Betraying Politics: The Mystique of Public Life

This is a fun week—for the second time in as many days, we’re debuting a new writer here at Mere O. It’s a delight to be able to publish this guest piece from John Shelton.

“Everything begins as a mystique and ends as a politique,” observes French essayist Charles Péguy. In other words, that which begins as a pure idea—mystic, even transcendent—devolves into profane politics, the slow grind of policy divorced from any sort of sanguine idealism. The politique politician is an automaton, swayed by the slightest breeze of public opinion and party leadership. Such a man considers himself to be “eminently practical.” If he is always choosing an evil, at least it is the lesser of two. He takes what he can get; he desires the possible and worries not over the good, the beautiful, the true. He scoffs at Plato, even Aristotle. His man is Hobbes—Machiavelli, if he is forthright. He esteems them not for their realism but their cynicism. Such humdrum pessimism is fit cover for this man without a chest. Continue reading

The Abortion Lobby’s Deathly Shibboleths

I’m pleased to publish this guest post by Samuel D. James. You can learn more about him in his bio at the end of this post.

George Orwell once said that if it’s possible for bad thinking to corrupt language, it’s also possible for bad language to corrupt thinking. Orwell wasn’t talking about the American abortion lobby, but he might as well have been.

It doesn’t take much effort to see. Abortion-on-demand advocacy has enjoyed a steady stream of philological victories since Roe v Wade speciously classified fetal death as a “right to privacy.” Catchphrases like “reproductive freedom” and “safe, legal, and rare” have (mostly) served their intended purpose: To cast the moral question of abortion as an issue of common liberty vs oppressive ideology. 

But euphemism cuts both ways. For some members of the abortion lobby, the abundance of the heart has poured forth a little too revealingly. Continue reading

Listener Response to the Mere Fidelity Refugee Episode

Hannah Sillars, a Mere Fidelity listener, wrote in after listening to last week’s Mere Fidelity refugee episode to comment on one particular point about the ongoing refugee crisis. Hannah Sillars is an author and marketing professional who lives in Toronto, ON, with her husband, Jordan. She’s written for Christianity Today, WORLD magazine online, and blogs at We also have a separate post on Notes with more resources on refugees. If you want to help refugees in your area, we have information to help you do that over there.

Hi there, I’ve just started listening to Mere Orthodoxy about two episodes ago. I respect your perspectives and have since followed many of you on Twitter. I did want to comment, however, on the refugees podcast. A little background: I’m a conservative Anglican Christian. I’ve volunteered with refugees in Fort Worth, Texas, on and off since high school. This was mostly “off” until after college, when my husband and I committed to volunteering at least one night per week for a year. Continue reading

The System Behind Abortion: Planned Parenthood’s Dehumanizing Rhetoric

Some matters in this world are complicated:  some deserve careful deliberation, time, and the opportunity to work through our emotions before coming to a reasonable judgment of things. I have long been an advocate of this principle and wary critic of the impassioned internet-activism that motivates many people online.  Such movements have a distorting effect, they don’t allow for more subtle responses, they often backlash when the facts are wrong, and so on. I know every reason to avoid speaking in the midst of social media uproars, and have made nearly all of them myself at one point or another.

But some things are simple. Some moments grip us with such a clarity and power that we have no choice but to respond. When I saw the video of the McKinney police officer pushing the face of a 15 year old black girl into the ground, any question about the justice or injustice of the situation fell to the ground. The appropriate response to the racist Charleston shooting was to repeat imprecatory and lament Psalms, and to allow our country the full vent of its just infuriation to well up into the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s grounds. It is the better part of wisdom to discern the moments that have complications that might temper our outrage and those in which the evil appears unmasked and naked, well-intentioned and ‘reasonable.’ Continue reading

A Tale of Two Deaths

The stories of two impending deaths has recently come before our society’s attention, and justly so. Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old who recently transplanted herself from San Francisco to Oregon, explained why she is planning to commit physician’s-assisted suicide.  Her account was elegantly and movingly countered by that of Kara Tippetts, who has documented her own ongoing struggle with cancer in a forthcoming book.From the publisher

It is nearly impossible to speak well of such matters: there are few aspects of our lives that are as intimate or personal as the manner of our death. Whatever theological claim we might make about it, even if none at all, many of us are gripped by an inescapable instinct that death poses a challenge to us, that it raises a question about the meaning of our lives to which we must provide an answer. We cringe, rightly, at the banality of a ‘funeral selfie’; but we lack a category altogether, thank God, for a ‘dying selfie.’ Television stations still shield us from showing videos where people die, and rightly so. There is perhaps no greater proof of our fundamental and universal commitment to the sacredness of human life than that we endeavor, whenever possible, to protect ourselves from voyeuristic viewings of the moment of its passing. We may wish them to be known, but only by those who already know us well. To have it otherwise is a kind of profanation of the mystery of human life and mortality.

So there is a serious danger about reflecting on the manner of these two coming deaths: to write about them risks trespassing upon the holy and terrible moments that they will respectively face. What is more, my own death is not imminent, at least that I know: while I have reflected more on it as a possibility than most people my age I know, I have been assured (and readily believe it) that there are few matters where the gap between theory and the encounter is wider.

Still, the way they have spoken of what is before them invites such reflection: they have, for better or worse, made available to us the stories they are telling themselves in order to prepare for that final day. Those stories are different, and those differences matter: but there is a kind of boldness beneath each that I wonder whether I would have.  To invite a kind of publicity into one’s own death requires a unique kind of confidence: I would be tempted to falsify my own existence under such scrutiny. That is a temptation for all of us even now, no doubt, but beneath the shadow of death such temptations take on a new force.

But their stories contain two separate worlds. Continue reading

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.

Hamlet, Beauty, and the Case Against Abortion

William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, is a story of tragedy; a tragedy that results in part because of a stasis that Hamlet nurtures when he should be taking action to avenge his father’s death.  He has all the impetus one could need—his father’s ghost visits him early in the play urging him to “revenge his foul and unnatural murder” (I.V.25) at the hands of his brother, Claudius.  Yet rather than acting, Hamlet hems, haws, and monologues the play away, inventing opportunities to provoke his uncle’s conscience rather than openly confront him.  He even later finds Claudius in a moment of vulnerability as his uncle is at player, and delays even with a sword in his hand.

And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?

But in our circumstance and course of thought,

‘Tis heavy with him: and am I then revenged,

To take him in the purging of his soul,

When he is fit and season’d for his passage?


Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:

When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,

Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;

At gaming, swearing, or about some act

That has no relish of salvation in’t;

Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,

And that his soul may be as damn’d and black

As hell, whereto it goes. (III.3.82-95)

Hamlet justifies his hesitation with the hope that catching his uncle in the midst of more sin will ensure his tenure in hell, whereas killing him at prayer risks sending him to heaven.  Yet this concern ultimately rings hollow given his constant inactivity and misdirection and, moreover, demeans the only motivation he should need—his murdered father.

English: Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet.

English: Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I, like Hamlet, have been so haunted and remained largely apathetic.

I remember a day from my undergraduate career at Biola University when the entire campus was seething with anger, and with good reason. Or so I thought.  Our passion was directed at a bi-plane flying above the campus trailing a banner with horrific images of aborted fetuses. My friends and I were scandalized, offended, and not a little self-righteous. What an audacious waste of money to hire a plane like that and brandish such images over a Christian campus. We all knew and believed abortion was wrong. We weren’t the ones who needed to be persuaded…right?

Not really.

The truth is, though I identify myself unambiguously as a conservative Christian, and though I affirm the sacredness of life, there’s a real sense in which I have been complicit in the abortion of children because I don’t actually do much to prevent it. And I’m not alone; I know many individuals who next month will go to the polls and console themselves with the belief that they have discharged their duty to the unborn because they voted Republican, just like they did four years ago.

Pro-life advocate Rolley Haggard recently wrote in Breakpoint Magazine, “pulpit silence on the abortion holocaust is nothing short of blasphemy.” But this silence is one shared, potentially, by every Christian—not merely our clergy—and so we all share in the blasphemy. So insular is my experience of Christianity that the last time I really had a discussion with someone about abortion was over ten years ago. This is America—you need never “inconvenience” yourself on account of your faith if you don’t want.

When I was in graduate school in 2008, a thunder-voiced rascal named Brother Jeb told everyone who passed by that voting for Obama would usher in the apocalypse (which I kind of thought he’d prefer). As something of an introvert, I have a strong aversion this type of vitriolic evangelism that, unfortunately, is widespread enough to be cliché.  These people embarrass the cause of Christ with their hellfire (not to mention give Obama too much credit).

But my real problem was that I’d thought about abortion too much. I had myself convinced that to persuade someone that abortion was abhorrent, I needed to deconstruct the sexual revolution—a problem so colossal that what I needed to do was write a book, not have a conversation.

Let me explain. Continue reading

How to Reduce Abortions: An Idiosyncratic Suggestion

This past spring, we spent a lot of time arguing against the notion that single evangelicals should take contraception to reduce abortions.  What we didn’t do, though, was talk about the positive case:  if not contraception, then how should we set about reducing abortions?

That’s the question that Kolburt Schultz put to me for his blog Faithful Politics.  My friend Eric Teetsel (go forth to his new blog) weighed in, as did a few others.  My contribution is, well, typically idiosyncratic.  Rather than address the issue head on, I tried to get beneath the surface to one of the core problems in the evangelical culture:  our understanding of children.


Yes, this is a shameless attempt to make you like this post.

Still, cultural transformation need not wait until we have every solution.  So let me propose one sideways suggestion, one idea that comes at the question not from head-on but through the back door.  I would like to see evangelical churches end “children’s church” and nurseries and keep all the crying infants in the services.  If we segregate infants because they “distract us” from our worship and learning, then we undermine our own imaginative resources to welcome distractions in other parts of our lives.  The posture of welcome to infants and children begins at the center of the universe, in the person of Jesus.  We ought not want a more professional and more distraction-free worship experience than he does, and if we look at the Gospels he seems quite interested in allowing the little children to mess up his plans.  If our worship on Sunday is a microcosm for the rest of our lives, then it seems deeply inconsistent to separate ourselves from children while singing only to claim that we want them every other moment.

Will that reduce abortions?  Empirically, probably not.  At least not right away.  But like all problematic ethical behaviors, the willingness in our people to abort their children is a sign of our deeper dysfunctions.

 I’d be curious to hear from you, dear reader, on this question as well.  What should we think about how to reduce abortions?


Christian Progressivism and a Principled Pro-Life Position

My good friend Tim King of Sojourners took the Rachel Held Evans stage after I did–an admittedly easy act to follow–as a Christian progressive.  His answers are precisely in line with those which I’ve come to expect from him:  thoughtful, considerate, and compassionate in the best sense of the word.

The section on being pro-life, however, pushed the eyebrows up involuntarily:

I won’t try to articulate here a prescriptive policy position, but a description of how I approach the issue more broadly.

My older sister is pregnant and this August, I’ll have a nephew. Really pumped to be an uncle. My sister told me that as a result of her pregnancy, she has never been so pro-life and pro-choice. This isn’t unusual. In fact, the Public Religion Research Institute has found that about two-thirds of all American’s identify as pro-life and pro-choice simultaneously.

I think that is for good reason. Most people don’t view a fetus as a clump of cells indistinguishable from any other clump of cells but many also don’t see that the state has the same interest in a fertilized egg as it would a three-year-old child. You describe well some of the tensions that I think many people feel when they think about the issue.

In resolving a complex ethical issue, while taking into consideration multiple and often competing demands, we need to ask, what’s the role of government? At what point is the state the best arbiter? Currently, the state registers and logs a record of all births. Should they instead try and register and log all pregnancies? Monitor women of childbearing age? What is the state’s interest in the 15 to 20 percent of known pregnancies that end in a miscarriage? What about the many more “chemical pregnancies”? What kind of interest does the state have in the health and habits of women of childbearing age as it effects their bodies’ ability to carry a child to term? What other practices and protections currently extended to those who have been born should be expanded by the state to include fertilized eggs?

I think most people recognized a gradation of responsibility. The interest of the state is not the same at the moment of conception as it is at the moment of birth.

This is what leads me to believe that the primary role of the state is not to dictate decisions around these complex ethical considerations and its primary role lies with preventative and supportive policy.

I appreciate Tim’s kindness earlier in the Q&A in signaling agreement with me on the importance of non-governmental organizations to solve social problems.  (Tim, if you’re trying out the conservative end of the pool, dive in.  The water is great.)

But on this pro-life business, well, I’m afraid we’re at odds.

For one, Tim describes the problem democratically.  “Most people” is a decent enough starting point for ethical and policy deliberations (Socrates made heavy use of the trope), but it’s not an ending point.  The fact that many of us feel tension on the position is a diagnosis, not a remedy.  More thinking and better thinking would be a good next step:  holding contradictory opinions on a question is okay as a temporary season, but eventually the question must be resolved.

What’s more, Tim frames the question as one of the state’s interest while dodging the metaphysical question:  is the fertilized egg a human person as the three year old child is, or is he not?   If he is, then the state’s purported interest can go to hell–precisely where it will end up if it fails to judge accordingly . The person has rights and ought to have the protection that comes along with them, regardless of what the people say.

Tim throws the series of questions up to muddy the facts of the matter and succeeds admirably at his task.  But the list also reveals the fundamental progressive instinct at work.  The fact that we have human rights doesn’t entail that the state is there to ensure that we live:  rather, they are there to safeguard us from the deliberate and intentional taking of our lives by another human person.  Presume that we come up with some way to reduce the number of miscarriages.  Well done, if it happens, for alleviating more pain and suffering in the world.

But because miscarriage is not a moral wrong, not an infringement of someone’s rights by an agent who can be held culpable, then the state isn’t obligated do anything at all. And the same goes for logging pregnancies, monitoring pregnant women, and the like.  Though the whole thing would give a rather new meaning to the phrase “nanny state,” which is exactly where Tim’s progressive instincts lead anyway.

(Apologies, Tim.  The joke was too good to resist.)

In short, Tim’s rhetorical questions are nonsensical unless we grant that the state’s interest in preventing abortion is the same as its interest in preventing death.  They might both be evil, but they are evils of a different sort.  And the state has responsibilities to act in one realm, and none in the other.

This “gradation of responsibility” that people recognize may be true enough, then, if we were taking a survey.  But as a matter of governing in anything approaching a pro-life manner, it simply will not do.

The metaphysics of the matter–the matter of the fertilized egg, to be specific–have to be evaluated and our ethical reflection and public policy brought into line accordingly.  Even within a liberal democracy, where our differences of opinion apparently extend even to our own minds, we must resolve the question of who will be admitted.  A principled pro-life position depends upon it.

(When) Is Lying Wrong?

Lila Rose’s explosive undercover video exposing a  Planned Parenthood worker who gave professional advice to someone masquerading as a pimp with an under-age sex ring has generated a national debate over the organization and its role.

But it has also generated a much quieter, more philosophical discussion over the legitimacy of the tactics that Rose’s outfit used.  Christopher Tollefsen kicked the party off and it continued unabated for several weeks.  Not surprisingly, the debate quickly moved toward the “Nazi’s at the door with Jewish folks in the basement” problem, a problem that Tollefsen didn’t shirk from:

But the Nazi is not owed the truth as to whether one is concealing Jews even when one is not. His mission is wrongful regardless of whether one conceals or not. He has no legitimate authority, that having been lost long time since by the regime and those who worked for it. Yet he is a human being, and a child of God, and one cannot assume that his soul is beyond saving. One’s obligation, I hold, is to refuse to answer his question regarding the whereabouts of Jews (for he is owed no answer) and to tell him further that he is engaged in a wicked activity and to encourage his repentance.

What are the likely consequences of such action? One possible good consequence is this: a firm policy never to answer (especially if this policy is shared by others) makes it difficult for the Nazi to infer anything accurate from what he hears about the whereabouts of the Jews on any occasion. Having heard this twice when no Jews were to be found, he might, in fact, infer that there are no Jews hidden on the third occasion, though in fact there are. Moreover, a systematic policy of denying the authority asserted by wicked regimes can begin to break that power down—wicked regimes depend for their power on citizens remaining subjects. Of course, it is also possible that a refusal to answer will enrage the Nazi to the point of violence, even if no Jews are discovered. But one would be speaking truthfully and lovingly to this wicked but not God-forsaken man in the only way that could conceivably do some good for him, and in a way that does no evil to one’s self.

I suggest that the policy I have outlined should be adopted also when one does have Jews hidden in one’s house. And here again, the likely consequences are not good. In both scenarios, a search will likely be conducted, and in the second, the Jews found. What then?

I do not think one could in good conscience allow the Nazis to depart alone with the Jews. Physically resisting would likely be futile, but not necessarily wrong. One could offer to go with the Nazis in place of the Jews; and if that failed one could insist that one be brought with the Jews (it is very likely this decision would already have been made by the Nazis). And one should be willing to accept that a possibly significant degree of physical harm, perhaps even death, would be visited upon one’s person while one continued to proclaim the truth to the Nazis about the wickedness of their mission.

In all such actions one would act in solidarity with the Jews and charity towards the Nazi. One would witness to the truth in ways that, were more to do so, could conceivably be the undoing of the regime. And one might occasionally sway a young wrongdoer, one raised as a Christian, perhaps, but gradually corrupted by his culture, recollecting him to his better self and turning him towards the good.

The one thing I’ve never understood in the hypothetical is why those who were hiding Jews would think that the Nazi’s would believe the lie.  I suspect my imagination is shaped more by the movies than by historical accounts on this, and when I reflect about the Nazi’s accepting citizens’ claims at face value when searching for Jews, it seems wildly implausible.

This is a debate worth having, though, as the question of the pro-life movement’s integrity is at stake.  And having this  debate in public, rather than in the cloistered and inaccessible world of the academy or conferences, is why God invented the internet.