Wise as Serpents: Making Too Much of Abortion and Polygamy

What do Westboro Baptist Church, a liberal columnist at Slate arguing for polygamy, and abortionist Kermit Gosnell have in common?

Westboro Baptist “Church.” In England, that kid’s sign means that God hates cigarettes. Image: Burstein! via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

They are all specific examples within a broader class, and they are all almost completely obscured by rhetoric’s tug of war. Both sides stake a claim to these kinds examples, contorting it to fit their argument du jour. It is no wonder that Nietzsche was driven to conclude that all truth is a power struggle when it seems like any fact can support completely opposite conclusions. But Nietzsche was wrong because there is real truth and getting to it requires more than mere logical plausibility. In this dark and complex world, we who would witness to the truth are reminded of Jesus’ warning that He was sending us sheep in amidst the wolves. It is remarkable then that the Lord told us that in this campaign we must be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Being wise as serpents means not being naive, but judging accurately. Notice that Jesus did not say be “crafty” or “sly” as a snake. Many translations render the word φρόνιμοι (phronimoi) as “shrewd,” but I think shrewdness now has a negative connotation, something like cunning bordering on dishonesty. The word is elsewhere translated “prudent” and is rooted in the concept of regulating our outward behavior in accordance with our inward perspective. The HELPS word study sums up the sense of the word as “how we size things up.” Jesus is saying that we need to evaluate things carefully—He is not saying that we are to be tricksters or sophists.

Innocent as doves may be the easier half of that coin. One bad apple ruins the bunch according to an old aphorism. But we, as Christians and the heirs of centuries of common law right, do not practice guilt by association. Every time there is a horrific crime or act of terrorism, many people rush to proclaim that the action is not indicative of the broader movement and condemn those who make hasty conclusions. It is entirely appropriate that this is our default position—we should assume that the example is an aberration, a mad exception that does not reflect anything beyond the wickedness of the perpetrator. The word for innocent (ἀκέραιοι) can also mean harmless, and we know that being reckless with the details can be incredibly harmful

Still, we must be discerning. Not all examples are aberrations. Instead of recklessly holding up the incident as evidence for our own prejudices, we must ask, as objectively as possible, what the specific example really means. And there are some situations in which we should draw broader conclusions.

What is it with making kids hold up gross and offensive signs? Image: david_shankbone via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

An actor or group may be especially representative of a larger movement. Sometimes someone is a spokesperson for others, someone either specifically authorized to speak on their behalf or with authority over the group. So when a liberal columnist on Slate argues quite seriously for legalizing polygamy, many supporters of traditional marriage will want to cite to that article as an authoritative confession of marriage reformers’ true goals. But Jillian Keenan is not the official spokeswoman of the marriage equality movement. Most reformers vehemently deny that polygamy is desirable or inevitable based on their position—indeed, many find the suggestion offensive. Whether recognition of polygamous marriage inexorably follows from recognizing same sex marriages is beside the point. You can argue that it is conceptually incoherent to include homosexual relationships and exclude poly-amorous ones; what you cannot say is that everyone on Facebook with red equal signs is really gunning for polygamy.

An interesting twist on this one is when people claim that an authoritative spokesperson really isn’t so. A recent example is the repeated claims that Catholic bishops do not speak for Catholics. It is certainly true that many Catholic parishioners disagree with the hierarchy, at least in practice. But Catholic doctrine isn’t formed by referendum, so it is something of a red herring to say that a lot of lay Catholics are willing to violate authoritative teachings.

Alternatively, one person might be a token of a broader phenomenon. When Kevin DeYoung at The Gospel Coalition says that the call of the gospel is for everyone, he is not acting as a spokesman for TGC. But he is fairly representative of reformed-ish evangelicals, and so it is reasonable to take his views as also representative. We can point to him in support of claims about that group. But when Westboro Baptist tweets “Westboro Baptist Church to picket funerals of those dead by Boston Bombs! GOD SENT THE BOMBS IN FURY OVER [gay slur] MARRIAGE! #PraiseGod,” are they a token of American evangelicalism? No one argues that. In fact, the mad ravings of Westboro Baptist have almost no role in discussions of American Christianity, #PraiseGod.

Kermit Gosnell’s mugshot

Another claim is that a particularly striking example is a kind of apotheosis of the rest. Interestingly, both sides have tried to use the Gosnell abortion clinic horror story in this way. Opponents of abortion claim that this is what the abortion culture and the culture of death eventually produce. Abortion advocates claim that overburdening regulations are forcing women to the modern equivalent of dark alleys and wire hangers. Either of these claims may be true after careful analysis. Gosnell was particularly monstrous and the case triggered a largely unconscious defense mechanism within the left-leaning media. But we must still be careful to be clear about the claim: atypical but expect-able, not “see what these places are like?”

Recently, author and activist Masha Gessen said on radio that gay marriage would change the institution of marriage so as to destroy it. The first instinct of marriage traditionalists is to say that she is giving the game away for all the reformers. I think this is also implied when, for example, Ed Whelan called the polygamy article “candid.” It is true that Gessen “admitted” something, and it is accurate to call Keenan’s article candid. But the suggestion is that they are being uniquely forthcoming when their compadres are being coy or dishonest. There might be evidence of this—indeed, Gessen seems to think “fighting for gay marriage generally involves lying about what we are going to do.”

Robert George, a prominent academic at Princeton and Harvard Law School, demonstrates wise and innocent “sizing up” in addressing to Gessen’s claims. In his short piece, he credits her intellectual acumen, contextualizes her place within the movement (“anything but a fringe figure”), and highlights the astonishing nature of her claim by pondering the reaction if a Catholic politician had said the exact same thing. He identifies other prominent advocates who share her view, establishing that this is not a one-off oddity but another iteration of a real phenomenon. And he points out the silence of almost all others. George also weaves together some of the threads I have discussed, essentially saying, “This person is not an outlier and her statements resonate with what I have long argued is a conceptual component of arguments for gay marriage. So maybe we should pay attention.”

George’s evidence may be inaccurate (he doesn’t link or cite in the short blog post, so I can’t easily verify). But the point is that he does not take to the pages of First Things to baldly claim that Gessen’s statements prove the worst about the Prop 8 plaintiffs or other gay marriage advocates. The comments on his thread are rife with “she isn’t a spokesperson for the movement!” type objections. That was not George’s claim, and he carefully put her and her words in their proper context. Again, there may be factual problems that render his conclusions inaccurate. The important thing is that we must always ask and answer, as George does, what does this statement or action by a single person really mean?

In light of the ridiculous coverage of the Boston Marathon attacks (3 dead, no 12!, no really 3; it was a Saudi student; let’s hope it was a white man), it is worth noting that oftentimes prudence and innocence means just shutting up and saying nothing. We should not let abuses of logic foreclose to us prudent analysis, nor should hasty judgment deter us from proper judgment. But neither should we forget James’s admonition: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”

The twin goals Jesus sets for us—wisdom and innocence—are synergistic, not in tension. Wise thinking and prudent action will facilitate our innocence in public discourse. The trick is to pull it off.

About S. L. Whitesell

Lee studies law at the University of Pennsylvania. He and his wife Joanna live in Philadelphia.

  • George Yancey

    Great post. The balance Christians must walk to show respect for those they disagree with and yet understand that some of them really do want to do Christians in is part of the dilimna. When do we know that an outlier is really an outlier? These are some of the challenges we Christians in this modern age have to deal with. I am glad you added to that discussion with this post.

  • Joshua

    Good article. There has been, indeed, a war of words that have been flying around lately, especially after the Gosnell proceedings, the Boston bombing, and now the release of the latter incident’s suspect profiles. It takes a remarkable amount of wisdom and forbearance to not participate in the daily circus nor to prejudicially label entire groups of people with the same broad brush.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/pgepps pgepps

    I am irritated by your use of “reformers” to refer to the agents of the Kulturkampf against traditional marriage. Whatever they are doing, it is not a “reform.”

    Your discussion is helpful, except that you do not do a good job of dealing with the roles various people may have in a movement. True, there is no one–no one at all–who officially speaks for “all the people with red equal signs.” But they are incoherently affiliating themselves with many who do speak a variety of messages with one lowest common denominator. And part of the rhetoric of addressing sheep, dupes, fellow-travelers, apologists, sympathizers for a radical movement involves pointing out *to* them just how incoherent their affiliation with those opinion leaders must be.

    Now, in doing that, it’s at best imprecise to say “all gay marriage supporters really want polygamy to be legal, too”; but it is not at all imprecise to say “the only ontologically sound distinction between marriage and other relationships is sexual difference” and “heterosexual polygamy/polyandry better resembles marriage than homosexual couplings.” It is not at all inaccurate to point out that, homosexuals actually entering into permanent unions being an outlier phenomenon to begin with, other outlier phenomena are at least equally logical, probable, and predictable, should this one win social and legal approval. That some such things have occurred (like the infamous and silly case of a man legally marrying a cow, or of animals inheriting), or that opinion leaders (identifiable, whether “official” or not) advocate them, is evidence in that case.

    Obviously, guilt by association is an ugly tactic. It’s ugly when some people use it against spokesmen who don’t draw the lines of “separation” exactly where they do; it’s ugly when others use it to associate every part of a movement with its worst elements.

    But there is nothing at all illogical about noting that, however incoherent their thinking, what SSM supporters are backing is the destruction of a norm beyond which there *are* no equivalent norms, and that there *will* be predictable and bad consequences that they either might, or at any rate should, find unacceptable–and which they should carry on their consciences, in any case. And there is nothing at all illogical about noting that a very untidy butcher provides a window into the work of tidier butchers, that what Carhart famously defended to the Supreme Court and marketed in more than one state is not at all different in kind from what Gosnell is being tried for. Just keeping a cleaner shop for richer clientele does not make Mengele into Nightingale.

  • Fred

    I did not like this article because it focuses on hyperbole, condemning it.

    That’s not the problem–everyone recognizes hyperbole.
    The problem is the following undeniable facts:

    1) The Media is biased on the Gosnell case; a bias that makes the truth difficult and evil abortion continue.
    2) Gay marriage DOES logically lead to Polygamy–you cannot have one justified and not the other. Marriage needs to be strengthened, not redefined.

    Child brides are irrelevant. Under age marriage is illegal with only one spouse or multiple.

    Besides; Polygamy is practiced anyways whether legal or not–Polygamy itself, is NEVER prosecuted.

    We have a sexual morality crises.

    These are 2 undeniable truths–no hyperbole.

  • http://marriage-equality.blogspot.com Keith Pullman

    There is no good reason to deny that we must keep evolving until an adult, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, monogamy or polyamory, race, or religion is free to marry any and all consenting adults. The limited same-gender freedom to marry is a great and historic step, but is NOT full marriage equality, because equality “just for some” is not equality. Let’s stand up for EVERY ADULT’S right to marry the person(s) they love. Get on the right side of history!

  • http://www.thechristianwatershed.com Joel

    I get what you’re saying and agree mostly, but I think the problem is the Gosnell case isn’t as anomalous as we want it to be. In fact, the anomaly part of the Gosnell case is how he treated the women. But his treatment of the babies is actually viewed as legitimate by many respected thinkers in the pro-choice camp, as well as the President. He even made the argument that a baby born alive can still be aborted if the mother wishes (he made this argument back in 2001). Likewise, the most famous proponent of infanticide is Peter Singer, who argues that an infant really doesn’t have any rights as an infant is not a person. Even the Journal of Medical Ethics produce a peer-reviewed article just last year that provided a defense for infanticide.

    Thus, a pro-choice stance, when taken to its logical conclusion, does necessitate infanticide. After all, the argument is that a fetus is not a person and therefore doesn’t deserve rights. Being outside the womb is an arbitrary standard and therefore is indefensible when scrutinized (as are all arbitrary standards). In fact, the only pro-choice argument that I can think of that would condemn infanticide is Judy Jarvis-Thompson’s bodily autonomy argument; I think her position supports a pro-choice platform, but doesn’t necessarily lead to infanticide (though you could conceivably use her logic to argue for infanticide, it does not necessarily logically follow). All other pro-choice arguments, however, tend to logically necessitate support for infanticide as well. But this is because such arguments tend to make rights an earned attribute rather than a default aspect of human nature.

  • http://none Jonathan O’Connell

    I have never seen so many manufactured “isms” in a bio. Your description of yourself takes the concept of self-righteousism to a whole new level. You sir, are trying a bit too hard.

  • S. L. Whitesell

    Haha thanks for pointing out all the isms up there. I didn’t notice that before. If they are manufactured, I didn’t manufacture them. But it annoys me now that I see it.


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