Posts tagged ‘Morality’

The Big Apple And The Chicken Sandwich

A little over a week ago, Dan Piepenbring, writing for The New Yorker, derided what he called “Chick-fil-A’s Creepy Infiltration of New York City.”  He declared:

New York has taken to Chick-fil-A.  One of the Manhattan locations estimates that it sells a sandwich every six seconds, and the company has announced plans to open as many as a dozen more storefronts in the city.  And yet the brand’s arrival here feels like an infiltration, in no small part because of its pervasive Christian traditionalism.

Mr. Piepenbring goes on to single out the chain’s headquarters adorned with Bible verses, its policy to close its stores on Sundays, and its CEO’s publicly expressed concerns about same-sex marriage as examples of its “pervasive Christian traditionalism.”  As Mr. Piepenbring points out, the company’s purpose statement also betrays its founders’ Christian commitments.  Chick-fil-A’s purpose is:

To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.

As a Christian, such a corporate purpose statement does not trouble me, as it does Mr. Piepenbring.  A cardinal claim of Christianity is that what Christians believe cannot be divorced from the work they do.  The apostle Paul summarizes this spirit when he writes, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Colossians 3:17).  A Christian’s creeds, Paul says, should always result in gracious deeds.  Chick-fil-A’s purpose statement teases out this connection.  The first part of the statement explains that the company’s leaders desire to give glory to God.  This is a commitment to a creed.  The second part of the statement explains that the company’s leaders desire to positively impact all who interact with Chick-fil-A.  This is a promise to do good deeds.

There is a secular trend to espouse a kind of happy humanism that claims that people are perfectly able to do good deeds apart from having to appeal to ancient and, according to the secular mindset, distasteful theological convictions.  In this way of thinking, Chick-fil-A would do better to fashion itself as an inoffensively affable and vaguely moral corporation instead of explicitly appealing to, again, according to the secular mindset, burdensome and superstitious Christian convictions.

But why would Chick-fil-A want to do this?  Its founders certainly aren’t secular.  Furthermore, extracting faith from goodness is trickier than many secular humanists care to admit.  Even if something is perceived to be good, without an external source of authority like Christianity, secular humanism still struggles to offer consistent reasons why anyone ought to do good.  Furthermore, apart from faith, people not only have no unifying set of compelling reasons why they ought to do good, they also have no set of stable standards as to what is good.  A coherent morality without a transcendent authority will be inevitably fraught with fragility.

The age-old philosophical conundrums of moral authority aside, there is widespread agreement between Christians and secular humanists on the morality of things like human dignity, community involvement, and good, old-fashioned geniality.  All of these are values that Chick-fil-A, with its evangelical roots, and New Yorkers, many of whom hold more secular sensibilities, espouse.  For this, at least, we should be grateful.  Mr. Piepenbring, however, asserts that, in a city like New York, “Chick-fil-A…does not quite belong here…Its politics, its décor, and its commercial-evangelical messaging are inflected with…suburban piety.”  This may be true culturally if one assumes there is some inherent and necessary pitched battle between a down-home corporation and a high-brow cosmopolitanism, but it is certainly not true personally.  The people who work at Chick-fil-A in New York are from New York.  And my hunch is, they care about New York and desire to serve people around New York.  Maybe we should let them.  And maybe when they smile, chicken sandwich and waffle fries in hand, we should smile back.  After all, one does not have to agree with every value and belief of a particular slice of society to treat them in a way that is neighborly.

I’m pretty sure someone said something about that, somewhere.

April 23, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Debating DACA

DACA

Credit: NBC News

When President Trump sent his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, before the cameras to announce the reversal of the Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals policy – an executive order signed by President Obama that allows certain undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as minors to receive a renewable two-year deferral of deportation –  he had to suspect that his announcement would spark controversy both on the right and on the left.  In his statement, the Attorney General explained:

As the Attorney General, it is my duty to ensure that the laws of the United States are enforced and that the constitutional order is upheld…

To have a lawful system of immigration that serves the national interest, we cannot admit everyone who would like to come here. That is an open border policy and the American people have rightly rejected it.

Therefore, the nation must set and enforce a limit on how many immigrants we admit each year and that means all cannot be accepted.

This does not mean they are bad people or that our nation disrespects or demeans them in any way. It means we are properly enforcing our laws as Congress has passed them.

It is with these principles and duties in mind, and in light of imminent litigation, that we reviewed the Obama Administration’s DACA policy…

The Department of Justice has advised the President and the Department of Homeland Security that DHS should begin an orderly, lawful wind down, including the cancellation of the memo that authorized this program.

Acting Secretary Duke has chosen, appropriately, to initiate a wind down process. This will enable DHS to conduct an orderly change and fulfill the desire of this administration to create a time period for Congress to act – should it so choose. 

Key to understanding the Attorney General’s remarks is his acknowledgement that Congress can act to pass a bill that addresses the issue of immigrants brought to this country illegally as minors in the time that DACA is winding down. President Trump, in a Tweet, explicitly encouraged Congress to pass some sort of legislation that addresses this group of immigrants:

Congress now has 6 months to legalize DACA (something the Obama Administration was unable to do). If they can’t, I will revisit this issue!

– Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 6, 2017

Though the issues involved here are many, I believe there are three specific concerns we must take into account in order to address the questions and controversies that surround DACA faithfully and sensitively.

The first concern is that of constitutionality.  Many are arguing that the action President Obama took when he signed his executive order on DACA was indeed constitutional.  Others are arguing just the opposite.  Just the fact that there are so many questions surrounding the legality of this executive order should at least encourage us to consider what other, less constitutionally questionable, options are available.  Operating squarely within the law brings a stability and sustainability to governmental actions that flirting with policies and positions on the legal periphery does not.  The Attorney General put it well in his statement when he said:

No greater good can be done for the overall health and well-being of our Republic, than preserving and strengthening the impartial rule of law. Societies where the rule of law is treasured are societies that tend to flourish and succeed. 

Societies where the rule of law is subject to political whims and personal biases tend to become societies afflicted by corruption, poverty, and human suffering. 

The law, when it is written morally and enforced equitably, can indeed be a force for great good and a guard against dark evil.  Thus, constitutional questions ought to be carefully weighed when considering the future of DACA.

A second concern in this discussion should be that of safety.  Since its inception, about 1,500 people who were once eligible for DACA have had their DACA status revoked because they committed some sort of crime.  Since President Trump took office, arrests and deportations of DACA eligible immigrants have increased, pointing to a more rigorous prosecution against those who commit crimes.  In the interest of “providing for the common defense,” those who appear poised to do citizens harm should be carefully monitored and those who have done citizens harm should be appropriately punished.  A well-ordered society where wrongdoers are held accountable “promotes the general welfare” by allowing people to live in reasonable safety and societal prosperity.  The safety of people has been – and should continue to be – a focus not only of this government, but of any government.

A final concern in this discussion should be that of morality.  We must never forget that the legality of something doesn’t necessarily ensure the morality of something.  Abortion, for instance, may be legal, but it is certainly not moral.  This is why, for decades now, biblically minded Christians have been speaking out against it.  We must grapple with the question of morality when dealing with issues of unlawful immigration.  What is the right thing to do with this or that group of undocumented immigrants?  Are we called to help others, even if they are here illegally?  In Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan, a priest and a Levite missed an opportunity to be a neighbor to a man who had been badly beaten and was laying on the side of the road because of some legal concerns over helping such a man.  Mosaic law stipulated that touching a dead body rendered a person ceremonially unclean.  The beaten man, although he was not in actuality dead, looked dead.  Checking on him, then, if he did turn out to be dead, would have legally defiled them.  So, they passed by as far away from him as they could “on the other side” so as not to risk defilement.  A Samaritan, however, when he saw this man, opted to take a risk and help him.  Jesus commends the Samaritan for having done the right thing.  A spirit of helpfulness and neighborliness can and should be paramount in how we address this issue.

Most of the angry polemical positions people take on this issue come when one of these concerns – be that the concern of constitutionality, safety, or morality – is exalted to the exclusion of the others.  Some are concerned only with legal questions and never bother to ask, “How can I be a neighbor to everyone, even to those who are here illegally?”  Some love to paint themselves as morally superior neighbors, but are loathe to do the hard work of studying, supporting, and, when appropriate, critiquing immigration law for the sake of the long-term stability and equitability of our nation’s immigration policy.  Still others are so concerned with safety that they see threats where, sometimes, there are none and take a by-any-means-necessary approach to security, even when the security measures they support harm innocent people.

Taking into account all of these concerns, though difficult, may just offer us a path forward that will be legal, reasonably safe, and neighborly all at the same time.  Let’s see if we can’t find such a path – and then walk it.

September 11, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Christianity ≠ Morality

One of the topics I address often on this blog is that of morality.  With a collapsing cultural consensus on what morality looks like around issues like human sexuality, childbearing, childrearing, gender, justice, and political discourse – to name only a few examples – offering a Christian perspective on what it means to be moral is, I believe, important and needed.

There is an implicit danger, however, in spending all of one’s energy arguing for a Christian morality in a secular society.  Far too often, when we, as Christians, do nothing more than argue for a Christian morality in the public square, it can begin to appear that Christianity itself is nothing more than a set of moral propositions on controversial questions.  Like in the 1980s, during the height of the Christian Moral Majority, Christianity can be perceived to be conterminous with a particular system of morality.

A couple of years ago, an op-ed piece appeared in the LA Times titled, “How secular family values stack up.”  In it, Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College, argues that godless parents do a better job raising their children than do godly parents.  He writes:

Studies have found that secular teenagers are far less likely to care what the “cool kids” think, or express a need to fit in with them, than their religious peers. When these teens mature into “godless” adults, they exhibit less racism than their religious counterparts, according to a 2010 Duke University study. Many psychological studies show that secular grownups tend to be less vengeful, less nationalistic, less militaristic, less authoritarian and more tolerant, on average, than religious adults.

Much of what these kids raised in secular homes grow up to be is good.  A resistance to peer pressure, an eschewing of racism, a willingness to forgive, a measured sobriety about the positives and negatives of one’s country, a desire to avoid violence, a willingness to serve instead of to command, and a charitable tolerance toward all people are certainly all noble traits.  Professor Zuckerman argues that since secular parenting has a statistically higher probability than does Christian parenting of producing children who act morally in these categories, Christian parenting serves no real purpose.  But it is here that he misunderstands the goal of Christian parenting.  The goal of Christian parenting is not to make your kids moral.  It is to share with your kids faith in Christ.  Morality is wonderful, but, in Christianity, faith comes first.

James, the brother of Jesus, describes the proper relationship between Christian morality and Christian faith when he writes:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.  (James 2:14-18)

James here explains the absurdity of claiming to have faith apart from any sort of moral deeds.  He says that if someone claims to have faith and no moral deeds, he really has no faith at all.  He even goes so far as to challenge his readers to show him someone who has faith, but no moral deeds.  This, in James’ mind, is an impossibility.  Why?  Because James knows that faith inevitably produces some sort of moral action.  The real danger is not so much that someone will have faith and no moral action, but that someone will have plenty of moral action and no faith!  Indeed, this is the problem Jesus has with the religious leaders when He says of them, “These people honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me” (Matthew 15:8).  The religious leaders were supremely moral.  But they did not have faith in Christ.

In our crusade to argue for a Christian morality in the midst of a morally relativistic secular society, let us be careful not to spend so much time trying to make people moral that we forget to share with them faith in Christ.  For a Christianity that only makes people moral, ultimately, leads them the to same place that a secular moral relativism does – it leads to death.  Morality, no matter what type of morality it is, cannot offer life.  Only Christ can do that.

We are not here just to try to make people good.  We are here to show people the One who is perfectly good.  Let’s not forget what our real mission really is.

June 26, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Michael Flynn, Intelligence Leaks, and Ethical Questions

michael-flynn

Credit: Carolyn Kaster/AP

When Michael Flynn tendered his resignation as National Security Advisor last week after only 24 days on the job, it marked the predictable outcome of what had become deepening concerns over some dishonest statements he made to the vice-president about the nature of a December conversation he had with the Russian ambassador to the United States and the potential his conversation created for his blackmail by Russian authorities.  In a political climate where dishonesty is often dismissed out-of-hand as part of the job, Mr. Flynn’s forced resignation is a sobering reminder that character still counts.

Of course, in this story, there are not only ethical questions raised by Mr. Flynn’s clandestine conversation, there are also critical ethical questions that must be asked about the leaking of his conversation by shadowy intelligence officials to the news media.  After all, unethically leaking the fact the National Security Advisor unethically lied to vice-president seems, well, just all-around unethical.

Sadly, in our hyper-politicized climate, it is difficult not to filter this story through anything other than a political lens.  President Trump certainly filtered it this way, at least in part, when he complained on Twitter:

The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by intelligence like candy. Very un-American!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 15, 2017

Yes, intelligence leaks are indeed scandalous – and dangerously so.  But dishonesty by the National Security Advisor with the vice-president is also scandalous.  Both sides of this scandal need to be addressed.  Sadly, most politicians only see fit to address whichever side furthers their own political purposes.

The problem with politicizing scandals like these is that we often overlook the sins of one side conveniently while decrying the sins of the other side forcefully.  Our argument becomes not that one side is truly good, but that the other side is really bad.  In this way, we justify one side’s sins by the sins the other side.  But when we address ethical scandals like this, we only wind up creating a circular firing squad, with everyone squarely aiming their barrels at everyone else.  We settle for hurting whoever happens to be our political enemy rather than holding onto what is actually right.

Jonathan Bethune, in an article for The Federalist, captures and summarizes our political zeitgeist well when he explains:

There can be no meaningful dialogue premised upon shared values if both sides only apply those values when it lets them score points. The class of moderately intelligent politically aware people are those most affected by this trend. They have become partisan ideologues.

An ideologue is at least consistent in his belief in specific policies. A partisan openly supports his gang above all else. But a partisan ideologue is worse than both. He is a Machiavellian creature: a supporter of “ends justify the means” approaches to pushing an agenda. The gang must be defended that the agenda might be defended, even when the gang violates core tenets of the agenda. Partisan ideologues are dishonest by nature. Worse still, they often cannot even tell when they are being dishonest.

Mr. Bethune is onto something here.  He understands that a politics that is more partisan than it is principled can only become pathological.  And when this happens, politics becomes a sinister force for moral decay rather than what Aristotle envisioned politics at its best to be – a guardian of societal good.  Such pathology in our politics not only points to a problem with Mr. Flynn and with dangerous intelligence leaks, it points to a problem with us.

Perhaps it is time, then, to look not only at the news, but in the mirror.

February 20, 2017 at 5:15 am 2 comments

It’s Not About Gay Rights Versus Religious Freedom

Same-Sex Marriage

Frank Bruni, columnist for The New York Times, has written a refreshingly honest, even if somewhat frightening, piece in response to the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana, which was signed into law last month by Governor Mike Pence.  The Act prohibits “a governmental entity [from] substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion.”[1]  LGBT groups are furious, arguing that this Act will open the door for Christian business owners to discriminate against LGBT people by refusing to offer them certain services because these business owners will be able to claim that offering these services, particularly services that have to do with same-sex weddings, would violate their religious tenets.

Mr. Bruni offers the following take:

The drama in Indiana last week and the larger debate over so-called religious freedom laws in other states portray homosexuality and devout Christianity as forces in fierce collision.

They’re not – at least not in several prominent denominations, which have come to a new understanding of what the Bible does and doesn’t decree, of what people can and cannot divine in regard to God’s will …

In the end, the continued view of gays, lesbians and bisexuals as sinners is a decision. It’s a choice. It prioritizes scattered passages of ancient texts over all that has been learned since — as if time had stood still, as if the advances of science and knowledge meant nothing …

So our debate about religious freedom should include a conversation about freeing religions and religious people from prejudices that they needn’t cling to and can indeed jettison, much as they’ve jettisoned other aspects of their faith’s history, rightly bowing to the enlightenments of modernity.[2]

Mr. Bruni is not only interested in whether a Christian small business owner should be forced to, let’s say, bake a cake for a gay wedding, he also launches into a critique of traditional Christian theology as a whole, stating that the faith should be “rightly bowing to the enlightenments of modernity.”  This assumes, of course, that modernity is, in fact, enlightened – an assertion that Mr. Bruni seems to feel little need to defend.  This also assumes that the Western version of modernity that embraces LGBT beliefs about human sexuality is the rightful moral pacesetter of our world, something with which many modernized Eastern nations may take issue.  This also assumes that Christians should not only love LGBT individuals, but endorse LGBT lifestyles as morally acceptable.

The irony is not lost on me that although Mr. Bruni does address “the florists and bakers who want to turn [LGBT customers] away” because of the owners’ moral convictions, he is silent concerning the many businesses that are jettisoning the state of Indiana in light of its religious freedom law because of their owners’ moral convictions.  Why the inconsistency?  Because, for Mr. Bruni, this is not an issue of religious freedom or even of gay rights.  This is an issue of what version of morality should hold sway in our society.  In Mr. Bruni’s worldview, for a Christian to try to avoid baking a cake for a gay wedding is morally reprehensible.  For a business to avoid a state because of a religious freedom act is morally commendable.  Thus, it is not inconsistent that one business, whose owners are working out of a set of traditional Christian moral convictions, should not be able to avoid providing services for a same-sex wedding while another business, whose owners have more secularized moral convictions, should be able to dump a whole state.  After all, the Christian set of moral convictions is, for Mr. Bruni, immoral!  And immorality must be squelched.

Pastor Timothy Keller explains the necessary moral entailments of the debate over gay marriage using a brilliant analogy:

Imagine an Anglo-Saxon warrior in Britain in AD 800. He has two very strong inner impulses and feelings. One is aggression. He loves to smash and kill people when they show him disrespect. Living in a shame-and-honor culture with its warrior ethic, he will identify with that feeling. He will say to himself, That’s me! That’s who I am! I will express that. The other feeling he senses is same-sex attraction. To that he will say, That’s not me. I will control and suppress that impulse. Now imagine a young man walking around Manhattan today. He has the same two inward impulses, both equally strong, both difficult to control. What will he say? He will look at the aggression and think, This is not who I want to be, and will seek deliverance in therapy and anger-management programs. He will look at his sexual desire, however, and conclude, That is who I am.

What does this thought experiment show us? Primarily it reveals that we do not get our identity simply from within. Rather, we receive some interpretive moral grid, lay it down over our various feelings and impulses, and sift them through it. This grid helps us decide which feelings are “me” and should be expressed – and which are not and should not be.[3]

Being LGBT has often been cast in terms of identity.  Pastor Keller argues that the issue at hand is really about morality.  Is it acceptable or unacceptable to be a violent aggressor?  Is it noble or troublesome to be in a same-sex relationship?  Feelings and impulses do not give us the answers to these questions.  Only moral grids do.

Frank Bruni offers some refreshing candor in his column.  He knows that, ultimately, the fight over gay rights and religious freedom isn’t a fight over gay rights and religious freedom.  It is a fight over what’s moral.  And his conclusion bears witness to his moral conviction:

Creech and Mitchell Gold, a prominent furniture maker and gay philanthropist, founded an advocacy group, Faith in America, which aims to mitigate the damage done to LGBT people by what it calls “religion-based bigotry.”

Gold told me that church leaders must be made “to take homosexuality off the sin list.”

His commandment is worthy – and warranted.

Mr. Bruni is clear.  Christians must be made to accept homosexuality.  To settle for anything less would be unworthy and unwarranted.  In other words, it would be immoral.

I would beg to differ.

But at least we know where he stands.

__________________________

[1] S.B. 101, 119th Leg., 1st sess. (Indiana 2015)

[2] Frank Bruni, “Bigotry, the Bible and the Lessons of Indiana,” The New York Times (4.3.2016).

[3] Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Viking, 2015), 135-136.

April 18, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Faith and Morality

Right and WrongOn this blog, I have written at length on moral issues.  I believe, quite firmly, that morality has a helpful role to play in the public square and, therefore, moral questions should be discussed and debated and moral standards should be regarded as useful and necessary for and in society.  For all my support public morality, however, there is a part of public morality that I find terrifying.  Here’s what I mean.

There can be little doubt that the experiment of societal moral relativism has failed. Throwing off the shackles of a transcendent and traditional morality for a culturally conditioned and convenient one that ultimately assumes that there is only amorality never got us Thomas Hobbes’ Epicurean dream.  It just left us Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich nightmare.  Leviathan, it turns out, wasn’t nearly as competent to do its job as Hobbes thought.

Moral relativism, then, can be quite deadly.  It does no society any good because, by definition, it is utterly individualistic.  And individuals, left to their own devices, seem to come up with awfully immoral relative moralities.  A traditional and transcendent morality is needed to order society in such a way that we do not (A) wind up killing each other, and (B) actually do some things that are helpful for each other. For these reasons, as well as for many others, public morality is needed.

But at the same time a traditional and transcendent public morality is needed, it is also terrifying.

Once a month, I teach a Bible study at a local business.  This year, I am working through the book of James when, a while back, I came to these famous words:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:14-17)

As a Lutheran, James’ trumpeting of moral works as important to faith can sometimes arouse in me an almost allergic reaction!  As an avid reader of all things Pauline, I know that works do not help faith.  Indeed, I know that works can actually be in opposition to faith:

[We] know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:16)

“Faith” and “works,” Paul says, do not mix when it comes to salvation.

Of course, James’ point is not that works somehow help faith when it comes to salvation, but that faith results in works that flow from salvation.  A saving faith, James argues, is inevitably an active faith.  Indeed, James would go so far to argue that a saving faith that is not an active faith is not even faith.  To quote his brother’s words: “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16).  A faith that does not result in moral works does not exist.  Such a faith is a myth that belongs on the shelf with unicorns, leprechauns, and that time your mom told you that if you swallow your gum, it will stay in your stomach for seven years.

This is why, at the same time I believe public morality is needed, I am also terrified by it.  A faith without moral works is impossible.  James says so.  Christians should not be frightened, therefore, to declare moral works as “necessary” to faith.  What is frightening, however, is that the inverse does not hold true.  Moral works may be necessary to faith, but faith is not necessary for moral works.  One can be very moral and still be very damned.  And herein lies the good and the bad of public morality.  Public morality helps others.  It may even help you.  But it doesn’t help you before God.  Only faith can help you before the Almighty.

Even as I continue to argue for the merits of public morality if for no other reason than that I’m not a big fan of the Third Reich, I will continue to serve proudly as a pastor to point people toward faith in Jesus Christ.  I like morality that comes from faith a lot better than morality that is divorced from faith.  The second morality may be nice for society, but the first receives a “well done” in eternity.

March 7, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Wrong and Wrong-er

Candidates

Credit:  Huffington Post

Recently, I read a blog by a well known pastor who expressed concern over the lack of civility in this year’s presidential election cycle.  In his blog, he singled out one candidate who caused him particular concern.  Although I do not think it is always inappropriate to discuss a particular candidate in a blog (I myself have done so), I do believe that a pastor should enter into such discussions with more than a fair share of fear and finesse.  Political figures are notoriously hard to critique in a way that leads people to listen to and engage with the critique because these figures tend to engender reflexive emotions long before they inspire extended thought.  Such was the case with this pastor’s blog.  There were many commenters who were appreciative of this pastor’s words.  Others were deeply offended and even furious that a pastor would critique, even if gently, a presidential candidate.  Some argued that it is never appropriate for a pastor to critique political candidates.  Others, like this commenter, argued against this pastor’s critique like this:

Cute hit piece on [my candidate]. Now lets talk about letting [another candidate] in the White House … who wouldnt know the truth if [this other candidate] saw it.

This is a fascinating argument because it basically runs like this: “My candidate may not be all that great, but this other candidate is worse!  Therefore, I will support my candidate and will attack anyone who tries to point out a concern with my candidate, even if the concern is legitimate.”  In other words, this commenter is trying to excuse bad behavior from her candidate by pointing out what is – at least in her mind – worse behavior from another candidate.

It’s not just angry social media commenters who makes these kinds of arguments.  Professional pundits do as well.  Consider this from John O’Sullivan of National Review:

[One candidate] tells falsehoods loosely and spontaneously in a sort of stream-of-consciousness lying to boost his prospects, win over doubters, crush opponents, and save his face. Details can be found all over the Internet. Most of them strike me as trivial. But none of the [leading candidates] have been exactly models of truth-telling in this campaign. So the relevant question then becomes “Compared with whom?” Let’s compare [this candidate’s] boastful and evasive untruths with the very different lies of [another candidate] on various immigration bills he has tried to sell.[1]

Mr. O’Sullivan explicitly and unashamedly justifies one candidate’s lies by pointing to another candidate’s lies.  Since when did lying become okay at all?  How does the fact that presidential candidates lie make anything better?  Did Mr. O’Sullivan ever stop to think that it might be best – rather than excusing a preferred political candidate for his bad behavior by pointing to some other bad behavior – to argue and ask for better behavior?

These kinds of arguments, it should be pointed out, are not only the stuff of election year politics.  They are also the arguments of nearly everyone who desperately wants to excuse some bad behavior.  “Yes, I may have stolen that dress, but it’s not like I’m Bernie Madoff!”  “Yes, I may have had an emotional affair, but that’s completely different from a physical affair!”  “Yes, I may be a drunkard, but at least I’m not a self-righteous religious person!”

Whenever I hear these kinds of arguments, I’m led to ask:  so what?  What do these kinds of arguments accomplish?  What do they prove?  Does pointing out someone else’s wrong somehow make you right?  My mother used to tell me, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”  Do two wrongs of perceived unequal wrongness somehow make one wrong right?

The answer to the above question, of course, is, “No.”  One cannot right a wrong by comparing it to another wrong-er wrong.  All such a comparison does is inevitably lower all moral standards because it points only to that which is below it rather than aspiring to that which is above it.  And when a comparison only looks down, where else is there to go but down?  Thus, this comparison inevitably drags those who make it down into deeper immorality rather than spurring them on to a more carefully considered higher ethic.

It is impossible to make a wrong right by comparing it to something else that is wrong.  This is why, when He wanted to make us right with Him, God didn’t just send someone who wasn’t quite as bad as we were, He sent someone who was truly good because He was fully perfect.  Our Savior raised the bar of morality all the way to perfection and then gave us His perfection by being raised on a tree for our salvation.  From His perfect morality comes not only a way of salvation apart from our merits, but a way for daily living that is to declare His merits.

So whether we are a candidate for President of the United States or an everyday citizen working a job and raising a family, let’s look to Christ’s standard of morality rather than wallowing around in the mud of someone else’s immorality.  Let’s aspire to that.  Let’s hold each other to that – not because we can ever attain that by our own merits, but because we should actually want that.  To settle for anything less is just plain wrong.

________________________

[1] John O’Sullivan, “The Rise of the Undocumented Republicans,” National Review (2.26.2016).

 

February 29, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

The Pew View of the LCMS

Religious Landscape

Last year, the Pew Research Center released a landmark Religious Landscape Study that surveyed over 35,000 adults from across the nation about their religious beliefs.  As a part of their research, Pew studied the church body of which I am a part, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.  Though I am well-aware of the risks associated with navel-gazing, I wanted to share a few thoughts on the section of Pew’s study that specifically pertains to my church body, because turning the mirror on oneself and seeing oneself for what one truly is – even when it is uncomfortable – can often be a helpful exercise.

Before we dig into the data, I should note that Pew’s survey of LCMS congregants has a 6-point margin of error, which, statistically, is significant.  This does not mean, however, that this survey is not worth our time and attention.  Even with a 6-point margin of error, the study’s findings are statistically substantial enough to be quite revealing.  So on to the study.

I was surprised to see how well my demographic is represented in my church body.  I had stereotypically assumed that my denomination was older than it actually turns out to be.  According to Pew, 30 to 49 year olds, which is my demographic, comprise the largest segment of my church body at 32%. Generation X, which is my generation, comprises the second largest segment of my church body at 28% next to Baby Boomers, who are at 35%.  Millennial representation is much lower at only 13%.  Demographically, then, I am, in many ways, a typical member of an LCMS congregation.  I am not, however, typical in every way – especially in my theological and moral beliefs.  It is in these areas that the data becomes particularly interesting.

For example, when Pew asked LCMS people what they look to for guidance on right and wrong, while 41% answered “religion,” 45% answered “common sense.”  In one way, this is not a surprise.  In the face of the information onslaught of the digital age, we have become informational pluralists.  We garner and glean our information and, by extension, our opinions, values, and beliefs, from a wide array of sources. The idea of a turning to a single, divinely-authored book as the first and final word on morality is simply untenable to most people.  Indeed, when LCMS congregants were asked about their “frequency of participation in prayer, Scripture study or religious education groups” and about their “frequency of reading Scripture,” the largest percentage of respondents in both categories fell into the “Seldom/Never” tier.  Thus, it is perfectly logical that more people would get their guidance on right and wrong from common sense than from religion and from the book on which the Christian religion is grounded, the Bible.  After all, a majority of people don’t even study the Bible enough to have a nuanced understanding of what’s in it.

The Pew study also revealed that many LCMS congregants seem more unified around a politically conservative economic policy than they are around issues that pertain to traditional Christian morality.  Politically, 52% of LCMS people identify as conservative over and against 33% who identify as moderate and 10% who identify as liberal.  72% prefer a smaller government with fewer services and 62% say that government aid programs do more harm than good.  Morally, 46% of LCMS people believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases versus 51% who believe it should be illegal, and 56% believe homosexuality should be accepted with 45% favoring same-sex marriage.  Compare this to 50% of people who identify as pro-choice nationwide and 55% who favor same-sex marriage nationwide.  There is a gap between what LCMS people believe about hot button moral issues and what the general public believes, but this gap is not as wide as one might think.  And, on both the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage, the LCMS is less unified than it is around conservative economic policy.

Theologically, I find it unsettling that our opinions on moral issues, which call for our Scriptural agreement, are so diverse while in areas where it’s okay and even desirable to be diverse, we are monolithic.  Take, for instance, the racial makeup of the LCMS.  95% of LCMS congregants are white.  This hardly seems to reflect the picture of the Church Triumphant with its people from “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9).  I understand that we cannot create this kind of Church by our own efforts and I also am well aware that the Church Militant, because it marches forth in a fallen world and because it does not reveal to us the universal Church, will always look different than the Church Triumphant.  But let’s not use our inability to create the Church of Revelation 7:9 as an excuse to not desire it.  After all, every member of the Church Triumphant starts out as a member of the Church Militant.  So the Church Militant should look, at least in some way, like Church Triumphant.

When it comes to the moral and ethical issues that clearly divide not only our society, but also many in my church body, I would simply say that these are issues that demand our continued attention and discussion.  And when discussing these issues, we must understand that just being a part of a church body does not guarantee, nor does it even make it likely, that a person will believe what the church body teaches.  Frankly, in our current cultural configuration, the Church’s voice is just one voice – heard by most only once a week at best – among a steady stream of other voices that speak much more frequently and regularly into people’s lives.  In order to gain a serious hearing among all these voices, it is important for the Church to speak charitably enough that people trust it and clearly enough that people know what the Bible teaches, even if they disagree.

Pew’s Religious Landscape Study has presented us with a challenge – and an opportunity.  It has revealed some areas of moral, theological, and even demographic concern.  My prayer is that we, as God’s people, rise to meet the challenge – not only for the sake of a church body, but for the sake of the world.

January 11, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

What If Planned Parenthood Is Sincere?

Credit: AFP Photo/Mandel NGAN

Credit: AFP Photo/Mandel NGAN

Last week, Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, announced in a letter to the National Institutes of Health that the organization she heads will no longer be accepting reimbursements of any kind for its disbursements of fetal tissue:

Our Federation has decided, going forward, that any Planned Parenthood health center that is involved in donating tissue after an abortion for medical research will follow the model already in place at one of our two affiliates currently facilitating donations for fetal tissue research. That affiliate accepts no reimbursement for its reasonable expenses – even though reimbursement is fully permitted … Going forward, all of our health centers will follow the same policy, even if it means they will not recover reimbursements permitted.[1]

This new policy comes on the heels of a firestorm over whether or not Planned Parenthood has been illegally selling aborted baby parts for profit. A series of undercover videos published by the Center for Medical Progress appears to show Planned Parenthood officials admitting that they do, in fact, make money off the sale of fetal tissue, even if such profit is minimal. Profit from the sale of fetal tissue is a federal offense.

Upon the release of this new policy, abortion opponents were quick to react with cynicism, asking why, if Planned Parenthood has done nothing wrong as it has been claiming throughout this controversy, the organization would need to change their current policy at all. Bre Payton, writing for The Federalist, opines, “Despite its previous claims of innocence, Planned Parenthood’s announcement today suggests that the organization knew its activities were almost certainly illegal.”[2]

Ms. Payton may be right. It may be that Planned Parenthood knew that what it was doing was illegal and was simply gaming the system. But I’m not so sure. Planned Parenthood’s statement may actually be sincere.

If I was to be accused of some wrongdoing – let’s say, financial mismanagement – not only would I adamantly maintain my innocence if I believed I had done nothing wrong, I would take extra precautionary measures to guard against further accusations. So, using the example I cited above, I may institute an annual independent audit of my income and expenses and share the results with key people in my life to make sure I am held financially accountable. But this would not be an admission I had done something wrong. Rather, it would be an attempt to be above reproach in my finances so that all could see I was committed to doing right.

I have to at least entertain the possibility that Planned Parenthood is acting in this same way by refusing to take any sort of reimbursement for their disbursement of fetal tissue. They may simply be trying to be above approach in how they handle their fetal tissue.  If this is the case, however, it terrifies me. Here’s why.

If Planned Parenthood really is simply trying to be above reproach in their fetal tissue disbursements, this means that they truly believe that what they have done is not illegal and, even more disturbingly, not immoral. In other words, it could be that some – indeed, even many – at Planned Parenthood believe that what they are doing by offering abortions and dispersing baby parts is good, needed, and right. What is happening is not flowing out of sinister conniving, but out of genuine conviction.

I used to think people knew somewhere deep-down that abortion was a moral blight on our modern culture. As I have written before, if abortion isn’t self-evidentially morally repulsive, then nothing is. I still believe that most people do know this somewhere within the deep recesses of their souls. But after watching #ShoutYourAbortion trend on Twitter, I have come to recognize that some people do not. Consider these tweets:

I’ve never wanted to have children, so I had an abortion. I’m thriving, without guilt, without shame, without apologies. #ShoutYourAbortion (@favianna, 9.21.2015)

I had an abortion in 2008, and it was the easiest decision I ever made. Long before I got pregnant I had decided that… (Birdy Eugenie-Clark, 9.21.2015)

These women could be lying about their experiences with abortion. But, then again, they could be telling the truth.  They really could be okay with and even happy about their abortions.

Columnist Dennis Prager distinguishes between that which “feels good” and that which “does good.” These two things, he notes, are not always the same. Take, for instance, in the realm of parenting:

It feels good to give one’s children what they want, but it rarely does good. It feels good to build children’s self-esteem – giving them trophies for no achievement, for example – but when the self-esteem is unearned, it doesn’t do good. It feels good to provide one’s adult children with money and other material benefits when they should be providing for themselves, but it doesn’t do good. And it feels good to coddle children rather than discipline them. But, same deal: It’s not good for them.[3]

What is true in parenting is true also of abortion. For some people – at least as far as they will publicly admit – abortion may feel good. It may feel good because it relieves a person of the burden of having to raise an unwanted child. It may feel good because it allows a person to have sex without having to worry about its divinely designed procreative telos. It may feel good because it feels empowering. It is the ultimate way to declare, “No one will tell me what to do with my body! Not even nature and nature’s God!” The problem is that many people have made what feels good equivalent to what is good. This is why I am willing to entertain the sincerity of Planned Parenthood’s statement about the trafficking of fetal tissue even if I am not willing to entertain its objective morality. We may have genuinely come to a point in our society where people have bought into a modified version of the old adage my mother once warned me against: “If it feels good, do it!” We now say, “If it feels good, it is good!”

As Christians, we need to continually remember and proclaim that what is good objectively cannot be determined only by what feels good internally. Good needs an external regulator. Christians believe this external regulator is Scripture and, in a secondary way, God’s ordering of creation. Even if our culture flatly rejects the first regulator, they’re still left to grapple with the second. Every pregnancy, even if it ends in abortion, is proof of that.

I hope we’re there to help people grapple with what true good looks like – and to lead them to surrender. Otherwise, this letter from Planned Parenthood will only be the first in a series of sad, but sincere, attempts to be above reproach while engaging in what is morally repulsive. And that would be heartbreaking.

____________________________________

[1] Cecile Richards, “Planned Parenthood Opt-Out,” Planned Parenthood Federation of America (10.13.2015).

[2] Bre Payton, “Planned Parenthood: We’re Going To Stop Doing That Thing We Said Was Totally Legal,” The Federalist (10.13.2015).

[3] Dennis Prager, “Feeling Good vs. Doing Good,” National Review (10.22.2015).

October 19, 2015 at 5:15 am 3 comments

What Planned Parenthood Wants You To Believe About Sex

Planned Parenthood“Planned Parenthood.” “Selling.” “Aborted Baby Parts.” When a friend first texted me a link with these words in the URL, I knew I was in for a wild ride. The Center for Medical Progress, an anti-abortion group, released a video, recorded in 2014, of two of their operatives, posing as employees from a biotech firm, having a discussion over lunch with Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood’s Senior Director of Medical Research. The Center for Medical Progress claims the video blows the whistle on the trafficking of aborted baby organs. Planned Parenthood disputes these claims.  Eric Ferrero, Planned Parenthood’s Vice President of Communications, issued this statement:

In health care, patients sometimes want to donate tissue to scientific research that can help lead to medical breakthroughs, such as treatments and cures for serious diseases. Women at Planned Parenthood who have abortions are no different. At several of our health centers, we help patients who want to donate tissue for scientific research, and we do this just like every other high-quality health care provider does – with full, appropriate consent from patients and under the highest ethical and legal standards. There is no financial benefit for tissue donation for either the patient or for Planned Parenthood.  In some instances, actual costs, such as the cost to transport tissue to leading research centers, are reimbursed, which is standard across the medical field.

In the video, however, Ms. Nucatola seems to contradict Mr. Ferrero’s statement when she explains:

I think every provider has had patients who want to donate their tissue, and they absolutely want to accommodate them. They just want to do it in a way that is not perceived as, “This clinic is selling tissue, this clinic is making money off of this.” I know in the Planned Parenthood world they’re very, very sensitive to that. And before an affiliate is gonna do that, they need to, obviously, they’re not – some might do it for free – but they want to come to a number that doesn’t look like they’re making money …

I think for affiliates, at the end of the day, they’re a non-profit, they just don’t want to – they want to break even. And if they can do a little better than break even, and do so in a way that seems reasonable, they’re happy to do that.

Ms. Nucatola’s slippery language is striking. She never asserts that Planned Parenthood is not, as a matter of fact, making money off organs from abortions, she just says Planned Parenthood doesn’t want it to “look like they’re making money.” She even admits, “If they can do a little better than break even … they’re happy to do that.” In other words, Planned Parenthood does make money off selling organs from aborted babies according to Ms. Nucatola, they just don’t make a lot of money off it.

It sounds like Planned Parenthood may be gaming federal law. 42 U.S. Code § 289g–2 states:

It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly acquire, receive, or otherwise transfer any human fetal tissue for valuable consideration if the transfer affects interstate commerce … [which] does not include reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal tissue.

Selling fetal tissue for profit is illegal. Getting reimbursed for expenses associated with shipping and processing fetal tissue, however, is not. It seems as though Planned Parenthood will take any money they can claim as reasonable reimbursement for the costs of transporting and processing aborted organs, and if these monies are slightly more than what the actual costs are, so be it – as long as they’re not exorbitant enough to look like “profit.”

Planned Parenthood may not have gamed federal law as well as they thought, however. In the video, Ms. Nucatola links Planned Parenthood to an organization called StemExpress, a company that bills itself as providing “qualified research laboratories with human cells, fluids, blood and tissue products for the pursuit of disease protection and cure.” StemExpress also explains to potential allies that “by partnering with StemExpress, not only are you offering a way for your clients to participate in the unique opportunity to facilitate life-saving research, but you will also be contributing to the fiscal growth of your own clinic.” I’m not sure how “the fiscal growth of your own clinic” can be construed to be anything other than profit for your clinic. And considering the prices StemExpress charges for their fetal organs, if StemExpress does indeed share some portion of their proceeds with Planned Parenthood for the “fiscal growth” of their clinics, it seems awfully shady for them to claim they are not, at least indirectly, profiting, perhaps handsomely, off fetal tissue.

This is really bad. But it gets worse.

In the conversation, Ms. Nucatola also talks about intentional steps clinics will take during abortions to keep a baby’s organs in tact so they can be sold later:

You’re just kind of cognizant of where you put your graspers, you try to intentionally go above and below the thorax, so that, you know, we’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m going to basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact. And with the calvarium, in general, some people will actually try to change the presentation so that it’s not vertex, because when it’s vertex presentation, you never have enough dilation at the beginning of the case, unless you have real, huge amount of dilation to deliver an intact calvarium. So if you do it starting from the breech presentation, there’s dilation that happens as the case goes on, and often, the last, you can evacuate an intact calvarium at the end.

This is all deeply disturbing. What is allegedly happening is not only potentially illegal; it is profoundly immoral. In what world is it okay to turn a baby breech so you can smash its legs, kill it, and then harvest its organs for profit? Is there any conceivable scenario where this is okay? Have we decided that a baby, growing in its mother’s womb, is so devoid of any rights and is so unable to be considered life in any meaningful way that it can be stripped of its dignity limb by limb – literally?  This is self-evidentially morally repugnant.  And if you can’t see that, we no longer need to have a conversation about abortion.  We need to have a conversation about nihilism.

This is not to say Planned Parenthood doesn’t have its supporters, even if supporting the organization is a little untenable right now. Amanda Marcotte, writing for Slate Magazine, admits:

As someone who is squeamish, it was extremely difficult for me to listen to Nucatola talk about extracting liver, heart, and other parts to be donated to medical research. (I nearly fainted when a friend showed me the video of her knee operation once.) But people who work in medicine for a living do, in fact, become inured to the gore in a way that can seem strange to those of us who aren’t regularly exposed to it. She also thought she was speaking to people in her profession who would be similarly accustomed to this sort of thing.

Abortion is gross, no doubt about it. It becomes grosser the later in a pregnancy it gets. But so is heart surgery. So is childbirth, for that matter.

Behold, the fallacy of false equivalence. How one can equate the grossness of abortion to the grossness of heart surgery or birth is beyond me. Two of these things sustain life. One of these things, as more honest abortion supporters will admit, ends life. As any child who watches Sesame Street could tell you, “One of these things is not like the other.”

In researching for this blog, I went to Planned Parenthood’s website. I was greeted by a banner that said, “Worried? Had unprotected sex?” It is here that we find the real reason behind Planned Parenthood’s existence.  This organization exists to promote sex-on-demand, divorced from any of the entailments that come with it like, in this instance, children. Sex with whom you want, when you want, and how you want is Planned Parenthood’s holy grail.  And it is so sacred that they will kill for it – again, literally.

In other posts on this blog, I have painstakingly sought to not flippantly dismiss or diminish the desires and struggles people face when it comes to sexuality. I want to be as sensitive and empathetic as possible. These are, after all, confusing issues that deserve compassionate thought rather than self-righteous ire. But this is not about these issues.  In fact, this is not about individuals and abortion.  This is not about the woman who has suffered through the trauma of an abortion, though I grieve for you and, I am afraid, many times, with you.  This is not about the woman who went too far and is now pregnant and scared and is contemplating an abortion, though I would encourage you to seek guidance and help from people committed to alternatives to abortion.  You are in genuinely confusing and painful situations and have my concern, my compassion, and my prayers.  This is not about you.  This is about Planned Parenthood and their pack of twisted lies that unashamedly promotes the sacrifice of life for sex, which, I should point out, is the precise opposite of what sex is meant for and, by its very nature, is designed to do. Sex is not meant to take life. It’s meant to give it.  This is not about personal sexual confusion.  This is about an organization’s out and out corruption that has expressed itself again and again in the most macabre of ways – this time, in the sale of aborted organs.

At the risk of being offensive, I think it’s time for us to ask ourselves a few frank questions: Is indulging every sexual impulse in ways that transgress the sanctity of marriage and the security of family really our best strategy for intimacy?  Is this really the legacy we want to leave our children, our children’s children, and so on?  Is this really the evolutionary ethical curve we want to ride? Is it really beneficial for us to do what we want, when we want, and with whom we want and then use any means necessary to impede the entailments of our actions, even when impeding the entailments of our actions includes ending lives in utero? Is sexual self-control – even when it is difficult and involves some emotional pain – really that out of the question? Have we become that banal? Is Planned Parenthood’s view of human sexuality really the banner we want to wave and the worldview we want to adopt? And does it really take deceitful operatives from an anti-abortion organization secretly videotaping a conversation with Planned Parenthood’s Senior Director of Medical Research, which itself presents us with a whole other set of legal and ethical difficulties, to get us to ask these questions? Shouldn’t we be thinking about the weighty ethical implications and aberrations of abortion even when there’s not a titillating video making its rounds on the Internet?

Ms. Marcotte was right about this much in her article for Slate:

This latest attack on Planned Parenthood is not just about abortion, but about demonizing an organization that makes sex safer and easier, while making it possible for women to plan when they have children.

This is exactly what Planned Parenthood is all about. They’re all about “safe sex,” which, if we’re honest, is just a euphemism for what Ms. Marcotte refers to next: “easy sex” – sex without responsibility, commitment, or offspring. So really, Planned Parenthood is about easy sex – even when easy sex involves dismembering babies and selling their organs. So let me ask:

Is the easy sex worth it?

July 20, 2015 at 5:15 am 6 comments

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