because I wish as much as possible to live and inquire within the truthfulness of Christianity. Or as I say in a different context about my friend John Corvino, “Even though we think our perspectives are true, we don’t foreclose on the possibility we might have taken a wrong turn somewhere” (148). The book is aimed at the confidence of faith, not the “certainty” (as Monge says) for a reason.

Hobby Lobby and China’s Abortion Policy

In the ongoing public dispute over whether Hobby Lobby is justified in its resistance to the so-called “contraception mandate,” the reductio ad China has been one of the more effective rhetorical moves that liberals have made. Rachel Held Evans has deployed it a number of times on Twitter, and Daily Kos has a version of it as well. The rhetorical point is an easy one to make, if only because it seems so intuitive and straightforward: Because Hobby Lobby does business with China, and China has forced abortions, they are inconsistent for objecting to the now-infamous HHS mandate on grounds that it would involve them in practices they find morally repugnant.

How might Hobby Lobby’s rejoinder go?

'Hobby Lobby' photo (c) 2011, Ken Teegardin - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

 

 

 

 

 

The first thing to notice is that the analogy only goes forward if it is true that “doing business”—a phrase so ambiguous that it’s basically useless—with China means providing material support for abortions, or support for the government’s decision to create conditions where forced abortions occur. If people can “do business” with China without supporting the policy or contributing material support for the abortions that occur, then the charge of inconsistency would fall apart or we’d have to get back to talking about whether compliance with the HHS mandate is sufficiently morally problematic as to give business owners legitimate grounds to object to it.

Construed broadly, however, the notion “doing business” with China means either of the conditions above may have the rather nasty consequence of implicating *anyone* who has ever bought a Chinese made product in providing material support for abortions. That may be acceptable to some people, but it initially seems to me too rigid of a criterion. One way around that would be to say that our involvement with “China” as consumers from Hobby Lobby (or any other business) is for some reason less culpable than the businesses who purchase those products there. But that ignores the fact that businesses purchase Chinese products because (surprise!) people in the States buy them. If the standard for material cooperation in a country’s practices is going to be a vague “doing business,” then it may mean we are all implicated as much as Hobby Lobby is.

In fact, if we attend for a second to the various relationships at work then it becomes clear why the *reductio ad China* is nothing more than a bit of sophistry. Hobby Lobby’s contention is that by purchasing insurances that provide free abortificients they are materially cooperating in the use of those abortificients by their employees. If Hobby Lobby were to pay their employees ten dollars more per week, the question of material cooperation drops away, as the financial compensation would not include morally repugnant benefits. But their relationship to abortions in China is mediated both by the businesses that they purchase products from and the government that has the one-child policy. Whereas their money funds the purchase of abortificients for their employees directly—even if the employee must request them—it funds abortions in China only in a very tangential and indirect way.

Which is to say, the analogy gets its rhetorical energy precisely by leaving out the very distinctions that reasonable moral reflection about how to move through the world depends upon. Using “China” (among other terms!) without discriminating between the government per se and their policy, Chinese businesses, the people who are employed at those business, Chinese society shortcuts any meaningful moral analysis.

But let’s just focus on Hobby Lobby’s relationship to the respective governments. As Bethany Persons rightly noted, Hobby Lobby engages in voluntary contracts in China with other businesses, contracts that the government presumably has some interest in allowing to continue precisely because of the financial benefits for the Chinese people. The non-coercive character of the relationship means that the form of negotiation is one of persuasion: Hobby Lobby cannot change the Chinese policy, except by leveraging their business status within the country for good. The only problem, though, is that Hobby Lobby is relatively insignificant to China on its own, which is why the main responsibility for such negotiations and pressure falls to the American government. Because of the overlap of our economies, both China and the United States have interests in each other’s nations, which makes it harder to critique each other but not—as President Bush showed—impossible.

Their relationship to the HHS mandate obviously lacks that voluntary character. From Hobby Lobby’s standpoint, there are two intertwined wrongs: abortificients are being used, and the United States government is compelling them to purchase insurance that pays for them. Even if we granted that Hobby Lobby is inconsistent in their pro-life practices for shopping in China, that would not annul the second wrong.  Nor would it account for the fact that as an American business owned by American citizens, Hobby Lobby and their owners may have special obligations to pursue the right within their own country first and foremost.  Nor does it acknowledge that Hobby Lobby has legal recourse to pursue righting the second wrong that it lacks with the Chinese government. But it is just that coercive stand by the government that we ought be troubled by: A government that forces its people to commit what they consider to be grave moral wrongs upon penalty is a government with little concern for the welfare of its own people.

There may be good reasons to think Hobby Lobby is morally wrong to press its case against the government, but the fact that they purchase products in China is simply not among them.