Sunday, December 11, 2011

The moralizing amoral moralist

Hector Avalos has written a column for the Des Moines Register:

If Republicans nominate Newt Gingrich for president it will signal the further erosion, and maybe even death, of Christian conservatism as we once knew it.

To say it signals “further erosion” presupposes a high-water mark from which Christian conservatism as we “once knew it” has fallen. Eroded in relation to what? Plymouth Plantation? Cotton Mather? Thomas Jefferson? William Jennings Bryan? Woodrow Wilson?

Let’s run back through some past GOP nominees: John McCain, Bush 43, Bob Dole, Bush 41, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, Dwight Eisenhower…

Do we see a pattern of steady erosion for a Christian high-water mark? I don’t.

Gingrich’s nomination will mean that a thrice-married and twice-divorced candidate who might still be seen as living in a state of adultery is the best self-described Christian conservatives can do anymore.

i) Is Obama the best that liberals can do any more? Don’t they find him weak on environmentalism? Aren’t they appalled by his continuation of Bush-era counterterrorism measures?

ii) What’s the nature of the “erosion”? Does Avalos think Christian conservatives have less political clout than they used to? If so, what’s his standard of comparison? When were Christian conservatives more influential in the political process? Was Goldwater a card-carrying member of the religious right? Or Rockefeller? Or Nixon? Or Ford?

iii) Or is he insinuating moral erosion? But even if Republicans settle for Gingrich, there’s a difference between a pragmatic compromise and a moral compromise. It’s morally compromising if you refuse to do better when it lies within your power to do better. But if that’s the best you can truly do, then you’re not guilty of moral compromise.

iv) Law and politics presuppose a fallen world. Sinful candidates. Sinful voters. Any candidate we nominate will be a flawed candidate. Flawed candidates reflected a flawed electorate.

Avalos might as well ask, was King David the best the Israelites could come up with? Or Asa? Or Uzziah. Or Hezekiah? 

In a fallen world, Christians play the hand that providence has dealt us. That’s the best we can do. So what?

v) Suppose Republicans nominated an ideologically purer candidate like Bachmann or Santorum. Wouldn’t Avalos be equally critical of that choice? If we nominate Gingrich, that’s too compromising–but if we nominate Bachmann, that’s too uncompromising.

vi) Hector’s objection reveals more about him than the process. He seems to think voting is a personal endorsement of the candidate’s character or lifestyle. He seems to view politicians as role models. 

Well, what does that tell you about Avalos? Is Ted Kennedy his role model? Is JFK his role model? He Barney Frank his role model? Is Bill Clinton his role model? What about Nancy Pelosi’s insider trading?

His past statements on abortion, which leave exemptions for incest or rape, also may disturb many Christian conservatives.

I myself don’t agree with those exemptions. However, Billy Graham takes the same position.

These are some of the reasons that a group known as Iowans for Christian Leaders in Government sent a letter on Nov. 28 to Bob Vander Plaats, head of the Family Leader, the Christian conservative group that indicates it might support Gingrich.
The letter stated: “Our group believes that we must select leaders who not only espouse our values, but who live them each and every day … (Gingrich) is not an acceptable choice among Christians.”
One issue may be how strictly Christian conservatives will apply to Gingrich the directives of Jesus in Matthew 19:9 (Revised Standard Version): “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.”

When I vote for a candidate, I’m not voting for the man–I’m voting for his policies.

i) Are his overall policies better than a rival candidate’s?

ii) Is he sincere about his policy initiatives? Does he have core values? 

iii) Is he electable?

What’s the point of voting for someone to be president? Logically, that’s based on what we think or hope he will do as president. We’re electing him to do a job. The question is whether he’s qualified to get the job done.

Suppose I had to choose between two generals. One general is a military genius. A brilliant tactician and strategist. He’s also a womanizer. The other general is incompetent, but a man of sterling character.

Which one do I pick? Well, I’m judging a general as a general. Not, is he a good man–but is he a good general? Is he good at his job?

According to many Christian conservatives, it’s not a matter of forgiving Gingrich for some past sins. As long as he remains in an illegitimate remarriage, he remains in a state of adultery. Even the Catholic Church, to which Gingrich belongs, states in its Catechism of the Catholic Church (2384): “Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. … Contracting a new union, even if it is recognized by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery.”

i) For reasons I’ve given, I don’t think that’s relevant.

ii) Even if it were, remarriage effectively dissolves the previous marriage. Even if adultery was the cause, the new marriage isn’t adulterous.

That may run counter to Catholic theology, but I’m not Catholic.

iii) It’s an interesting question why Gingrich was received into the Catholic church despite his marital situation. But that’s a side issue.

Of course, Catholicism also allows for annulment of a previous marriage. Therefore, Gingrich can claim that his faith allows something other Christian faiths may not. Yet such a theological rationale will also create even more problems if supporters of Gingrich are also against gay marriage. In the New King James Version, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 states: “Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.” If so, adulterers and homosexuals are equally sinful and equally excluded from the kingdom of God. Divorce and homosexuality are also held by many Christians to be equally against natural law.
But what if some Christians — and there are increasing numbers of them — say that their faith allows homosexual marriages? How will Gingrich supporters oppose the right of some Christians to enter into homosexual marriages permitted by their faith, while Gingrich is allowed to marry someone despite it being against someone else’s faith?
Another signal of the erosion of Christian conservatism is that it now demands that their chosen candidates adhere to virtually just one prohibition (homosexuality) on that list in 1 Corinthians.
Prohibiting drunkenness, which fragments more monogamous families than homosexuality does, is now largely absent from conservative Christian “pledges” demanded of candidates.
So, yes, the nomination of Gingrich will signal the expanding boundaries of social behaviors that self-described Christian conservatives will accept in their leaders. Accepting gay marriage might not be that far behind.

i) "Their leaders" in what sense? Not a church officer. I wouldn't be taking my cues from Gingrich on theology or ethics. 

ii) In general, laws don’t concern themselves with whether or not the offender is going to hell when he dies. Even if the OT, the law wasn’t designed to present an ethical ideal, but to set a minimal bar for social conduct.

iii) Our system is based on popular sovereignty. The electorate is overwhelmingly heterosexual. Therefore, as a practical matter, politicians lack popular support to pass certain laws that flout the will of the majority. That may be unfair, but that’s the way it is. Majority rule…rules.

iiii) That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pass good laws whenever we can. For instance, child molesters are in the distinct minority, so it’s easier to pass laws against child molestation.

The fact that the majority may hypocritically exempt their own vices doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold the line when or where we can. A leaky dike is better than no dike.

We do what we can to preserve some level of moral stability. The point of law is not so much to make everyone ethical, but to make it possible for anyone to be ethical. To keep corruption from choking out virtue.

iv) Finally, Hector Avalos is a moral relativist, so why does he care who Christian voters nominate? Why does he care who gets elected? Why does he care what policies become law? 

1 comment:

  1. "Prohibiting drunkenness, which fragments more monogamous families than homosexuality does, is now largely absent from conservative Christian “pledges” demanded of candidates."

    Huh, I didn't realize we had candidates running who favored drunkenness. At least, I assume there must be, otherwise Avalos's comparison just looks stupid.