Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Frank Schaeffer on Anti-Abortionist Responsibility for Tiller’s Murder

I urge everyone to read this article by Frank Schaeffer.  I don’t support any claim that ALL pro-life groups support anti-abortion violence.  Just the opposite.  Nor do I want to infringe on the civil liberties of anti-abortionist groups.  I supported the Free Access to Clinic Entrance legislation, but I do not want to oppose silent (or even noisy) vigils outside clinics where abortions are performed.  Even if you are very pro-choice, far more than I am, please consider the consequences–we don’t want to lose the right to protest peacefully outside military bases or recruiting centers, right?  Free speech, even offensive or violent free speech, is to be protected.

But there is a far-right network of groups that supports anti-abortion terrorism that operates on the fringes of the pro-life movement.  Groups like Operation Save America, Operation Rescue, Missionaries to the Unborn, etc. celebrate people like the murderer of Dr. Tiller as HEROES–comparing them to those who tried to assassinate Hitler in order to stop the Holocaust or to John Brown who tried to incite a holy war against slavery.  They are NOT trying to persuade citizens to change the laws.  They are not trying to create the climate in which most abortions are rejected because babies are welcomed.  They are not trying to prevent unwanted pregnancies or make adoptions easier.  They are not, as Feminists for Life and others do, connecting abortion to the second class status of women, to male sexual predation (including date rape, incest, and much more).  They are not even trying to get <i>Roe v. Wade</i> overturned.  They are, instead, trying to create an atmosphere of fear in which women fear to seek abortions because of threatened violence, doctors and hospitals fear to provide abortions because of threatened violence, and even churches and other faith groups fear to welcome pro-choice members like Dr. Tiller because of threatened violence.  They are advancing their goals by means of terrorist violence–and it is working.

Frank Schaeffer shows that while most Religious Right leaders did not directly participate and usually condemn the murders, they contributed to the atmosphere that encourages this violence.  I remember reading Dr. Francis A. Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto in 1980–it encouraged the overthrow of the American government by force if all else failed in saving “Christian civilization.”  It justified violence against abortion providers and pro-choice politicians if all legal and nonviolent means failed.  The Religious Right still has members and even leaders who promote this–and far more who give ambivalent voices.

Dr. James Dobson gave away 100,000 copies of Frank Schaeffer’s A Time for Anger which counseled anti-abortion violence as a last resort.  During the 1990s, I engaged via the email list of  the Society of Christian Philosophers, a young student at Jerry Falwell’s school, Liberty University.  I was a seamless garment, consistent-ethic-of-life person at the time and, in dialogue with me, this student became one, too–eventually going to Duke Divinity School to study with famed pacifist theologian Stanley Haerwas.  But the student also revealed to me that the “bomb the clinic/kill the abortion doctor” view was widely held among both faculty and students at Liberty University.  When Jerry Falwell himself retreated from this view after a series of bombings in the ’80s and ’90s and called on Christians to use ONLY LEGAL MEANS to end abortions, the student (before I became his friend) led a petition drive among students to reverse this policy, calling it a sell-out to the unborn.

There are websites where rightwing anti-abortion groups make heroes out of the assassins of doctors who perform abortions–getting others to write to these assassins in jail, and even to emulate their actions.

If terrorism is the use of violence and the threat of violence to intimidate others for political gain, then this is terrorism.  And if al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah are terrorist groups who promote terror tactics using warped forms of Islam, then many of these anti-abortion groups are terror networks who appeal to warped forms of Christianity for their justification.  They are Christian terrorists.

Suppose I am wrong in claiming that while all abortions are tragic, some are the lesser of evils.  Suppose the pro-lifers are right that all abortions are the moral equivalent of murder.  Then they are right to oppose this and to try to change this.  But they cannot do so by adopting violent means.  Violence just begets more violence in a downward spiral.

I have seen this before.  In the early 1960s, I saw the assassinations of the brothers Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many more martyrs in the struggle against segregation.  By the late ’60s and into the early ’70s, the Left in America (including factions of the peace movement and the student movement, along with the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement) had adopted the same kinds of violent terror tactics that the White Citizens Councils and KKK and John Birchers had done earlier.  The bombings of black churches led to the bombings of ROTC buildings and National Guards barracks–until by 1974 one had police in many cities as practically occupying armies.  The very fabric of our society threatened to unravel.

I don’t want to see this repeat–by either the right or the left.  Yet. the first reported arson on a clinic offering abortion goes all the way back to 1976.  Since that time there have been over 200 arsons or bombings of clinics and hospitals where abortions are provided.  Beginning with the assassination of Dr. David Gunn in 1993, there have been at least 10 assassinations and attempted assassinations in the U.S. and Canada of health personnel connected with providing abortions. (Dr. George Tiller himself was shot in both arms in 1993 and now has been killed in his Withita, KS church.)  Both clinic personnel and women seeking abortions have been attacked with acid in over 100 cases since 1993.  From 1998-2002 over 500 letters containing or threatening to contain the deadly virus Anthrax have been mailed to clinics and health care providers connected to abortion services.  Women seeking to enter clinics offering abortions have been punched, kicked, beaten (all the while people yell, “We love your baby!”), given abusive speech, and much else.

The result of this terrorism has not been to change the laws–but it has reduced greatly the number of places where women can seek legal abortions in this nation.  U.S. Marshals are having to provide protection to vulnerable doctors and other clinic personnel in the wake of Dr. Tiller’s murder.

If you and your church oppose abortion without making clear your opposition to all such violence, then you are part of the problem.  If you use terms like “Tiller the killer” and make comparisons to Nazis or talk about the the murder of abortion providers as “justifiable homicide,” then you are part of the problem.  You are contributing to an atmosphere of violence.

But you aren’t ending abortions, but merely driving them back underground.  You are not creating the kind of culture which can welcome life.  And, like the Left wing zealots that bombed ROTC buildings or the Rightist racists which bombed black churches, you are threatening the fabric of our democratic society.

Vigorous debate, yes.  Political organizing, yes.  Peaceful protests, yes.  Creating alternatives, yes.  In all issues of conscience this is our duty.  But violence, no.

Christians in this nation have been shocked by the recent Pew Report showing that all churches are declining and that “none of the above” is a growing religious category.  I’m not.  When the German churches backed Hitler, the next generation grew disillusioned with the churches–and they have never fully recovered.  When the American churches of the 50s and 60s supported segregation and the Vietnam war, they lost the next generation.  Now we have a generation which has seen huge church support for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, for torture, for the demonization of Muslims and gays, and for anti-abortion violence.  So, we look to lose another generation. 

U.S. Christians,  it is time we took a long look in the mirror.  In the words of the famous Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

 Operation Rescue is a group that constantly tries to have it both ways.  It always bemoans clinic violence, but spends more time saying that the doctors like Tiller had it coming (Randall Terry,”He reaped what he sowed.”).  They also tend to share membership overlaps with the crazies in the fringe groups.  For instance, it seems that people in Operation Rescue helped Dr. Tiller’s assassin track his victim’s movements.

Groups encouraging anti-abortion terrorism in the name of being “pro-life” include:

The Army of God; American Coalition of Life Activists; 34 signers of the “Justifiable Homicide” statement celebrating the murder of Dr. David Gunn in 1993.  Operation Save America; Missionaries to the Unborn (has deck of “black heart” cards with “death merchants”–doctors who perform abortions–on them; rebukes pro-life groups for denouncing Tiller’s murder or for offering to aid the police in capturing those who would commit clinic violence);

June 2, 2009 Posted by | abortion, assassination, atheism, Christianity, civil liberties, human rights., terrorism prevention, violence | 10 Comments

Are We Back to Assassinating Abortion Doctors?

Well, it appears that Dr. George Tiller, M.D., of Witchita, KS, a physician who would perform abortions, has been assassinated in his church by a “pro-life” activist.  We’re back to this.  A number of clinics where abortions were performed were bombed in the ’80s and there were a number of doctors and clinic personnel killed in the ’90s by anti-abortion activists.  This form of domestic terrorism then died out.  Anti-abortion activists stopped comparing such actions to attempts to assassinate Hitler during the Holocaust. 

But we’re back to it, it seems. 

I don’t think this is typical of the pro-life movement, but I have talked to many in it who seem happy that this kind of violence intimidates many doctors and hospitals into refusing to provide abortion services.  It is terrorism which works.

I connect this murder not to the mainstream movement against abortion, but to the rise in rightwing extremist violence that began late in last year’s presidential campaign–and includes the mass murder in a Unitarian church in Tennessee just after the election because “liberals gather there” and the murderer could not get to high profile liberals like Obama.  This kind of rightwing violence is being fomented by the ravings of those like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh who dominate much of American airwaves.

There is nothing “pro-life” about assassinations. It is not “justifiable homicide” no matter what one’s views of abortions are.  It is domestic terrorism. 

There is also nothing Christian about this.  I understand opposition to abortion.  For most of my life I believed all abortions were morally wrong and I still believe that most abortions are immoral, but some are tragically the best of bad options.  But killing “the born” to prevent killing “the pre-born” (as anti-abortionists refer to gestating fetuses) is a betrayal of anything pro-life.  It simply adds to the cycle of violence.

June 1, 2009 Posted by | abortion, assassination, terrorism prevention | 23 Comments

A Brief Note on Abortion Discussions

I am tired of every subject on this blog being compared to abortion.  Seamless Garment folks believe that all life issues should be judged the same.  I respect this view and once held it, but have already noted why I think that the differences between abortion, war, the death penalty, euthanasia, etc. are at least as important as the similarities.  My core conviction is not “life” but human personhood.  You may disagree with that.

But I am tired of every subject, from war to torture, etc. being used by some commenters to try to turn things back to a discussion of abortion.  Quit it. If it keeps up, I will start banning those engaging in this tactic. 

I may be wrong in my reluctantly and narrowly pro-choice position.  But you will not convince me by trying to bring it up at every opportunity.  Instead, all you will do is make me unwilling to engage you on ANY subject.  That’s what “one-note-charlie” folks don’t seem to understand.  You lose more people than you gain by such tactics. 

Even when I considered myself a seamless garment person, I did not consider abortion to be THE issue that overrides all others.  I did not and do not agree with picking judges and SCOTUS justices based on the likelihood that they will or will not overturn <i>Roe v. Wade</i> because of my experience that most judges who oppose <i>Roe</i> also have far right views on numerous other legal matters–and they are rightwing judicial activists who attempt to turn back the legal clock on numerous matters.  So, when I did oppose <i>Roe</i>, I believed that it should be overturned not by stacking the SCOTUS with far-right ideologues like the late Chief Justice Renquist (a racist who believed that <i>Brown v. Board of Education</i> had been wrongly decided), and justices Scalia, Alito, Thomas, and Chief Justice Roberts (who clearly lied in his senate testimony), but by amending the Constitution.  That would ban abortion while not radically disturbing 50+ years of legal precedent.

I also am increasingly of the opinion that the Republican ESTABLISHMENT (as opposed to the GOP grassroots) is not really interested in banning abortion.  They just want to raise money on the issue and use the issue as a wedge in campaigns.  From 2001 to 2006, the GOP controlled all 3 branches of the U.S. government, but made ZERO efforts to overturn <i>Roe v. Wade</i>.

Just as Democrats knew that  any justice nominated by Pres. Bush would be conservative and pro-life and could only work to try to get the best nominee possible  within such a framework, so Republicans HAD to know that Obama would appoint a pro-choice justice for SCOTUS.  It was a foregone conclusion.   It also does not change the dynamics of the court on this issue.  You still  have four (4) strong justices against abortion (Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Alito) and four (4) strong  justices for upholding <i>Roe v. Wade</i> (Ginsburg, Breyer, Stevens, and Sotomayor) and one swing vote (Kennedy) who is more conservative than liberal.  With a good case, anti-abortion choice folks could now, just as for the last 9 years, overturn <i>Roe v. Wade</i> on a 5-4 ruling.  So, why aren’t they trying?  Sotomayor’s nomination changes nothing in this regard.  (Nor is any Obama nomination in this 4 year term likely to do so since the other justices who might retire this term, Stevens & Ginsburg, are already on the liberal side.  Only if one of the conservative justices retire–and they are relatively young and most in good health–is any Obama pick going to make ANY difference on <i>Roe v. Wade</i>.  That would NOT have been the case if John McCain had won last November, however.   My guess is that no conservative justice will retire until 2012 at the earliest and then it is likely to be either Kennedy, the eldest of the conservatives, or Thomas, who simply does not look in good health and who does not seem to like the work anymore.  )

P.S.  Regarding Judge Sotomayor, it is probably pro-choicers who should ask more questions at her hearing.  She has ruled on only 1 case regarding abortion (Center for Reproductive Policy v. Bush 2002)  and, in it, she UPHELD the Bush-era “Mexico City Rule” that refused government funding to international relief and aid groups that funded abortions.  Judge Sotomayor ruled that this policy did not violate the constitution’s equal protection clause because “the government is free to favor the anti-abortion position over the pro-choice position and can do so with public funds.”  This is hardly a ruling that would thrill members of the National Abortion Rights Action League or the ACLU’s section on reproductive choice.  One ruling does not show an overall attitude toward abortion, but it shows that anti-abortion groups have more reason to be cautiously optimistic about this nominee than do pro-choice groups.

May 26, 2009 Posted by | abortion | 11 Comments

A Confession: Why I Am No Longer “Pro-Life” on Abortion

Let me describe a long and painful journey to an uncomfortable and reluctant conclusion. (I reached this point in the ’90s, but I do not like to talk about it.  This will be the most complete breaking of my silence to date.) I was once “consistently pro-life,” part of the “seamless garment” movement that rejected abortion, active euthanasia, the death penalty, and war and looked down on those who were “pro-life” on only some of those issues as inconsistent.  But I eventually came to the reluctant conclusion that the issues were only superficially similar, that each had to be considered as morally separate questions, and that the “seamless garment” didn’t stretch far enough to cover everything.  The cloth tore for me on the issue of abortion. (I later realized that I had not even come to these issues all at once. I opposed the death penalty since my teens, long before I was a conscientious objector to war.  And I had always made the distinction between active euthanasia [killing the terminally ill] and passive euthanasia [allowing the terminally ill to die without “superhuman measures” that delay death]. )  This applies to others who take different stands than I do, too.  Someone CAN be opposed to abortion and supportive of the death penalty (the opposite of my stance) without being inconsistent; their underlying moral principle is not life, but innocent life, whereas my underlying commitment is to personhood.

I may someday write a series arguing the biblical and moral case that abortion is sometimes the lesser of evils and while abortions are always moral tragedies, they are sometimes morally permissable in the midst of tragedy.  This isn’t really that case.  This is simply my testimony about how I got where I am, today.

It will surprise those younger than my generation that abortion was not always a hot topic in this nation, either politically or among churches.  Well before Roe v. Wade (1973), a number of Christian denominations had passed resolutions in favor of more liberal abortion laws.  It was a spirited debate among theologians (with folk like Karl Barth cited on both sides of the issue), but not with the fervor of later days.  Evangelicals largely ignored the issue.  The only denomination adamantly opposed was the Roman Catholic Church–and their stance was clearly tied up with their anti-birth control belief. So, I grew up in an atmosphere that considered elective abortions as reluctantly “better than unwanted babies thrown into garbage cans” (a news story when I was 10). 

I was vaguely uncomfortable with this view, but it was not “front burner.” The “hot” moral issues were the end of the Vietnam War, Watergate, the women’s rights movement, and the environment.  I became  active in trying to prevent the reinstatement of capital punishment.

Then I became a Christian, joined the army, and became a pacifist and conscientious objector—a story I have told elsewhere.  Almost immediately, I instinctively rejected abortion as a form of killing.  As I went to seminary, I joined organizations that promoted the “seamless garment” ethic.  I was disturbed that most pro-lifers were also pro-death penalty and pro-war, but I also thought that liberals were inconsistent: the liberal impulse is to protect those who are vulnerable, but they seemed unconcerned about the most vulnerable of all, the unborn. I was torn: I did not like the anti-woman rhetoric of most “pro-lifers” (much less the bombings and violence at abortion clinics in the ’80s and ’90s), but I also knew that many early feminists (e.g., Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul) had seen abortion as violence done TO women. 

So, what changed me?  The change came slowly in the late ’80s and ’90s.  First, was the destruction of the “seamless garment” organization JustLife which evangelical pacifist Ron Sider had founded to help elect “consistently pro-life” politicians of whatever political party.  To my dismay,  I found that, when push came to shove, JustLife would actually endorse anti-abortion politicians no matter WHAT else they favored.  In reality, one “life issue” trumped all others.  So, JustLife fell apart and I left in search of more consistent “consistent pro-lifers.”  I became part of Feminists for Life, but saw the same pattern developing.  I was also noticing a disturbing trend: the states which had the most restrictions on abortions also had the fewest pre-natal resources for the poor and next to no aid in raising children or making adoption easier. 

Then I began to notice that Protestant pro-lifers, even “seamless garment” types, were adopting the Catholic position on birth control. They began to refer to contraceptive pills as “abortifacients.”  And the usual  exceptions, for rape, incest, and to protect the life of the mother, were being eliminated from even “progressive” pro-life organizations.

It all came to a head when I met a few couples with truly tragic pregnancies.  In the first instance, the developing fetus had an extreme case of Spina Bifida and was not even developing a spinal cord. Thus, the potential child was doomed.  If the mother carried to term, the fetus would probably be stillborn. If not death would follow quickly. And carrying to term risked the life of the mother, especially if the pregnancy turned cancerous.  So, the chose to terminate the pregnancy, reluctantly.  When I told this story to a woman who was prominent in Feminists for Life, she did  not weep at the tragedy,  but condemned the couple as murderers. According to her, the woman should have risked her life to give birth to the doomed child  and shown it love for the few minutes of life it might have. Having chosen otherwise, she was a “murderer.” I could not agree and shrank away in horror.

In a second instance, there was a false alarm.  A couple had married late and so, when pregnant, monitored the pregnancy closely.  A chemical  test gave a “false positive” and told them  that the developing fetus was anencephalic–developing no brain, but only a brain stem. Now, a secondary level sonagram  showed that the baby-to-be was just fine and the couple delivered happily.   But the “pro-lifers” condemned them for EVEN HAVING THE TESTS, for considering abortion in any case.  Again, I could not agree.

So, I quit.  I decided to re-think the issues altogether.  I discovered that I considered fetal human life as “potential persons” from conception onward, but not actual persons until viable outside the womb, with fully developed nervous systems as the minimum requirement.  Such potential should normally be encouraged, but my loyalty in conflict situations is to the actual personhood of the mother.  With that in mind, I understood that I considered abortion to be the lesser of evils not only in extreme cases of fetal deformity, but in the cases of rape and incest as well as to save the life and health of the mother. I still oppose abortion as a form of “birth control after the fact.” I still think “reproductive choice” should be exercised PRIOR to conception.

I also think that too much pro-choice rhetoric treats the entire subject as a matter of civil liberties only–as if developing human life has no moral value at all.  The “mass of cells” rhetoric is inexcusable. (So, by the way,  are two sides shouting “Baby Killer!” or “Woman Hater!” across picket lines at each other and pretending this is moral discourse!)

But I have concluded that the pro-lifers do not have enough of a category for moral tragedy in which there are no good outcomes or choices–only “as good as possible.” They also leave out the category of moral heroism.  A woman who is raped and chooses to bear the child (and either raise the child or give it up for adoption) is morally heroic, trying bravely to redeem a horrible crime.  But those who would FORCE her to do this or say she is morally OBLIGATED are like Jesus’ characterization of the scribes:  giving others’ heavy burdens they do not share.  A woman who has a terminal pregnancy like the ones I described, who chooses to risk her life in order to show some love to a doomed baby is heroic.  But saying she MUST do that is deny her own value as a human person and moral agent. Moral heroes go beyond what is morally obligatory.  The pro-lifers do not seem to recognize this.

I believe the numbers of abortions are way too high.  But I believe the way to lower these is not through restrictive laws, but through reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies and through making adoptions easier and giving pregnant women MORE choices. Also, in encouraging male sexual responsibility. 

I may be wrong.  And I came to this view reluctantly.  I even wish I could go back.  A seamless garment view is much simpler, much neater.  But I have come to see it as too simple,  not having room for the moral complexity of real life. I worry about that because just war types charge pacifists with the same lack of moral complexity, but I think there are differences in the two issues that are important.  This is where my journey has taken me.  I am not pro-life, but pro-personhood.

I have come to see the “consistent pro-life” position as not a “seamless garment,” but a patchwork cloth that is too small to try to cover all the issues (death penalty, euthanasia, war, abortion) adequately.  The similarities are important, but the differences are, too.

Let the name calling begin.

P.S.  Since I cannot take time to argue the biblical/theological case for a pro-choice view, I should give a plug for a good case made by others.  Paul D. Simmons, Birth and Death: Bio-Ethical Decision-Making. Westminster, 1983.

April 1, 2009 Posted by | abortion | 53 Comments

The Barack Obama-Rick Warren Fiasco

In case you are one of the few people (at least in the U.S.) who hasn’t heard, mega-church pastor Rick Warren will deliver the invocation at the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama.  It’s hard to tell who is angrier at the news:  For weeks a bored U.S. media has tried to claim that liberals and progressives (especially “the liberal blogosphere”) are angry over Obama’s cabinet choices.  The truth is that, while some of those choices have not made progressives happy (Gates as Sec. of Defense, Geithner as Treasury Secretary), the mood among liberals has not been one of anger, but of anxiety.  Progressives are nervous that Obama’s movements for change could be far less progressive than he seemed to claim in his campaign and far less than we would like to see.  But most of us are taking a wait and see attitude: He hasn’t even officially become president, yet.  If his policies are even reasonably progressive and successful, we’ll be happy. And none of us expects to get everything we want–and we know that the Bush years cannot be cleaned up overnight.  So, the media story of “angry liberals” is mostly fiction–until now.

Rick Warren, pastor of the huge mega-church, Saddleback Church, in Orange County, CA (and, nominally, at least, a Southern Baptist) has been a rising star of the Religious Right.  In ’04, he campaigned vigorously against Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), saying that Christians should not care about the Iraq war (!). The only “values” for Christian voters should be opposition to legal abortion, opposition to gay rights, especially same-sex marriage, civil unions, domestic partnerships and other “marriage like arrangements,” (which Warren compared to incest, bestiality, and child molestation), support for low taxes (??), and support for home schooling.  After the ’04 election, under his wife’s influence, Warren seemed to broaden his moral concerns to include preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS (Obama came to his church and spoke on this–with Warren receiving criticism for inviting a pro-choice politician to speak), the environment, racism, and stopping genocide in places like the Congo and, especially, Darfur (Warren wanted U.S. military intervention–though where we were to get the troops while stuck in Afghanistan and Iraq, he never said!).

Because of his broadening agenda, people like my friend, ethicist Dave Gushee, began to list Warren as an “evangelical centrist,” rather than part of the evangelical right or left.  But Warren continued to prioritize making abortion illegal (even in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother) and opposition to equal rights for LGBT persons.  He used his “Saddleback Forum” this past summer, asking both presidential candidates identical questions on live TV,  in a way that–temporarily, at least–helped John McCain by biased phrasing designed to restart the culture wars and shore up the Religious Right’s support for McCain.   (He also showed almost as little sensitivity as McCain to the plight of poor and working class people, suggesting that $250,000 annually did not make one rich!) That failed, but Saddleback and Warren were also major contributors to the successful campaign to pass California’s “Proposition 8” which rolled back the recent right to same-sex marriage in CA.  GLBT folks lost everywhere on November 4, the night that Obama won, and have been struggling to not feel excluded ever since–especially when Obama, who in other ways is the most gay-friendly president, yet, publicly shares Warren’s opposition to same-sex marriage (though not to civil unions or domestic partnerships).

So, the GLBT community (and allies like myself) are among those who are furious with Obama for inviting Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration–despite the fact that the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, an African-American United Methodist minister who was one of the leaders of the civil rights movement, is a progressive icon, and long a champion of gay rights in both society and church, is giving the benediction.  The aging Lowery is not as well known in recent years as Warren and many people tune out by the time of the benediction.  If the two prayers were reversed, many pro-gay folk might be willing to applaud Obama’s inclusivism rather than feel slapped in the face by the prominence of Warren in the program.

Progressive faith leaders are also hacked off.  Many of them risked much to help Obama get elected (I disapprove of campaigning by clergy for anyone!) or, at least, risked much in countering the many spurious smears of the Right toward Obama during the campaign.  They see Warren as a “friendlier James Dobson” and feel very slighted.

But not all the criticism of this move comes from the Left.  Pro-life groups are furious with Warren for ACCEPTING Obama’s invitation.  They believe Warren, in broadening his moral agenda, has been too lukewarm in his pro-life work recently.  “Pallin’ around with pro-abortionists” (as the governor of Alaska might phrase it) makes them furious.  Many in the Religious Right see Obama’s election as a moral disaster and for one of their own to pray at the inauguration is infuriating–a reaction similar to the one Billy Graham received in January of ’93 for participating in the inauguration of Pres. Bill Clinton.

What to make of all this?  Count me among those on the left who are angry at this choice–with some reservations.  On the one hand, I love the way Obama reaches out to his adversaries.  It is part of following Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies.  Throughout his public life, Obama has sought to engage those with whom he disagrees–and has pushed for progressives and Democrats to engage even conservative evangelicals, not glossing over differences, but seeking common ground. Bravo, Barack.

On the other hand, I understand those who say that Obama does better in reaching out to adversaries than to longtime friends and allies.  In the wake of the Proposition 8 (and similar measures in other states) triumph of anti-gay forces, Obama needed a strong symbolic move that told GLBT folk and allies that he had not forgotten them and still planned on advancing much of their agenda (if not pushing for marriage equality).  He has appointed one openly-gay cabinet member and it is widely believed that  another, William White (a retired officer who is currently head of the Intrepid Museum), leads consideration for Secretary of the Navy. (Never believe these things until they are official, however. Like many environmentalists, I was thrilled in finding that Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) was the leading pick for Secretary of the Interior–and, then, yesterday it went to Sen. Salazar (D-CO), who HAS been an environmental lawyer and has done some strong green moves, but whose record is far more mixed than Grijalva’s!)

There were lots of ways to reach out to Rick Warren without inviting him to give the invocation.  And Obama could have even selected another white evangelical equally opposed to same-sex marriage (but, like Obama himself, more liberal on other gay rights) who does not send the same “slap in the face” signal to GLBT folks that Warren does: e.g. Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, Richard Mouw, or recently-fired NAE publicly policy chief, Richard Cizik, who now supports civil unions and is reconsidering same sex marriage.  Obama could have chosen David P. Gushee, who is very traditional on gay rights (but for whom this is not a major issue), but, who is the head of Evangelicals for Human Rights, a major part of the National Religious Coalition to Abolish Torture–which would send a very different signal than having Rick Warren deliver the invocation.

Like most progressives, I’ll get over this. Obama can hardly take back the invitation, now.  If he quickly reverses “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on gays serving openly in the military ( a move now supported by most military leaders), sends Congress legislation to abolish the federal “Defense of Marriage Act,” etc., he’ll have the warm support of most GLBT folks and their allies like me.  But just as the victories for anti-gay legislation on November 4th introduced a sour note into the celebratory triumph of election night, the prominence of Rick Warren in the inauguration ceremonies dims the luster of a day that was supposed to usher in a new era of change.

I hope Obama learns how to continue to reach out to his adversaries, opponent, even enemies while, at the same time, doing better at not alienating friends and allies.  Yes, I am glad that Obama wants to get beyond the petty politics of revenge–the Bush years held far too much of that!  And, yes, I am glad that he has no plans to pander to the Left base of the Democratic Party the way that Bush (and the recent version of McCain) pandered to the Right base of the GOP.  But I just wish that it didn’t feel like progressives taken for granted by the incoming administration.  Say it isn’t so, Barack.

UPDATE:  Well, now the United Nations has just created a global treaty decriminalizing homosexuality, BUT THE U. S. HAS REFUSED TO SIGN! This, despite the fact that our very conservative Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that all “sodomy laws” (mostly outlawing same-sex acts, though some of those laws applied to heterosexuals–and even married couples) were unconstitutional.  So, Obama should act quickly to sign this in the new year.  It will be his actions rather than his symbols that define his presidency–but I still think inviting Warren was a mistake.

December 18, 2008 Posted by | abortion, Christianity, civil liberties, evangelicals, GLBT issues, homosexuality, politics | 26 Comments

Vatican to Catholics: No Amnesty!

I was listening to the BBC World News last night when I heard the strangest story in some time.  The Vatican is ordering all Roman Catholics to quit donating to Amnesty International.  What? Doesn’t modern Catholic Social teaching promote and defend universal human rights? Yes, it does. So, why would the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace suddenly oppose Catholic support for the largest and most effective grassroots human rights organization? Because it claims that AI now “promotes abortion” as a human right.

Amnesty spokespeople claim this is a distortion. AI has always drawn its definitions of human rights from international law.  So, on issues where there is no consensus, it is mute. For instance, AI does not take a stand against all war, whatever its members think. It simply insists during wars that all factions uphold the human rights of all, according to international laws of war. Similarly, it takes no stand on the morality of elective abortion, per se.  Much less, does AI “promote abortion.” Rather, AI defends the full humanity of women and their reproductive rights–including that reproduction be voluntary. So, in cases of rape and incest, especially, AI insists that abortion be legal and available to women.

Comments by both sides were colorful.  Vatican spokespeople claimed that abortion is murder so if any exception were made for rape or incest this would treat unborn children as “enemies that one could lawfully destroy.”  AI spokespeople pointed out the Vatican, under the last pope, had also harshly condemned NATO troops during wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia because NATO troops had made “morning after” pills available to the traumatized women of the rape camps.

I’ve said it before and will say it again. I believe that most abortions are immoral.  I also believe that rights language, however useful in other contexts, has not proven all that useful in this debate since it constantly pits the rights of pregnant women against the rights of their gestating fetuses.  But I am on AI’s side.  The Bible nowhere discusses abortion directly.  But in the only passage that is closely connected to the issue (Ex. 21:22-25), while both the developing life and the pregnant woman are valued, the woman’s life is given clear precedence.  The Catholic position is based on the idea that the purpose of sex is ONLY for pregnancy and that all sex which is open to pregnancy is more in line with “natural law” than otherwise. Thus, since the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church has condemned artificial birth control as a mortal sin (and makes no distinction between forms of birth control which prevent conception and those which abort fertilized ovae) and has judged rape and incest as “less evil” than birth control, abortion, same-sex encounters, or masturbation–because rape and incest, however evil, allow for the possibility of pregnancy whereas these other actions do not.

This “reasoning” discounts women’s lives. It discounts the threat to women involved in pregnancy (Catholics have condemned married couples for having consensual surgical sterilization even when doctors have said that another pregnancy risks the woman’s life!) and absolutizes the value of gestating life.  Just as millions of Catholics reject the teaching on artificial birth control, I hope they will continue to donate to Amnesty International as it struggles to protect human rights–including the rights and lives of women.

June 14, 2007 Posted by | abortion, church-state separation, economic justice, human rights. | 15 Comments

Guest Blogger: Jesus & Abortion

Friends (and other readers):
I don’t usually invite guest columns for this blog, but I felt that a conservative acquaintance got a raw deal by some of my fellow progressives. Lex Cathedra is his blogger handle and he asked a very probing question during a debate on abortion, but was simply dismissed. Originally, Lex asked to post this as a comment on my previous “Religious Liberty Dimensions in the Abortion Debate” column, but I argued that enough time and new entries had happened that only he and I would see the column. So, I’m giving him a front and center podium. I have removed personal names from his post, but everything else is just as Lex sent this to me. I will hold my comments until others have had a chance. As usual, I will publish any comment on the subject and not containing bad language.

Now, before I turn you over to Lex, please call the White House Comment Line (202-456-1111) and urge President Bush to use our full diplomatic pressure in the Middle East for an immediate ceasefire and for our governmnet to take quick steps to push for peace in the entire Middle East.
Michael the Leveller.

“Of course Jesus would make abortion referrals. He helped anyone who had a need.”

This answer was given in response to a direct question of mine in an e-mail to [BLANK], who is affiliated with [a national progressive organization.][Blank]is one of [the organization’s]”pillars” and regular article contributor.

I replied to him, “YOUR Jesus would make abortion referrals, not mine.”

I mentioned [this person’s]position and mine in an e-mail to a friend that I’d made [there], and here’s how he replied:

“Interesting reaction to [bland’s]post. Here’s mine; My Jesus would have seen if there was any other way and if there wasn’t then only reluctantly and with great sorrow make the referral especially if the mothers life and health were at stake. To me, abortion is the “court of last resort”. It is, after all, an invasive surgical procedure. Aside from the political ramifications that I’ve already talked about regarding women’s equality, I also see it as necessary to protect the health of the woman.

Let me ask you this. Would your Jesus force a woman to carry the child of her rapist if she didn’t want to?”

Here’s how I replied:

“When Jesus sent out the disciples to heal in his name, they did so. Healing was normative, as it was in the early Church. Why isn’t it normative today? I can’t fathom THAT Jesus referring any woman for an abortion. He’d have healed them instead, and I dare say that [Blank] has reinvented Jesus to conform to what he, [Blank], would do in such a situation, i.e., make an abortion referral. Projecting onto Jesus -how shall I describe it? – our lack of faith in God’s promises and abilities, is disappointing, to say the least.

Is it wildly unrealistic for a Christian to believe in miracles today? Does [your denomination] teach Dispensationalism?

My Jesus would so bless the rape victim that she would, for love’s sake, not only forgive her rapist but also carry the child to term. If the only way that we can describe it is in terms of her being ‘forced’ to carry an unintended pregnancy to term, haven’t we misunderstood the power of God? In no way do I see the Jesus as revealed in the NT referring her for an abortion because of how the child was conceived. We’re the ones who rather PRESUME that he would do just that.”

Other faith traditions will do what they think they must. My concern is with Christianity. What do you think Jesus would do?

+++++ Lex Cathedra

July 28, 2006 Posted by | abortion | 17 Comments

Religious Liberty Dimensions of the Abortion Debate

I am not intending to discuss the morality of abortion per se. Frankly, I have long believed that both “pro-choice” and “pro-life” advocates have way oversimplified the moral complexities involved in order to rally troops. You know the drill: extreme pro-choicers talking as if the civil liberties of pregnant women were the ONLY consideration and of medical abortions having no more moral significance than wart removal and extreme pro-lifers (having the louder megaphone for some time now) equating all abortions with murder and demonizing the motives of anyone who brings up hard cases or complexities. Deciding in the mid’80s that one side yelling “woman hater” and the other yelling “baby killer” did not count as moral discourse, I joined Common Ground which seeks its namesake between pro-choicers and pro-lifers. I spent 10 years with the organization and the experience would make good training for negotiating Middle East peace! At any rate, if someone is interested in getting past simplistic slogans to hard moral reasoning, I recommend Abortion: A Reader, ed. Lloyd Steffan, The Pilgrim Library of Ethics (Pilgrim Press, 1996) which gathers some of the best arguments, religious and secular, on all sides of the debate.

What concerns me here is the religious liberty aspects of the debate–which, sadly, were not even addressed in Roe v. Wade (1973). A brief side-note: Contrary to the constant rhetoric of the right, this decision was NOT immediately controversial. Catholic officials opposed it from the beginning, but usually in language tied in with their opposition to artificial birth control. Many later figures of the religious right either ignored the decision or made statements in the affirmative. The latter category included the notorious fundamentalist Baptist W.A. Criswell, author of Why I Preach the Bible as Literally True. Criswell noted that biblically, life begins with breath, and said that he always believed abortion should be left up to moral decision of the mother. Another similar voice was that of the right-wing theologian Norman Geisler. In the earlier editions of his book, Christian Ethics, he laid down the principle that “born life has priority over unborn life” and spelled out a limited number of cases in which he would believe that abortion is a moral option. Later, after the pro-life movement dominated the religious right, Geisler’s book came out in a new edition in which this section was removed and he argued that all Christians MUST be pro-life. Changing one’s mind is perfectly okay, but it is dishonest not to admit that you HAVE changed your mind and not to admit that an issue is complex enough for people to come to different conclusions.

When the Supreme Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, THAT was controversial. White preachers accused the SC OTUS of communism, billboards went up throughout the South threatening the lives of justices, and there were widespread calls for the impeachment of Chief Justice Warren (although the decision was unanimous). NOTHING like that happened when Roe was handed down and abortion was not a hot political topic until the 1980 campaign of Ronald Reagan, aided by a book published in the late ’70s by Francis Schaeffer and a then-obscure doctor named C. Everett Koop (later Reagan’s Surgeon General) called Whatever Happened to the Human Race? which first made abortion and euthanasia widespread evils among the Right and the battle cries for a new “right to life” movement.

This, in itself, is not damning. Sometimes it takes awhile for something to be perceived as an evil that must be opposed. I have nothing against people changing their minds. I do protest the dishonesty which claims that the new position is the one you’ve ALWAYS held, that ALL right-thinking people (all Christians, or all Bible-believing Christians, etc.) hold and have always held, and portraying your opponents as, at best, morally obtuse, and, at worst, in league with the powers of darkness. This is wrong, but it has characterized the Religious Right’s tone in the abortion debate from 1980 onward.

To a lesser extent, this kind of dishonesty has also occurred among some pro-choicers: acting as if all feminists always were pro-choice when the historical record indicates otherwise. (Abortion opposition wasn’t even a plank in the original platform of the National Organization for Women, nor in the first edition of Betty Friedan’s manifesto, The Feminine Mystique.) And groups like Feminists for Life are right to note the opposition to abortion by such feminist foremothers as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton–although they often act as if these women had all the scientific knowledge of contemporary gynecologists. Historical context is ignored by too many on all sides of this debate.

This leads me to my first liberty of conscience principle in this debate: Respect for the consciences of all requires portraying both your views and theirs as honestly as possible, refusing distortions for partisan political gain. One has to have a respect for “information integrity” in public moral discourse, one that refuses to twist facts, statistics, etc. to favor one’s own perspective. One has to be willing to admit to data that count against one’s own position and has to admit when one has changed one’s mind, and to the complexities which allow different people to come to different conclusions. This is not because “anything goes,” but because respect for liberty of conscience is tied in with respect for truth and for the morality of HONEST debate of important moral and public policy issues.

A negative example of what I have in mind happened a couple of years ago (2004) when my former teacher, Dr. Glen Stassen, now of Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, wrote a widely reprinted op-ed which argued for keeping abortion legal, but reducing the numbers of abortions by examining the causes why women seek abortions. One major reason given is the unwillingness to raise a child on one’s own, but men do not usually marry unless they can find good employment–so when unemployment is down, abortion rates drop as well. After this was published, many on the right accused Glen of “economic determinism,” of being in the pay of the Democratic Party, of not being a “real Christian,” etc. and INSISTED that Glen’s data was wrong that abortions had declined under G.W. Bush, not under Clinton. (3 independent statisticians checked Glen’s data, corrected for some data he didn’t have, but basically supported his contention that abortions declined under Clinton and grew again under G.W. Bush and correlated with unemployment and lowpaying jobs.) That is dishonest and a failure to respect information integrity, as well as engaging in unfair ad hominem attacks.

The Stassens’ youngest son was born with several birth defects because Dot Stassen contracted rubella while pregnant–and they chose to carry to term and raise David despite the hardships. Moreover, Dot, a registered nurse, went to work for a school for unwed mothers seeking to provide alternatives to abortion AND unwanted pregnancies. The personal demonization of this wonderful Christian family because their approach to the abortion debate differs is intimidation and false witness–and stems from failure to respect liberty of conscience and debate issues fairly.

A second religious liberty dimension is this: Differing religions hold different views on the morality of abortion. Respect for liberty of conscience means that one cannot simply legislate one religious position (e.g. ,the official Catholic view) as the law of the land. Most religions appear to find abortion generally morally problematic, but there are widespread disagreements: Most Buddhists are pro-life, but Japanese Buddhists are mostly pro-choice and have developed rituals for abortions; Traditional Judaism allowed for abortion if the mother’s life was threatened and some rabbis extended this to a threat to the emotional health of the mother; the early church mostly opposed abortion, but it appears that this was strongly connected with its opposition to infanticide and it is impossible to tell from the sources  (e.g., the Didache) whether or not early abortions with modern methods would be allowed under some circumstances; abortion is not addressed directly in either the Old or New Testaments, despite its widespread practice in the ancient world; in the decades preceding Roe there was a growing number of Protestants who argued for the legitimacy of abortion in limited circumstances (the SBC was on record twice to this effect prior to 1973).

Does this mean that any attempt to restrict or outlaw abortion is automatically out of bounds on religious liberty grounds? No. In an analogy widely used by the Right, Southern slaveholders defended slavery on biblical grounds, but no one today argues that the outlawing of slavery is violation of religious liberty. And, if my religion allows for human sacrifice, the law will not support me in my desire cut out my neighbor’s heart and offer it to Kali. But, in these cases, the restrictions on some liberty are justified by the common good and by appeal to moral principles established by REASON that could be understood apart from a particular religious viewpoint.

For the most part (there are exceptions), the Right has been willing to engage in this kind of reasoned debate less and less as its political influence has grown. Now its attitude has been, “WE SPEAK FOR GOD, SO OUTLAW ABORTION NOW NO MATTER WHO DISAGREES!” That is clearly wrong. I especially object to the Right’s tactic of trying to stack the Supreme Court because the justices they want on the court in order to overtun Roe also hold to many views clearly at odds with the health of the common good (e.g., Renquist’s opinion that Plessy v. Ferguson should have been upheld; Scalia and Thomas’ opposition to the Miranda decision, etc.). A far more honest approach, respectful of liberty of conscience, would be to seek a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion, but this effort was early abandoned by the Right when it realized that it would have an easier time stacking the court than to get 3/4 of state legislatures to ratify the amendment–when polls consistently show that a strong majority of Americans favor keeping abortion legally available.

The ends don’t justify the means. This route may have been the harder road, but it would have respected liberty of conscience more since, to be successful, it would have had to persuade a large majority of the public that abortion is wrong under most, if not all, circumstances.

The right demonizes those who want to keep abortion as a legal option, but who recognize widespread abortions as being, at best, morally tragic, and working to reduce the number of abortions sought. I fail to understand this except as a theocratic exertion of power. After all, several European countries, especially Belgium and the Netherlands, have very liberal abortion laws, but very low abortion rates, due to strong social safety nets and widespread sex education and easy availability of artificial contraception. This approach is defended even by someone like Jim Forest, head of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, who lives in Holland and who notes the strong opposition to abortion by Eastern Orthodoxy for centuries. Why is such an approach wrong in the U.S.? Especially since even the Right agrees that if Roe is overturned a vast underground network for illegal abortions will erupt? Wouldn’t working on the causes for which abortions are sought be a better approach–one that can potentially unite rather than divide the nation?

I’ll end this post with a personal narrative. I will admit to having changed my view on the morality of abortion at least 3 times in my adult life–on THIS, I have been a flip-flopper. From the moment I became a pacifist as a young man, I instinctively opposed abortion as a form of violence. Upon closer examination, I became convinced that the fetus is NOT a human person (it is human life) at conception, but only a potential person. As such, it has a presumptive right to life (which grows during gestation), but this can be overridden by the rights of the mother, who is already a person–but the later in the pregnancy, the more it should take to override the presumptive right to life of the person-to-be.

This became less abstract when my wife was pregnant with our second daughter. Even though Kate was in her late ’30s, we decided against an amniocentesis–the risk of this invasive procedure causing miscarriage outweighed what it was likely to tell us about birth defects–and we would have raised a Down’s Syndrome child. But we did use another technique, less invasive, whose name I forget–and we got an emergency call from the Ob-Gyn saying that our child-to-be may have Spina Bifida. In extreme cases, no real spine develops and the child is stillborn or dies right after birth. We could see no reason to carry to term in such a case, especially since fetal death could happen BEFORE birth and be a threat to my wife’s life. So, we rushed for a level 2 ultrasound and, thankfully, found that it was a false alarm–Miriam had/has a very healthy spine. Kentucky forbids abortions even in the late 2nd trimester, so we would have had very little time to make a horrible choice if the worst had proven true.

But what horrified me most was that pro-lifers lined up to condemn us for even considering an abortion, even in the extreme case. We should have been willing, we were told, to risk even Kate’s life to carry to term, even if the fetus had no chance at all, so it could leave the world surronded by love, instead of in a cold hospital procedure. The utter lack of regard for Kate’s life expressed here showed me why so many pro-choice folk think that all pro-lifers are really anti-woman and simply pro-birth. Missing from this was any conception of moral heroism going beyond moral requirements: A pregnant woman may choose to risk her life on a lost cause, such as a developing fetus with no spine, but no one can morally REQUIRE her to do so. (Considering that such a risk of life could have left me a single parent and my older daughter motherless, it is also not clear that moral heroism is only exercised in one direction.)

There are many such examples which is why abortion is a morally complex issue. Liberty of conscience requires not only seeking laws which respect different religious conceptions about life and personhood, etc., but requires that law and morality and public discourse recognize the difference between moral duty and moral heroism.

July 3, 2006 Posted by | abortion, religious liberty, Religious Social Criticism | 21 Comments