Internal Criticism of the Religious Right

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Joe Carter has a beautiful post on the religious right that I feel compelled to echo. Joe and I both consider ourselves part of the religious right under a broad reading of that term. We're both political conservative, religious conservative, and evangelical Christians. His post is what follows the 'but' in a "yes, but..." attitude that he frequently finds himself having in response to what many on the religious right have to say.

I especially appreciate his desire to see people on the religious right beginning to recognize that things that are of political importance should not be equated with the primary purpose of Christians, who ought (according to the words of Jesus and several apostles) to consider their primary identity in the kingdom of God, which is the rule of God in the lives of believers in a way that influences society but is not about making people carry the outward trappings of faith without the faith itself. Several ways the religious right leaders express themselves seem to me to contradict the very purpose for God to have believers engaged with non-Christian culture, and sometimes I think actual views (or at least emphasis on certain views and not on others) stands in stark contrast to biblical views or emphases (with homosexuality as the most obvious case, something I wish Joe had said something about, but I'll come back to that at the end).

A couple places I might say things differently (or perhaps you could think of these as my "yes, but ..." back to Joe):

1. The wrongness of torture

The religious right should be firmly against torture in general, but I don't think we should concede it as an absolute. It's rare in this life that torture is morally ok, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's always immoral. It's worth keeping that in mind in case those rare cases do occur. Of course, Christians shouldn't think torture is in itself immoral anyway, at least if they believe in hell. It's just that only a perfectly just and perfectly good being would know for sure when justice requires it, and any time we think it might be ok needs to be considered with the utmost seriousness and recognition that if we get it wrong we're doing something very bad.

2. The definition of 'torture'

It's true that we should figure out how to define 'torture' in a way consistent with human dignity. But I would insist that many of the things that are being called torture admit of degrees of badness, and the kinds that are more extreme admit of fewer exceptions, while those that are less severe will have more instances when they are not wrong but perhaps even the correct moral choice. As with most moral distinctions, torture isn't simply the sort of thing where you can give necessary and sufficient conditions for when something counts as torture. What we might want to do is itemize certain techniques that are inconsistent with human dignity, while suggesting at which kinds of things in general are like that for similar reasons, giving some suggestions as to how to decide hard cases that haven't occurred to us yet. But we really need to be careful not to overstate the case.

My general reaction to most of the debate so far is that those who are critical of the current administration are just assuming that anything that causes pain or distress counts as torture, in which case it's highly question-begging to conclude that it will be automatically wrong to do it. If it's genuinely torture, then most people will say that it's probably wrong to use it except in particularly urgent cases. But some of the techniques under discussion might be borderline cases. No one seems to be arguing for the conclusion that these are torture with anything like a philosophical argument. While I would like the religious right to be very firm that genuine torture is usually very wrong, I don't want it to be at the expense of the ethical discussion that hasn't yet happened about which particular cases are wrong and why.

3. Responding to theocratophobia

I agree that anyone who says the religious right is trying to create a theocracy is thoroughly mistaken. I also agree that it's often a desperate attempt to create a term that has the same silencing effect as charging someone with racism or sexism. I consider such tactics thoroughly immoral when the person doing it knows better, and those who do so out of ignorance really are thoroughly negligent in understanding their ideological opponents. I also agree with Joe that we have wasted far too much time on this. I don't, however, think we should respond by calling such people idiots. I don't think that's likely to do anything other than further the stereotype that the religious right like to call names and assert assumptions instead of engaging in rational argument, thus confirming what they erroneously believe to begin with. A better response would be to show by argument how idiotic such notions are, which will have the effect of demonstrating how people who make those charges are the ones who call names and assert assumptions instead of engaging in rational argument. This is one case when "speaking to the fool according to his folly" seems to me to be more on the end of becoming like him rather than preventing him from being wise in his own eyes (Proverbs 24:4-5).

4. Persuading those who disagree

I especially like Joe's comments at the end about translating. It's one thing to speak what we believe to be true as what we believe to be true. It's quite another to expect them to believe it without going way back into the more fundamental structures in their belief system. It does indeed move in the direction of giving the appearance of theocracy (but I don't think it gets even to the appearance of genuine theocracy) if we think that all we need to say to convince non-Christian people of Christian moral assumptions is to point out that the Bible teaches those assumptions. I don't have as much hope as Joe seems to for the possibility of doing what he suggests on every issue.

For example, I think there is some reason not to consider male-female relations to be absolutely symmetrical and egalitarian (e.g. the general size and strength differences contribute along with social factors from a history of sexist power structures to make issues of consent much less clear for women in sexual matters than it is with men). But I don't think there's much available in natural revelation to argue for the specifically complementarian model of marriage or church leadership that I think scripture teaches.

Similarly, I think that, given certain moral assumptions that are far more common than pro-life views in the general populace, it follows that abortion is wrong far more often than the general populace seems to me to take it to be wrong. Yet I also think the pro-choice view has resources to avoid that conclusion by denying the assumptions that happen to be popular that most people fail to connect up with abortion. In such situations, there isn't a lot of room for convincing someone of something that I think is morally wrong enough to justify laws. Those who resist thinking it's wrong will not be convinced by mere argument, and that shouldn't stop me from pursuing a change in the legal status of abortion or politicians and judicial authorities from doing what seems right to them if they have similar views.

Christians really ought to develop a biblically-based worldview that then informs their moral thinking. Moral thinking will inevitably inflence which sorts of political policies one finds most attractive. Many of the moral issues at stake here are just cases where people who disagree on the particular moral acts are coming from very different moral assumptions on a more fundamental, theoretical level (whether they have thought about it on that level or not). Issues such as which beings at which stages in their development have what kind of moral status don't seem to me to be easily argued, because eventually you just get back to fundamental disagreements where neither side really has an argument. It just seems that a certain moral intuition is correct. The other side says the opposite.

Of course a human organism with its own DNA and internal mechanisms for development given the proper environment counts as a human being with moral status. Or of course it doesn't. But that issue goes back to what it is to have moral rights, and you're not going to be presenting evidence for anything having or not having moral status. Despite the contention of many on the left, there is no evientially-based argument for the view that greater complexity is equivalent with moral status, and thus both positions are in the same category with respect to convincing the other side. You can present evidence that a fetus at a certain stage has a certain level of complexity, but the moral status issue is orthogonal to the facts about we learn about fetuses in science. The moral premises can't be argued for with evidence.

That leaves us voting with our conscience on such issues. It leaves political decision-makers or members of legislative bodies doing the same thing. Something that's as wrong as pro-life people think abortion is ought to be prohibited even if 40% of the population thinks it should be allowed. Those who disagree ought to consider what the murder laws should be if 40% of the population thought we should be able to kill anyone under the age of ten with impunity. I think we should still outlaw it, or at least those who know it to be wrong should pursue such laws even if courts continually go against them.

As I said at the outset., I very much agree with what Joe has written on the whole, and I'm glad he said what he had to say. I'm just not sure we should let such statements be taken as concessions on some of these things (and I'm sure he'd agree with at least some of what I've said here).

Concluding note on homosexuality

I do want to come back to the one thing I think Joe's post should have included that he didn't say much about. His one reference to homosexuality was as an example of something rational arguments might establish about the harm of gay marriage on society. I frankly haven't bothered to follow most of those arguments, though I have seen enough to know that there is a debate about whether they show much. The reason I haven't followed them isn't because I think there's little hope for such arguments to show that gay marriage has bad consequences (though I'm not sure at all that they will show much). The real reason I don't tend to bother much with that kind of reasoning is because I don't think this is the kind of issue Christians should be as concerned about, even if it does have some bad consequences on society. That reason isn't because Christians shouldn't be concerned with such consequences. Consequences should inform out political thinking (though they are never the only consideration and are sometimes trumped by more important considerations). It's rather because I think the religious right has turned this issue into something it shouldn't be, and I think that tendency needs to be reversed and rethought before Christians should be saying much else on the issue.

What has happened with this issue is very interesting to me as an observer of social trends. As we were driving home from eating out yesterday, we turned the radio on in the middle of a Selected Shorts piece on NPR. The short story involved a woman who was a doctor, and it sounded as if the setting might have been 100 years ago or so. What suggested that to me was a statement that people would feel more comfortable thinking that her husband was married to a man than they would thinking that a woman was a doctor. Either could be inferred from the statement that he was married to a doctor, though neither is logically implied by it. At least that's what the story was assuming. Now I couldn't imagine someone saying this nowadays or even as far back as the McCarthy era. People would be fired from government jobs for being homosexuals in the 1940s. Today there's such a fierce animus against gay people among the religious right and (at least in many circles of the religious right) no problem at all with women being doctors. Among those who have objections to both, the former is by far the one viewed as more evil.

That made me think the context must have been more like a century ago. Maybe I'm completely wrong about that, but it occurred to me when I heard that statement that 100 years ago there wasn't this kind of irrational hatred of gay people that seems to me to be driving much of the concern to preserve marriage (as if hasn't already been pretty much plundered of all that Christianity had contributed to it that was of spiritual significance). It's always been true that heterosexual men consider the idea of anal sex to be disgusting. That wasn't any different a century ago. But gay people were viewed as eccentric perverts who did something disgusting and even morally wrong. They weren't viewed as the height of all evil. They weren't viewed as trying to take something good away from heterosexual families. They weren't viewed as if their sin were somehow worse than the extremely common sins of fornication, adultery, and divorce that are prevalent enough among heterosexuals on the religious right. (Look at the candidates for the Republican nomination for 2008. The joke that's been going around is that one of the few with only one wife is the Mormon.)

Yet what has happened now is that homosexuality has been elevated to the height of all evil. No one would actually say this out loud, but the venom that comes from the religious right on this issue does not seem to me to be justified by the official views of the people who are spouting it forth. I'm not talking about the "God hates fags" people. I'm talking about those who make gay marriage out to be the end of all that's good in marriage. I'm talking about those who refuse to call a family the only family a kid adopted by a gay couple has ever had. I'm talking about those who say very little about the sins they are tempted toward (or even engage in) but who have a lot to say about homosexuality. I'm talking about those who think they have a right to have the government establish something that is really a Christian covenant, which sounds an awful lot to me like establishment of religion. Yet the religious right seems to prefer to have the government deciding which religious views about marriage we should be holding, and it does so in langage that seems to me to disguise an issue of which policy has the best consequences with language that makes it sound as if the end of civilization itself is at stake. I think that's very much the wrong direction for Christians to be going in.

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The debate on torture showed that conservative Christians could be flexible and change with the times in order to uphold traditional values. Read More


"While I would like the religious right to be very firm that genuine torture is usually very wrong, I don't want it to be at the expense of the ethical discussion that hasn't yet happened about which particular cases are wrong and why."

I think several things are preventing such a debate -- both within the religious right and in the public at large.

First, I hear plenty of conservatives -- not necessarily within the leadership or the Christian wing -- assert implicitly or explicitly that torture is acceptable. They justify it on the basis of the heinousness of our enemies' crimes ("they deserve it!"), the imminence of the threat ("the ticking bomb"), or simply the logic of total war, which puts nothing off the table. As long as such sentiment exists among so many Bush supporters, the whiggish among us will insist upon placing as much as possible off-limits to the administration.

Second, I believe that such absolutism on our part is justified by the absolutism of some Bush administration legal pronouncements. Despite declaring that the US does not torture, the Bush administration has espoused a "unitary executive" theory that could give the president carte blanche in matters of national security. The only antidote I see, unfortunately, is to create as large a legislative and judicial buffer zone as possible around individual rights.

Third, in a related problem, we have already seen evidence at trial that the authorization of "tough" measures has led some military personnel to believe that other behavior -- to us clearly abusive and inhumane but not necessarily torturous -- is permitted. We cannot possibly anticipate all the different creative ways that our soldiers and agents will invent to "soften up" their prisoners. And that's especially true if the CIA is exempted from military interrogation rules, which is currently the case. The only solution I see is a different sort of bright-line rule -- one based on the protections we give to POWs, which go far beyond preventing actual torture.

Fourth, the very logic of coercive interrogation measures suggests that any methods falling short of torture will still be designed to seem like torture to the victim. We are told constantly that these prisoners are "the worst of the worst," trained to resist us to the end. How then is any coercive interrogation method going to work, unless it produces the same effects as real torture?

I think I just have a higher view of the work that careful distinctions can do.

On the fourth issue, people are distinguishing between techniques that seem like real torture but produce no lasting physical harm. I don't think it follows that it therefore produces no harm, but that's the distinction it relies on. The question is whether it is wrong in itself to make someone think they're being tortured or whether it's just bad enough that we shouldn't do it except in more extreme cases.

One debate in ethics seems to make a big difference here. Some people are absolutists in the sense that certain moral prohibitions apply no matter how high the stakes. On the other end, you have people who say that all that matters is which has the better consequences. My own view is that these are both wrong. I like to think of moral prohibitions as very strong requirements, and the consequences generally do not outweigh real moral prohibitions. Yet most prohibitions have thresholds, at which a serious enough issue at stake will overcome the moral wrongness of the action, and it will in that specific instance be morally ok or perhaps even morally required. An easy example is breaking into someone's cabin in the woods in a severe blizzard in which you might otherwise die. You probably ought to compensate them, but an otherwise wrong action is fine in such cases.

Now when you apply this to torture, you have a much higher threshold to overcome. I'm not convinced that terrorism issues are enough to overcome it, but when you've got someone who you have very strong evidence toward knowing information that you have very strong evidence will save enough lives (and I don't have a good sense of how many lives I think is enough), I think the threshold drops considerably.

Under that kind of moral framework, I think what these people are saying might sometimes be right. They're probably too loose with the standards, but that's why I'd prefer to put forth arguments for a view between you and them than just go to the more extreme end. I'd rather get the moral issues straight and not have policies that ignore moral distinctions, even if in the short run people will not do thing that the right moral views will lead to. It saves backtracking later on and having to be frustrated when you introduce the nuances later.

I think it would probably be a very good thing to have more people like you in the debate, Jeremy. Unfortunately, I don't think people like me can afford to let up the pressure on this one if we want our state to take the moral high road right now.

Also, I remain confused by the overall position of the "religious right" as I have seen it expressed in publications like World. Leading evangelicals continue to complain about the moral relativism of the left, while adopting an utterly consequentialist line on national security (or else remaining quiet about it while supporting those who do so). I share Carter's frustration with that; I think it discredits the movement, just as abortion discredits the humanitarian pretensions of the left.

Consequentialism isn't moral relativism, though. Christian apologists often confuse the two, taking any consequentialist view to amount to relativism, but consequentialism is actually as absolutist as you get. One principle underlies all morality, the principle to maximize good consequences and minimize bad consequences. There are no exceptions to that in standard consequentialism, and it applies in every circumstance. It means that some things are right in some situations and wrong in others, but it's not relativism in any robust sense. Genuine relativism picks and chooses its principles according to whatever conclusion the individual person prefers at the time. So neither consequentialism on the left nor consequentialism on the right is inconsistent if it also involves a criticism of relativism.

I do want to reaffirm one thing, though. The kinds of statements people are making that the circumstances justify something that isn't otherwise justified need not have anything to do with consequentialism. The view I just explained has something like that without being consequentialist. Consequences don't generally override moral rights, but in certain circumstances the threshold of a moral prohibition gets overcome, and thus it isn't a violation of the person's rights in those cases. Obligations aren't absolute, but they're not merely based on what consequences follow either.

Indeed. I meant not to equate consequentialism with moral relativism, but to criticize conservatives' recourse to the latter label whenever they perceive a liberal -- and only a liberal -- deviation from moral principle. In other words, I sympathize with this complaint.

Yes, I remember that post, and I'm sure I've made that complaint several times myself. World Magazine does tend to do that, and they're not the only ones. It's not a particularly conservative problem, though (at least if that's supposed to mean politically conservative). Christian apologists do it all the time too in non-political settings (e.g. treating Peter Singer as if his views, which are inaccurately called relativism, simply follow from atheism or naturalism).

I sometimes think my biggest problem with World is how they say things and not what they say, and it includes being tremendously unfair to opposing views. Their most immoral example is their reaction to inclusive language translations, but sometimes they do some nasty things with political issues too. This is a good example of it. I don't think this is true of everyone there. Gene Veith is pretty good, and they used to have Joel Rosenberg, who seems to me to be a careful enough thinker on many issues. I generally don't find Marvin Olasky's views to be terrible, either, but I don't think he's as careful in arguing for them. Many of the others seem just mean-spirited to me, and some of them are much more hardcore extremists on some issues than I can stomach, especially on the blog where they let their interns do a lot more. I don't they've figured out where the compassionate is supposed to come in with Olasky's compassionate conservatism.

Your link to Joe Carter and your thoughts on torture helped me write my own tortured post.

Good job.

Although the Bible does not embrace and affirm homosexuality, it comes nowhere close to making it the worst sin. Ezekiel 16 says that Sodom's worst sin was pride, or inhospitality, depending on which version you read, for example. (I know -- Jude implies that it was, indeed, homosexuality.)

Ezekiel and Jude both speak of sins of Sodom, but I don't think either says anything about something being Sodom's worst sin. Jude does seem to have in mind the Sodomites' desire to have sex with the angels against their will, and as far as the Sodomites knew these were men and thus it would be gay sex, but Jude places it next to the angels who married human women. His more general point has to do with perversion and sexual immorality. He clearly would include gay sex among those, as any faithful Jew of the time would (and Paul lists gay sex twice among lists of sins), but I don't think that's the only issue for Jude, and it may not even be the primary issue.

Accusing the religious right of seeking a theocracy is immoral, but torture isn't?

Inventing charges that don't conform with reality in the slightest is immoral, yes. When did I say that torture isn't immoral? I said that the religious right should be firmly against torture in general, and I would place the utmost seriousness on that.

There are lots of things I would place in roughly the same category. The threshold for when it's ok to kill someone can be overcome by lots of factors, if enough of them contribute to doing so. It isn't good enough that you'd save a lot of money by killing someone, and it usually isn't good enough that you'd save a life, but it might be good enough if you'd save enough lives, especially if the person being killed is doing something wrong or if the stakes are high enough.

With torture, I'm not sure why it wouldn't work in the same way. I'm fairly sure that there are far more circumstances when other factors overcome the threshold with killing than there are when other factors overcome the threshold of torture, but that doesn't mean I'm an absolutist about either. The fact that there will be fewer cases when torture is ok is enough to make it pretty silly and indeed disingenuous to claim that I don't think torture is wrong, because I of course thinking killing is wrong, despite thinking that it isn't always wrong. I'm not an absolutist about either, but that's irrelevant.

Now I will admit that there are some circumstances when accusing the religious right of seeking a theocracy wouldn't be wrong. I just don't think reality is anywhere close to any of those.

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