I’m currently about halfway through Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat of the New York Times. Douthat is NYT’s token conservative Catholic columnist, and I have to admit that, whether I want to agree with him or not (short version of my viewpoint: as a grad student, I’m far too steeped in postmodernism to form actual opinions anymore), he tells a compelling story regarding how American churches abandoned orthodoxy, allowing for the rise of heresies like the the Jesus Seminar, Dan Brown’s revisionist history, and Benny Hinn’s outfits.
Of particular interest, though admittedly less amusing than poking fun at Dan Brown (short version: that guy sucks), is his take on what happened to the two major branches of mainstream Protestantism in the ’60s and ’70s. To summarize Douthat’s analysis, both Mainline and Evangelical stripes got hooked on political activism for its own sake, and in the process were turned into their respective parties’ lapdogs instead of being the protectors of the Gospel that they should have been. The Mainline decided that every political cause was basically the Civil Rights Movement and started doing whatever the New Left told them; Evangelicals decided that every political cause was the Pro-Life Movement, and proceeded to be yanked around by Reaganomics and Neoconservativism for the next four decades.
Douthat’s version has a bit more nuance (which is why he got paid to write a book about it while I’m just shooting a couple of paragraphs onto the vast wasteland of Interwebs), but from where I’m standing it’s a fair (and fairly damning) assessment. It explains why Evangelicals could stand by as their fearless leader George Dubya employed inhuman torture methods and gave pointless tax cuts to the already-fabulously-wealthy, and it explains why Mainline churches can advertise transcendental-meditation-Wednesdays with a straight face, and why they’ve never met an abortion right they didn’t like.
On that last note (the abortion-rights thing), please allow me to rant a bit about a semi-recent pro-abortion post from the Rev. Jim Rigby. (Yeah, I know that the Evangelicals-for-torture thing deserves my scorn as well, but I can’t go after neo-cons credibly without first attacking my own political corner. One battle at a time, and all that.) Rigby, who is a pastor in the Mainline denomination Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (official motto: “We have no idea what a ‘Church’ is, but we’re pretty sure a ‘Presbyterian’ is some sort of cocktail”), is arguing that pro-life rhetoric is “inherently violent” (heh — he should see the abortions — am I right, folks?), and inevitably leads to fringe crazies bombing clinics and shooting providers. In a sense, the premise is hard to argue with; who wouldn’t commit an act of violence to prevent a greater act of violence? I think we’d all gladly kill Hitler if we had the requisite time machine (as Dr. Hubert J. Farnsworth can attest). But on the other hand, it’s an argument that ignores the core question of the abortion debate: is that blob of tissue a human life or not?
To arrive at his conclusion, he has to repeat one of the Pro-Choice crowd’s sillier arguments, and in doing so, he somehow manages to twist it into something even more bizarre:
To work to make abortion illegal means to make ethical decisions for other people without knowing anything about their situation. Do some women misuse their reproductive freedoms? Of course they do, just like some men misuse the women themselves. To say, however, that women should not be allowed to make their own reproductive choices is to say that their bodies do not belong to them. [emphasis mine]
Let me be honest. This is a tried-and-true argument of the left, and I can kind of understand it. The decision to have an abortion is never an easy one, regardless of how pro-choice you are, and regardless of how much of a threat to your health the pregnancy is. By making abortions harder to get and more stigmatized, we’re just piling on extra pain and shame — so I can sort-of understand the critique. However, if a fetus is a human life — and I have yet to hear a convincing scientific, philosophical, or theological argument that it isn’t — none of that matters. “Trusting” someone to make a decision regarding whether to kill a human being or not is a non-starter. It’s an idea that just doesn’t make any sense. People “trust” me to have a mailman, but if I stabbed the guy in the face, they’d haul me away. Society “trusts” me up to and until the point I try to take a human life — which is as it should be.
But regardless, there’s something sublimely mind-bending about the metaphor that Rigby is drawing here. In an effort to shame misogynists, he’s comparing the “misuse” of reproductive rights with the abuse of women themselves — and he seems to think that this somehow strengthens the pro-choice argument. Last I checked, when men “misused the women themselves” we called it rape, or sexual harassment, or domestic violence — and those things are illegal. We don’t “trust men to make their own decisions” — we trust them until they make the wrong decision, and then we lock them away for it (or, occasionally, invite them to sing at the Grammys). If I demanded that people leave me alone and let me decide for myself whether I’m going to beat my wife — because, after all, you don’t know anything about my situation! — people would rightly laugh in my face and then haul me off to jail.
And so it goes. You abuse your rights, you face the consequences. If you abuse a dog, you have to serve some prison time before you get to play in the NFL again. If you abuse a child, you lose your King of Pop status until you die young and everybody pretends to have been your biggest fan. (Clearly, the rules apply less to celebrities than to the rest of us — but the point still stands.) But as far as Rigby is concerned, there should be no consequences for abusing your reproductive rights, as long as you’re female. Rigby never mentions what he thinks a “misuse” of abortion rights would be (recreational abortion, maybe?), but his argument appears to be that such abuse just doesn’t matter, because being pro-woman means never, ever questioning motives or methods when the choice is one that’s inherently female.
Man, I wish I could get a deal like that.