When Evangelicals are “Pro-Choice”

This is not a post about abortion. It’s really about the way in which evangelicals often frame their arguments and the ways in which those can become reductionistic and oversimplified. Too often, our rhetoric suggests that we’re focused on Monty Hall’s Let’s Make a Deal: Is the answer behind Door #1 or Door #2?

Make a Deal

I’ve been somewhat disconnected from the internet while on vacation, but I’ve still seen this pattern play out when checking Facebook or Twitter. In response to the suicide death of Robin Williams this week, blogger Matt Walsh argued that we shouldn’t focus so much on tragedy or depression but on the fact that Robin Williams made a choice to kill himself. I’m pleased that much of the Christian blogosphere quickly called out such a callous claim (including some quite conservative voices). I don’t need to add my name to the list, but Walsh’s argument struck a chord.

We see similar arguments made when evangelicals discuss the complicated issue of transgendered persons. Critics who haven’t looked into the psychology and physiology of the transgendered community will talk of people who have “chosen” to be a certain gender, sometimes with a suspicion that the individual will someday “choose” to switch back.

Or take Ann Coulter’s reprehensible article about missionary doctors who contracted the Ebola virus while trying to treat infected populations. They made a “choice” to go to a part of the world where disease was more prevalent so they are responsible for any illness they incur.

Read evangelical articles about homosexuality and there will be those arguing that gay people have simply “chosen” a lifestyle and they could be helped to choose the normative one. The apologies of groups like Exodus Road have helped to combat this thinking but it’s still fairly prevalent. This BBC interview with Christian musician and theology student Vicky Beeching (who recently announced she was gay) contrasts with the choice language of Scott Lively (I have to grant Scott’s point that the set-up piece before the exchange made an actual conversation impossible).

I’m sure there are some people who will treat the situation of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO as a case where he “chose” a behavior that resulted in his death. It’s hard to get those folks to accept notions of power imbalances, latent racism, or profiling because each case involves an individual who “chose”.

Even the abortion argument is based on assumptions that a woman “chooses” to have an abortion. This is why abortion protestors stand outside clinics yelling about the poor “choice” she is making.

Why is it that evangelicals are more likely to see things in dichotomous terms? Why are ideas of structural inequality or biochemical factors or impinging contingencies of life so hard to grapple with?

As Scot McKnight and many others have observed, it is in part due to a soteriological focus. Much of evangelicalism has been shaped more by wanting people to “make a decision for Jesus” than to “take up a cross and follow”. We’re better at Manichean spiritual warfare language imagery than powers and principalities. If I’ve made a decision for Christ I’m in the heaven-bound set and not in the hell-bent set.

There’s also a linkage between rugged individualism and our thoughts about decision making. Rational Choice theory enjoyed favor in both criminology and the sociology of religion. Building from an economic metaphor, the idea is that people make choices based on perceived costs and benefits. The is the basis behind deterrence theory and was a dominant explanation for why people switch denominations. The problem is that far fewer of our choices are rationally considered door #1 or door #2 situations. Life is more complicated than that.

Maybe it’s time for evangelicals to worry less about simple choices and think more about navigating complexity. What happens if we begin our conversations understanding that the work is a difficult place?

Nate Silver’s The Signal and The Noise has some great chapters about Bayesian Probability. When you make a decision tree outlining all the factors that impinge on a particular action, you get a better sense of what’s going on than looking at a simple coin flip.

Of course Robin Williams made a choice to take his life. But there were a variety of factors that influenced the yes/no choice he made. The question we should be asking about Robin Williams’ suicide, along with those of the sons of Rick Warren and Ergun Caner, is “what combination of factors made this choice seem like the only one possible?”

When we look at a transgendered acquaintance, we have to consider the complexity of circumstances leading up to the conclusion that one is “in the wrong body”. This is not a lifestyle preference but the result of years of struggle. (Does anyone really think people go through sex reassignment surgery to see what it’s like?)

When a black man becomes the victim of police extremism, we have to ask why this keeps happening. Why are there circumstances where the response is so disproportionate? What leads to police suspicion or fear, to black men being singled out, to a culture of distrust?

When a Christian comes out as gay, we have to look at the pain involved in years and years of struggle. This is not a decision that is made lightly by anyone. In most cases, it’s not a “decision” at all.

We need a more robust understanding of both the human condition and of the Kingdom God is building around us. There really aren’t two doors that people are choosing between. It’s a spider-web of forces that impinge on their reality. That spider-web is part of the reality of God’s now-and-not-yet Kingdom.

It calls us to offer to others the very Grace we’ve received. As one social media friend reminded us, this is the story of the seventh and eighth chapters of Romans. Paul recognized the complexity in our lives (as do we all) and we should extend that possibility to others as well.

In another place Paul said that there is another way that depends on faith, hope, and charity. And the greatest of these is charity.

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14 thoughts on “When Evangelicals are “Pro-Choice”

  1. Several issues occur to me. First, our ability to make moral claims requires convictions about freedom and the capacity to choose. Duty, holding one another morally accountable, depend on them. But the more we know about human brains and the complexity of our life-worlds, the more difficulty it becomes to talk simply about choice and reponsibility. Our rough and ready, common sense taken for granted convictions about such things typically lags behind where the science is going. But we can’t wait for definitive answers before we act on the violent if not criminal actions our fellow citizens make. We’re in a tough place. Then, the Christian, especially if she belongs to an Augustinian tradition, should realize as much as anyone how compromised our choices are and our utter vulnerability to circumstance (but reading Augustine, Calvin and Luther when they attack their opponents or the ungodly, for example, you might overlook that). Finally, I think this is a major reason evangelicals distrust neo-Darwinian evidence to collapse the self and the brain. An evolved meat machine like ourselves just can’t be different from a DVD player, can it? With that and other problem arrayed against us, is it possible John to make the moral claims we must while extended grace and if possible mercy?

    1. Thanks, MIke. A couple of quick thoughts. First, maybe the duty to hold another morally accountable should only happen in intimate communities. There’s a big difference between a group of friends who knew Robin WIlliams’ complex issues and could work with him on those and random bloggers (like me) pontificating on moral absolutes. Second, if we began with assumptions of complexity we’d be less likely to knee-jerk reactions — maybe we’d be prone to fewer situations like Ferguson. Third, I think we offer grace and mercy which earns us the ability to make moral claims.

  2. I enjoyed your thought-provoking article, and agree that there is a temptation among many Christians to oversimplify issues into 1’s and 0’s; personally I try when possible to deal in fractions. However I did post a fairly lengthy comment concerning your article on Craig Keen’s Facebook page, wherein I modified the focus away from oversimplification and onto Marxist influences as an important factor in dealing with issues such as abortion, homosexuality and race. As an example, in your title, the label “pro-choice” is used. But doesn’t that load that label with ideology? Wouldn’t the clinically neutral term be “pro-abortion”? Because that’s the issue, isn’t it? Regardless of the myriad of factors involved, the ultimate question is whether or not there is a termination of life. The word “choice” brings with it justification for the action, and my contention is that that rationale is intimately connected with Cultural Marxism, and further I contend that the Marxist use of the word “choice” is actually deceptive and misleading – used to normalize the process and keep the abortions happening – because it satisfies Marxist objectives which are hidden, such as the need for sexual promiscuity to help weaken Christianity and the family, and the desire to reduce world population. And it’s not out of the question to include Eugenics as part of the hidden agenda given Margaret Sanger’s views, coupled with the disproportionate number of abortion clinics in neighborhoods comprised of people of color.

    One final comment on the politically correct word “choice”: I don’t deny that it’s possible to construct arguments that justify abortion on the basis of for example “unfit to mother” or similar. But just because a justification can be made with no cognitive buy-in to Marxism does not remove Marxism from the equation, to me it simply validates that the marketing aspect of political correctness has been on-target once again. You will not be surprised to know that I consider Marxist ideology as part of the Ephesians 6:12 “spiritual wickedness in high places”, but there is also a flesh and blood component that can be identified and dissected.

    1. Richard: It was helpful to read your comments on Craig’s FB page because you’re more specific there on connecting Cultural Marxism with Gramsci and Lukacs. As a sociologist, I was struggling to connect your critique with more classic Marxian arguments (I teach theory so know those and their limitations pretty well).

      My use of the word “choice” was entirely about the rhetoric of such matters. As the first line said, it wasn’t about abortion or eugenics or any such political construction but more about the failure to see complexity. Recognizing complexity where it exists (as some of Craig’s other commenters shared) does not fall into a “weaken Christianity” motif — it actually strengthens it.

      As an aside, I’ve never liked the Pro-Life and Pro-Choice labels because they are arguing different rhetorical dimensions. The former is focused on the baby. The latter on the women’s integrity. An ideal social policy would find ways of celebrating both.

      1. Thanks John for your reply. The area I’m really trying to come to terms with is that of Cultural Marxism and race. I’ve spent a lot of time in ministry in the Black community over the past 25 years, but it’s only recently that I’ve begun to grapple with the impact of ideology on contemporary Black culture. Actually the Ferguson situation brings a number of ideologies into conflict, and Marxism is in the middle of it. I just finished reading Dinesh D’Souza’s “The End of Racism”, and found it very insightful, especially in regards to cultural relativism; 19 years later, it still makes a lot of sense. And I’ve found several essays in discoverthenetworks.org, including “Victims of the Left: Black Americans”, as well as “The Black Family: 40 years of Lies” in frontpagemag.com, wherein is described the tragic rejection of the 1965 Moynihan report by the Left which has brought decades of dissipation and suffering in the Black community. I find John McWhorter also has helpful insights, although I don’t necessarily agree with his “solutions”. You know from my comment on Craig’s Facebook page that I esteem Star Parker’s take on these issues, and of course Thomas Sowell and Walter E. Williams as well. But as my close Black friend often says to me when discussing these matters, “….but Dick, you’ve got to understand…..”. I don’t, but I want to!

  3. Richard: As a sociologist, I read a different genre of sources. I’m not dismissing the “impact of culture” arguments of Sowell or Williams or even Charles Murray. Culture is important (although I think going to the critical sociologists of the Frankfort school isn’t necessary to make the point).

    The problem with beginning with culture is a chicken and egg problem. Culture develops as an accommodation to other social realities, like inequality, organizational power, economic access and the like. They are mutually reinforcing but to change culture without changing the broader structural issues is nearly impossible. I’d be the first to grant that changing structure without addressing culture doesn’t work. So the strategy has to deal with the larger dynamics, particularly when it comes to issues of race and class. Only then can you deal with culture because sometimes what we see as cultural dysfunction is actually a response to other conditions.

    It strikes me that this discussion might be better suited to Sunday’s post about Ferguson that Saturday’s post about evangelicals. I hope you check that one out as well (plus some others I’ve written on this blog).

  4. There is a lot of good discussion and thoughtful things in the article follow up posts. I respect the fact that there are a variety of factors that go into the decisions we make, both positive and negative. Although I believe Mr. Walsh position is accurate, broadcasting it when he did was poor timing. Not quite as bad as protesting at a funeral, but somewhere in that ball park. I would argue that we also need to be careful that we don’t let the complexity of an issue cloud the Biblical truth that needs to be shared. Abortion is murder. There should not be any debate about that among Christians. All sexuality is a choice. Does our DNA influence our behavior? Yes, but that does not give us justification to rationalize it as an appropriate life style. I believe that the Bible teaches that homosexuals like all other’s who sin sexually can be saved as long as they have accepted Jesus. Jesus didn’t give a hard hitting sermon at Lazarus’ tomb. He had compassion and comforted those who were morning. He then demonstrated his Grace and Mercy by raising Lazarus from the dead. There were other times where he shared the truth and used rather harsh and sarcastic language.(brood of vipers) It is important for us as Christians to share the truth. Like Jesus sometimes that means it should be shared with Grace and Mercy. Other times it means that it is still shared in love, but with a more of an either or approach.

    1. Matt: Thanks for your input. As I said in the first paragraph, most of my focus is on rhetoric — the way we frame our arguments. While I may think there may be many good Christians who would see more complexity to some of these questions, I want to affirm your position. But the rhetorical focus is more on how we talk about that. I’m suggesting that we wind up explaining why each of us think certain things and find ways of sharing our moral principles and their scriptural foundations. When we begin a presentation with “Biblical truth that needs to be shared” it will run into real difficulty in today’s postmodern society. If we’re concerned about evangelism and discipleship we have to take that into account. So admitting the complexity and allowing scripture and the Holy Spirit to speak into that complexity is where i think we need to go.

      I explained to someone yesterday that this post (and my broader work on the changing nature of evangelicalism) really grew out of my study of the millennial generation and the ways they are engaging the culture. I’d invite you to look back at some of my posts over the last year on millennials to get the context.

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