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December 02, 2008

Life and Marriage (Part 1)

Why They Matter

This is the first post in a three-part series:

Summit Ministries recently received an email critical of our stance on abortion and gay marriage. The letter is not unique, but what makes it more remarkable is that it was written by a fellow believer. There clearly is a growing group of self-identified believers, even evangelicals, who feel that we should abandon the pro-life and pro-marriage stances that have been such a significant part of Christian cultural involvement.

Three primary reasons are offered for abandoning these convictions. First, it makes us "one issue" or "two issue" voters. Second, it makes us a pawn of the Republican party, who really care nothing about the issue but only use it to secure the conservative vote. After all, the argument goes, a Republican President with a Republican Congress didn't overturn Roe V. Wade. Third, Christians should be about loving people, and fighting over these issues makes us appear unloving (see Gabe Lyone and Steve Kinnaman's book UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why It Matters for a case in point).

Today, I wish to look at the first argument, and will follow up on the other two in subsequent posts.

So, should Christians vote a particular way based on one or two issues?

First, there is often a hidden assumption here that this is only a political issue. "Why not do something to eliminate the number of abortions?" we are asked. And, "Why not do something about heterosexual marriage?" But, of course, many Christians are.

It would be impossible to quantify the blood, sweat, and tears that Christian conservatives have put into confronting these issues without even considering the political posturing part. Consider the Crisis Pregnancy Centers in virtually every neighborhood in America where women are loved, helped, gifted with diapers and money and baby stuff. Consider one of the largest Christian companies in America, Chick-Fil-A, pouring millions into work with orphans and marriage retreat centers. Consider even Jerry Falwell, THE lightning rod for critique about his political involvement in the last 25 years before his death, who not only fought politically on abortion, but offered a place for women in unmarried pregnancies to live, work, have medical care, receive further education, and help find adoptive parents. Consider also the many other practical expressions of Christian conviction which can be found in local churches and ministries: the shelters for battered women, the food pantries, the marriage counselors, the programs helping men and women overcome porn addiction, the millions raised to buy back sex slaves and feed street children, and the tens of thousands of adoptive parents.

Of course, some of these expressions have not always been the best. But, it cannot be said that these are merely political issues either. In fact, and this should not be missed, it is more accurate to say that voting is only one of the many many ways that Christian conservatives show their commitments on these issues.

Second, whether one should be a "one issue voter" clearly depends on what the issue is! Suppose the Nazis were right on everything having to do with the economy, foreign policy, military, and domestic issues. The only thing that they were wrong on was the whole killing of Jews thing. That would be a big enough issue, wouldn't it?

The question to be asked is, are these big enough issues? The pro-life position is based on one key point: unborn humans are valuable persons. Is this not a big enough issue? The pro-family position is based on another key point: there does exist a God-given design for society that is based on marriage and family.

Let me clarify. I am not suggesting that Christians ought to be one issue voters. I, for one, am definitely not. As created stewards of God's creation, we should care about everything in creation and therefore every issue that is on the table. What I am suggesting, on the other hand, is that some issues are more important than, and even foundational to, other issues. In other words, if you get these issues wrong, then you have no solid place to stand in order to deal with the rest.

Marriage is one of these issues. God started civilization with a wedding, not a government, not the church, and not the United Nations (more on this in a future post). And, the sanctity of life is also one of these issues. Because this was stated so well by James Kushiner in the November 2008 editorial of Touchstone magazine, I shall close by quoting it in its entirety:

Or It Seems Less Like a Garment Now

There has been a steady campaign by some Christians who regard themselves as orthodox and conservative to persuade the rank and file of their Christian brothers and sisters to rethink their predictable support for political candidates who are pro-life. They bring other issues to the fore — war, torture, taxes, education, health care, and poverty — in an attempt to undermine the claim that conscientious Christians must always support pro-life candidates. They imply that such "single-issue" pro-life voting is unsophisticated, often in lockstep with the mostly uneducated "religious right," and perhaps not even very moral in the long view.

The inclusion of other issues with abortion is, of course, an expression of the "seamless garment" argument advanced by the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin in 1983. If there are no seams, no discernible boundaries when it comes to "life issues" — which, according to this argument, encompass all aspects of our lives, including our "quality of life" — then disrespect for or the abuse of life in one area will eventually have an effect on all the other areas. One must have, as Bernardin put it, a "consistent ethic of life." A seamless garment will be ruined by any tear.

But in the political sphere, the promoters of the seamless garment approach to life issues do not actually exhibit the consistency they preach. Many of them do give priority to some issues over others and disagree among themselves on which issues should be considered paramount. And it is tellingly obvious that some support the seamless garment idea because it gives them cover for downplaying or ignoring abortion.

The image of the seamless garment, of course, is taken from the Passion of our Lord, when the soldiers of the state who were executing Jesus cast lots for his seamless robe rather than tear it in four pieces. The bishop and martyr Cyprian of Carthage, writing in the mid-third century, used the seamless garment of Christ as a symbol of the unity of the church. Unity is, by definition, never unity unless it is whole, without division.

It is ironic, then, to call for a "consistent ethic of life" when that ethic produces no unity of witness among Christians themselves. Attempts to promote this supposedly more nuanced ethic in politics has undermined Christian witness because what should be the seamless garment of the Church's witness is so unraveled and frayed as to be incoherent to the world. The lack of consistent witness is all the world can see.

Consistent Through Time

The solution to this contemporary confusion is to embrace what we can clearly see as the consistent ethic of life through time. The Church, after all, is the mystical Body of Christ, which exists in its unity through all times and places. Thus, the witness of the early Church on these matters is not merely for those with an interest in history, but should be a present reality in the minds of all Christians today. It is as integral a part of the consistent ethic of life as any contemporary witness.

Upon inspection of the Christian tradition through the ages, we see an unbroken witness regarding both the high priority and the moral gravity of abortion. It is fiercely condemned by the church fathers and in early Christian writings (e.g., The Didache) as a feature of the road that "leads to death." The condemnation of abortion, infanticide, and suicide distinguished the early Christians from the pagans. From the early days of the Church to the present, the Christian position on this particular "ethics of life" question has been consistently and unwaveringly articulated throughout the whole Christian tradition.

This witness counters the notion that the purported inadequacies in addressing other "moral issues" such as health care are equal in gravity to abortion. Indeed, health care cannot even be properly considered apart from abortion. How can one argue for the moral imperative of universal health care without insisting that it also apply to infants who survive an abortion? How can one argue that universal health insurance must include provisions covering abortion? What sort of "health care" is that for the child being dismembered in the womb?

If human life is not defended at its source, to purport to defend it only at points downstream is inconsistent if not hypocritical. When life is defended at its source, then the mandates to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the imprisoned become aspects of a genuinely consistent ethic of life.

The seamless garment position means consistency with the Christian tradition in opposing abortion regardless of the political repercussions. If Christians are to stand in solidarity with unborn victims of Roe v. Wade, they must defend them at every opportunity.

Or will the unborn in the next life, if asked about the brevity of their earthly sojourns, reply, "Even the Christians grew tired of defending us"? God forbid.

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