We the Fallen People
Something seems off about the culture war around abortion. I wonder if our current debates have something to teach us about other tensions in our society and why we seem to be stuck.
Democracies are inherently fragile. The January 6 hearings make that abundantly clear. (If you haven’t actually seen the hearings, I encourage you to do so. Written summaries can’t do them justice.) The founding fathers knew that what they were attempting was anything but guaranteed. The problem with government of, by and for the people is, well, people.
When The Times of London once sent out an inquiry to famous authors, asking the question, “What’s wrong with the world today?” Chesterton responded,
Yours, G.K. Chesterton.”
When in 2016 Donald Trump promised to “make America great again,” his political opponent Hillary Clinton responded: “America is great – because America is good.” “America is great because she is good” has been a favorite quote of politicians since the middle of the 20th century. This is part of a larger quote usually attributed to the French observer and author Alexis de Tocqueville: “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”
Actually not only did de Tocqueville not pen these words, he didn’t come close to believing them. Nor did the founding fathers.
De Tocqueville, in his book Democracy in America, recognized that democratic outcomes weren’t necessarily just. That’s because human beings harbor a combination of “good instincts” and “wicked inclinations,” and our dominant motive is self-interest. “Private interest controls most human actions,” he wrote. It’s “the interest of the moment” that “rules us.” Instead of believing that Americans were exceptionally good, he said that he had never encountered a nation that was so obsessed with wealth.
While the framers of the Constitution didn’t believe that humans are wholly evil, they did say again and again that very few of us are virtuous. As the New York delegate James Wilson explained: “It is the nature of man to pursue his own interest, in preference to the public good.”
Today The Federalist is generally considered the most important resource for interpreting the Constitution. It consists of a collection of 85 essays written by Hamilton, Madison and Jay. Speaking through a single voice called Publius, they explain human nature in terms of a “hierarchy of motives.” The most common motive is passion, which is the influence of prejudice and irrational emotion. The next motive is interest, the rational but selfish pursuit of personal welfare. The least common motive is reason, which the authors thought of as not just rational thought but rational thought in the service of the common good.
De Tocqueville didn’t see Americans often engaging in this sort of rational thought or reason. What gave him some hope was that Americans sometimes saw how seeking the common good fit into their own self interest.
We are an incredibly divided country. Not only do we find it difficult to engage in conversations with people with whom we disagree, we often don’t even know anyone we disagree with. A survey taken shortly before the 2020 election found that two-fifths of respondents didn’t personally know a single person who planned to vote for the candidate they themselves opposed. We are not only divided, we are sequestered, cut off from one another.
Interracial marriages are now far more common than weddings between Republicans and Democrats.
In the early 1960s, nearly 80% of Americans trusted government to do the right thing at least most of the time. By 2019 a mere 17% of Americans said they trusted their government.
It’s not just that they are fallen, i.e. Democrats or Republicans, depending on your political persuasion. We are. I’m reminded of Micah 6:8 that says, “He has showed you, O people, what is good. What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” I think most Americans believe in some form of justice, and believe that there are situations and people that deserve our compassion and mercy. It’s the humility part that we trip over. Our perceptions of what’s just and who needs mercy tend to be viewed through the lens of our own self-interest.
Part of humility is admitting that many issues are complex and often require complex solutions and sometimes compromises. The problem with the abortion debate is that neither side tends to see the issue as being complex. We engage in binary, either/or thinking, assuming that our side is completely right and the other side entirely wrong, that abortion is obviously about the rights of the unborn or it’s obviously about the rights of the mother. We claim to know more than it’s possible for us to know, and we refuse to do the hard work of trying to learn something from those with whom we disagree, especially the various and often conflicting experiences of women around both pregnancy and abortion.
There’s no escaping the fact that when we talk about whatever it is that is growing in the womb of a pregnant woman, we’re dealing with mystery. I’m reminded of something the apostle Paul said that I think applies to this issue: “Knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge.”
Abortion can't be reduced to a right exercised. There is no such thing as a meaningless abortion, just as there is no such thing as meaningless sex, whatever we try to tell ourselves. But to say that abortion means murder is also too reductionistic. The Bible itself never makes such a claim. The fact that the Bible never mentions abortion at all should make those of us who are followers of Jesus at least cautious about making absolute pronouncements about what abortion is or means, and imposing our views on others.
Personally, I can’t escape the sense that abortions are wretched, horrible, and at the very least tragic – whether they happen naturally or through human intervention. When a woman miscarries, she often feels not only the sense of personal loss, but grief over who this person-in-the-making might have become. Whether or not a fetus is a human person or just a human “being” of some sort, from a Christian perspective, it is an image of God that’s being formed. When the Bible says that humans are made in God’s image, it goes on to say that they were made to reign. When the life of whatever is growing in a woman’s womb is aborted naturally or by a woman’s choice (or a parent or boyfriend’s demand), the life of a potential person of influence, made in the image of the divine, is being terminated.
I also understand that sometimes wretched, horrible and tragic circumstances prompt women to seek abortions. What gives me, or the government, the right to tell her she needs to abort her decision? The answer to that question remains murky for me. I doubt that draconian government laws are the answer, and are likely counterproductive. Efforts to impose or cut off a course of action almost always make people less likely to listen to their hearts. (The apostle Paul says as much in Romans 7.) As we’re learning, even judicial rulings at the Supreme Court level, like federal and state laws, can be reversed. As long as the right to abortion remains a battle, I can't see how either side can win.
Sixty-two percent of the American people believe that abortion should be legal. Most of them also believe there should be restrictions. That’s what we know. Maybe we should start with what we know, rather than what we can’t know for certain.
De Tocqueville warned that one of the dangers of a democracy can be the tyranny of the majority. When it comes to abortion rights, what’s actually unfolding is the tyranny of the minority. This may yield short-term results for those in the pro-life camp, but it’s a losing strategy in the long run.
Can't we just admit, “This is hard!?” Do we have to insist on being so definitive? Couldn't we say, “Our trying to figure this out is a work in progress.” And why do we focus so much on laws and policies and so little on meaning? I wish more policies had preambles. Maybe part of the problem is there are now so few truths that we can agree are “self-evident.” On the other hand, maybe if we worked at it, we’d discover more common ground than we thought was possible, and maybe the common ground would grow as we learned from one another and considered new possibilities. Maybe we'd discover that more than one thing can be true at the same time. Our Constitution grew out of countless, lengthy discussions about the meaning of things. Our founders were philosophers as well as legislators.
This is what I think: a healthy society is built neither on forcing people into ambiguous ethical behavior, nor on its citizens regarding their personal rights as sacred, more sacred than life itself. I believe that religion joined with political power almost always damages both the religion and the political institutions it is seeking to impact. Finally, I believe the pro-life movement might have avoided the culture war and prevented more abortions by focusing less on making abortion less possible and more on making it less likely. (I understand that European countries have done a much better job of supporting women who choose not to have an abortion.)
I’m reading a book right now by Christian Emba, opinion writer and editor for the Washington Post, entitled Rethinking Sex. She says that hundreds of people she’s talked to are open to rethinking the meaning of sex. The idea of “meaningless sex” hasn’t held water in most people’s actual experience. I wonder how thoughtful conversations about the meaning of sex might impact how we think about abortion and how often abortions occur.
Our country cannot survive, at least as a democracy, by continuing to function in the shallows. Consumerism will keep us there. Allowing ourselves to be duped by fear mongering politicians will keep us there. Embracing conspiracy theories will keep us there. Swallowing consumeristic religion will keep us there. Simply “talking politics” will keep us there, too. (So will avoiding politics altogether.) We need to go deeper. We need to have the courage to talk with one another about the meaning of life, and what’s necessary for true flourishing, or what the founding fathers called “the pursuit of happiness.” And yes, at some point we have to start looking beyond our own self-interest. We can’t keep pitting the right to life and the right to liberty against one another. We need to look beyond the what of life to the why of life. We need to not only engage in respectful discourse but in deep discourse.
And we need more humility. Lots of humility. We don’t have to agree in order for the questions themselves to teach and deepen us. Maybe we’ll discover more common ground beneath the surface than on the surface.
And that would be a start.
The title for this post and some of the historical information came from Robert Tracy McKenzie’s excellent book, We the Fallen People.