Tag Archives: autonomy

We Need Genuine Christians

Wednesday’s post went into some detail about the competing American cultures identified by David Brooks. Brooks concluded (among other things) that an “autonomy culture” has prevailed over the traditional belief in obedience to an established external authority (aka God). He did acknowledge several of the negative aspects of the latter culture, but the more I’ve thought about his critique, the more I recognized the significant problems he failed to identify.

One obvious problem is that honest religious adherents cannot claim to know with confidence what their particular deity requires. (There’s a popular Facebook meme saying something along the lines of: isn’t it interesting that your God hates the same people you do?)

How many wars have been fought by men trying to prove that their God is bigger and better and more correct than someone else’s?

The bigger problem with Brooks’ description of what is really a culture of subservience is, ironically, theological. My clergy friends– who all exhibit what I consider appropriate moral humility– point out that authentic religious belief requires the freedom to choose.

Forced piety/obedience is inauthentic by definition.

What got me thinking about all this was a recent column by Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post. Rubin was pointing to Americans’ disinclination to “tell it like it really is.”

It’s not the plague of “polarization” or “distrust,” some sort of floating miasma, that has darkened our society. Bluntly put, we are in deep trouble because a major party rationalizes both intense selfishness — the refusal to undertake even minor inconveniences such as mask-wearing or gun background checks for others’ protection — and deprivation of others’ rights (to vote, to make intimate decisions about reproduction, to be treated with respect.)

What Rubin dubs the “White-grievance industry,” composed of right-wing media, politicians, pundits and think tanks, is enraged over the loss of a society where “far fewer women competed with men in the workplace, White power was largely unchallenged, and diversity was less pronounced.”

Encouraging that rage has required the (mis)use of religion.

Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, wrote recently in Time about the MAGA formula, ascendant after the United States’ election of its first Black president: “the stoking of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-Black sentiment while making nativist appeals to the Christian right.

”The nostalgic appeal of ‘again,’” Jones observes, “harkens back to a 1950s America, when white Christian churches were full and white Christians comprised a supermajority of the U.S. population; a period when we added ‘under God’ to the pledge of allegiance and ‘In God We Trust’ to our currency.”

Our future as a tolerant, decent society ultimately may depend on White Christian communities’ recovering their moral equilibrium and support for American democracy, and rejecting the movement to turn churches into platforms for QAnon and white nationalism. But we cannot wait for an evangelical reformation.

Rubin and Jones are hardly the first to point out that people purporting to be “bible believing Christians” have perverted the previously understood teachings of that religion to serve political ends. But in the following paragraph, she contrasts that faux Christianity with the behaviors of people who take philosophical and religious teachings and the “norms of civilized societies” seriously:

MAGA voters think everyone else is the problem. As perpetual victims, they feel entitled to ignore the demands of civilized society — e.g., self-restraint, care for actually vulnerable people, pluralism, acceptance of political defeat. Their irritation with mask-wearing gets elevated over the lives of those most susceptible to a deadly pandemic. Their demands to display an armory of weapons mean schoolchildren become targets for acts of mass gun violence. Their religious zealotry, fed by the myth that Christianity is under attack, means poor women cannot have access to safe, legal abortions.

My friends and family members follow a wide variety of religious traditions and none. Virtually all of them– devout and nonbeliever alike–have come to their beliefs via the exercise of personal autonomy–choice. They have examined the teachings of their their own and other religions, adopted those they’ve found persuasive and rejected others.

Several are people I regard as real Christians. They follow a very different Jesus than the John Wayne clone manufactured by political Evangelicals. (For one thing, their Jesus isn’t an ahistorical White guy with blue eyes.) They attend–and in a couple of cases, lead–churches that avoid the moral absolutism buttressed by cherry-picking  bibles that have been translated from their original languages over the years. They respect people who are racially and religiously different, and they understand why authentic religious belief requires separation of Church from State.

They’re the ones I consider “kosher”  Christians, and the ones I know are really, really tired of the White Supremicists who have appropriated –and continue to disgrace–the name.

 

Be Careful What You Wish For

The Supreme Court–newly dominated by a conservative majority–has accepted an abortion case out of Mississippi. It is widely expected that the Court will use that case to further erode a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy–not explicitly overturning Roe v. Wade, but effectively eviscerating it.

Talking Points Memo considered the likely political effects of that decision, pointing out that, since the justices waited until the end of the current term to say that they would take it up, with a decision likely next June, it can hardly avoid being a front-burner issue in the 2022 election cycle.

Linda Greenhouse sees the decision to accept the case as the “end of the free ride” for anti-choice activists. She began that analysis by listing a number of situations in which state legislation curtailing abortion rights has been struck down by the courts, allowing “pro life” politicians to posture without incurring the electoral wrath of those who disagree.

Her recitation reminds me of a conversation I had with an Indiana legislator several years ago. He was in my graduate Law and Policy Class, and I knew he was aware of First Amendment precedents prohibiting state endorsement of religion, so when he voted to post the Ten Commandments on government buildings, I challenged him. His response was candid: he could vote the way the “folks in Mayberry” (his small town) wanted, keeping them happy, secure in the prospect that the courts would “bail him out.”

Abortion politics has taken a similar path.

Ever since the 2010 election ushered new Republican majorities into state legislatures, politicians there have been able to impose increasingly severe abortion restrictions without consequence, knowing that the lower courts would enjoin the laws before they took effect and save the people’s representatives from having to own their actions.

Greenhouse explains how the Court can effectively demolish Roe without actually and explicitly overruling it, and then considers the politics involved. Her analysis is worth quoting at some length:

It’s a dim memory, but a salient one, that in Mississippi itself, a voter referendum that would have amended the state Constitution to grant personhood status to a fertilized egg was defeated in 2011 by a margin of 58 to 41 percent, despite endorsement by leading politicians and widespread predictions that it would pass. That’s when the anti-abortion forces decided that friendly legislatures were a better bet than the will of the people.

Last fall, in each of four nationwide polls, including one conducted for Fox News, more than 60 percent of registered or likely voters said they did not want the Supreme Court to overturn “Roe v. Wade.” I put the case in quotes because that’s how the pollsters asked the question; although Roe obviously carries strong symbolic meaning, the 1973 decision is in many respects no longer the law.

The question as the polls’ respondents processed it was most likely “Do you want to keep the right to abortion?” And no wonder the answer was yes: nearly one American woman in four will have an abortion. (Catholic women get about one-quarter of all abortions, roughly in proportion to the Catholic share of the American population.) Decades of effort to drive abortion to the margins of medical practice have failed to dislodge it from the mainstream of women’s lives.

For the cynical game they have played with those lives, politicians have not paid a price. Now perhaps they will. Of course, women themselves will pay a heavy price as this new reality sorts itself out, particularly women with low incomes who now make up the majority of abortion patients.

And there’s another price to be paid as justices in the new majority turn to the mission they were selected for. The currency isn’t votes, but something even more important and harder to win back: the institutional legitimacy of the Supreme Court of the United States.

There’s no free ride for the court either.

What Greenhouse doesn’t address is the extent to which the GOP has depended upon both the energy of anti-abortion activists and the relative lack of political activism by pro-choice voters who have assumed that the courts will protect their rights. If Roe is either over-ruled or–as is more likely–eviscerated, it may well shift that dynamic to the detriment of “the folks in Mayberry” and the GOP.

 

 

The War On Women

Earlier this month, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a Planned Parenthood request to delay implementation of a new Trump administration rule forbidding Title X recipients from making abortion referrals. The ruling allowed the policy to take effect while lawsuits from states, medical groups and reproductive rights advocates continue.

The following Monday, Planned Parenthood exited Title X, forfeiting millions of dollars in federal grants. Planned Parenthood serves nearly half of the approximately 4 million low-income women covered by Title X, providing free and subsidized birth control, STD  and breast cancer screenings and other health services.

There has rarely been a better illustration of why “pro life” people are anything but pro-life.

Numerous observers have pointed to the disconnect between the movement’s obsessive concern for zygotes and fetuses, on the one hand, and its utter lack of interest in the health and welfare of poor children who are already born on the other. Others have noted that activists’ zealous efforts to ban abortion aren’t accompanied by even tepid efforts to ban assault weapons. But this attack on the health of over two million poor women is an even more compelling example of the movement’s deep hypocrisy.

In order to impose a gag order on medical personnel working at family planning clinics–in order to ensure that they don’t utter the word “abortion” or tell women where they might obtain one–these “pro-lifers” are perfectly willing to deny women access to lifesaving breast cancer screenings, STD treatments and other medical services totally unconnected to abortion.

In addition, it’s hard not to notice that the “pro life” movement has moved beyond its purported emphasis on preventing abortion to an all-out effort to limit access to birth control. (Logic tells us that increased access to birth control reduces the incidence of abortion. If reducing the number of abortions was really the focus of “pro-life” efforts, you would expect these activists to be dispensing birth control pills on street corners.)

To be fair, there are undoubtedly some among these single-issue zealots who genuinely believe that a fertilized egg is equivalent to a human being, and that the rights of that fertilized egg take precedence over the rights of the human woman who carries it. I have trouble with that viewpoint, but some people–for whatever reason–really do hold it, and they are obviously entitled to do so.

However, it has become abundantly clear that a far greater percentage of those who label themselves “pro life” are actually “anti choice.” These are people (mostly men, but some women) who would deny women the personal autonomy that men in our society have always enjoyed. They fear the loss of “traditional values,” by which they mean the continued dominance of White Christian males.  If a few thousand women need to die from an undetected cancer in order to preserve their privileged status, they consider that a perfectly reasonable tradeoff.

I still recall a conversation with a partner in the law firm I joined immediately after graduation from law school. I was the first woman hired by that firm–which had over 50 lawyers at the time. The partner attributed the growing number of female law students to the (then-relatively-new) birth control pill; thanks to that pill, women were no longer hostages to reproduction. They could plan their pregnancies. Consequently, they were better able to enter and thrive in the workforce, and less dependent upon a man to support them and their (often-unplanned) children.

Both he and I thought that was a good thing.

Obviously, there are a lot of people who disagree, and who find a woman’s ability to control her own reproduction existentially threatening. If denying them access to healthcare is the only way to prevent women from exercising autonomy and controlling their own destinies, they’re more than willing to make that trade.

You can call such people many things, but “pro-life” isn’t one of them.

 

 

Defining Merit

I read David Brooks’ columns in the New York Times pretty regularly. As I have noted previously, sometimes I agree with him and sometimes I don’t.

By far my most typical response to Brooks, however, is “yes, but…” That was my reaction to observations he shared a couple of weeks ago, at the height of the college graduation season. Here’s how he began:

Once upon a time, white male Protestants ruled the roost. You got into a fancy school if your father had gone to the fancy school. You got a job at a white-shoe law firm or climbed the corporate ladder if you golfed at the right club.

Then we smashed all that. We replaced a system based on birth with a fairer system based on talent. We opened up the universities and the workplace to Jews, women and minorities. University attendance surged, creating the most educated generation in history. We created a new boomer ethos, which was egalitarian (bluejeans everywhere!), socially conscious (recycling!) and deeply committed to ending bigotry.

You’d think all this would have made the U.S. the best governed nation in history. Instead, inequality rose. Faith in institutions plummeted. Social trust declined. The federal government became dysfunctional and society bitterly divided.

No argument with the first paragraph. It describes the world I grew up in.  (I attended a women’s college where the “joke” was that the school had accidentally admitted an extra Jew over its “quota” of 50, and three trustees had committed suicide as a result.)

The second paragraph, however, describes an aspiration rather than a reality. Yes, many of the barriers were removed; elite schools no longer imposed quotas for Jews, Asians and others, and more people went to college. But bluejeans do not an “egalitarian ethic” make–and among graduates of less-elite institutions, both recycling and a “deep commitment to ending bigotry” can still be pretty hard to find.

The third paragraph displays an inverted version of one the oldest logical fallacies: after this, therefore because of this. Here, Brooks says we had an unfair system, we made it (somewhat) fairer, and the measures we employed didn’t solve our social ills. Ergo, meritocracy doesn’t work.

Brooks says that the problem is with the “ideology” of meritocracy, which he believes encourages “ruinous beliefs,” including an exaggerated regard for intelligence (“Many of the great failures of the last 50 years, from Vietnam to Watergate to the financial crisis, were caused by extremely intelligent people who didn’t care about the civic consequences of their actions”); a misplaced faith in autonomy (leading to a society “high in narcissism and low in social connection”); a misplaced notion of the self (“a conception of self that is about achievement, not character”); and a misplaced “idolization” of diversity (“Diversity for its own sake, without a common telos, is infinitely centrifugal, and leads to social fragmentation”).

The essential point is this: Those dimwitted, stuck up blue bloods in the old establishment had something we meritocrats lack — a civic consciousness, a sense that we live life embedded in community and nation, that we owe a debt to community and nation and that the essence of the admirable life is community before self.

Actually, I don’t remember those “stuck up blue bloods” having much civic consciousness, but perhaps I encountered the wrong ones…

Brooks’ “essential point,” like Aristotle’s golden mean, locates virtue in the midpoint between  extremes. To the extent that “midpoint” is another word for reasoned moderation, that insight has proved valid through most of human history.

But our problem isn’t meritocracy; it is how we define our terms.

Merit is not defined by intellect alone, although I would argue that a respect for intellectual achievement is meritorious. Diligence, honor, compassion and other markers of character are  essential to any definition of merit. Nor is intellect merely a matter of IQ–genuine intellectual achievement requires an open mind and intellectual curiosity, not just capacity.

Autonomy does not require disconnection from community or preoccupation with self. Properly understood, it simply requires each of us to engage in self-government, to create and be true to our own telos. The most autonomous people I know are deeply involved with their communities.

Similar critiques can be made of the other terminology Brooks employs.

The problem isn’t that we reward people on the basis of merit; the problem is we don’t agree on what constitutes either merit or an appropriate reward.