Category: abortion

At war over the culture war: Dionne and Gerson go toe-to-toe

By Alan Bean

When two columnists working for the same newspaper address the same subject (the culture war and the contraception debate) you can learn a lot.  Michael Gerson accuses Barack Obama of sustaining our endless American culture war by forcing a conservative Roman Catholic Church to conform to “the liberal values of equality and choice.”  In Gerson’s view, the Catholic Church is an inherently conservative, indeed ‘illiberal’, institution.  Gerson endorses a pluralistic view of America in which a variety of civic organizations, some liberal and progressive, others illiberal and traditional, co-exist in a free society.  But this dream of a pluralistic America is being thwarted by an inherently intolerant “liberal” view of American life in which every individual and institution is expected to conform to the liberal values of equality and choice.  By forcing illiberal Catholic medical providers to provide free contraceptive services to their clients, Gerson alleges, the Obama administration is rejecting the pluralistic vision of America and stoking the fires of culture war.

Gerson believes it is a mistake to antagonize conservative institutions because, unlike their liberal counterparts, they encourage 

The habits of good citizens — attributes such as self-control, cooperation and respect for the law — don’t emerge spontaneously. They are cultivated in families and religious congregations. The health of liberal political institutions is strengthened by the success of traditional institutions, which often teach values that prepare individuals for the responsible exercise of freedom.

In Gerson’s view, Obama moved to the left on immigration and gay rights because he is an ardent culture warrior who disrespects the views of American conservatives.

Then comes E J Dionne, a progressive columnist who, unlike the evangelical Gerson, happens to be a living, breathing Roman Catholic in good standing.  Dionne agrees that Obama’s initial handling of the contraception issue was ham-handed and out of character.  Dionne’s Obama is no champion of the liberal view of America.  At his core, the president is an even-handed pragmatist who is generally eager to negotiate with his ideological opponents.

In fact, Dionne reminds us, six years ago Obama complained that

There are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word ‘Christian’ describes one’s political opponents, not people of faith.

Sounds a lot like Michael Gerson, doesn’t it.  Obama dropped the ball on the contraception issue, Dionne admits, but was able to self-correct by offering a compromise that was joyfully embraced by Catholic medical care providers.   

Unlike Gerson, Dionne refuses to define the Roman Catholic Church as an inherently traditional or illiberal institution.  The Catholic Church is a pragmatic and pluralistic blending of conservative and progressive impulses.  Dionne says he remains in the fold largely because

When it comes to lifting up the poor, healing the sick, assisting immigrants and refugees, educating the young (especially in inner cities), comforting orphaned and abandoned children, and organizing the needy to act in their own interest, the church has been there with resources and an astoundingly committed band of sisters, priests, brothers and lay people. Organizations such as Catholic Charities, the Catholic Health Association, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and Catholic Relief Services make the words of Jesus come alive every day.

Moderate Catholics appreciate the president’s willingness to meet the Church half way on contraception and Dionne hopes the conservative wing will tone down its opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage because the American Catholic community is as divided on these issues as the rest of society.

Two views of the Roman Catholic Church; two views of the sitting president.  Who wins?

Dionne gets the best of this dust-up.  The culture war doesn’t separate illiberal traditionalists like a monolithic Catholicism from liberal, pluralism denying, culture warriors like Obama.  Obama has been deeply influenced by both secular liberalism and the traditional values sustained by the Christian Church.  Roman Catholics, like most Christian denominations, are split down the middle over culture war issues like gay marriage, abortion and, now, contraception.  Gerson’s neat divisions don’t fit either Obama or American Catholicism.

If the president has moved off the fence on gay marriage and immigration it’s because he sees no point in placating ideological opponents for whom the word ‘compromise’ has become the vilest of profanities.  Any politician on the right willing to meet the president half way on any contentious issue gets his or her (usually his) mouth washed out with soap in full view of the cameras.

Nice try, Michael, but you didn’t nail it this time.

Does it take courage to be pro-life and anti-gay in Baptist Alabama?

Confessing Church Pastors in Germany

Timothy George had recently departed Southern Seminary in Louisville when I arrived as a doctoral student in the summer of 1989, but people still spoke of him in hushed tones of respect.  At the time, George was a leading member of a new breed of Southern Baptist Calvinists who believed, among other things, that we are all born destined for heaven or hell and there ain’t a damn thing we (or God, it appears) can do about it.

Calvinism appeals to egghead evangelicals in search of a rigorously intellectual theological system draped in the mists of history.  And John Calvin, like the judgin’ exam in Peter Cooks Coal Miner sketch, is noted for his rigor.

Timothy George stirred a bit of excitement in 2009, when, in collaboration with luminaries like Charles Colson, he published a Manhattan Declaration, subtitled as “a call of Christian conscience”.  With a prison reformer like Colson on board, you might expect the declaration to touch, however briefly, on the shame of mass incarceration.  But no, the only topics deemed worthy of discussion were (you guessed it) abortion, gay marriage, and the purported persecution of the American Church.

Now, professor George is claiming that the 500,000 signatories to his bold confession are akin to the German churchmen who signed the Barmen Declaration opposing Hitler in the darkest days of the Third Reich.

Pardon me if I wince in embarrassment. (more…)

Progressives should be wary of Ron Paul

There is a lot to like about Ron Paul.  He opposes the war on drugs; he is anti-war, and he doesn’t like the Patriot Act.  Who could ask for anything more?

If you believe Adele M. Stan, progressives should be asking for much, much more.  Ron Paul’s libertarianism may overlap with the progressive agenda at important points, but it flows from a entirely different source.  Stan associates Paul with the anti-civil rights John Birch Society as well as the modern Reconstruction movement.  My research has reached similar conclusions.

Progressives contend that we’re all in this thing together; Libertarians say we’re all on our own.   Progressivism is consistent with religious altruism; libertarianism logically tends toward the moral nihilism of Ayn Rand. A philosophical difference that great can’t be mended with duct tape and baling wire.  Friends of Justice endorses a Common Peace Agenda that embraces the legitimate rights and needs of all people.  We aren’t satisfied with simply ending the war on drugs or reducing the size of the prison population; we seek what Martin Luther King Jr. called The Beloved Community. 

Those in search of the common good must choose their coalition partners with great care.  We don’t have to agree on every point, but we must be working toward the same broad goal.  What kind of America are we trying to create?  AGB (more…)

Fetal personhood and civil rights

William Wilberforce as portrayed in "Amazing Grace"

By Alan Bean

Personhood USA, the group arguing that personhood begins the moment of conception, is promoting itself as a latter day embodiment of the civil rights movement.  Days after a “fetal personhood” amendment was rejected by 60% of Mississippi voters, Personhood Florida’s Bryan Longworth is undaunted.  William Wilberforce didn’t end slavery in England the first time he tried, Longworth says, and his group isn’t about to give up simply because voters in the most conservative state in America aren’t buying the fetal personhood argument.

The reference to Wilberforce caught my attention.  Nancy and I saw Amazing Grace in an Amarillo movie theatre in 2007.  We were weighing our options at the time.  Did we really want to stay in the criminal justice reform fight?  Sure, we had won some important victories, but when you live in the Texas Panhandle you have few illusions.  Every struggling rural community of any size is sustained by a state prison and there appears to be zero support for ending mass incarceration.  When you have repeatedly slammed your head into a brick wall you sometimes think how nice it would feel to stop. (more…)