Government Theology is Un-American

If Congressman Mourdock wants to interpret the will of God to the People, he should move to a country where government officials do that, and leave my country alone.

This week, Indiana’s Richard Mourdock became the latest Republican candidate to make the political mistake of spelling out the consequences of his ideology: Not only would he make abortion illegal in all ordinary circumstances, but he sees no reason for a rape exception. He wants the government to force women to bear their rapists’ children.

Politics being what it is, a Rapist Procreation Act could never make it through Congress, even as an amendment to a larger Forced Motherhood Act. So euphemisms and rationalizations have to be employed.

Senate candidate Akin. Two months previously, Missouri senate candidate Todd Akin had made headlines by abusing science to support rapist procreation: Rape exceptions are unnecessary, he claimed, because rape pregnancies don’t happen. At least they don’t happen in cases of “legitimate rape”, i.e., the kind where the woman is penetrated by violence. “The female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” he said.

Ignore the fact that no legitimate scientist believes this, so Akin had to search out a phony “expert” who is primarily another anti-abortion extremist. Even giving Akin’s words their most generous interpretation — that he meant to say “violent” rather than imply that the rape itself could be “legitimate” — they’re monstrous. In his view, for example, raped women who are drugged rather than beaten are not worth the law’s notice.

A friend of a friend once met a knife-wielding stranger on a stairwell. He said he wanted to kill her, but she negotiated him down to having sex instead. That also would not be a legitimate rape in Todd Akin’s view, so any possible pregnancy would be the woman’s responsibility, not the knifeman’s.

Or consider this account of an incest pregnancy. Sometimes her father raped her “legitimately” by violence. Sometimes threats were enough, and sometimes she submitted to save her younger sisters. What kind of rape got her pregnant? She doesn’t know.

Akin’s government would punish such men, presumably, but would also make sure that their reproductive strategy succeeds and their DNA is multiplied in the next generation.

Walsh. Illinois Republican Congressman Joe Walsh went a step further than Akin. Not only is a rape exception unnecessary, but a life-of-the-mother exception is unnecessary too — and for the same reason: It never happens. “With modern technology and science,” he said, “you can’t find one instance” of a medically necessary abortion.

Non-ideologues quickly came up with the example of ectopic pregnancy, which killed 876 American women between 1980 and 2007.

Mourdock. Having seen how much heat Akin took for abusing science, Mourdock decided to abuse theology instead. For Mourdock, the magic pregnancy-prevention intervention doesn’t come from the mysteries of female biology, it comes from God. If a woman gets pregnant through rape, that must be “something that God intended to happen.”

Again, let’s give Mourdock’s words their most generous interpretation, the one he begged for the next morning. (Consider the irony: We’re granting Mourdock a morning-after pill, so that his statement doesn’t bear any unwanted fruit.) He didn’t mean to say that God sends rapists to impregnate women. (“I don’t think God wants rape,” he said, in one of the strangest denials ever.) But once the sperm sights the ovum, it is up to God whether or not conception occurs.

This is the traditional God-of-the-gaps theology: Well-understood processes follow scientific cause-and-effect, but anything that happens mysteriously is God’s will. (Lightning strikes, for example, were God’s will until Ben Franklin thwarted God by understanding electricity and inventing the lightning rod.)

Personal vs. public. I find this view of God absurd, but that’s just me. If you want to interpret every unpredictable event as a message from your Creator, don’t let me stop you. If Mourdock’s family were to suffer a rape pregnancy (not that I’m wishing it on them), maybe they really would welcome the rapist’s baby as a “gift from God”. If they went on to raise that boy up to be a far better man than his father, I might even admire them for it.

But here’s where I get off the train: Mourdock the individual and the Mourdock Family should be free to believe what makes sense to them, and to organize their lives accordingly. But Congressman Mourdock and wannabee Senator Mourdock have no business telling the American people what God wants.

That’s not how America works. That is, in fact, what the Founders revolted against.

Old Europe vs. New America. In the old system of European monarchy, the King had a special relationship to God, and so his government stood between God and the People. In the same way that the bishops channeled God’s religious will, the King channeled God’s political will. The People may or may not understand why God wants them to go to war with Spain or pay a higher toll at the bridge, but no matter: The King and God had it all worked out, and it was the People’s duty to obey.

The American system of democracy reversed all that. In America, the People stand between God and the government.

In America, we believe that God pays no attention to rank; God speaks to everyone, and not just to high government officials.

In America, Congress is supposed to interpret the will of the People, not the will of God.

In America, it is up to the People to interpret the will of God for the government. It is not up to the government to interpret the will of God for the People.

Biology vs. Theology. One reason this anti-American tendency on the Right gets so little attention is that they have carefully framed their theological reasoning in biological terms: They claim to be talking about “when human life begins”, which sounds biological.

If you buy into that false framing, their favored answer “human life begins at conception” seems obvious: The fertilized ovum may be a one-celled organism that looks more like an amoeba than a baby, but it is alive and has human DNA, so it’s clearly “human life”.

But this is a strangely materialistic piece of logic that the Religious Right would not accept in any other case. Something makes killing a human being murder, but killing a pig dinner. Is that difference in the DNA somewhere? Can we hope that science will someday identify the “worth gene” that gives humans their incommensurable value?

Of course not. Imagine the outcry if someone claimed to pinpoint such a gene and showed that it was absent in certain birth defects.

Worth is not about DNA, it’s about soul. (If you don’t ordinarily use the word soul, you can take that as a functional definition: Whatever makes a human’s life more valuable than a pig’s is soul. Whether you think of it as a mystical whatever or as a socio-legal convention is, in practice, irrelevant.)

So the question of abortion is not when “human life” begins, it’s when the soul enters the body. (Or, for secularists, it’s when the law decides to take fetuses under its protection.)

All the biological evidence that is usually offered on the abortion question — when a fetus has a heartbeat or brainwaves or reacts in ways that resemble pain — is beside the point. A pig fetus at a similar stage would also have a heartbeat, brainwaves, and a cringing reflex. Paul Ryan might describe the “bean” that he saw on the ultrasound as a “baby”, but if a prankster had rigged the ultrasound to show Ryan the fetus of a pig or chimp, I doubt he’d have known the difference.

The difference between murder and dinner is not physical, it’s metaphysical. It’s a question for theologians, not biologists.

Government humility. And that means the government should stay out of it unless some compelling public interest is involved, which it isn’t. (In a post-apocalyptic world in need of repopulation, for example, the government would have such an interest.)

The ensoulment question has been debated as long as the Judeo-Christian tradition has existed, and the experts have often disagreed. (One frequently taken view was that ensoulment happened around 90 days — coincidentally corresponding to the first trimester when Roe v. Wade allows the fewest restrictions on abortion.) Other religious traditions have their own opinions on the matter. (Many, for example, would find the pig to be of comparable value to the human, and have a different notion of soul entirely. If they can build a majority somewhere, should the law reflect their theology? Or should they simply practice their beliefs without forcing vegetarianism on non-believers?)

In the American system, government takes a humble position in matters of theology: It recognizes that it has no special expertise, so it leaves such questions to the individual.

That’s what should happen here: Each sect should be free to put forward its own view of when a fetus acquires the incommensurable value of a human soul, and its practitioners should be free to practice that view.

That’s the American way.

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  • Stephanie  On October 29, 2012 at 7:29 pm

    Another terrific hit that I MUST share on Facebook.

  • SamChevre  On October 30, 2012 at 9:20 am

    <i.In the American system, government takes a humble position in matters of theology: It recognizes that it has no special expertise, so it leaves such questions to the individual.

    I hadn’t noticed that it does this in regards to race, or sex–both of which have been theological concerns for a long time.

    • Kim Cooper  On November 3, 2012 at 3:15 am

      Those same pushy religionists who want to force their idea of fetal humanity on us, also insist that biology is destiny, and if you were born looking like one sex, then, no matter what sex the brain attached to that body is, you are supposed to stay what you appear to your neighbors to be. Doesn’t that define your sex by your biology rather than your soul? Or, even shallower, by your appearance rather than your soul?
      Maybe the religionists don’t really believe in souls?


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