Careful What You Wish For

Magazine covers highlighted in The Guardian, August 18, 2017

Writing about politics at all requires a daily engagement I’m really not cut out for. But in 2017 it pretty much means you can’t even blink. Less than two weeks ago, the President was promising nuclear fire and fury, and early this week—after a bunch of white supremacists marched through Charlottesville with tiki torches, and a young woman was run over by a truck ISIS-style—he was saying there’s plenty of blame to go around, and trying to decide where he stands on the Confederacy. Kate Timpf, on Fox News (yes, that Fox News), reacting to Trump’s words, said, “I’m still in the phase where I’m wondering if it was actually real life. I have too much eye makeup on to start crying right now.” There’s been a lot of tweeting “this is not us,” but this obviously is us. We made this evil man the President. All I want to do is figure out why, and figure out how never to make such a colossal mistake again.

My current amateurish, uninformed working theory is that if it weren’t for fundamentalists’ singular obsession with abortion, Trump wouldn’t have been elected. Almost anyone could refute this pretty easily, I’m sure, but Trump’s victory was so razor thin—won only in the electoral college, not by popular vote—that, given Mitch McConnell’s constitutionally indefensible decision not to allow even a debate on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee through all of 2016, let alone a vote, I’d say abortion had at least an outsized influence. Without a Democratic candidate as personally charming as Barack Obama, enough people felt so strongly about abortion’s evil that they voted for a man they personally loathed simply to keep the Supreme Court conservative.

So I think it’s time to get real about abortion. It has been an undebatable, unexamined issue for evangelicals for far too long. No matter how directly Republican policies contradict Biblical teaching about the poor and dispossessed, how unashamedly the Republican platform worships mammon and how cultishly it protects any damn fool’s possession of as many deadly weapons as he wants, no matter how many millions of refugees are turned back to face death or persecution because of Republican nativist hysteria—basically, no matter how un-Christian the Republican Party is by every other important measure, evangelicals keep voting as Republicans because of that one dog whistle. A politician can do pretty much whatever he wants, including grabbing women’s crotches, as long as he promises he’s going to fight for the babies. This is how we got this archetype of evil for President.

So let’s do some moral algebra. We might start with a few things you may not have been aware of:

  • Abortion first became illegal in the US in 1880. It was not because of religious opposition, but because the medical community felt it was a risky procedure that endangered the mother’s life.
  • Abortion-inducing drugs were widely advertised in 19th-century newspapers, and early, “pre-quickening” abortion was not strenuously opposed by either the Catholic or Protestant leadership. It was only after the mother began to feel movement of the fetus that abortion was morally problematic.
  • Its legal status has not had nearly the effect on the rates of abortion that economic reality’s had. Abortion rates rose substantially during the Great Depression, even though the procedure was illegal, because women would rather lose a pregnancy than lose a child through starvation.
  • Although abortion was illegal in the 1960s, discussion of its morality was much less fraught, and evangelical opposition to it was not a foregone conclusion. In 1968, a professor from Dallas Theological Seminary (of all places), in an issue of Christianity Today(of all magazines), argued that because the destruction of the fetus was not an Old Testament capital offense, it could not be considered murder. “God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed.” Yes. This was an evangelical’s position.
  • According to the National Association of Evangelicals, 80% of young evangelicals have pre-marital sex. Almost a third of evangelicals’ unplanned pregnancies end in abortion. This is higher than the rate within the general population, probably because having any birth control seems to a Christian teen like he or she is planning on having sex, and that, of course, would be terrible.

I found these tidbits with a quick web search, and you could find as many facts to support your own position just as quickly. But my aim with them is not to change your mind about the morality of abortion. It’s to get you to think about the issue as qualified, and at least as complex as the many other things Christians seem to be perfectly willing to think about in shades of gray—feeding the poor, sheltering the persecuted, racism, etc. I bring any of these other subjects up, and a Christian says, “Well, it’s not that simple.” I ask her why she voted for Donald Trump, it’s because he’s going to make abortion illegal. Look, first of all, he won’t, and neither will the Supreme Court—ever. And secondly, if it ever did happen, abortion would not stop. The only thing that would happen is more women would die getting it done illegally.

No matter what you feel about abortion, it is not going away. If you want it to be rare—truly rare, and not just legally unavailable—you have to get real . . .

People have to have access to birth control. Venerate virginity all you want, but when that doesn’t work out for your kids, they can’t be so ashamed of having babies out of wedlock that they 1) don’t have birth control around when they need it, and 2) have an abortion to avoid the shame. Because that is truly bent, and it’s pretty much the same kind of thinking that got this asshat into the White House last fall.

Mothers have to have access to childcare. If a pregnant woman knows she doesn’t have the support she needs, she’s going to be way way way more likely to abort. If she thinks she’s going to have to pass some morality test to get that support, she’s also going to be more likely to abort. Men have to step up, of course they do. But many still don’t. Sometimes the grandparents step up. Super (well, not super, but ok). We should do all we can to encourage the family and the church to help out single moms. But this doesn’t mean publicly available childcare is some socialist plot. It’s one more tool! It’s one more thing to help make abortion rare!

Sex education has to be available in school. You afraid your kids are going to be taught that sex is natural, and that homosexuality is just another natural variation, and that if a boy wants to be a girl, it’s ok? Talk about it over dinner. Tell him what’s wrong with that reasoning, I don’t care. I’d disagree back at you, but that’s at least a discussion. Discussion is a good thing! Here’s what you need to think about: in places that don’t have sex ed in the schools, there are more unplanned pregnancies, and more abortions. So the way I see it, you can either have your child exposed to ideas you don’t agree with, but have fewer abortions, or you can raise her not having to hear any of that perverted stuff, and keep killing babies.

There are more ideas, but I know you have to get to the next Facebook puppy, so for now let me just conclude that if you voted for Donald Trump as the great white hope for all the unborn babies, you now have what you wished for. Nazis in polo shirts screaming, “Jews will not replace us!”

Tell me, what baby would want to be born into this world?

What if, in place of “racist,” we used the word “racist”?

I went to a Bible college. This surprises some people. Well, time passes and things happen. Anyway, although I think my world-view was bound to evolve eventually, I became a skeptic all the more quickly because of a very incurious education in my undergraduate years. This was represented best by a particular sort of Bible professor. He would be a teacher of, say, a New Testament survey course, or a class in apologetics, invariably one of the most popular personalities on campus, often good-looking, sometimes with a spouse ten years his junior. This man was a master storyteller, a clown, a judge, a dad figure—and he’d invariably have students shaking their heads in wonder at his intelligence, without once challenging any of their basic presuppositions. It was a real knack. He (it was, of course, always a he—I do not remember one female professor of Biblical studies on the faculty) always thought of himself as a provocateur. He always wanted to “get young people thinking.” And for all that, actual thought never had anything to do with what he said.

I thought of this kind of professor last week when I came across a panel discussion at Biola University, my alma mater, called “Sexuality Matters.” The panel was a Q&A about the school’s position on LGBT sexuality. I think the fact that the term “LGBT” was even on the agenda at Biola is a sign of progress. But the progress, I’m afraid, pretty much stopped there. There were three discussants, all from the university—a psychology professor, someone called a “Vice President of Student Affairs” (some kind of dean?), and a Bible professor named Erik Thoennes. Unless I’m misunderstanding the v.p. position, there were no students. And there were no representatives of the LGBT community. Some people probably thought of this forum as a conversation. It was really, though, a presentation. Without two points of view, nobody was really discussing anything, they were just making plain what was already pretty plain, which is that Biola believes gays and lesbians and transgendered people are all perverts. God loves them as much as he loves people who aren’t perverts, and people who aren’t perverts are still sinners, but LGBT is still just a synonym for PRVRT. This isn’t surprising and it isn’t even disappointing, because to be disappointed a person would have to actually expect something different at a conservative Christian school. It was like this 33 years ago when I graduated, and it is still like this.

Actually, maybe it was a little disappointing. For one thing, the panel actually came together in the first place in large part, if I understand it right, because of the efforts of a student group that would have been unthinkable in my day—the Biola Queer Underground. And one student actually had the temerity to ask why there wasn’t any representative from the BQU on the panel. That question could have led to a very interesting discussion. But instead it led to repetition, and elaboration, and some incredible rhetoric. Which you can listen to here. It was a real tour de force.

Professor Thoennes said the panel didn’t include a gay perspective because homosexuality was a sin, and asking someone to a panel at Biola to represent the sinful side was plainly ludicrous. You wouldn’t invite a liar to represent liars’ point of view, would you? You wouldn’t bring a racist to a discussion on racism to defend the “racist perspective.”

And then he showed his quality. To demonstrate the silliness of the idea, he took text directly from the BQU website, and everywhere the word “gay” was used, he inserted “racist.”

“Our racist identities, which are integral to who we are, are being questioned in terms of their morality. The University’s upcoming decision will affect our daily lives . . .

“Biola claims toward dialogue. However racist students who don’t view racism as sinful aren’t allowed to speak openly without threat . . .”

You really do need to listen to the recording. With the laughter, you can hear how solidly he got the crowd. His church (yes, of course he’s also a pastor) must love him.

But of the many “sins” a Biola professor could have chosen to compare homosexuality to, racism is a particularly troubling one, given fundamentalist Christians’ fraught association with it. Bob Jones University, the alma mater of my Biola advisor in the 70s, still did not allow interracial dating at that time. There were students in my year who agreed with that stance. I’d say in fact that the freedom many fundamentalists feel to condemn racism is a relatively recent phenomenon. To compare the LGBT movement to an odious world-view many fundamentalists (to be frank about it) still hold, shows a very finely tuned cluelessness.

So I suggest we turn Pastor Thoennes’ rhetoric back on itself. What if, when he said this:

“There are some sins I think because our culture sees them as sins we feel a lot of freedom to condemn, and others, because our culture doesn’t see them as sins, we don’t.” 

he were not talking about gay sex, but interracial marriage? What does the following sound like, put in the mouth of Bob Jones III:

“And so what I don’t want us to do in the midst of being kind and . . . loving, is to lack a Biblical backbone because our culture will consider us bigots—to stand up for something that’s consistently being a line drawn in the sand for what Christians will tolerate and what we won’t.” 

What if Erik Thoennes were talking about integration when he said:

“This is a fascinating sin in our culture. There is no other sin I know of that has parades celebrating it, and days at Disneyland!”

It wouldn’t sound too strange at all, actually. It would sound like a lot of fundamentalists 70 or 50 or 30 years ago. It still sounds like a tiny slice of them today. As opposed to Erik Thoennes’ very funny and bizarre exercise, it’s a historically accurate comparison. I can imagine no person in favor of gay marriage being against interracial marriage. I can remember fundamentalists being against it.

It’s interesting how what’s outrageous changes through history, and particularly Christian evangelical history. When Biola was founded, women weren’t allowed to vote. A woman’s place at home seemed quite explicit in the Bible our great grandparents were reading. There are so many things the Bible seems to be clear about to one generation or cultural group that it doesn’t later on or somewhere else. Things are never as plain as they seem. This is one of the first things a young person is supposed to learn when she goes off to college. It’s the opposite of what one is taught at Biola. I’m mystified why a thinking young person would want to waste her time there. As long as she is, though, I hope she’s asking tough questions. God knows somebody needs to.