Tag Archives: Religious Right

Faith-Based Morality

It’s an old question, but still a good one: If God were to command you to do something evil, would you obey?

“But he would never ask me to do anything evil,” you say. “That’s a stupid, hypothetical question. Such a thing could never happen.”

Some people are convinced otherwise. Let’s remember what happened just last week.

Herbert and Catherine Schaible

Herbert and Catherine Schaible, a couple in my home state of Pennsylvania, were sentenced to prison because they had refused medical care for their 8-month-old son, Brandon, who then died. “We believe in divine healing, that Jesus shed blood for our healing and that he died on the cross to break the devil’s power,” the boy’s father had said.

The kicker is, he didn’t say that about Brandon. He said it last year after another one of their children had just died in similar circumstances!

The Schaibles were sincerely convinced that The Right Thing to Do was to pray for their son and entrust him to Jesus, the Great Physician. They had dozens of Bible verses to prove it. They were so convinced that they did it a second time, even after an epic fail the first time.

What could the Schaibles have been thinking?? I have a pretty good idea.

You’re no doubt familiar with the story of Abraham and Isaac. God demanded of Abraham that he sacrifice his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. Although God had promised to give Abraham many descendants through Isaac, Abraham was willing to obey God and kill his son. Only an angel’s intervention at the last moment kept the knife from plunging into Isaac’s heart.

So what was Abraham thinking?? The Bible actually tells us, and it’s very simple.

Hebrews 11:17-19 says that Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead. For his tremendous faith, Abraham makes it into the Faith Hall of Fame, as the catalog of believers in Hebrews 11 is sometimes called. This man who was willing to kill his own son and trust God for the outcome is upheld as an example for us all.

I don’t know whether the episode of Abraham and Isaac actually happened, but the Schaibles’ did, and theirs is very much in the faith-filled spirit of Abraham.

This is the problem with faith-based morality. The more divorced from reality it is, the higher it is exalted. The prologue to the Faith Hall of Fame says that faith is “assurance about what we do not see.” In other words, it is being sure of something without evidence. The more sure you are, based on as little evidence as possible, the better.

By design, faith-based anything (morality or anything else) has no check based on observable outcomes. To the extent that there are checks, we are not talking about faith, but about its opposite, namely skepticism.

Returning to the question at the top of the post, the Bible-follower must answer, “Yes, I would do something evil if God told me to” and he could not claim that such things don’t happen.

Most of us never hear God’s voice telling us to kill our children. But how about simply hating on people?

Another item in last week’s news was the Arizona legislature passing a bill that would allow businesses to refuse service to homosexuals, if the business-owners had religious objections. You can guess which way the lawmakers on the Religious Right voted. All but three Republicans voted for the bill; all the Democrats voted against it. This is faith-based morality at work.

(If you think that owners of businesses that are open to the public have a right to turn away homosexuals, what would you say about business owners who have religious convictions against interracial couples? Many people had those convictions just a couple of generations ago, based on their sincere reading of the Bible. There are still some hold-outs. Some of them probably own restaurants. Should they be allowed to refuse service to such couples?)

I’ve heard many times that those of us who are secular have no basis for morality. Be that as it may, we have all observed how faith-based morality can run amok, ending not only in medical neglect of children or discrimination, but in jihad and Inquisitions. (Sorry to trot out those cliche examples, but they are applicable.)

As I’ve started to outline in the last two posts, there is an alternative: morality based on the well-being of conscious creatures. I contend that this is a safer bet.

Of course, secular morality runs the risk of missing what may only be observable through the “eyes of faith.” I’ve addressed that in my post, Spiritual Discernment, but I’ll say more next time.

Vladislav Tornovoi and the Homosexual Threat

On May 9, 2013, in the Russian town of Volgograd, Vladislav Tornovoi was raped and mutilated with beer bottles and then beaten to death with a brick. One of his friends confessed to killing him because Vlad had allegedly disclosed he was gay.

How can this sort of thing happen in the twenty-first century? I can only observe that the crime took place amidst an increasingly anti-homosexual climate in Russia.

Also in 2013, Uganda is coming close to passing “one of the most punative anti-gay measures in the world” — a law that is known as the Kill the Gays Bill because an early version mandated the death penalty for repeat offenders.

Russian president Putin casts his anti-homosexual campaign in moral terms. In this he has the support of the head of the Russian Orthodox church. Uganda is a Christian country and a plain-text reading of certain Bible passages (e.g., Leviticus 20:13) would seem to place their proposed law squarely in the center of God’s will.

However,  I would like to propose to my morally conservative and Christian friends another way of looking at this. I’ll introduce it with a parable that I heard more than once in evangelical circles. The original meaning of the parable pertained to dating behavior, but I will suggest how it could apply here.

A wealthy man wanted to hire a chauffeur. His house was sited high on a mountain, and was only accessible by a narrow, treacherous road. He told each prospective chauffeur that if he could demonstrate great skill driving on that road, he would get the job.

The first candidate drove up the mountain maintaining a distance of only three inches from the down-mountain edge. “Not good enough,” said the wealthy man.

The second thought he could do better. He piloted the car a mere two inches from disaster all the way up. “Sorry,” said the man.

The third was so skilled that he could maintain a distance of less than an inch from the edge all the way up and down. “You’re not the man for the job,” said the rich man.

The fourth man drove the car slowly and as far from the edge as possible, both up and down the mountain.

“You’re hired,” said the employer. “You’re the only one I trust to keep me safe.”

Intolerance is like trying to drive close to the edge. We think we can participate in an intolerant sub-culture without any real harm, but that may not be true. In Russia and Uganda (and, yes, in the United States), we have seen how a climate of intolerance can lead to murder.

I now pose a question to all pro-life Americans: Which do you think is the greater threat to life: homosexuality or intolerance? In light of your answer, where should we focus our energy?

If you’re still not sure, you might want to watch another video:

For the chilling result, skip to here.

The Changing Evangelical Position on Abortion

Four decades ago, I was immersed in baptism at a Southern Baptist church. At about the same time, the Southern Baptist Convention was passing a resolution that will shock you just as it shocks me.

Today, the red line that religious conservatives have drawn most firmly is the line against abortion rights. Many evangelicals, including myself at one point, would not even consider voting for a candidate who was pro-choice. Abortion is murder. What could be more obvious? And for what does government exist if not to prevent the murder of its most vulnerable subjects?

So imagine my surprise when I recently learned that the evangelical consensus just one generation ago was pro-choice, not pro-life! The most surprising piece of history for me was the 1971 Resolution of my own Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Keep in mind that this was a resolution adopted after much prayer, listening for God’s Spirit, etc., as such resolutions always are. This is what the Southern Baptists felt God was leading them to proclaim.

RESOLUTION ON ABORTION
June 1971

WHEREAS, Christians in the American society today are faced with difficult decisions about abortion; and

WHEREAS, Some advocate that there be no abortion legislation, thus making the decision a purely private matter between a woman and her doctor; and

WHEREAS, Others advocate no legal abortion, or would permit abortion only if the life of the mother is threatened;

Therefore, be it RESOLVED, that this Convention express the belief that society has a responsibility to affirm through the laws of the state a high view of the sanctity of human life, including fetal life, in order to protect those who cannot protect themselves; and

Be it further RESOLVED, That we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.  [emphasis mine]

Did you catch that? The Southern Baptists just 41 years ago urged their members to work for pro-choice legislation, even allowing for abortion in the case of likely “emotional damage” to the mother (i.e., if having the baby would be just too stressful). That’s pretty darn close to abortion on demand.

They have since repudiated that position. You can trace the evolution of their position in the series of resolutions that are assembled here or on the SBC’s own Website here.

I’m not here to argue about abortion, or even about religion. I just want to share my emotional reaction when I learned that my own conservative denomination once proclaimed that God had led them to say the opposite of what he supposedly leads them to say today. It’s a lead-in to the post I promised on why I left evangelical Christianity.

First, I felt, “That’s it. These people no longer have any moral authority whatsoever with me. None. What they’re now urging on me as The Truth From God’s Unchanging Word is the opposite of what it was just within my own lifetime. They obviously have no clue. For better or worse, I’m going to have to figure stuff out on my own.”

[Edited to add:] Second, I felt surprise that I evidently had still been getting moral guidance from evangelical Christianity. I thought I had let go of that after my study of slavery in the Bible and evangelicals’ excuses for it. I felt a little sad as the last thread broke. Or at least I think it’s the last thread.

The third feeling was a little indignation that evangelical pastors have not been forthcoming about the profound shift in the evangelical position on this issue. If they had been, then their congregations (a.k.a. voters) would be more humble and maybe the country would be less polarized.

Fourth, it became more clear than ever that we cannot count on God to grant prayers for wisdom, even when we think he has. How could God lead one Bible-believing, God-honoring, prayer-filled group of Southern Baptists in 1971 to call on their members to “work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion” in the case of “emotional damage” to the mother, and then lead another prayerful group in 2003 to “lament and renounce statements and actions by previous Conventions and previous denominational leadership that offered support to the abortion culture”?

And what prayer would God answer if not a prayer for a wisdom about protecting innocent, human life? In fact, the Bible promises that God will answer such prayers generously.

This is a special case of the inefficacy of prayer, which is one of the reasons I left evangelical Christianity. More on that in my next post.

Ruled for the Pleasure of Men

On Friday, I visited the wonderful Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut, where I saw Dancers in Pink by Degas. The docent told us that these girls were poor, and were selected more for their looks than for their talent. They were not the main attraction, but would perform during the intermission at the opera.

As you can see, one of them wears an earring.

The earring signified that its wearer had a patron — someone who had promised to take care of her and her family for the rest of her life.

“For the rest of her life, or for the rest of his life?” one of my fellow tour-takers asked.

“Good point. For the rest of his life,” replied the docent, a sweet woman in her seventies.

“So was she like a mistress?”

“Yes, that’s right,” the docent finally disclosed.

All at once, I saw two things.

The first was that poverty brings with it many ills and humiliations beyond being poor. One can imagine a poor family with a beautiful daughter. It fell to her to sell her very person to support her family. You can write the script from there — her degradation; the devaluing of her own marriage, if she were fortunate enough to have one; her worries for her children; her feeling of being forever trapped.

Dancing girls looking for “patrons” no longer vie for the attention of wealthy men during the intermissions of operas. However, plenty of women resort to prostitution, or simply live with abusive, unstable boyfriends because they feel they have no better option.

I call on those who loudly care about morality (I’m looking at you, Religious Right) to work to structure society so as few women as possible face these impossible choices.

I readily agree that we cannot solve the problem by throwing government money at the symptoms. We have tried that by giving money to women who have out-of-wedlock births, and — surprise — the out-of-wedlock birthrate has gone up, not down.

What will work? I’m not sure, but I do know one thing: the people least likely to find the solution are the powerful, white males who have both promoted and benefited from the inequalities of power and wealth for all of Western history.

That brings me to the second thing. I felt another reason to rejoice in President Obama’s reelection victory. He won with a coalition of the relatively powerless: young people, African-Americans, Hispanics, homosexuals, secularists — and women. Romney’s base of older, white,  evangelical men are no longer enough to carry the day. They still have plenty of power, but they don’t have the monopoly they once had.

With Obama’s reelection, all segments of society are seated firmly at the table, so we are more likely to find solutions to some of our most vexing problems. No segment will write the rules for everyone else.

Powerful males wrote the rules of Degas’ society. The dancers were ruled for the pleasure of men.

I’m glad we have given ourselves a chance to get past that.

“Attacked for Standing on My Principles”

I will look back knowing I was attacked for standing on my principles, for coming into this public process with the idea that you ought to put forward something to offer the public so that they can make a clear choice.

Of all the drama in the just-concluded election, Richard Mourdock’s  concession speech was the most arresting to me.

You’ll recall that he had been given a good chance to become Indiana’s next senator  but the electorate turned against him when he opined that “…life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

Even cutting him some slack because his concession speech seemed to be off-the-cuff, I am still struck by the way he confused being attacked for standing on his principles, and being attacked for having objectionable principles.

The distinction is important. When subtle untruths like Mourdock’s are allowed to slip unchallenged into the public subconscious, they reinforce the false perception that one side stands on principles and the other side rejects the very idea of principles.

Most people, myself included, respect people like Richard Mourdock for being true to their principles, especially when it costs them an election. We can respect his consistency and passion, but vehemently disagree with his opinion.

As we do so, I hope the Richard Mourdocks of the world will remember that politics is not a contest between a moral group that stands for their principles and an amoral group that wishes the first group would shut up about right and wrong. It is an earnest debate between people who care deeply about what’s right, but disagree over what that is.

That is how we make progress: by respecting the other side enough to engage them as equals with opinions worth debating, and giving them credit for engaging us likewise. We give evidence and reason for our opinions, and invite the other side to do the same.

Over time, the ideas that promote human flourishing will win out. Those who promote evil ideas are rejected. There are ups and downs, of course, but it’s clear that the arc of history is toward better morality. (When was the last time you heard of a European head of state entertaining his people by burning live cats to cinders?)

Richard Mourdock was right about one thing: he offered the public “a clear choice.” There was a debate over the choice and he lost.

Maybe he lost the argument because he didn’t really make one. Next time, let him attempt to persuade his electorate that God exists; that God has a plan for each of our lives; that God is perfect so his plans must be perfect; and that his perfect plans can counterintuitively include something as admittedly horrible as a pregnancy from rape.

If he is unwilling to undertake that task, let him say, “This is what I believe but I can’t back it up with evidence or logic. If you agree, vote for me. If you don’t, I still respect you as a person of principle.”

Obama Is More Pro-Life Than Romney

This weekend, I’m going to do something I have never done before. I will travel to the neighboring “battleground state” of New Hampshire and knock on doors to get out the vote for President Obama.

My main reason is that I view him as more pro-life than Governor Romney.

To many people, being pro-life is synonymous with being against abortion. Those people are are fighting a battle that was lost years ago. If presidents Reagan and Bush could not overturn Roe vs. Wade during their 16 years in office, I’m ready to conclude that abortion will remain legal in the United States for the the next 8, regardless of who is President.

The real battle for life is the battle for accessible healthcare.

If people in my extended family had not had good preventive care, several of them would probably be dead by now. For example, thanks to regular check-ups, at least 2 cases of cancer  were caught in time to save lives. If those family members had had to wait until it was time to go to the emergency room, as many poor people do, they would have died. Being pro-life means saving those lives as well as saving the unborn.

Thanks to the Massachusetts system of universal insurance on which Obamacare is modeled (and from which Romney now distances himself), my immediate family was able to obtain much-needed help when I had no income — not because I was one of the 47% who would never take responsibility for their lives, but because I was an entrepreneur starting a business. Being pro-life means caring for people who have no income as well as those who are well-off.

In her early days, America was a land of small towns where people knew and cared for each other and where medical care was primitive and inexpensive. We have grown, and there are now large sections of our cities and rural areas where virtually everyone is poor. They simply don’t have the wherewithal to help each other, especially in light of the tremendous cost of modern medicine.

Thankfully, we have grown richer as well as larger. As a society, we can now afford to take care of each other on a larger scale. Private charities and churches can help, but a church will never be an intensive-care unit. To care for each other, we need everyone to pitch in. That’s one thing that modern government is uniquely equipped to organize, however imperfectly.

President Obama understands this. Now that Mr. Romney is no longer governor of Massachusetts, he seems to have forgotten it.

Those are the reasons I think President Obama is more pro-life than Governor Romney, and those are the reasons I will travel to New Hampshire this weekend.

I hope you will consider casting your vote to re-elect the President.

The One Life I Know I Have

August’s 31 Days of Wonder were an experiment to see how I would feel about refocusing this blog (and my life) on the beautiful and true, spending less time railing against the lies that drive me nuts. That’s hard for me because it’s often the willful manipulation of gullible citizenry that gets me riled up enough to spend an hour or two writing a post. However, as far as I know, I have only one life.  I want to enjoy it, and being peeved is not as much fun as looking at the Mandelbrot set or marveling at the ribosome.

So, for the most part I’m going to hold my tongue. I do plan to write one post about why I left evangelical Christianity, but that will be my last one about religion for a while. As for politics, it will be difficult to rely on others to expose all the lies that will be told between now and election day, but I’m going to try.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the focus on “the beautiful, the true and the wondrous.”