Another Pleasant Valley Sunday (Charcoal Burning Everywhere)

The Lapsed Episcopalian was reared to be a devout, mid-western homeowner. To him raised in suburban Detroit in the 1950s this means being a dutiful taxpayer, having a religious commitment to setting out the garbage and maintaining a well edged lawn. One must default to passers by when cutting the grass and offer up a sober but friendly greeting. Modest yet festive lighting must adorn the exterior in the month of December. Your more healthy suburbanites, like the Lapsed Episcopalian, will also have a goodly dose of self-deprecation and levity, readily able to locate his exaggerated self in an installment of Christmas Vacation and take a humorous pride being nicknamed “Clark.” And he is nothing if he cannot pass down the mantle to his firstborn son. Thus, I find no shame and only immense comfort in saying we Griswold’s take our suburbanism seriously—but not too seriously. Such keeping up is for the Jones’s.

Recently, I was reminded of a particular suburbanite burden: the canvassing of local politico’s trying to re-up for office. And in our neck of the woods one of the bullets on candidate fliers is that phrase which captures the attention of certain values-voters: pro-life.  To one obviously steeped in the American culture that is suburbia it seems a simple enough phrase; I know what it means. But the more I go on the more I have come to see this as one of America’s more nebulous terms.

Like its antagonist aphorism, “pro-choice,” it has become largely irrelevant. In the immediate, neither phrase really means anything substantive. Whatever else choosing one term or the other may mean, what seems clear is that very few realize what a failed conversation it has all become, attested to in the way it has moved from meaningful controversy to entrenched politics and alighting subtly in bulleted form on the back of a candidate’s calling card. Thus it necessarily has become only a way to say to those who hold the power of electing those who want the power that it’s all about values—vote for me because we have the same opinion on something that will likely never translate into anything of substance.

But beyond that, it isn’t all that clear what conservative Calvinism owes the pro-life movement. While pro-life dogma may not always mean a conservative Calvinism (to wit, its being predominated by a doctrine of human innocence), it does seem that those who claim a conservative Calvinism easily assume a pro-life confession. At least, the “lady in red” at my door handing out her flier wants me to know about her local Reformed church membership.

I am tempted to leave alone the fact that her church has shamelessly adopted wholesale the Willow Creek model, which might be the first clue that a conservative Calvinism isn’t exactly coursing through the veins. But like those Reformed who generally seem more taken with the sawdust trail than anything Geneva would have produced when it comes to theology, piety and practice, it seems those who claim a conservative Calvinism have been uncritically influenced by a particular brand of rightist American politics.

Though the appeal is always “the dignity of life,” it is not immediately clear how anything in Augustinian-Calvinism would have that a certain class of sinners are entitled to less of life’s indignities than others. To the contrary, a robust and unflinching Calvinism seems to suggest that from the moment life begins subjection to the curse is modified for no one. That likely is a jagged pill to swallow, given that we inhabit a time and place that outfits children in head-to-toe crash gear to pedal all of twenty-three feet. But could it be that something like the pro-life movement has much more to do with the pursuits of creaturely comfort and ease than notions of pilgrimage or martyrdom? What exactly is it in a doctrine of total depravity that implies some creatures are in an untouchable category all their own? Is it really so unfathomable that policies are in place wherein some of us are vulnerable to losing our lives?

Activism, American-style, is a ruthless brawler. The pro-life version is no exception. It spawns its own adaptation of political correctness in which any speech that dares question its righteous efforts is to be either dismissed or vilified. Worse, insofar as wires have become supremely crossed and the ideological dictums of the pro-life movement have become litmus tests to theological orthodoxy, impiety necessarily follows those who raise their hands. Nevertheless, it seems not a little dubious that an otherwise conservative Calvinism should uncritically get in line and walk lock-step with a movement that has resident within it everything from the suspect notion of human innocence to the irregularity that certain creatures should be able circumvent life’s injuries. Contrary to the preponderance of a conservative Calvinism that assumes a pro-life genuflection, it would seem more consistent that conservative Calvinists would sooner be able to endure whatever policy imperfections exist and be more reluctant to champion a brew from the same laboratories that brought creaturely comfort and ease. In other words, the pro-life movement seems much more American than Christian.

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