Monday, August 24, 2015

Some Quick Responses to A Few Common Objections from Abortion Advocates

I've had a number of arguments with abortion advocates. I am usually struck by how predictable and slogan-like their responses are. Here are a number of the more common ones I've heard, along with some quick and easy responses.

(1) You pro-life people are involved in a war on women.

Response: I'm not sure why you think is the case. The vast majority of pro-life people don't hate women. In fact, it's probably safe to say that the majority of active pro-life people are women. Why they would be involved in a war on themselves is hard to account for.

NB: For the following few questions, I am indebted for much of the information about the history of abortion in the United States to: 
Forsythe, Clarke. Abuse of Discretion: The Inside Story of Roe v. Wade. New York: Encounter Books, 2013.
(2) Abortion is "women's health." In seeking to eliminate it, you are attacking women's health.

Response: Actually, the evidence is mounting that it is abortion, and not childbirth, which is a danger to women's bodily health. While Roe v. Wade's prohibition on government regulation of the abortion industry has made it difficult to obtain statistics on the risks associated with abortion, a number of studies indicate significant future health risks to the mother, even when there are no immediate physical complications from the abortion. For example, see
Thorp, John, Katherine Hartmann, and Elizabeth Shadigan. "Long-Term Physical and Psychological Health Consequences of Induced Abortion: Review of the Evidence." Obstetrical and Gynecological Survey 58 (January 2003): 67.
Among the increased risks identified in the studies reviewed by Thorp et al., are increased risk of premature birth, increased risk of placenta previa, and increased risk of suicide and drug abuse. In addition, abortion advocates often dramatically overstate the health risks associated with pregnancy. 

(3) You want to go back to the days of the "back-alley abortion."

Response: The idea that prior to Roe v. Wade there were enormous numbers of "back-alley abortions" is a complete myth. The most common numbers which have been thrown out by abortion advocates are those of 200,000-1,200,000 illegal abortions performed annually, and the 5000 annual deaths from abortion. The former of these two figures derives from a 1955 Planned Parenthood conference, which was in turn partially based upon a 1936 book by Frederick Taussig, which estimated 681,000 illegal abortions per year. The estimate of 5000 deaths is contained in the same book.

It is worth noting that the official 1930's figures for death from abortion from the National Center for Health Statistics, estimated 1313 abortion-related deaths, most of them due to infection. It is important to note that this figure dates from before the widespread use of antibiotics in hospitals. The number of pregnancy-related deaths from all causes fell dramatically after antibiotics were readily available. National Center for Health Statistics data show that there were 7,466 pregnancy-related deaths in 1940. That number fell to 2,697 by 1950, to 1,328 by 1960, to 684 by 1970, and to 554 by 1972. (Cf. Forsythe, Abuse of Discretion, 412n89.)

Official statistics for abortion-related deaths also fell. There were 159 abortion-related deaths in 1966, and 41 in 1972. (Cf. Forsythe, Abuse of Discretion, 203.) Dr. Robert Nelson, medical director of Planned Parenthood in Washington, DC, stated that annual deaths from septic abortions in the District of Columbia between 1940 and 1943 were between zero and five. (As cited in Forsythe, Abuse of Discretion, 204.) Dr. Milton Helpern reported at the 1955 Planned Parenthood conference that in New York City (in which were performed the overwhelming majority of abortions done in the United States prior to the legalization of abortion by Roe v. Wade), the number of abortion-related deaths had fallen from 144 in 1921 to 15 in 1951. (Cf. Forsythe, Abuse of Discretion, 204.)

As for the number of illegal abortions performed annually, even leaders in Planned Parenthood acknowledged that 80-90 percent of all illegal abortions performed prior to Roe v. Wade were performed by physicians. (Cf. Forsythe, Abuse of Discretion, 201, citing Mary Calderone, medical director of Planned Parenthood, and Dr. Alan Guttmacher.) Given that only a small number of physicians were willing to perform illegal services of this type, this makes the high number of illegal abortions (i.e., 600,000 per year) impossible. 

In short, the idea of rampant back-alley abortions is a complete myth, concocted solely to persuade gullible people of the urgent need to support the legalization of abortion.

(4) Abortion is a matter of women's control over her own body.

Response: At first glance, this claim seems to be true. It is true, after all, that the infant does in fact reside within the woman's body. The problem with the claim, though, is that it claims that it is only the woman's body which is in question, when, of course, that is not true. The other body in question is that of the child.

This argument also seems to assume that the child somehow appeared inside the woman without any action on the woman's part having contributed to that. However, in all but a tiny percentage of cases (less than 0.4%, or 4 out of 1000 cases of abortion result from rape or incest), the presence of a child is a result of a decision on the part of a woman and her partner to engage in sexual activity for which pregnancy is a possible outcome. If a woman doesn't want to have the possibility to get pregnant, the woman ought not to engage in sexual intercourse. That is, a woman does have a right to control her body. But once she has made the decision to use her body in such a way that another human being has been created, it is too late to object that she has now lost the right to control her body. That is, it was her choice that put the child there, and once the child exists, it is no longer just the woman's body which is in question.

The so-called "right to choose" is one of the oldest slogans in the pro-abortion lexicon. But, when examined, the slogan makes no sense. It is true that we all have the right to choose our actions. But not all of our actions are moral or legal. Some

(5) It's just a "clump of tissue" which is being aborted.

If the term "clump of tissue" is to be used in this way, it can just as well be used of an adult human being. The fact is that a child developing in the womb of a woman is a full organism with his or her own DNA, and, left to itself, it will, under normal circumstances, develop into an adult human being. To call a whole organism with unique DNA a "clump of tissue" is just playing games with words to obscure what is really going on. What is growing in the womb of a pregnant woman is a whole organism with human DNA, that is, a human being.

(6) Even if it is a human life, it's not a person yet, so it's OK to abort.

This objection is based on the idea that there is a distinction between human life and "personhood." But to allow this distinction is to say that to be a human being does not, in and of itself, make you a person. That is, to allow a distinction between being a human being and being a person is to say that to be a person you must not only be a living human being: you must also add to that the possession of some other set of attributes. 

One of the problems with defining personhood in terms of a list of attributes supposedly required for personhood is that the list varies from person to person. Some people say that it is "consciousness" (which no one seems to be able to define precisely) which makes a person a person. But this definition would seem to say that temporarily comatose people are not persons. Others would say that to be a person you have to have been conscious at some point in the past. But this seems a little strange on its face. As Christopher Kaczor has asked (The Ethics of Abortion: Women's Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice, New York: Routledge, 2015, p. 67), "why would a being who achieved consciousness but has permanently lost it be more valuable than a being who is about to achieve consciousness, which will be enjoyed over the course of a long life?".

Others would say that the requirement for personhood is the ability to value one's own existence. People who hold this position argue that you can only harm someone who knows that they have been harmed. This sounds plausible, at first. The problem, though, is that, once again, this definition would exclude people who presently are comatose or under anesthesia. Moreover, as Christopher Kaczor (The Ethics of Abortion, p. 49) has pointed out, if someone steals a winning lottery ticket from you, you have been harmed, even if you didn't know that it was a winning lottery ticket. 

Recognizing these problems with saying that a person must be actually able to value their own existence, some have attempted to modify the definition to say that persons are those who are potentially capable of valuing their own existence. But, if this change is made, a human infant in utero then becomes a person, in that, given time, a human in embryo will grow into a human being who values their own existence.

Others have tried to create a definition of personhood in terms of the present possession of certain physical hardware (e.g., neural circuits in the brain) necessary to normal human consciousness, even if you are not presently conscious. But this definition is problematic in that it would exclude from personhood those who are brain-damaged in various ways. 

An even deeper objection to the idea of defining personhood in terms of the possession of particular attributes of adult human beings is that that form of definition assumes that it is adult humanhood which defines what it is to be human. But it could just as easily be said that a human being is defined by what he or she does in all the stages of his or her life, from conception through death. That is, a human being is one who does certain things when he or she has a gestational age of three months, other things when he or she is ten years old, and still other things when he or she is in the final decade of life. It is not immediately clear why it is a specific stage of adulthood which should be taken as defining what it is to be human. For example, it is well known that children are better at learning languages than adults are. Why should we not define personhood in terms of facility of learning language and treat three year olds as the highest embodiment of human personhood, so that three year olds have more rights than adults?

Perhaps more important than any of these specific responses to problematic definitions of personhood is the question of why any one of us should have the right to come up with our own list of attributes of what defines personhood. After all, if everyone is allowed to make up their own definition, why might not someone be able to make up a definition of personhood which, for example, excludes Jewish people, African Americans, or Causasian Americans? Nor can we somehow rest the right to make this decision about having a right to life an in a democratic majority, because this works directly against the understanding, embodied in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution that there are some rights which cannot be taken away from anyone by any majority, and that among such rights is the right to life.

In short, if the right to life is not guaranteed to every human being, then there is no longer an absolute right to life. In giving some group of people the right to define personhood, we have also given them the right to take the right to life away from some people merely by calling them non-persons.

The Christian view is the view that to be a human being and to be a person are one and the same thing, and that the value and dignity of a human being are consequences of the fact human beings bear God's image in their essence and at every stage of their development.

(7) Even if it is a developing human being, it does not come immediately into possession of full human rights. Rights are proportional to the degree of development.

Response: This is the view which is called gradualism. The idea is that personhood is not so much a discrete state as it is a continuum, so that a late-term infant in utero has greater rights than the rights to be granted to a one-day old embryo. At first this idea seems plausible. 

The central problem with this view is that, even though they are allowing for a continuum of development up to the point of "full human personhood," they are still defining "full human personhood" in terms of the possession of certain attributes. But, as was noted above, this is a shockingly arrogant thing to try to define. Who gave any person or group of persons to define what attributes it is that define humanity, regardless of whether those attributes are gradually acquired? If everyone is allowed to define these attributes for themselves, why cannot some define personhood in terms of intelligence, so that any who are mentally handicapped are not persons, or at least are "less persons"?

And, if someone who holds this point of view rejects the idea of "degrees of personhood," then we are back to defining some cutoff on the continuum between "non-personhood" and "personhood." Who is it that gets to define where this cutoff goes? Does everyone get to decide for themselves? And if it is to be by majority vote, this leads to the idea that rights to life are subject to majority vote.

In short, gradualism does not solve the problem with views of "personhood" which are based on possession of attributes instead of, as in the Christian view, the view that personhood is inherent in being a living member of the human race.

(8) It's OK to abort up until a certain time (quickening, sentience, viability, birth, ...), but not after that time. Or, no one knows when human life really begins, so no one should be able to make laws which enshrine a particular view of the matter.

Response: The basic question is whether the child is a human being with full human rights at any given point of time. The problem with defining cutoffs in the period of development in the womb is that such cutoffs are arbitrary. How do we know, as an objective matter, that a certain point is definitely when human personhood begins? And, if we don't know that any particular point is precisely the right point, then we might be killing a human being. The appeal to ignorance doesn't work. To abort because we don't know for sure that a developing infant is a human being is precisely the same as walking into a room blindfolded and with earplugs in your ears and firing a loaded gun in random directions when you don't know for sure that there are no people in there. The reason you should not do that is because your lack of knowledge should make you more careful, not less careful.

As for being able to make laws, we make laws which require us not to do careless things that might threaten the lives of others all the time.

(9) You pro-lifers are illegitimately objecting to "settled law." Roe v. Wade should never be questioned.

Response: Have you ever heard of the Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott decision? In that decision, the Supreme Court held that black Americans, whether slave or free, could not be American citizens, and, as a consequence, lacked the standing to sue in federal courts. The Court also found in that decision that the federal government did not have the constitutional authority to regulate slavery. It is widely conceded that this Supreme Court decision was wrong. In fact, it is widely called the worst decision that the Supreme Court ever made.

If you think that Dred Scott was wrong, then you believe the Supreme Court can be wrong. And if the Supreme Court can be wrong, then it is important to fight the wrong, not just accept it.

(10) What about rape, incest, and the life of the mother?

Response: First, it is important to note that only 0.4% (or 4 out of 1000) abortions are done for these reasons.

Second, with regard to rape and incest, although the crime that led to the pregnancy is horrible, and although the woman made no choice to become pregnant, the thing that must be weighed in deciding what is the right thing to do is the rights of the child against the rights of the mother. If it is true that a child is a human being with all of the rights that pertain to humanity, including a right to life, from the point of conception, then what this weighs is the emotional pain of the mother against the life of the child. If the child is in fact a human being with full human rights then the right of the child to life outweighs the right of the mother.

Third, with regard to cases in which the life of the mother is genuinely at risk (such as with ectopic pregnancies), then it really is a case of weighing each situation on its own. In the case of ectopic pregnancies, if an abortion is not done, both mother and child will certainly die, whereas if an abortion is done, the mother will live. Accordingly, in that situation, the right thing is for the abortion to be done. Other situations must be analyzed in a similar manner. If there are cases in which it truly is one life weighed against another, the decision ought to belong to the mother in consultation with qualified doctors and family members.

(11) You have a right to your opinion, and I have a right to mine. You do not have the right to force your religious opinion on me.

Response: This objection confuses a number of things. First, it confuses my expression of the judgment that, since abortion is the morally unjustified taking of another human being's life, it ought to be outlawed, with the actual making of a law. If such a law were ever passed, it would not be me imposing my opinion on anyone, it would be society at large making a law. To say that society at large never has the right to do that is to say that no one has the right to pass laws. But that is absurd.

What this objection is really about is whether or not it would be morally right to make laws forbidding abortion. Whether or not it is right depends upon whether the infant in utero is a human being with a right to life. If the infant in utero is a human being with a right to life, then forbidding abortion is equivalent to forbidding murder.

So, when someone says that no one has the right to force their opinion on another about whether an infant in utero is a human being they are saying that this question (i.e., whether the infant in utero is a human being) is not a question of objective fact, but a question of subjective judgment. But to say that it is a matter of subjective judgment is to say that since no one knows whether a human life is present, each person should get to decide for themselves. But if it were truly the case that no one knew, the right response is actually to say that we should not kill, because we might be killing. As discussed above, if we as a society cannot make an objective determination that performing an abortion is not killing, then the moral act is to not do it, because we might be killing.

(12) If you don't have a uterus, then you have no right to legislate to women about abortion.

Response: This objection is absurd. It effectively claims that no one should get to make laws about any people other than people exactly like themselves. Indeed, since there is no one exactly like me, it really implies that we should do away with law altogether.

The relevant consideration when we make laws is not whether we are a member of the group, but whether the law is a just one. The justice of abortion has nothing to do with whether or not any particular legislator has a uterus. 

(13) Christians have no right to be pro-life because a lot of them don't do everything they can to seek the welfare of children after they are born.

Response: This is another irrelevant argument. Although it is true that a consistent pro-life ethic would lead people to support life after birth as much as prior to it. Nevertheless, if a person is not consistent in this, it doesn't imply that they are wrong if they think that abortion is murder. It just means they are a hypocrite.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Abortion Litmus Tests and the Presidential Primary Voter

There have been a number of occasions over the years when I have debated with friends the question of if there are times when Christians are morally obligated to be "single issue voters." More precisely, the question we have debated is the question of whether there are times when Christians ought to exclude certain candidates from consideration solely on the basis of certain "litmus tests."

Most of us don't usually apply such litmus tests, of course. For most issues we are quite comfortable with the idea of setting aside some areas of disagreement we might have with a certain candidate and voting for them anyway. 

We might do this for a variety of reasons. For example, we might think that the issues about which we disagree are less important than those concerning which we agree. Or, even if our areas of disagreement with the candidate are important ones, we might decide that the candidate wouldn't have power to make any changes relative to the issues concerning which we disagree with them. For example, we might decide to vote for a certain candidate for dog catcher because the candidate is good at catching dogs, despite the fact that we know that the candidate disagrees with us in favoring decreased federal defense spending. We would feel comfortable doing this since we know that dogcatchers have no influence over federal defense spending budgets.

In short, we make these trade-offs all the time, and it's often not very easy to explain to others, or even to ourselves, how we justify the trade-offs that we make.

So, in this post I'd like to focus on a narrower issue. In particular, I'd like to very briefly discuss the question of what trade-offs between the issue of abortion and other issues Christians can allow themselves to make when deciding whom to support for the office of President of the United States.

Most conservative Christians would agree that abortion is a grave moral evil, and that we are morally obligated to fight against its practice in any ethical way we can. Nevertheless, the question of abortion is also a controversial and closely contested one, and the battle lines between those for and against abortion have not moved a great deal since Roe v. Wade. A consequence of this apparent stalemate is that most of us don't expect any President to be able to make much difference with regard to the issue of abortion in the near term. Because of this, we tend to just assume that change on this issue is impossible, and to choose our Presidents based on which issues we think they can actually do something about.

The problem with taking this tack, though, is that it seems to foreclose the very possibility of change. It seems to foster a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, we assume that change is impossible, so we elect candidates who are guaranteed not to change anything.

Therefore, if we are ever to change the laws about abortion in this country, it is necessary that presidents be committed foes of abortion: men and women who will take every legal action open to them to limit the practice of abortion, and who will only nominate candidates to the Supreme Court who can be relied upon to overturn Roe v. Wade. Further, if we are to have a President of this type, it is necessary, in turn, Christian voters must have a very strong preference for pro-life presidents over non-pro-life presidents.

Given that every Christian is morally obligated to use every reasonable ethical means at their disposal to combat the practice of abortion, it follows that Christians ought to have a good ethical reason to justify their voting for any President who is not a committed pro-lifer. 

An example of such a reason might be that there was some other immediately obtainable moral good of a greater order than making progress toward saving the lives of over one million babies killed every year, and which could be obtained in no other way than through the election of a non-pro-life President. 

Another example of such a reason might be that a situation exists in which there is no electable candidate who is strongly pro-life, but there is one who is moderately pro-life, and who would make some progress toward protecting the life of the unborn, without foreclosing on the option of further progress in the future.

In any case, though, the point is that abortion, since it is an issue of life and death which affects over a million baby human beings per year, is so serious a moral issue that it cannot be considered just another ordinary issue to be weighed against everyday issues such as immigration and tax reform. 

To bring the issue even closer to home, those GOP voters in the 2016 Republican primary who are considering supporting Donald Trump should ask themselves (leaving aside the questions of whether Mr. Trump can in fact be counted upon to keep his word, and whether he is able to do the things he says he will) whether immigration reform of the sort that Donald Trump is proposing is so important that it justifies electing a President who has no intention of making any changes whatsoever relative to the practice of abortion. 

Some have argued, for example, in supporting such a view, that both legal and illegal immigrants generally become Democratic voters, and that Democratic voters are anti-life, so that if we want to maintain the political strength to fight anti-life Democrats, we need to reform immigration to keep the nation from becoming Democratic.

This sort of argument is weak, in that the issue of abortion is, properly speaking, not a partisan issue. That is, despite the fact that today, generally speaking, Republicans are pro-life and Democrats are not, the issue itself is not a political issue, but a moral one, and the task that faces is not first and foremost a political task, but a moral one - to persuade people of both parties of the evils of abortion and to muster majorities to roll it back. To use immigration as a tool in this way has the negative side effect of making abortion hostage to one political party. If our goal is to persuade people of the evils of abortion, we are better off helping people understand that there is nothing Democratic or Republican about wanting to save the lives of babies.

In short, I would argue that Christian voters ought not to think of themselves first and foremost as Republican or Democratic voters, but as Christian voters. And with regard to life this means participating in party politics without making our Christianity captive to it. And it means that whenever we vote for a candidate for the Presidency we must do our best to support candidates who will do what is right.

So what should a Christian do when there are no candidates on the ballot who support their point of view? Is choosing the "lesser of two evils" acceptable? Yes, I think so. If there truly are no other alternatives, then we have a constrained choice and we must use the gift of a vote of conscience to choose the lesser of two evils. But even here we must make sure that no politician or party ever makes the mistake of taking the "Christian" vote for granted because they are just a little better than the other party. Christians should continue to use whatever means they have to put forward Christian candidates who actually are real alternatives. They should force parties to take account of them in the making of party platforms. But above all, they should pray for God to open the eyes of their fellow-citizens and for Him to provide them with leaders who will do justly, and love mercy, and encourage people to walk humbly with their God.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

When Do Christians Who Die Receive Their New Resurrection Bodies?

It's quite common to hear people say, when a loved one dies, that "they now have their new body." 

It's a nice sentiment, but it's not true.

The Bible is quite clear about the fact that people do not receive their new resurrection bodies until the time at which Jesus returns from heaven to earth.

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. (1 Thess 4:16-17 ESV)
 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. (1 Cor 15:21-23 ESV)

Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. (John 5:28-29 ESV) 

But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some. (2 Tim 2:16-18 ESV) 
So what is the state, then, of those who have died in Christ? They are in the presence of Christ, to be sure. Paul makes this clear when he says

Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (2 Cor 5:8 ESV)

I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. (Philippians 1:23 ESV)
 To the thief on the cross as well, Jesus said,

And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43 ESV)
So, if those who have died in Christ are with Him, but have not received their new bodies, what is their state exactly? That is a mystery on which the Scripture does not shed a great deal of light. It is enough to say that it is a blessed state:

And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Rev 14:13 ESV)
So why is it then, that Christians ought not to say that people have received their new bodies? The real reason is that it takes away from the anticipation of the great Day of Resurrection. On that day, the whole of God's people will inherit together the great blessing of eternal life in resurrection bodies that Jesus has earned for them:

And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. (Heb 11:39-40 ESV) 
It is our resurrection to life on the Last Day which is God's final vindication of those who are His. On that day, the entire Temple of God's people (Ephesians 2:19-22) will be complete, and will take visible, glorified form in a new heaven and a new earth. There shall not be a single one missing from this Temple, and all shall inherit together. This is the great, living hope of the Christian which should motivate and encourage all of us.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

An important difference between post-Christendom societies and Islamic ones ...

There is an important contrast between Christianity and Islam which should inform the thinking of Western leaders as to what they can expect of Middle Eastern nations with regard to the protection of the rights of religious minorities. This contrast is seen in the different ways the two religions conceive the proper relationship between religion and earthly governments. Christianity, both as described in the words of Jesus ("my kingdom is not of this world ") and in its initial status as an illegal religion in the 1st-3rd century Roman Empire, was always, properly speaking, a religion distinct from the state, while Islam was always conceived of as being most properly embodied in the earthly state.

Said another way, the medieval marriage of "Christianity" with secular government, being contrary to the nature of the church as described in the New Testament and as expressed in Christianity's early history, was really a perversion of the true nature of Christianity; while Islam's consistent pursuit of a worldwide umma and caliphate, and it's continued tendency toward suppression of competing alternatives, are entirely consistent with Islam's founding narratives. It is thus not a surprise that the context in which the ideas of separation of church and state, of freedom of conscience, and of equality of all before the law was that of post-Christendom Enlightenment Europe, reforming itself after the unnatural marriage that was Christendom immolated itself in the Wars of Religion.

When dealing with most of the Islamic states of the Middle East, it is important to remember that they have a very different history and worldview than those of post-Enlightenment Europe. There are, of course, plenty of Muslim citizens of Western nations who have adopted the Western notion of a secular state, and have understood Islam as being a private matter of morals of reverence for their god, and of respect for their equal rights of those of different faiths. But these ideas which were endemic to early Christianity - of being one religion among many, of treating all human beings with the same respect, and of being part of a kingdom which is not of this world - are not ideas which were characteristic of the Islamic world in its infancy, and and are still not ideas which are commonly held in Middle Eastern nations.

Even in the post-Christendom West, there still remain many who, nostalgic for the days of their political supremacy, would seek to restore Christianity as a sort of official state religion. But there is no warrant for doing this in the New Testament, and therefore, when the attempt is made to do it, the result is inevitably a state which represents a false Christianity, untrue to its founding. When Islam seeks to do this, however, it is doing exactly what the Quran calls for. This crucial difference between the essential natures of Christianity and Islam ought always to be borne in mind in deciding Western policies toward the region.

Western politicians have too often understood the Middle Eastern nations as "just like Western nations except for the language and the turbans." But this is a dangerous delusion, and leads to all sorts of quixotic adventures. The people in the Middle East have the right to govern themselves as they think best, and we in the West ought to help where we can reasonably do so, but we need stay hard-headed and remain clear on one thing above all. These nations differ from us in very significant ways, and are not likely to resemble European liberal and secular democracies any time soon.

We in the West should take measures to contain craziness, to keep lunatics from spreading their insanity to other countries, and should intervene wherever we reasonably can to prevent barbarity and destruction. But we need to avoid delusional crusades based on the premise that these nations will easily be made in the image of Western secular democracies, especially in terms of their respect for the rights of religious minorities. They will not.

Monday, February 2, 2015

On reconciling orthodox Christianity with modern science ...

I ran across this short article by Cathy Lynn Grossman in the Washington Post today (hat tip to Nancy Pearcey for directing me to it). It divides Americans into three groups with respect to their views on Christianity and science: "Traditionalists," "Moderns," and "Post-Seculars."  The third of these consists of scientifically literate Christians who, nevertheless, remain serious and devoted Christians.
I probably would consider myself among this group, believing, as I do, that scientific evidence cannot be blithely dismissed or rationalized away with lame and embarrassing quack science explanations. On the contrary, I think that the fact that God does not lie implies that special revelation in Scripture and general revelation in nature cannot, in the final analysis, contradict each other (although they certainly may appear to do so in the short term), and that apparent conflicts between the two sometimes demand that believers live with the cognitive dissonance of being unable to completely reconcile everything. What this means is not that we believe that two actually contradictory things can be simultaneously true, but that, not seeing yet how to reconcile the contradiction, we neither abandon our faith in God's revelation nor our intellectual integrity. Humility and honesty sometimes require us to say that there are lots of things we don't yet understand, and that we are much more likely to be wrong in trying to prematurely attain cognitive rest through the pretense of universal understanding than we are in living with the tension of faith while we work for and await a more complete understanding.
There are those who will object to this position, insisting that either religion must be rejected or rationality must be. The answer to both sides is the same: the apparent gain in consistency is illusory. The worldview of scientific materialism cannot account for the most important aspects of human existence, such as moral obligation (the best scientism can do on this question is to provide a phenomenological explanation - it can't provide the categorical imperative) and justice. Religious anti-rationalism only leads to rejection of God's revelation in nature and to living in a self-imposed religious ghetto (indeed, it could fairly be argued that it was the abandonment by evangelicals of the life of the mind that was the most important contributor to the loss of influence in our civilization).

To both materialists and anti-intellectualists, I would argue that all truth is God's truth, that reality is both more complex and more simple than you imagine, and that one ought not mistake one's own mind for God's.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Some reflections about Christians' responses to abortion on the occasion of Sanctity of Life Sunday

Tomorrow is Sanctity of Life Sunday. 

Many evangelical churches across the United States will devote their Sunday messages to addressing our national shame of abortion.

The occasion suggests a few reflections:

(1) The act of aborting a child arises out of a fundamentally pagan, "this-worldly" philosophy, which assumes that this life is all there is, so that our aim ought to be to maximize our personal pleasure during this life and to minimize our pain and inconvenience. A belief system such as this is the polar opposite of that of Christianity, which teaches that it is our eternal destiny that ought to govern our thinking and our choices in this world. Christianity teaches that each human being faces one of two destinies: either endless life in a world of glory, goodness, and love, or endless misery and undying death. Although Christians know that they do not earn the right to heaven, but are given it as a gift, and that they receive this gift only by means of trusting in what Jesus Christ did for them, they also know that no-one whose destiny is heaven can continue to live in a way which is characteristic of those whose destiny is hell. Christians know that they have been, are being, and will be changed, from being consumed with themselves and their own needs to being consumed with God and with love for others. The act of abortion does not arise out of this Christian way of thinking and being. Abortion is sin against God, who is the giver of life.

(2) Much of the debate about abortion centers around the question of the point in time at which life begins (that is, the point in time when it is no longer just the rights of the woman which must be considered, but also the rights of the child). Much ink and many words have been spent trying to justify different points of view on this question. But this way of framing the debate arises out of a basically naturalistic/scientistic misconception: that it is possible to draw a line at some point in the natural development of a fertilized ovum into an adult human being and to definitively assert "Here is where life begins." 

From a Christian perspective, life begins at the point when, if the natural process is not disrupted in some way, a living human baby will result. If humans must force the process of the development of a baby to end, then what they are doing is taking into their own hands the judgment that the gift of life from God to the child should not have been given. Christians understand that God is the creator of life, that He creates through the natural process of fertilization and gestation, and that the artificial "termination" of this process at any point takes away from the child-to-be the life in this world that God gave. To draw lines in the process of gestation is to usurp a power whose legitimate use God has reserved to Himself alone: the deciding of the question of when life begins and ends. The taking of life from an unborn baby, regardless of the stage of development, is entirely equivalent to the taking of life from an adult, and God, since He is absolutely just and fair, must judge the crime of taking another person's life.

(3) Many people, having been brought up in Christian homes and thinking themselves Christians, justify the idea of abortion to themselves by telling themselves that God will forgive them even if they do it. This is a way of thinking which is radically wrong. Although God does indeed forgive all manner of sin, He does so to those whom He has made truly repentant of their sin. Forgiveness is not given to those who still justify their sin and presume on God's mercy to overlook things that they would do again if they were back in the same situation. God is not some "kindly old gentleman in the sky" who clucks his tongue at evil and will overlook it as soon as it is committed. He is a perfectly fair and just God who hates all sin. God does not favor the rights of the parents over the child. He is a just God. In fact, if God takes any side, Scripture is clear that He takes the side of the oppressed and the powerless. 

And yet, it bears repeating, it still remains true that those who truly do trust Christ and submit to His Lordship are forgiven from every sin - including abortion - and receive forgiveness and healing.

Isn't this a contradiction? How do we reconcile the fact that God is absolutely just and yet that God forgives? The only place these two facts can be reconciled is at the cross of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. If God winks at sin, then ultimately there is no justice in the universe. But if God does not forgive, then no human has any hope, because all have sinned and God cannot just pass over sin. But the fact of sin and the fact of God's graciousness are reconciled in Jesus' death. Jesus suffered the penalty of sin in His own person on behalf of those to whom it is given to trust Him and submit to Him as King. Forgiveness of sins is only given to those who trust and submit to Christ.

This is why deciding in advance that you will commit a sin and that God will forgive you afterward is such a totally wrong way of thinking. To even think in this way may very well mean that you have not trusted Christ at all. Deciding in advance that God will forgive you for the sin you plan to commit intentionally is a defiance against God's grace. This type of sin will harden you. It tends to the destruction of your soul.

(4) The church of Jesus Christ is the place where the good news of the forgiving and healing grace of God in Jesus is proclaimed and embodied. We Christians, because we know that God has forgiven and healed us, do not withhold grace and forgiveness from those to whom God has extended His grace. If God no longer calls our sins to mind, we are to be like Him in utterly forgiving the sins of others who follow Christ. We may not personally hold against others that for which God has forgiven them. Any "church" that condemns repentant sinners is not really a church at all.

(5) Christians not only oppose abortion: they hold all life to be a sacred gift of God. It is because of this that we cannot just tell people not to abort - we must also help to provide options and care for those who choose to bring life into this world. To do otherwise would show that we don't really think life is sacred. We must show that we treasure the life of children already born as well as unborn ones.

(6) Abortion presents a uniquely difficult challenge for Christians to communicate with unbelieving friends and neighbors for two reasons: (a) our worldview arises out of completely different worldview assumptions than those held by the non-Christian world, and (b) the fact that Christians believe that the life of a baby is taken in abortion implies that they are morally obligated to act on behalf of an unborn baby in the same way they would be if they were to see one person about to murder another.

First, believers cannot expect unbelievers to completely understand their conclusions, because unbelievers do not reason from the same presuppositions. If a person believes that the physical world and this life are all that there is, and that there are no rewards and punishments except those experienced in this life, then it makes complete sense that one would try to maximize pleasure and minimize inconvenience in this life. Of course, it's worth pointing out that this worldview, if followed consistently, doesn't actually support the idea of "rights" at all - if the universe is a blind, godless, place, then there are no such things as rights, of a woman or of a child. All there is is seeking one's own advantage.

Second, since believers believe that abortion is the killing of a baby, it is implied that they will try to stop abortions. This will inevitably be perceived by an unbeliever as coercive and intrusive. That is, unbelievers will rightly see the effort to prevent abortion as the effort of a believer to impose his or her worldview on the unbeliever. Abortion is not like some moral issues which Christians would relegate to the realm of "being between the unbeliever and God." It falls in the realm of public evils in which the Christian worldview requires intervention. If Christians believe they can leave the decision to abort a child up to the individual, it logically follows that they believe the decision for one person to murder another ought to be left up to decision of the individual. To distinguish between the case of the murder of an adult and the abortion of a child is to acknowledge the very distinction on which opposition to abortion is premised. If you once concede that there is a difference between these two cases, you are admitting that humans get to decide when life begins (and ends) - and this decision can ultimately only be made on considerations of the "value" of a life - considerations which are completely alien to a biblical worldview.

To hold a Christian worldview on abortion, then, inherently involves us in a certain level of moral obligation to "impose" our worldview on unbelievers. In the same way and to the extent that we would seek to prevent the murder of an adult we are to use all appropriate means to prevent the killing of an unborn child. This may seem to be a radical statement, but to think otherwise is to concede the argument in advance by effectively saying that an unborn baby is not a full human being with full human rights.

(7) What, then, are the "appropriate" ways in which Christians may to prevent the killing of an unborn child? Aye, there's the rub. Certainly, Christians ought to be involved in efforts to roll back evil laws and judicial rulings which permit murder, just as they once worked to do away with slavery. Christians, too, ought to be deeply involved in providing good options for mothers who don't wish to be mothers to give their children to parents who will love and care for them.

But what about taking action beyond this? After all, it is true that Christians, where human law conflicts with the Law of God are required to obey God rather than men. Should we take this as implying our obligation to protect the unborn in the same way that we would feel we were morally obligated to take action to prevent someone with a gun from killing someone else? For example, although the rulings of the judges in our nation make it illegal to prevent women from entering abortion clinics, are Christians obligated to disobey these laws? Clearly there are some very thorny issues here that need to be carefully thought through. It is not sufficient to just fall back on the fact that Christians are in general commanded to obey the laws. There are times when to do that involves us in disobedience to God. 

Of course, it is always wrong for Christians to try to right wrongs by committing evil themselves. It is always wrong for Christians to take such actions as bombing abortion clinics or shooting abortion doctors. Even to the extent that Christians are to take actions which prevent people from getting abortions, they must not violate God's Law in doing that.

I can propose no easy answers to the question of how far Christians ought to go, or what actions they ought to take, in preventing people from getting abortions which are legal in this nation. There are no easy answers to this question (although, as noted above, there clearly are some actions which Christians cannot take). Each Christian is obligated to think through these issues carefully in the light of the Word of God, and in His Presence. But Sanctity of Life Sunday is a good day to stop and consider the question.

May God see fit to change the hearts and minds of many in our land so that this evil practice disappears and many come to recognize the sacredness of life which God created in His image.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

On "Christian nations" and Christians' political/social involvement

It is fairly common for conservative, evangelical Christians in America to claim, either explicitly or implicitly, that America was founded as a "Christian nation," has fallen away from its roots, and needs to return to them.

I don't agree with the claim when stated in this form.

Does this mean I support the anti-theistic, amoral society that we're becoming? 

Well, no. 

What I don't agree with in the claim above is the premise that America (where the word America refers to the political entity which came into existence in 1788 with the signing of its present Constitution) was ever a "Christian nation" or that Christians ought to be trying to establish formally Christian nations on the earth anyway. Relative to the claim that America was founded as a Christian nation, it might be true (although I doubt it) that America was once a nation with a high percentage of Christians. America might also have been (and I believe it was) founded by men, the overwhelming majority of whom were devout Christians, with the sincere goal of establishing righteous government. But it was never a Christian nation. 

In fact, I don't even think such a thing as a Christian nation is even possible in this age redemptive history.

Why, you might ask, do I think that? Well, for starters, the term "nation," in its political sense, signifies a well-defined group of people who agree to be subject to a common system of government. Given that not all Americans ever agreed to be subject to Christ (i.e., to become Christians) or to the Bible, and given that office-bearing was never restricted to Christians, this nation was never a Christian nation in any meaningful sense. It is true that American institutions were established with enormous influence of Christian ideas, but that does not make the United States a Christian nation.

As for the reason that I don't think there can even be such a thing as a Christian nation in this age of the world, that requires a little more explanation.

Even if we were to allow for the possibility (which I don't, so long as Christ Himself is not physically here on earth to govern) that it's legitimate for Christians to establish a nation governed exclusively by Christians using only the Bible as their ultimate standard, we must contend with a horrendously difficult set of issues with regard to what that hypothetical system of government would look like.

When evangelical Christians talk about a "Christian nation," they usually have a pretty limited idea in their minds of what that means. What they often have in mind is a semi-mythical golden age in the American past that we need to "get back to." If pressed, they'll usually come up with a relatively short list of things that we need to do: outlaw abortion, put prayer and the Bible back in schools, get rid of no-fault divorce, make sexual activity outside of monogamous heterosexual marriage illegal, clean up the smut in media, and so on. 

Many conservative evangelicals would also add various things to this list which are probably more Republican ideas than solidly biblical ones: things like reducing taxes (does the Bible really specify what the right level of taxation is or what combination of property, earned income, capital gains, sales, custom/excise, value-added, etc. should be levied to gather it?), getting rid of national health care plans (does the Bible really tell us how to deal with out of control health-care inflation), providing for a strong national defense, tort reform, Second Amendment rights, and so on. 

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that any of these things are bad policy recommendations. I'm actually in favor of many of them (assuming they are implemented well). What I am saying is that implementing various of these things is not at all the same thing as drawing a comprehensive model for laws and civil administration from the Bible.

What would a more comprehensively biblical model for civil administration even look like? As many non-Christians have noted, there are lots of laws in the Bible that Christians don't  keep any more. While I think it's not that hard to defend in general (i.e. in terms of a distinction between moral, ceremonial, and civil law) why that is so, making individual decisions about which laws from ancient Israel ought to have some kind of counterpart in today's civil law is a complicated matter. And yet, if someone proposes to establish a nation whose civil laws are derived from biblical prescriptions, it is necessary to be very clear and comprehensive in identifying which laws and institutions are binding outside the context of ancient Israel, and which are not. And even for those which are still binding, there remains the question of which of those laws are to be enforced by state authority (as opposed to being enforced by God Himself). 

It's impossible to do this comprehensively in this short blog post, but to illustrate the complexities of this project, consider a few examples.

Most Christians will agree that it is not appropriate to adopt the ceremonial code of ancient Israel as a binding standard for Americans. But what about ancient Israel's administrative laws? Should we have something analogous to allowing the poor to glean the edges of a field in our law code? What about the idea of inalienable family land title (i.e., land that can only be temporarily leased, not sold)? Sabbatical years? Years of jubilee?

And what about the moral Law? Meaning the one that most Christians still believe represents God's will for all mankind (I don't personally know any Christians who think it's OK to murder, steal, commit adultery, and so on). The last time I checked, the Ten Commandments also require that only the true God is to be worshiped, that graven images cannot be made, that one is not to misuse God's Name, that the Sabbath is to be observed (which Sabbath? Saturday, Sunday, your choice of any day so long as you do it? or is it only the Nine Commandments now?) and to honor parents. Elsewhere in Scripture these same "religious" prescriptions have specified punishments for violating them (usually the penalty is death). Please note, I'm not writing any of this with any intent to mock God's holy Law. God forbid! But I am saying that the fact that God's covenant with ancient Israel was unique ought to make us think very hard about how to apply even the moral laws and their civil penalties outside of Israel's redemptive-historical context.

Some readers might want to avoid all these issues with the rather lame response that "we are not under the Law." That is certainly true of Christians with regard to our accountability to God's eternal punishment for breaking His moral Law. But that's not what we're talking about here. The point here is that if you propose to establish an earthly system of government with earthly laws having earthly penalties for disobedience, you need to say which biblical laws you are choosing to have a civil government enforce and why you've chosen those ones and not others. 

You see, in ancient Israel people didn't really have much choice in anything. They were born Israelites (well, yes, there were some proselytes as well) and, being Israelites, were obligated to live under the entire Mosaic code. Once a person had entered the covenant, whether through birth or through conversion, leaving was not permitted. You were obligated to keep the entire Mosaic Law - which dealt comprehensively with ceremonial, civil, and moral matters - under penalty of civil government. 

That situation is not at all the same as that of the modern Christian. The New Testament seems clear in teaching that to be converted to Christianity is something which is ultimately between the individual and God. Although every individual person does have moral obligation to trust in Christ, it is God, and not the civil magistrate, who will enforce the penalty (the eternal penalty of hell) for his or her refusal to do so.There is no hint in the New Testament that someone who apostatizes from Christianity (or never makes profession in the first place) is expected to face a civil penalty for that. In this age of redemptive history, the church, as God's covenant community, does not bear civil authority (although individual Christians often do). 

And what about our system of government itself? Some modern advocates of a Christian government for the U.S. argue that the Scripture calls for a democratic republic as the biblical form of government. This is not an exegetically sound claim. Actually, Old Testament Israel was a monarchy, not a republic, and leadership in the tribes was family- and clan-based. Although there are instances of leaders being chosen (as in Exodus 18 and in Numbers 11), it seems from closer examination of genealogical records that those leaders chosen to represent the tribes in national assemblies were generally clan leaders - there was nothing resembling a modern election and political campaign.

And what about the offices of government? In America we have three branches: legislative, judicial, and executive. In ancient Israel, you had prophet, priest, and king. You didn't have a legislative branch. The Law was fixed. You didn't get to change it or add to it. You only got to interpret it. This was what kings and the judges appointed by them did, with input from the priests. Prophets were messengers from God who confronted kings, priests, and people for failure to keep the covenant of Law.

In short, the models for government that we find in the Bible don't seem directly applicable to the situation of a non-covenant nation in the Christian era. So, someone who proposes to establish a system of laws and government established on "Christian" or "biblical" principles is not so much having those things prescribed out of Scripture as inventing things and determining whether what they've invented contradicts anything from the Law of Scripture which is of abiding validity.

It seems, then, that the project of establishing Christian government is not a simple one. This doesn't by itself imply, of course, that we're not supposed to try to do it. The fact that something is hard doesn't mean that we're not obligated to do it. Are there other reasons that Christian nations cannot exist in this age?

The most important reason is theological. There is a Christian nation. Only one Christian nation. The church. Redeemed out of every earthly nation by God and promised a heavenly city. As the Apostle Peter says,
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10, ESV)
The Apostle Paul, too, confirms this:
But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philippians 3:20, ESV)
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews says something similar:
 All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13-16, ESV)
And Jesus Himself confirms it:
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world.” (John 18:36a, ESV)
In the book of Revelation, the living creatures and the elders sing of it:

They sing a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.” (Rev 5:9-10, ESV)

All these verses confirm the idea that there is only one Christian nation - and it is not America or any other earthly nation. It is the nation consisting of those whom Christ has redeemed out of the nations of the earth. The church consists of those who trust Christ and willingly submit to Him as King. This church already reigns with Christ in heaven, but, when He returns, will reign with Him on the earth.

From this it follows that the quest to establish a nation formally as a Christian nation is a foolish one. It has no biblical basis and, if attempted, will only lead to apostasy and a repetition of the evils that attended the church in its abominable alliance with the Roman empire that began with the reign of Constantine.

So is it legitimate for Christians to play any part in earthly politics and government? The answer is definitely yes, so long as it is borne in mind that it is not the church that is to govern earthly kingdoms on earth before Christ's return. Rather, individual Christians are to seek to do justly in using that power and influence which God has entrusted to them. As is well-illustrated in the discussion of biblical law above, doing this is by no means a simple matter. It often involves a great deal of thinking to determine whether laws and policy proposals are consistent with the moral Law of God, and with the societal obligation to care for the weak and suffering.

In short, Christians are called to act as salt and light in this present evil age, upholding the requirements of the moral Law of God in their own lives, submitting to and supporting earthly governments so long as what those governments require is consistent with what is right, and using whatever authority or influence God has entrusted to them to see that justice and righteousness are established and mercy is done.

But neither America nor any other earthly nation is the promised Land. The Christian's citizenship is in heaven. We will not build the New Jerusalem. That city will descend from heaven with Christ. We are sojourners here in Babylon and must seek the good of the earthly cities (or nations) in which we dwell. Law and morality are not the Gospel. We Christians have infinitely more in common with Christians of other nations than we have with the pagans in our own. Our thanksgiving to God for the blessings of belonging to our earthly nations (in my case, of being an American), and our earnest efforts to establish righteousness and do justice in our nations must never distract us from preaching the Gospel of salvation through faith in Christ and entry through Him into the eternal heavenly kingdom to which the redeemed from every nation belong.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Is Atlanta Effectively Barring Conservative Evangelical Christians from Managerial Jobs?

On January 6, the New York Times published an article in which it was reported that Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed had fired Kelvin Cochran, the chief of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department. The firing was a response (so Mayor Reed said) to Mr. Cochran's having distributed copies of a book he had written to several members of the department who had not asked for it, and who objected to the book's characterization of sexual activity between people of the same gender as "vile, vulgar, and inappropriate." The mayor said that he believed that Mr. Cochran's "actions and decision-making undermine his ability to effectively manage a large, diverse work force.” The mayor added that “every single employee under the fire chief’s command deserves the certainty that he or she is a valued member of the team and that fairness and respect guide employment decisions.”

Mr Cochran responded that no-one received the book who had not been personally identified to him as an evangelical Christian. It is not at all clear, though, that even if Mr. Cochran had only given his book to those who shared his views that it really would have made any difference at all in the outcome. That is to say, Mr. Cochran was fired, not because he gave copies of his book to people who didn't want it, but because Mr. Cochran's public condemnation of homosexuality was seen as implying his inability to be perceived by all employees as a fair manager. In the final analysis, it doesn't really matter whether Mr. Cochran's views were expressed in a book, made in a speech, expressed in a blog, or communicated in some other way.The real reason for Mr. Cochran's firing was that, in light of the fact that he sincerely believes that homosexual activity to be immoral and "vile," his continued employment by the city of Atlanta would be perceived by many as an endorsement (or at least a non-repudiation) of his beliefs.

One might be tempted to write this case off as another minor skirmish in the culture wars of the modern United States. It would be a mistake to do so. I am not sure if Mr. Cochran will pursue his case in court (I hope he does), but if he does, his case highlights an issue which everyone who cares about the freedoms of speech and of the free exercise of religion ought to care about. This issue is the fact that Mr Cochran was not fired for actually violating the rights of any of his employees. He was fired on the basis of his views alone. That is, he was fired because his religious views in and of themselves, without regard to any action arising out of them, was judged sufficient basis for his disqualification from the office of fire chief.

Regardless of the opinion one might hold with regard to Mr. Cochran's beliefs, as a matter of law, the case of his firing is significant since it represents a departure from the legal standard which has been in place ever since the finding of the Supreme Court in Reynolds v. United States 98 U.S. 145 (1878). In Reynolds, the Supreme Court decided that the First Amendment guarantees the right to the free exercise of religion so long as religious beliefs do not result in actions which actually contravene relevant national law. Later, in Cantwell v. Connecticut 310 U.S. 296 (1940), the Supreme Court, on the basis of the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, applied this to state law as well. Case law and legislation in the second half of the twentieth century further clarified that any government laws, policies, or regulations which impinge on a person's right to act in accordance with their beliefs must be in pursuit of a broad and legitimate government purpose and must be framed in a way which is minimally burdensome. (For a very brief history of modern religious liberty law in the United States, see here.)

That is, it is the law of the land that no national, state, or local government is permitted to discriminate against a person on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs. Mr. Cochran was fired from a government position merely for expressing certain sincerely held religious beliefs. It is ironic that Mr. Cochran was discriminated against on the basis of the mayor's desire to establish a non-discriminatory environment for the city's employees. That is, rather than requiring gay and lesbian employees to remain under the supervision of a manager who might violate their rights, the mayor chose to actually violate the rights of the fire chief.

Some might respond to this that the fire chief had not merely potentially violated the rights of those city employees under his supervision, but had actually violated their rights by condemning homosexual activity as "vile." But this is nonsense. No-one has a right not to be offended. Even public officials retain a right to free speech, so long as it is clear when they are speaking for themselves and when they are speaking as a public office-holder. To assert the contrary will merely disqualify everyone with strong views on controversial issues from political office, since such views always offend someone. The non-existent "right to not be offended" would, if implemented, virtually guarantee unrepresentative government, since every significant issue dividing society by definition fosters strong opinions, and, by this silly non-right would guarantee that only those with no opinion on divisive issues could be candidates.

In order to have one's rights violated one must have suffered material, tangible damage. That someone has experienced emotional distress as a result of having heard others disparage them, their behavior, or their views does not, in general, mean that their rights have been violated. (NB, I do think there is an exception to this general principle in the case of children - laws and policies preventing children from being bullied are, within certain limits, a good thing.)

With regard to the establishment of "opinion tests" in order to be qualified for public office, where does it end? Do we really want to live in a nation where the government imposes litmus tests for belief? Such tests are expressly forbidden by the Constitution, regardless of how any hypothetical Supreme Court might wish to interpret it.

It is high time that our society was reminded that toleration does not mean that we never hear views with which we disagree. Toleration does not guarantee a public square where no-one ever says anything controversial. What toleration means is that we respect the rights of others to publicly express views which disagree with our own - even views which personally disparage us - and to do so without public penalty. Again, it is ironic that the concept of "tolerance" is being pressed in directions which are profoundly intolerant. Wild-eyed zealots of all stripes must be reminded that zealotry can only prosper in a world of tolerance for diverse opinion. To insist on uniformity of publicly expressed opinion is to insist on tyranny.

This not, of course, to say that there should be no limits at all on free speech or on the free exercise of religion. The classic examples of people who shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater, or who claim a religious right to perform human sacrifice come to mind. It is, however, to say that any free society must permit people to differ with each other on important matters and to do so publicly and without government-imposed penalty.

It is to be hoped that the great center of our nation will act, as it usually has in the past, to restrain those foolish would-be revolutionaries who so earnestly seek to use the force of law to purge American society of those with whom they disagree. If not stopped, they will ultimately find that the demons they unleash will not establish a the "good society," but the guillotine and the gulag.