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Abortion, Fighting Evil, and the Saddleback "Debate"--Stuntz

Two comments about the excellent speaking event (I don’t know what to call it) at Rick Warren’s church:

First, as many bloggers have pointed out, Obama was wrong to say that the abortion rate hasn’t fallen on George W. Bush’s watch. [Link: here] But the commentaries I’ve read on this issue ignore a crucial point: the abortion rate also fell—and fell more—during Bill Clinton’s administration. [Link: here-- scroll down til you see the graph.] That fact matters: it suggests that Bush’s pro-life policies aren’t driving the abortion rate down, since that rate was falling when those policies weren’t in place. Large cultural forces are at work here, and conservatives of all people should not be optimistic about the government’s ability to steer those forces in its preferred direction.

The second comment concerns McCain’s answer to the question whether evil exists and, if so, whether we should ignore it, negotiate with it, contain it, or defeat it. McCain’s answer was simple and powerful: “Defeat it.” But that answer is also deeply troubling, and doesn’t seem particularly Christian. In a world corrupted by the Fall, the scope of evil is beyond any government’s capacity to “defeat.” I’m pretty sure that my religious forebears would have been appalled at the misplaced confidence—they would have called it “pride,” the heart of all sin in Christian terms—that answer suggests.

I would have thought that the answer that is most consistent with orthodox Christian doctrine might go like this: Yes, there is evil in the world, and lots of it. It should never be ignored, though we are all prone to ignore it in our own lives. As far as the government’s response to it, that depends on the circumstances. Some forms of evil can be crushed, and should be: Al Qaeda, the subject of the rest of McCain’s answer, is a good example. Sometimes negotiation is the right approach: the Soviet Union was, as Ronald Reagan said, “an evil empire”—and yet Reagan himself entered into negotiation with that regime. General Petraeus, whom McCain rightly extols, advocated co-opting or bribing Iraqi insurgents who could be bought off. Often containment is the best one can do: again, think of the Cold War, or think about the ways urban police forces deal with gang crime.

Am I wrong about this? (Easily possible.) The Saddleback congregation, like most evangelical congregations today I suspect, seemed perfectly comfortable with triumphalist rhetoric like McCain’s. Are there other evangelicals who worry about that kind of talk? It sure worries me.


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Comments ( 7 )

I think where you go worng is too read too much into McCain statements. He is not for destroying evil in all places of the world.

Why is the fact that John McCain was the often lonely voice and lightening ROD for normalization of relations with Vietnam since the Bush I years ignored?

Why is it ignored that McCain had big misgiving about going into Bosnia

Why is it ignored that McCain was a foce of reason the Dubai Port Deal while everyone wnet on about the damn Arabs

Perhaps it is ignored because it does not fit the current sterotype

As I see the question, it is about a government’s response to organized evil. I am comfortable with the answer. The goal to defeat evil is not wrong, it may not always be achievable but it is not wrong. In light of nature of the question I would have said “defeat it” also.

Yours in Christ

I think an essential part of the reponse that a Christian politician can give to the question of what to do about evil is that, at some level, it can be transformed. Most of the time evil is mixed with good and that we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water. Transformation is at the heart of our Faith and defeating evil ultimately means transformation. You're point about the limits of government are right on! Humility is called for in all spheres of life and a feature of Christian America's version of government is far to often to adopt a response to liberal views of America rather than a truly Christian view of nations and the real limits placed on that power by God.

I've posted the relevant parts of the two transcripts here, with my thoughts. McCain's answer is really that "there exist big evils that government action can defeat". He doesn't talk about evil in general. Obama interprets the question differently, and answers "there exist evils that government action cannot defeat, and government action is itself prone to evil". The two answers, an interesting switch of conservative and liberal, are compatible.

I was hoping you would be commenting on the candidates' positions on abortion and how they line up with or conflict with your world view. Is one to infer, since no other mention of abortion occurs in this, that it is an "evil".

Then, if that is the case, how do YOU believe government should respond to that particular evil?

To Jo McCabe: I didn't go there in the post because I've gone there before and will do so again; the post was on another subject.

Still, you're right to raise the question. My answer is yes, I do see abortion as an evil, and a terrible one. But I also believe that no legal ban on early-term abortions can possibly be enforced (much less enforced fairly) in a society like ours, in which a large fraction of the population takes a different view of the subject than I do. Were I a legislator, I would vote against legal bans on early-term abortions, even if those bans were constitutional. At the same time, I would strongly support efforts to ban late-term abortions. (I don't count so-called "partial birth abortions" -- that practice is more fairly described as infanticide, not abortion. And the law should certainly ban infanticide.)

Last but not least, I think the most effective means of reducing the number of abortions is to subsidize childbirth. Crisis pregnancy centers aren't the only way to do that, but they are among the best ways. Those centers have, to my mind, done more good than all the pro-life legal arguments of the last thirty years put together.

As for your question about the candidates' positions, the above description seems to me to hew pretty closely to McCain's track record on this issue. Obama's record is at odds with these beliefs, it seems to me. I'm not sure that's a good reason to vote for McCain: Presidents have far less power over this issue than they have in other areas of governance.

Is this responsive?

To Eric: You're quite right, and I hadn't noticed it before. Obama's response to the "evil" question was classically conservative, pessimistic about government's ability to reform the world. McCain's was more paradigmatically liberal and more optimistic about the virtues of government power. A strange twist.

I agree that it is important not to practice hubris in looking at the world in all-too-mortal but messianic manner. But I also agree that McCain's comment was representative, not intended as a universal prescription.

It is important for Christians to be balanced. We are not going to change the world through politics, as Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson discovered and then described so well in "Blinded By Might", but that doesn't mean that we are to be fatalistic about confronting evil in the world, especially when that confrontation is on behalf of the country, or other powerless (e.g., Darfur) rather than trying to be God and stamp out evil.

And that is also precisely the problem with the evangelical left (Greg Boyd, Wallis-Campolo, Tom Wright, etc.), who try to use Christianity, as interpreted by John Yoder, to implement and spread their personal innate pacifism in the name of Jesus. Jesus never told the Roman centurion to resign his commission.