Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Should Roy Moore Withdraw?

Should Roy Moore withdraw from the Senate race in favor of another Republican candidate?

There are different ways to approach this question. You could approach it as a moral question. Or you could approach it as purely a question of political expediency.

I think the question of political expediency is easily answered but far less important. If you're a Republican, then even if you care only about retaining the Republican majority in the Senate and nothing about the moral character of office-holders (hopefully that isn't true of my Republican friends), the answer would seem to be this: you should hope that Moore withdraws and try to convince him to do so. Democrats who care nothing about moral integrity (hopefully not the case for my Democratic friends) would likewise hope that he stays in the race.

The reason for this is pretty clear. In Alabama, the Republican nominee for a Senate seat would ordinarily be a lock to win. But now we have this growing body of allegations from both women and people in Moore's home town, all painting Moore as someone with a history (while he was an adult professional in his 30s) of sexual pursuit of teenager girls as young as 14. One allegation, if true, would be a clear case of sexual assault. This situation means that if Moore does not withdraw, a seat that is usually reliably Republican has become vulnerable. And so Republicans who care only about party victory should call for Moore to withdraw, and Democrats who care only about party victory should sit back and hope he stays in the race while the scandal grows.

But what should people who care about basic decency, regardless of politics, recommend? Here, there are two questions that seem relevant. First, how bad is it for a man in his 30s to chase after girls as young as 14, and what does it say about that person more broadly? I'm not going to explore this question because I find the answer obvious: it's very bad and says nothing good. This is why I've stopped watching Kevin Spacey, whatever his acting skills. 14 year olds are children.

The second question has to do with when we should believe a charge of this magnitude when it is leveled against someone. More precisely, when can I legitimately act on such a belief? Here, it matters what kind of action we're talking about. There's a big difference between locking someone away based on a belief, and withdrawing political support or urging someone to withdraw from a political race.

The question of whether to support a political candidate is a different question than that of whether to convict someone of a crime. We don't want to lock away innocent people, and so in a courtroom we should presume innocence until guilt is proved. But we don't want to risk having seriously morally compromised people wielding enormous political power, which is why "innocent until proven guilty" is surely too high a standard of evidence for decisions about who to support for political office.

Accusations are of course easy to make, and so uncorroborated accusations may be insufficient reason to withdraw support from a candidate. But when there are enough allegations whose verifiable details have been confirmed, all mutually reinforcing each other, to make a claim of this sort *credible*, that strikes me as enough to warrant withdrawing political support.

Of course, so much hinges on our trust in the journalistic integrity of those who report these allegations and the investigation into them. Here, it makes a difference to me that the story was broken by a venerable newspaper that, whatever its political biases, is known for having the highest standards in terms of gathering evidence and assessing the credibility of sources before going to print. The Washington Post (like every news outlet) may be influenced by political bias when it comes to choosing which stories to focus on, but when they report on a story their reputation for following journalistic standards is high.

Are there skeletons in other political closets that haven't been exposed and are just as bad? Probably. But we cannot ignore a skeleton that has fallen out of a closet because of hypothetical skeletons that might be hiding in other closets.

So: I think Moore is now a vulnerable candidate whose continued candidacy might actually give a Democrat an unprecedented chance of a win in Alabama. But I think Democrats should ignore this and join calls for Moore to step aside in favor of another Republican candidate even though this means closing a political "opportunity." And I think Republicans should call for him to step aside for a reason far more important than politics: because it's the right thing to do.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

New Interview about THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE--and some thoughts on the audience for my book

A few weeks back, Candace Chellew-Hodge interviewed me about my new book, The Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic. That interview, "Reconsidering 'Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin': An Interview with Ethicist Eric Reitan," is now posted over at Religion Dispatches.

On reading what I said in the interview, there's one thing especially that stands out to me: When asked about who I hoped would read the book, there's a category of people I didn't mention--a category that, as I've been reflecting on this question since that interview, has emerged as the one I most want to reach with the arguments in the book.

The problem is I don't know how. The problem is that I think on some deep level I was talking to a particular group of people as I was writing much of this book, but that the conversation was not merely hypothetical as I was writing, but will be largely hypothetical in reality.

The category I have in mind is this one: closeted LGBT people who are still part of very conservative Christian communities, who have internalized the idea that they are in some fundamental way broken, and who have not had any kind of meaningful or sustained exposure to the idea--expressed in my book and elsewhere--that Christian ethics doesn't have to be understood in the way that is causing them such anguish.

I'm talking about those who have come to see self-repression and mandatory lifelong celibacy as their only path forward consistent with being a faithful Christ-follower, and who have appropriated the language of "costly discipleship" to understand their own struggle and life story--so much so that the liberatory message of those LGBT Christians who have already found joy and meaning in a different vision just strikes them as "too easy."

I think that audience may actually have been the one I had in the back of my mind when I wrote my book--a book which engages seriously with the conservative ideas and arguments that this audience has been immersed in, ideas and arguments that feel not only like a cage, but like an inescapable one.

The thing is this: I have friends who used to live in such cages. And they were told that the bars of the cage were solid steel, that it had no doors, no way out, no escape that didn't lead to their own ruin. Some of them discovered that the cage wasn't inescapable after all, and they ran as far and fast as they could--rejecting the Christianity that had caged them along with everything that went with it. Others languished for too long before they discovered that the cage door was made of tissue, and that beyond it was a road that didn't lead to damnation but to something else: a vital integration of their Christian faith with who they are, a deeper and more joyful connection with God, the possibility of discipleship in communion with a beloved life partner--rather than a requirement of costly discipleship whose demands of self-repression serve as a constant and sometimes debilitating distraction from discipleship itself.

Sometimes I fantasize about what I might say to these friends if I could go back in time, back when they still felt trapped. What could I say, a straight Christian LGBT ally who hasn't been in a cage myself, that might be helpful--that might help them find that escape and that promising road sooner rather than later?

Dismissing the cage--refusing to take seriously the ideas and arguments that seem to bind them--wouldn't be enough. Many LGBT Christians who have escaped their own cages have little patience with the conservative arguments: taking them seriously enough to engage with them, even critically, is like stepping back into the cage in their imaginations. By taking the cage seriously they're giving it some power, some shadow of the kind of power that was once, for them, all-consuming. The refusal to give it that kind of power is not only understandable but essential.

But for those who are still in the cage, any approach that doesn't take it seriously feels like a denial of their lived reality. As a straight ally, I can take it seriously enough to show where the bars are tissue-thin, where there are wide-open spaces and no bars at all, where to look to see that the entire cage is really just a debilitating illusion. And I can do that without finding myself caught once more, even a little, in an illusion that once trapped me. I can do that because, as an ally, I was never a prisoner.

And as a straight cis Christian man, my message can't be dismissed as self-serving, as just an attempt to escape the costly discipleship to which I've been called. And so at least one of the conservative messages that helps to keep the illusion of the cage in place doesn't affect my voice.

Of course, there are so many things that LGBT persons have to say--about their experience, about the traditional Christian condemnations, about their journeys along the more promising road--that are so much more important than anything a straight ally can say or do. But that doesn't mean I'm not called to ask, "What am I uniquely positioned to say and do?", and then do it.

The Triumph of Love is part of my answer to that question. And when I think about the deepest motive for writing it, I picture myself speaking to a friend who's in a cage of teachings and arguments that seem so solid from within. I picture myself in that hypothetical place, saying what I wish I could say.

My hope is that it's not just hypothetical.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017


Because yesterday was the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation--marked by the publication of Martin Luther's 95 Theses--I've been thinking about the idea of reformation, and what significance that idea has for us today.

As a Lutheran, I belong to a church that was born through the efforts of Luther and Philip Melanchthon and others to reform the church. In taking that monumental step, not only did they stand against certain abuses of the church at the time while standing up for specific theological ideas, they also stood for the idea of reform itself.

Reform is not revolt or rejection. Reform begins with a spirit of allegiance. It begins with the idea that there is something here of value, but something that has become, we might say, deformed. We don't repair what we don't value. Instead, we throw it away. If a ship sets sail for a destination we don't want to arrive at, we may not be especially bothered if it has drifted off course.

The desire for reform is like the desire to heal the sick--something we wouldn't do if we didn't value them and their health.

In other words, there's something conservative about reform. When we heal the sick, we may try to cut out tumors or kill bacteria, but it's for the sake of the conserving the life of the patient.

But reformation is also about criticism and change. It is about identifying sickness and seeking a world where that sickness no longer distorts, no longer impedes, no longer puts us off course. It's about saying, "The way things are is imperfect. And these imperfections are not something we should just be content to live with. Even if perfection is beyond us, we can and must strive to move in its direction by identifying flaws and failures and correcting what we can."

Reform, in other words, is progressive. It is about valuing our inheritance enough to progressively identify and correct its flaws. To be a reformer is to criticize and correct.

And I don't think we can truly embrace the Reformation if all we do is embrace the specific criticisms and corrections of Luther and other reformers of that age.

Let me explore this point a little more deeply. Luther persistently declared that we are all in bondage to sin, and as my pastor reminded the congregation on Sunday, in the first of his 95 Theses Luther stressed that Christ "willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance."

Repentance, like reform, is an act of change. It is a change of direction--the Hebrew word for it means "return," and is about turning back to God; the Greek term is about changing one's mind, or perhaps rising above one's mind (something that can only be done with the help of what is greater than oneself). To repent is to correct one's course or even rise above one's limits. When Luther claimed that the Christian life is one of repentance, he seemed to be envisioning an ongoing process of turning ever back to the only thing that can lift us above our limits, turning ever back because so long as our limits remain we will drift off course.

To become what we are meant to be--children of God who consistently reflect in our lives and our souls the loving essence of our creator--we must continually turn away from the pettiness and jealousy and bigotry and egotism that our broken natures incline towards. We must turn instead towards the God who is love, the God who loves us and calls us to love one another, the God who fills us with the power to love when we turn to God in love.

Or perhaps, in the spirit of Luther, I should put the point a bit differently: we must stop turning away from God, stop choosing the pettiness and jealousy and bigotry and egotism, stop hugging these things close to our hearts as if they were our god. We should, instead, let God turn us toward the divine love; and whenever we notice ourselves rejecting that love, as we will, we should again just stop.

To suppose that this is the proper life for the Christian but not the proper life for the church is to suppose that a community of people is somehow immune to the limits of individuals. And while it is true that communities can stand firm against things that individuals fall before, it is also true--as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr noted in his book, Moral Man in Immoral Society, that humanity in its collective life can fall prey to evils of a magnitude that no individual could ever dream of.

Human flaws play out differently in collective life than in private, but they play out with as much inevitability. Within a group, members can encourage and support mutual care in a way that makes us better towards one another than we might otherwise be. But often, as Niebuhr pointed out, the effect is to inspire us to channel our moral impulses so fully towards other members of the group that we direct none of those impulses towards the "other," towards people at the margins and members of other tribes not our own. Our tribal origins can lead us to restrict our moral sentiments so that we are moral only within our group. We fall prey to us/them ideologies that pit our group against others and that represent salvation as found in the defeat--the destruction or humiliation or oppression--of rival groups and communities.

Human communities are organized around institutions and ideas, social structures and systems of belief. And because human communities are made up of finite human beings with tribal impulses that create us/them divisions and limit our moral sentiments to "us", we are always in danger of shaping our communal social structures and belief systems to serve these tribal instincts. The way to overcome that is to never stop criticizing and correcting our own social structures and belief systems. And this includes the ones that are precious to us. In fact, it especially applies to the most important, the most valuable, the most meaning-enriching systems for organizing our social lives.

If there is a communal aspect to Christian life (and there is), it is the church. And so, just as repentance is a never-ending need of the individual, reformation of the church is the never-ending call of the Christian community.

It didn't stop with Luther and his allies. Luther was well-positioned by his life circumstances and unique talents to discern and speak out against a distinct set of abuses within the church. But like all of us, he was in bondage to sin, as is evidenced by his tendency towards rhetorical excesses that strayed out of the domain of passion into that of verbal abuse. More importantly, it is evidenced by the virulent anti-Jewish diatribes of his later life--diatribes that were used and exploited by the Nazis in largely-Lutheran Germany to fuel one of the most horrific genocidal evils of human history: the Holocaust that systematically organized the murder of millions of Jews (as well as gypsies, gays, and others).

I am gratified that my denomination, the ELCA, along with the Lutheran World Federation, in 1994 clearly and unequivocally repudiated the evil of Luther's anti-Jewish hatred and the deeper evils that it helped to breed. This reforming act was late in coming, and one might wonder how history would have gone differently if this act of reformation had happened sooner. But this very question speaks to the urgency of the reforming project. We are blind to so much, and we trivialize or put off what is far more important than we know. It becomes especially easy for our churches to capitulate to evils when those evils have seeped into and found expression within the church itself, and we have failed to take seriously enough the duty of reformation.

If we honor only the specific reforms that Luther called out for but do not embrace the spirit of reformation that Luther embodied, then we become mired in the limitations of Luther's vision. Worse, without ongoing reformation, those limitations are compounded by the distinctive limitations of each subsequent generation. Without ongoing reformation, each generation of the church has an opportunity to let its own collective expression of human sinfulness twist and distort and corrupt what it has inherited. Rather that progressively working to improve an inheritance that is inevitably flawed by human sin, we cement the flaws with our lack of critical reflection, and we layer onto them our own generation's unique ways of going wrong.

The Reformation isn't something that happened five hundred years ago; it's something that needs to happen over and over again. The Reformation was a reminder of a responsibility that all of us have at all times--something that the church did in fits and starts before Luther's 95 Theses were nailed to the Wittenberg Cathedral door, and something that we are called to do today.