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The Bulwark April Blog Review

Morals of Life and Death

Rosalynde Welch regularly writes thoughtful articles at Patheos on Mormon and general cultural issues. In the wake of presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s criticisms of government-funded prenatal testing, Welch used Emily Rapp’s defense of prenatal testing and targeted abortions to artfully show the shallowness of contemporary liberalism’s discussion of moral questions. Rapp tells a compelling story about her son’s seemingly fruitless struggle with Tay Sachs and says, “If I had known before he was born, I would have saved him from suffering.”

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Rapp’s frustration and compassion for her son is certainly understandable, and Welch seems to understand this, even in a personal way. But she wonders what this kind of reasoning means for liberalism and its particular brand of morality.


Emily Rapp

[Rapp’s story is] illuminating in its perfect capture of the contradictions inherent in liberalism’s engagement with the morality of human life and death. Twinned with science, liberalism — in the philosophical sense, not the political sense, though both are in play in the piece — has a vexed relationship to moral assertion. It professes neutrality on questions of private morality, but it often lacks the courage of its value-free convictions and covertly borrows values-language from other philosophical traditions to shore up its emotional purchase.”

Such is the state of modern philosophical liberalism. It professes its value-free content as a form of freedom without fully understanding the values in which it roots itself. Ideologies will always be shaped by some guiding purpose, and Rapp’s seems to be the prevention of suffering. While one can appreciate Rapp’s frustration with her son’s disease and her compassion for his suffering, we join Welch in asking whether this kind of reasoning leaves liberalism’s morality void of any understanding of what one might call human dignity, or the good of human life. Is this not a low teleology and ultimately an unfulfilling account of who we are as human beings?

Welch later makes this poignant comment, reminding that freedom can never be separated from virtue and that the content of our choices matters and not merely the ability to make these choices:

Throughout history, women have made personal choices to protect their reproductive interests, mostly in the form of voluntary abandonment, neglect, or relinquishment of imperfect or unwanted children. As a society, we rightly see most of these choices as repugnant today. Personal choice can be ugly.”

Meanwhile, Connor Boyack, creator of the BombIran campaign, argues that conservatives cannot be pro-life and support war at the same time.

Double standards are found everywhere in the words and actions of the political class. One of the most striking examples comes from the religious right which likes to claim that it is ‘pro-life’ while usually also being in favor of war. This hypocritical position renders meaningless their claim to supporting life.”

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Yes, Latter-day Saints are commanded to renounce war and proclaim peace, and certainly our politics would be better off if we saw more clearly the underlying philosophical principle that should unite positions on abortion and war. But after we have renounced war and proclaimed peace, we quickly find we still live in a dangerous world, and that we risk embracing a myopic transpolitical hypermoralism should we fail to prepare to confront such a world.

thumbs upIn his book Latter-day Liberty, Boyack spells out a non-interventionist ideology that insists countries are not morally justified to attack or even place sanctions against countries who pose imminent threats. Following this policy (to indulge a not so far-fetched hypothetical), Israel would lack the moral authority to preemptively strike weapons facilities or even impose economic sanctions against a nuclear Iran who denies the right of Israel to exist, regardless of what intelligence it had on concrete nuclear threats. Likewise, the United States would not be able to support this ally.

War is abominable, and we agree with Boyack that some conservatives have been thoughtless in debating whether we should engage in war. Even worse, it is obvious that some glory in war as a means of revenge or assertion of American might. Even when war is necessary and justified, we must remember there is inescapable evil that comes with it. But war remains necessary all the same. In deciding whether to engage in war, both extremes pose risks to the healthy political community. We can err by dogmatically adhering to an abstract ideal and ignoring political considerations, or we can justify war to the point of glorying in it and corrupting our souls. We would argue a better path is for government to renounce war but remain willing to protect the people and principles it has covenanted to defend, militarily if necessary. Likewise, government should do all it can to minimize the cost of war through diplomacy, sanctions and targeted strikes.

Perhaps the abortion analogy is fitting after all. The LDS Church teaches that it is possible for it to be morally permissible to abort an unborn child if the birth of that child would threaten the life of the mother. Let’s imagine that competent doctors have determined that a particular pregnancy is one of those rare cases, even though the mother is now only experiencing mild abdominal pain. When is the abortion justified? In the case of an ectopic pregnancy, need she wait until the internal hemorrhaging has reached the point it will likely kill her before asking for the abortion? Will it not already be too late?

Reasoning in Faith

On the heels of General Conferance, James Faulconer at Patheos gives the timely instruction that while prophets sometimes foretell the future, their primary job is to “speak forth” and call people to repentance. In the LDS context, this means prophets are authorized to speak God’s will. Prof. Faulconer also gives us the important reminder that LDS prophets are not infallible and that doctrine cannot simply be established by quoting the brethren. Elder D. Todd Christopherson taught this same principle in General Conference, saying

At the same time it should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that ‘a prophet [is] a prophet only when he [is] acting as such.’”

Earlier in the month, Faulconer addressed the growing tide of American atheism, and he offers the insight that the best weapon against atheism is witnessing of the gospel through our actions:

vaccineIf believers think that the most important thing they can do to combat atheism is take up the arguments of contemporary atheists, they make a mistake. We may need to take up those arguments, at least as inoculation for those whose trust is still young, since we are unlikely to win over many who make the atheists’ arguments.”

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Today we live in a world in which passive atheism holds sway, with the result that active atheism has become more prominent. But we make a mistake if we think that the active atheism we see is the problem with which we must deal. The real threat is passive atheism, and only the fullness of Christian witness, not political activism or evangelizing by itself, will be enough to counter that threat.”

This undoubtedly relates to previous exchanges  at The Bulwark with Professor Faulconer, and we embrace the way he recognizes at least some need for Christian witness through deeds to work alongside well-articulated arguments. Certainly witnessing of the gospel through our actions is at the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Christ, but we wonder if downplaying the need for verbal witness does not overlook the powerful role of ideas in shaping the public and even private spheres. If the atheist argument is left unanswered, we risk giving the impression we are altogether unable to offer a response, thus deferring to the secularists the sole claim to reason. It may be true that even the most faithful and well-reasoned arguments may never convert the hardened atheist, but we should remember that even in these engagements, it is not necessarily the persuasion of our interlocutors we seek but that of a much larger audience, some of whom may only need reassurance.

As C.S. Lewis has said, “To be ignorant and simple now — not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground — would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” We faithful scholars, teachers, students of philosophy and society, cannot remain silent when some claim that reason and faith are incompatible; we ought not appear to cede reason to the secular rationalists.

The Libertarian Constitution

obamacareWhile the US Supreme Court was hearing the first day of oral argument about the constitutionality of President Barack Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), Connor Boyack made the striking assertion that conservatives and constitutionalists should want the highest court to uphold this legislation. While this may be surprising to those familiar with Boyack’s libertarian approach to constitutional law, the argument is strictly pragmatic, even if misguided. SOTUS’ affirmation of the federal mandate, he argues, would help disabuse Americans of the idea that the court is the final arbiter of constitutionality by creating further distance between the Constitution’s text and its living, organic form as represented by case law.

First, it should be noted that this is the kind of disregard for political realities that makes Boyack’s brand of libertarianism unpalatable and ultimately untenable in the public square. The Obamacare legislation is repugnant to the spirit and letter of the Constitution and would forever change the relationship between United States citizens and their government. Flirting with this possibility seems unwise to say the least.

Boyack is correct, however, to point out that judicial supremacy is dangerous and was not intended by the Founders. This can be seen in The Federalist as well as Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural, in which the president argues that government of the unelected few is not the government of free men:

The candid citizen must confess that if the policy of the Government upon vital questions affecting the whole people is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, the instant they are made in ordinary litigation between parties in personal actions the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their Government into the hands of that eminent tribunal.”

Boyack, however, goes further than Lincoln and argues that it is instead the states who should determine the constitutionality of federal statutes. This argument is far from new. Indeed, this was at the heart of the debates between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists over the Constitution’s ratification as well as those during the Nullification Crisis. And while Boyack expresses devotion to the Constitution, it is not always evident which side of these conflicts he would have aligned. Perhaps it is fitting that Boyack quotes a leading opponent of the Constitution’s ratification, Spencer Roane, to bolster his argument in this regard.

In fairness, however, we should note that the bulk of his argument rests on the Father of the Constitution’s words from a 1799 report regarding the Virginia Resolution of 1798. Boyack quotes a passage in which Madison says the states have the ultimate right “to judge whether the [Constitution] has been dangerously violated,” after which Boyack provides the following commentary:

In other words, Madison saw the states (being parties to the constitutional compact) as having the authority and ability to determine a law’s constitutionality and take appropriate action based upon whatever decision they make.”

.But this was not Madison’s intention. Where the Kentucky Resolutions embraced the idea of nullification, or the power of states to declare federal statutes null and void, Madison took a far more measured approach, that of interposition. In practice, this meant the organization of a group of states who would then interpose between their citizens and the federal government in cases of deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers [not granted in the Constitution].”

Later in the same report, Madison clarifies his meaning, in hopes that his words will not be twisted by the enemies of the Union.

The declarations [from this group of states], in such cases, are expressions of opinion, unaccompanied with any other effect than what they may produce on opinion, by exciting reflection. The expositions of the judiciary, on the other hand, are carried into immediate effect by force. The former may lead to a change in the legislative expression of the general will; possibly to a change in the opinion of the judiciary; the latter enforces the general will, whilst that will and that opinion continue unchanged.”

In the latter years of his life, these very words Boyack cites were also used by Southerners during the Nullification Crisis to support their cause, and Madison took the opportunity to correct them for distorting his meaning. Oh, that he were alive to do the same today.

Gay and Mormon

Our friend (Gay) Mormon Guy offers an excellent post on the false dichotomy many even well-intentioned individuals present members of the Church who experience same-sex attraction.

Be gay, or be unhappy. And, in the minds of many of the men I’ve met, those are the only two options. Stay completely and fully faithful in the Church and be miserable and full of self-loathing, or appeal to “spirituality,” claim that the Church isn’t true (or at least its teaching on homosexuality), and live an open, self-loving, and free life.”

FalseDichotomyFor those who see same-sex attraction as being the defining element of one’s identity, these are indeed the only options — options that separate righteous living from the joy and happiness Christ promises His followers. Mormon Guy writes, however, that there’s a better way.

“I turned to God for help, and realized that there is a third choice — one that promises far more than any other, but entails a whole lot more work and time as well. In my darkest hours, I learned that if the gospel is not working for me, it is because I’m not using it right — not because I’m not good enough or because God or His teachings are incapable of bringing me peace. The reality is that Christ came to save all men, and that God has given all men the power to overcome their trials and find true happiness, joy, and peace through living according to His will.”

And later on,

The beautiful promise of the gospel is that no matter who I am, there is a way to make it work for me. The gospel works. If it’s not working for me, I’m not using it right. For everyone that seeketh shall find, and unto him that knocketh, it shall be opened. The Lord God is no respecter of persons, which means that if His gospel can bring peace, hope, and joy to anyone who learns to use it in their lives, it can bring those same blessings to me. And that’s the option I choose.”

Here, the author exercises admirable faith, perspective and yes, courage.

We are also encouraged by a recent event hosted by the BYU Sociology Department which featured a panel discussion with three homosexual students and one bisexual student. The students expressed their struggles dealing with same-sex attraction, fitting into the BYU community as well as affirming their commitment to the university’s honor code, along with their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. The event was standing room only and several were turned away. We hope more events like this continue to further understanding in the LDS community, all while disproving the myth that you cannot be gay and Mormon.

Feminism and Family

Elisothel at Feminist Mormon Housewives offers the interesting thought that “men (and women) don’t understand feminism, because so many people already *gasp* see women as full human beings, and think everyone else does too, so they are blinded to the injustices that remain” and she wonders whether she has fallen into the same trap regarding racial issues. In other words, her understanding of the equality of the races has taken racial injustice off her radar. In her commentary, she rightfully examines the divine perspective and acknowledges that God (unlike us) cannot ignore or choose not to think about injustices; likewise, she says, anyone seeking to become more like God must do the same. She recognizes that “[if] I am to be divine, forgetfulness is not my destiny.” Rather, the goal should be to “discern evil and yet be happy.”

Elisothel has tapped something profound. Truly the restored gospel opens our mind to a passable God who has a “heart that beats in sympathy with ours,” who suffers and rejoices with His children. And, as Enoch learned, God weeps over the sins and enmity of those He has created in His own image. (Moses 7: 29-33) We can only begin to imagine the mystery behind whatever truth allows God to feel such deep sorrow along with a fullness of joy.

Regarding her initial statement, it would seem Elisothel could have a point in marking the connection between viewing all people as equals and being unable to see racism. We would argue, however, that precisely the opposite is true when seen in the light the charity of the gospel requires. Coming to know the true equality and dignity of all people — and their common standing/plight before God — and loving these people should heighten our sympathy for them. Learning to love goodness causes us to become good, which necessarily increases our hatred of injustice in all its forms.

Again at FMH, Winterbuzz tells her experience as a single mom in the Church for 8 years and incidentally sets the stage for Elder David Baxter’s talk in General Conference. Winterbuzz sheds light on the fact that the LDS Church’s focus on ideal family life and the related lessons, programs and activities have the tendency to make single mothers feel they do not fit in. I just wish that more people were sensitive to others who don’t have the church’s ideal” family,” she says.

After reading her story, most would certainly agree. LDS must be sensitive to and supportive of these single parents, without, as Elder Baxter said, “passing judgment or casting aspersions.” At the same time, however, this sensitivity should not prevent us from holding up the beautiful standard of a loving father and mother who care for their children as a way of preserving the tie between marriage, procreation and the rearing of children.