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1.07.2005

An unlikely coalition?

An interesting debate has been brewing between the Power Liners and Harvard professor William J. Stuntz. Stuntz wrote a column awhile back proposing a very unlikely coalition, intellectuals and evangelical Christians. At first this does seem very unlikely, but Stuntz does offer some good evidence that it would be possible.
Ours is an individualist culture; people rarely put their community's welfare ahead of their own. It isn't so rare in churches and universities. Churches are mostly run by volunteer labor (not to mention volunteered money): those who tend nurseries and teach Sunday School classes get nothing but a pat on the back for their labor. Not unlike the professors who staff important faculty committees. An economist friend once told me that economics departments are ungovernable, because economists understand the reward structure that drives universities: professors who do thankless institutional tasks competently must do more such tasks. Yet the trains run more or less on time -- maybe historians are running the economics departments -- because enough faculty attach enough importance to the welfare of their colleagues and students. Selfishness and exploitation are of course common too, in universities and churches as everywhere else. But one sees a good deal of day-to-day altruism, which is not common everywhere else
Stuntz also makes a very good point on what lessons could be learned from interactions between the two groups.
each side of this divide has something to teach the other. Evangelicals would benefit greatly from the love of argument that pervades universities. The "scandal of the evangelical mind" -- the title of a wonderful book by evangelical author and professor Mark Noll -- isn't that evangelicals aren't smart or don't love ideas. They are, and they do. No, the real scandal is the lack of tough, hard questioning to test those ideas. Christians believe in a God-Man who called himself (among other things) "the Truth." Truth-seeking, testing beliefs with tough-minded questions and arguments, is a deeply Christian enterprise. Evangelical churches should be swimming in it. Too few are.

For their part, universities would be better, richer places if they had an infusion of the humility that one finds in those churches. Too often, the world of top universities is defined by its arrogance: the style of argument is more "it's plainly true that" than "I wonder whether." We like to test our ideas, but once they've passed the relevant academic hurdles (the bar is lower than we like to think), we talk and act as though those ideas are not just right but obviously right -- only a fool or a bigot could think otherwise.

However just being able to learn from each other is not enough, there are many opposing groups that could learn from one another but cannot due to the fundamental differences in beliefs or worldview. On this point I agree with Deacon from Power Line.
But what if it turns out that two of the most deeply held beliefs of liberal intellectuals (more fundamental than their position on particular issues such as the ones Stuntz discusses) are (1) distrust of the exercise of U.S. power on behalf of U.S. interests, based on serious doubts as to whether the U.S. is a fundamentally decent society and (2) certainty that anyone who is deeply religious in the traditional sense is a hopeless rube? Would a coalition between liberal intellectuals and conservative evangelicals be possible under these circumstances? Surely not.
The mistrust that the Left, and intellectuals in particular, have for religious beliefs and motivations seriously hampers the prospect of realistic bridge building between the two. Stuntz presents evidence of this in his account of an interaction he had with a fellow church choir member:
A lot of my church friends think universities represent the forces of darkness. Law schools -- my corner of the academic world -- are particularly suspect. A fellow singer in a church choir once asked me what I did for a living. When I told her, she said, "A Christian lawyer? Isn't that sort of like being a Christian prostitute? I mean, you can't really do that, right?" She wasn't kidding. And if I had said no, you don't understand; I'm a law professor, not a lawyer, I'm pretty sure that would not have helped matters. ("Oh, so you train people to be prostitutesÂ…")
I was raised as a Southern Baptist, and while I have some serious disagreements with the Southern Baptist Convention on points of theology and policy (topic for another post), I still attend a Baptist church and identify myself as a member of the Baptist denomination. That being said, I was not raised with the same distrust of academia as my family has a large number of teachers, but I know plenty who feel the same way as the choir member Stuntz described. I believe the reason for this is the lack of humility that Stuntz described in the academic world.

Now that being said, Stuntz brings up some very interesting potential policy points that the two groups can possibly agree on in a follow-up column. Stuntz list is both predictable and surprising at the same time:
  • Poverty in the US
  • Poverty abroad
  • The spread of freedom, nation-building
  • Abortion
Yeah, the inclusion of abortion surprised me too, so I will let you read what he has to say about it.
The secular left believes strongly in abortion rights. Conservative Christians believe passionately that abortion is evil. Surely common ground can't exist here.

Yet it might. The key is that the two sides don't need to agree on premises in order to buy the same conclusion. Pro-life Christians want to see fewer abortions. That is already happening: the abortion rate has been falling since 1981; from that year to 2000 the rate fell by 27 percent, according to census data. Among teenage girls, the decline is greater still. The abortion rate is probably lower today than in 1975; it might be lower than in 1972, the year before the Supreme Court legalized the practice nationwide. What lies behind these trends? Strangely enough, the answer has a lot to do with the law being pro-choice. When the culture is sharply divided on some kind of behavior, the side that wins the law's endorsement tends to lose ground, culturally and politically. Roe v. Wade has been the pro-life movement's friend. Those who want abortions to be rare would do well to keep them safe and legal.

Consider some history: In the 1960s, even first-trimester abortions were crimes. No one knows how many illegal abortions there were; a conventional estimate is one million per year, and the number may be higher. The culture was growing steadily more tolerant of the practice. Media attention focused on the downsides of criminalization: The Saturday Evening Post and Newsweek ran stories claiming (falsely) that thousands of women were dying each year during botched abortions. Even conservative politicians like then-Governor Ronald Reagan supported a measure of legal tolerance. Today, abortion is a constitutional right. Back-alley abortions are no longer a story; partial-birth abortions are. And since the pro-life movement stopped focusing all its energies on changing the law, the culture has moved steadily in its direction. Few medical-school students learn how to perform the procedure, not just because they fear protests but because they have qualms about it. So do millions of young women. When I was a college student in the 1970s, abortion was talked about, and often done, casually. I don't think that's true today. But if the Supreme Court overruled Roe and a couple dozen states criminalized early-term abortions, those trends would quickly reverse. Abortion would become not a moral question, but a civil liberties question - just as it was in the 1960s and 1970s.

This phenomenon -- legal victory that leads to cultural and political defeat -- has a long history. In the 1850s, slaveholders collected some huge legal prizes: the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision. Those victories produced an anti-slavery movement powerful enough to elect Lincoln and win the Civil War. Sixty years later, the temperance movement won its long battle for national Prohibition. Within a decade, the culture was turning against temperance; Repeal came soon after. In America's culture wars, the side with the law's weaponry often manages only to wound themselves.

A lot of pro-lifers understand this, and their number is steadily growing. For the near future, the movement is likely to keep doing what works -- finding ways to encourage young women to "choose life." The old Clinton slogan -- safe, legal, and rare -- may actually become a reality. The compromise here is simple: let's agree to leave Roe alone, at least for now, and to fight this cultural battle on a cultural battleground. Not a legal one.

This is where I believe the fault in his whole argument lies. Most, if not all, of the pro-life evangelicals that I know would never settle for a cultural battle alone, outlawing abortion will always be on their agenda. While I am not saying that this type of pragmatism is lost on evangelicals, this battle is one of utmost importance and morality to them. This suggestion has the taste of appeasement to it, and that argument would never get off the ground in a community that places a premium on a world view that includes mostly black and white views of morality.

It's not that I disagree with his postulation that that kind of common ground exists, but I disagree with his assumption that the pro-life movement seeks fewer abortions, they actually seek no medically unnecessary ones. This is where the appeasement falls down.

Professor Stuntz certainly leaves to the door open to the possibility of a miscalculation on this point in his emailed response to Power Line.
The real problem is cultural issues, and the big one is abortion. If I'm wrong, as I may be, that's the place where I'm making a mistake. Plainly, there isn't going to be some broad agreement about the moral status of the unborn. But why change the rules when you're winning the game? And the pro-life movement is winning --- hundreds of thousands of children are born each year who otherwise wouldn't be, because of the cultural progress that movement has made. Keeping the culture wars about the culture, not about the law, is the key to maintaining that progress. At least so it seems to me.
I think he has a valuable point about the current status of the battle, the pro-life movement is winning, but at some point that will not be enough. That is where the schism becomes obvious.

Overall I really agree with Stuntz on many of his points, particularly on the absence of critical discussion in most churches. I believe, as he seems to, that a large part of faith is seeking truth and that you cannot do blindly.

The message that I take away from this discussion is that there is always something to learn from what you perceive to be the "opposition", and that there may be a lot more common ground than you think. You just have to look for it.

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