Dialogue with Deacon Steven Greydanus on Voting & Pro-Life

Dialogue with Deacon Steven Greydanus on Voting & Pro-Life November 8, 2016

ProLifeSign

Photograph by Elvert Barnes at the 33rd March For Life in Washington, D.C.: 22 January 2006 [Flickr / CC BY 2.0 license]

*****

Deacon Steven D. Greydanus writes renowned film reviews and also articles for National Catholic Register.  I appreciate his thoughtful, civil, charitable thoughts on this political campaign. It is possible to engage in constructive dialogue! He is a Never-Trumper; I voted for Trump this morning.  These exchanges spontaneously occurred on my Facebook page yesterday. His words will be in blue. As I put this together, it is 11:30 AM on election day, so I don’t yet know who won.

*****

We can never underestimate American voting stupidity and immorality (we all learned that in 2012), and it may indeed prevail again. Ancient Israel kept installing evil kings, and eventually was destroyed and swept away by the Babylonians because of idolatry. We’ve far surpassed them in evil, so it could very well be time for our judgment.

I have a gut instinct that we have one more chance to rise up and stall the overwhelming juggernaut of anti-Christian liberal secularism. But that’s all it is: an instinct or hunch. The armies of ignorance can crush it if they have bigger numbers.

I’m sorry you feel you have to ascribe losses for your preferred candidate to “stupidity and immorality,” Dave. Certainly a lot of stupid and immoral people voted for Obama in 2012 — and a lot of stupid and immoral people voted for Romney. And a lot of smart, decent people voted for both candidates as well. You can think their reasoning or their belief system was flawed, but I hope you wouldn’t say that anyone who votes for Obama over Romney, or for Clinton over Trump, is necessarily either stupid or immoral. Frankly, I ascribe the dilemma we face tomorrow more to a broken system than to stupidity or immorality on the part of people.

Would you classify ancient Israel’s penchant for idolatry “stupid and immoral” Steven? What would you call that? And do you claim we are morally superior to them, with legal abortion and same-sex “marriage”?

You seem to think you know a lot about how I think. I’m speaking generally. Nothing I said implies that Trump is perfect and has no flaws or has made no mistakes. I’m talking at the moment about positive votes for Obama and Hillary Clinton: upholding and bolstering / enabling the anti-Christian secular juggernaut. That is stupid and immoral.

This is prophetic- or proverbial-type language, which is general by nature, and (in Scripture) constantly refers to the wise men over against the fools (stuff we can never say today in our absurd PC culture). Language must be interpreted in context. You have no problem with Mark Shea speaking in that vein every day. But of course he is uncontrolled, whereas I am not. I’m actually capable of having a rational discussion with someone who disagrees. :-). I can talk in many genres besides the prophetic / proverbial one.

Also note that I used the phrase “American voting stupidity and immorality.” That’s different from saying that all who voted for Obama were “immoral and stupid” etc., as a character judgment. I’m saying they voted (or will vote) stupidly and immorally. But if you deny that it is stupid and immoral for professed pro-life Catholics to vote for pro-abortion candidates over and over, we have a profound difference there.

I don’t classify third-party voting, by the way, as “stupid and immoral” (I reserve that to voting for Obama and Hillary). I categorize it as “tragically misguided, puritanistic, and naive.” I realize that’s not exactly fawning praise, either, but it is essentially different. And it’s far better than how many 3rd-partiers characterize Trump voters.

Dave: If I’ve misunderstood you I apologize. I think I understand prophetic or proverbial-type language; indeed, I often use this mode myself.

Yet both as a deacon and as a sometime apologist I feel sufficiently bound to a pragmatic political irenicism, in that I don’t want to make my political views a hurtle or obstacle to other people in accepting the faith or hearing my proclamation of the Word.

One of my most trusted advisors and best friends, who is also one of the smartest Catholics I know, tells me that even though I’ve dialed back my social-media commentary on particular candidates, I’m still too political and that I need to dial it back further for the good of souls. (This is not because he doesn’t have his own very strong political views. He does. But he doesn’t talk about them publicly, for the good of souls.)

I appreciate the distinctions you draw between voting for Obama and Hillary and third-party voting. The problem is that too many smart, well-informed Catholics disagree for me to take such a withering assessment seriously. For those who see that a given view can be held in a smart, thoughtful way, those who take too dismissive a stance toward that view only wind up undermining their own claims of intellectual rigor.

Don’t assume, by the way, that you know what I do or don’t have a problem with in other people, or what I have or haven’t said or done regarding other people.

Good, and I agree with much of that. As for irenicism, the time for that is after the election (just two days away), and I have stated repeatedly that I will refuse to get into the inevitable civil wars (especially if Trump loses). It’s gonna get very ugly, and I won’t be part of it. I will remain positive and hopeful in faith (as you noted we should be).

You didn’t answer my three questions, though:

Would you classify ancient Israel’s penchant for idolatry “stupid and immoral”?

What would you call that?

Do you claim we are morally superior to them, with legal abortion and same-sex “marriage”?

Idolatry is not only immoral but in a way the essence or soul of all immorality. Literal idolatry, for Hebrews who had good reason to know the truth of Israel’s God and the falsity of pagan idols, is not only stupid but an exercise in darkening the intellect, the archetypal example of how sin makes you stupid.

Abortion is one of the greatest evils ever perpetrated by the human race. I don’t know how to compare it to idolatry but both are a form of ultimate evil. I would not say we are morally superior to Old-Testament Israel at the height of her idolatry or at any other time.

To vote to support abortion or same-sex marriage is evil and an exercise in darkening the intellect.

To vote to support a candidate whose platform includes abortion or same-sex marriage is at least material cooperation in evil. To vote for such a candidate in the absence of proportionate reason is immoral. To believe there is proportionate reason when there is not (or to believe that there is not when there is) is at least intellectual error.

We mostly agree again. Good. Of course the “proportionate” bit is used by many as a mile-wide loophole, in order to vote for pro-aborts, on the absurd illusion that they will produce more pro-life results than stated pro-life candidates. God help us.

Whether particular judgments that a proportionate reason exists or does not exist are correct or incorrect is a matter of prudential judgment.

Let’s put it this way: I wholeheartedly agree with what Chesterton stated:

[W]hile there are stupid people everywhere, there is a particular minute and microcephalous idiocy which is only found in an intelligentsia.

I have sometimes fancied that, as chilly people like a warm room, silly people sometimes like a diffused atmosphere of intellectualism and long words.

(Illustrated London News, “The Defense of the Unconventional,” 10-17-25)

Spoken eloquently by a non-elite status quo-buster, who never attained a college degree . . .

I didn’t say all prudential judgments are equally reasonable or persuasive. I just said they’re prudential judgments.

Here, let me try to put it in non-elite terms for you.

a) I know smart, thoughtful, honorable, pro-life Christians who feel that both Trump and Hillary are so appalling that neither is obviously better or worse than the other. (Example: Archbishop Chaput. Those inclined to honor me with the adjectives above might care to include me as another example.)

b) I know smart, thoughtful, honorable, pro-life Christians who feel that as bad as Trump is, President Clinton would be a worse disaster for the pro-life movement and the good of the country overall, and therefore support Trump.

c) I know smart, thoughtful, honorable, pro-life Christians who feel that as bad as Clinton is, President Trump would be a worse disaster for the pro-life movement and the good of the country overall, and therefore support Clinton.

d) Because each of these views is in fact held by smart, thoughtful, honorable, pro-life Christians, it is possible for smart, thoughtful, honorable, pro-life Christians to take any of these views. What is actual is always possible.

e) To take it a step further: If we agree that the view described in a) is at least within the pale of reasonable Catholic opinion, it would seem that neither b) nor c) can be excluded from the pale of reasonable Catholic opinion. (I.e., if either b) or c) is such an obvious error that it is beyond the pale of reasonable Catholic opinion, then a) also must be such an obvious error that it is beyond the pale of reasonable Catholic opinion.)

Many Christians are willing to elevate their own opinions in prudential matters to a litmus test of what is reasonable or unreasonable. I am not.

Obviously everyone can’t be right, but I don’t see that anyone is so obviously and manifestly right that everyone in one of the other groups must be judged as having grossly failed either morally or intellectually.

As I said, I was not talking about everyone in every group, anyway. I was talking broadly. I continue to do so now:

I think A is the third party position, which I characterize (with all due respect to the good archbishop) as “tragically misguided, puritanistic, and naive.”

B, I see as virtually self-evident, though I freely grant that many do not see it as self-evident and many are only reluctantly persuaded to see it as the best option.

C, I have already characterized (as a vote) as “stupid and immoral”. “Smart, thoughtful, honorable, pro-life Christians” can, unfortunately, hold to stupid and immoral positions for a variety of reasons (mostly from bad thinking and influences, in my opinion), without being themselves “stupid and immoral.” But such fine distinctions are often lost in today’s society where everyone is put into a box, and usually demonized when they disagree with us. I’m not demonizing people; I’m condemning wrong positions. That’s why I said many people “vote stupid and immoral”; not that “all people who vote for the stupid and immoral policy are stupid and immoral.” The primary problem, as I see it (broadly), is lack of knowledge, and lack of integrating politics consistently into an overall Catholic worldview, rather than personal immorality.

C is not a reasonable (let alone reasonable Catholic) position, and it never becomes reasonable simply because some (or even many) who hold to it are “smart, thoughtful, honorable, pro-life Christians”. Nor does tolerance and charity require us refraining from identifying “stupid and immoral” policy positions and voting actions because some good people fall into them. In fact, it is uncharitable, I would contend, not to identify an immoral position, so that people will be dissuaded from taking positions that are harmful to societies, to themselves, and to preborn children (who stand to lose the most of all).

D is self-evident because it is a truism (A = A). It doesn’t follow that the position is necessarily not “stupid and immoral” because some good folks and/or good-intentioned folks hold it. Most of the evils of the world occur because the good people do nothing about it (Edmund Burke) or are useful idiots in causes that in the end harm them.

Great dialogue . . .

My final thought, perhaps:

It’s all too true that “smart, thoughtful, honorable, pro-life Christians” can hold to stupid and immoral positions. So true, in fact, that however smart, thoughtful, and honorable we may be, we would all do well to reflect often that this is a petard on which any of us may find ourselves hoist.

When the trumpet sounds, the books are opened, and everything hidden is made known, how many of my views that I considered self-evident will turn out to be crashingly wrong? How many views I thought stupid or immoral were actually correct? How many of my intellectual peers and heroes whose wisdom I admired misled me? How many people that I judged to be disastrously wrong were closer to the truth than I was?

Out of intellectual and epistemological humility, I am reluctant to make very sweeping, very final judgments placing myself among the smart, thoughtful, honorable people who are also brilliantly right in our prudential opinions, and consigning other smart, thoughtful, honorable people who disagree with me to the shameful ranks of the crashingly wrong.

That doesn’t mean I don’t hold my views strongly and argue them passionately. I do. And if you fail to find my brilliant arguments persuasive, I may even judge you in my heart. But I do so in fear and trembling, knowing that my verdict is not the one that counts.

All very true. Humility is a great thing. It’s also true that some things are very clear-cut: childkilling being one of these. People who vote for politicians who uphold that great evil are dead wrong, and it makes no sense (morally, logically, or any other way) if they do this and claim to be pro-life.

I’m quite confident that when the books are opened in the hereafter, that that will be one judgment where I was right. I have no fear whatever of God telling me that I was wrong all these years for voting for pro-life candidates, and that the folks voting for the pro-aborts really were the wise, compassionate, more thoughtful pro-life voters.

The bottom line is that today we have a difficult time saying that anyone is doing anything wrong. That is considered intolerant and bigoted and “insensitive” or what-not. This is our postmodernist society. It’s also vastly unbiblical. Neither Jesus nor Paul nor Peter had the slightest hesitation to say that something or someone were wrong. And they are our models.

We do it charitably, gently, and with the right timing and tone (and it usually only works within an existing friendly relationship). But we still must do it. As an apologist, I’m in big trouble if this is not the right thing to do, because we have to say people are wrong all the time, as part of our work. It’s never enjoyable. But it’s necessary: in and with a motivation of love and wanting what’s best for everyone, according to God’s Word and the teaching of Holy Mother Church.

***

I still disagree strongly — I would go so far as to say I repudiate — your view that supporting Clinton over Trump (the action or position, not the people) can only be seen as stupid / immoral, not only on intellectual grounds (I think you’re crashingly wrong), but because voicing such (in my opinion, rash) opinions out loud makes it much harder both for people who agree with us to love those who disagree and vice versa.

You’re talking about pragmatic tactics to persuade people; I am talking about the things themselves, that you yourself agree are wrong. Killing babies in the womb is wrong. Same-sex “marriage” is wrong. Therefore, voting for folks who uphold them is also wrong (or my stronger word, “immoral”), as well as stupid. You appear to agree with that, but you just don’t want to say it. I highlight the wrong things they are supporting in voting for the Democrats; you highlight the fact that they are still good people (which I agree with).

I don’t think bluntness and “prophetic truthtelling” is immediately suspect, because it’s far too biblical to be so cavalierly dismissed. At the same time, it’s true that if I were talking directly to a person who voted for Clinton, etc., I would speak differently, as we all do with different people in different situations. “I have become all things to all people.”

We agree in principle on two important things: Prophetic bluntness or truth-telling is legitimate and necessary, and becoming all things to all people is legitimate and necessary.

We agree, obviously, on the clear matters of Catholic teaching, if not perhaps in how we would express or articulate those clear matters. Here is one way I would sum up the relevant matters:

1. Abortion and homosexual acts are gravely wrong.
2. Laws permitting abortion and according marital status to same-sex relationships are evil.
3. Politicians who support evil laws are workers of evil.
4. Voters who support politicians who support evil laws, because they support evil laws, are formal cooperators in evil.
5. Voters who support politicians who support evil laws, not because of but in spite of their support for evil laws, are material cooperators in evil.
6. Material cooperation in evil is morally legitimate in the presence of proportionate reasons.

So far I don’t think I’ve said anything that isn’t either explicit or implicit in the famous postscript to Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2004 memorandum. To these six observations I would add a seventh:

7. Whether particular judgments that a proportionate reason exists or does not exist are correct or incorrect is a matter of prudential judgment.

The last time I said that, you implied I might be guilty of a “particular minute and microcephalous idiocy which is only found in an intelligentsia”; of a fondness, typical of “silly people,” for a “diffused atmosphere of intellectualism and long words.” This was not, in my opinion, one of your better moments of becoming all things to all people, although perhaps you were more interested in convincing your audience than convincing me.

I take the blame for not being clear enough, but the Chesterton reference was not at all directed towards you. It was directed (in context, but not clearly enough), to those (especially intellectual / academic types) who say they are pro-life, yet (amazingly enough) vote for pro-aborts.

In our last-posted dialogue, it looked like I was replying to you with the rather smart ass (for Chesterton) quote, but in fact, I was still commenting or expanding upon my previous comment right above yours:

Of course the “proportionate” bit is used by many as a mile-wide loophole, in order to vote for pro-aborts, on the absurd illusion that they will produce more pro-life results than stated pro-life candidates. God help us.

It would only apply to you if you are in the class of those who vote for pro-abort Dems (almost always Dems), with the aforesaid illusion that it will help the pro-life cause. So it is me being quite provocative and “prophetic” but it was not intended for you at all. Just so that is clear . . .

As I understand it, you are saying that those pro-lifers who vote for pro-aborts are doing so for all the right reasons in their mind, thinking that it is a good thing. I readily grant their sincerity and good intentions (as I have said, we have no disagreement there). But what they do; the actual result of their vote, I refuse to sugar-coat and not describe as it actually is: in my former description: “stupid and immoral.”

I still don’t see how we disagree all that much, except in willingness to speak prophetically about actions that (in my humble opinion) uphold the abortion holocaust. They either do the latter or they do not, no matter how sincere the persons doing it are, and how much such a thought never entered their minds.

One of the things I try to do when being most pointed, is to restrict that to general comments. Hence, my calling it “prophetic” . . . So in this instance I used a Chesterton aphorism (one I am quite fond of, as a compiler of his quotations in one of my books), to rebuke the action I have been critiquing.

I may have done such a thing occasionally, but I can’t imagine applying that quote to a specific person in real time (i.e., in the course of dialogue). Nor did Chesterton. He made the general observation. I doubt that he’d ever use it directly about an opponent (like George Bernard Shaw or H. G. Wells).

But Chesterton also famously said: “The truth is, of course, that Mr. Shaw is cruelly hampered by the fact that he cannot tell any lie unless he thinks it is the truth.”

That is vintage Chesterton, and note what he does there (it relates to what we are talking about): fundamentally, he is saying that Shaw is telling untruths, but he does it with affectionate humor, separating it from any hint of demonizing his friend Shaw. Shaw believes what he says; he’s not trying to deliberately lie about anything. Yet he utters lies, and lies aren’t good.

That is exactly my spirit here, and Jimmy Akin’s, and your own. We’re all absolutely against demonizing others. We’re also saying that these good people can sometimes believe wrong things. The only dispute is how to talk about the end result of the actions of those who do that. I’m more blunt, but I deny that that is immediately or necessarily less charitable. It may be, in the final analysis, but I don’t believe so.

I can even happily grant that your approach and Jimmy’s is more likely to persuade in the present context — all things being equal –, but I wouldn’t conclude from that, that therefore, I shouldn’t put it in the terms that I did (or cite lovable, beloved Chesterton being even more “acidic” or acerbic than I was).

I would just say that you guys used more honey, and I used a bit of vinegar, and that vinegar is sometimes necessary as well, to jolt folks into reality, even though it’s never as fun or popular as honey. Jesus did it; so did Paul and the prophets, and God the Father, in many pointed rebukes. So also can we at times.

Thanks for clarifying, Dave. That makes me feel better. No, I am not in the class who vote for pro-abort Dems. I did field an agonized query from a devout Catholic voter in a swing state who said she hated everything Hillary stood for, but, for reasons I don’t need to get into, found Trump even worse. Her prudential judgment was that Trump was worse. In her judgment, that would be a proportionate reason warranting voting for Clinton. I did not try to argue her out of that prudential judgment; I think it’s within the pale of opinions that Catholics can come to without being intellectually or morally deficient in their prudential reasoning. This, I think, is where we disagree.

We do, but as always, it’s more of a pleasure to disagree with you than to agree with many people.

*****

Meta Description: Friendly dialogue about the relationship of Catholic pro-life affinities and voting patterns.

Meta Keywords: 2016 presidential campaign, Abortion, abortion restrictions, American politics, American presidential election, Catholics & Trump, Catholics and presidential election, Childkilling, conception, Donald Trump, fetal development, Hillary Clinton, infanticide, personhood, preborn child, prenatal, pro-abortion, pro-choice, pro-life, pro-lifers & elections, Supreme Court, Trump & pro-life, unborn child

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