The recent election cycle has been fodder for a great many things. It has given rise to topics ranging from race relations to economic theories. And in religious circles it has afforded an almost constant chatter about that quintessential question in modern culture war and legislative conundrum called abortion. Speaking for many of us in one way or another John McCain attempted to describe his personal feelings on the topic by saying it’s one of those subjects he wished “would just go away.” Such candid remarks, coupled with an official platform to return rights back to the states, didn’t win him any hearty endorsements by the NLRC. Sharing its sentiment that an administration should push back as hard as Roe shoved, that was to be his running mate’s pleasure.
I never thought I’d think as much as I have about this one in the last few months. Truth be told, from the very beginnings of Christian faith I’ve always been more than a little suspect of all this pro-life stuff. Maybe I’m just cynical. But it may also be that my suspicion is borne from a desire to understand the actual theory of the Atonement or how sin and grace interplayed but told to wait whilst my lax politics were shored up. As I moved out of broad funda-evangelicalism and into a narrower confessional-Calvinism I suppose I presumed this suspicion would be matched. After all, it was the obnoxious culture wars which caused me to search out a better country in the first place. But I can’t seem to shake off the fact that, even though they answered the questions of the Atonement and sin and grace with unparalleled acumen, where my fellow conservative Calvinists more or less get in line with the pro-life movement I still find only equal hesitation.
I simply cannot get past the inherent moralism and self-righteous nature that is part and parcel of any movement-ism in general. My own sense of liberty cannot swallow how this movement takes captive consciences and breeds legalism. It is a legalism of citizenship which seems unable to distinguish between voting for a candidate and having an opinion on one issue. One often hears that to endorse a candidate who happens to have choice politics is tantamount to being a “material participant in murder” or some variation thereof. Equally disturbing has been the relative absence of push back by those who would otherwise be champions of conscience and opponents of legalism. If this is any measure, it seems that many confessional Presbyterians appreciably understand legalism to be something merely about substance use. But Drambuie and Cubans are little comfort to a conscience politically bound, especially one not especially given to liquor anyway.
I suppose since nobody else is going to say it I might as well: To my lights the pro-life movement is the political-legislative version of the Christian-American-family-values rhetoric. One may be much more embodied than the other which hovers in the hearts of those who laud and honor home and hearth, but they are species of the same genus. But arguably, they are both testimonies to contemporary manifestations of—gird thy loins—idolatry. It is not that I personally have anything at all against children and families. After all, I have plenty of each and am really quite fond of them. I like to think I have a high view of creation and understand children and families to be one part of the created order which was pronounced “very good,” emphasis on very. And, granted, there is much to be said for the fact that it is fuzzy line between the perfectly legitimate, even vigorous, pursuit of that which is very good and idolatry. So I don’t use the a-word flippantly, as some can be in the habit of doing, thereby ruining a perfectly good soccer game or a rousing election year.
But we Americans have a regard for children that can brink on, well, just weird. Consider how we routinely speak of children “deserving a better life than their parents.” Deserve, really? Have children done something more than consumers who are told they “deserve a break today”? Or consider the silent rule that grandparents have the uncontested right to “spoil their grandchildren.” We dress children in head-to-toe crash gear to peddle all of half a block. We create a creepy cottage industry of figurines called “Precious Moments” which actually seems to capture well how we angelize tykes. We are increasingly extending the age of adolescence and dependency. Where European and Asian cultures have something more akin to the seen-but-not-heard ethic, Americans not only adore (my thesaurus includes “deify”) their youth but are unapologetic—nay proud—about it. It seems one thing to enjoy and want to do well by one’s children, another to think they are actually entitled to things other classes of human beings aren’t by virtue of being them, including heroic protection of life and limb.
Thus, I do not think it a reach to suggest our culture’s swooni-o-sity over children is subject to a biblical touchstone against idolatry, nor by extension to suggest that whatever else the pro-life movement is the case could be made it is a “material participant in natal-idolatry.” OK, that may be to overstate things for rhetorical effect. But given that to suggest our culture idolizes material wealth and sexuality draws nary a gasp, it may take a certain acidity to get the point over that children are really no different.
Most Reformed are rightly guarded and even critical of family values rhetoric for what appears to be this very reason. Yet Calvinists are still curiously found within the ranks and employing the language and posture of the pro-life movement. Why would Reformed be at once able to see the potential hazards resident within the former but not the latter? Why is one more guilty as a front in the culture war battles while the other enjoys a sort of hands-off policy where Methodists, Mormons and Roman Catholics are co-belligerents? Yes, the triadalism of a two-kingdom theology recognizes the massive common sphere where believers and pagans may work shoulder-to-shoulder on a plethora of projects from mundane to heady. But that still doesn’t go very far in explaining why Calvinists easily spy idolatry in the stuff of “Christian-America-family-values” but get in lock-step with a movement that includes everything from a parlance of “human innocence” to a virulent moral indignation.
One possibility is that Reformed and Presbyterian don’t see this turning on concerns of idolatry so much as those of high culture and low culture. Salivating over books entitled, “Do Hard Things” and being often characterized by a penchant for high mindedness, Presbyterians seem to have a natural disdain for things more pedestrian and pietist. The Christian-America-family-values rhetoric, by its nature, seems given to a kind of low brow folksiness complete with cheesy sweatshirts, Thomas Kincaid atrocity and chintzy patriotism. By contrast, the pro-life movement is given to loftier contemplations about the things that remain like life, law, morality and ethics.
With their under-critical loyalty to the pro-life movement in view, it could be that what repels Reformed from family values rhetoric has less to do with recognizing idolatry and more to do with an impulse against low culture and an embrace of that which is merely enduring. But to my mind, as legitimate a taxonomy as that may be and whatever gains may be made by it, idolatry versus faithfulness is still what should compel the Reformed believer. After all, perfectly Christ-hating pagans easily know the difference between a beggarly and an abiding culture. And in light of the fact that we are told to “hate our lives” and that even our marriages and families will be dissolved in the age to come, what is enduring is nevertheless also fading in this present evil age. (If nothing else, this distinction might free up arid Presbyterians to enjoy doing easy as much as hard things.)
Of course, the other possibility is that moralism is indeed a siren song. It is hard for the flesh, even Reformed flesh, to resist law and be found on the right side of questions of justice. Just as I have nothing against children and families, I have nothing at all against justice or morality. It would be hard to get from one day to the next without such things. But there is a difference between a noble morality and an ignoble moralism. I know that line can be as fuzzy as the one between the pursuit of creation and idolatry. So I realize there are plenty who would that a genuine concern for what is right, true and good is another possibility to explain the Reformed discrepancy. To be fair, I don’t doubt that there is a good measure of authenticity that abides the rank and file.
Even so, I can’t help but think that a better Calvinism would exercise a more realistic assessment of what it means to join the human race over against sunnier doctrines of human innocence and subsequent entitlements. To be made in the image and likeness of God is indeed a dignity with certain implications that no other creature enjoys. But to be human is also to suffer the indignities of life east of Eden. It seems to me that as high a view of creation as Calvinism has it is necessarily outpaced by its doctrine of sin. Otherwise, neither creation nor grace may fully erupt and come to bear as they ought. In other words, even on its good days, whatever the pro-life movement is about, Calvinism is about much more.