Author Archives: Bryan McGraw

About Bryan McGraw

Associate Professor of Politics at Wheaton College (IL)

Marilynne Robinson at Wheaton

The marvelous novelist Marilynne Robinson gave the plenary address last night here at Wheaton College as part of our annual theology conference, this year dedicated to engaging the theological themes in her writings. I have very much enjoyed her novels (Gileadseems an obvious cut above the rest) but have also thought her essays less impressive—and so I was interested to hear what she might offer up to our relatively conservative community that, almost universally, seems to adore her work.

In one sense, what she offered up was quite unremarkable, at least insofar as it was pretty much what you would expect a liberal Protestant to say if she wanted to say something about our current religio-political moment. White evangelicals are hypocrites. Christians should be more concerned with social welfare. And so on. I guess it’s a bit remarkable that she didn’t, it seems, do much to soften her critiques even when talking to people at which they were largely aimed. (Though to be clear, at least in the college itself, there is more than a bit of lamenting at those evangelicals whose enthusiasm for the president has, to put it mildly, outrun their good judgment. And to be just as clear, there’s plenty in white evangelicalism to criticize.)

But there were a couple of curious disjunctions in the talk that are probably worth noting. The first was her repeated (if often only implicit) critique of evangelicalism for its willingness to claim that it has a handle on Christian orthodoxy as over against others (probably in her mind, most pointedly liberal Protestantism). Again, this is not a new critique, and she quite rightly suggested that we should maintain some humility when it comes to claiming to know exactly what God is up to in our day. She pointed out how we are too driven by “fear” and that fear can cause us to draw hard lines between us and “them” without a recognition that the “them” are beloved of God and could be, maybe soon, one of his most faithful followers. She offered us a good reminder that rather than treating those who stand outside the faith as enemies or hostiles, we might think of them as at least potential brothers and sisters in the faith. (She at times seemed to flirt with a kind of Barthian universalism or maybe a Rahner-ian “anonymous Christian” view but didn’t really land there). But she paired that with repeated admonitions about how certain sorts of public policy choices—making reference to mental health care, gun control, and the criminal justice system—were clearly and obviously un-Christian. Now, maybe there’s a distinction to be made between the (incorrect) claim that one knows what the faith is (and isn’t) and the (correct) claim that one knows what the faith demands politically (and what it doesn’t). But given that Robinson seems quite given to the idea that the “faith” inherently includes some sort of social commitment (read: social justice), I don’t know that it’s much of a distinction at all, and to wag one’s finger while doing pretty much the same thing is a bit incongruous.

I should note here that I don’t mean to say that she shouldn’t attempt to draw distinctions. I quite agree that there are policy choices that Christians shouldn’t endorse. Back in the early 20thcentury, it was an excommunicable offense for Catholics in Germany to join fascist movements. (The Church lifted that ban as part of its unfortunate Concordat with the Nazi regime in 1933, alas). I’m a bit more politically latitudinarian on this than the Catholic Church (meaning that I don’t think that having immoral political views means you are outside the salvation of Christ), but it seems perfectly reasonable for Christians to call out their fellow self-identified Christians when they act politically in ways that are sinful. But I also think this is perfectly appropriate when it comes to the Church proper. We can certainly endorse the notion that our understanding of God and His purposes is always to some degree uncertain without then embracing a radical non-judgmentalism as to what counts as properly Christian. Everyone does it; indeed, it’s hard to imagine having any sort of community without doing some line-drawing. That we should be reluctant to draw those lines too quickly or too brightly or without a good bit of allowance seems right, but Robinson seemed unhappy with line-drawing at all, at least the sort she didn’t like.

That points to the more interesting disjunction. (Liberal Protestants complaining about evangelical line-drawing is hardly new, just as is their penchant for doing their own line-drawing at the same time.) The first half of her talk was an extended defense of the idea of conscience and the ways in which that was an important spur for the Reformation. But in the second half, she trotted out what feels like now a kind of almost pro forma critique of individualism (though there were some interesting intimations from her that suggested a kind of defense of individualism). What struck me, though, was how the two sides of the critique don’t fit together. Conscience is important but when you cite Emerson, as she did, you are almost inevitably headed toward the sort of disconnected, romantic individualism that she (rightly, in my view) finds so troublesome. Here, the Catholic tradition seems helpful, for it talks (so far as I understand it) in terms of rightly orderedconscience, not just conscience per se. Our contemporary cult of authenticity contains within it a view of conscience that merely demands a kind of coherence to your views. In practice everyone imposes limits (that is, draws lines on what counts as properconscience) but the impulse is toward a solipsistic conscience, not a rightly formed one. What’s lacking here—and this is a problem in both liberal and conservative Protestantism alike—is a sense of rightful authority, things to which we owe obedience even when, maybe especially when, we do not find it easy to consent. I don’t know that I have an especially good answer to this dilemma—I’m just as American in that sense as the next—but it does seem to me an enduring dilemma, one that even as astute a person as Marilynne Robinson seems flummoxed by.



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Why I am #NotHillary and #NeverTrump and will not vote for either of the two main candidates for president this year.

I’ve had a few folks ask me what I have been thinking in this election year and so I thought I would sketch out my thoughts on the matter and especially on why I can’t in good conscience vote either for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. And trust me, it’s worth every penny you’ve paid for it.

With regard to Clinton, my reasoning is pretty straightforward. I’m not inclined toward many of her policy choices, but my sense is that she will be a fairly ordinary, and ordinarily bad, president after she is sworn in this coming January. (Yes, I think she will win, and win relatively easily). But I can’t vote for her because she is firmly, persistently, and even enthusiastically in favor of protecting and even expanding abortion rights in our country (and overseas). She cannot even manage her husband’s “safe, legal, and rare” mantra. My judgment is that abortion (save for life-saving efforts) is an intrinsic evil and that I cannot vote for someone who thinks as she does.

Of course, lots of people describe themselves as pro-life but think that holding to my position is a mistake. They typically advance two different arguments. In the first, they suggest being this sort of “single-issue” voter goes too far, ignoring all the other reasons one might (or might not) vote for a particular candidate. In one sense, this is correct. If all you do is vote on the basis of a single issue, then, yes, it’s quite likely you’ll fall into moral and political error at some point. But everyone, I would submit, has a single issue, or even a cluster of issues, that serve as a kind of moral floor beneath which they will not go. Ask yourself: would you vote for a segregationist? No? Welcome to the ranks of the single-issue voter.

In the second, though, they suggest refusing to vote for pro-choice candidates misses the ways in which other policies—support for mothers, parental leave, etc.—might work to reduce the abortion rate and, after all, aren’t we really in the end looking to reduce the numbers of abortions? Yes, that’s the goal, but in the context of a changed political order that is at least reasonably just. It is not enough, I think, to simply reduce the numbers of abortions—even halve them—while all the more securely protecting the rest via law. Suppose that Clinton’s package of proposals would reduce abortions in the U.S. down to half, roughly 300,000 or so a year. Wouldn’t that be a good thing? Yes, it would, but what then, given that her package of proposals also includes public funding for abortions, rolling back the relatively small number of limits now on abortion rights (including lifting federal restrictions on partial-birth abortions), and expanding funding for abortions (and abortion rights) overseas? On even the most optimistic view (and I’m pretty skeptical of this optimistic view), we might have fewer abortions, but those that occurred—and 300,000 a year is a lot!—would be even more well-protected by law in the U.S. (and elsewhere). And since the real goal is rid ourselves of the elective abortion scourge entirely, we might very well actually be further from that goal, politically speaking, than we are now. Much of Europe is better than the U.S. in one sense on this issue, as they typically restrict abortion to rather early in pregnancy. But in another sense they are worse off: there are, as I understand it, almost no serious political movements trying to end abortion and the prospects for further restricting it are quite dim. (It’s probably worth noting that Europe also belies the idea that very generous welfare states would work to make abortion “unthinkable.”) Our goal should be a constitutional order that reflects what we claim about inherent human dignity, and a vote for pro-choice candidates is not a move in that direction. And so I shall not vote for Hillary Clinton (or Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, who both are also pro-choice).

Ostensibly, of course, Donald Trump claims to be a convert to the pro-life cause, but he’s so incompetent in talking about the issue and is so untrustworthy in general that we should have, to put the matter charitably, no expectation that, even if elected, he would follow through on his campaign promises. But even if he were genuinely pro-life, I would not vote for him.

First, his policy proposals are just short of awful. He, like Clinton, makes noises about opposing free trade. (She hedges better and there’s good reason to suppose that she’s dissembling, which, ironically, is probably a good thing). He is hostile to the First Amendment (which, in a way, she is as well). He is emblematic of crony capitalism and seems likely to institutionalize it further, rather than trimming it back. He is hostile to immigrants (not just immigration, legal or illegal). He seems unwilling to confront our enemies and strategic challengers in a way that is likely to produce more conflict, not less. He is, in a word, just the sort of big-government “centrist” we don’t need. (And that all assumes that he actually does have any policy commitments – it seems just as likely that he’s making stuff up as he goes along and would continue to do so in office, presuming his advisors could get him to work at all).

But his awful policies on their own wouldn’t be enough, probably, to say that I categorically wouldn’t vote for him. (Though his opponent would have to be really, really, really bad, Hugo Chavez sort of bad).  What really seals the deal for me is that his character makes him distinctively unfit for the office of the president. Any politician’s character matters (just as everyone’s character does), but it matters especially for those who occupy an executive office. Presidents make all sorts of promises and have all sorts of goals, but they are often defined by their reactions to events imposed upon them. President Bush campaigned promising a “modest” foreign policy and 9/11 changed all of that. Jimmy Carter did not expect to deal with the Iranian Revolution (and the ensuing hostage crisis). And so on. Ask yourself how you think Donald Trump would react to a China throwing its weight around in the South China Sea? Or to a major terrorist attack in the U.S.? Moreover, the presidency has great latitude to implement/shape policy in some ways independent of Congress, as presidents have increasingly discovered. Inasmuch as you might be disturbed with the scope of President Obama’s executive orders or administrative decisions, imagine a President Trump with the same kind of leeway. I don’t think there is any reason to trust him with that sort of power.

Finally, and this is really an extension of the previous point, it is no accident that Trump’s candidacy has worked to redefine normalcy down. He is cultural and moral poison, inducing otherwise sane people to defend his vulgar admissions of sexual assault as mere “locker room” talk and making open proclamations of racial, ethnic, and religious bigotry once again acceptable as part of our public discourse. These things had not, of course, ever gone away, and it was always possible to find them muttered sotto voce by clever politicos (or less guardedly in some of our country’s byways) but even the patina of hypocrisy was an example of vice paying tribute to virtue. We all knew—or all pretended—that we shouldn’t talk that way. It was unseemly and would bring about the end of one’s political or business career. What Trump’s candidacy has done is, to mangle his own phrase, to make open bigotry great again—and he is not at all concerned about that. Consider: have you ever heard him really worry about or condemn the sorts of racist or racialist or sexist or anti-Semitic rhetoric some of his supporters use?

Trump is, by almost all accounts, a deeply immoral man who resembles more the tyrant of Plato’s Republic than anything else. (Except that Trump isn’t, thank God, nearly so competent). No one who wishes our country well (and that would not include the current KGB Tsar in Russia) should think he should be president. And so I shall not vote for Donald Trump.

Am I, then, “wasting” my vote if I vote for some third party or, as I plan to do, vote for a write-in candidate (e.g. Evan McMullin)? Well, consider what you’re doing when you are voting. Are you effecting a particular outcome, e.g. the election of a candidate to office? Consider scenario A, where you vote for one of the candidates and then Scenario B, where you don’t vote for either. Is there any difference in the outcome between the two Scenarios? The answer is almost certainly, as in one-in-six million (or however many voters you have in your state), no. Your vote matters only in an infinitesimally small way—and, really, not at all, at least as far as the outcome is concerned.

But your vote does matter for you, in the sense that it matters to who you are and who you are hoping to become. When you vote, you are expressing a view that this person (or party) would do better at moving your country (or state or town or whatever) toward what you take to be a just (or more just) state of affairs. You are, then, expressing something about yourself. What are you saying about yourself if you say, as any number of GOP voters seem to be saying, that you think Trump is a terrible person, not worthy of the office of the president, and yet a good choice to be president? You might frame your choice as a vote against Clinton (and perhaps it is that) but it is also, inherently, a vote for Trump. (The logic works for the converse as well). Is that who you want to be, someone divided against yourself?

It seems to me that one of the things we should try to do in this messy world is to live, so far as we can, an integrated moral life, one where our actions reflect a coherent set of moral commitments, including a commitment to the sort of social and political order we would like to inhabit. That’s certainly not always possible and we may indeed sometimes be faced with genuinely tragic choices, but that’s just not the case with our vote in this presidential election. We need not sully our consciences in the vain expectation that we are somehow effecting the “least bad” outcome—we have next to nothing to do with electoral outcomes as individuals. We have a great deal to do with who we eventually become. (It’s worth noting that the smaller the group of electors, the more likely it is we might be forced into tragic moral trade-offs, but the numbers for a presidential election make that possibility vanishingly small. But note further that the title of the post refers to #NeverTrump and #NotHillary—I will vote for neither, but my dislike of each is not equivalent. She is ordinarily bad while he is extraordinary in his bad-ness).

Finally, some might ask (and people do), what if everyone did as I suggested, and voted 3rd party/write-in or simply didn’t vote at all? How would our democracy work? That’s an interesting thought experiment, but it’s the wrong question. The right question is, what would happen if people genuinely voted their conscience and looked to affirm who they thought would make the better office-holder and not just who would beat some despised opponent? Would we have ended up with the two most unliked candidates in memory? I suspect not.

So vote your conscience, keep your soul, and things might even turn out better than the alternative.



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Thinking About the Christian Intellectual

I’ve been thinking a bit about Alan Jacobs’ piece over at Harper’s on the absence of the Christian intellectual as part of our society’s public discourse. (I haven’t, I should say, followed all too closely the various responses already up, except to see the all-but-inevitable “hey, what about me?” sorts of posts. For those of you in the academy, you knew that was coming, right?) What I liked especially about Alan’s essay was its refusal to assign any kind of easy “blame” for the fact–and I think it is indeed a fact–that Christian thinkers working from explicitly theological frames don’t get much of a hearing in public these days. Too many of our secular friends just don’t have an ear for theological language (or are ideologically committed to not having an ear) and too many Christians don’t know how to tune their voices (and, frankly, too many of them aren’t willing to do the hard, slogging work to actually be able to do serious intellectual work). But two things struck me in reading that I think are worth bringing out.

First, I think there’s a piece of the essay that hasn’t gotten enough notice and that’s the question of what it actually means to *be* an intellectual today as opposed to, say, the 1940s and 1950s. Jacobs suggests that each of the intellectuals he’s interested in had a posture of interpretation that grounded their most important works–they were public intellectuals in that they were bringing their  scholarly, philosophical, theological, and moral sensibilities to bear on understanding and interpreting the world around them so as to illuminate that world for their reading publics. Niebuhr, whatever else he was doing, wanted people to understand that the happy-clappy utopianism of the early 20th century was a mirage and that you had to be tough-minded if you wanted to do good in your politics. I’m not so sure that’s how *our* public intellectuals see themselves or the world. They seem (to me, at least) to think of themselves much more in line with the 19th/20th century Russian intelligentsia who had bought into Marx’s dictum that the point of philosophy (and, presumably, any kind of intellectual work) was to “change” the world, not just understand it. Jacobs gestures at this with his discussions of “technique.” To be an intellectual in our day means mastering some set of rhetorical or disciplinary “techniques” that can then be applied more widely in the service of “social change” or “justice” or whatever the term is these days.

Perhaps I’m wrong about this and our sense of the intellectual hasn’t changed, but it does strike me that we are in the midst of a revival of the idea that we can indeed grasp the levers of history and achieve, in a way that our early 20th century forbears failed to do, fully just, fully prosperous social order. If only the peasants would get with the program. So when Alan asks why aren’t there any Christian intellectuals anymore, I think part of the answer has to be that we lack his sense of intellectuals altogether–or, at least, that’s true as a *public* matter.

The second thing that struck me was more a question of institutions. He notes that many of these public intellectuals had communities within which they developed, tested, and refined their public ideas–and then places within which they could communicate them to a wide audience. Both seem more difficult today. On the latter side, our public discourse is much more obviously differentiated in any number of ways and it’s impossible to imagine what would stand in for a Time Magazine cover these days. But on the former, it’s also more difficult and it’s especially more difficult to have differentiated sorts of conversations.

Here’s what I mean. I host a Christian political thought workshop every summer here at Wheaton–anyone who is a Christian who is doing “political thought” (which I define rather capaciously) is welcome to come and have their working papers gone over by other Christians. The idea was to create a space within which we could have the sorts of philosophical and theological discussions that are hard to do together in the modern academy. We can talk in ways that just don’t fit in an R-1 research university seminar. But I wonder how available those spaces are to many people, and especially spaces where others, who don’t share some basic presuppositions, aren’t listening in? If Christians (or anyone else) is always looking over their shoulders, wondering how *everyone* might react to their half-baked ideas, it’s hard to see how they’ll develop well as intellectuals (Christian or otherwise). The digital world is remarkable, among other things, for its ability to connect us quickly across vast distances, but it also makes it possible for our ideas (half-baked and otherwise) to travel just as quickly, sometimes when they’re not exactly ready. Perhaps this is what Alan was pointing to in his references to “subaltern counterpublics” and I wonder if those are becoming less and less available?

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Same-Sex Marriage, Religious Liberty, and the Democratic Moment


Now that the Supreme Court has ratified Same-Sex Marriage (SSM) as a “fundamental right” in Obergefell v Hodges, it looks as if we will finally get to how religious liberties will fare. For the past 10-15 years, scholars and pundits have variously warned about or celebrated the idea that broad changes in how the law thinks about sexual orientation would impinge on individuals’ and institutions’ exercise of their religious beliefs. (See this edited volume as one example) Here (as much for my own benefit as anyone else’s) I thought would sketch out what I take to be the most significant possible challenges religious communities and individuals will face in the coming years, at least as things stand right now, what would we (traditionalist religious believers) might do in response. To give away the conclusion, I think these challenges can genuinely be met, but only if we take seriously our own obligations as citizens in a democratic republic to vindicate and protect our own liberties not merely through litigation and court decisions but more importantly through popular deliberation and legislative action. In other words, if we are to find ways to give religious liberty its due, it will be up to us as citizens and the men and women who represent us in our legislative bodies to make it happen. The advent of SSM offers us a democratic moment—will we take it?

The first thing to note is that SSM in and of itself will not likely present any direct challenges to religious liberty. Instead, because it embodies and represents a deep and pervasive change in how we think about sexuality, families, and the like, it really just accelerates the growing sense within our society that broadly popular anti-discrimination norms should be extended to include sexual orientation (and, I think, gender identity). The challenge of SSM is really the challenge of non-discrimination.

It’s worth pausing for a moment, then, to think about why we value anti-discrimination norms—and why we sometimes don’t. It’s not uncommon to hear or read people suggest that we shouldn’t abide any sort of discrimination, but a moment’s reflection shows that to be obviously untrue. No one (or almost no one, I’d guess) really minds that Harvard prefers smart high school students to dumb ones and thus discriminates. Similarly, it would be an odd thing if you couldn’t “discriminate” in your choice of a spouse or roommate. Or if the NBA didn’t prefer people who could jump over people (like me) who can’t. But we would find it objectionable (and legally actionable) if Harvard refused to admit Latinos or the NBA discriminated against Lutherans. We’d even find it morally bothersome if someone was committed to only marrying or rooming with someone of a particular race, though it’s unlikely we’d make it a legal issue (though there were some interesting legal cases with regard to the latter that show its complications). What accounts for the difference in our moral and political judgments?

The difference lies in our judgment that, first, there are some aspects of our selves, the ways in which we identify and are identified, that should not shape how we treat others or are treated—they are “morally irrelevant,” we might say. Imagine someone made employment decisions in a bank based on the length of the applicants’ nose – just silly, right? More importantly to this discussion, we also have made the judgment that access to certain goods—employment, education, health care, legal judgments, etc.—are so central to living even a reasonably good life (in our society, at least) that their availability should not be conditioned by these “morally irrelevant” characteristics. If you fail to study hard or just don’t have the native intelligence to do really well in school, then Harvard is not wronging you by not admitting you. If Harvard denies your application because of your skin color or ethnicity or place of birth, then it has indeed wronged you. Sometimes, we might acknowledge that you’ve been wronged—it seems right to say that you’ve been morally wronged if someone refuses to be your friend or be romantically interested on account of those sorts of characteristics—but not make it a matter of political judgment because to do so would extend the state’s reach beyond its proper scope. (Imagine a Federal Friendship Law). When Congress enacted the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a way of breaking racial segregation, it represented a dramatic expansion of federal political authority precisely on the theory that black citizens’ lives were being systematically devalued and made difficult solely on account of their race—and that the only way to change that was to prohibit (and penalize) racial discrimination across a wide range of “public accommodations.” Over time, Congress added other categories—sex, age, marital status, etc.—with the view that these, too, should not impinge on our access to those fundamental goods necessary to living well in modern America.

The true challenge that SSM represents for religious liberties, then, is that it offers a shot in the arm to efforts to extend those anti-discrimination norms to include sexual orientation and gender identity. (The latter isn’t necessarily required by SSM, but it seems to follow along nonetheless). And so the question becomes whether in extending those norms, we should continue or even expand the range of exceptions we offer to religious believers and institutions or, conversely, whether we should narrow or eliminate them. Currently, most religious institutions (at least the non-profit ones) get more or less a pass on most anti-discrimination statutes, and it’s easy to see why. It would be strange thing indeed if a church or mosque could not require a minister to be of its own faith. So the Catholic Church can freely discriminate not just against non-Catholics in its selection of priests, but also against women.

The partial exception to this broad set of exemptions is race, and it is here, in particular the Supreme Court decision in Bob Jones v United States, where we can see highlighted where religious liberty and expanded non-discrimination norms could come into conflict. Bob Jones University was (and is) a fundamentalist Christian college that used to (though no longer does) discriminate on the basis of race. The IRS decided that this meant it could no longer claim a tax exemption and the Supreme Court agreed in 1974 that the public interest in eradicating racial discrimination meant that the university’s religious liberty had to give way. The idea is not that you couldn’t have a racially discriminatory church or college or whatever, but, rather, that the state could decline to “subsidize” such an institution with tax-exempt status, even if such a decision meant that the state was picking some religious entities out for disfavor (thus rubbing up against the well-established principle that the liberal state cannot support some religious communities over against others). (I tend to think the notion that tax-exempt status is a “subsidy” represents a poor understanding of the proper relationship between the state and civil society institutions, but my views, for some reason, have not won Supreme Court approval yet). The general principle is that while religious liberty is important, in this particular case, it’s more important that the state work to eradicate racial discrimination.

For some, since moral opposition to homosexual practice is on a par with racial discrimination, religious groups that don’t get on board with the new dispensation should likewise lose their tax-exempt status. We should not, I think, discount this possibility, especially with respect to states or local municipalities where religious liberty protections might be weaker than they are on the federal level. But before giving into full-fledged panic, it’s worth noting a few things here. First, so far as I know, no court has, in fact, extended the logic of the Bob Jones case in such a way as to take it beyond race. No religious institution has lost its tax-exempt status because, for example, it only allows one sex to participate or hold some sort of office. Second, since Bob Jones is a university, it doesn’t quite fit into the same category as churches proper (which should probably be a relief to churches, but not mean very much to schools, non-profits, etc.) And, finally, the Bob Jones case was at the tail end of a long series of legal and political efforts to combat a much more pervasive set of discriminatory institutions, something that is obviously much less true with regard to sexual orientation. So though it is clearly the case that if you think that moral opposition to homosexual practice is on a par with racial discrimination, you probably should be in favor of extending the Bob Jones case to all sorts of other situations, it seems to me that the political and material conditions make such a move not immediately in the offing.

Much more likely, at least in the short- to medium-term, are any number of smaller, more localized efforts to ostracize religious communities who hold to orthodox sexual views. We will likely see, for instance, efforts to exclude those communities’ access to public venues and certainly public monies, the latter through grant and contract rules requiring adherence to non-discrimination norms. Plenty of communities went out of their way to disadvantage the Boy Scouts over their (now ended) ban on gay scoutmasters and President Obama looks to issue an executive order prohibiting those who hold to traditional religious views from competing for government contracts. We may also see efforts, already in motion to some degree, to use licensing and other forms of credentialing procedures to weed out those who don’t affirm the new dispensation. Gordon College had its accreditation threatened last year over the issue, and it seems plausible (likely, even) that other credentialing bodies will try and flex their muscle in the near future as well.

Finally, and much more nebulously, it seems likely that we will see an invigorated move to make traditional views outside the bounds of “polite society” (as if our society is anything like “polite”). All one needs to do is to think about the overheated response to Indiana’s proposed state-level RFRA (especially in a context where state anti-discrimination laws did not over sexual orientation) to recognize that there are powerful cultural movements dedicated to making the traditional view of sexuality as socially noxious as explicit displays of racism.

So what to do?

Well, we could just try and withdraw from the surrounding culture a la the Amish, but that seems unlikely to succeed in any sense, even if it were an attractive option. We live within a regulatory state that claims a wide expanse of interests, ones that do not stop at the threshold to our homes, churches, or anywhere else. Though the Supreme Court found that churches do have a broad “ministerial” exemption with regard to anti-discrimination norms Hosanna-Tabor v EEOC, it is telling that the Obama administration argued (unreasonably, in my view) that no such exemption was required by the First Amendment, suggesting instead that churches and other religious institutions should be required to defend discriminatory practices in court as intrinsic to their religious mission. Few share that expansive view, but it seems reasonable to think that, unless trends change, regulatory efforts that fall just short of that will be on the table in the relatively near future. (It’s worth noting in this context that though the court was unanimous in affirming the “ministerial exemption,” there was significant disagreement about how far the exemption should extend within religious organizations. The state will not be able to tell churches how they choose their ministers, but with regard to their teachers, support staff, and the rest, we can’t be sure). Religious liberties thrive not just in a culture where the law is right, but where popular sentiment believes in its principles as well. When the state can (and does) reach most everywhere, it will do no good to simply try to build high walls around our institutions and hope we won’t be bothered.

A better answer starts in noting that in all the various challenges I sketched out above where the initiative lay–in the political, that is the legislative and executive, branches of government. Though the Supreme Court affirmed SSM as a “fundamental liberty,” the Court is, I think, highly unlikely to demand on its own that churches and other religious organizations change their views accordingly. Rather, if we get threatened with a loss of tax exemptions or what-not, it will be on account of cities, states, and the like deciding to take action. The Court didn’t on its down decide that Bob Jones shouldn’t have a tax exemption; it just ratified the IRS’s decision as constitutional. When the California State system decided to suspend InterVarsity Christian Fellowship it did so because it made a judgment about the relative importance of non-discrimination and religious liberty – and it reversed its decision when pressed on the merits. If and when cities or states think about yanking churches’ and schools’ tax exemptions, or when credentialing bodies suggest you can’t become a licensed counselor without pledging to the new faith, it will be people in political office who make those decisions—real, live, people who can be reasoned with or even replaced through electoral efforts.

And this is why I think the conflict between religious liberty and SSM offers us what we might term “a democratic moment.” The most significant debates are not to be held, at least at first, in the courts, but in legislatures and regulatory and licensing bodies. We are conditioned to think that our most significant debates happen in front of judges—and courts do matter, of course—but that’s just not true in this case. Courts will not decide these outcomes. They may ratify (or overturn) them, but the first move belongs to us as citizens engaged in moral and political deliberation. So when a city or state begins to deliberate about whether traditionalist religious colleges and non-profits should continue to receive tax-exempt status, our first impulse should not be to ask about how this fits with this or that legal doctrine or whether the courts will affirm or deny. It should be to engage in serious, thoughtful, and passionate deliberation with our fellow citizens, making the case that we have good reasons for organizing as we do and that they have good reasons for respecting that. In other words, we should act as citizens, not subjects, and validate our liberties in politics, not just beg courts to do it for us.

Christians (and others who think religious liberty shouldn’t always lose) should recognize that while we might lose (and will lose in some places), those losses are not inevitable, nor are they simply issues of legal and constitutional doctrine. These are moral and political matters that citizens in a democratic republic have a responsibility, the privilege really, of deliberating about and deciding. It would be a shame if we didn’t recognize that.

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Why Toleration Is Never Enough and Why Moral Conservatives and Free Speech Liberals Will Keep on Losing

Two groups have, of late, found themselves more than a bit on the defensive, and seem befuddled about why. Moral conservatives, those increasingly rare birds who think that not only is there some objective set of moral standards but also, generally, that those standards should be publicly recognized, have been shocked (not as in “shocked, shocked!”) that lots of folks want to follow through on the premises of the sexual revolution and reorder how we think about marriage—and that, as with most social revolutions, if you don’t get on board, you’ll find yourself the object of social, economic, and political ostracism. Free-speech liberals, on the other hand, increasingly find themselves besieged as the places they once thought citadels of free expression—our colleges and universities—sometimes seem to care more about psychological safety and comfort than the rough and tumble of opposing ideas.

What gives? Why can’t we just come to reasonable disagreement about the many matters that, in fact, divide us and figure out how to tolerate those differences? Why can’t same-sex supporters just leave the marriage traditionalists alone? What’s so terrible about having someone on campus who thinks things you find terrible? Whatever happened to principled toleration, both ask?

And herein lies the change that underlies, I think, the dilemmas for both the moral conservative and free-speech liberal: toleration is, in the minds of many, no longer enough, if it ever was.   For the last few decades have witnessed a sea-change in the way a broad swathe of scholars and intellectuals think about the social and political response to moral pluralism. Traditionally—at least for the past few hundred years—the standard response to pluralism has been toleration, by which we generally mean being willing to put up with something we find morally noxious on account of some other, more important, good. Locke, in his Letter on Toleration (1689), argues for toleration among (most) Protestant churches because it helps secure civic concord and best respects the nature and limits of government. (Those aren’t his only arguments, but I’ll return to this below). This eventually gets expanded to include all Christian groups, and then others until you get to what I take to be the apotheosis of liberal toleration, John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle.” On Mill’s view, society and government (and it matters that he includes both) can only coerce or even severely criticize individuals to prevent “harm” to others. The Supreme Court, which has largely written Mill’s principles into its First Amendment speech jurisprudence, draws the circle of what counts as publicly actionable harm pretty narrowly: incitement to violence, libel, etc. It has been a principle of American public life—certainly not observed consistently in practice—that the proper response to moral disagreement is to allow others their views, though within certain limits and with the caveat that toleration does not imply an abstention from offering serious, even polemical, critiques.

We might ask, though, why Locke found it necessary to include in his Letter the various religious arguments for toleration? He starts the letter off suggesting that the “chief characteristickal mark” of the church is toleration. (A mistake both theologically and sociologically, it seems to me). Everyone I’ve ever read on this makes these sorts of claims at least somewhat instrumental—most everyone reading his writing would be Christian, and you should always appeal to your audience—or as a reflection of his own, fairly latitudinarian Christian views. Perhaps that’s correct, but what I also think is true is that toleration as an abstract claim about letting people be only has real moral and political teeth provided that you have some good positive reason to tolerate. Or, to use the language I offered above, provided that when you tolerate some noxious practice or belief, you are always, inevitably tolerating with an eye toward some other good you interested in securing. When you tolerate your irascible relative at family gatherings, you do so because the good of familial peace is worth tolerating for. Locke’s argument for toleration works, insofar as it does, precisely because the goods it secures are worth putting up with your religiously wrong neighbors.

So what does this have to do with the ostracism of moral conservatives and the retreat of free-speech liberals? In relatively recent debates over toleration, there has developed a view that says toleration is simply not enough. In tolerating others, we implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) communicate that what they do or believe is, in our view, morally disreputable. That can have serious effects, of course, on the tolerated’s sense of self-worth and ability to live her life as she sees fit. Instead of toleration, the argument goes, we should instead offer one another mutual respect or positive regard or, and this is the key move, recognition. We need not morally endorse others’ lives full stop, but we should go beyond a grudging indifference to something like a decently warm encouragement. And the reason, broadly speaking, we must do so is because the goods we thought we could secure via toleration are not enough. They still leave those being tolerated the object of social opprobrium and thus at some real disadvantage—or worse.

Hence, it is not enough for gays and lesbians to achieve a rough degree of legal and political equality. Nor is it enough for tender college students to hear criticisms that go to the heart of their own sense of identity. Unless their moral lives are, in some real way, recognized and affirmed not only by public (or university) authorities and unless their fellow citizens (or students or speakers) can be counted on to do the same, real, substantive equality will remain elusive.

But this makes for the obvious question: if recognition, not toleration, is the rule of the day, why can’t moral conservatives or others with unpopular views make similarly structured claims? Well, in my view, they should be able to and the fact that they can’t helps reveal an incoherence at the heart of the recognition claim. Given a certain range of moral and religious pluralism, it is principally and practically impossible to extend recognition to all or even most, especially once recognition extends into our everyday social lives. Recognition is, or at least can be, a zero-sum game. And so what is lurking behind the purported argument for recognition—and toleration, for that matter—is a set of moral judgments about what lives are in fact worth recognizing or tolerating, and here is where the misunderstandings of moral conservatives and free-speech liberals will continue to lead to loss after loss. It is not enough to merely beg for toleration on the grounds of tradition or conscience or some-such. Nor is it enough to suggest, as Mill did, that it is worth our while to hear scandalous or provocative views. For when our latter day inquisitors deny the requests for recognition or toleration, the reason is that the moral and psychological harms they suppose themselves to be receiving stem from what they view as morally problematic views of the world. It is the sheer existence (or at least their own awareness) of these terrible people and their ideas that seem to function as a standing rebuke to their own moral self-conceptions—and thus those terrible others must be marginalized and even run out of impolite company.

The implication here is obvious, if not altogether comforting: if moral conservatives and free-speech liberals are to find success, even if that just means being let be, they will have to do more than just make ever louder claims in favor of toleration. They will need to do the more laborious, painstaking work of making the case that the lives or practices they hold dear have real positive value to them, to convince our morally skeptical neighbors that a life lived in obedience to some great good (or even God!) is one worth living, that hearing and engaging claims that challenge, even hurt, your sense of yourself is of very great benefit. I confess that I have no great confidence that success can be found in such an enterprise, but I think it really is our only option.

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Is Islam “the cause” of Islamic terror?

Take a look at this crackerjack bit of reporting on the Islamic State.  (Ignore the requisite use of “medieval” – I think he merely means the time of Islam’s founding, though I wonder if Islamic historians use the same terminology).

The article’s virtue is that it takes seriously the question of whether Islam the cause of the Islamic State.  More generally, we can (and should) as whether self-described Islamic terrorists, such as those who attacked the Charlie Hebdo paper offices or perpetrated the 9/11 attacks?  (Note: the “self-described” here relates to the “Islamic,” not the “terrorist” label).  As stated, it’s almost certainly true and also almost certainly false.  It’s almost certainly true in that, as a description of the terrorists’ subjective self-understanding, Islam is understood as motivating their actions.  They say they are acting out of a particular understanding of the demands of Islam and so in that sense, yes, Islam causes Islamic terrorism.  But it’s also almost certainly not true as well in that Islam is not the cause of Islamic terrorism in that there are plenty of social, economic, political and other factors that impinge on an individual’s actions.  And herein lies the trouble in figuring out the degree to which “Islam” causes people to commit these horrific acts of violence.

 You’d think that social science—which is all about trying to figure out what causes various social and political phenomena—would pretty good at helping us figure this out.  And scholars have done lots of research trying to understand why some people commit terrorist acts (and, implicitly, why others don’t).  The trouble is that our social sciences have a hard time thinking about ideas as having causal power and so they tend to discount ideas as significant.  Here’s why.

 First, ideas themselves are just that—concepts, arguments, etc. floating about in speech—until they attach to particular persons or institutions that can put them into play and thereby make things happen.  But just as soon as they get attached in that way, teasing out their causal effects gets confounded by the fact that the actor—whether individual or institutional—has a history, a class location, a sex, a race, etc.  That is, the actor is a material creature with material interests, demographic factors, and a history that can also do work to explain all of our actions.   Consider Samuel Huntington’s Third Wave that explains the great wave of democratization in the latter third of the 20th century in part through reference to the Catholic Church’s change of heart with respect to liberal democratic rights at Vatican II.  Anthony Gill in turn suggests that the Church did that because it was in their interests (at least in certain parts of South America).  These two explanations are not, strictly speaking, mutually exclusive but it’s a pretty vexed question how one might tease them apart (and decide which is more basic).

 Second, ideas are never just “ideas” or a single cohesive idea that gets put into play across a variety of contexts or situations.  We usually see instead that the “idea” is in fact a family of ideas, different conceptions that have a reasonably close resemblance but that certainly aren’t always the same thing, or at least the same thing in all the relevant respects.  So when we ask whether “Islam” caused a certain sort of action, it’s a pretty simple thing to point to places where people hold to that idea and don’t commit the action—and give an all too easy negative answer.  But that might be, of course, because what one person takes “Islam” (or any other set of ideas) to be is different than what another person takes that idea to be.

 The temptation, then, for the social scientist is to favor material explanations over the ideational.  Some do it for philosophical reasons (e.g. material causes just are more basic) and others for professional/methodological ones (e.g. you can count and measure material factors while ideational ones are frustratingly fuzzy).  But in either case it seems to me a mistake, since it suggests that we are merely material creatures, subject solely to material causes and in practice indifferent to moral (or immoral, as the case may be) suasion.

 So does Islam cause terrorism?  Well, sure, in the sense that we have any number of people who have committed terrorist acts motivated (they say) by what they take to be Islamic beliefs (however incoherent or poorly structured they may be).  But, no, in the sense that this is not the only thing going on—it’s probably not even the only ideational thing going on.  But it is striking that over thirteen years after the 9/11 attacks we’re still having these kinds of debates.  I wonder what that says about us?

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Of the Arts and Alan Jacobs

My friend and erstwhile colleague Alan Jacobs has penned this really quite interesting something-more-than-a-blog-post but not-quite-an-essay  in which he suggests – and it really is a suggestion in the best sense of things – that the financial and institutional ties art currently occupies (or is occupied by, I suppose) limits artists’ (and he has in mind mostly writers) ability to imagine “other” worlds, other ways of being. I’m not going to pull quotes much from the piece because you really should go read and think about it.

I’ll admit that the piece bugged me when I first read it through, first because he flogs that old chestnut “military-industrial complex” as the big bad thing that is limiting our artists.  I get bugged by the phrase because it’s so often misconstrued – Eisenhower’s warning was not about a bunch of generals and captains of industry conspiring against us all, but, in reality, a warning about what political scientists call “corporatism,” a way of organizing political and economic institutions such that government, business, and labor all cooperate in policy-making.  It’s the model that dominated Europe’s political economy for most of the post-war era and while it has some real benefits, it also tends to ossify economies and privilege insiders.  (President Obama, you should recognize, is much more a corporatist in this sense than any sort of socialist or social democrat or whatever).

But then I realized that Alan means the “complex” phrase to stand in for the ways in which a kind of instrumental rationality that prizes the calculus of material investment and gains above all else has, when it captures different institutions, converts them, so to speak, to its logic.  So to the degree that our artists are tied to universities and our universities have become institutions dedicated above all to material profit, then Alan’s worry is that art itself becomes hemmed in or even deeply structured by that self-same logic.  (And don’t kid yourself – major research universities may not report profits in the same way that IBM or GM do, but they have profits–they just distribute them differently).

So what to make of this?  Well, in a way, it’s nothing new, is it?  It reads to me as at least running in parallel with 150 years of Marxist thought on the subject and similar in structure (I think – I’m wandering a bit outside my expertise here) to some of the complaints the Frankfurt School folks made in the middle of last century about culture.  And, of course, there’s obviously some sort of truth to it – people who give the money will often (though certainly not inevitably) look to pull the strings.  At the very least, artists, like most anyone else, respond to incentives and if institutions are set up to reward those who remain within a certain “lane,” that’s where folks will drift.

No doubt lots of folks on the political and cultural Left will read this (or see pithily tweeted link) and cheer.  See, they’ll say, the universities are being “corporatized” and here’s another casualty!  Ah, but I think Alan’s point is meant to cut more deeply than that, because what our libertarian economists and socialist sociologists share is a deep, deep commitment to a modern (and post-modern) conception of human moral psychology that reduces human beings to calculating preference machines (whether those preferences emerge out of appetites, culture, whatever makes for many of our differences, but that they rule us is widely held).  And since we can see “through” human beings that way, we can organize them (or allow them to organize themselves) in some unitary and unified way.  That’s why we can see what looks superficially like a paradox – a society that is both more libertine (sexual ethics limited only by consent) and puritanical (don’t smoke!) – is, in fact, not and why there is a tremendous amount of pressure to remake every institution and range of human activity in the image of, well, something or someone.

I’m not sure I quite buy a central part of Alan’s thesis – that capitalism is central to this development – but I’ll have to think more about that.  But for those whose instincts make them dubious regarding the benefits of markets (or certain markets), it’s worth keeping in mind that I think Alan’s critique cuts much more deeply (or, maybe better, should cut much more deeply) than some we-don’t-like-corporations gesture.

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A Critique of the Critique of the Ivies

Folks all around the internets have been applauding this TNR essay by William Deresiewicz on what is, apparently, the soul-killing, inegalitarian “education” offered by our elite institutions.  There’s a lot of nice stuff in there – even a shout-out to “obscure” religious colleges that might provide a better education than the Ivies.  (Hey, bud who’s obscure?  We end up in the papers at least every few years so weirdly countercultural!)  But, honestly, as a piece of argumentation, it’s a bit of a mess.

He starts off with what seems now like a familiar lament regarding the ridiculous kinds of things people need to get into elite colleges – perfect test scores, unbelievable (in the literal sense, I think) kinds of volunteer work, and so on – and then quickly turns to the problem that the education many students get at elite schools leaves a great deal to be desired.

I taught many wonderful young people during my years in the Ivy Leaguebright, thoughtful, creative kids whom it was a pleasure to talk with and learn from. But most of them seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them. Very few were passionate about ideas. Very few saw college as part of a larger project of intellectual discovery and development. Everyone dressed as if they were ready to be interviewed at a moment’s notice.

He then goes on to assert – presumably the evidence for many of his assertions are in his forthcoming book for which this serves largely as a teaser – that our elite schools largely serve as vehicles for the reproduction of class privilege and that we ought to (a) work to dismantle the ways the elite schools privilege those with monetary privileges and (b) make public higher education free (just like K-12 education).

Well, that’s nice and all, but it’s a bit of a let-down, isn’t it?  I mean, we get all that soul-killing stuff up front and what we get out of it is the promise to do to higher education what we’ve done to secondary schools over the past four decades or so.  I’m sure the University of Virginia will be awesome once the teachers’ unions get their hands on it.

Let me suggest that there’s a deeper problem and it’s with what he (and many other folks) think the point of college is.  Here’s his view:

The first thing that college is for is to teach you to think. That doesn’t simply mean developing the mental skills particular to individual disciplines. College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance.

Learning how to think is only the beginning, though. There’s something in particular you need to think about: building a self. The notion may sound strange. “We’ve taught them,” David Foster Wallace once said, “that a self is something you just have.” But it is only through the act of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique beinga soul. The job of college is to assist you to begin to do that. Books, ideas, works of art and thought, the pressure of the minds around you that are looking for their own answers in their own ways.

College is not the only chance to learn to think, but it is the best. One thing is certain: If you haven’t started by the time you finish your B.A., there’s little likelihood you’ll do it later. That is why an undergraduate experience devoted exclusively to career preparation is four years largely wasted.

The problem here isn’t that he supposes college is about helping you become a better thinker–and we should all be thankful that he doesn’t offer us the insipid rhetoric of “critical thinking”–but that he inverts the relationship between, we might say, virtue and reason.  Suppose we think that “thinking” is a kind of stand-in for “reason” and “self” is a stand-in for living well, or virtue.  When he complains that elite schools teach students how to think only in instrumental terms, I wonder if he realizes that even the way he has set up his sense of what college is for follows along the same path.  In his view, we develop our (instrumental) reason so that we can develop (or “find” in the more common parlance) our “self” apart from that which has been handed down to us – family, tradition, community, religion, etc.  That’s what colleges already do, most of them, anyway.

Elite universities don’t fail at education because they’re too easy or don’t have the right mix of classes, ethnicities, etc.  They fail at education because they misunderstand what education is really all about and the truth is that unless they recognize that education is ultimately about human flourishing, their discontents will keep writing books and essays lamenting their failure.

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Evangelicals and Natural Law, Part I

Last year, the eminent theologian David Bentley Hart kicked off what amounts to a bit of a firestorm in the theo-political corner of the blogosphere with a couple of short essays published in First Things.  He suggested, roughly, that the natural law tradition, which has stood at the center of much Christian thinking about politics for, well, most of Christianity’s history, wasn’t really viable.  (Brad Littlejohn has a nice summary of the pieces and many of the reactions it engendered here).  As Littlejohn notes, Hart’s point was not that natural law’s metaphysical premises are wrong, but that given the ways we moderns tend to think about nature (including human nature) it just doesn’t make sense to talk in terms of natural law in our public political deliberations: no one else buys it, it doesn’t persuade, it’s hard to make sense of it, etc.   I’m not interested in re-litigating Hart’s argument—in blog-time, that was a year ago, which is something like a century in regular time—but I am interested in some of the questions he raises.  Indeed, I’ve got something of a dog in the fight, since I (along with my co-authors on this blog) published an edited volume in which the contributors deliberated on the ways in which evangelicals might appropriate the natural law tradition in their political reflections.  More to the point, we are in the early stages of co-authoring a book in which we hope to do precisely what Hart says you can’t really do, make natural law arguments intelligible and useful for Christians within the context of modern pluralist democracies.  (We haven’t gotten to the point of pitching this to publishers, but if you’re a publisher and would be interested, get in touch!)


So how to do that?  For all the fulminations and critiques leveled at Hart (many of which I found true), a basic point remains: what typically passes for natural law arguments are generally no more persuasive in public deliberations than citing scriptural authority.  As Alan Jacobs once remarked to me, it might just be easier to get people to convert to Christianity and then persuade them regarding the natural law.  So the question we are interested in runs something like this: supposing that Christians should endorse the idea of the natural law (something Hart agrees with, by the way), how can we (if we can) bring those ideas into play in the context of our modern pluralist democratic order?  In this post, and probably any number of others following it, I will try to work out some reasonable answer to that, though fair warning: I am trying to work out some answers, meaning I will inevitably make all sorts of wrong turns, false claims, etc.  But that’s what blogs are for, right?


First, a bit of throat-clearing to set things up.  It’s important to recognize that when we talk about natural law, what we mean is the idea that human beings have a distinctive nature and that this means we have a distinctive set of ends and a distinctive way in which we can flourish (or live well).  On Aquinas’s understanding, for example, this cashes out in a claim that we should act according to reason since (following Aristotle) what distinguishes our nature is that we are distinctively rational creatures.  Since human beings have a distinctive and, in some sense, singular nature, it follows that we also share a common sense of flourishing and that this is available to all (aside from those whose contexts prevent that).  It does not follow—and no natural law theorist of whom I’m aware thinks this—that this idea of flourishing is then immediately obvious to all.  The idea of natural law is an ontological claim about who human beings are and what our true ends are, not an epistemological claim about how we know who we are and what those ends are.  That latter claim is part of what theories of the natural law are about.  So when we talk about the natural law, we are talking about what makes for human flourishing (for human beings as such).


Second, how should we understand our modern democratic context?  Hart’s skepticism regarding the efficacy of natural law arguments are of a piece with a much wider skepticism whose near ubiquity must be a part of our considerations.  To simplify things a bit, I think there are two main ways in which our context offers challenges to employing natural law claims, one political and the other philosophical-cultural.  The first suggests, broadly, that employing natural law claims are unfair and/or unjust and thus incompatible with the best understanding of constitutional democracies.  (Note here that this is not necessarily a problem for natural law.  It could be the case, after all, that natural law is true, that it is indeed incompatible with the best understanding of what makes a constitutional democracy work, and thus that constitutional democracy is a bad form of government.  I don’t think that is true – hence the book).  The second is more diffuse, but more challenging for all that: it suggests that natural law is a problem because it isn’t compatible with any reasonable modern understanding of nature and, correspondingly, of human flourishing.


And that’s really the rub here, namely that any recognizable theory of natural law will have at its heart a vision of human flourishing that then cashes out in a set of practices and institutions meant to support that vision—and preclude alternative ones.  Since we live in an age where most would deny that there is a defensibly distinctive view of flourishing or whether we can even talk comprehensively in those terms at all, making evocations about the natural law is, rhetorically, not likely to be “successful,” to say the least.  This gets me to my third bit of throat-clearing, namely that the reason to be interested in how or whether Christians should think about the natural law and engage politically in the light of its understanding.  Many American Christians are consumed by a sort of pragmatism and seem drawn to natural law arguments because, they hope, they might work (especially with regard to issues surrounding same-sex marriage).  As things have progressed in the US over the last several months, that particular hope seems less plausible than it might have.  In any case, though, I think the reason think about the natural law is really not so much whether it “works” or not, but whether it’s true.  I’m happy to be pragmatic in how we talk about this with our fellow citizens – and I have some ideas rattling around in my head for how to do this – but I’m only interested in those questions provided that the prior set of questions—is this true or even plausible—makes much sense.

So much for the throat-clearing.  Up next, thinking a bit more about the cultural and political challenges to natural law arguments.


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Why David Gushee Should Change His Mind on Hobby Lobby

David Gushee has offered a rather brief sketch of why he thinks Hobby Lobby should lose in its case currently before the Supreme Court.  I say “sketch” because he sketches out some of the legal and ethical issues and offers his opinion without really offering an argument connecting the two.  But I think we can surmise the argument from what he calls his “Critical Questions” at the end:

1) Do we really want to blur the line between the legal status of for-profit corporations over against churches and religious ministries?

2) Is there really no difference between an individual with an eternal destiny, a church with a Great Commission mandate, and a for-profit business? What does that say about our theological (and legal) understanding of persons and the church?

3) Wouldn’t a win for Hobby Lobby really mean that we would be ensuring that the religious convictions of the one (business owner/family) would then trump the needs (and convictions) of the many (everyone who works for that business)? Do we want to give business owners that kind of power?Cuius corporatio, eius religio?

4) What happens when, say, a Christian Scientist company owner decides not to cover any health benefits, or a Jehovah’s Witness company owner decides not to cover blood transfusions, or an anti-vaccination owner decides not to cover the MMR shots, or perhaps a trust-Jesus radical decides not to contribute to employee Social Security or a 401(k)? Do we really want to open up that Pandora’s Box?

5) Are critics taking seriously the public health benefits of no-cost contraception coverage, and the moral benefits of thelikely dramatic reduction in the number of unplanned pregnancies and abortions? Or does their principled objection to contraception and/or (perceived) abortifacients totally trump data related to the actual impact of no-cost access to contraception?

6) Do we see any legitimate role for government — e.g., our elected representatives in Washington making public laws to advance public purposes, including public health? Or has anti-government libertarianism entirely eroded such convictions?

7) Can we see (again) how the effort to mediate the delivery of access to health care through company health plans is really problematic? A single-payer government plan would take the corporate religious liberty issue completely off the table.

Ignore #s 7 (it would also not be a problem if employer and individual insurance plans were treated the same under the tax system), 6 (straw-man),  and 5 (Gushee’s not a utilitarian, so he shouldn’t be taking this seriously).  I think Gushee’s case is really two-fold, namely that for both theological and moral-political reasons, we should keep the distinction between for-profit corporations and other entities and decline to afford the former religious liberty protections.  Let me suggest why I think Gushee is mistaken in this.

First, note that it is perfectly legitimate to make any number of distinctions with regard to different sorts of organizations, theologically and politically.  So the question is whether a for-profit corporation should be considered the sort of thing that deserves some sort of religious protections?  Assume that Gushee is on board with exemptions for non-profit religious associations (which I think he is, though #5 above cuts against it and I haven’t read him making the argument on them in particular).  What makes for-profit corporations undeserving?

One answer might be that it could have any number of bad consequences, opening the doors to companies of all sorts making religious liberty claims against the ACA’s employer mandate.  (E.g. the Christian Scientist who doesn’t want to offer health insurance at all).  It’s entirely possible, of course, that if Hobby Lobby wins, such exemptions might go wild. But as Eugene Volokh explains in a nice primer on religious exemptions, that’s rather unlikely.  In these sorts of cases, Courts are being asked whether a particular government action represents a “compelling interest.  It seems reasonable to presume–and there’s plenty of case law to back this up–that courts would indeed think that a government mandate to provide health insurance would count, as opposed to this, where what is in question is whether the companies are required to purchase health insurance plans that provide free contraception.  Note this.  This is not about whether women have access to contraception, but whether they have it for free.  And the question is whether the state must compel companies to offer it for free.  Gushee’s suggestion here, while not out of the range of possibility, is really just a “parade of horribles” that seems really quite unlikely, to say the least.

But that’s really not the heart of Gushee’s argument, I think.  He really wants us to focus on #s 1, 2, and 3.  (Or he should – these are certainly the more interesting arguments, at least as a matter of Christian ethics.)  Let’s simplify things a bit and just put the objections this way: for-profit corporations are the sorts of entities that should not be afforded religious liberty protections because they are not the sorts of entities that can “exercise” religion.  Again, that’s not an implausible claim.  We would think it strange to suppose that GM could “exercise” religion and if we can’t distinguish (theologically and philosophically) between GM and First Baptist Church of Macon, it’s plausible to think that First Baptist’s rights will suffer, not GM’s.  But that depends, I think, on reducing the question to a simplistic binary: this sort of thing gets religious freedom protections and that sort of thing doesn’t.  But religious freedom protections are not all of a piece and it makes sense to differentiate even among different sorts of religious organizations.  It makes perfect sense (to me) for the state to have nothing to say about how churches choose their ministers.  It also makes perfect sense (to me) for the state to have little to say about how places like Wheaton College (where I teach) require faculty to adhere to certain faith commitments and agree to certain behavioral standards.  It makes much less sense for schools where, though they may have some religious affiliations, they do not make serious distinctions as regards employment.  (So a school like, say, Georgetown University should probably not get latitude from the federal government on hiring practices because they do not evince much of a serious religious identity).  The trouble with the all-or-nothing approach is that, ultimately, it will have the effect (I fear) of stripping all but the most resolutely “religious” associations of their religious liberty protections.  In other words, unless we’re willing to entertain these sorts of complex, nuanced, and messy distinctions, the “bright line” will eventually get drawn around churches proper–and little else will be included.

But, still, we might ask, why Hobby Lobby (or Conestoga Wood, which is also having its case litigated)?  Perhaps its its status as a corporation, which we have constructed as a means of incentivizing investment and entrepreneurship in that it shields the personal assets of the owners against the corporation’s debts.  Why not think that this shield should work both ways?  That sounds enticing, but notice that it suggests that the owners’ consciences should stop at the corporate barrier – why is that?  Don’t those who own and run corporations have moral obligations just like everyone else?  Isn’t the corporation that decides to pollute its neighbor’s property doing him harm, just like if I do it in my personal capacity? Don’t corporations have obligations, just like I do, to treat workers and others fairly?

And this is the real problem with what I take to be Gushee’s argument: it suggests that for-profit corporations are the sorts of things in which the owners’ religious consciences (or, really, any other sort of consciences) should not flow through.  That seems to me a serious mistake–and one that has, oddly enough, more in common with some (not all) libertarian conceptions of firms than I’d expect from him.  Suppose we draw the line here and say that for-profit corporations cannot be places where owners can be thought to exercise their religious conscience.  How does that shape our conceptions of what corporations are for?  My suggestion is that it reinforces the idea that *all* corporations are for is the amassing of wealth for its owners.  Some certainly see their corporations in that light.  Is that how Christians (or anyone else) should see them? I hope not.

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