How did we get this way?

The recent murder of Dr. Tiller has sparked some heated and often harsh debate at worldmagblog (as well as throughout the blogosphere, no doubt). All the pro-life commenters have condemned the murder, but as they also often identify Dr. Tiller as a mass murderer, pro-choice commenters tend to assign some responsibility for Tiller’s murder to the pro-life rhetoric.

As I cannot understand the mindset of someone who would plan and carry out a murder, of an abortionist or anyone else, I have no idea what degree of influence that “baby-killer” rhetoric would have had on him. Even supposing it did have some influence, can a society committed to free speech deny the right of abortion opponents to express their firm conviction, that abortion is murder and that abortionists are therefore murderers?

What I find myself asking is, How did we as a society get to the point that people – who would otherwise consider each other decent and reasonable – hold such starkly conflicting views that they hold each other responsible for murder (in the one case, of unborn babies, in the other, of an abortion doctor)? There are other issues where there is strong disagreement – economic and fiscal policy, foreign policy, affirmative action, immigration – but in those areas the disagreement is more over the best means and short term goals to eventually achieve long term goals that the two sides can more or less agree on (prosperity, peace, equal opportunity).

With abortion, there is a fundamental disagreement about what is in a pregnant woman’s uterus. Is it a person or only a potential person? Part of the woman’s body or a separate individual? Belief that it is a person, different from the rest of us only by age, size, location, and mental development (none of which normally have a bearing on one’s right to life), naturally leads to the conclusion that killing the unborn is murder, just as much as walking into a hospital nursery and shooting or stabbing the newborns in their bassinets.

On the other hand, for those who honestly believe that the developing fetus is, for the time being, merely a part of the woman’s body, the charge of murder for excising it must seem as unjustified as to accuse a plastic surgeon of murder for removing unwanted tissue, or to equate surgical sterilization with murder because of the potential lives it destroys. (Even those who consider contraception morally wrong do not consider those who practice it guilty of murder, so far as I know.)

Of course, both sides tend to accuse their opponents of ulterior motives. The pro-choice people say that abortion proponents care more about controlling people’s sex lives than protecting babies, while the pro-life side accuses the other side of caring more about convenience and pleasure than human life (not only consequence-free sex but eventually the elimination of anyone who is too much trouble and does not make a contribution to society, such as the elderly and terminally ill). There are probably some people that fit such accusations, but they represent the extreme rather than the norm.

So how did we get this way? Are these long-standing ideological differences that have only become more public in the last couple decades? Has society’s sense of morals changed drastically since my childhood? I don’t remember ever hearing arguments about abortion when I was a child, though certainly it must have been an issue in various states, gradually making its way toward the Supreme Court decision in 1973. That was the year I started paying attention to the news (though not until the fall when I started sixth grade, nearly eight months after the landmark decision). And I don’t remember hearing anything about abortion until sometime when I was in high school.

Sometime after I converted from the liberal Protestantism of my father’s church to fundamentalist Christianity, my parents invited me to join them at a Charismatic prayer meeting held at the local Catholic church. They went, I think, because my mother treasured the openhearted welcome these people extended, without regard for whether guests shared their doctrinal stance (my mother’s religious views defy a brief description, but they were definitely not traditional Christianity in any of its diverse forms).

I went, because I knew Charismatics were likely to be “born-again” Christians. I wanted both the spiritual benefits of being with fellow believers, and to show my parents that, while I doubted the validity of their (i.e. my parents’) version of what it meant to follow Christ, I did not consider only those who worshipped and believed exactly as my church did to be true Christians.

The church I attended considered speaking in tongues to be a gift that ceased with the completion of the writing of the New Testament, and any modern practice that pretended to be speaking in tongues to be misled at best (and possibly satanic). But either I hadn’t absorbed that teaching yet or had come to question it (they never did convince me, and I remain “agnostic” on that issue). I am pretty sure I remember hearing people pray in what was clearly not English, but I remember little else of what went on in those meetings.

The one thing I do remember is that someone had set up a table with a petition to sign, and most of the participants there were signing it. As I was not old enough to vote (probably the only minor in attendance), I wasn’t asked, but my parents were. They declined, and when I asked about it they explained that it was about trying to outlaw abortion. Their own view was that abortion was wrong but that it was up to individuals to make that choice, not the government’s to make it for them.

Many of my parents’ views would align with those of liberal Democrats today. They were registered Republicans, but that had little to do with their convictions or voting patterns. I remember being surprised, as a ninth grader (back when I still attended my father’s church), when our associate pastor explained to the youth group the differences between the two major political parties. I had never given it much thought, but nothing I had heard from my parents or in the news had impressed on me any sense of significant ideological differences. My parents voted for whomever they considered the best candidate, regardless of political affiliation.

By the time I was old enough to vote, I had been taught (in church and at a fundamentalist Baptist college) to identify the Republican party platform as being by far the closer of the two to the will of God. Banning abortion, supporting capital punishment, capitalism with its emphasis on free markets – these were all shown to have strong Biblical underpinning. When we had a straw poll on campus in the fall of 1980, I was surprised that only about 95% of the student body supported Reagan. I wondered how a real Christian could even consider voting for a Democrat.

Since my conversion had taken place at a time when Jerry Falwell and the Christian Right were coming to national prominence, I had no experience of Christian conservatives not engaged in what came to be called the “culture wars.” I assumed it had always been that way – after all, the college’s required Baptist history class taught us how our spiritual forebears had always been part of a persecuted minority at odds with the dominant social and religous tides of society. Thus I was surprised, sometime in the past few years, to learn of the relatively late entry of non-Catholics into pro-life activism.

I’ve read various accounts of how and why the Christian Right came to take the positions and to have the influence that it did. Of course, accounts of history always try to make cause and effect seem much neater than they really are. Some liberals paint a picture of white males unwilling to give up their power and status to women or to minorities, and their use of religion to justify traditions that favored them. As changing attitudes in society made their old prejudices unacceptable, this explanation says, they adopted new battlefields to continue their old war against change.

There may be some white males who were motivated in that way, but it certainly doesn’t describe the conservative Christians I have known, white male or otherwise. Another analysis pits tradition-bound rural people against the cities and their penchant for change. Cities have always tended to be associated with immorality, and they also are more likely to house centers of learning. With the astronomical rate of change in technology and scientific discovery during the twentieth century, it was easy for distrust to grow of the new intellectual elite.

Tradition said that God created man on the sixth day (e.g. a 24-hour period) of creation. Now science said that man evolved, by chance, from some tree-dwelling primate, and further back from reptiles and even further back from microscopic one-celled organisms. Tradition said that morality was bason on law given by an immutable God and reflected His holy character. Science (not the hard sciences now but the “soft sciences”) said that morality evolved and was a social construct without eternal significance.

Tradition said that human life was sacred, and that humans were distinct from the rest of the world not because they had opposable thumbs and language and higher reasoning powers, but because God had created them in His image and put them in charge of all the rest of creation. Science had nothing to say on the matter, but people informed by the new teachings of science said that the whole idea of anything being sacred was nothing but a myth, and that human life was no more sacred than that of dogs and cats or monkeys – or perhaps even earthworms or algae or mushrooms.

I don’t know to what extent rural vs urban differences or differing levels of education played a role in the growing polarization of views about religion, humankind, and morality. There are plenty of highly educated conservative Christians, some of whom choose city life by preference and others as a ministry (and plenty others who live in suburbs and rural areas). And there are plenty of people whose religious views – if any – are miles away from conservative Christianity, but who distrust the scientists in their ivory towers just as much. (My mother distrusted M.D.s, preferring to get treatment from a natureopath, she worried about the ill effects of electromagnetic radiation from computers and microwaves, and she suspected the government was hiding the truth about UFOs.)

Still, is that enough to explain the polarization today? I remember when people started talking about Red states and Blue states (though I can’t remember which election it was), and the sense of the country being split between two ideological camps that seemed to have little in common except U.S. citizenship. Back in early 1976 when Rev. Dickerman had given us that talk on political parties, he had first had to argue that it mattered – and even while he admitted his preference for the principles of the Democratic Party, he saw no reason why we could not in good conscience choose either party to affiliate with. Somewhere in the past thirty years, lines have been drawn such that people on both sides consider the views and actions of the other to be not only unwise but immoral.

One interesting analysis that I read attributes this to technology. Back when travel was slow and difficult, most people spent their lives in the area where they had grown up. Communication was just as slow, so most people knew little of what people thought or did in faraway places. You might not agree with your neighbors, but you had to live with them. You worked together, played together, your children studied together, and you all pulled together to help your community prosper. You all needed each other, and together you managed to reconcile your differences well enough to get along.

Now I barely know my neighbors. In the past twenty-five years, I have lived in twelve houses (or apartment buildings) in ten towns in five states (and I have no idea how many school districts because I didn’t keep track of that until I had kids). I have few if any really close friends, but I do have acquaintance-friends whom I have never met in person (from worldmagblog and email) but whom I feel I know better than people who live across the street. (I have visited in their home, taking them Christmas cookies or selling Cub Scout popcorn, but otherwise I would probably not have even met them.)

According to the yellow pages of my local phone book, I have a choice of dozens of churches I could attend. If, even with all those choices, I did not find one that seemed like a good fit doctrinally or in its programs or worship style, there are TV and radio preachers, books and CDs with Christian teaching, and even some kind of “virtual churches” on the internet. I certainly do not recommend that kind of consumer approach, as Christianity is not a do-it-yourself project, but it highlights how easy it is for us to choose whom to associate with, whose ideas to listen to, whose advice to follow.

And then I’ve read that we’re really not all that polarized after all. That despite the Blue state/Red state divide – which is in some ways more an urban/rural divide, with Blue states being the ones with big cities in them – most people in this country really are moderates. That most of the rhetoric comes from the fringe elements on both sides, people who need to use the most extreme language they can to motivate voters to contribute to campaigs and to vote. There may be an element of truth to that, but I’ve known a lot of people very passionate about their positions, and I don’t think I’ve just happened to encounter mostly the fringe element in my life.

And all of that tells me – what? That I spend too much time thinking about questions that don’t have answers? That I expect there to be logical reasons for what what people think and do? That I tend to focus on human explanations and forget the unseen battle of spiritual forces? That technology has had many unintended and unexpected consequences on our lives? That last one is certainly true, but hardly a novel thought (or one that can be put to much practical use).

So what do you think? If you have lived longer than I have, or in communities where you have known a very different sort of people, how have you seen this societal division develop?

4 Responses to How did we get this way?

  1. lwayswright says:

    For what it’s worth, I am a pro life person. I do feel that a baby is a baby period! I have always felt this way but, it was even more made clear to me when I had may appendics out when I was merely 4 months pregnant. Mind you this was 22 years ago when medical conditions were not quite as sophisticated as they are now. The chances that my baby could die during the operation were pretty high. However, without the surgury we would both have died! I was given an option…I chose the life of my baby, and chose not to abort before the operation. I could feel her move, I could hear her heart beat. I could see she was a girl. She was a life to me…my daughter.
    Conversely, I feel others have the right to believe that fetus’ are just that…tissue that isn’t a human until birth. I would never “murder” anyone who thought differently then I. That would make me a hypocrit! That is what makes america great! differences!

  2. tammie says:

    i think people have always been polarized. in recent history, that is why the civil war happened.

    whatever my personal opinions are, i do take comfort in knowing that God rules, and that all things are moving toward his purposes.

  3. modestypress says:

    Well, I am late to the party, if party it is.

    As you know, I am an agnostic rather than a religious believer. Also, I consider it doubtful that there are “objective moral laws” in the universe.

    I have strong opinions about many ethical matters. I can’t appeal to a document such as the Bible to support my point of view.

    In terms of abortion, I think to be on the “safe side,” we should encourage positive alternatives such as adoption. However, I think that outlawing abortion is couter-productive and incoherent. People often accuse me of being incoherent.

  4. I think that most of the divisiveness that is promoted by much of the media in this country is done to distract us from the real issues that we should be focusing on. The abortion issue is a moral choice, based on personal beliefs, that will defy a clear mandate any time soon. The question is, do we legislate away our individual rights to follow our beliefs – one of the very basic tenants this country was built upon?
    Of course, abortion is a choice that should not be undertaken lightly. Nor should it be used as a form of “birth control”. But, these are extreme cases. Extremism isn’t good in any form; even within the “Right-to-life” community, as proven by the recent uproar over “OctoMom” Nadya Suleman.
    I think that the answer is that there is no answer. This is a clear individual issue. I can’t tell you what to believe any more that you can tell me. If we are to be a “free society” then we need to avoid imposing our moral wills upon each other. For the record, I am against abortion … in my life.
    By the way, I have yet to hear a coherent, convincing argument that truly justifies a Pro-Life/Pro-Capitol Punishment stance. It is one of the most contradictory positions one could take, and has always mystified me.

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