Tuesday, September 2, 2008

What’s a Deal Breaker?

The Bible and the Ballot Box: conclusion

Some folks on the political left have claimed that a Christian cannot be a faithful follower of Jesus and be politically conservative. I’ve tried to show that the conservative position is consistent with the Bible on a few issues that modern Christians face, but now it’s time to bring it all together.

The question at hand is, who can I vote for? Earlier I suggested that you can vote for me (the generic politician) if…

* we disagree about whether a policy is prudent.
* we disagree on whether a task is the government’s responsibility or prerogative.
* we disagree on whether a policy is the best way to approach an issue.

However, if we disagree on a moral issue on which you are convinced that I am indisputably wrong, you cannot vote for me.

When it comes to that moral issue, the question is whether you can accept that reasonable people can have different beliefs on this issue. Can you see how a case can be made in the opposite direction, even if you find it unconvincing? If you cannot fathom how another person can hold that position, voting for that candidate is voting for what you are convinced is an immoral policy, and I think that is a compromise believers cannot make.

Some may balk at this saying that we always choose the lesser of two evils. But when we say that, I don’t think we mean real evil. We’re choosing between one candidate’s policy that may not work on issue A and another’s that is a bit dumb on issue B.

Real moral evil, that’s different, and that’s something we cannot support.

So what positions are morally wrong?

On poverty, we looked at the Bible and saw that it consistently calls for personal charity and forms of assistance that encourage self-sufficiency on the part of the poor person and that there is no biblical precedent for forcing charity via government controlled income redistribution. The conservative approach to helping the poor via personal charity and tax policies that encourage economic growth (i.e., job creation) seems to be well within the scope of the biblical picture. Simply giving them “government” money may not be.

Thus not supporting welfare is not immoral. Not having any specific policies regarding the poor, also, is not immoral – the candidate may focus more on the personal charity approach.

The question you have to ask regarding poverty is, really, is this person proposing policies that are designed to hurt the poor? Does he hate the poor, or does he just have a different view on how to help them? If you’re not sure he wants to hurt the poor, you really should give him the benefit of the doubt.

On capital punishment, we saw that you can make a biblical case that the appropriate punishment for certain crimes is forfeiting your life. Certainly you can believe that the death penalty is no longer necessary, not appropriate in most cases, or improperly handled. I’m not asking you to support capital punishment. I’m asking you to accept that this can be a principled position based on the Bible – making it not an immoral position.

Regarding war, there are only two moral options – true pacifism and just war. If you don’t hold to true pacifism, and the candidate in question is not a warmonger in the truest sense of the term (and here again I think the benefit of the doubt is due when lacking evidence), then you have a disagreement over what constitutes a just war – a philosophical, not moral, issue.

On abortion, I really didn’t want to argue whether abortion is wrong – both because people rarely change their minds in this debate and because I think most Christians already think it is wrong. Instead I focused on those Christians who believe abortion is wrong and yet support keeping it legal. I made the case that IF you think abortion is wrong, supporting its legalization makes you, in God’s eyes, guilty of “aiding and abetting” abortion. Supporting those who want to keep it legal is the same thing.

That makes abortion really the only moral issue on the table. That makes it a deal breaker.

If one candidate has great ideas and supports abortion and the other is a blithering idiot but pro-life, abortion should keep us from supporting the former. What about the other guy? More on that later.

Issues in the Balance
A common sentiment is that "being pro-life means also being anti-war, anti-poverty, and anti-death penalty." (Of course, those who say this seem to vote pro-choice.) Let’s break that down:

Abortion vs poverty
Who is pro-poverty? Only the rare nutjob. No one likes to see people suffer. The “evil rich” usually have businesses, so they want poor people to have enough disposable income to become customers.

A common attack on pro-life people is, “You care about children before they’re born; we care about children after they’re born.”

Everyone does. No one wants kids to starve. The question is how to properly help them. But there are many sources of help for the starving child (or his parents); there is no one to help the child being aborted.

Abortion vs capital punishment
You can disagree about the morality of capital punishment, but you have admit there’s a difference between killing an innocent, helpless human being and a killer who’s been found guilty by a jury and had a half dozen appeals.

Abortion vs war
People die in war. Sadly, as long as we live in a fallen world, war is going to be part of our lives. But wars are fought by adults who have the chance to do everything they can to stay alive. In the current war, both sides consist almost entirely of volunteers – people who went into this knowing the danger and choosing to risk their lives for something important to them.

“But children are dying too.” That is tragic. But when comparing abortion and war, only in one is it the expressed intent of everyone involved to kill a child.

Abortion vs poverty, capital punishment, and war
The following numbers are taken from activist websites– so if they’re inflated, they’re probably all inflated. Unfortunately they’re probably mostly accurate.

There are approximately 42 million abortions a year worldwide.

Poverty kills approximately 10.6 million children per year.

An estimated 300,000 children have died in the Iraq war.

It’s not just about math, and every lost life is terrible, but one of these causes kills many more than the others, the same one where the child is intentionally targeted. There are people trying to save the children starving to death. There are people trying to protect the children caught in the crossfire. Who is trying to stop that woman from walking into the abortion clinic? Usually no one.

Abortion is not the only issue, nor is it the only problem in the world, but it is an evil Christians have stood against for nearly 2000 years. We have to continue to do so today.

The American voter generally has to choose between competing philosophies of how to deal with poverty, different philosophies regarding war, varying opinions regarding capital punishment, and the decision of whether or not to support abortion.

If you have to choose between two candidates and only one has an immoral position, you can vote for the other candidate or you can refrain from voting.

But occasionally you might come across a rare nut who really hates the poor or really thinks any war is fine so long as it improves his political prospects. What should we do?

If you can only choose between two immoral candidates, you can’t support either one of them. You are not required to vote for every position on the ballot. Some people show up just to vote for president; some just vote for county clerk. You do have the option to not vote if you don’t have a candidate you can support without compromising yourself morally.

Is there a position on the ballot with no acceptable candidate? Next time, can you run? Could you put more support behind an acceptable candidate in the primary? Just not voting is the way to handle this election, but as good citizens, we should try to put the best people in the office we can – even if it means running yourself. Hey, everybody ran for office a first time.

To this point I’ve tried to show that conservatism is consistent with the Bible. Next I’m going to spend some time explaining why Christian conservatives think the way they do about a few issues.


Vinny said...

I really didn’t want to argue whether abortion is wrong – both because people rarely change their minds in this debate and because I think most Christians already think it is wrong.

I think this is a cop-out Chris. You are willing to consider the implications and subtleties of every other issue, but you don’t want to do so when it comes to abortion because it does not fit into your “deal-breaker” thesis. Unfortunately, there are just as many questions to consider when it comes to abortion as any other issue.

What moment are you going to define as the beginning of life? The logically consistent point for you is the moment the egg is fertilized. Unfortunately, that forces you to take a position on several methods of birth control that prevent the fertilized egg from attaching to the wall of the uterus. Are you ready to do so and do you believe that all Christians are obligated to do so?

How will anti-abortion laws be enforced? Will both the women and the doctors be subject to criminal penalties? If you are going to define abortion as murder, then the death penalty may be appropriate. Shouldn’t a Christian know what he thinks about this question before he makes his judgment?

What is the legal obligation to care for another human being? Is a rape or incest victim obligated to risk her own health (to any degree whatsoever) to sustain the life of another which she did not consent to creating? I understand that such make up a small portion of abortions, but the pro-life arguments should be able to handle them easily if it is really the open-and-shut case that you claim it is.

What is the historic understanding of when life begins? Is it really something that “Christians have stood against for nearly 2000 years” or is this a relatively recent development?

I don’t have the answers to all these questions, but frankly I don’t see why a Christian can’t accept “that reasonable people can have different beliefs on this issue.” Nor do I see why Christians can’t weigh this along with all the other issues at stake in the election.

ChrisB said...

You are willing to consider the implications and subtleties of every other issue

Vinny, I don't think there are many subtleties on this topic. More than that, though, I don't think I'm going to change any pro-choicer's mind. I'm more concerned about getting pro-lifers to vote consistently with their ethic at this point.

But since you insist...

By every scientific, philosophical, or theological definition, a functioning human zygote (since gita insisted on the term) is a human life. If you go back to my previous posts, I link to Christian documents from the first or second centuries that say abortion is wrong. We've taken this stand for a long time.

Many people are not aware that some forms of birth control prevent implantation of the embryo, and many pro-lifers are trying to get that word out, but they're a small group.

There is a certain amount of debate as to whether the birth control pills of today prevent ovulation or conception. I need to do some reading in the literature on that; it may turn out that the data are inconclusive, at which point I'd suggest caution would dictate avoiding the pill. But I haven't done the reading yet. Frankly, I need to bone up on my medical statistics first.

I assume you're talking about legal approaches. When the day comes, we will have to address that legally. Surgical abortion is, amazingly, the easier topic to address here, so let's deal with it first. An all-or-nothing approach is not necessary.

I don't believe I have to work out every detail about enforcing abortion laws to want to get rid of abortion. We have many different classifications for "murder" in our society from capital murder to negligent manslaughter. I'm not a legal expert and am more than happy to listen to them on the matter. It seems we can cross that bridge later, though.

Consider slavery. When you abolish slavery you have to figure out what you're going to do with these people, how they'll be compensated for their years of service, where they'll live, how they'll eat, and what will happen to their former masters. Did every abolitionist really need to have all this worked out before they could be against slavery?

Many pro-lifers would make an exception for rape or incest. I am not one of them. (I would only do so to protect the mother's life -- not "health.") As tragic as those situations are, killing the child only adds to the evil. Are we feudal Japan to kill the child for his father's crimes?

Let's turn this around. Say you're standing on the street and someone hands you an infant and runs off. You didn't consent to creating that child; you didn't ask for it. Can you just set it down and walk away?

What names would use for a person that did?

There are a minority of cases that are extremely difficult and very very sad. But we can't let them stop us from doing what's right.

frankly I don’t see why a Christian can’t accept “that reasonable people can have different beliefs on this issue.”
Because this issue isn't a matter of opinion. If the unborn child is not a human being, no justification for killing it is necessary. If it is, no justification is sufficient. There is no inbetween position. Someone is wrong.

We're not debating tax policy here. This isn't a question of what is the best way to spend money or meet a problem. This is about human lives being ended while we look on. There are plenty of gray areas in the world. This is not one of them.

Vinny said...

Let's turn this around. Say you're standing on the street and someone hands you an infant and runs off. You didn't consent to creating that child; you didn't ask for it. Can you just set it down and walk away?

Actually I could. There is no legal obligation to be a Good Samaritan. You might rightly think me a monster for doing so, but under the law, I am not obligated to do anything for that infant.

The fact that you would make an exception for the life of the mother suggests to me that you recognize that there are competing rights here. I am curious regarding your distinction between life and health. Just what health risks would you require the mother to endure? What probability of death does there have to be before the woman is relieved of the legal obligation to carry the baby to term?

A zygote lacks many qualities that many scientists, philosophers, and theologians might consider characteristic of “a human life.” It also lacks many qualities that they might consider characteristic of a person having legal rights that society is obligated to protect; qualities that would distinguish it from being a part of a woman’s body within her rights to control. That is not to say that it is completely lacking but it is hardly beyond dispute.

I agree that you don’t need to have every question worked out in order to be opposed to abortion any more than a person needed to know the best way to get rid of slavery before being opposed to it. But how does that translate into choosing a candidate? Would it be your position that a Christian could not in good conscience vote for Abraham Lincoln because he had pledged not to do anything to interfere with slavery in the states where it was practiced? Would they be obligated only to vote for a candidate who committed himself to immediate and absolute abolition?

Why can’t a Christian recognize that he lives in a pluralistic society in which the moral sense of the majority is that the zygote is not a person whose rights trump a woman’s right to self-determination? Under your approach, the Christian is obligated to sacrifice his opportunity to influence a variety of important public policy decisions in order to cast a vote based solely on a candidate’s willingness to pay lip service to a single position without having any practical plan for making that particular position the law of the land.

You are certainly free to cast your vote for any reason whatsoever, but accusing any Christian of “moral bankruptcy” simply because he thinks his vote can be better spent strikes me as somewhat arrogant.

Bob said...

Chris - how can one political POV - any one - be thought of as consistent with Scripture ?

Jesus spent a great deal of his time calling out religious leaders of his time for just the kind of pride & hubris you seem to be espousing.

colet1499 said...


"Someone hands you an infant and runs off. . . . Can you just walk away?" You said, "Actually I could."


Vinny said...


Let me be very clear: from a legal standpoint I could. I certainly could not live with myself if I did.

colet1499 said...


Thank's for the clarification.

ChrisB said...

Vinny said: under the law, I am not obligated to do anything for that infant.

I'm not so sure, but the point is you and I both know you couldn't do it. Like you said, you couldn't live with yourself.

As horrible as this situation (rape/incest) is, that's an innocent baby who didn't ask for this any more than the woman did.

I should also point out that many women do carry these children to term, and many raise them -- saying that at least something good came out of that tragedy.

Bob said: how can one political POV be thought of as consistent with Scripture?

On abortion? I'm just saying what the Bible says.

On other issues, I'm not saying that conservatives are completely consistent with scripture; I'm saying it's not inconsistent -- i.e., it's no less biblical than other positions.

Vinny said...


The point is that the moral obligations that I impose upon myself are greater than the legal obligations that the government imposes. The question here is what legal obligations the government should impose on a pregant woman.

From what I have been able to find so far, prior to the late nineteenth century, the term "abortion" was applied to terminations of pregnancy that took place after quickening. Under the common law, there was nothing criminal about terminating pregnancies prior to this point.

ChrisB said...

the moral obligations that I impose upon myself are greater than the legal obligations that the government imposes

And my point is that we would expect someone to take care of that child they didn't ask for if it was just handed to them. The argument for abortion in the horrible case of rape or incest seems to fail on that ground.

prior to the late nineteenth century, the term "abortion" was applied to terminations of pregnancy that took place after quickening

I have no knowledge of this, but I do know that prior to the mid-19th century the word "person" in this country applied only to whites. I'm not sure historical definitions of abortion are really relevant to the question of whether it is right.

Vinny said...

What conduct we expect and what conduct we enforce though the criminal law are two different things. We might applaud and encourage a woman to accept a pregnancy that is forced upon her without consent, but that does not mean that we should legally compel her to accept it.

Kyle said...

"Let's turn this around. Say you're standing on the street and someone hands you an infant and runs off. You didn't consent to creating that child; you didn't ask for it. Can you just set it down and walk away?"

If you're close to a hospital, in fact you can. There are now laws (at least in many states, including my own) that allow for legal abandonment, with no questions asked, by taking an infant (not sure on what the age restrictions are) to a hospital. These children are then put up for adoption, I believe. Of course, you could also contact the local police. I'm fairly certain that if this happened to me, I wouldn't just leave the baby there, but I also wouldn't have responsibility to take of this baby for longer than a few hours.

Also, on collateral damage: it is incredibly difficult if not impossible to imagine a way of conducting war anywhere close to how we currently do without acknowledging that collateral damage will (not *might* but *will*) happen. This problem is only exacerbated by the very real threat of nuclear attacks, which can't not have huge collateral damage in almost any situation. Even if it isn't the intent of modern warfare to kill innocent bystanders, it is the *inevitable* result. In determining the morality of contemporary warfare, I don't see how you can factor this out. Even if you don't want something to happen, if it is an inevitable consequence of the initial action, then it has to be considered when determining the morality of that action. From a moral perspective, "expressed intent" doesn't matter when it is known what the inevitable results of the actions will be; if you deny this premise, I don't think I could even conceivably come to any agreement with you on even a basic conception of morality, much less what is the content of morality.

To provide an example that is similar to your thinking about war, let's say a pregnant woman likes to smoke and drink; even if she doesn't intend to harm her yet-to-be-born child, her actions, in this world where knowledge of smoking and drinking being bad for babies in utero is near universal, would arguably leave her morally culpable for whatever harm came to the baby.

Anonymous said...

chrisb: "as horrible as the situation is, the rape baby did not have any control over being created." first, a woman is more than a half inch, nonsentient parasite living off of someone's body. rape victims have been denied control over their bodies and lives once by the rapist. society shouldnt rob them once again by forcing them to gestate against their will and go through the trauma of birth just so someone can be born, someone that hasnt truly started to live yet anyway. women are not uteruses with legs. they are thinking feeling creatures unlike the unborn that do not lose their autonomy upon becoming pregnant. it is not for you or anyone else to dictate whether a rape victim should give birth as you are not the one that has to go through the pregnancy after such a violation. pregnancy is not benign and without risks. it is a physically taxing experience even when it is wanted and for someone that had it forced upon them, they have a moral right to defend themselves agains it.

ChrisB said...

Anonymous, if you're correct that the unborn child is a "parasite," then of course we shouldn't force a woman to put up with this creature that endangers her happiness.

But if it is a tiny human being, the mere fact that this little person causes her emotional, even physical, pain is not just cause to kill him/her.