The fate of moral issues

The Republicans did not make a big deal of  moral or “cultural” issues during the last election.  Little was said about abortion.  Conservatives were well-behaved when it came to gay marriage.  Unlike previous elections, Republicans–including social conservatives who care a great deal about these issues–pretty much left them alone.

But the Democrats, in contrast, did run on moral and cultural issues.  They attacked conservatives for opposing abortion and gay marriage.  They went further, scaring the general public that the Republicans would outlaw birth control and enslave women.

And the Democrats won on these issues.  Their take on moral and social issues was, in fact, very important.  Single women voted overwhelmingly for Obama, largely, according to the exit polls, because of “women’s issues.”  Clumsy and unsophisticated treatment of the “rape exception” for abortion on the part of two pro-life candidates cost arguably cost Republicans the Senate.

So we have reached the point at which conservative moral issues are political losers and liberal moral issues–gay marriage, abortion on demand–are political winners.

So what now for social conservatives?

Changing the culture by hospitality

My colleague Mark Mitchell argues that we should change our model of cultural engagement from that of warfare to that of hospitality:

In two recent pieces, I argued that 1) the language of “culture war” is not helpful and should be discarded, and 2) that to the extent that liberalism is rooted in a denial of limits, it is anti-culture, for culture is, at the very least, a set of established norms that include prohibitions as well as prescriptions. In short, to weaponize culture is to destroy culture, and to attempt to forge a culture that denies limits is incoherent conceptually and disastrous socially.

So where does that leave us? I want to suggest that we need rethink the meaning of cultural engagement. “Engaging” culture in the idiom of warfare has not produced much in the way of results. Yet at the same time, those who want to preserve historic norms regarding marriage, sexuality, and even life and death are understandably reticent to simply abandon the field to those who seek to undermine or destroy those norms.

To rethink the possibilities, we might find help in a most unlikely place: a late second century letter from an otherwise unknown author named Mathetes to an equally obscure recipient named Diognetus. The letter is an apologetic of sorts, a kind of primer on what set the new Christian sect apart from the pagan religions of the time as well as from Judaism. In a section dedicated to describing the manners of the Christians, Mathetes remarks that “they marry, as do all [others]; they beget children but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed.” If we unpack these lines, I think we can find a plausible alternative to the culture war, an alternative that Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other men and women of good will can employ as a means of engaging the culture creatively and winsomely.

The phrase I want to focus on is this: they have a common table, but not a common bed.” Of course, the author is describing the lifestyle of the early Christian community, who were known for sharing meals with each other. They were also known for the limits they recognized: they were exclusive sexually even as they were promiscuous in their hospitality.

The emphasis here is the practice of hospitality (with obvious limits), and I want to suggest that hospitality is a radical alternative to both the language and practice of culture wars. [Read more…]

Now to legalize polygamy

Now that gay marriage is legal in many jurisdictions and broadly accepted, activists are taking up the cause of polygamy.  The liberal Washington Post religion columnist Lisa Miller is sympathetic:

This week, in one of his first public statements since this past summer’s anti-gay-marriage remarks, Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy told an Atlanta television reporter that he supports “Biblical families.” This comment immediately gave rise to jokes questioning his familiarity with the Old Testament, where, as any Mormon elder can tell you, patriarchs such as Abraham, Jacob and David all practiced polygamy.

John Witte Jr., however, thinks it isn’t so funny. A scholar of religion and law at Emory University in Atlanta, Witte is working on a lengthy history of polygamy due out next year. He believes that polygamy is the next frontier in marriage and family law. If states are able to dismantle traditional or conventional views of marriage by allowing two men or two women to wed, then why should they not go further and sanction, or at least decriminalize, marriages between one man and several women?

This is the argument that Kody Brown and his wives, the stars of the reality television show “Sister Wives,” are making in a civil suit against the state of Utah. They are claiming that Utah’s anti-polygamy laws violate their privacy and their religious freedom. “The Browns want to be allowed to create a loving family according to the values of their faith,” Jonathan Turley, the family’s lawyer, wrote in an op-ed this summer.

Beneath the sensationalism, there lies a real question. If Americans increasingly value their rights to privacy and liberty above historical social norms, then why should the state not legally approve other unconventional domestic set-ups? In his first chapter, Witte presents the problem this way. “After all,” he writes, “American states today, viewed together, already offer several models of state-sanctioned domestic life for their citizens: straight and gay marriage, contract and covenant marriage, civil union and domestic partnership. Each of these off-the-rack models of domestic life has built-in rights and duties that the parties have to each other and their children and other dependents. And the parties can further tailor these built-in rights and duties through private prenuptial contracts. With so much marital pluralism and private ordering already available, why not add a further option — that of polygamous marriage?”

This is an argument that makes defenders of individual liberties sweat, for few people like to be put in the spot of having to uphold a social taboo. But really. If the purpose of marriage is to preserve personal happiness, protect and raise children, and create social stability through shared property and mutual obligation, then why is polygamy so problematic if it occurs among consenting adults? The two-parent household may be an ideal, but real life is far messier than that. Children are raised all the time by groups of adults: there are exes and steps, adoptive parents and biological, mistresses and wives. Didn’t someone say it takes a village?

Witte is worried about this line of thinking. He sees the “sexual liberty for all” folks increasingly pressing their cases in law reviews, saying “those that oppose polygamy are just like the homophobes and the patriarchs.”

via Polygamy may be hot, but in marriage three’s still a crowd – The Washington Post.

Is there any Biblical reason why polygamy should not be legalized?  That is, set aside natural law arguments, what’s best for women, the needs of children, etc., and just focus on the Bible.  Clearly, the New Testament demands monogamy for church leaders, but that requirement doesn’t seem to be binding on everyone.  And, of course, polygamy was almost the norm in the Old Testament, in particular for leaders of the magnitude of Abraham and King David.

The defining texts for marriage, on the other hand, are those that refer to Adam and Eve, and Christ and the Church, and to “the two” becoming “one flesh.”  Those would argue against polygamy.  (Jesus doesn’t have more than one bride, contrary to the gnostic manuscripts being circulated, and the applications of this relationship to the vocation of the marriage in Ephesians 5 don’t really work for more than one spouse.)

And yet we cannot say that Jacob was sinning or defying God’s will when he took many wives whose progeny created the Twelve Tribes of Israel, can we?  The practice of Christian missionaries when a polygamist converts has been to make him put away all but one of his wives.  How can that be a good practice?  Doesn’t that do great harm to the wives who are abandoned?  And doesn’t this violate the definite Biblical prohibitions against divorce?

If we cannot make a Bible-only case against polygamy, does this mean that extra-Biblical reasoning is necessary, if in this case, also in other moral and legal issues?

Why they cheat at Harvard

Harvard University is currently being torn by a cheating scandal.  It was discovered that nearly half of the 250 undergraduates in a course called “Introduction to Congress” cheated on a final exam.  Why would so many of the nation’s ostensible best and brightest at American’s most elite university do that?  Harvard professor Howard Gardner has been studying his students and offers some explanations:

Over and over again, students told us that they admired good work and wanted to be good workers. But they also told us they wanted — ardently — to be successful. They feared that their peers were cutting corners and that if they themselves behaved ethically, they would be bested. And so, they told us in effect, “Let us cut corners now and one day, when we have achieved fame and fortune, we’ll be good workers and set a good example.” A classic case of the ends justify the means.

We were so concerned by the results that, for the past six years, we have conducted reflection sessions at elite colleges, including Harvard. Again, we have found the students to be articulate, thoughtful, even lovable. Yet over and over again, we have also found hollowness at the core.

Two examples: In discussing the firing of a dean who lied about her academic qualifications, no student supported the firing. The most common responses were “She’s doing a good job, what’s the problem?” and “Everyone lies on their résumé.” In a discussion of the documentary “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” students were asked what they thought of the company traders who manipulated the price of energy. No student condemned the traders; responses varied from caveat emptor to saying it’s the job of the governor or the state assembly to monitor the situation.

One clue to the troubling state of affairs came from a Harvard classmate who asked me: “Howard, don’t you realize that Harvard has always been primarily about one thing — success?” The students admitted to Harvard these days have watched their every step, lest they fail in their goal of admission to an elite school. But once admitted, they begin to look for new goals, and being a successful scholar is usually not high on the list. What is admired is success on Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood — a lavish lifestyle that, among other things, allows you to support your alma mater and get the recognition that follows.

As for those students who do have the scholarly bent, all too often they see professors cut corners — in their class attendance, their attention to student work and, most flagrantly, their use of others to do research. Most embarrassingly, when professors are caught — whether in financial misdealings or even plagiarizing others’ work — there are frequently no clear punishments. If punishments ensue, they are kept quiet, and no one learns the lessons that need to be learned.

Whatever happens to those guilty of cheating, many admirable people are likely to be tarred by their association with Harvard.

via When ambition trumps ethics – The Washington Post.

In other words, the students, while bright, have no sense of vocation, don’t believe in objective morality, believe the end justifies the means, and are fanatically ambitious in a materialistic, self-aggrandizing kind of way.

Paul Ryan & Ayn Rand

Vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan is  a social conservative, a devout Roman Catholic with a  strong pro-life record.  And yet one of his most formative influences is reportedly Ayn Rand, the radical libertarian, an atheist who viciously attacked Christianity because it teaches love and compassion, advocating instead “the virtue of selfishness.”  Those two influences, Catholicism and Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, don’t seem to gibe.

Democrats are playing up the connection between Ryan and Rand in order to portray him as a heartless amoral extremist.  Here Ryan tries to set the record straight:

“I, like millions of young people in America, read Rand’s novels when I was young. I enjoyed them,” Ryan says. “They spurred an interest in economics, in the Chicago School and Milton Friedman,” a subject he eventually studied as an undergraduate at Miami University in Ohio. “But it’s a big stretch to suggest that a person is therefore an Objectivist.”

“I reject her philosophy,” Ryan says firmly. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas,” who believed that man needs divine help in the pursuit of knowledge. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” he says.

via Ryan Shrugged – Robert Costa – National Review Online.

For a more detailed examination of how Ryan now differs from Rand, see this.

Eat mor chikin day

Today, August 1, has been proclaimed “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” by those who support the chicken sandwich company’s CEO who is catching flak for opposing gay marriage.  Americans are being urged to show up at one of their stores and simply buy a sandwich.  I suspect the company will have huge sales today.

Then again, pro-gay-marriage protesters are promising to show up too.  Some are saying they will just order water, so as to make workers busy without buying anything.  Gays are calling for a kiss-in at Chick-fil-A outlets on August 3.

See  Chick-fil-A braces for protests, same-sex ‘kiss-in’ | The Lookout – Yahoo! News.

So what do you think about this?  Will you eat “chikin” (as the cows in the company’s advertising campaign put it)?  Or, if you support gay marriage, will you boycott the company?  If you oppose gay marriage, will you eat chicken sandwiches for the principle of the thing?

It seems to me that those who want to boycott Chick-fil-A because of the CEO’s beliefs and are otherwise making a big deal of this may be opening a can of worms.  The issue of gay marriage is not nearly as settled as our cultural elites think it is.  If those who oppose gay marriage were to follow suit by refusing to patronize companies that support gay causes, it would probably have a bigger impact.

Do you think the political, moral, or religious beliefs of a company’s owners or leaders should be taken into account when consumers make their purchasing decisions?  If the company’s philanthropy goes to support a particular cause, doesn’t that mean that people who buy the product might be giving money to something they don’t believe in?