Monday, November 10, 2008

"Progressive" Christians

This past election cycle we heard a lot from so-called "progressive Christians," people who perceive themselves as more responsive to the needs of the poor, the afflicted, the uninsured than are other Christians. Is the appellation they have chosen for themselves an oxymoron, or is it possible to be both progressive and a Christian?

Those who found their political philosophy on using government to meet the needs of the less fortunate invoke a very natural and right response to human need: compassion. Compassion is what some moral philosophers call a form of "paraconscience." It is more than mere emotion. To be sure, it is a sub-rational motivation, in the sense that it does not entail reasoned consideration of the common good and individual duty. However, it motivates one to consider her duty to others and the common good and to respond accordingly. So, compassion works in conjunction with conscience to facilitate moral reasoning. We ought to feel compassion toward those in need (as a matter of inclination), and we ought to respond by treating those persons as we would want to be treated (as a function of moral reasoning).

One problem with progressivism is that it misuses compassion in order to obscure self-evident principles of practical reasonableness. It does so in two ways. (1) It misdirects compassion from its natural and right channel to an end it was never designed to serve. (2) It blows compassion out of proportion to other equally-important human motivations, and similarly elevates the corresponding virtue, charity, at the expense of other equally-important goods and principles.

First, compassion rightly and naturally serves the human good of grace, one important form of which is the virtue of charity. Charity is a right response to human need. Christianity has always affirmed this response in individuals. The Bible admonishes us to visit the sick and the imprisoned, to care for widows, to be our brothers' keeper. However, progressivism re-directs this right response toward statism. Whether I assist the poor or not, I ought to pay more taxes, and local institutions ought to cede authority to centralized institutions, so that the government will assist the poor. That is the progressive argument.

Many progressive Christians direct compassion to both its proper and its improper ends. Many take low-paying jobs with non-profits, donate time to charitable causes, even while simultaneously advocating for redistributivist and collectivist public policies. However, this is the place to mention that conservative Christians are at least equally as charitable. Studies have shown that conservative Christians are as likely to donate their time to charitable causes as liberal Christians, and that conservatives donate a lot more money than progressives do. These findings are consistent with the generalized belief that conservatives are, on balance, more likely to take jobs with wealth-creating enterprises, which make charity possible. In my (admittedly anecdotal) experience, the conservatives I know are at least as charitable as the liberals I know, they just talk about their charitable acts a lot less. (One progressive acquaintance of mine, who is actually paid to do charitable work, boasts to me about his good deeds at least once a month.)

The progressive defends the misdirection of compassion into statist and collectivist channels on the ground that the government is powerful enough to meet human needs and should be employed as one tool to do so. This defense is confused about the nature of charity. It presupposes that the end of charity is to accomplish some external purpose, such as the eradication of poverty or homelessness, or universal health insurance coverage. But charity is not an instrumental good. Grace (in all its forms, including charity) is a basic good. That means that it is something to be pursued for its own sake. Homelessness is not something to be eradicated. Instead, the homeless person presents us with an opportunity to share grace, to clothe, feed, and shelter a real, live, human person. And that person's good is something far more profound and vast than merely having something to eat and a place to sleep.

For this reason, a gracious act that accomplishes no practical purpose is still good. We rightly laud the heroes of the New York police and fire departments who sacrificed their lives trying to rescue those in the Twin Towers, even though they were unable to save everyone, and even lost their own lives in the effort. Conversely, a bad act that causes a good result is still a bad act. We would (and should) recoil in horror from curing cancer by performing lethal experiments on live human babies, even if the experiments were almost certain to be successful.

This observation is related to the second way that progressivism obscures practical reasonableness. Progressives focus on charity to near-total exclusion of other equally-important goods and principles. Progressives are, in fact, obsessed with human conditions. They think that human conditions -- wealth or poverty, sickness or health, suffering or pleasure -- are the really important things in life. But both practical reasonableness in general and the Christian tradition in particular reject this notion. Christianity teaches that the common good is far more expansive and multi-faceted than absence from want and realization of preferences (or even basic needs). What does it profit a man if he gains a sandwich and a cup of coffee but loses his soul?

So progressives are wrong to focus on human conditions and to use compassion as a trump card over equally important and countervailing moral considerations. In the progressive equation, compassion for the unwed, pregnant teen trumps the moral mandate to provide the most vigorous legal protection for the most vulnerable among us, including the unborn. Compassion for those suffering from Parkinson's Disease trumps the intrinsic value of unborn human life. Compassion for the homosexual trumps society's important interest in promoting and regulating procreative relationships. In each of these cases, progressives take a right response, compassion, and fashion it into a weapon with which to destroy the common good.

In the final analysis, the progressive project is to immanentize the Eschaton. They intend to eradicate poverty, homelessness, needless suffering, and puppy-killing. As we have observed before, this project is completely inconsistent with Christianity. "Progressive Christianity" is an oxymoron, and its attractions make it all the more deceptive.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

On a lighter note...

I will comment soon on the Connecticut decision, but first a more amusing judicial action. A state court trial judge in Nebraska has dismissed a lawsuit against God for lack of service of process. The atheist-plaintiff, bless him, gave it a pretty good go. His very creative argument ran thus: God is invoked during court hearings and before legislative assemblies. These are facts of which the court can take judicial notice, and which demonstrate that God is omnipresent. Because God is omnipresent, service of papers on him anywhere is effective.

It's a pretty good argument, actually. If only the theist had studied a little theology, he would know that God is spirit, and therefore has no hands (as we conceive of them) with which to receive process papers. Perhaps the atheist will next argue for an exception based on special circumstances resulting from God's disability.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Connecticut creates same-sex marriage

Of course I will comment on the Kerrigan decision, handed down in Connecticut today, when time permits. I am swamped at the moment, grading mid-terms and trying to meet a publication deadline for a scholarly article. In the meantime, enjoy the much-deserved ridicule that the scholars at Bench Memos are heaping on the decision.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Just another Wallisian Christian celeb?

First, Jim Wallis tried to make it okay for Christians to vote for a pro-abortion candidate. Then Brian McLaren followed suit. These two paved the way for the inevitable: an evangelical celebrity who would go the whole nine yards and endorse Barack Obama.

Meet Donald Miller. Apparently Miller's claim to fame is a book that he authored, entitled Blue Like Jazz. I've heard rave reviews of the book but have not read it; there's too much great literature out there and so little time to spend on fads. Miller is using his fame to campaign for Barack Obama. Like other Christians who have recently announced their support for Obama, he wants to treat abortion like a traffic management issue and marriage like a civil rights issue. And he has some absurd notions about law and the Supreme Court. All this proves is that he has never given a moment's reflection or study to moral, legal, or political philosophy. But young Christians are listening attentively and taking his assertions very, very seriously.

I am sure that Miller's heart is in the right place. And he is right to support male mentorship and assistance to the poor and suffering. (It is interesting to note, however, that conservative Christians have been championing and furthering these causes for decades without fanfare or self-aggrandizement.) Good on him for motivating young Christians to good deeds. But before opining on policy, law, and morality, he would do well to read a book or two on the subjects.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Another Catholic falls for it

What is it about Obama that induces once-reasonable Christian intellectuals to check their reason at the door? Nicholas Cafardi joins Doug Kmiec in endorsing Barack Obama for President.
Cafardi's justification falls far short of reasoning. It is full of fudges, contradictions, plays on words, and outright prevarications. He’s wrong to suggest that the abortion battle is lost. And he's irrational to adopt a consequentialist justification for his position. The issue is not one of reducing the total number of abortions, as if abortion policy were somehow comparable to traffic management. Even assuming what is manifestly not true, namely that Obama's proposed policies would reduce the number of abortions in America, encouraging others to vote for Obama is immoral. The issue with abortion in this country is that a tyrannical judiciary compels the participation of the American people in a grave moral wrong. Cafardi is enabling that evil.

Cafardi vastly overstates his case on torture; McCain publicly and emphatically opposes torture, and no reasonable person believes that all enhanced interrogation techniques amount to torture. Reasonable people can disagree about the justness of the Iraq War, and it is telling that the Pope has not spoken out against American activity in Iraq since becoming Pope. And to call “ignoring the poor” an intrinsic evil is not to make an argument but rather to slander one’s intellectual opponents.

The problem is that many people are going to reason: If Kmiec and Cafardi support Obama, it must be reasonable for a Christian to do so. This is the stuff that really gets my goat. I have no problem with hearing and reading these arguments from my secular friends. To get it from a Christian brother is just galling.

UPDATE: A very thoughtful colleague challenges my reasoning here. Given that McCain is not opposed to embryonic-destruction research and is arguably opposed to abortion not in principle but rather as a matter of political expedience, isn't a vote for McCain immoral in the same way as a vote for Obama? I respond in two parts.

First, I am not really voting for McCain, I am voting against Obama. That is a distinction with moral significance. My moral obligation is to avoid being complicit in the perpetuation of a grave moral evil. A vote for Obama certainly entails that complicity. A vote for McCain (as compared with, say, a vote for a write-in candidate) makes it less likely that Obama will be elected.

Second, there is a relevant distinction between voting for a candidate and endorsing that candidate. Voting for Obama is bad enough. Encouraging others to vote for Obama is morally unjustifiable.

More divisive than ever?

Several conservatives I know have gotten themselves into hot water these past few weeks because of their supposed incivility toward liberals. Meanwhile, liberals seems to be stepping up their ad hominem attacks on conservatives, and particularly Sarah Palin. My sister-in-law summed up neatly something I have been sensing for a few weeks: this election is different than presidential elections past. "It is feeling really intense, divisive, and almost antagonistic to me – even among my friends," she observed.

I think, to some extent, the identification of incivility is overstated. An increasing number of people seems to take offense at civil, direct factual claims. So, for example, when I claimed recently that Obama is morally self-deceived on the issue of abortion, an acquaintance excoriated me for slandering and "wanting to win," whatever that means. But I didn't slander Obama (see New York Times v. Sullivan). Nor do I particularly want McCain to win (though I really don't want Obama to win). And I did not engage in an ad hominem attack. Obama's stance on abortion is morally indefensible. And that fact is relevant both to the substance of his position on abortion and to the question of his judgment. Both of those questions are relevant to his campaign for the presidency.

On the other hand, I suspect most Americans who know someone of the opposite ideology have experienced some genuine incivility these past few weeks. I have. Is it worse this year, or does it just seem that way? I have the impression that it is worse. And I think there are three causes.

First, I wonder whether Facebook and blogs have exacerbated the problem. I suspect a lot of conclusory/slightly-ad-hominem comments that people made to their ideological soulmates over the kitchen table in elections past are now appearing in the status bar on Facebook, which of course is open for all to see.

Second, I think Obama and Palin are pitch-perfect representatives of the cultural divide in a way that no national candidate has ever been before. To have them both in the same election is just too much for civility to bear. Obama represents everything I detest about the liberal elite. And Palin seems to really raise the ire of that same liberal elite.

Finally, I think the two cultures in American society have drifted further apart since 2004, thanks to the same-sex marriage decisions and Bush's mistakes in Iraq. Just when a consensus was starting to develop about the immorality of abortion and the need for better health care policy, along came the Massachusetts and California courts and a badly-botched counter-insurgency in Iraq.

These are not excuses, but I think they are reasons why this election has been so gut-wrenching. It's likely to get worse in the next few weeks.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The case against McCain, not strong enough

George Will makes the conservative -- that is to say, reasoned, principled -- case against a John McCain presidency. It is a strong case. It resonates with me. I am troubled by many aspects of a potential McCain presidency. But there remain two conclusive reasons why voting for McCain is the right choice.

First, there's Sarah Palin. By choosing Palin, McCain has helped to commit the future of the Republican party to conservative quarters.

Second, there's Barack Obama. Obama is not merely liberal. He is for abortion on demand, he refuses to oppose infanticide, he promises to put liberal activists on the federal courts, he promises dramatically to expand costly federal entitlements, including health insurance, and has already demonstrated his fecklessness in foreign relations and policy.

I am not enthusiastic about a McCain presidency. But the Candidate of the Past must be stopped.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The culture of death advances...

... and we in the West need a base from which to resist it. Baroness Warnock, an influential moral philosopher in the United Kingdom, has rightly provoked outrage over her suggestion that people suffering from dementia have a moral obligation to commit suicide. "If you're demented, you're wasting people's lives – your family's lives – and you're wasting the resources of the National Health Service." Of course, this claim entails the further conclusion that those demented patients who refuse to do their duty should be euthanised.

To this appalling and predictable moral claim, one would expect a devastating response from those in the UK who value human life. Instead, we get this:
Neil Hunt, the chief executive of the Alzheimer's Society, said: "I am shocked and amazed that Baroness Warnock could disregard the value of the lives of people with dementia so callously. With the right care, a person can have good quality of life very late in to dementia. To suggest that people with dementia shouldn't be entitled to that quality of life or that they should feel that they have some sort of duty to kill themselves is nothing short of barbaric."

Hunt's response is equally as troubling as Warnock's claim. According to Warnock we should protect the right of demented patients to live because they might enjoy a "good quality of life." On that reasoning, those patients who do not or cannot enjoy a good quality of life -- one imagines that this is a majority -- are perfectly legitimate targets for termination. So Hunt has not refuted Warnock's claim, he has merely reduced by a small fraction the pool of candidates for Warnock's proposed euthanasia program.

This is the bind in which hyper-secular Europe finds itself. Having rejected the natural law and adopted consequentialist moral reasoning, it has no ground on which to resist the culture of death. Mr. Hunt and others who care about the mentally infirm could learn a lot from reading this blog.

UPDATE: The American Thinker makes an interesting point. Is this where we're headed if we adopt socialized medicine?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

"I hate her."

Jay Nordlinger has some useful observations on the Left's pathological hatred -- yes, hatred -- of, and attempts to destroy, Sarah Palin. I share Nordlinger's physical revulsion at the recent behavior of the mainstream media and cultural elite. However, I think his anecdotal sample is slightly skewed by living in New York. Most Americans are not nearly so vile as the liberal elite.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The case for human life -- civic evangelicalism, part 6

This is part 6 of an ongoing series. See part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5. In my last post in this series I made the case for basic goods. I argued that many of the things that people today pursue and choose (such as pleasure or happiness) are not things to be pursued at all but rather are mere by-products of other choices. They are, in other words, not human goods. Other things that people choose, such as money or power, are not intrinsically valuable goods, but are merely instrumentally valuable, and are therefore valuable if chosen for more fundamental ends, such as health, charity, or the common good.

There exists a third category of objects of human choice, basic human goods. Basic goods are reasons for choice, pursuit, or action that are valuable in and of themselves. They include beauty, knowledge, religion, and marriage (more on which in a later post).

One of the basic human goods is human life. Human persons are valuable, and therefore are proper objects of choice and action, simply because they are human. For this reason, human beings ought never be instrumentalized -- that is, turned into mere means rather than chosen as ends in themselves -- as they are when they are aborted, destroyed in embryonic research, or made objects of sexual gratification.

Humans are inherently different from all other beings. G.K. Chesterton famously observed in his great book, The Everlasting Man,
Man is not merely an evolution but rather a revolution. That he has a backbone or other other parts upon a similar pattern to birds and fishes is an obvious fact, whatever be the meaning of the fact. But if we attempt to regard him, as it were, as a quadruped standing on his hinds legs, we shall find what follows far more fantastic and subversive than if he were standing on his head.
Why is murder considered gravely wrong, while animal meat consumption has been accepted by the vast majorities of every civilization from the dawn of time? Why do humans create art, music, and poetry? Why do we clothe ourselves? Why do we travel long distances merely to view a beach, a sunset, or a mountain range? Why do we experience longings for which no satisfaction can be found on Earth?

The common answer to all of these questions, of course, is that humans are not merely different from the animals in degree, we are different in kind. We are wholly other. We are more than mere collections of matter, more than mere arrangements of chemicals, more even than sentient beings.

The implications of this fact are many and far-reaching in our contemporary culture. To instrumentalize a human person is to deny that person's dignity, his or her inherent moral worth. Slavery (and later, racial segregation) remains the most obvious example of instrumentalizing the human person. Slavery has long been abolished here in the United States (though it continues in many other places in the World, where Christian and natural law teachings are disregarded). Yet humans are routinely instrumentalized today in the United States. A few examples are obvious.

Abortion, embryo-destructive research, and infanticide all violate the inherent dignity of human persons. They turn nascent human persons, who if allowed to develop would become walking-around persons like you and I, into means rather than ends. Young humans become either obstacles to the mother's ostensible self-actualization or raw materials for research that some hope (in spite of all the contrary evidence) will rid adults of certain diseases.

Homosexual conduct, adultery, and other types of non-marital sex acts violate the inherent dignity of human persons. They turn humans into means rather than ends. Other people become means for satisfying sexual desires, and their intrinsic worth is thus denied.

Evangelicals ought to affirm the inherent dignity and worth of every human person. And on this we must not compromise. We should learn from the abolitionist and civil rights movements that compromise with the evil forces that denigrate human persons is the same as capitulation to them. Human life deserves a radical and robust defense. This much is clear. The only question is whether we have the will to make that defense.

Oh, for a George Marshall

What is it about serving at the State Department that turns gifted, once-sensible individuals into shills for failed, liberal dogmatics?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A depressing record for liberals

It must be depressing to be a liberal these days. Democrats are losing the presidential election after liberals succeeded in placing the two most liberal members of the Senate on the ticket. Liberals are (finally) losing the culture wars, with public opinion turning slowly but decisively in favor of protecting the lives of the unborn, embracing theistic convictions and the natural law, and defending conjugal marriage. And the United State is winning the War in Iraq, which liberals have tried so hard to forfeit.

Liberals have been trying to encourage each other as the political and cultural landscape has suddenly and unexpectedly grown dark for them. A liberal colleague of mine called my attention to this Bob Herbert op-ed in the (where else?) New York Times. In it, Herbert, trying his best to buck up his leftist cohorts, argues, "Without the extraordinary contribution of liberals — from the mightiest presidents to the most unheralded protesters and organizers — the United States would be a much, much worse place than it is today."

It's an interesting argument. The problem is that it's manifestly untrue. We certainly have liberals to thank for the civil rights movement. To their shame, conservatives sat that one out. But the rest of the supposed achievements of the Left, which Herbert trumpets, simply aren't that impressive. The verdict is very much still out on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, all of which could be bankrupt within a generation. Unfettered welfare was a disaster, and was reformed (and saved) by a conservative Congress and a moderate President. And it is absurd to credit libs with improving the lot of women in America. The feminist movement since ca. 1945 has had the opposite effect with its emphasis on sexual liberation, which frees men from the obligations of marriage. Furthermore, libs gave us abortion, the great moral evil of our time, and capitulated to Communism and Islamic fascism. Overall, not a very good record.

Indeed, liberals can rightly claim credit for only two major achievements in American history: the Bill of Rights and the civil rights movement. At every other pivotal moment in American history -- Dred Scott; the Civil War; the credit crises of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries; World War II; the Cold War; the culture wars of the late Twentieth and early Twenty-first centuries; the fight against Islamic facism -- liberals have been on the wrong side of history.

The Bill of Rights and the civil rights movement are certainly not insignificant achievements. Both were significant and just causes. However, liberals have managed even to botch these attainments. They have placed activist judges and justices on the courts of our land who have read into the Bill of Rights a tyranny of relativism. The Bill of Rights now contains within its penumbral emanations inviolable rights to obtain abortion on demand, engage in homosexual sodomy, and consume sexual obscenity, among other rights.

And liberals have in the last thirty years manages to despoil even the civil rights movement, arguably the high point of American liberalism. They have rejected the natural law principles on which the movement was founded and replaced them with identity politics, grievance-mongering, affirmative action, a commitment to sexual licentiousness, and a program of affirmative action, all of which harm those whom the civil rights movement was designed to assist.

Herbert protests too much. It must truly be depressing to be a liberal these days.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

True American femininity

Sarah Palin has inspired and awakened an enormous and politically influential, if often quiet, demographic: mothers. To observe that the liberals don't understand this group is to miss the significance of liberals' self-deception. As one Palin supporter put it, with considerable understatement, feminist groups such as NOW do "not represent me." And in Sarah Palin these women (including my own wife) have found more than a representative, they have found someone with whom they identify.

A colleague recently remarked to me that his wife detests politics. She never engages her acquaintances in political debate, never even shares her political views. When she recently expressed her antipathy to politics on her personal blog, several of her friends, all mothers, freely confessed their own disaffection with politics. And yet, my colleague informed me, all of these women go to the polls every four years and vote Republican. And this year, they are excited about doing so, because the Republican ticket contains one of their own.

If liberals are still wondering what's the matter with Kansas, they might ask the average American woman, who, as the Palin supporter stated, "are raising our families, who work if we have to, but love our country and our families first."

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Obama and slavery

The inimitable Gerry Bradley puts Obama's moral self-deception into its proper historical framework. Obama's accommodation on abortion bears a striking resemblance to the apologies made 150 years ago for slavery. That is surely an uncomfortable fact for Obama, who identifies himself with the grievance politics of Black America, but it is undeniably a fact, nonetheless.