Rigged to Win

Since Christmas, I’ve been working my way slowly through George Packer’s masterpiece The Unwinding, which chronicles the slow decay of American society and politics over the past generation in poignant prose that follows the struggles and triumphs of a handful of more-or-less-ordinary citizens, using them to illuminate the story of a nation.  It climaxes with the events following the 2008 financial crisis, which revealed how thoroughly corporate money and power had taken the American political process captive.  This passage was particularly eye-opening:

“The previous October, in the last month of the [Obama] campaign, Connaughton had picked up signs from [Delaware senator] Kaufman that the Obama team wanted to bring Robert Rubin on as Treasury secretary.  ‘Don’t you realize that half the country wants to hang Bob Rubin?’ Connaughton asked when Kaufman expressed enthusiasm at the prospect.  Kaufman would later say, ‘It was like a car had broken down and we needed a mechanic.’  Obama, inexperienced in government and a novice in finance, seemed to believe that Rubin and his followers were the only competent repairmen available.

No more proof was needed that the establishment . . . would emerge from the disaster in fine shape.  The establishment could fail and fail and still survive, even thrive.  It was rigged to win, like a casino, and once you were on the inside, you had to do something dramatic to lose your standing. . . . Rubin was no longer viable for Treasury, but his people were practically the only candidates under consideration by Obama, who, after all, had fought his way into the establishment from farther back than any of them.  Michael Froman, Rubin’s chief of staff under Clinton, later a managing director at Citigroup, introduced Rubin to Obama, and he continued working at the bank while serving on Obama’s transition as personnel director, then collected a $2.25 million bonus before joining the administration.  Jacob Lew, another Citigroup executive, became deputy secretary of state with a $900,000 bonus in his pocket.  Mark Patterson, a Goldman Sachs lobbyist, was hired as chief of staff at Treasury despite the lobbying ban.  Timothy Geithner, a Rubin protégé and the architect of the bailouts, was appointed Treasury secretary and survived the revelation that he had flagrantly underpaid taxes to the agency he was going to lead.  Larry Summers, whose meaty fingerprints were all over the pro-bank policies of the late nineties, and who earned millions in speaking fees from various future bailout recipients, became the leading economic adviser at the Obama White House.  Even Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, a career public servant, had made a cool $16.5 million at a Chicago investment bank in the thirty months he spent between government jobs.  All at the top of their field, all brilliant and educated to within an inch of their lives, all Democrats, all implicated in an epic failure—now hired to sort out the ruins.  How could they not see things the way of the bankers with whom they’d studied and worked and ate and drunk and gotten rich?  Social promotion and conflict of interest were built into the soul of the meritocracy.  The Blob was unkillable.”


Obamacare and the Task of Responsible Opposition, Pt. 3: How Bad is it?

 (See Pt. 1 here, Pt. 2 here)

Now, all of the preceding has one huge asterisk attached to it; everything I have argued holds if and only if Obamacare falls within the normal spectrum of good, mediocre, and bad law.  Now don’t get me wrong; my own view is that it falls very decidedly on the “bad law” end of the spectrum, in a whole host of ways.  But America has seen a lot of very bad laws—Patriot Act, anyone?—that have not warranted, or have certainly not evoked, this kind of response.  If the Right is not going to be hypocritical, they have to show why this is different and unique.  If in fact it is an abomination before God or against man, an attack on the body politic, a form of tyranny or gross injustice, or sure to do incalculable harm to the common good, well then, we may be in a state of justified exception to the principles I articulated above. Hooker after all says, “Not that I judge it a thing allowable for men to observe those laws which in their hearts they are steadfastly persuaded to be against the law of God”; obviously there comes a point at which “it’s the law of the land” should not be sufficient in itself to compel obedience.  If, for instance, to pick an issue of particular concern to conservatives, Congress were to pass a law requiring that all doctors without exception must perform abortions on demand, civil disobedience on the part of doctors would be the only acceptable option, and ferocious opposition by legislators might be in order.  In cases such as this, we would celebrate the many checks and balances in our constitutional system, and seek to use whichever ones we could to obstruct the implementation of such an unjust law.  But is the Affordable Care Act, as such, of this nature?

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The Abortion Question

In response to my recent Post-Apocalyptic Musings, my friend Ben Miller asked an earnest and important question: “given his [Obama’s] strong pro-abortion stance, isn’t it the case that a vote for him was clearly a vote for abortion? I’m not saying that everyone who voted for him was consciously pro-abortion, but it’s an unmistakably prominent part of what he stands for. I don’t see how a Christian can support a leader who’s a vocal proponent of holocaust.”  A similar sense underlay my friend Daniel Alder’s post, where he felt confident that if pastors were doing their job right, almost no church member would vote Democrat, because it was unthinkable for any faithful Christian to support a pro-abortion agenda.  In this, of course, they speak for millions of American Christians, deeming that there is simply no way to conscientiously vote for a pro-choice candidate, however preferable he might be on a range of other issues.  

 In my post, I lamented the “chasm of mutual incomprehension” that had opened up in American public life, and I am convinced that nothing is so paralyzing to life together as incomprehension.  Disagreement can be extremely fruitful and edifying, but incomprehension is sterile and provokes only frustration.  When we cannot understand why something has happened or why someone would say or do something, we are prone to become angry, and impute the worst possible motives as a way of trying to make sense of the situation.  Unable to comprehend why any rational person would do something, we find ourselves increasingly unable to think of them as a person, and thus unable to love them as a person, although we have little difficulty loving even our worst enemy if we understand what motivates him.    

It is probably safe to say that no single factor has contributed as much to the creation of this chasm of incomprehension, at least for Christians, as the issue of abortion.  The politicization of abortion, I believe, has been deeply harmful for American public life—for it has done very little in the end to mitigate the abortion problem, but it has done a great deal to dissolve the possibility of rational debate and mutual understanding in American politics and society.  So, although I am deeply sympathetic to Ben and Daniel’s concern (it was indeed one decisive reason that I did not vote for Obama), I would like to make a stab at trying to dispel a bit of the fog around this issue.  As I want to be thorough, I will confine myself primarily to the narrow question, “How could a Christian vote for a pro-abortion candidate, even while disagreeing with his policies?”  Such is the spectrum of opinion on the matter of abortion that many Christians will see this as a silly discussion with an obvious answer, and will be far more interested in discussing whether the pro-choice position is a viable one.  To other Christians, this latter discussion seems almost unthinkable.  Unfortunately, I will only touch on it briefly in my conclusion, though perhaps I can try to address it more fully another time.  But hopefully this inquiry, at least, may constitute a small baby step toward mutual understanding among Christians on this issue.

 

Before proceeding, let me first reassure my readers that I view abortion as a grave moral evil, tragic and disgusting, and consider many of the campaigners for abortion rights to have deeply compromised moral sensibilities, to put it delicately.  The following may seem like a dry academic argument to the effect, “It’s not that big a deal after all.”  That is not my purpose.  Abortion is a very big deal, and the task of saving lives from it is an urgent one.  But neither is it the only moral issue confronting our society, so there is no virtue in so single-mindedly dedicating ourselves to its opposition that we become incapable of making sound moral and political judgments on other fronts.


So, let’s first untangle the question, “How could a Christian vote for a pro-abortion candidate?” or, to use Ben’s wording, “Given Obama’s strong pro-abortion stance, isn’t it the case that a vote for him was clearly a vote for abortion?”  The contention here is that one cannot really say, as many Christians clearly have said, “I am voting for this candidate who happens to support abortion, but I am not voting for his support of abortion.”  Now, I would suggest that in Ben’s case, this question contains a couple of unvoiced premises.  Without those premises, and as it currently stands, the conclusion is not at all compelling, for it would seem to imply that our British, Canadian, Australian brothers and sisters—indeed, many foreign Christians, of many nationalities—are necessarily wrong whenever they vote for a pro-abortion candidate in their elections, as they often do.  Is that really the case?  And if so, why not?  Although I think Ben’s claim was much more specifically targeted, let me take some time to say why not, since I think many American Christians have not bothered to think this through, and I think it will help illuminate what’s really at stake.  

 It may help if we abstract from politics for the moment.  Let’s ask then whether it would be appropriate, if one were a stockholder, to vote for a new member of a company’s Board of Directors if one knew him to hold pro-abortion views (assuming, for the sake of argument, that this is not a company directly involved in the abortion industry)?  Or, how about, at the risk of trivializing too much, to vote for an American Idol contestant whom one knew to hold pro-abortion views?  Few would argue, I think, that these views should in any way constitute an automatic bar to a Christian endorsing such a candidate.  If anyone did argue that, on the basis that a Christian should never offer support to a person of such obviously depraved morality, I would suggest that this would be a very arbitrary stand to take, given that the other candidates might be of equally depraved morality on other issues (e.g., greed, toleration of adultery, love of violence, whatever).  Indeed, it is on this basis that I have little patience with Christians who go on boycotting crusades against any company that, say, gives money to Planned Parenthood.  I understand the sentiment, but why single out this single moral issue, while turning a blind eye to companies that engage in complex tax evasion or exploitation of workers? 

 Now, it would not be arbitrary if abortion did indeed constitute a uniquely grotesque perversion of morality.  For instance, I can imagine someone plausibly arguing that even for something as inconsequential as an American Idol contest, one could not support a contestant who advocated, say, rape or pedophilia or the torture of innocents.  Merely holding such views would render a person morally repugnant to a degree that no Christian should want to identify with them.  Is abortion such an issue?  I believe not, though I shall only have time to touch on this for a moment in the conclusion.

Assuming, then, there would be no automatic bar to supporting a pro-choice American Idol contestant or corporate board member, there might still be a contingent bars, of at least two types.  First, let’s imagine that one knew that this board member did not merely privately support abortion, but was an activist, and hoped to use the resources of the company to advance the cause of abortion—perhaps by giving very generously to pro-abortion causes.  In this case, one would be opposing the candidate not on the basis of his private failures of moral reasoning, but on the basis of the harm likely to be done from his gaining a leadership position.  In such a situation, voting for him might be construed as material cooperation in evil, just like knowingly providing a getaway car for a bank robbery.  Unlike the getaway car, however, it would probably be judged far, rather than near material cooperation—you would be supporting a man who probably, given the opportunity, would allocate funds to help support organizations that might well use those funds to offer more abortions—in many cases, to people who were already trying to get abortions anyway.  Even if it were merely far material cooperation, though, one would be forced to judge just how much harm he might actually do, over against the other goods he might bring.  For instance, perhaps he was committed to generous philanthropy in general, and would also try to give large donations to very good causes; or perhaps the other candidates, while not supporters of abortion, might be inclined to donate to other wicked causes; or perhaps he was the only candidate with the business acumen to keep the company running (assuming, for the sake of argument, that it were an otherwise good company doing a service to society).  Perhaps, in short, great good would come from his election; might this outweigh the harm that might come from his use of company funds to support abortion?  Possibly, possibly not.  Or perhaps the company’s policy was already to fund abortion charities, and there was little evidence the other candidates would change it. In view of such uncertainties, this would be a matter on which Christians could quite plausibly disagree.  Some Christians might support the candidate on the grounds that he would do much more good and less harm on the whole than the other candidates; some might support the other candidates on the opposite grounds; some might conclude that when they were all such bad apples, one should just keep one’s distance and vote for none of them.  So the first contingent bar is: likely to materially advance the abortion agenda by means of policies to an extent that outweighs any foreseen other goods.  (Before moving on, it’s worth pausing to notice that although this seems like a rather silly example, given that almost no stockholder ever bothers to vote on their Proxy ballot, or to research the candidates at all, perhaps this just shows to some extent our inconsistency, or unhealthy fixation with politics.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the Board of Director choices that I’ve had the opportunity to weigh in on as a stockholder were actually more consequential, in terms of the harm that might be done or averted, than some of the political candidates I’d had the opportunity to vote for.)   

For the second contingent bar, let’s look at that American Idol competition.  Can one imagine a scenario in which (assuming one were a die-hard American Idol fan, determined to vote for one of the contestants, in which case one might have issues worth addressing) one ought not to vote for one on the basis of her advocacy of abortion?  Yes, I think so.  For let’s consider the fact that an American Idol winner gains a very prominent podium in our society, an opportunity to speak out (albeit rarely very coherently) about what she’s passionate about.  Perhaps even more importantly, she becomes an “idol”—someone that people respect, for whatever reason, and want to emulate.  That being the case, she is capable of doing a great deal of harm merely by standing for morally depraved behaviors, even if she has little role in practically facilitating them.  (Of course, it might well be that she would also practically facilitate them, like the corporate director we saw above, by means of charitable contributions and the like, but we’ll leave that consideration aside here.)  If the contestant’s advocacy of abortion, then, were so strong or high-profile that, by supporting her, you were likely to raise up an influential spokesperson for abortion, or a widely-adored symbol of the pro-choice cause, someone who made it “cool” to be pro-choice make the cause of abortion more respectable, this might well constitute grounds why a Christian should *not* support such a person.  This is particularly the case in the example we have given, since there is really no reason why one should feel the need to vote for an American Idol contestant…this being so, to take the time to support such a morally compromised contestant would be like going out one’s way to support vice.  Of course, there would be other conditions—e.g., a presidential election—in which one might otherwise have very good reasons to support this candidate.  In that case, one would have to weigh the goods in question against the likely evils to result from helping to elevate to prominence of a spokesman for abortion.  Again, this would be a difficult judgment to make, perhaps even more difficult than the question above, since one would be weighing a very intangible factor (how powerful is this figure as a symbol of the pro-abortion cause?) against other more concrete factors.  One can imagine Christians who otherwise largely agreed on a wide range of issues coming to different judgments on this question.  The second contingent bar then is: likely to materially advance the abortion agenda by lending it respectability or prominence to an extent that outweighs any other foreseen goods.

(It should be noted that this second consideration loses significance to the degree that the vice in question becomes a cultural norm.  That is to say, imagine a pop star who was an outspoken supporter of abortion in the 1950s.  At that time, this would have been a very bold and, to most Americans, appalling position to take.  Anyone with such views at that time would have been almost certain to stand out, to become a symbol of this depraved cause, so that she was no longer just a pop star, but known as the “pro-abortion pop star.”  Nowadays, however, abortion has become culturally accepted enough that it is highly unlikely that an individual pop star’s advocacy of it would be sufficiently striking to merit much public attention.  The same, to some extent, is true of political figures.  To elect an openly pro-choice president forty years ago, would have been a much more shocking statement than to do so now.) 

From this second point arises a closely related concern, which might be thought to constitute a third contingent bar to voting for someone who approved of abortion, and which, I suppose, is a large part of what’s going on when people say that “a vote for Obama is a vote for abortion.”  To re-use the American Idol example, imagine if the outspoken pro-choice contestant became so identified with this “cause” that a vote for her could only be considered an endorsement of the cause, a message a Christian certainly wouldn’t want to send.  There are no doubt times which such can happen—when a particular issue generates so much heat and controversy that one cannot really separate the individual from the issue, cannot pass judgment one way or another on the individual without seeming to take sides on the issue.  In such a circumstance, a Christian would no longer be able to say, “I am supporting this candidate who happens to support abortion, but I am not supporting abortion,” which is the disjunction we have been assuming throughout the discussion thus far.  Therefore, no Christian could in good conscience cast such a vote, as it would appear to send a message that they could not send.  I think that this is how many on the Christian Right currently think about the abortion issue.  However, I think this argument fails, both empirically and theoretically.  Empirically, I do not think it is really the case that in America today, a Democratic candidate, even one as clearly pro-choice as Obama, is so identified with the abortion cause as to be almost indistinguishable from it.  Or rather, he is, but only in the minds of his fervently pro-life opponents—and perhaps in the mind of his most fervently pro-choice supporters. The majority of the American electorate does not think that way, and would have little trouble understanding the reasoning of someone who said, “I do not support abortion, but I will vote for Obama for other reasons.”  Theoretically, I think it fails because one’s own intentions always remain free and separate from others’ fallible judgments about them.  Just because someone thinks that when I act in such a way, I must intend evil, does not mean I cannot act in that way, intending something else.  We are to avoid the appearance of evil, but that’s the great thing about our voting—it’s private.  If I am convinced that I need to cast my vote in such a way that would appear to others to be a vote for evil, then I just cast my vote privately, without broadcasting for whom I voted.  Or, if I do broadcast it, I explain my reasoning clearly and carefully.  Therefore, the third contingent bar—likely to appear as an endorsement of a position I cannot endorse—fails.  (Nonetheless, this is still worth taking into account as one decides how to vote.  If one has trouble, in one’s own mind, abstracting the candidate from the morally reprehensible agenda one sees them as representing, then one certainly can determine on that basis that one would rather not vote for them.)

  

All of this should clarify for us what a vote against a pro-choice candidate isn’t or shouldn’t be: it is not a refusal to associate oneself with someone who has morally objectionable views; or a refusal to take any action that may indirectly result in the advancing of wickedness—both of these, consistently advocated, would require a complete withdrawal from public life.  On the contrary, it is a refusal to advance the agenda of someone who has morally objectionable views that they are likely to put into practice or publicly advocate to an extent that will do great harm outweighing any other foreseen goods.

This being the case, it should now be readily apparent why many of foreign brothers and sisters need have little compunction in voting for candidates who support abortion.  In many of their settings, abortion is in many cases a matter of settled policy, and there are few elected representatives interested in opposing it.  If none of the candidates available is planning to make much change to abortion policy, one may lawfully vote for the candidate one expects to do the most good on other fronts.  Indeed, in such a setting, voting for a candidate who supports the status quo abortion policy is only in a very distant sense any kind of material cooperation with evil, since the evil being done is quite separate from the actions of the candidate.  Likewise, if we turn to the second contingent bar, since abortion is not, alas, highly controversial in many of these societies, even an outspoken supporter of abortion would attract little notice.  In Britain, for instance, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which a candidate could become a symbol of the “abortion cause” (there not really being such a recognizable cause) to the extent that one must avoid lending him one’s support.  In their circumstances, then, it is rarely the case that a given candidate is likely to materially advance the abortion agenda either by means of policy or by lending it respectability or prominence to an extent that necessarily outweighs any other foreseen goods.  Of course, that is not to say it is never an issue.  There are still plenty of live political issues related to abortion here in the UK and other European countries, and there may be some candidates vigorously advancing an expansion of abortion rights, whom Christians should avoid supporting on those grounds.  But in general, it’s not likely to be a highly relevant consideration.  Note also that this is not a call for European Christians to give up on this issue, because they’ve already lost the battle.  It merely means that for most of them, opposition to abortion will likely have to take other forms besides political activism, at least until such time as legal opposition to abortion again becomes a viable platform.

 

So now, let’s turn finally back to Obama.  Four basic questions will affect our judgment of the Christian’s duty in this case.  The first is, “To what extent is Obama likely to advance abortion by means of policy decisions?”  The second is, “To what extent is Obama likely to advance abortion by lending it respectability or a prominent defender?”  Ben Miller, I take it, considers the answers to both of these questions to be, “To a great extent,” and it is on this basis that he feels able to say, “Given Obama’s strong pro-abortion stance, isn’t it the case that a vote for him was clearly a vote for abortion?”  But we must ask two further questions.  The third is, “To what extent are we already like Europe?  To what extent is abortion now settled policy, accepted practice?”  The fourth is, “What are the other viable candidates (in this case, Romney) likely to do about abortion?”  

Taken together, the third and fourth enable us to reframe the first and second as follows:  “To what extent is Obama likely to advance abortion by means of policy decisions relative to what would happen if he were not elected?”  The second is, “To what extent is Obama likely to advance abortion by lending it respectability or a prominent defender relative to what would happen if he were not elected?”  Once framed this way, the difficulty of reaching a clear answer, that should bind the consciences of believers as they consider voting, becomes readily apparent.  Because I do not think that any of these questions admit of easy answers, I will not attempt to hash them out in detail, but will merely outline a few points.

Thinking again in terms of four questions, how might we answer the first?  Obviously, Obama is pro-choice, and has already as President enacted policies that favor that agenda, most notably the provisions in Obamacare that leave religious institutions having to help fund abortions.  Just because abortion is already law in the US doesn’t mean it can’t be made worse by making access to abortions easier and more universal, and unfortunately, many in the Democratic Party, including Obama do seem committed to doing just that.  The President’s power to appoint judges is of course also relevant, as his selection of pro-choice justices renders it ever more unlikely that Ro v. Wade could be overturned.  I am not convinced by claims that Obama is militantly pro-choice, bloodthirsty for the expansion of abortion in a uniquely sinister way, as many on the Right seem to think, but the general orientation of his agenda is undeniable.  It is worth noting, incidentally, that it really matters little for this discussion what Obama’s private views are—perhaps personally, he really does dislike the idea of abortion, and wants it to be “safe, legal, and rare,” and is acting only under pressure from the NOW and other constituencies.  It would be nice if that were true, and would affect, perhaps, our assessment of his own moral sensibilities, but it makes little difference to our assessment of the impact of his policies. 

Regarding the second, too, we must go on the basis of public presentation, rather than private beliefs, whatever they might be.  That includes, unfortunately, campaign ads.  Of course, everyone recognizes that campaign ads are cynical vehicles of short-term manipulation, and people ought perhaps therefore to put little stock in them.  But they are a key way in which a candidate presents himself, his message, and what he stands for to the American people.  The fact that the Obama campaign decided to run so many ads defending abortion, and castigating Romney for his opposition to it, unmistakably painted Obama as the representative, the champion, of the pro-choice cause.  For him to win under such circumstances meant at least in part a victory for that cause, helping affirm it and lend it respectability.  Using someone like Sandra Fluke as a poster-child reinforces the message that “reproductive rights” are cool, and Obama is all for helping women expand them.  For some Christians I know, it was this identification with the cause of abortion by the Obama campaign, more than any particular policy decisions on the issue, that was a deal-breaker for them.

If we consider the third question, though—”to what extent are we already like Europe?”—I think many realistic Christians, particularly of a younger generation, take a pretty sober assessment of where America is now at on the abortion issue.  Are we really likely to overturn Roe v. Wade now, after forty years?  The political prospects are daunting enough alone.  But worse, it is widespread cultural acceptance of abortion that constitutes a greater obstacle than any purely political difficulties.  There is an extent to which law can affect morality, to be sure, and sometimes, law can outrun morality, as it were, insisting on conduct which does not yet command a general consensus, in hopes of creating that consensus.  The Civil Rights movement is a good example of a case where this seems to have generally worked (although some would argue that federal government policy here was too much, too fast, with long-term harmful effects on both races).  Many would cite also Wilberforce’s successful prohibition of the slave trade, but we mustn’t forget that this took twenty years of sustained effort, and was only successful when Wilberforce realized that first public perception must be re-shaped, the cultural consensus must be altered, before legislation could ever be successful.  There are many other cases in which attempts to ban a practice by law, when the citizenry were not convinced, failed abysmally—Prohibition being perhaps the most notorious.  In general, I would say that the trajectory of a society is one of the things that matters most here.  In Wilberforce’s time, factors were already at work that were moving English society in a direction that disposed them to be able to perceive and confront slavery as a grave moral evil.  Likewise in the Civil Rights movement—the public consciousness, while still stubbornly racist in many areas, was turning already in favor of the cause when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.  Because of this, the law was able to succeed, by and large, in requiring people to be moral when they didn’t want to be, and in continuing to reshape the moral consensus.  Sad to say, the moral trajectory of the American people right now is not toward a greater condemnation of abortion.  Sure, there are some signs that some progress has been made, that a majority of Americans now would consider themselves pro-life, but the majority is slim.  And perhaps more decisively, the general worldview of Americans, with the premium value they place on choice, individual liberty and “rights,” and their general distaste of having the “government” dictate anything to them, renders it unlikely that the pro-choice cause is going down anytime soon.  Even attempts to restrict abortion piecemeal, by raising the age required, or by requiring parental consent, and that sort of thing, have often run into intractable opposition.  That’s not a reason why we shouldn’t continue to fight the cause, and on every front.  But it means that perhaps we are not now at the point where we should consider a presidential election likely to make a decisive difference one way or another.  It also means that we’re at the point where we’re pretty jaded as a nation, and the mere fact of having a pro-choice President may not materially alter people’s perceptions of the issue very much.

Likewise, if we consider the fourth question,”What are the other viable candidates (in this case, Romney) likely to do about abortion?” there were two reasons to be skeptical in this case.  The first is that Romney is a weasel and a flip-flopper, who seemed intent above all on getting elected, and once elected would be intent above all on staying in office.  That being the case, I don’t have great faith that, if he found confronting abortion to prove too difficult or controversial, he would had quietly shelved the issue.  Perhaps that’s overly-cynical, but it is at least an understandable judgment to reach, and remember that our purpose here is simply to show that there exist multiple rationally-defensible answers to these question.  Second, we have to be honest about the fact that we have had 24 years of Republican presidency—at least 16 of which made a fairly strong claim to represent the interests of the “Moral Majority”—since Roe v. Wade was passed, and have seen essentially no positive effect from it.  We’ve even had a conservative majority on the court, but seen it show little indication to revisit the issue or overturn the decision.  Even if we granted that Romney was at least as reliable a pro-life candidate as Bush II or Reagan, that obviously wouldn’t show much.  Yes, it is likely, that especially with the appearance of Obamacare and such, there are issues of particular policy where Romney could influence things positively, but we should not expect anything particularly dramatic.  It is of course also the case that, thinking in terms of the second question, it might help the pro-life cause to have such a visible public advocate.  On the other hand, so entrenched are the two camps now, that it might make little difference.  

 

Where does all this leave us?  How do we answer the questions, “To what extent is Obama likely to advance abortion by means of policy decisions relative to what would happen if he were not elected?” and “To what extent is Obama likely to advance abortion by lending it respectability or a prominent defender relative to what would happen if he were not elected?”  My own personal answer was that I thought Obama could still do enough net harm on this front that I was unwilling to vote for him, but I was also unwilling to drop all other considerations and vote against him on this basis, as I spelled out a week and a half ago.  But I can readily understand arguments in either of the other directions—those who think that, given the weight of other issues, a vote for Obama was defensible, despite his abortion stance, and those who think that Obama’s position on this issue was likely to do so much imminent harm or Romney’s so much imminent good, that they felt obliged to vote for Romney.   

I hope that I have succeeded at the very least in demonstrating the complexity of the issues that must be sorted through before a summary judgment on this question is reached.  And I hope therefore that we might be more able to comprehend and accept the judgments of fellow Christians who weigh these considerations differently.  We may still disagree, but at least we needn’t be paralyzed by incomprehension.

Unfortunately, in this post, I have worked only within the sphere of assumed agreement that, ideally, we should want to legally ban abortion; I have not had the time to address the other, even more paralyzing source of incomprehension, and I shall only touch on it for a brief moment before concluding.  This is that there are some people, including some faithful Christians, who would genuinely support not merely a candidate who happens to be pro-choice, but pro-choice policy as such.  Perhaps for many Christians on the Right, this position at least remains so morally depraved as to be incomprehensible.  Of course, there are two forms that this might take—a belief that abortion should remain legal, although it is immoral, and a belief that abortion is not immoral.  Although I believe the former position is flawed, I would argue that a plausible case could be made for it, especially given certain assumptions about the nature of law that are increasingly dominant even among today’s Christians.  Even the latter view, I would want to point out, although an example of serious moral blindness, is not a unique or uniquely incomprehensible one.  Many of our Christian ancestors defended slavery, and even the slave trade, positions we now find repugnant and in many cases almost incomprehensible.  But it was only because their opponents were willing to seek to understand their sinful reasoning, and considered them capable of persuasion, that this evil was overcome.  When I hear some Christians railing about evil abortionists, I wonder sometimes if they’ve ever actually known anyone who was pro-choice.  A few, I would grant, truly merit the adjective “evil,” and deserve nothing but the most fervent opposition.  To most others, however, we owe a willingness to listen and learn, even while opposing.  There are some rational links in the chain of logic that would lead one to that position, and we must take the time to understand them if we are ever to successfully win hearts and minds.  

 

All of this, perhaps, has been a rather tedious way of saying not very much—“It’s complicated.  It depends.  Let’s disagree respectfully.”  Perhaps I am merely stating the obvious, but nowadays, it seems even the obvious needs stating.   With the conclusion of this third very lengthy post on contemporary politics (making up for my recent neglect of the subject on this blog), I propose to take a blogging hiatus for a week or two, while I’m away at ETS, AAR, and SBL, and then celebrating Thanksgiving and my arrival at the quarter-century mark.  I will try to reply to any comments here, but may be much slower than normal.  


Post-Apocalyptic Musings

I penned my ponderous essay, “Why I Won’t Be Voting,” last week, in hopes that, having lobbed it into cyberspace, I could then quietly retreat again from all things election-related.  Sure, I was planning to get up in the wee hours of the morning to watch election returns, but that was for mere entertainment value…like watching the Olympics, which also only comes around every four years. I had intended to strictly steer clear of Facebook on the day of and the day after the election, to avoid being swamped in hysteria.  Unfortunately, my family was out of town, and, feeling socially isolated, I couldn’t resist puttering about and listening in.  I beheld many strange and wonderful things, from the comical—people seriously contemplating emigrating to Canada (why only now, not in 2008? They’ve survived the last four years alright, haven’t they?  And how exactly do they expect to find Canada less “socialist” than Obamerica?)—to the disturbing—people suggesting that Obama supporters might warrant church discipline.  Mixed in, usually in linked articles rather than on Facebook itself, were a number of profound and thoughtful observations.

Having wallowed about for a day or two now in the reactions, and the reactions to the reactions, and the reactions to the reactions to the reactions, I find myself, despite my best intentions, ready to weigh in with my own two cents.  The first cent is political, the second theological.

 

1. What took me the most by surprise about the election was the surprise at the result.  I mean, sure I knew that people on the Right seemed mostly optimistic, and unrealistically so.  But I had figured that it was the understandable brave face that everyone puts on when they go into battle, or when their team has a big game.  Everyone wants to think that their side has a legitimate shot even when outgunned, and even when they have their doubts, they don’t share them with others—that just dampens the team spirit.  But when defeat comes, you bow your head, say, “I knew it was an uphill battle,” shake hands, and move on.  Right?  Not the Right.  

The reactions witnessed on the blogosphere, the media, and in social media yesterday were those of stunned incomprehension.  It became clear that all the brash boasting had not been mere posturing, but sincere belief—sincere belief that despite the weakness, sliminess, and general dislikeableness of their candidate, that despite all the polls, the math, the expert predictions, their candidate was really going to win.  Indeed, not only win, but many believed, trounce.  In the end, it really wasn’t even that close, and it matched up almost perfectly to what the polls were predicting. Hard facts won.  Delusions lost.

 

This reaction disturbed me, because it confirmed the Right’s steady journey away from reality that we have witnessed over the past few years.  Somewhere along the way—I’m not sure when it happened—conservatives in America reached the conclusion that “the mainstream media” was not to be trusted.  It was hopelessly tainted by liberal bias.  Once this idea sunk in, the normal means of testing claims and forming judgments became useless.  Anything that any respectable source of information or opinion said could be automatically discounted; indeed, not only could we legitimately doubt these claims, but we could generally assume that the opposite was the case.  Around the same time, the Right reached the conclusion that scientists as a whole were gained by the same liberal bias.  They were probably part of some conspiracy seeking for one world government.  Anything they said could also be discounted, and indeed, the opposite assumed to be the case.  So engrained have these habits become that the Right has begun to think of these biases as accepted facts.  “Everyone knows” global warming is a hoax.  “Everyone knows” the media is biased.  These are just facts of life, right?  Now, once you have determined that both expert scientific opinion and nearly all respected forms of journalism are unreliable and even openly deceptive, what are you to conclude?  That truth is elusive and we can’t really know anything?  No, that truth is certain and unchangeable and is what you want it to be.  Personal impressions begin to trump all other considerations.  I recall a revealing moment a couple years ago when a Republican congressman ranted to Ben Bernanke about how inflation was spiraling out of control.  Bernanke calmly pointed out that according to all relevant data, the inflation rate was actually at its lowest in years, less than 2 percent.  The congressman responded that he and his constituents, given their impressions, would beg to differ.  The same attitude was manifest in the bizarrely exaggerated claims throughout the campaign about how bad the economy was, how Obama had wrecked America, and how he was the worst president ever.  Sure, there were things to complain about, but it was hard to see how a sober evaluation of the data bore out any of these conclusions.  And yet the odd thing was that they were presented not as opinions—”Well, from where we’re standing, Obama seems like the worst president we’ve ever had”—but as simple facts, which any rational person ought to accept.  

“Any rational person”—ay, there’s the rub.  Of course, in any partisan conflict, it is common for people to begin to think of their opponents as somehow stupid or irrational.  But the Right has made this way of thinking its trademark.  In the “War on Terror” this attitude allowed conservatives to convince themselves that Muslims were filled with an irrational and implacable hatred of America.  Any discussion with them was useless, because they were incapable of rational discourse or human sympathy…they were, in essence, sub-human.  Once such a conclusion had been reached, any argument they made, however reasonable, could be dismissed as a mere ploy. 

Tuesday night revealed that now, conservatives have reached the same conclusion about their fellow Americans who disagree with them.  Obama’s slap-in-the-face victory should have served as a wake-up call, a reminder that there was a real world out there beyond their fantasies, and ignoring it wasn’t going to get them anywhere.  It was time for conservatives to take a good hard look in the mirror and say, “Gosh, we’re not very attractive anymore.  I wonder why?”  It was time for them to recognize that the majority of the country felt differently than them about Obama and its policies, and if they wanted to continue to claim to love America, they’d better find a way to accept this fact, and recognize that living in a society means accepting policies you don’t always like.  Some, to their credit, have done so, and hopefully more will in the weeks and months ahead. For many leading conservatives however, confronted with the awful truth that they’ve been living in the Matrix, and there’s a real world out there to face up to, the response has been to retreat into the comfort of fantasy land, only now with a more militant edge.

 

The new rallying-cry of the Right is Romney’s appalling and much-maligned “Forty-seven percent” remarks.  Conservatives are preparing to raise that as their banner (even while having the gall to accuse Obama of inciting “class warfare”!), adjusting the number slightly upward to 51%.  It doesn’t matter that most people considered the moral sensibilities behind Romney’s remarks reprehensible.  Nor does it matter that it was pointed out on all sides that they bore no relationship to the facts.  It was simply not true that anything like 51% or 47% of the American people were freeloading off the largesse of Obama, nor that those who were freeloading were generally Obama supporters.  But that didn’t matter.  Because this fantasy provided an explanation to help rationalize what had happened.  The reason the Right didn’t win was because it couldn’t win.  It was hopeless.  Why?  Because a majority of the American people were now in the pay of the enemy.  They were bribed.  They didn’t give a hoot about the Constitution or the future of their country, so long as they received a never-ending supply of free stuff without ever having to work for it.  Rush Limbaugh declared that it was hard to win when you were running against Santa Claus.  Of course, this is pure fantasy from a statistical standpoint.  Over half of Obama’s votes came from people earning more than $50,000 a year, a demographic that did side with Romney, but by a narrow margin (53%-45%).  Not only that, but the group most likely to vote for Romney (by a 55%-44% margin) were retirees.  Freeloaders, feeding from the public trough of Medicare and Social Security, right?  

But the purpose of the narrative was not to describe facts.  It was to help make sense of what otherwise seemed inexplicable.  For so thoroughly had the Right equated their vision of the world with truth that the revelation that most did not share their vision could only be explained by positing that these voters were evil or irrational.  Even better, such an explanation provided an excuse.  Republicans need not blame themselves for their failures, when scapegoats were so near at hand.  If 52% of the population were lazy and greedy and cared nothing about the direction of the country, then there was nothing the Right could’ve done.  

A chasm of mutual incomprehension, in short, has opened up in American society.  I had hoped that the election would provide an opportunity for self-examination, for taking stock, for righting this sinking ship of a decadent society.  But on the contrary, it has seemed to only confirm the determination of conservatives to live in a separate parallel world, one in which they represent the true American and can write off a majority of their fellow citizens.  Needless to say, if conservatives want to put forward a vision for America, it will have to be a vision for all Americans, a vision that can include them, their hopes, fears, and aspirations.  By seemingly resigning themselves to the fact that they are and will be a minority, arrayed against a morally decadent majority incapable of judgment, the Right seems to be preparing for an age of factional strife in which a victorious minority can impose its will on the people.  And even for those of us who think that many conservative values would, on the whole, be good for America, that is a frightful prospect.  

 

We are at a crossroads, with three paths before us.  1) Conservatives can accept that they are a minority, and retreat, yielding the field of American public policy to the victors, and go into hiding as the prophesied doom approaches. 2) Conservatives can turn militant, harden their platform into one of racial and class warfare and hope their chance comes to impose it upon an unwilling majority.  3) Conservatives can recognize that they live in a divided country, with different values, different understandings of the good, and different views about how to reach it, and then try to figure out how to negotiate these differences, sticking to their principles while accepting the need to make compromises in practice, as the price of continued life together.   

I hope and pray there are enough now willing to take the third option, and if so, I would try and console them with the thought that the divisions are not half so great as they imagine.  Obama is not a raving socialist, nor are American liberals particularly liberal.  They are a tad to the left on a political spectrum that is, by global and historical standards, quite narrow indeed.  If we cannot figure out how to talk to people who share, in fact, most of our basic cultural and political assumptions, then we have lost the power of speech altogether.  Such a call to learn to live life together is not a call to compromise with evil.  First of all, I do not think it self-evidently obvious that the 51% who voted for Obama are evil—they had many good reasons, not least of which was the atrociously insincere candidate the Republicans put forward.  But even if they were (and to be sure, some elements of the Democratic agenda, particularly among the most fervent pro-choice advocates, are evil), we mustn’t forget that we can only combat evil if we attempt to understand it. Just as we get nowhere by refusing to plumb the reasons why a Muslim suicide bomber would want to kill American civilians, we get nowhere by refusing to plumb the reasons why many Americans would want four more years of Obama.  Comforting ourselves with the fairy tale that they just want Santa Claus will not get us anywhere. 

 

 

2. Now, some theology. 

I was troubled yesterday by the inundation of my Facebook feed with Christian brothers and sisters seeking solace and comfort in God in a time of trial.  Let’s remember, they said, that God will never leave us nor forsake us.  Let’s remember that Jesus is the King, and no earthly election can change that.  Let’s remember that God is in control, and he is working his purposes out, mysterious though they may seem.  

Why should this trouble me?  Why would I be bothered at such fine and Scriptural sentiments?  Well, two reasons.  First is the “methinks the lady doth protest too much” consideration.  To clasp your hands to your chest, hyperventilate, and repeat over and over, “I’m fine.  I’m fine.  I know it’s all going to be all right.  It’s going to be all right” is generally a sign that you are not fine, and you don’t really think it’s going to be all right.  Many folks yesterday seemed to speak as if they’d just lost a close relative and needed to find comfort in God in a time of such bewilderment and distress.  I would rather them seek comfort in God than elsewhere, but if such comfort was needed, it suggests that many had a rather mixed up set of priorities (not to mention a tenuous grip on reality, since, as I said above, an Obama victory was almost a foregone conclusion).  Second, and related, was the fact that only a Romney loss seemed to call for meditation on the discontinuity between God’s kingdom and our politics.  In the lead up to the election, we heard little enough from Christians on the right about the need to keep things in perspective and remember that the result of the election is a fairly small thing in God’s eyes, and will not obstruct the progress of his kingdom.  On the contrary, we were repeatedly told how much hinged upon it.  A Romney victory, it seems, would have been taken as visible proof that God was at work—here was God’s grace and his government made manifest.  Only a Romney defeat called for the sentiment that God moves in mysterious ways—his hand was now hidden, and we must simply trust.  

Again, I’m glad that many Christians came to that conclusion, but I would ask them to remember that God’s hand is always more or less hidden, that he always moves in mysterious ways, and that whichever of these two candidates had won, it would not have been the visible manifestation of his gracious rule.  If it takes a Democratic victory to keep Christians from immanentizing the eschaton, and remind them that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, then let’s have a few more such victories.  

 

Perhaps more troubling, though, was the determination of some to persist nonetheless in discerning God’s hand of eschatological judgment made visible in the election.  For these, Obama’s victory was not to be met with a humble acknowledgment “God moves in mysterious ways, and we’ll trust him, although we don’t know what he’s up to.”  They did know what he was up to—judgment.  Doug Wilson, after offering the standard reassurances that Jesus was Lord, and was in control even if we didn’t know why, immediately contradicted this agnosticism, declaring, “Given the wickedness of key elements in Obama’s agenda . . . we know that whatever the Lord is doing, it is for judgment and not for blessing.”  We can know the will of the Lord in this case, and it was his will to judge this nation.  Of course, Scripture gives us conflicting guidance when it comes to such attempts at prophetic discernment.  We have cases like Job and the Tower of Siloam where we are taught clearly that we must not attempt to divine the Lord’s will in the vicissitudes of history—in particularly, we must not equate particular tragedies with acts of divine wrath and judgment.  On the other hand, in the prophets, we find countless examples of just such equations—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, the whole lot of them, have little hesitation in saying, “This Assyrian invasion is the Lord’s punishment.  This pestilence is the Lord’s punishment.”  How do we reconcile this?  I would tentatively suggest that the reconciliation is found in the fact that these are precisely prophets doing this.  The ability to discern God’s hand in history is the definition of the gift of prophecy, and it is a gift that has, I would argue, ceased (although we can certainly debate that).  This doesn’t mean we can make no attempts at discernment, but they must usually be highly tentative (there are times, of course, when discernment is important and possible—e.g., Germany in 1933—but they are rare), and they do not carry prescriptive weight. 

This last point is key.  If we know exactly what God is doing in particular events in history, then we can know exactly whose side we should be on.  We can know what actions are for cursing and which are for blessing.  And we can, on this basis, tell Christians exactly how they should respond to these circumstances.  We are no longer left with the murky compass of prudence, but should be able to perceive all things clearly in the light of God’s judgment.  The implication of remarks like Wilson’s, it would seem, is that we can know that those who voted for Obama were helping call down God’s curse upon us.  

And in fact, Wilson draws precisely this conclusion—”Professing Christians who voted for Obama were either confusedly or rebelliously heaping up judgment for all of us.”  Every “principled vote,” he says, offered in faith before the Lord, should be respected, “even if the vote cast differed from our own.”  But he apparently has in mind votes for a third party vs. votes for Romney, since he goes on to classify all votes for Obama under the heading of unprincipled votes.  Now, if I can know that a professing Christian is heaping up judgment for the rest of us, how should I be expected to treat that Christian?  Will I want to live together with him in love and seek to understand him, or will I try to distance myself from him?  It is hard to see how this kind of rhetoric can square with the doctrine of Christian liberty, or how it can be expected to have any effect other than intensifying divisions among Christians and rendering mutual understanding increasingly impossible.  It is the theological equivalent of what the commentators at Fox News are doing—consigning all Obama voters to the realm of wickedness and irrationality, instead of trying to understand them.   

Many Christians are clearly of the opinion that if pastors were doing their job right (including a more vigorous use of church discipline), there would not be many Obama supporters in the church.  One friend wrote

“we need to be serious about our Christianity.  It’s not hard to see why President Obama was reelected.  He won 43% of the Protestant vote, and 50% of the Catholic vote.  I’ve got to ask – how can you be a Christian and vote for a blood-thirsty, baby-killing, free sex-loving agenda?  How can you?  I’ll tell you how – because our pastors and our churches have failed.  They’ve not only failed to boldly proclaim the Gospel (which condemns both murder and free sex, as well as a host of other immoralities), but because they’ve failed to hold their congregations accountable.  This is where a free and open membership has destroyed the church.  Pastors must be serious about their obligation to Christ and His Church.  What are the keys for, after all?  If your members are in sin and are unwilling to repent, then they must be excommunicated. I’m not saying our churches can’t be full of sinners.  They are, they must be, and they always will be.  But our churches should be full of repentant sinners. 

Faithfulness to Christ’s kingdom, this suggests, requires a particular affiliation in the earthly kingdom, and this needs to be policed by the ministers of Christ’s kingdom.  You couldn’t find a much better example of why Protestant two-kingdoms doctrine is necessary.  

 

Now, my beef with this is of course not that faithfulness to Christ’s kingdom never has anything to do with worldly politics.  Obviously, I think it has a great deal to do with it, and there are times when a Christian’s duties should be clear.  But even when they are clear (e.g., end the slave trade, protect the needy, resist abortion), the means to those ends are not always clear.  In the present case, we have not been given a candidate who makes any plausible claim to stand for Christian principles.  What we are left with is a prudential decision between two candidates who are likely to do a good deal of harm, in which we try to decide which will do the least harm.  We should not consider it remotely obvious, in this circumstance, that one was the Christian choice, and that everyone who voted otherwise was a servant of wickedness or incapable of discernment.  After all, as Steve Holmes has pointed out in a helpful essay, the large majority of Christians outside the US hoped for an Obama victory.  Is that because all of them, too, are waiting for Santa Claus, or are heaping up God’s judgment on us?  Really?  It’s time for us to stop hiding in the ghetto, man up, and face the arduous task of persuasion and debate in a world where our own perspective is not the only plausible one, where we will meet disagreement at every turn, and no doubt find ourselves surprised to discover that it is, from time to time, intelligent disagreement.

 

(In addition to Holmes’s essay just linked, I recommend, for further reading, Matthew Tuininga’s reflectionsa piece published by the Atlantic yesterday, and Peter Leithart’s butt-kicking prognosis at First Things.)

(UPDATE: See also this astonishingly trenchant analysis by Alastair Roberts of the differences between the way British Christians and American Christians approach politics, which resonates with a great deal of my own observations after more than three years here in the UK.)


Why I Won’t Be Voting—An Apologia

I promised last week a post I have been planning for a long time, “Why I Won’t Be Voting.”  In the shadow of Superstorm Sandy, though, any thought of the election has seemed gauche and trivial—NJ Governor Chris Christie summed up my feelings aptly when he angrily replied to a reporter at a post-storm press conference, “In view of this devastation, do you really think this administration gives a damn about the election?”  

And yet, the show, it seems, must go on, even such a buffoonish circus act as Campaign 2012 has been.  An election will be held, millions of my fellow citizens will weep or celebrate with the outcome, and it would confirm all of their worst suspicions about expats like myself if I was so disdainful as to pretend the election wasn’t even happening.  More to the point, while I do not believe that one has a civic duty to vote, I believe one has a civic duty to take part, in some sense, in an election, which means that a decision not to vote ought to be a conscious act of dissent, rather than the mere inaction of lazy indifference.  To be effective as an act of dissent, it ought to be publicly stated and defended, so here goes my statement and defense.

 

Principles

First of all, we need a brief discussion of principles.  Thankfully, this can indeed be brief (by my standards at least), as the fine gentlemen at The Calvinist International have just offered a powerful and lucid account with which I am in wholehearted agreement.  I encourage you to read and reflect on their exposition in full, but I shall restate some of the most salient principles developed there, and then add what seem to me two other pertinent ones.

1) As already mentioned, I do not buy the argument that we have a God-given duty to vote in the abstract.  You will hear people say things like, “Do you realize how many men and women have given their lives to secure that right and that freedom for you, and are you so ungrateful that you’re going to spurn that?” but that’s just shameless emotional manipulation.  There is a failure to vote that is apathetic and thus ungrateful, but one can appreciate and take seriously one’s right to vote without feeling this entailing that one must exercise that right on every available occasion.  One does have a duty to one’s neighbors to care about political decisions that will negatively or positively affect the common good, and this very often means that one ought to vote, but there will be occasions in which it does not seem that one can vote in such a way as to affect any positive change, and here, one’s civic participation may take other forms than voting.

2) Some will say that, although one does not have an abstract duty to vote at all times and places, if the stakes are high enough, it is one’s Christian duty to vote.  “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to stand by and do nothing,” is a favorite quotation trotted out for this purpose.  In recent election cycles, it has generally been assumed that the Democratic candidate represents “evil,” in its purest form, and this has perhaps never been more so than presently with Obama.  It is no exaggeration to say that Obama is generally perceived in almost apocalyptic terms as an anti-Christ, or at the very least a destroyer of our nation, on the right.  For many, then, we have the same kind of duty to vote against him that a Christian would have had to vote against Hitler.  While I grant that it is possible for an evil to be so clear and present that it is morally incumbent upon one to resist it by voting, among other means, I find the suggestion that such is the case in America in 2012 frankly laughable.  This is not because, as I am often told, I live overseas and so am completely out of touch with just how apocalyptically bad things are in the United States (indeed, the fact that Apple, Starbucks, and McDonald’s are still expanding their reach over here across the pond suggests that the American way of life is not quite yet teetering on the brink of extinction).  Rather, it is because I am a keen student of history, and as such I can tell you that for every genuine tyrant who has terrorized his people, there have been a hundred imperfect rulers who did some harm and some good, men whose vices appear banal rather than fatal in hindsight, who were denounced and feared as tyrants and destroyers of their country by their political opponents.  It is simply human nature to think in terms of saviours and satans, to lionize their rulers when all is going well, and demonize them when things are going badly.  Demagogues rise and fall, and the world continues to turn on its axis.  It is also because I am a student of the US Constitution, by virtue of which it is only within a very limited range that any president can affect change, whether for good or ill.  With the very best president imaginable, the country will be only marginally better off at the end of four years; with the very worst, only marginally worse off.

3) (For this point in particular, the TCI discussion is very helpful.) It is permissible to vote for “the lesser evil.”  This is because a vote is to an endorsement of, or an identification with any particular candidate—it is simply an attempt to secure a relatively better realization of the common good, and to render less likely particularly serious evils.  That being the case, one may vote for a candidate whom one expects to make a number of evil decisions, without being personally culpable for those decisions, if one believes that on the whole, justice will be better served by that candidate.  Of course, it is possible that an evil policy will be both so serious and so certain that one is morally culpable for supporting the candidate who will enact it, even if he is better than the alternative.  In such a case, voting for neither is the only acceptable Christian response (even if it means making it more likely that the candidate who is even worse will win).  It should be noted here that the common claim, “To vote for neither is the same as voting for Obama [or whoever is seen to be worse]” is invalid.  Inaction is not morally symmetrical with action, even if it can be culpable.

4) Related to the foregoing, one is voting for a candidate not primarily on the basis of his personal character, but on the basis of his expected policies.  Of course, certain aspects of his personal character will be quite relevant to how you expect him to do his job, but it is only to that extent that they are relevant.  (E.g., you may decide that a candidate who cheats on his wife is one who is likely to be untrustworthy and irresponsible, but if that does not seem to be the case, the mere fact of his infidelity need not prevent a Christian from voting for him.)  

5) For all these reasons, the decision regarding whether to vote, and whom to vote for, is usually an exercise of prudential judgment in a difficult situation in which a number of considerations must be balanced against each other, most of which considerations will be based upon determinations of the empirical facts which are themselves contentious and difficult to determine (e.g., just to what extent will Obamacare support abortion? just how dangerous is Iran’s nuclear program? just how much did Obama fail to respond to compelling intelligence regarding the danger in Benghazi? etc.).  Therefore, in most cases (and this election is, to my mind, certainly one of them), it is a decision on which we should be able to respect the decisions that other Christians reach in good conscience.  I can respect, therefore, those who choose to vote for Romney, those who choose to vote for Obama, those who vote for a third party candidate or write-in, and those who abstain altogether.  What I cannot respect, or in most cases have difficulty respecting, is those who cannot respect this difference of opinion, and demand that every good Christian must vote for X.  

 

Two other considerations which were not really discussed in the TCI piece, but which I think need to be emphasized.

1) While I think it is true that we ought to de-mystify voting as much as possible and view it just as a pragmatic way to try to achieve some limited greater good within the range of options available to us, I think we should not underemphasize the importance of representation. Representation is an unavoidable feature of politics.  Politicians are not merely officials commissioned to do certain hopefully beneficial tasks, they are individuals who represent constituencies and agendas.  To vote for them is, to some extent, whether desired or not, to become identified with that constituency.  A candidate’s representative identity can prove immensely powerful in shaping the public square, just as much or more than any particular policies he enacts, and thus cannot be ignored.  For instance, positively speaking, the fact that Obama was black meant that he represented the empowerment of a formerly disempowered minority, a powerful message that reverberated globally, shaping the way Obama was perceived and what he was able to accomplish.  Negatively speaking, let’s think of a candidate like Strom Thurmond in 1948 or George Wallace in 1968.  Now, one could legitimately think that their federalist, states-rights platform would on the whole be the the most beneficial set of policies for the country.  However, the fact that both represented very strong racist, pro-segregationist interests should have presented a huge stumbling block for any Christian who might vote for them.  The point is not merely that if elected, they might well have pushed for unjust, racially discriminatory policies, but that the mere fact of their election would send a racist message, a message with which anyone who voted for them, whatever their personal reasons, would find themselves connected.  

This representative aspect poses a serious problem for Christians today considering voting for either candidate.  On the one hand, regardless of Obama’s own concrete abortion policy, which is problematic enough, he stands for a constituency dedicated to an godless vision of what personal freedom means, in which maximization of liberty means removing all barriers to sexual license.  I am not saying that all pro-choice advocates think that way, but that is a prominent viewpoint which exercises great influence within the Democratic party at present.  On the other hand, Romney represents a number of deeply problematic constituencies, from the individualistic, anti-government libertarianism of many Tea Partiers, to the tax-dodging plutocracy that believes government’s job is to ensure the maximum generation of wealth for the investing classes.  A responsible Christian wanting to vote for either of these men would have to be convinced that the candidate did not so thoroughly represent this constituency that a vote for him would appear, to the public eye, a vote for this constituency.

 

2) On the basis of the aforementioned consideration, I think that the prospective voter needs to give real thought to what their vote will and won’t achieve in their particular state.  That is to say, if one is voting in a swing state, where every vote counts, then it becomes far more urgent for one to really consider, “Which of these is the lesser of two evils?  Would I regret it one day if I didn’t take the opportunity to at least vote against candidate X, recognizing the harm he might do?”  In this setting, one’s vote is much more likely to function as a vote against Greater Evil Y than a vote for Lesser Evil X.  However, if one is voting in a state where the result is basically already a foregone conclusion, then there seems to be less need to vote for the lesser of two evils.  In such a setting, the vote no longer really functions as a vote against Greater Evil Y (since he will not win anyway), but as a definite vote for Lesser Evil X.  It thus appears more like an endorsement, a signing on to the constituency that the candidate stands for—if the candidate in question is one who is deeply compromised, you should ask yourself if there is really reason to associate oneself with him when there is no urgent reason to do so.  My own view, then, is that in a choice of the sort voters are faced with this year, it would generally be best for Christians in “safe blue” or “safe red” states to abstain or vote third party.  

 

The Upshot

You can thus see, in outline, how I reach the conclusion announced in the title of this post.  I am registered in the state of Idaho, which is pretty much guaranteed to go Romney.  To add my own vote, increasing Romney’s margin of victory, would be sending a message of support that I really do not desire to send.  (Note that, in the current political climate, a vote for a third party and abstaining entirely both serve essentially as votes of dissent, against the two main candidates.  In general, I would consider a vote for a specific third party candidate superior to simply abstaining, since it identifies the nature of one’s dissent more precisely—although it may well be that all of the third party candidates are such kooks that one does not feel comfortable identifying one’s dissent with any of them.  In my own case, the main reason I am simply abstaining is pragmatic: it is a bit of a pain to register to vote from overseas, and given my decision not to vote for either of the two main parties, registering was not a high enough priority for me to find time to do so; local elections, of course, are still quite important, but it is unlikely that I will be moving back to the locality in which I am currently registered.) 

Were I registered in a swing state, it would be a much more difficult decision, as I find the relative good and evil of the two candidates to be pretty equally balanced, and I am glad not to have to make that decision.  So I have genuine respect for Christians who reach different decisions, and offer this post only as an explanation of my own conclusion, not a demand that everyone else think likewise. However, for those desiring to hear further why I consider the case for both candidates so uncompelling, I offer some assessments below.

 

However, it may be wise to preface these assessments with a word about my qualification to write on such matters, given that many have questioned it.  As mentioned above, I have been told that as someone out of the country for the past three years, I am out of touch, and clearly unable to form a reliable judgment about American politics.  This seems to me a bit like a corporation telling the accountant who audits them that because they’re not part of the company, they just don’t understand what it’s like, and aren’t qualified to form a judgment, or like a sports team telling an referee that because he’s not there with them dribbling the ball, he isn’t qualified to judge.  In most settings, the position of an outside observer is considered a privileged, rather than a handicapped one—someone who’s above the heat and emotion of the fray, and is able to see better what the various sides are really up to; someone who can see the big picture and put it all into perspective rather than just a small slice of it.  Now, I don’t really want to claim to be such a privileged observer—after all, I’m hardly dedicating all my time and attention to watching American politics, as a referee would to a game.  But I do think I can at least claim to be a qualified observer, well-enough informed, not necessarily to tell you how to vote, but at least to form a defensible judgment about how I will vote.  I make it a point to follow the gist of American political news, though not to be inundated by it, and to read both reports and opinion pieces from sources covering a great swath of the political spectrum, and from sources both within and without the US. I may not know a lot of stuff that would be helpful to know, but none of us have time to inform ourselves about everything.

I am also told sometimes, that being in Britain, I am no doubt subjected to the liberal, anti-American bias that clouds the judgment of the rest of the world.  The assumption that drives this remarkably common accusation is that only Americans, really, are qualified to form intelligent judgments about politics.  If the rest of the world is skeptical of American policies, it is only because they are anti-American.  If the rest of the world is to the left of America, that is proof that they are all socialists.  This is exceedingly hubristic.  It may well be that Americans have some superiorities of judgment on certain matters, but surely we should recognize that other countries are likely to have better judgment on a number of matters as well.  I am not suggesting that Britons and Germans and Brazilians should be allowed to vote in American elections, but their perceptions of American politics can offer valuable insights that American commentators often miss.  Seeing how Britons see American politics has helped me see it much better, not worse.

 

Some Specific Issues 

Now, my particular assessments of the candidates.  I shall offer these by evaluating first what seem to me to be the most important arguments to vote for Romney, or against Obama, and then what seem to me to be the most important arguments to vote for Obama, or against Romney.  Obviously, I will leave out a great number of issues, either because I don’t consider them so important, or because I don’t know enough about them to make an informed judgment, or because, while they may be important, it does not seem that the candidates particularly stand out from one another on them.  I shall also try to be quite brief in summarizing my assessment of the candidates, without trying to defend it at length, though I think in each case, I could provide good reasons for the assessment.  I will omit what seem to me some of the more absurd arguments (e.g., that Obamacare, and Obama’s program of redistributive taxation in general, amounts to “legalized theft,” and must therefore be opposed by any Bible-believing Christian.  I have written on this issue at some length—see for instance here, here, here and here).

 

Reasons to Vote for Romney/Against Obama

R1. Abortion

Argument: Abortion is the most urgent issue for Christians today in American politics.  There is no greater evil that is being perpetrated in our nation, with more than a million unborn babies killed every year.  Obama is the most pro-choice president we’ve ever had, deeply beholden to the abortion lobby, and has already done a great deal, not least through the healthcare legislation, to advance the pro-choice agenda.  Romney, whatever the ambiguities in his record, seems to be decidedly pro-life now, and is at least dependent on a pro-life constituency.  He will appoint justices that could one day overturn Roe v. Wade, and he will enact legislation that helps restrict abortion.

Counter-argument: There is little evidence that Romney has particularly strong pro-life convictions or is likely to spend much of his limited political capital in that direction.  In any case, more importantly, there is little evidence that having a pro-life president makes that much difference—it hasn’t seemed to in the past, and despite 25 years of Republican presidency since it was passed, Roe v. Wade remains firmly on the books.  Abortion will only be resolved by large-scale cultural change, not by executive order.  What is legally feasible is constrained by the morals of a people; the Supreme Court will not overturn Roe v. Wade so long as abortion is a widely-accepted cultural practice, nor is it clear that they should attempt to do so.  

Rebuttal: However, rhetoric and symbolism matters.  It matters that we have a president who stands for a pro-life agenda, who represents a pro-life constituency, rather than one who  Having a president who stands for a pro-life agenda vs. one who stands for a pro-abortion agenda.  It says something about who we are as a nation, and can work to influence the national mood and climate so as to create a more inhospitable climate for the abortion lobby.  Plus, short of overturning abortion, there is a good deal that can be done legislatively to curtail some of its worst evils (e.g., abortion for young teenage girls without requirement of parental consent or even notification).

Verdict: On this score, it seems clear that Romney is not only the lesser evil, but that Obama is so beholden to the abortion lobby that it becomes quite difficult, though not impossible, to ignore this issue and support him on other grounds.

 

R2. “Family Values”

Argument: The forces of “secular humanism,” largely represented by the left and by Obama, are making war on America’s Christian heritage and on the family in particular.  Abortion is a prominent example of this, but so are gay rights and the many other ways in which liberals seek to privilege personal autonomy over against traditional moral norms.  Romney, as a Mormon, is committed to protecting traditional Judeo-Christian values.

Counter-argument: Since when was Mormon “Judeo-Christian”?  Romney’s pandering to his constituency here is only skin-deep, and as president, there is no way that he’s going to show much backbone on these issues.  But more importantly, the American Right is in its own way so deeply committed to modern ideals of individual autonomy that it has no real ground to stand on in protecting traditional moral norms.  The values that the modern Republican Party stands for are at least as corrosive to the traditional family and Christian faith as those the Democratic Party stands for, if not more so.  True renewal here is going to have to come from outside the current two parties, probably from outside politics altogether.

Rebuttal: There ain’t one.  Sorry.  The Right is bankrupt when it comes to moral philosophy these days.  No, OK, fine.  The Right has little ground to stand on, but it is at least not as militant in its embrace of hedonistic personal morality as the Left is.

Verdict: Romney might be slightly stronger here, but not nearly so much as most Christians seem to think.

 

R3. The Economy

Argument: Obama has made a royal shipwreck of the economy.  America is really in pretty desperate shape economically, and only Romney has the solution.  He has experience in the business world, he believes in the power of the market, he’s ready to get rid of regulation and red tape, lower tax rates, etc., to get America back on its feet.  After four more years of Obama, we’ll be ruined!

Counter-argument: No, not really.  The economy was already deep in its worst recession in 75 years when Obama took office, and although it hasn’t sprung back entirely to life, the sinking ship has righted itself and is slowly hobbling along again.  You can argue over whether that happened because of Obama’s policies, or whether it would’ve happened anyway.  And you can claim that his policies slowed the recovery down.  But I’m skeptical.  People who make these arguments don’t realize how absolutely terrible the fundamentals of the economy were when he took over, and how few viable options for recovery there were.  Anyone who expected or promised a quick recovery was stupid (that includes Obama himself).  It was going to be a long, hard, uncertain road, at risk of teetering back into recession, pretty much no matter what.  Clint Eastwood can rant all he wants, but professional economists are pretty well agreed that Obama’s policies by and large benefited the economy, which would otherwise be in much worse shape.  

In any case, Romney’s promised solutions are untried.  It is possible, to be sure, that he has some answers, but there is absolutely no guarantee that he will be able to do any better than Obama at resolving the economy’s problems than Obama.  Chucking Obama in the blind hope that Romney’s solutions will work is an act of desperation.  Plus, the kind of deregulation Romney favors will simply give us more of the kind of irresponsible capitalism that gave us the problem in the first place.

Rebuttal: Look, Romney’s clearly a numbers guy, an efficiency guy.  He’s a very competent businessman, whatever else he is.  If anyone’s got a game plan to help boost the economy, it’s him.  Plus, regardless of whether or not Obama’s policies succeeded in diverting a depression, things seem to have stalled out, and he has few ideas left as to how to get them moving again.  When one person’s out of ideas, you try some new ideas.

Verdict: There is a weak case for Romney here, though it depends heavily on which economists you listen to, and on what you think Romney will actually do, given the contradictory policies he has outlined at different stages in the campaign.  Even the sympathetic magazine The Economist concludes in a recent op-ed, “For all his businesslike intentions, Mr Romney has an economic plan that works only if you don’t believe most of what he says”

 

R4. Reducing the Deficit

This one is worth mentioning, given how much airtime it receives, but it may be dealt with pretty summarily.  Although Romney talks a great deal about the importance of reducing the deficit, his concrete proposals for doing so have been sketchy, unrealistic, and contradictory.  He has yet to come forward with a clear deficit-reduction plan that any sane economist believes likely to achieve its stated goals.  It’s possible, of course, that he could do better at reducing the deficit than Obama, but there’s no convincing reason to vote for him on this basis.  

 

R5. Will Protect American Interests Abroad

Argument: America is the greatest force for good in the world.  As Paul Ryan put it, “Only by the confident exercise of American influence are evil and violence overcome.”  What’s more, there are terrorists all over the place who hate us, and we need a strong military, with an aggressive global presence and no-nonsense diplomacy, to keep these enemies in check and help make the world a better place.  Obama has been downright anti-American, obsequiously yielding to weaker foreign powers, giving in to demands of enemies, being soft on terrorism, and generally doing his best to undermine American hegemony and weaken our military.  The Benghazi debacle is but the latest proof.  This must stop.  Romney will re-establish American strength abroad and reverse the decline Obama has overseen.

Counter-argument: Simple nonsense.  Fact is, despite receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama has done very little to disengage America from its foreign entanglements.  Withdrawal from Iraq has been slower and less complete than promised, we are still fully engaged in Afghanistan, Obama has in fact escalated the drone war and has not closed Guantanamo.  For Pete’s sake, he unilaterally ordered a covert mission in another sovereign nation to assassinate Osama bin Laden. If that’s not assertive, America-can-kick-your-ass-whenever-it-wants-to foreign policy, what is?  To the extent that Obama has reduced American aggressiveness, I’m all for it (see O5 below).  Indeed, the rah-rah Americanism that wants to see American returned to its proper and historic place at the pinnacle of the world is not only shockingly arrogant, but is simply unrealistic.  All empires rise, peak, and decline or fall.  The only question is whether they manage their decline graciously, or stubbornly try to cling to power they don’t have, and fall precipitously.  Looking at economic and demographic facts, there is simply no way that America can hold on to the global hegemony it has enjoyed for much longer.  China will eclipse us and there is little we can do about that.  The only question is whether we prudently manage the clout we still have so as to make sure the rest of the world still likes us when we’re no longer the biggest kid on the block, or whether we make enemies for ourselves by pompously trying to assert our power to pretend it’s not ebbing.

Rebuttal: Nonetheless, Obama has been indecisive and vacillating, reacting to circumstances, rather than confidently asserting a consistent foreign policy.  We need more decisiveness and strength, even if you think America does need to start reducing its role.

Verdict: I think there’s actually a slight edge for Obama here (see O1 below).

 

R6. Obama is duplicitous and untrustworthy.

See O5 below.

 

Reasons to Vote for Obama/Against Romney

I will attempt to be briefer here, as this is probably getting tedious even for those passionate about the election.

O1. Foreign Policy

Argument: The gist of this has already been spelled out in R5 above.  But I could add more about how downright wicked much American foreign policy has been over the last century, in which the shameless pursuit of national interest has justified the deaths of hundreds of thousands, most of them civilians, the support of some of history’s most wicked regimes, and the torture of prisoners. These points, of course, stir up strong emotions, and it is often difficult to sort out truth from falsehood when reading the sources on these issues, so I won’t hash it out in depth.  But we have a lot to be ashamed of, we have no right to pretend that we are God’s gift to the world and must therefore project our power at all costs.  While Obama may have done little to warrant the Nobel Peace Prize, he has certainly at least changed the tone and the perception of America abroad.  He is less likely to go to war with Iran, and more likely to take a more balanced line on Israel.  He has focused the War on Terror, at least, more on actual terrorists, rather than just dictators with lots of oil who didn’t like us.  He has done some good in this area.

Counter-Argument: All that stuff about the wickedness of American foreign policy is overstated.  America has done a lot of good in the world, and the good that we can continue to do includes things like preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons, something Obama seems unlikely to do. Plus, the very worst aspects of American foreign policy—things like drone attacks and Guantanamo—Obama has not helped one bit.

Rebuttal: Perhaps so, but perception still matters a lot.  When Bush was president, most of the rest of the world, including our natural allies, came to hate us.  With Obama as president, they are much more friendly.  If Romney were elected, regardless of whether his actual policy differed much from Obama’s, he would be perceived, because of the constituency he represents, as a return to the bellicosity and arrogance of the Bush years, which would immediately reduce the goodwill with which America is viewed abroad.  Whatever else you think about foreign policy, having the trust of other countries, especially your natural allies, is clearly a plus.  

Verdict: In Obama’s favor, although not decisively.

 

O2. Tax Policy and Deficit

Argument: Romney’s tax policy will favor the wealthiest, hurt the poor and middle class, and cause the deficit to balloon.  If anyone doubted his plutocratic instincts, his infamous 47% remarks sealed the case against him.  

Counter-argument: Nuh-uh.  Lower taxes on the highest earners will boost productivity and investment, causing a rising economic tide that will lift all boats, the poor and middle class included, and boost tax revenues, reducing the deficit.

Rebuttal: Sorry, almost no sane economists agree with this proposal, and Romney has yet to put forward a clear and concrete tax plan that can actually realistically produce the results he keeps claiming for it.  Fact is, even with the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, high-income earners are enjoying historically and globally low taxation rates, and have little right to complain.

Verdict: A fairly strong case for Obama here. 

 

O3. Financial Transparency

Argument: The recent financial crisis was caused in large part by an irresponsible, out-of-control, under-regulated, over-sized financial industry, one which operates behind a veil of secrecy, through a web of international tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions, with little or no accountability or ethical standards.  Obama was elected on promises to tackle the Wall St. behemoths, tighten up regulation and improve transparency, and make sure that the big banks were no longer able to prance merrily along, making immense profits with no thought of the social and economic costs of their actions. 

Counter-argument: Obama has in actual fact done little or nothing to tackle this problem.  The very few regulatory steps that were taken were essentially toothless, and many have been shelved altogether.  The banks continue to get away with murder, and the re-routing of money through tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions continues unabated.

Rebuttal: All well and true, but while Obama may not have made things much better, Romney could make them far worse.  Romney is himself neck-deep the dark world of tax havens, and a cheerleader for plutocrats, bankers, and big business.  He wants to reduce the already very limited regulation of financial markets.  He is a dream candidate for the financial industry.

Verdict: Obama is clearly the lesser of two evils here.

 

O4. Environmental Concerns

Argument: In almost every country outside the United States, it is basically received fact that we are headed for, or rather, already in the midst of, ecological crisis.  It’s not just climate change, although that’s clearly a concern, and the continued escalation of extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy heightens this concern (although of course no single extreme weather event can be clearly attributed on its own to climate change).  We are living beyond our means.  We are depleting the earth’s resources, polluting its air and water, ruining its ecosystems.  This is not tree-hugger hysteria, but sober scientific fact, documented extensively and in some cases exhaustively.  Obama is committed to addressing these challenges, whereas Romney is not.

Counter-argument: In actual fact, despite his rhetoric, Obama has done very very little to advance environmental concerns, and has remained almost silent about this issue on the campaign trail.  On Obama’s watch, the US continues to stubbornly refuse to take coordinated global action on these issues, or to pursue a long-term sustainable energy policy.  

Rebuttal:  Similarly to O3 above, while it may be true that Obama has done little to make things better, Romney would almost certainly be worse.  His party has become progressively less and less “conservative” when it comes to actually conserving the world around us over the past three decades—while it used to acknowledge that there were serious environmental problems, but preferred market-based solutions or a lighter regulatory touch, it now increasingly pretends that there aren’t even problems to begin with, and demonizes and ridicules anyone who says there are. Romney himself may be more sane on this issue (I hope so!), but he’s beholden to a constituency so anti-environmentalist that one can’t help but worry about the policies he would enact on this front.

Verdict: Obama is clearly the lesser of two evils here.

 

O5. Better the Devil You Know

Argument: Obama may have a host of flaws, but at least we know them already, and we as the American people have a good sense of how to confront and oppose Obama when he’s wrong.  We know how to see through his rhetoric to what he’s really up to.  This being the case, there’s not too much harm he could do in the next four years.  With Romney, we are voting for an unknown.  Should he win, it would take a few years to figure out what he’s really up to, how he operates, how to see through his duplicity.  So it’s not as safe a bet dealing with him.  He’s simply not trustworthy, we don’t know what we’re getting, and it’s a stupid move voting out someone we don’t like in hopes that the unknown that replaces him will turn out to be better.

Counter-argument: Sure Romney is duplicitous, but we still have a good idea what we’re dealing with.  Obama is duplicitous and untrustworthy too, and for all we know could have been concealing his real radical agenda these past four years just waiting to get re-elected.

Rebuttal: Sorry.  All politicians may be duplicitous and deceptive, but Romney takes it to a whole new level.  The man seems almost constitutionally incapable of telling the truth, either about himself and his own positions, or about his opponents.  It is hard to remember a candidate so infamous for his flip-flopping, insincerity, and dishonesty, although the media in fact has rarely bothered to call him on many of his more brazen deceptions.  While I have very little respect for Obama’s honesty, Romney’s is downright repugnant, and renders very dubious any claim that we should vote for Romney on the basis that he’s going to do X.  We really don’t know what he’s going to do.

Verdict: Obama is the lesser of two evils here.

 

 

Summing it all up, then, you’ll see that I find Obama somewhat more attractive on a wider range of issues, but find the abortion issue important enough that it basically cancels out Obama’s advantage on lesser issues; indeed, it alone would make it very hard for me to vote for him.  So I return to the conclusion stated above—I would have difficulty voting in good conscience for either of them, and as I am not in a battleground state, there is no reason to force myself to try to decide.  In protest against both candidates, and the decadent state of American politics, I abstain.