Moral Values…hmm

August 17, 2006 | By | 17 Replies More

 In 2004, George Bush was reelected.  We can debate endlessly over whether or not he stole that election, but it’s beside the point for this rant.  Besides, four million popular votes seems like a big wad to steal.

What we need to figure out if we want to have any possibility of turning this misdirected ship around is WHY SO MANY PEOPLE VOTED FOR THE REPUBLICAN RIGHT?  Not even just Republicans–there are decent Republicans that I would support (Arlan Spector comes to mind, as does a pre-2004 John McCain)–but the rabid fundie far right wing of the party, the wing that is destroying it and trying to turn this country into something like a theocracy. 

So what was it?

    The factor listed by most exit polls in Middle America was–is–Moral Values.  Not in California or the Northeast corridor, but in the Heartland.

    Moral Values.

    I had thought for a long time that the issues driving Bush supporters floated between abortion, school prayer, and taxes. I’m now not so sure tax cuts are that important–these people have got to realize that if Bush continues his policies, at some point a huge bill is going to come due.

    The furor over gay marriage in the last months of the campaign underscores the exit polls. Moral Values.

    If I thought the votes were driven by the deep morality stemming from a Kantian apprehension of the nature of the right, the good, and the universalizable as determined by a focused application of the categorical imperative, I wouldn’t be so concerned. If I thought people had given due attention to a reasoned examination of a sound set of moral principles and voted accordingly, I wouldn’t be upset. Unfortunately, I seriously doubt that to be the case.

    Perhaps I’m being unfair–I’m sure there are individuals out there who did indeed make such a study and still voted for the Republican Right–but collectively, this whole Moral Values thing is a shuck. It’s more about appearances than anything truly moral.

    Look what the sentiments are:
 

1: The anti-abortion movement is a powerful centerpiece for this voter block. The overturning of Roe v. Wade is core. They wish to outlaw abortion.

2: Prayer as a public function. Prayer in school, Christian associational material in government facilities, a national embrace of religion in public life. They do not like a secular state.

3: A clear aversion to homosexuality.

4: A strong censorship movement to ban or diminish the presence of what they deem pornographic. This extends to literature in schools that seems to promote a serious re-evaluation of “traditional” morays or deals in subjects which make them uncomfortable–adolescent sexuality, racism, anti-authoritarianism, and extends to secular subjects such as biology, history, and philosophy.

5: A rejection of biological science, specifically Evolution as the determined mechanism of the development of life–most especially a rejection of the evolutionary given that human beings are part and parcel of that life and have come about in the same way as all other life.

6: A promotion of so-called Family Values, which is a catch phrase for a desire to return–as they put it–to a traditional set of relational codes defining the roles of men and women and children in society. Monogamy, procreation, and a hierarchical family structure are part of this, with the male as head of household.

7: A rejection of so-called affirmative action principles. Along with this comes an aversion to a suite of programs they label socialist. Anti-socialism is the center of their fear of government systems.

8: A stated desire to eliminate entitlements. “People who do not work should not get money,” is a phrase I have heard in relation to this for several years now.

9: The desire for a strong military and, by extension, an aggressively patriotic international diplomatic posture.

    Too bad I can’t come up with a tenth. The Ten Commandments of the Political Religious Right. There would be some symmetry to this, ironic symmetry. But I do not wish to get too ridiculous. I could find a tenth, but why bother? These nine do nicely to define the so-called Moral Values of Bush’s core supporters.

    In as brief an argument as I can muster, the legitimacy of calling this program the product of moral values can be questioned easily enough by a simple test. Take the first principle–abortion. They claim they are Right To Life advocates–that life is sacred. Ask each their stand on the Death Penalty. As a group, the various factions that come together under this banner supports the Death Penalty. The basis of their aversion to abortion, then, is bogus. Life is life. It is sacred or it is not. A moral value must be consistent if anything, and this is not in this case. (Likely you will find support among them for Bush’s military policies–more killing. But that’s okay, in fact necessary, because They are the Enemy.)

    Since the avowed dedication to the sanctity of life is undermined by a willingness to enact the death penalty, the claim that this is a moral principle is rendered untenable. The one should follow from the other–life in womb can be no more sacred than a twenty-year-old murderer. Sacred is sacred. You may not kill.

    By extension, the rest of the list can fall. None of them stands as a solid moral value.

    So what are they?

    Behavioral restrictions. Class alignments. Sentiment. Prejudice disguised as morality. Expressions of fear, resentment, uncertainty.

    These are people who do not like the way their country seems to be. It doesn’t look good to them. They don’t like the choices their children might make. They are uncomfortable with how things seem to be evolving. For them, a moral value is something that comforts and freezes in time a way of life they see threatened or vanishing.

    But rather than just dismiss them for frightened people struggling to impose their view of what they think the world should look like on everyone, let’s go further and examine the grounding of each of these arguments. We need to understand these things if we are to get out from under the growing tyranny of what is not a Moral Values program but an Ideological Imposition program.

    Let’s take the top issue. Abortion.

    Since Roe v. Wade, we have watched a growing faction of sincere, highly religious people banding together to condemn what they regard as murder. The termination of a pregnancy to them is on par with the cold blooded killing of a person who can stand before us, talk, express ideas, laugh, cry, and have relationships. Biological science, no matter what it says, is not persuasive. These folks will not accept any definition of a fetus that denies its essential status as a human being.

    The arguments that led to Roe v. Wade are equally unpersuasive–that a woman has a right to determine when or if she will bear children. The economic stranglehold men have traditionally had over women, especially in a marital relationship, does not seem to matter in this debate. That women have until the last half century little say over their role in life is inconsequential.

    Why? Is it that they don’t believe these arguments? I think for many, this is true. They may hear the stories of what it used to be like and either judge those stories as myth or outright fabrication. They judge them according to the life they currently have, without the least idea that history was ever different. Partly, too, there is a lack of understanding about the mechanisms of dominance and oppression. If a woman is in a bad relationship, she should leave.

    Or just be a good christian and put up with it. I’ve heard that echoed throughout society, from Loretta Lynn’s pathetic “Stand By Your Man” anthem to religious isolationists who flat out deny their women the possibility of either having a say in how they live or leaving when circumstances become intolerable. This is not the past. This is the present. These groups exist. But it doesn’t have to be a group–there are many people who simply live in circumstances so restricted that it might as well be 1890 all over again.

    And the anchor that binds these women, the Damocletian Sword dangling over their heads, is their children. The ones they already have and the ones they will inevitably have because, along with everything else, they are denied contraception as well.

    Not having sex for these women is not an option. This is hard to believe for people who either would never think of denying their mate sex or have simply never been in a situation where they could not say no. It is dangerous and politically irresponsible to regard ones personal circumstance as the universal condition in which everyone else lives–or should live.

    It was not that long ago–a generation, and in some states it may still be the case–that denial of conjugal “rights” was solid grounds for a man to divorce his wife. He did not have to prove it. How could you? And the courts would favor him in the settlements. This is recent history! Yes, it has changed–one of the things so-called No Fault Divorce ushered in along with other reforms. But the sentiment has not gone away for many people.

    Consider the practical for just a moment–if you want to get away from someone, you should be prepared to leave with as little as possible. The more you have tying you to a place and a circumstance, the less ability you have to change your life. Children are insurmountable obstacles to a woman leaving undesirable circumstances. It can be done, certainly, but they complicate the process tremendously.

    Roe v. Wade took away the power of threat men had over women in these regards. At least in principle. It accorded to the woman the right to determine the use of her body in matters of procreation–which naturally lead directly to matters of recreation. It made a case for women “owning” their sexuality, something that has been the source of debate and divisiveness for centuries if not millennia.

    Roe was based substantially on an earlier Supreme Court case, Griswold v. Connecticut, which was concerned with a woman’s right to avail herself of the means to control procreation. In Griswold the Court struck down state laws that dictated matters of private conduct. The basis of the law so challenged seems to have been that it is the man, not the woman, who has the say in if and when there will be more children. Needless to say, this    implied responsible relationships-marital–and by extension denied that unmarried women had any rights in the matter whatsoever, since the law concerned the availability of contraception. The Court decided Griswold 7-2 to strike down the Connecticut law (in the words of Justice Potter Steward an “uncommonly silly law”) and thereby staked out an area of privacy and self-determination upon which women then based several arguments in the coming decade regarding their role in society as free agents and whole persons.

    To my mind, what both Griswold and Roe established is a principle which states that a woman has the right to make determinations about procreation and the use of her body, exclusively unto herself as a free and responsible agent, i.e. a citizen. By definition, this means that she has a right not to be pregnant. It is absurd to argue a determination principle if the thing being determined is not also implicitly argued in the course of definition. A woman gets to say when or if she will bear children–pregnancy being the necessary pre-condition for childbearing, she gets to say when or if she will be pregnant.

    You may not establish a principle that then disappears when context changes. In other words, if a woman has the right not to be pregnant, that right does not vanish because she becomes pregnant.

    To make this as explicit as possible, this would mean that if we hold in principle that a person has a right not to be a slave, that right cannot disappear if someone binds that individual and makes him or her a slave. The principle holds, regardless. As free and responsible agent, the principle pertains even in changed contexts.

    It might be argued that such a principle, when applied to parenthood, could be taken to mean that a person has a right not to be a parent, therefore that person has the right to kill any child that puts that person into that circumstance. That would be absurd, of course, since we do have such a right, and there are systems in place for removing the child into foster care or adoption by others. Besides, the child is in itself a recognized individual entity–a free agent, if you will–and all other protections that apply to the “parent” apply to the child. You can’t murder the child.

    Of course, here is where the pro-life movement has made its most incisive critique of abortion rights. They argue simply that a fertilized egg is a person.

    In practical terms this is moot. There is no person since there is no personality. But I’m not going to settle this debate here. We enter now into the realm of sentiment, and sentiment does not lend itself to logic or principle. The basic fact of the matter is, the issue to be resolved concerns pregnancy. You might well argue that an individual has a right to own a particular object, but such a right does not grant permission for that individual to steal it from someone else–the granting of a right by violation of another right is unsustainable and fundamentally corrupt.

    But the movement to outlaw abortion lacks the cogency of a moral issue because of the corollary issues infusing it. We can see by examining the suite of demands of the pro-life movement that it is not abortion as such that offends them.

    Europe–at least what we know as Western Europe–has less than one tenth the abortions as America. Why? Are they having less sex? Obviously not. The difference is in their approach to contraception education and availability and a certain nuance with regard to the entire question of sexuality. I make this point because clearly abortion can be reduced without a hegemonic legal revolution which would necessarily challenge what have become fundamental principles of free agency in this country, namely the right to mutual associations.

    The overwhelming majority of pro-life movements refuse to discuss a rationalization of sex education and contraceptive access that would most likely drastically reduce the need and demand for abortion. Most of them include in their activist programs curtailments of such things. Their blunt and uncompromising advocacy of Abstinence Only sex education shows a clear agenda that is at least equally if not primarily concerned with the issue of Sexuality.

    They do not, in the long run, wish to dictate abortion rights so much as they wish to dictate private behavior. To them, there are only a few acceptable circumstances for sexual activity, and they seem to think they can determine people’s proclivities by reducing their options.

    Essentially, this is not a moral issue, since its presentation is misleading, and its goal is a fundamental denial of free agency.

    This is a behavioral issue, or, if you will, an issue of taste, of sentiment, of intolerance. These are people who do not like certain behaviors and wish to mandate their elimination.

    Moral Value number one–not.

    What about the next one? The embrace–or, as some would phrase it, a return–of public religiosity.

    The chief argument made by its proponents is that because god is absent from our public institutions, the country has slipped morally.

    I will challenge this assertion by two arguments–first, one can reasonably assume that the majority of people who comprise our institutions are religious. Why this fact would vanish from their consciousness because they “clock in” at their jobs is difficult to understand. True, the format, the rules, the guidelines of a job apply certain restrictions on action, but with, as Kant would put it, a good will the uses to which the tools available may be put will be informed by the conscience of the person using them.

    Secondly, let us look at the history of those institutions and see if this holds true.

    The Supreme Court took up the modern argument over the Establishment Clause, as it is known, in 1947 in a small case involving public funding of school buses to parochial schools. A series of cases followed, culminating in 1971 in Lemon v. Kurtzman , a case involving public support of salaries of teachers who taught secular subjects in parochial schools. Laws in both Rhode Island and Pennsylvania were in question and court found such public funding a violation of the Establishment Clause because it engendered “undue entanglements” of public into private institutions. This resulted in what is known as The Lemon Test, an unfortunate name.

    Under the Lemon Test, for a law to be constitutional it must pass three standards. 1: it must have a secular legislative purpose; 2: its principle or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and 3: it must not foster an excessive entanglement with religion.

    Needless to say, this has engendered tremendous controversy and dissent on the Court itself. It is vague, but not incomprehensible, and requires that one set aside ambitions of agenda to apply it fairly.

    However, it has not eliminated god from our public institutions entirely. Congress still opens session with a prayer. The president–many of them even up to the present–have had prayer breakfasts. Our courts still swear witnesses in with bible and oath to god.

    Granted, the presence of christianity was greater in the nineteenth century. No argument was seriously leveled against the massive entanglement of religious sentiment in political matters because most people who had any voice whatsoever were on the same page. It was agreed among the actors in our national policy that we were a christian nation and that god was on our side.

    So let’s look at the record.

    Women did not get the vote till 1921. Legally, most women were regarded as “chattel” in the biblical sense–property, under command of their husbands. In matters of divorce, the man could throw them out of the house with nothing but the clothes they were wearing at the time, cutting them off from children, shelter, food, any kind of support, and this could be done legally. These were christian times.

    We had to fight a horrific civil war to end slavery in 1865. Good christians all, the secessionists maintained that slavery was a responsibility handed them by god, for what would these poor souls do if they were freed? Thomas Jefferson worried over it and his argument was that the two races could not co-exist as political equals. Prejudices were so deeply rooted that “ten thousand recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained–new provocations–the real distinctions that nature has made, and many other circumstances which divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which would never end but with the extermination of one or the other race.” Andrew Jackson, in congress during the debates over the issue, suggested that perhaps northern Quakers approved of racial mixing and wouldn’t mind “giving their daughters to negro sons, and receiving negro daughters for their sons.” William Laughton Smith, a South Carolinian senator, put it this way: “If the blacks did not intermarry with the whites, they would remain black until the end of Time; for it was not contended that liberating them would whitewash them; if they did intermarry with the whites, then the white race would be extinct, and the American people would all be of the mulatto breed. In whatever light therefore the subject is viewed, the folly of emancipation is manifest.”

    I quote these at length because this was during a time and these were men of America as a profoundly christian nation. God’s presence did not do much to enlighten them and cause them to do the right thing.

    While all this was going on, the Marshall supreme court was fast demolishing the Jeffersonian republicanism that sought to guarantee some level of personal sinecure to families, in favor or a market driven embrace of capitalism which resulted in the impoverishment of hundreds of thousands and spurred the westward expansion which led to the decimation of the native American tribes. The principle of Manifest Destiny. “Our manifest destiny,” according to John Lewis O’Sullivan, in the pages of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review of 1845, “is to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” Never mind the people already living there, god had given this land to us–we just have to take it. Very christian. The death, disease, and penury the American Indian was reduced to in the course of a number of campaigns to wrest the land from them is a litany of abuse worthy of fascism, all conducted by god-fearing christian people who prayed daily and welcomed religion into our public institutions.

    Those three alone should suffice to demonstrate that an active presence of religion did nothing to ameliorate the wrongs embraced by our leaders and supported by our forebears. God-directed imperialism, with concomitant missionary work, did massive damage in the Philippines, the Hawaiian Islands, the Sandwich Islands. Good christian legislators turned away ships laden with Jews escaping Hitler’s Germany, all based on the wrong-headed eugenics of Robert M. Yerkes–not that I think they understood his arguments so much as they welcomed something that looked like science to underpin their basic intolerance as christians.

    Time and again you can look at segments of American history wherein self-proclaimed christians did immoral things in the name of the christian god. The KKK was obsessed with a protestant christianity that embraced the concept of an Elect. The various white supremacy groups sprinkled throughout the country today all espouse a christian orthodoxy that, they claim, mandates aggressive approaches to “problems” like race or other faiths or secularism.

    So it can be seen clearly that a high profile and public inclusion of religion has not made us more moral in our political or cultural pursuits. The argument that we are less moral because we have shoved the two things apart–particularly in schools–holds no water. (As a personal anecdote, I attended a parochial grade school. The daily doses of Jesus did nothing to dissuade my school mates from indulging in racial bigotry, bullying, lying, cheating on tests, or any other form of childhood malfeasance. Not that they were worse, only that god’s presence did nothing to make them any better.) In fact, it could be argued that since an aggressive secularization of government and public discourse, we have been on a road to moral improvement, since we bring no such unquestioned preconceptions to problem solving.

    So what drives this desire to see “god back in the classroom and in our public institutions”?

    We do not see any discussion among the various fundamentalist groups for a more inclusive definition of god. We don’t see demands that in schools there are periods of meditation in honor of Buddha or inclusion during the day of the various rakats of Islam. No, what we see is a demand for an exclusively christian practice and observance.

    Even if this were accomplished, what is the expected result? Enlightenment? Doubtful. If that were the case, those so devoutly arguing for this would already have found enlightenment and would cease the political struggle, realizing that it is founded on false assumptions. No, this too is a quest for behavioral control. The imposition of a standard of behavior on those with whom they disagree, not so much to change the minds of those who do not agree, but to prevent exposure of their children to alternative ideas. If there is no dissent, there is no problem, no disagreement. This is the conceit of despotism throughout history.

    The motive for their desire is therefore selfish and without reflection for consequence. Prayer has never made us a better country. The acknowledgment of problems and their nature and the conscious decision to solve them has made us better.

    But on a more fundamental level, it is this urgency to impose a christian aspect that reveals a basic insecurity and desire for a kind of one-size-fits-all solution to perceived problems. The idea that faith transforms infuses this movement with an evangelistic momentum that can allow no debate. And here we must look into the underpinnings of the movement to see what they actually want.

    We have a pluralistic society. This means several ideologies, world views, faiths, aesthetics, customs–the building blocks of personal foundations–rub up against each other constantly. Dealing with all these things leads to a certain amount of confusion and, occasionally, frustration. Much simpler if we were all alike in some way. But in a country where you can have disagreement over a given issue between two supposedly similar sects–christians disagreeing over abortion or homosexuality–how can we possibly find a single solution?

    We can’t. It’s that simple. As my father used to say, grow up and get over it. People are different. Even when they seem the same, dig deep enough you find differences.

    The goal, therefore, as I stated above, of the more rabid christian sects is to eradicate all public expression of those differences. They ask how it can be expected of them to raise their children “properly” when the people around them, in the communities they must live, won’t raise their children according to the same standards. What they want is a guarantee of provenance, a contract with society that tells them they are right and no one will publicly differ with their choices. An examination of their institutions shows a marked tendency to establish nonporous ideological boundaries. Certain ideas, certain music, books, clothing, certain attitudes are kept out by restrictive codes in their schools and, when possible, in their communities. This fear of alternative ideas is an old American disease we have yet to deal with. We are a mongrel nation with no pedigree and a brief history (though getting less brief; one would think we should be getting over our insecurity) and we want to guarantee the rightness of our vision, our choices. Rather than deal with new ideas, learn about and from them, and put them in a perspective that benefits us, we keep them out. I repeat, this is nothing new. This is, in fact, a very christian way of dealing with strange ideas. Christian policy has always been to burn heretical writings and, occasionally, the heretics espousing them. Kill the message and the messenger and keep these crazy notions away from our kids so they don’t grow up asking uncomfortable questions.

    While for some this may be a desirable condition, a goal worth fighting for, it does not constitute on any grounds a Moral Value, as it necessarily disenfranchises dissent and enshrines intolerance. It is a sanctification of ignorance, and one cannot be a sound moral agent without knowledge. You must understand the world and the way it is and what it throws at you, and you must understand yourself. Ignorance is a basic evil when it is enforced. Religion has a history, for better or worse, of defining good and evil as a practical matter and then issuing restrictions. Thomas Aquinas himself defined what he called “cultivated ignorance” which is a self-perpetuating condition useful for its perceived protective utility. But in the end, ignorance kills–it kills the spirit, the mind, and, eventually, the person.

    As a Moral Value, public prayer is a mask for a desired goal of behavioral control and the expulsion of inconvenient acknowledgments of pluralism. Neither is realistic nor moral.

    What about the issue of homosexuality? This is not a question of morality but of prejudice. Views held out of prejudice cannot be moral, since prejudice itself precludes any reasoned assessment or objective analysis. It is also a vendetta against people who are different who live according a set of principles which the bigot may well share. Rights and freedoms of association (for me, the bigot, not for you); a desire for companionship (only in certain ways and not in others, which is behavioral control); a desire/need for sex with a mutually consenting partner (the heterosexual may, with certain provisions, indulge, but not the homosexual since indulgence represents an offensive behavior to me).

    If it is good and moral for a married couple (heterosexual) to have sexual relations for pleasure, then the only issue at hand in this debate is the gender. If we take as given that sex is not limited to procreation–and, in fact, for any given individual may be completely irrelevant to the issue–then to assert that recreational sex may only be conducted between individuals of opposite sex is absurd, since eroticism is not limited to either gender considerations, or numerical considerations. In fact, auto-eroticism extends the argument that a partner of the opposite sex or at all is not necessary for recreational sexual activity.

    Of course, the stance of the fundamentalist will be that sex is for procreation and that it is god mandated as such. This is no more than the assertion of personal preference as moral law. It cannot be effectively–or even desirably–universalized, therefore it does not support itself as a Moral Value.

    Marriage issues are another matter. But this is a legal matter, not a moral matter. There are many heterosexual couples who do not have children out of choice. Conversely, there are many couples who have children who are incompetent to horrific parents.

    The question of censorship should be a non-starter. But it is there. In questions concerning children, it is argued by no one that the introduction of certain ideas, images, or theories requires care and timeliness. This, however, is not amenable to the one-size-fits-all standard of the religious fundamentalist. If you cannot universally apply a principle without stumbling over numerous and insurmountable objections or exceptions, it is not a Moral Value. This is a question of taste, sensitivity, and character, not morality in the public sense. (Half-facetiously, let me argue here that I might have some sympathy for the removal of bill boards advertising sex clubs, but only because I would argue for the removal of ALL bill boards, including those advertising JESUS or a particular church. In this case, it is the bill board concept itself I find offensive, regardless of the particular message. I would not go so far as to assert my position as a moral value, though.)

    Censorship serves no good purpose. As a matter of practical policy, it is a fickle thing. If it is established as an accepted principle, then the object being censor can change with political whim. Those demanding censorship of pornography this year could, based on precedent, see their own message censored next year simply because a different faction is in power. The only defense against demagoguery and deceit is the absolute freedom of expression in public forums. The only defense against the demise of a vital civil discourse is the absolute discretion of the individual of what to see, hear, read, or think in private. Censorship promotes neither condition.

    This is not a Moral Value, since as one of its consequences it would undermine moral discourse. (If you cannot talk about a subject because it is censored, you cannot determine the suitability of its use or censorship. You establish a doctrinal tautology that permits of no re-examination, which cannot even look to substantiating its own validity.)

    The railing of the religious right against evolution is one of the saddest spectacles in history. Because they accept as a given that the truth of evolution would render all morality moot, they cannot accept any notion that morality is a human endeavor and can be both achieved and applied based on any standard other than divine grace. They de facto banish ethics as insufficient and bind us to a creation myth that privileges human beings over and above their environment and paradoxically emphasizes our powerlessness to affect our own affairs. It is, in fact, a plea for exemption from moral casuistry, since it relies on the principle of divine forgiveness as escape clause from immediate responsibilities. The war against evolution is no more than a tactical maneuver to evade a more functional code of moral responsiveness. As such it can claim no status as a Moral Value on any level.

    Family Values has been the catch-all phrase for a suite of changes demanded by religious activists centered on the notion that all of the above-mentioned criteria must be dealt with or we risk seeing the family destroyed. One must ask the basic question–is this even possible? The Soviet Union made a concerted effort to do just that over three or four generations, and found it to be impossible. This is something so geared into what people are–thanks to the very evolution fundamentalists are opposed to–that we just do it. Constantly. We form families. We can’t help it.

    So what is it the Moral Values/Family Values crowd really want?

    They have adopted a Norman Rockwell model of what a family is and wish to ban anything that does not fit that formula. In particular, they want to reduce or eliminate single parent families; bar alternative arrangements like line families or group marriages; curtail divorce; and general see a conformity of family life with a stable community model that recalls an idyllic time in history when…

    When such things never existed. Not in the way the model is presented. We had a brief period when the so-called nuclear family held sway, and even then it was probably not a majority reality, and that was the post-WWII generation that gave birth to the Baby Boom. Economic realities and the social conscience movements of the Sixties and Seventies have battered that model into unworkability except in rare instances. Two incomes are necessary for most families now, and even if not a requirement the idea of socially enforcing a stay-at-home mom is repugnant along ethical and political lines.

    But the nuclear family is a modern manifestation of the patriarchal clan model of the late 18th-early 19th centuries, wherein the head of the house–male–was absolute ruler in a minor fiefdom. In the Fifties, we saw this as one of the proud claims–“a man’s home is his castle”–and there were “educational” films made enforcing the idea that the wife and kids were to be subservient to dad. This has all but vanished and justly so since such formulas disenfranchise individuality (the wife cannot make decisions, think, or challenge bad ideas because it is not her “place” and the children must suffer any abuse because they are not competent to challenge authority).

    The lack of such central authority in the household has led to certain unpleasant consequences. But also to some very good ones. It’s a mixed bag and we’re still working through it. But to claim that the way things have transpired is due to a collapse of moral values is absurd. What is being demanded here is a return of privilege, and with it a subsequent “simplification” of living arrangements. Of course, this necessarily entails the surrender of certain personal rights on the part of certain members of the community within the privacy of the household.

    An assertion of a principle cannot be called moral if in its application is violates other pre-existing moral principles. Surrender of autonomy as a principle is prima facie amoral at best, immoral in most general practice. In the course of political action or in the interests of the community, such surrender can be a practical matter in the interest of decision-making and necessary action for best interests of the community. But it must always be a temporary condition. In the instance of interpersonal relationships, a principle of deferment may be established, again as a matter of practicality, and certainly in instances where age, experience, or education trump willfulness–but again, this must be a temporary manifestation, to be alleviated as time and circumstance permit. As a permanent feature of any set of relationships, it is perhaps expedient, but never moral.

    But a good deal of Family Value rhetoric concerns itself with the following ideas, which are number seven, eight, and nine in the listed platform demands of the religious right–the Moral Value Faction, if you will. And these are all social issues which on their face have dubious relations with anything that might be labeled a moral value.

    Number seven and eight can be dealt with together, since they are based on the same issue–“people who do not work should not get money.”

    This is a notion born from the transformation of American society in the 1820s through 1840s when all hope of Jeffersonian agrarianism was lost in the overwhelming surge of market capitalism. It is arguable, certainly, whether Jefferson’s vision would have worked. It seems, ultimately, utopian and unsustainable. Population growth alone spurred its demise, in favor of something more aggressively opportunistic.

    But the ethical transformation that went along with the embrace of the market fostered a number of pernicious myths which were only bearable while they could be ignored. Poverty as symptom of moral corruption being chief among them, that a person’s misfortune, economically, was always and everywhere his fault. (I can say “his” in this context since this emerged at a time when women were kept out of the market economy by law and custom and were merely “victims”.) Before the advent of modern economic theories and the models they produced, it was assumed, ala Adam Smith, that a healthy growing market would absorb anyone willing to participate. Therefore, those who failed were somehow culpable.

    It went further, though. Prior to this explosion of entrepreneurial muscularity, subsistence economies, while certain difficult and requiring hard work, spread the labor requirements out so that the work done by an entire family was what counted. Obsession was not required. But as the market displaced subsistence culture, a zealotry of enterprise arose requiring from each individual (male)–because this was the new model, it was all dependent on the Individual–a total commitment to “getting ahead” or, as they called it then, “betterment.” Communal methods fell by the wayside as individual entrepreneurial effort became the standard. (It is probably no coincidence that a sharp rise in mental illness accompanied this transformation and the first insane asylums were built at the same time Wall Street was becoming a power in the nation’s economy.)

    One result was that those who could not, for whatever reason, successfully compete were relegated to the sidelines, poverty, and the derision and/or pity of society for being somehow unfit, morally or physically or psychically.

    We now know that the Adam Smith model is a perpetual motion machine which cannot work at the efficiency level he assumed. We now know that no matter how efficient an economy becomes, there can never be 100% employment. (One thing that mitigates against this is that 100% employment would generate infinite upward pressure on wages, which would quickly spiral out of bounds and the entire system would collapse, burned up.)

    Today, we also have the problem of increasing machine efficiency which is gradually displacing traditional labor requirements. People do not adapt as fast as machines can be built to displace them. There will inevitably be unemployables under such circumstances.

    How this can be seen as the fault of the unemployed is inexplicable.

    Yet the myth persists among the Right–people who do no work should not get money.

    Which means they cannot live, they cannot support their families, they cannot survive.

    “Then they should work harder.”

    It becomes a tautology. A tautology cannot ever be deployed as a Moral Virtue, since its basis is a reliance on its own internal logic, divorced from any external checks. It’s absurd.

    But what this really comes down to is a declaration of an unwillingness to be taxed for the benefit of those we do not see as “contributing” to the community. It is a money issue.

    First and foremost, however, it is a systems issue, and we have seen in the traditional Rightwing view an intransigence toward accepting any description of the system in which we live that suggests it is inherently flawed and must be fixed. Capitalism–the Market–has taken its place next to the Church as a religious ideology unchallengeable by mortal effort. The religious fervor of Nineteenth Century capitalist reformation has become a sanctified precept of the modern age and while the mechanisms of the era that spawned it no longer pertain to modern circumstances, like all religious conviction the dogma persists. It is a way of separating the Elite from the Damned, a metric that says one group is better than another.

    Membership in either group is largely chance, though. If you’re willing to accept things as they are on that basis and just admit that you aren’t willing to pay for public relief, fine. But you cannot define this position as moral in any way.

    The war on entitlements, though, is based firmly on the wallet. When you get to the end of the debate, it’s a question of taxes. “Let private charity take care of the poor.” Which is a way of saying let someone else do it, leave me alone. And even if you contribute to those charities, charities by their nature are fickle and inconsistent and often reflect the prejudices of their institutional origins.

    President Bush’s program to “reform” Social Security can be seen as part and parcel of this attitude–“it’s your money, you should be free to invest it.” This ignores the basic concept of Social Security and the reasons it was established as it was. But more, since payroll taxes fund it, there will automatically be a class disparity in retirement allotments. So the poor–even the working poor–because of their presumed moral failings will even in retirement be punished for not having wealth.

    The strong military position is easy. We have a lot. We need to keep others from getting it. Sometimes, this may be the proper solution to a legitimate problem. Teasing apart when and where to use military force is a thorny issue, hard to parse in advance.

    But it is also born out of an impatience among certain citizens with America being the most powerful nation in history and refusing to assert that power. I think there is a strong wish for an imperial state among the Right.

    Still, it cannot be denied that the world is a dangerous and often malign place, and it would be stupidity to render ourselves impotent to deal with that reality. Can this be seen as a Moral Virtue?

    I refer back to the argument against abortion, that life–supposedly–is sacred. Killing is wrong. Evil, in fact. If this is doctrinal, then being prepared to kill people cannot be consistent with a moral position along those lines. Necessity does not equal morality. In fact, necessity often forces us to set aside moral principle.

    So if the Right is willing to embrace the necessity of dealing death through a powerful military, recognizing perhaps that while the method may be immoral but the need trumps it, then how is it they fail to see the same argument as applicable to a woman who is pregnant and does not wish to be? Necessity trumps morality in the first instance, but not the second?

    Of course, as I have shown, that argument is not really about abortion.

    What we are left with then is an amalgam of prejudices, traditions, and desires to make the world conform to an image of life. Nothing at base wrong with that–except when you persistently ignore the dichotomy between your stated motivations and the reality of what you are doing. To assert that this remaking is based on Moral Virtue is demonstrably bogus. It is based really on fear and greed and intolerance, all reworked to resemble something biblical, something dogmatically religious, and, as we have all heard growing up, god works in mysterious ways and it is not for Man to understand his purposes. Which is another way of saying, “shut up, I don’t have any answers for your unwelcome questions.”

    So what is this Moral Virtue that topped the list of reasons people voted for Bush? As far as I can tell, it is purely one of appearance. Bush appears virtuous (even when he lies). He does not cheat on his wife (we assume); he admits he used drugs and had a drinking problem but since finding Jesus he doesn’t do that anymore (Clinton simply didn’t inhale, but he didn’t come out and condemn pot smoking); he prays in public; his wife does not appear to be an independent, doctrinaire feminist, but rather a more traditional, demure “stand by your man” Texas female; and Bush keeps talking about god and faith.

    Appearances. Bill Clinton got a blow job while on the job. For this, he is condemned.

    Moral Virtue, then, is only ever about what appears to be. It is also a set of standards (?) that are not amenable to examination by intellectual methods, which is the main reason Kerry came up short–he’s an intellectual, not a gut charismatic. The people who voted for Moral Virtue distrust intellectuals–profoundly–because by the process of intellectual examination their most cherished prejudices can be shown to be…well, not morals. Just a matter of taste.

    Ambiguity is the nature of the world. Moral Virtue is supposed to be an antidote to ambiguity. It may well be, but that’s not what this is. This is a denial of ambiguity, a pretense that ambiguity only exists because we abandon certain principles. The logic is faulty. But the program that has resulted from it is just short of criminal. Criminal negligence.

    So the reason so many people claimed they voted for Bush is nothing more than a statement of cognitive weariness, of a stated desire to be told what’s right, of a wish to have their private prejudices confirmed. “You are good and virtuous because you condemn sexuality, you dislike homosexuals, and you would prefer to pray than to think.”

    Scary. Just when we need reason and understanding to meet the problems of the 21st Century, 58 million people in 2004 have said No. What we want is a denial that the world is that way.

    Call it many things, but it cannot be called Moral Virtue.

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About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (17)

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  1. John says:

    "Or just be a good christian and put up with it. I’ve heard that echoed throughout society, from Loretta Lynn’s pathetic “Stand By Your Man” anthem…"

    Stand By Your Man was a Tammy Wynette song… not Loretta Lynn. But it could easily been written and sung by Condi Rice. Just an FYI

  2. Deb says:

    I'd like to add to the reasons why abortions are so less frequent in Western Europe than in the U.S.: safety nets. In Europe, there are numerous social programs that provide health care, unemployment benefits, etc. so parents can truly make a choice.

    If you were a German parent, by law your job is saved until your children are school age. Moms (or dads) don't have to rush right back to work and leave a 6 week old baby at a day care to keep from losing their job. Parents even get a monthly pension for staying home with preschool children. My German friend was married, her husband worked, so it wasn't welfare. It was a social program that recognized the importance of children being raised by parents rather than a day care worker making $6 an hour.A Swedish friend had similar benefits to my German friend. In England (as well as all other developed nations except the U.S.), they have national health care, so pregnant mothers can get prenatal care. Some years ago in Oklahoma, the rule was that poor pregnant mothers could not get free prenatal care unless they had another child. Now if you already had a child, you were a 'family' so could get prenatal care for the next. How can that be reconciled with belief that embryos are people, so should have all the rights of citizens, when the woman carrying that embryo can't even get care so that the embryo eventually becomes a living, breathing human being?

    Some women in this country would not have abortions if there was some sort of safety net that would help them. All the "family value" talk is not evidenced by any real action to support families. One family I knew had a child born with a heart problem. Dad had a job but had no medical insurance. For 7 years, they struggled with the assistance of Medicaid. Medicaid is a 'need-based' program, meaning you can only get it if you are poor. Even if there is income in the household, if the medical expenses are very high so little income is left in the family for other expenses, they can qualify for this medical welfare. Example: In Missouri, the figure is currently about $900 for a family of two. That means that no matter what you earn, if your medical expenses are so high that you are left with less than $900 of income per month, Medicaid will pick up the difference in the $900 (this figure was the federal poverty line until Gov. Matt Blunt's recent cutbacks).

    Take for example, you make $3,000 a month, but have $2500 in medical costs each month (only takes one hospitalization!). Medicaid will require that you spend $2,100 for medical care, they will kick in the remaining $400, leaving the couple with $900 to pay rent, utilities, car, groceries, etc. This is a bit oversimplified, but you get the idea.

    Back to my story: After years of medical bills, the child was finally well enough that he didn't need 24 hour care. He was now 7, had a pacemaker (not his first), and had to have special tests and or treatments at at distant hospital about every 6 months. So mom got a part time job making minimum wage while the boy was at school. After 7 years of sitting by a child's bedside, she was thrilled to get out of the house (as well as thrilled that her child was well enough to attend school). Within 2 months of her new job, the medicaid was cut off. Mom told me she felt that she was being given the choice of having some pride and working or saving her child's life. In order to continue getting medical care for her child, she would have to quit her job. I cried with her.

    The point is, people can make better choices when there are better options. If the 'moral majority' really cared about family values, they would support families, they would make sure that children and parents got medical care (and I am NOT talking about having insurance, I'm talking about having HEALTH CARE- who gives a flying rat's… about insurance? It is the health care we need), got some security in their jobs and other things that help parents raise healthy families.

  3. Jason Rayl says:

    To John: my bad. I have an acute aversion to C & W music, and all those people seem to be bad clones of each other, but even so that's no excuse.

    Still, the sentiment remains.

  4. Erika Price says:

    Deb: I find the irony particularly cruel that many of these low income families end up having to reduce their income voluntarily so that they can recieve more federal assistance. The cut-off for programs such as Medicaid, CHiP, and their state-level equivalents goes so low that sometimes working fewer hours or getting a worse-paying job seems the only option. This turns thousands of poor, struggling families into what may look like the quitessential lazy, social-welfare-reliant layabouts that the religious right slams for "living off of entitlements they haven't earned".

  5. Jason Rayl says:

    We are obsessed in this society with a bizarre concept of fairness that makes it obscene that anyone might "get away" with something they don't deserve. The wealthy, in this formulation, are unassailable, but the poor can't defend themselves. Heaven forbid someone actually get some assistence that would actually do some good–they might "take advantage" of the system and get what they don't have coming.

    Insert dripping irony wherever appropriate.

  6. grumpypilgrim says:

    I think Deb's comment nicely sums it up: "…people can make better choices when there are better options." Far too often, religious conservatives seek to eliminate choices in other peoples' lives, in an apparent attempt to force more misery into the world. They seem to believe that the more misery they can create, the more this will cause non-religious people to become religious. Force a teenage rape victim to carry her pregnancy to term and you can probably bet she is going to do some praying. Deny an unemployed single mother food for her children and you can probably bet she is going to ask the neighborhood church for assistance. Indeed, how many times have we heard an evangelical Christian tell some horror story about how they "came to Christ?" Maybe they were alcoholics (George Bush, Mel Gibson), maybe they were drug addicts (Rush Limbaugh), or cancer survivors, or prison inmates, or soldiers in Iraq. Whatever the reason, misery and religion often go hand-in-hand, so it isn't too hard to imagine the church recognizing this and taking advantage of it; i.e., finding ways to force misery onto peoples' live by depriving them of, as Deb puts it, better choices.

    Indeed, I wonder to what extent the people who today call themselves Christians are simply the victims of the previous generation depriving them of better choices. The alcoholic husband slaps his wife around, so she turns to the church…the church tells her divorce is a sin, which locks her into a lifetime of misery that the church is then happy to help her try to cope with…the couple has a child, who rebels against her parents' abusive, co-dependent behavior by having recreational sex with several boyfriends…and the church says that contraception is a sin, which greatly increases the girl's risk of getting pregnant…so the girl gets pregnant…and the church says abortion is a sin, which locks the girl into an unwanted pregnancy…the girl's unwanted child grows up in poverty and seeks college financial aid to educate herself into a better life…and the church supports political candidates who slash student financial aid…unable to reach her potential, the young woman turns to drugs and gets arrested…and the church offers a prison outreach ministry….

    As Deb says, people can make better choices when there are better options, so isn't it curious that the church spends so much of its time opposing better options?

  7. grumpypilgrim says:

    Erika and Jason both identify a key point — in Erika's words, the right-wing slaming the idea of poor people "living off of entitlements they haven’t earned." Perhaps not surprisingly, most of these same right-wingers fervently oppose both estate taxes (which enable the children of wealthy parents to inherit wealth they haven't earned) and capital gains taxes (which enable the wealthy to live off of investment income they haven't earned). By trying to slash both estate taxes and capital gains taxes, the right-wingers seek to create an American aristocracy: an elite class of people who inherit their wealth tax-free, live off that wealth tax-free, and then pass on that wealth tax-free to their kids. Meanwhile, taxes for everyone else who actually works for a living must be increased to compensate. It is a system that both encourages sloth among the rich and penalizes hard work among the poor. It is about as un-Christian a tax system as can be created.

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    I’d like to say a few (more) things about abortion. I tried to say everything that mattered to me on the topic in a long post a few months ago.  but abortion is a topic that just keeps demanding new energy. It’s a topic that challenges me more than almost any other to figure out why those people on polar ends of the spectrum see things so differently.

    Here’s my recent thought. The people at those polar ends are essentially dishonest. That’s why we can’t have meaningful discussions. That’s why we will continue to waste incredible amounts of energy on this political issue.

    Here’s why many pro-choice people are dishonest. They go to great lengths to prevent being called murderers. Therefore, they work hard to claim that the thing in the womb is not a “human life.” This claim is absurd. Even an ovum that is fertilized one minute ago is alive and it is human. Pro-choicers don’t like to think about this: that same event, that one month old fetus, is a curse to a woman who doesn’t want to be pregnant but is a joyous blessing to that couple who wants to have a baby. Pro-choicers fail to acknowledge the obvious intricate continuity between that one-minute old fertilized egg and the baby it could be nine months later.

    Having said that, I should make clear that I don’t believe that killing a one-minute old fertilized human egg is “murder.” Murder is a judgment based on a human decision (not pure biology) to attribute legal rights in certain situations and not others. It reminds me of this bumper sticker: Pro Life and Pro War? Make Up your F* *k*ng Mind.

    I am pro-choice. Being pro-choice makes the most sense to me. For me, it’s the best of two imperfect alternatives. But let me continue—I’m not finished criticizing fellow pro-choicers.

    Here’s another way in which many pro-choicers are dishonest. Many of them act as though killing a perfectly healthy baby who is currently inside of a 9-month pregnant woman is the moral equivalent of killing a one-minute old fertilized human egg. I think this is grotesque position. If I learned that any friend of mine aborted a 9-month pregnancy for the heck of it (without extraordinary medical reason for doing so) I would be furious. Come on. These same people likely claim that that same living being, released from the womb one hour later is entitled to full protection under the law as a human being. I should mention that most pro-choice people I know feel pretty much how I feel regarding healthy 9-month pregnancies. Most of us think it’s odd to call them “pregnancies.” They are babies. They just happen to be babies still in the womb.

    Here’s one other way in which many pro-choicers are dishonest. Many of us say that there is nothing morally wrong about a young woman choosing to go to a clinic to get her 2-month old pregnancy aborted for any reason or no particular reason. I certainly feel that way. Add this additional factor, though: Assume that that woman chooses not to use birth control. Assume that this is her 11th abortion. She’s using abortion as a form of birth control (she doesn’t have the integrity to require her man or men to wear condoms. How do I feel about this? It repulses me. Now that’s strange, isn’t it? If it’s OK to have one early-term abortion, why is it not OK to have eleven early term abortions? I’m trying to be honest, though. I trying to admit things you rarely hear other pro-choicers admitting.

    Now, for the dishonesty of the anti-abortion crowd. They claim that killing a one-day old zygote is the moral equivalent of killing a three-year old child who holds your hand and sings songs with you. That is such utter garbage. I tried to capture the absurdity of this position by presenting a sequel to Sophie’s Choice, where Sophie had to struggle to decide (she could only save one, not both) to save either her three-year old daughter or a zygote in a Petri dish (that she could then implant in her womb if she rescued it). In my story, after much struggle, Sophie walks out of the prison camp with her zygote, leaving her crying daughter to a certain death. We haven’t run this experiment, of course. But I know that the great majority of anti-abortionists would save their born children, not their zygotes. Despite their harsh rhetoric, they know that zygotes are not moral equivalents of grown children.

    Anti-abortionists claim that it’s OK to force people to have unplanned children. Let’s see … assume that we send an anti-abortionists a new pet animal once each week and force them to take care of it. First week, a dog, then a cat, then a rabbit, then another dog. At some point they will protest that this is not fair. We are forcing them to take on responsibilities that they don’t want and that they didn’t ask for. Well that sounds familiar . . .

    Here’s another thing anti-abortionists are dishonest about. They claim that it’s no big deal to “inconvenience” a young woman by denying her an abortion. Again, this is nonsense. Requiring someone to stay pregnant is a huge imposition on that person’s life. Requiring someone to bear a rapist’s baby is an assertion of aggression I cannot stand to think about. It makes me want to yell (and very few things make me want to yell). This is why Plan B should be on every pharmacy shelf, over the counter. See here.

    Here’s yet another anti-abortion bit of dishonesty. No, this one is an outright lie. They claim that the woman can “simply” give up the child for adoption, as though doing this doesn’t leave a huge emotional scar on a woman.

    Here’s an outright lie. Anti-abortionists often claim that having abortion makes it more likely that a woman will get breast cancer. Utter falsehood, uttered constantly.  This really has got to stop!

    Here’s another bit of dishonesty: Anti-abortionists shout that woman who have abortions are “murderers.” But anti-abortionists don’t really treat women who have had abortions as murderers. Just like they don’t treat early miscarriages like born children who have tragically been killed. They don’t rant to put women who have had abortions in prison. Nor do most of them have funerals for early miscarriages. They also fail to acknowledge that many of those same woman who have had abortions will someday make wonderful parents. Many pro-choicers love babies and will do literally anything for their children, when they are ready to have children. Not every woman who has an abortion is a murderer. Otherwise, they wouldn’t let that murderer have a child when she’s ready to have one.

    The anti-abortionists say that adults should just say “no” when it comes to sex. If they have sex, they have just bought themselves regular occurrences of unplanned pregnancies. The remedy (according to the anti-abortionists): Just say no. This position is also absurd. The sexual urge is one of the most powerful urges humans experience. History has shown this over and over. Maybe “just say no” might work tonight, or tomorrow night, or even for a week or two. Eventually it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work any better than it does for those anti-abortionists to just say no to their own vulnerabilities—and they have plenty of them. One of those anti-abortion vulnerabilities is meddling in the lives of other people, often by marching down to the state capital and trying to enact legislation to force thousands of strangers to raise babies they didn’t plan to have.

    But back to the anti-abortionist argument that it’s a “baby” even when it’s a zygote. In The Science of Good and Evil, Michael Shermer has this to say (p. 204):

    Neither the egg nor the sperm is a human individual, nor is the zygote or blastocyst because they might split to become twins or develop into less than one individual and naturally abort.

    Anti-abortionists fail to admit that zygotes are composed of generalized stem cells. No adult human has any such cells. An acorn will become an oak tree under certain situations. But an acorn is not an oak tree.

    Here’s what I’d like to see. I’d like to see honest conversation by both sides. I don’t think we will have any chance to work out any compromise unless and until we all take deep breaths, let down our guard and admit that our cases are both artificially puffed up. When we have the courage to do this, both sides will see that some form of abortion on demand makes good sense.  Why?  Is my conclusion based completely on objective science? No.  It involves value judgments.  So do the conclusions of the anti-abortionists.  There are members of both camps that are sincere and self-critical.  But what does that tell you when reasonable people come to diametrically opposite opinions?  It tells me that legislators should be wary to jump in because laws would be driven primarily by sentiment.

  9. grumpypilgrim says:

    The following article dates back several years, but illustrates the disasters that can happen from presuming that everyone who claims to have faith in Jesus is trustworthy or lives by higher moral standards than others: http://cnt10.tripod.com/bfa.htm.

    It's obviosly not a representative picture of Christianity, but it does show that blind faith can be very risky.

  10. Erich Vieth says:

    "What Does The Bible Say About Abortion?" is the subject of a web page published by the Freedom from Religion Foundation. In a section called "Does God Kill Babies?" FFRF argues that "The bible is not pro-child."

    Why did God set a bear upon 42 children just for teasing a prophet (2 Kings 2:23-24)? Far from demonstrating a "pro-life" attitude, the bible decimates innocent babies and pregnant women in passage after gory passage, starting with the flood and the wanton destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, progressing to the murder of the firstborn child of every household in Egypt (Ex. 12:29), and the New Testament threats of annihilation.

    FFRF then presents a long list of Bible passages in which children are murdered for the good of God, along with a list of religions that do support abortion rights.

  11. grumpypilgrim says:

    Further to Erich's above comment, the FFRF website also points out that the Bible says life begins at birth, when God breathes life into the nostrils, not at conception. Apparently, the idea that life begins at conception is just another evangelical rant for attracting attention to themselves.

  12. Deb says:

    I'm probably one of those rabid 'pro-choicers' Erich speaks about. I believe that abortions should be free, and upon demand. It isn't because that I believe it is right to do so, but because among other things, I (1) believe that I can't dictate what someone else should do and (2) because there are so many horrible, awful parents.

    I have never been in the position of having to decide whether to abort a 6 month fetus, and am thankful that I haven't. But consider this: if you just learned from amniocentesis that your child to be was horribly deformed, what would you do? Would you subject that child to a life of pain and misery? Maybe you decide that you will always be there to take care of that child. That doesn't really take into consideration that the child may live longer than the parent. What if you don't think you can care for the child? Do you really believe someone else will raise and take care of the child? Very unlikely. I simply cannot make that decision for someone else. I can't say what I would do, so I certainly cannot say what would be right for someone else.

    Horrible parents: once I was involved in a situation where a newborn was a drug addict at birth. The child was placed in foster care, and it was clear the baby had some pretty serious developmental issues. One person said the mother should lose her parental rights because she had tried twice to have an abortion, but did not have the money to get it done. I don't think that was proof mom was unfit. I think it was one of the few responsible things she did: mom was an addict, she knew she was unlikely to produce a healthy child, and even more unlikely to be able to raise it. Was she wrong to wish an abortion? I don't think so.

    I happen to believe that life begins with the first breath. I don't think it makes sense to think it starts earlier, because if so, then when? Why is the blastocyst not just as 'human' as the 8 month fetus? How can we draw another line? Is it when the fetus can survive outside the womb? If medical ability determines when human life begins, then human life beginning is subject to change.

    I have had one, and only one, extremely pro-life friend who did something more than just mouth pieties. She opened her home for pregnant women to stay, in secret, prior to giving the baby for adoption. My friend could only provide room and board for one young woman at a time, but she did what she could. The expectant mother did not work for her, had no duties other than caring for herself. Once the mom had given birth and recovered well enough, she went home. I've always appreciated that this friend had the courage of her convictions. She gave expectant mothers a better choice.

  13. Erich Vieth says:

    Deb. Thank you for your thoughtful post. I don't feel that I have any right to tell any woman anywhere what she can or can't do about a pregnancy. It's her body, not mine. That doesn't mean that I don't cringe sometimes when I hear the circumstances in which some people have abortions. Chalk me up as an internally conflicted rabid pro-choicer, then. No matter my personal judgment regarding any particular case, I do realize that my personal sentiment simply doesn't justify my assertion of political power over another person's highly personal reproductive choices.

    Thank you for the story about the pro-lifer who acted out of principle. Sure beats making birth control restrictive, trying to prohibit abortion and then cutting medical care for the poor–the old conservative politician three-step.

    By the way, I have a friend who works in a family court in a large city. He told me that he is surrounded by lots of liberal-minded co-workers (many of them off-the-charts liberal), including lots of child welfare workers (those who work with abused and neglected children). I asked him what most of those liberal-minded child welfare workers think of mandatory sterilization of those parents who do grievous harm to their own children or kill them as the end result of extended horrifying child neglect or abuse. He said that MOST of them are in favor of mandatory sterilization under those circumstances. His perception is that it only takes a few months of seeing the kinds of things that dangerously disfunctional parents regularly do to innocent children before you want to shout: Stop! No more children! I used to work in a Juvenile Court (25 years ago) and I felt this way too. I know that most of the people with whom I worked back then (they were of a variety of political stipes) felt the same as me.

    Of course, this is a highly contentious topic. Who wants to intervene in others' reproductive choices? At the top of this comment, I wrote that I can't justify taking such an action, but this specific case (of parents who keep having more children only to abuse them) is a topic on which our society should have an unblinkingly honestly conversation. When a parent kills their own child (not by an accident), should he or she be able to just keep having more children and abusing them too? The family courts are full of growing families who are repeat customers. The children who survive horrific abuse usually go on to commit crimes before settling in to have lots of unplanned children of their own, which they themselves proceed to abuse. Some of those highly disfunctional families are enormous (5 or 10 kids or more), and all 8 or 9 or 10 of them often end up in family court to be tended to by the workers who shake their heads while doing what they can. In fact, there's a common saying among many (liberal) child welfare workers: "Don't breed them if you can't feed them."

    Again, I'd like to see an honest conversation on this topic, but the topic seems untouchable. Conservatives aren't comfortable talking about any aspect of sex and many liberals (especially those who DON'T see these dead and beaten children day after day) aren't comfortable with the notion of depriving others of basic liberties like the right to procreate.

    It is such an incredibly hot issue that even offering at-risk women voluntary sterilization (see http://projectprevention.org/ ) has proven controversial. If you click this link you'll learn about Barbara Harris, a woman who adopted four of the eight children of a single Los Angeles addict. Her goal is to give at-risk drug abusing woman cash incentives to encourage them to use long-term or permanent birth control.

    [Note: In 2001, there were 542,000 children in foster care in the U.S. When they are released at the age of 18, 65% of them are at imminent risk for being homeless.]

    I know that this is a very difficult issue. I have to wonder, though, why we aren't even able to discuss serious dialogues like this, for the most part. It's not like all the stories filling up the local news are equally important.  In today's St. Louis Post Dispatch, for example, we have lots of room for stories that don't really matter, such as JonBete Ramsey, how to keep your abs fit and lots and lots of sports reporting.

  14. Jason Rayl says:

    Everyone has a friend who.

    Personal anecdotes can be tricky, but.

    I do in fact know a few women who have had abortions. Most were pretty straight-forward about it–"I'm neither fit nor willing to be a parent. Period. And I'm not willing to place the child in the wilderness of adoption hell. Nor am I willing to have my health altered by a full-term pregnancy."

    One told me that she was berated by a prolife friend that, finally, came down to "well, if you didn't want a child, you shouldn't have had sex!" her response was memorable–"Hey, I invited him in for a while, I didn't say he could leave any relatives behind."

    One, though, was thoroughly hypocritical. After the abortion, she was one of those who would walk the picket line in front of Planned Parenthood. It was entirely personal, selfish, and, finally, panic-driven.

    This is what the Supreme Court decided it could not get intangled with–the fact that this is an issue so personal that principle can take a vacation at a moment's notice and taking the decision out of the woman's hands can only result in EVERYTHING being left to chance, and usually with negative results.

    Lesson: people who oppose abortion, whether they would have one themselves or not, generally oppose OTHER PEOPLE'S ABORTIONS, and OTHER PEOPLE'S CHOICES. Somehow, they don't quite grasp how genuinely selfish that is.

  15. Deb says:

    I couldn't agree more about the dearth of real dialogues about real issues. It is much easier to write about things that don't really matter much, or that are pretty one sided (we're against child abuse- anyone DISagree?).

    I spent several years representing children who were abused or neglected, and it does indeed make one question ourselves. The drug addict mother I mentioned above never had a chance to reunite with her child (whether that is good or bad), because there were no rehab programs available. If she had had lots of money, she could have checked into the Betty Ford. Maybe if she had had a decent life she wouldn't have felt the need to escape from reality.

    All too often, I think we don't ask the hard questions, questions such as "What would cause a person to be so dissatisfied with their life they feel a need put their entire life and family at risk, and stick a needle in their arm?" "What would cause a parent to feel such frustration that they would intentionally hurt their own child?" Removing the child, sterilizing the parent, etc., etc., may stop it from happening in the future, but it didn't stop it from happening in the first place. What is the next step, deciding which person is likely to harm their offspring and sterilze him/her in anticipation of a crime?

    We have to stop these things from happening in the first place, and we can only do it by asking why they happen, and when we know that, maybe we can figure out how to prevent the reasons in the first place.

  16. Ben says:

    "Abortion is murder; secular humanism is destroying us; turn back to our Christian foundation; vote Republican."

    (…in which Schaeffer remembers delivering what he calls "The Speech" hundreds of times before fundamentalist audiences.)

    "Pat Robertson would have had a hard time finding work in any job where hearing voices is not a requirement."

    Theocracy Rejected: Former Christian Right Leaders 'Fess up
    http://www.alternet.org/story/78818/

  17. Miles McCullough says:

    Here's a 10th commandment for you:

    Punishment is always better than prevention, regardless of the facts.

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