Christian Political Interaction and the Schiavo Case

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Through a Glass Darkly uses the Terri Schiavo case as an example to illustrate three principles about how Christians should interact with the political sphere.

First, Paul tells us to respect those in positions of authority, which for us includes the judiciary, whether liberal, activist, or whatever other term you want to call it. Many Christians recently have been anything but respectful. This was a big problem among politically conservative evangelicals when Clinton was president. Now that most of these people like the president, the ire transfers to others. It's just as evil. Criticizing someone's ideas is one thing, but the kind of language I've seen goes way beyond what's required to criticize someone's ideas.

Second, most hard legal cases are complex, and Christians too easily slip into talk of moral absolutes as an excuse not to engage with complex issues. The Schiavo case had that in spades. I'm not saying that there aren't absolutes that apply to this case, and I'm not saying that there weren't people who concluded what most evangelicals who discussed it were saying that did it in a reasonable manner. I happen to agree with the conclusion of most of them, that Terri should not have been court-ordered to starve to death. I don't agree with most the simplistic move too many people made between the fact that such an action would lead to her death and the automatic assumption without argument that there is never any time when doing something that will lead to an innocent death is ok. I can't myself believe that there's never any such case that's ok, but you can believe that there never is without taking this simplistic route out. You have to deal with the complex issues, in other words, and not just steamroll your way past them. David's post lists a number of such complexities, and people like me who disagree with his conclusion will need to deal with those complexities and not pretend that there isn't at least something to be said for seeing them as relevant.

Finally, we must reason with people who disagree, remembering that they do not share all our assumptions. We must respect the viewpoints of those who disagree on fundamentals and seek to engage them in reason with the awareness of their differences. No one who takes a different view will spend much time listening to an emotive rant that has no argument to it, and if the argument is too quick and skips over the complexities I've already mentioned, they'll dismiss it as shoddy thinking. And they'd be right to. The most important task in reasoning with people who disagree with us is to listen to them. If we try to understand what they're saying, and we adjust our argument accordingly to deal with it, then we'll have a stronger argument. If we discover that there's something about our position that doesn't turn out to hold up, then we can weaken our conclusion and have better support for it. Either way, our argument will be stronger.

Sometimes following these principles will amount to accepting a broad procedural practice as it stands, even if we would prefer a different procedural practice. We might seek to change it but allow it to stand as it exists until it's changed without seeking to violate the rule of law as we see fit. This also speaks into what people sought to do with Terri Schiavo. Laws directed toward this one case, while not the unique action critics were claiming, do seem a little ad hoc and disrespectful of the process we normally accept in this country. Far better would be a law that dealt with whatever problems this case showed we have in our procedures and then applied the changes to any such cases. This takes time, though, and we need to respect the process. If judges follow the law as it stands, we should respect them for doing so. It's not clear to me that the courts violated the law in these cases, though I do think they need to get a better sense of what counts as even halfway decent evidence when someone's life is at stake. What this amounts to is that the rule of law might require injustice to be done to fix the laws.

There's room for a lot of different views once you accept these responsibilities. I just thought these were three very helpful considerations that evangelicalism has gotten pretty terrible at observing, and it's exactly for things like this that the people keep talking about theocracy and the Texas Taliban. Such comments are clearly paranoid, immoral, and bigoted. Yet evangelicals feed into that mindset by behaving in a way that people just find stupid. David calls for a change in tactics, and I can't help but agree.

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