Immoral Moralism

A few years ago, when there was a hot debate among Methodists about having SMU host the Bush Library, I was the target of a singular public accusation. Because I did not oppose the library my name was added to an email blast of those who were “torturers.” The logic was simple, indeed simplistic. If you weren’t against the Bush library you must be in favor of Bush’s policies. Bush supposedly had a policy favoring torture. That means you must favor torture too, and therefore were the same as a torturer.

A website that names so called “self-hating Jews” has a similar line of logic. The nation of Israel is pro-Jewish. If you question the policies of Israel’s government you don’t support Israel. If you don’t support Israel you must be anti-Jewish. Therefore you must hate Jews. If you are a Jew this makes you a self-hating Jews. If you are a non-Jew you are simply anti-Semitic.

Now the so-called “Right to Life” movement (which really only supports the right to life for embryos) has joined the Catholic church in a similar feat of logic. Bill Donohue, the President of the Catholic League compared Kathleen Sibelius, the cabinet Secretary for Health and Human services to anti-semites, neo-Nazis, and racists because in her official government role she implemented the law mandating health insurance coverage for birth control. Indeed, the Roman Catholic mother of two was characterized as “pro-abortion” for her efforts to fulfill her constitutional duty. Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl called the invitation of one of his own flock to address the Georgetown University graduates “shocking” and sought to have her removed from the speakers list.

And that is the logic of “if you don’t agree with me you are a bad person, and if you are a bad person then you must possess the most extreme form of badness.” “Torturer,” “self-hating Jew,” “pro-abortionist.” These are the rhetorical moves of those who have lost their faith in actual dialogue with their fellow human beings, and have thus lost hope in democracy. It is the rhetoric of those who don’t understand the difference between a disagreement about ethics and a disagreement about the policies that best implement those ethical ideals.

The reality is that favoring a woman’s right to birth control, and even abortion, isn’t the same as being “pro-abortion.” Just as favoring a woman’s right to divorce her abusive husband isn’t being “pro-divorce.” And just as favoring a Presidential library on a University campus isn’t the same as being “pro-torture.” But the ethical niceties of recognizing that there are more positions than two extremes are now lost on anti-Bush progressives, pro-Israel Jews, and virtually the entire so-called pro-life movement and Roman Catholic hierarchy.

I myself am anti-abortion and anti-divorce. And I am pro-choice in both cases because I don’t believe that turning religious dogma into civil law increases human freedom and well being. Outlawing abortion doesn’t stop it, it just makes it infinitely more dangerous for the woman. And by driving it underground the whole set of interventions that might lead to a baby being borne to full term and then adopted are undermined. My disagreement with the so-called pro-life movement is about policy, not about ethics.

In contemporary America an immoral moral extremism is increasingly making civil discourse impossible, and democracy more fragile. Neither vehement progressives nor Catholic functionaries intend to weaken our nation. Indeed they sincerely believe that they are trying to preserve its core values. Yet they appear to have forgotten that the best way to protect moral standards is to seek realistic policies through compromise and the democratic processes.

At a critical moment in the great movie, Chariots of Fire, the father of one of the runners says  “God’s Kingdom is not a democracy.” He was wrong, if sincerely so. Here on earth God reigns through human stewards, and they best discover God’s intent and interpret God’s law not by listening to  oligarchic pronouncements of dogma, or being subject to bullying harangues and disruptive hecklers, but through a never ending process of reading God’s word (in scripture and in nature) and engaging in a democratic consultation on its meaning for today.

The president of Georgetown University, defending Secretary Sibelius’ right to speak, appears to me a far better agent of God’s Reign than Cardinal Wuerl – who wishes to silence all opposition among Catholics, because an open dialogue within religions and among all religions will take us closest to God’s heart revealed in Jesus Christ.

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