Government Shutdowns: Moments of Insanity?

We should stop criticizing government shutdowns and start thinking about what the shutdowns tell us.

Our government inflicts us with pain all the time.  The recent government shutdown is the most accessible example of such pain.  This kind of discomfort is so repulsive because it happens without our consent, which leads us to mistrust the responsiveness of our American government.  And for good reason:

In a shutdown, well over 800,000 non-essential federal employees don’t know when they’ll receive their next paycheck.  In turn, the rest of us are left to deal with life under a temporarily incompetent, unresponsive federal government.  A lot of uncomfortable stuff happens and the government doesn’t seem to care.

We think situations like these shouldn’t happen in America.  If a government is by the people and for the people, as Lincoln pointed out, the people should never be angry about what the government does.  It should people-please; yet the vast majority of people aren’t pleased with government shutdowns.

Why do shutdowns like this happen in America?

A shutdown happens when Congress cannot agree on a budget before the start of the new fiscal year.    The Constitution and the law do not punish the government if it inconveniences the people with a shutdown.   Instead, Congressmen, as essential employees, still get paid.  And they are still given the responsibility to pass the budget.

The idea is, in a representative government, the representatives do not need legal punishment.  The ballot box is the Congressional cattle-prod.  All Congressmen, unless considering retirement, want to keep their jobs: they either enjoy the distinction that comes with it or want to continue their good influence in Congress.  Sure, legislators must respond well to organized interests who have lots of money, but at the end of the day, the right votes, not the right number of dollars, keeps someone in office.  The one sure way to keep their jobs is to pay attention to the input, opinions, and demands of their constituents.  A representative who does not have one eye in Washington and the other in his district is sure to jeopardize his seat.  So, they need no legal repercussions; we as voters also serve as the punishers.

This accountability mechanism, termed the ‘electoral incentive,’ means that if the representative does stuff in office that his voters disapprove of, it will show in the next election — with his unemployment.  With this in mind, the budget deadlock we just witnessed shows that some Congressmen held to the deep-seated conviction that a shutdown is better than its alternative (in this case, ObamaCare fully-funded), risking their seats in the process.

Does a shutdown like the one we just experienced successfully prevent its alternative?

Americans surely don’t think so: they tend to blame those on the other side for the pain they feel.  They ignore the risky signaling that’s taking place, and consider partisan actions that eventually force a shutdown rash, imprudent, and hopeless.

Americans in general agree that Congress was most to blame during the shutdown, which lessens Congress’ power to be successful.  Shutdown polls declare that the people blamed Republicans rather than Democrats and President Obama.  But notice that the polls tend to lump President Obama and Democrats into one category, which does not account for the consistently higher approval ratings of the President with respect to Congress.  In the end, Congress, not the president, will seem even more blameworthy.

With success falling out of sight, what were Republicans in Congress thinking by forcing a shutdown?  What response were they trying to invoke?

All government shutdowns anticipate pain and anger, but they communicate gravity. A shutdown communicates that the alternative is a more painful than itself. If we feel pains, we should assume something significant is happening.

Even further, In light of the fact that the Republican Party forced a similar government shutdown in 1995, when conditions were better, and had to deal with heavy repercussions, it is safe to assume that Republicans are definitely risking similarly punishing outcomes.  They have communicated a grave issue indeed.

Perhaps the gravity of the situation ran deeper than funding or defunding ObamaCare.  Perhaps they feared that such a law will instill dangerous ideas about the nature and purpose of health insurance.  Or, beyond health insurance, they feared that the law will feed the growing appetite for entitlements and instantaneous gratification that threatens the generous and selfless side of today’s America.

Must we merely complain about our pain?  No.  We should listen to the problem the pain communicates.  Look beyond the discomfort to its source; then consider why the cause is weighty enough to inflict the pain you feel.

In American government, pain is not weakness leaving the body.  The pain leaving the legislative body (and coming down to us) signals graver, more threatening, weaknesses in ourselves and our nation.

In Whom Do We Place Our Trust?

For certain, most Americans today do not trust the federal government. Whether it is the recent scandals revealing widespread abuse of power, the standard gridlock between two parties on important legislation, or the uncomfortably massive bureaucracy, the average citizen has a healthy suspicion that elected politicians do not act in the public’s best interest. This cynicism has dramatically climbed, as the present age is lamentably untrustworthy, and the nation feels out of control.

While our current lack of faith is caused by unprecedented breaches from the Obama administration, a distrust of government has always been part of the American political system. When the Founders proposed the Constitution, many feared that it would re-install tyranny under a domestic title. But the Founders shared those fears: they sought to spread power among many to prevent tyranny and maintain effective government. They believed free society functions best when the people refuse to easily give their consent and power to their leaders, guaranteeing the continuance of their liberty. At its best, the system must expect disappointment and prepare for it.

This distrust of political power, however, should also have its limits. Our alarm at having such a fidelity crisis is a fear that suspicion will become limitless. It is depressing when reality checks our patriotic ideals; despite our ability to elect whomever we chose, the greedy allure of Washington eventually and inevitably turns them into partisan self-seeking power brokers. The Jimmy Stewarts belonged to a different age, and they’re not coming back. Nevertheless, we hope sometime this disappointment will end, that leaders will rise who reliably enact our ideals and the American dream of lasting freedom is not beyond redemption.

If a certain faith in government cannot be restored, we are subject to greater danger than disillusion. As a republic, it is not feasible for the American people to self-govern directly, at least beyond the issues relevant to our immediate communities. For national and state problems, we must delegate authority to the chosen few, unless we want to lose the benefits of the many wonderful cultures and societies within the United States. We have to trust somebody, but we don’t always have the time to rebuild trust with established politicians, or to build it anew in candidates. This means we always elect with the possibility that the leader will disappoint our aims in some form or another.

That gets us back to the initial question: can we trust those to whom we give power? It is a civilized necessity, beyond the constraints even of our form of government, to reach the point of trusting another person to lead. If we never believe in someone, we leave ourselves open to following anyone. Unchecked skepticism leads to gullibility, because people must have someone to believe in; we refuse to remain in the anarchic terror of unbelief.

In such an unstable environment, it is obvious why many Americans still cling firmly to their belief in God. When many popular movements regard religion as oppressive, why do so many Americans still believe in a God they cannot see or hear? Perhaps the better question to ask is why they continue to believe in a God who loves them enough to die for them. Regardless of whether deity exists, such promises are more than what any legislative or executive official has given Americans to believe, faithful or not. Lincoln comes close, but his legacy cannot promise resurrection or eternal providence.

Some consider the slogan “In God We Trust” written upon our money and monuments to be a bygone phrase, the continuing existence of a violation to the institutionalized divide between official business and personal faith. One should likewise consider the benefit in having faith that, above the mortal squabbles which can only give us doubt, a supreme benevolence guards our nation from injustice and seeks the happiness of her citizens. We shall believe, so is it not better to trust a benign Creator and Savior, for the nation’s ultimate fate, than to trust in politicians who have and who will lead us astray?

Christian theology won’t solve the debt crisis or navigate the balance between national security and individual freedom, but it gives Americans a hope that bolsters their ability to let politics naturally unfold, without fatally mistrusting their temporary leaders. The Founding Fathers were at least deists, because they could only reconcile the rights of men if there was a sovereign God ruling the world, and could only hope for the success of federalism if people remembered the fallibility of their leaders. Jesus gives peace that passes understanding; human leaders are often tone deaf beyond patience. Americans would do well to trust in God as their sustaining liberty, and trust the government only as their conditional.

US Policy on Syria: Courage or Cowardice

Press releases from the UN, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and even the front lines of Syria itself, universally signaling Syria’s present instability, make one thing clear:  Syria’s future is not clear.   Should the world do anything to improve this situation?  Or should we cowardly sit back and watch Syria burn?  If world leaders, like the US, have the ability to control situations like this, shouldn’t they also have the responsibility to courageously improve it?

The civil war that now rages in Syria started two years ago when civilian protests and military suppression quickly escalated into bloodbaths killing thousands on both sides.  America quickly took an official but under-committed stand with the rebels, and on September 21, 2013 the whole world resounded with the cry to end Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people.

The reason world powers, like the US, have not come to Syria’s aid is clearer than Syria’s uncertain future.  The conflict that rages within has two divisions:

1) The rebels against the government.  The civilians despise the way Assad brutally mistreats them.  They have therefore taken up arms against him and his regime.

2) The rebels against themselves.  Up until a few days ago the rebellion groups, representing the hostile and diverse nature of Syria itself, fought each other with the same fervor they used against Assad.  For now rebellion groups have framed an alliance contract evidently undersigned by the leadership of 75% of Syrian rebellion forces.

There is little hope for a positive outcome from US intervention.  The US must justified its intervention before it actually intervenes.  Just as the UN employed moral justification to commit to the destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons, so too could America justify supporting the rebels on moral grounds, by saying “We protect human life.”

But support a side in Syria does not necessarily protect more lives than the current status quo.  Allying with Assad sends the message that the US cares little for human rights. Assad’s utter indifference for the lives of Syrians sparked the rebellion in the first place.  But allying with the coalition of rebellion forces promises more evils than it remedies.  The rebels’ present alliance in opposition to Assad paints over the rebel differences but does not make those differences disappear.  There is no reason to believe that giving the rebels the victory they want will result in respect for human life.  But there is much reason to believe it will result in a more vicious and sectarian civil war over Syrian power.  The US and other world powers must either leave things as they are or risk worse upheaval and bloodshed by intervening.

We should not charge America with abandoning its courage by choosing not to seek justice against Assad’s violations of human rights.  Such a charge demands a bad form of courage.  In the words of G. K Chesterton, “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms.  It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.”  Yes, the US must be willing to risk life in order to preserve life, even Syrian life.  Nevertheless, as Chesterton points out, courage as a principle has two extremes that are not courage:  living for nothing and dying for nothing.  That is, courage is the midpoint between the two extremes timidity and rashness.  Thus, present conditions matter just as much as the intended end result.  As Obama articulated so clearly to the UN, “The question is whether we possess the wisdom and the courage, as nation-states and members of an international community, to squarely meet those challenges; whether the United Nations can meet the tests of our time.”  America has not abandoned courage to stand up for justice in Syria, but it has abandoned “courage” pursued unwisely through rash, unclear decision-making.

The present situation, therefore, stays as it is.  The temptations to err on the side of foolhardiness or faintheartedness also remain.  External pressures discourage the US from true courage by reminding us of an obligation to virtue.  They say that America has the power to both envision and realize a more positive future for Syria.  And that power should not be left untapped.

Still, the idea that we can guarantee an improved future is a self-deception.  The United States can do nothing to ensure Syria’s future improvement.  The future is always unclear, though marginally predictable.  Our work as humans is not to enforce a re-envisioned future, but live excellently given the conditions present to us. Perhaps being a courageous world leader is less about what you do and more about when and how you do what you do. We must pursue good decisions not decisions that try to show how good we are.

We, as well as the people of Syria, must be courageous enough not to be tight-fisted, white-knuckled humans preoccupied with the future’s vast unknown.  Rather we should allow the present realization of our own helplessness, even smallness, lead us to trust in a God that both orchestrates and improves.

To best safeguard our future we must begin with our limited influence upon it.  The temptation to seek justice badly is too great for us to presume clear vision.  We alone cannot see; therefore let us be bold enough to trust in the One who does.

Autumn in the Sovereign Zone: Why “It’s My Body, I Can Do What I Want” Won’t Do

Autumn in the Sovereign Zone[1]

Anyone who has ever heard a conversation about abortion has heard pro-choice statements like:

  • “My body, my choice.”
  • “You can’t tell another person what she can’t do with her own body.”
  • “The fetus is part of her body.”
  • “The fetus is inside her body.”

When a pro-life advocate hears statements like these, a common impulse is to respond by saying, “But it’s not her body; it’s another body!” or “If the fetus is part of her body, does she have two heads and twenty toes?” or, perhaps, “But the unborn is a human being, here’s some evidence for that…”

Not so fast.  The pro-choice statements above are ambiguous.  If the pro-choice advocate is confused about whether the unborn is a separate organism from the mother, then graciously giving him an impromptu biology lesson might be helpful.  In many cases, though, the pro-choice advocate is intending to communicate that the woman can do what she wants even if the fetus is a human being.  Many pro-choice advocates don’t know how to articulate this argument in a way that helps pro-life advocates understand.  The pro-life advocate hears, “The fetus is not human,” but the pro-choice advocate means, “It doesn’t matter if the fetus is human.”

Pro-life people generally think there is one question to answer in order to determine the morality of abortion: “What is the unborn?”  Generally speaking, there is merit to this idea.  For instance, when a pro-choice advocate says abortion should be legal because some women are too poor to have a child, he is begging the question.  He is assuming the unborn is not a valuable human because (presumably) he wouldn’t say women should have the right to kill their toddlers if they are too poor.  If the unborn is human, like the toddler, then we can’t kill the unborn in the name of poverty any more than we would kill a toddler.  In contrast, attempting to give a reason that the unborn is not a valuable human being would make a better argument.[2]

One might be tempted to think that all pro-choice justifications can be accurately summarized as either 1) assuming the unborn isn’t human or 2) arguing that the unborn isn’t human.  But as Trent Horn[3] has pointed out, there is a third type of pro-choice justification, one that 3) admits the unborn is human and says that the woman can kill it anyway because of her bodily rights.

Learning to Recognize Bodily Rights Arguments

When I first heard this distinction, it seemed foreign to me.  Why would anyone admit that the unborn is a valuable human being and say it’s okay to kill it?  Then I started thinking about all of the conversations I’d had in which pro-choice people made references to the woman’s body and how it didn’t seem to matter to them when I demonstrated that the unborn is a separate human organism.  Could I have simply been misunderstanding them all along?

So I went on the lookout.  If someone made one of the above pro-choice statements, I would clarify if he was arguing that the unborn isn’t human or if he was making a bodily rights argument.  For instance, when someone said the unborn is part of the mother’s body, I asked:

“I want to understand you, but it sounds like you might be saying one of two different things.  Do you mean that the unborn is literally a part of her body, like a functional part or something; or do you mean that because it is inside her body and connected to her body that she has the right to kill it because she can do what she wants with her body?”

Almost every time I have asked this question, the pro-choice advocate has said that he meant the latter.  I ask a similar question when people say that the unborn is inside the woman, such as:

“I want to understand you, but it sounds like you might be saying one of two different things.  Do you mean that the unborn is not a valuable human being because it is inside the woman; or do you mean that even if it is a valuable human being, that a woman has the right to kill it because it’s inside her and she can do what she wants with her body?”

Almost every time, he responds by saying he meant the latter.  Since I began asking for clarification on this, I have found that bodily rights arguments are much more common than I had previously thought.

The pro-life mind is generally oriented towards the unborn: the unborn is a human being, and it should be illegal to kill human beings, so abortion should be illegal.  But pro-choice people are generally oriented differently.  Even if they don’t believe that the unborn is a human being, sometimes they don’t think that issue matters.  The important thing is that women can do what they want with their bodies, no matter what.  If this is the perspective of one of your pro-choice friends, then biological or philosophical arguments that the unborn is a human being are not likely to change his mind about abortion.  Some pro-choice people truly don’t care what the unborn is; the unborn is in the woman’s way, and that’s all that matters.

Pro-life advocates need to get in the habit of asking these kinds of clarification questions.  If we do not clarify, but merely assume we know what the pro-choice advocate means, then it’s likely our conversation will get stuck and neither person will know why.

Some might think, “What’s the use in trying to persuade people who think it’s okay to kill humans?  They’re so unreasonable.  A lost cause.”  I strongly disagree!  While I’ve found some hardcore moral relativists almost impossible to persuade, the pro-choice advocate focused on bodily rights is different.  He is right about something very important: we do have significant rights to our bodies.  Yet it is not difficult to make a persuasive case that our bodily rights don’t extend as far as most pro-choice advocates think.

Distinguishing Between Bodily Rights Arguments

Trent Horn has distinguished between two types of bodily rights arguments: the Right to Refuse Argument and the Sovereign Zone Argument.[4]  The Right to Refuse Argument states that even if the unborn is a human being, a woman has the right to refuse to allow the unborn the use of her body.  I will not address that argument here; if you are interested, I recommend “De Facto Guardian and Abortion: A Response to the Strongest Violinist,” Steve Wagner’s summary of the discussion of Justice For All’s philosophy team.

The Sovereign Zone Argument states that even if the unborn is a human being, a woman should still be able to have an abortion because she has the right to do anything she wants with anything inside the sovereign zone of her body. Notice that this is a much more extreme claim than that of the Right to Refuse Argument.  The Right to Refuse Argument says a woman has the right not to be forced to do something, while the Sovereign Zone Argument says she has the right to do anything, as long as it’s to something within her sovereign zone.

If you say something like, “My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins, and abortion kills a baby,” you won’t be addressing this pro-choice person’s concern.  Remember, she has acknowledged that the unborn is a human being.  She doesn’t believe a woman’s right to bodily autonomy gives her the right to kill a toddler, or swing her fist into her neighbor’s nose.  The unborn is different because it is in her territory, in her sovereign zone.  While I haven’t ever heard a pro-choice person use the term “Sovereign Zone” to explain this view, I have talked with many who hold the position I’ve described.  And, it’s an integral part of their pro-choice perspective.

Dismantling the Sovereign Zone Argument

The most obvious problem with the Sovereign Zone Argument is that it entails something that is indefensible: a woman should legally be allowed to do anything to her unborn child, even if it is a human being.  Once I’ve clarified that I am dealing with the Sovereign Zone Argument, I respond with some version of a story I call The Five Years of Autumn to help the person see the problem and hopefully abandon the view.[5]  If the pro-choice person wants to continue to defend abortion with the Sovereign Zone Argument, he will have to “bite the bullet” in five progressively difficult scenarios.

I want to be clear that this story is not intended to mock anyone, and I don’t ever approve of pro-life people mocking pro-choice people.  I also don’t ever approve of pro-life people attacking straw men instead of actual pro-choice arguments; on the contrary, I think we should go to great pains to make sure we understand pro-choice people’s views and respond to the most plausible versions of them.  I’m not intending to imply that pro-choice people are like Autumn or that they should approve of her actions.  I think a pro-choice person who agrees with the Sovereign Zone Argument should consider the implications of that view as illustrated by Autumn.  If someone justifies abortion with the Sovereign Zone, I do not think he can consistently claim that Autumn should not at least have the legal right to do what she does.

The Five Years of Autumn

Autumn has just completed her doctorate at the age of thirty.  She is pro-choice and has fully embraced the Sovereign Zone Argument.  She believes the unborn is a valuable human being, but that abortion is justified because women have the right to do anything they want with anything inside their bodies.

In the First Year after completing her doctorate, Autumn becomes pregnant.  Her boyfriend is supportive, and she’s excited because she’s always wanted a baby.  Well, that is, she’s always wanted a baby boy.  Her doctor orders an early amniocentesis test at twelve weeks because of factors discovered during genetic counseling with Autumn and her boyfriend.  Though the child appears to be normal, Autumn’s heart sinks when the doctor tells her that it’s a girl.  She wrestles for a few days, and finally decides to have an abortion.  She doesn’t want to have a girl, and her body is her sovereign zone after all, so she shouldn’t have to justify to anyone what reason she has for getting an abortion.

Autumn gets pregnant again soon after and this time at twelve weeks she is relieved to find out that she’s having a boy.  She and her boyfriend eagerly anticipate the birth, until around eight months into the pregnancy when they break up.  Suddenly Autumn goes from being excited at the prospect of raising a baby boy with her boyfriend to the terrifying reality of raising a child all by herself.  She thinks eight months is awfully late to have an abortion, but she considers the sovereign zone of her body.  If it’s her sovereign zone and she has the right to do anything she wants with anything in her body at twelve weeks, why not at thirty-five weeks?  Her state happens to allow abortion up until birth, and she convinces the doctor that her mental strain is sufficient to qualify her for abortion in this late stage.  After she goes through with the abortion, she tells herself that it was the right thing for her.

In her Second Year after completing her doctorate, Autumn starts dating a physician.  She becomes pregnant, and she is somewhat happy about it, but her excitement is quickly overshadowed by a terrible case of morning sickness.  One day her ever-attentive new boyfriend brings home some white pills he has illegally acquired for her.  He tells her he has brought her thalidomide, which will help her to feel better, but could cause their baby to be born with very severe birth defects.  He may be born without arms or without legs.[6]  She thanks him for his compassion for her, but declines the pills.  After suffering through three straight days of morning sickness though, she decides she can’t take the discomfort anymore and starts taking thalidomide.  She fears for what may happen to her baby, but she decides that those possible effects shouldn’t stop her from doing what she feels is necessary.  After all, she tells herself, “My body, my choice.”  When she sees her deformed baby for the first time, she realizes just how severe the consequences of her actions are.  But, she thinks, at least she gave him a chance to live, and if he decides later that he would have preferred death to being handicapped, he could make the choice to end his own life when he is old enough.[7]

As she goes into the Third Year after completing her doctorate, she discovers that she doesn’t mind so much having to take care of a deformed child.  Her community doesn’t know she took thalidomide, so they all think she’s a hero for being so strong for him.  When she becomes pregnant again, this time with a little girl, she fortunately doesn’t experience such a bad case of morning sickness, but she still has some of those little white pills left.  She considers the bond her kids would have if they went through the same challenges together, and the way her community would support her and admire her.

She thinks about her deformed infant son and how hard his life will be, and feels selfish for even thinking of deforming another child.  But then again, she considers what her abortion doctor told her about abortion procedures.  If she had the right to have a doctor pull her baby apart while killing it through a dilation and evacuation abortion,[8] why shouldn’t she have the right to take a drug to deform it?  Having an arm pulled off seemed a lot worse to her than just not growing one properly, so if her sovereignty over her body gave her the right to do the one, why not the other?

She considers the possibility that some might argue that it is worse to maim someone than to kill him.  But if people really thought that, why didn’t they go around killing maimed people to help them out of their misery?  She knew happy handicapped people.  And even if it is worse to be maimed than to be killed, who are they to judge her for doing what she wants to with what’s in her body, especially if they’re pro-choice?  She concludes that she doesn’t have to justify to anyone her personal decisions about what she does with her body.  After all, it is a private medical decision between her and her doctor.  She takes the remaining thalidomide and when her baby girl is born, she is pleased to see that she turned out deformed.  She has second thoughts about her decision from time to time, and sometimes even feels like she’s a pretty mean person.  But she tells herself that even if it were immoral, surely no one could tell her it should be illegal.

In her Fourth Year after completing her doctorate, she decides to take an art class at a local university.  She was always artistically talented and had even considered pursuing an art degree when she was in high school.  She seems to have the skill to succeed, but she struggles to come up with ways to make herself really stand out as an artist.  One day a pro-life group comes to her campus with graphic pictures depicting the results of abortion.  The pictures don’t really bother her, but it does occur to her that they are very controversial and attention-grabbing, and this gives her an idea.

She gets herself pregnant three times and has three early abortions, having already agreed with her doctor that she could keep the bloody remains of the embryos and placentas so she can use them for her art.[9]  She succeeds at getting a lot of attention when she unveils her project, though more of it is negative than she expected.  When one critic asked her how she could do such a thing, she fired back at her, “Who are you to tell me what I can do with my body?  What business is it of yours how many abortions I have, when I have them, or why I have them?  It’s my body, so it’s my choice.”

At the beginning of the Fifth Year after completing her doctorate, Autumn breaks up with her physician boyfriend and falls madly in love with a very pro-life man.  She doesn’t tell him about her abortions, her role in deforming her children, or, heaven forbid, her recent art project.  Before they start sleeping together, they agree that if she becomes pregnant, she won’t have an abortion.  She becomes pregnant after a few months, and shortly thereafter, her new pro-life boyfriend cheats on her.  Fueled by her desire for revenge, she forms a plan.

She goes back to her abortion doctor and tells him of her situation and he agrees to help Autumn carry out her plan.  He devises the cruelest possible ways he can hurt a late-term fetus without killing it.  They wait until thirty-eight weeks, then Autumn goes to her doctor’s clinic, where he tortures her child for as long as possible until finally the child dies.

She reflects afterward on how much suffering she caused her child, but reminds herself that her right to do what she wants with her body is absolute.  While many would surely disapprove of her decision, no one, not even the child’s father, has a right to stop her from doing anything to her baby as long as it is inside her sovereign zone.

Cognitive Dissonance with the Sovereign Zone

There is only one question this story is intended to ask the pro-choice person: should Autumn’s actions be legal?  My argument is very simple: if abortion should be legal on the basis that women can do whatever they want with anything inside their bodies, then Autumn’s actions should also be legal.  One could consistently believe abortion should be legal and believe that Autumn’s actions should not be legal, but only if he doesn’t rely on the Sovereign Zone Argument to justify abortion.

As a conversational tool, sometimes it is easier to simply point to the five implications of the Sovereign Zone Argument, rather than walk through a detailed story.

Five Implications of the Sovereign Zone Argument:

1: There can be no restrictions on abortion at any stage or for any reason.

2: A pregnant woman can take thalidomide to treat her morning sickness even though it will deform her fetus.

3: A pregnant woman can take thalidomide to intentionally deform her fetus.

4: A woman can have multiple abortions for the sole purpose of using the results for an art project.

5: A pregnant woman can do anything to her unborn child, including having it tortured to death.

In my experience, most people aren’t willing to accept the third “year” or implication of the Sovereign Zone Argument.  Most people do not think a woman should have the right to intentionally deform her child, even if they think she should have the right to intentionally kill it.  They know intentionally deforming a child is wrong, so when confronted with the third year, they either try to make a distinction to save the Sovereign Zone Argument, or they abandon it entirely and move on to a new argument.  Every now and then, they change their minds about abortion altogether.  Only on very rare occasions have I met someone who has agreed that fetal torture should be legal.

When I’m in a conversation in which I can tell the pro-choice person advocating the sovereign zone is struggling with her view, especially after discussing thalidomide, I often ask her if she knows how abortion procedures are done.  Often she has no idea.  After describing an abortion procedure, such as suction abortion or dilation and evacuation abortion, I gently ask one of the following questions:

  • Why should a woman have the right to dismember a child if she shouldn’t have the right to deform him?
  • Why is it okay for her to have a doctor rip her child’s limbs off with a suction machine or with forceps, but it is not okay for her to take a drug that causes her child to not grow limbs?
  • Why does she not have the right to cause her child to have a harder life, but she does have the right to deprive him of life completely?

The cognitive dissonance this line of argument creates is extremely powerful.  I suspect that pro-choice views are often driven by a sort of wishful thinking.  Many pro-choice people want abortion to be okay, so they rationalize it in their minds.[10]  They think: “It’s not really human anyway,” or, “it’s basically a part of her body,” or even, “maybe it’s wrong, but it should still be legal.”  But while they have spent years rationalizing that killing fetuses is justified, they have not gone through a similar process of telling themselves that it is okay to deform a fetus.  Their moral compasses still function properly once we step away from abortion for a minute and talk about doing something else to an unborn child, something that is obviously immoral.  When we bring up the case of thalidomide, we force their rationalization of abortion to come into conflict with their view that it is obviously wrong to deform a child with thalidomide.[11]


[1] Many thanks to Trent Horn, Steve Wagner, Rich Poupard, Scott Klusendorf and Josh Brahm for their excellent work, and for helping me to understand the Sovereign Zone Argument.  I heartily recommend their web sites and their work.  Additional thanks to Steve Wagner for serving as my editor. Image courtesy of Justice For All.

[2] For examples of this focus on the question, “What is the unborn?” see Greg Koukl’s article “Only One Question,” and Scott Klusendorf’s article “Only One Issue.

[3] See Trent Horn, “My Body, My Choice,” in Abortion: From Debate to Dialogue – The Interactive Guide, ed. Steve Wagner (Wichita: Justice For All, 2013), p. 95.  Trent is a former Justice For All intern.  See Trent’s blog, www.trenthorn.com, for more information about Trent’s current work with Catholic Answers.

[4] See Trent Horn, “My Body, My Choice,” in Abortion: From Debate to Dialogue – The Interactive Guide, ed. Steve Wagner (Wichita: Justice For All, 2013), pages 95-106.  Trent’s observation that there are two distinct forms of bodily rights arguments was, in my opinion, a groundbreaking development for the pro-life movement.

[5] Thanks to Steve Wagner for the ingenious idea to take the five points of this argument and tell it as a story.

[6] I believe Rich Poupard of the Life Training Institute was the first to utilize thalidomide in an argument against the bodily-rights-based arguments for abortion.  See his post “Do No Harm (Except For That Killing Thing)” here.  Trent Horn applied it specifically to the Sovereign Zone Argument.

[7] I don’t think words can do justice to the effect thalidomide has on a child.  A simple Google image search on the term “thalidomide” illustrates this.  Warning: The pictures are disturbing.

[8] To learn about abortion procedures, see http://www.abort73.com/abortion/abortion_techniques/ or “What Are the Facts?  Frequently Asked at Justice For All Events” (www.jfaweb.org/Facts).

[9] Unfortunately, this is based on a true story.  Aliza Shvarts, an art student at Yale, allegedly had multiple early abortions intentionally so she could use the remains for her art project.  When I talk about her in conversations with pro-choice people, I’m careful to specify that it isn’t clear whether she actually did this or not, but that she claims she did it.  I heard of this story as a response to bodily rights arguments from Scott Klusendorf of the Life Training Institute on pages 199-200 of The Case for Life.  Trent Horn applied it specifically to the Sovereign Zone Argument.

[10] For the record, I am not claiming that self-deception only exists on the pro-choice side.  I am making a specific comment about how self-deception affects pro-choice people, and how that impacts their response to thalidomide.

[11] For a printer friendly version of this article, use this link.

How Should Christians Interact with Politics?

Editor’s note: This week, we’re running a series on questions, inspired by Matthew Lee Anderson’s book, The End of Our Exploring. We reviewed his book here. There’s a great deal going on this week: buy one copy of Matt’s book, and you can give one away for free. Check out the details here.

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. – Romans 13:1

And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest asked them, saying, ‘Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!’ But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: ‘We ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree.’ – Acts 5:27-30

There are many Scripture passages one could point to in a discussion on politics and “governing authorities;” these are just two, and they serve to raise the question: how should Christians interact with politics? How does our faith in Christ and His Church interact with political issues and secular authority?

I’ve never been a very politically minded person, and I must admit that I haven’t seriously considered how I, as a Christian, ought to interact with politics. Of course, many Christians are way ahead of me on this front, but this is my attempt to breach the subject in my own, small way. Being a Christian is the most important defining aspect of my life, so it only seems natural that it would influence my political beliefs and activity. The question of how Christians should interact with politics is an important one to consider, which is why I’m taking the opportunity this week, not to try and answer the question, but rather to consider why the question is an important one with which Christians (like myself) should grapple. I tread forward cautiously.

I don’t believe there is, necessarily, a single, “right” way to answer the question. Many political issues are  complex and multi-faceted, and politics is a hot-button topic for anyone because there are so many varied opinions about the right way to do things. In some cases, I think it is no different for Christians; it doesn’t seem as simple as “All Christians should vote [insert political party here],” for example. It’s difficult to paint the topic in broad, black-and-white strokes.

The difference, it seems, comes when moral issues become political issues, which is something I’ve noticed more and more in recent years. For example, abortion has become a women’s rights issue and the subject of a heated, ongoing political debate in our culture. I admit that there are complex factors involved, but the heart of the issue is the sanctity of human life. In this case, a moral issue has evolved into a prominent political issue, and as Christians we need to take such issues seriously and consider how to respond to them in light of our faith. (Of course, the tricky part is that many Christians are in disagreement about whether abortion is right or wrong, what constitutes a human life, in what specific contexts abortion is or isn’t acceptable, etc.)

Gay marriage is another example. The Church has a radically different perspective on what marriage is, as well as who can and should get married, than does the secular world. For Christians, marriage is a moral and spiritual issue; it is a sacrament, a holy mystery of our faith. But our country and culture are becoming increasingly open to varied forms and opinions of marriage. It is an important political issue for Christians to consider because it leads to other valuable questions, such as: who defines marriage (the government, the Church, or some third party)? What is marriage, according to the Church, and how does it differ from secular views of marriage? There is an important distinction to draw between civil, legal marriage and spiritual, Church marriage; the two are entirely separate from each other. No matter your opinion on what should or should not be legal regarding marriage licenses issued by the government, it is an important issue to consider because it can help clarify what Christian marriage is and how it differs from secular, legal marriage.

A further question that stems from this discussion could be, What are the potential consequences for Christians not interacting with politics? At the very least, we’d be isolating ourselves from a very real and significant part of living as contemporary Christians in this world. It seems to me that it’s better to be active politically while guided by our faith than to be passive politically, potentially falling into the belief that politics don’t matter that much for Christians. I think the development of the two issues I mentioned—abortion and gay marriage—provide ample evidence that politics very much do matter, or at least should matter, to the Christian life. The extent and form of the action one takes in response to certain political issues depends, I think, on one’s particular spiritual and life path. Perhaps monks in a monastery respond by praying for the leaders of our country; perhaps I can respond by voting more conscientiously. All Christians should strive to respond in kindness and love above all else.

I mention these things and raise these questions in an effort to explore and broaden my own relationship to politics. Some folks are too politically active…but I’m not very active at all, and as a Christian who only recently realized she ought to take politics more seriously, these are the types of issues and questions that make me think it’s time to make a change.

Image via Flickr.

Weekly Roundup: Same Sex Marriage and Superman

For many years Joe Carter, the original proprietor of the Evangelical Outpost, would gather together the week’s most interesting stories in a series called 33 Things.  Being a bloodthirsty Capitalist, Joe has threatened to sue if we continue to use the name*, thus we continue the tradition with the entirely unoriginal title of Weekly Roundup.

This week saw the high profile Supreme Court decisions that will fundamentally alter the same sex marriage debate in America.  Mere Orthodoxy has a helpful roundup of their own, gathering many of the major reactions from across the web.

One reaction not included in the Mere-O roundup comes from Dr. Peter Jones, Professor at Westminster Seminary California and Director of truthXchange.  Dr. Jones has a sober warning for the future of the church and her witness in America.

The venerable Doug Wilson, for his part, offers words of encouragement:

The salvation that Jesus is bringing to us is not a possible salvation, or a probable one, or a likely salvation. It is an inexorable and necessary salvation. Reformation, revival, salvation, forgiveness, and a spirit of deep repentance is coming at America just like tomorrow morning is.

Speaking in broader cultural terms, Josh Bishop ponders the implications of genderless marriage for men in general, specifically for their ability to form intimate, lasting and non-erotic friendships with other men.

And John Mark Reynolds provides a bit of much needed perspective by reminding traditional Christians that we have long been the “moral minority.”

In other political news, President Obama is still using ad hominem attacks on his political opponents, again suggesting that anyone who disagrees with his alarmist views on global warming is a member of the “Flat Earth Society.”  At HughHewitt.com, Clark Judge suggests that it is Mr. Obama who embraces flat earth science…and economics.

Zach Snyder’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel, is generating a lot of controversy for its dark tone and seemingly endless action sequences, as well as its clumsy Christological references.  But what if there is much more going on beneath the surface?  Peter Lawler at Big Think suggests that the film is all about Plato.  (He then continues and deepens his discussion of the Platonic themes in Man of Steel here).

While the new Superman may be an analogy for both Jesus and Plato’s Philosopher-King, Joe Carter would like to remind us that a Kryptonian invasion would be seriously bad for the economy.

There is a popular story on BuzzFeed, Eight Foods That We Eat in The US That Are Banned in Other Countries, that makes several claims about the negative health impact of some of our everyday foods, specifically the chemicals in those foods.  A chemist reviews those claims and finds them a bit overstated. 

While postmodern secularists would say that modesty (they would call it prudishness) is opposed to free self-expression, Marc at Bad Catholic argues that modesty is all about honesty, and is in fact the very thing that enables the truest expression of the self.

And now for something completely different!

 

*I kid, of course.  Joe is not bloodthirsty and he would never sue us.  He is a Capitalist, though.

 

Vinoth Ramachandra and Theology from the Global Church

I was doing some research on short-term missions when I found a blog by Vinoth Ramachandra, a Christian writer in Sri Lanka. He has studied and traveled in Europe, done extensive ministry in South Asia, and he has written cogent criticism of Christianity as it is received in the non-Western world. He clearly and accurately writes things that the West needs to hear, both praising the good and condemning the bad. Incisively addressing everything from the War on Terror, whistleblowers in the US government, and US foreign policy to relations between Western and Eastern Christians, missionary work done badly, and the influence of media on relations in the Church worldwide, Ramachandra is an intelligent voice from the “other side” of world Christianity. Continue reading Vinoth Ramachandra and Theology from the Global Church

The Gay Marriage Round-Up: Thoughts from Around the Web

Same-sex marriage has been a major topic of discussion across the web, especially in evangelical circles. I thought it might be helpful to give our readers a round-up of some of the best and most interesting stuff around the web.

A flurry of posts immediately followed The Atlantic‘s story “The Gay Guide to Wedded Bliss,” so that’s as good a starting point as any. In it are a number of arguments, many of them speculative, considering what sorts of things a gay couple may be able to teach a heterosexual couple. There are lots of statistics from various surveys and studies, but many of the claims for future knowledge come down to separating the sexes in order to learn what is ‘uniquely male’ and ‘uniquely female’ in relationship settings.

In direct response, First Things offered up the similarly titled “What We Can Learn from Same-Sex Couples.” Here, Glenn Stanton works through the research behind the provocative story from The Atlantic, in order to tease out the implications. The findings are less optimistic than the Gay Guide would have us believe, to say the least.

The Atlantic may just have been capitalizing on the topic, but they followed up The Gay Guide with a piece written by a gay member of the Catholic Church. She speaks to the difference between believing in God abstractly and believing in God concretely; the former is likely not tied to any particular church, while the latter has some visible historicity and beauty to it. Even as an evangelical, I certainly understand and appreciate the point of view.

While I don’t agree with the position of the person being interviewed, John Corvino still makes some really important points regarding debate, broadly speaking. Especially worth noting is his rejection of the idea that all positions are equally valid–a common yet absurd notion–which is an important reminder in fields other than gay marriage (often, same-sex marriage debates agree on but one thing: both sides can’t be right, and one position is clearly superior to the other).

If you’re not familiar with the topic at all, however, the above may have been overwhelming. Joe Carter offered up some definitions regarding LGBTQ issues, which are helpful for those who haven’t researched any of it. He also works through the positions of those who have embraced gay-marriage while still holding to some form of Christianity.

Not every question is new, however. On the topic of giving up the fight against gay marriage, at least publicly, Timothy Dalrymple simply asks: when is the cost too high? In answer to the question, Matthew Lee Anderson of Mere Orthodoxy points out that not every socially conservative movement has looked bleak; in fact, he argues that we should learn the right lessons from the pro-life debate, which is gaining traction. While there are clear differences between the movements, there’s something to this approach. Brad Littlejohn also addressed the question of a tactical withdrawal, but argues for a shift in those tactics, rather than running away entirely.

That’s a lot of reading. And some of it is pretty heavy. While I stand with the traditional Christian view on homosexuality, I also recognize that a lot of the ways that Christians have interacted with the gay community have been harmful, and I’d like to find a way to change that without sacrificing what I believe is Biblical truth. We should be known for our love, after all.

On Politics: A Mixed Bag is the Best Deal in Town

Blessed are the rich in wealth, for theirs is the kingdom of men. Blessed are the indignant, for they will be promoted. Blessed are the powerful, for they will disinherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after responsibility, for they will be filled. Blessed are the successful, for they shall be shown success. Blessed are the smooth in tongue, for they will see votes. Blessed are the kingmakers, for they will be called the sugar daddies of ambition. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of licentiousness, for theirs is the coverage of journalists. Blessed are you when people misquote you, persecute you and libelously say all kinds of slander against you because of success. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in public image, for in the same way they persecuted the politicians who were before you. Continue reading On Politics: A Mixed Bag is the Best Deal in Town

Iceland, Pornography, and What Liberty Doesn’t Mean

Iceland is trying to ban internet pornography, and people all over the world are outraged. Supporters think it’s a good idea that will protect children and women; opponents don’t like the consequent implications against the freedom of speech and expression. While the US has not started a national campaign to ban internet pornography, many of the hot-button issues on our own political table revolve around the same question: What kinds of freedom (and how much of it) should we support? The debate is equally sticky in Christian circles. Should we vote against same-sex marriage, abortion, or free-reign of internet pornography? Should we force our morality on to others who don’t want it?

Some have  argued that morality differs significantly from legality—what we desire as Christians is different from how we should vote, because we live in a secular society. Our opposition to same-sex marriage doesn’t mean we should ban it for others. We live in a free country, and need to support freedom, even if we don’t necessarily agree with what freedom allows. If the majority of US citizens were Muslims, we wouldn’t want laws passed which would force us to go to mosque every Friday. In the same way, we shouldn’t force our own ideals onto others.

Should we even care about political freedom, when we have freedom in Christ? Absolutely. While we are citizens of Heaven first and foremost, we are also citizens of a nation, and our votes (or lack thereof) impact our daily lives. As a result, we should be very interested in the freedoms our country values. We need to uphold the liberty that so many have given their lives to safeguard. We also have to make sure that we aren’t unduly pushy—parading around with “Turn or Burn” signs is not the best method of showing Christ’s love.

However, does that really mean that we should vote against our convictions as Christians? I think not. The heart of the subject is really about freedom—is freedom license to act solely based on our own judgments, or should freedom enable us to act well?

When we talk about “freedom,” we usually mean that people can do whatever they want without the fear of punishment or consequence. This definition is disastrous in the context of laws and the government. It pits the law against freedom, giving anarchists exclusive right to its claim. John Locke, the British philosopher whose ideas influenced both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, has a different notion of freedom. He claims that a human’s ultimate end is happiness, but that no one can be happy without being part of a civil government precisely because of anarchy. The lack of laws enables people to do whatever they want— enslave, steal, murder—without restraint, and everyone is left to defend their lives and property in fear. Only within a system of laws are people safe enough to pursue their ultimate end:

 Law, in its true notion, is not so much the limitation as the direction of a free and intelligent agent to his proper interest, and prescribes no further than is for the general good of those under that law. Could they be happier without it, the law, as a useless thing, would of itself vanish…The end of law is not to abolish or restrain but to preserve and enlarge freedom.

Good laws will encourage people to do good things, and they will be happier as a result. If laws do not lead to happiness, we had best abandon them. American freedom, then, does not mean that we can do anything we want, but that we have liberty within a set system of laws. Here, one could argue that because America is a democracy, it will reflect the majority’s beliefs, whether that majority believes in God, the Force, or cannibalism. True, yet our founders hoped that the people would have the sense and conviction to vote for just, upright laws.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Consider the same-sex marriage debate: proponents argue that same-sex marriage will bring them happiness. Similar reasoning is given for other issues such as abortion, pornography, or the recent legalization of marijuana. If it makes someone happy, why not? As Christians, however, we believe that certain actions are not good for the soul, which was created to worship God. Any action that moves us further from him will inherently makes us less happy, though it may bring us temporary pleasure. One day we will stand before the throne of God, and he will hold us accountable for our actions—including the votes we cast against our Christian convictions, simply because we didn’t want to step on someone’s toes with our steel-toed morality boots.

How, then, should Christians vote? If freedom means the right to do whatever we want, then inasmuch as we should support freedom, we will certainly vie for anarchy. If, however, freedom facilitates the right kinds of actions, then Christians should vote according to their convictions of God’s truth.

Of course, deciphering God’s truth is not always black and white. Christians are often divided on issues such as gun control or environmental regulations, and even debate over whether we should vote on issues of which we are unsure. While we may hear differing opinions which sound reasonable, whatever the outcome we must live out our faith to the best of our abilities in our every-day lives and in the voting booth.