Social Conservatism and the Quality of Mercy

Editorial Note: This piece is published as a part of a symposium hosted by Patheos' Catholic Portal and Evangelical Portal, entitled, "For Life and Family: Faith and the Future of Social Conservatism."

In preparing a column for this symposium, I've found myself unable to address a single issue in isolation. The thought pressing on me is that there is no way to dissociate our positions on "social conservative" topics either from our relationship with God or from the view of human law and justice that derives from it.

Timothy Dalrymple wrote a deeply moving piece on the problem of abortion for our consciences and our character as a people. His Khalil Gibran quotation brings to mind Jeremiah 7:17-18, in which the prophet speaks of how everyone in the fallen society of ancient Israel pitched in to offer sacrifices to false gods:

Do you not see what they are doing in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, the fathers light the fire, and the women knead the dough and make cakes to offer to the Queen of Heaven. They pour out drink offerings to other gods to arouse my anger.

Maintaining a callous attitude toward abortion can be seen as a project of the whole society in the modern West, whether the vehicle is consumerism, a sense of entitlement, or simple selfishness. Our skewed and idolatrous approach to "justice" is a key element of this societal mechanism. We classify our fellow men as "victims" and "oppressors," as if all of life is a struggle between classes of people in perpetual enmity, incessantly hurting each other. That struggle, in turn, requires symbolic moments of intervention in which a form of abstract "justice" is done—a justice that suits the notions of a particular ideology, regardless of the impact on the actual humans in the case.

God tells us that "our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Eph. 6:12). But according to modern Western culture, our struggle is precisely against flesh and blood. Whatever the issue may be, the problem lies with our fellow men.

So when a woman finds herself pregnant, it is not a stretch to conclude in practical terms that "the problem" in her situation is the baby growing inside of her. And if, in every situation, "justice" is the highest principle, it becomes possible to excuse ourselves when dealing with unborn babies because their status as human beings, endowed with rights, can reasonably be debated. Justice, the thing we put our faith in, sets up no roadblocks to a culture of abortion.

It is not justice, but mercy, that saves the unborn. God prizes mercy over justice, but we don't. Left to our own devices, we couch everything in terms of justice—vindication for us, punishment for others—and ignore or despise the concept of mercy. Much of the West's intellectual effort for the last century has been devoted to making a high moral art of this. We have even begun to call mercy "justice," as when a guilty felon with a troubled background is given a lighter sentence or set free. This creates a great vulnerability for us: not so much by corrupting the concept of justice as by effectively dismissing "mercy" as a quality in social intercourse. None of us can get along without mercy as well as we tend to think we can. But we have largely organized ourselves to drive it out of the human equation.

Human law and government cannot lead us to a proper appreciation of mercy. This doesn't mean there should be no social conservative movement in politics, but it does mean that getting our laws changed will not turn our hearts back to our unborn children. Timothy Dalrymple hoped, with his article, to get a conversation started on what our next steps might be in fostering this project, and I am coming to believe that our highest-payoff approach will be what the military calls an "asymmetric" one.

We should, of course, oppose uses of government that encourage the rise of abortion mills like Kermit Gosnell's. Those uses encompass more than government funding of Planned Parenthood; they extend to education programs that insist to children that sex is always morally neutral, and to welfare programs that subsidize destructive lifestyles.

But opposition is not enough, and merely trying to match social liberals law for law or program for program is not the most profitable approach. Focusing our main effort on law and regulation cedes to human government a centrality in our common moral life that it does not truly have.