The Temptation of Raising the Stakes

The Temptation of Raising the Stakes September 8, 2016

Don’t do it!

Christians who write about politics and culture are in the habit of searching for first principles. Neo-Calvinists (followers of Abraham Kuyper) and Roman Catholics are famous for doing this perhaps because both aspire to an integralism that seeks to integrate religion and all walks of life and because both sets of Christians privilege academic philosophy. As an intellectual exercise, the search for first principles and the subsequent assessment of religious bona fides has some appeal. Most people look for intellectual consistency even if they know that Ralph Waldo Emerson said that consistency was the “hobgobblin of small minds.”

But when it comes to practical politics or simply life among people from various backgrounds and faiths, integralism can be a barrier to a measure of contentment, or in the apostle Paul’s words, “quiet and peaceful lives.” For instance, look at where Jake Meador goes with gay marriage:

If we grant the state the power to override nature in redefining fundamental social institutions and to insert itself into the most intimate human arenas, that necessarily implies a rejection of the idea that there are natural norms that are beyond the purview of the magistrate. Same-sex marriage assumes an expansion of state power that necessarily makes all of life subject to the state’s decree. If the state has power to define marriage, what power does it not possess?

Reality is thus not defined by religious dogma, but by state decree. Regarding Christianity, it shifts Christianity away from being a set of beliefs about reality and redefines it as a set of therapeutic principles and techniques that a person may or may not find useful to deal with their own private difficulties.

But what if the state has power simply to maintain order and as many rights as possible for citizens? That’s not a god-like power. It’s somewhat like the dog catcher or the garbage truck. To be sure, the federal government has more power than I would prefer as I read the Constitution. But I am not sure that such Christian analysis of politics is at all helpful. In fact, Meador’s point should lead him either to rebel against the idolatry of the U.S. government or to engage in acts of civil disobedience that lead him to jail.

So what kind of analysis of American politics is a better way for Christians (and others)? Here‘s one example of a way to oppose women in the military without appealing, as my own denomination (Orthodox Presbyterian Church) has to the Bible and thus implying that the U.S. military is anti-Christian:

But this is an issue where neither politics nor ideology has any place—because it’s a matter of life and death. The purpose of the military should be to accomplish violent overseas missions with minimal casualties. The military is not a democracy, and its purpose isn’t to provide equal opportunity. It is highly discriminatory, based not on skin color or religion but ability.

There should be data on whether women perform as well as men, and that should be the determinant. And indeed there are, including data on a huge factor that few people bother to consider because they lack the experience of those who have used it, as I have: body armor.

Body armor saves lives. But it’s not fun to wear. Trust me. The newest weighs about 30–35 pounds depending on the size of the wearer, and the helmet adds another 3–4 pounds. Counting all equipment, the Marine Corps puts the average combat load at 83 pounds. And unlike your cotton shirts, ceramic plates don’t ventilate. For these reasons, while I seemed impervious to bullets and bombs, armor almost killed me on one trip overseas as a paratrooper-turned-photojournalist. Damage from another combat trip has probably left me permanently crippled.

On the first, outside Fallujah, the heat, in addition to other factors such as lack of sleep and a prior medical condition, caused my colon to explode—ironically, as I was blowing up IEDs with an Explosives Ordnance Disposal team. This led to an emergency bowel resection to save my life, plus six subsequent surgeries. On my last combat mission, in the mountains of Afghanistan, the armor plus extra gear that I carried for my job herniated two disks, which led to a bout of horrific sciatica right when I came home and more recently a second one that will probably leave one foot permanently twisted and weakened. Yet I was in excellent overall shape prior to both incidents and am quite strong even for a male.

But females?

A 1992 Presidential Commission report found that “The average female Army recruit is 4.8 inches shorter, 31.7 pounds lighter, has 37.4 fewer pounds of muscle, and 5.7 more pounds of fat than the average male recruit. She has only 55 percent of the upper-body strength and 72 percent of the lower-body strength.” Further, “The average 20-to-30 year-old woman has the same aerobic capacity as a 50 year-old man.” In the mountains of Afghanistan, many miles above sea level and with air thinner than blouses at the Oscars, running even without body armor can feel like breathing from the tailpipe of a Bangkok bus.

According to the Surgeon General’s office in 2011, “Army women are more likely to be disabled than men and are approximately 67 percent more likely than Army men to receive a physical disability discharge for a musculoskeletal disorder.” They’re more than five times as likely to suffer stress fractures. Snap, crackle, pop.

So Christians don’t need to oppose women in combat on religious grounds.

The same goes for opposing Hillary Clinton. Instead of worrying about her habit of lying or what her husband does, Christians could simply raise a few questions about her views on foreign policy:

The substance was mostly boilerplate cheerleading for the status quo in foreign policy, but a few particularly jarring lines stood out. Near the start of the speech, Clinton said, “We are an exceptional nation because we are an indispensable nation. In fact, we are the indispensable nation.” That isn’t true, but Clinton’s acceptance of this claim confirms that she understands “American exceptionalism” in a particularly warped way that justifies interfering all over the globe. That is what Albright’s “indispensable nation” rhetoric meant twenty years ago, and it’s what Clinton’s rhetoric means today.

Clinton thought that she was dinging Trump when she said, “We can’t cozy up to dictators.” That would be all right if it were true, but it is hard to take seriously from a committed supporter of U.S. “leadership.” Cozying up to authoritarian rulers has been and continues to be a significant part of U.S. “leadership,” and if you are in favor of the latter you are going to be stuck with the former. This rhetoric is especially absurd coming from someone who has repeatedly stressed the importance of supporting U.S. clients in the Gulf. Clinton has made a point of promising that the U.S. will stay quite cozy with our despotic clients when she is president, and it is likely that the U.S. will probably get even cozier still if she has anything to say about it.

I wonder if American Christians were more like regular Americans they might be more persuasive and effective. As it is, many Christians find religious rationales for their politics that alienate and that prevent believers from seeing how much they have in common with unbelievers.


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