A Breathtaking, Truth-Suppressing, Tu Quoque Argument Tops the NY Times Most-Emailed List

by Oct 30, 2012Culture11 comments

The most e-mailed article at nytimes.com right now is opinion writer Thomas L. Friedman’s “Why I Am Pro Life.” Friedman, who comes from the left side of the opinion roster, argues that the right has hijacked the abortion debate by winning the title “pro life.” He wants it back.

To name something is to own it. If you can name an issue, you can own the issue. And we must stop letting Republicans name themselves “pro-life” and Democrats as “pro-choice.” It is a huge distortion.

The center of Friedman’s piece is a very simple rehashing of a common liberal argument:

The term “pro-life” should be a shorthand for respect for the sanctity of life. But I will not let that label apply to people [namely Republicans] for whom sanctity for life begins at conception and ends at birth.

Friedman advances precisely three examples of Republican’s failure to be pro-life after birth:

In my world, you don’t get to call yourself “pro-life” and be against common-sense gun control—like banning public access to the kind of semiautomatic assault rifle, designed for warfare, that was used recently in a Colorado theater. You don’t get to call yourself “pro-life” and want to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency, which ensures clean air and clean water, prevents childhood asthma, preserves biodiversity and combats climate change that could disrupt every life on the planet. You don’t get to call yourself “pro-life” and oppose programs like Head Start that provide basic education, health and nutrition for the most disadvantaged children. You can call yourself a “pro-conception-to-birth, indifferent-to-life conservative.”

Gun control, the EPA, and social welfare programs. This is what it means to be pro-life.

The term “pro-life” should be a shorthand for respect for the sanctity of life. But I will not let that label apply to people for whom sanctity for life begins at conception and ends at birth. What about the rest of life? Respect for the sanctity of life, if you believe that it begins at conception, cannot end at birth. That radical narrowing of our concern for the sanctity of life is leading to terrible distortions in our society. (emphasis mine)

Screen Shot 2012-10-30 at 7.56.09 AMBut note what Friedman is granting in the bolded sentence: that the fetus has “life.” He’s right, of course. There’s no other rational—scientific—option. And there’s no other biblical one. Friedman here has used a tu quoque (a.k.a. “and so’s your old man”) argument that I find a bit breathtaking. I actually grant that common-sense gun regulations, care for the environment, and the welfare of poor children are very important issues for which knee-jerk free market solutions don’t seem entirely sufficient. I’m willing to go so far as to say that it’s a sin before God to manage guns improperly (the government is put in place by God to restrain evil, Rom. 13), to mar our environment (that’s poor dominion, Gen. 1:26–28), and to let poor kids go hungry when we can do something about it (Jas. 2:16).

But as I read Friedman’s logic, it runs something like this: because some people don’t care about helping the disadvantaged and vulnerable during the decades-long air-breathing phase of their lives, that gives me the right to kill vulnerable people during a particular nine-month phase of their lives. This is “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18). Friedman “can’t not know” that abortion is wrong. And no one else’s sins can possibly justify it.

Four years ago I wondered whether I was justified in making abortion a “litmus test” for my vote. I started to be bothered by the charge that I was a “single-issue voter.” Sometimes a Democratic candidate represents some of my biblical values better than a Republican candidate does—couldn’t there be a situation in which I vote for a pro-choice candidate for the greater good?

But John Piper made a simple point that has stuck with me: there are many single issues that would rightly eliminate a candidate from my consideration: he advocates date rape, he supports selected international genocides, he views bribery as a reasonable way to run government—he thinks it’s okay to kill babies. I will never vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights. I will vote for a third-party candidate—or a tenth-party candidate if it comes to that. An attack on babies is an attack on the God in whose image they are made.

The Christian answer to Friedman—which I do think is a little different than the Republican answer—is this: Let’s love our neighbors, made in God’s image, in all phases of their lives. Let’s be known for our good works (1 Tim. 5:10) toward them during their initial nine-month phase as well as their subsequent seven decades. We can’t let Friedman or the Republican party hijack the right to be called “pro-life,” because only Christians truly know what a good life is and how to work toward it.

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  1. Don Johnson

    Well, actually the hijacker is Friedman. His argument is an attempt to distort the pro-life position by confusing the issue with irrelevant ideas that have no bearing on the issue at hand. A similar effort is made by closet charismatics who attempt to say that if you believe in the leading of the Holy Spirit you are a “soft cessationist”, you somehow actually support charismatism.

    It’s just a propaganda technique.

    As for me, I think it is a mistake to make pro-life your litmus test. I don’t see a political solution to this problem. Its a spiritual problem and needs a spiritual solution. If a political person happens to support pro-life issues, that is a bonus, but the role of government is more limited than that. I would rather have a government that allows me to preach pro-life than one that does not. For me, religious liberty is more important than pro-life.


    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    • Mark L Ward Jr

      I didn’t say he wasn’t a hijacker. 🙂 And he’s certainly a more egregious hijacker than any Republican I know.

      Now that I’ve made a vow I won’t change, but I can see room for your position. Perhaps it’s easier to say for an American who (so far) has always had the pro-life option available in a major-party candidate than for a Canadian who perhaps doesn’t? What would my position mean if I lived in the frozen North?

  2. Jeremy Patterson

    Great analysis–thank you! People should read you rather than Friedman.

    I don’t know if abortion is my litmus test necessarily, but I also don’t think Christians should be nonchalant in dismissing it. It’s unconscionable for a Christian to vote for someone who is pro-choice when that person being elected means more babies murdered with the blessing of the law the day that person takes office. At the same time, it’s true that we’ll never be able to legislate righteousness.

  3. Rod Decker

    Interesting. I must confess, however, to being a bit curious about some of your less common examples (at least in your [& my] usual contexts).

    > I actually grant that common-sense gun regulations…
    > it’s a sin before God to manage guns improperly … [etc]

    I’ve been thinking about this of late and wonder what you consider to be “common-sense gun regulations” and what would constitute improper management of guns by the government? For that matter, what is “proper management” of the same?

    • Mark L Ward Jr

      I admit to a little equivocation on my “common sense” comment, because I simply don’t know if Friedman and I would agree when it comes to particular pieces of legislation. But I’m also not sure I have a right to an opinion that gets much more specific than what I said in the post. I simply haven’t studied the issue to any depth. I have tried to stay aware of its outlines, however, and I feel comfortable saying what I did, no matter how platitudinous (who is against common sense?).

      Moving over into something that’s more my arena: I wonder if Christian conservatives default to a constitutional hermeneutic too much like their biblical one. God had everything in mind, including the future development of firearms, when He inspired Scripture. The framers of the constitution did not. Perhaps the right to bear arms ought to be reevaluated in that light. No matter what the constitution says (for a moment), what position makes the most biblical sense?

      Anyone else who’s studied this care to weigh in?

  4. Don Johnson

    Hi Mark, well, there are very few pro-life politicians here. We have NO abortion law in Canada, the old one was struck down by our courts about 10 years ago. In our system, we have strict party rule, so no one votes against their leaders directives on most things…very few free votes.

    But even if I were voting in the USA where individual pols have more clout, I would vote on the whole package, not on any single issue, although if it came down to one thing, religious freedom/liberty would be very compelling.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  5. Austin Barker

    At the risk of opening too many cans of worms, and also distracting from the main point of the post, I would suggest that I have subscribed for some time now to a pragmatic view of voting, albeit with a “deal-breakers” caveat. Meaning that I will always vote for the lesser evil (greater good can hardly apply to politicians, pardon my cynicism), but I will never ever vote for a candidate who disagrees with me on these three issues: guns, babies, and family. More precisely, the sanctity of life (this is my hill to die on, and my pastor frequently has indicated with good insight that if a politician sounds a clear note on life, they are more than likely right on the other issues, but if they waffle on life…well, trust that man in nothing whom you cannot trust in everything), the right to bear arms, and the family values I believe are fundamental to a free, prosperous, and moral people (all historically inseparable). That last category is broad, I know, but it does have parameters: definition of marriage, freedom of religious expression, and opposition to divorce-friendly policies, and such like.

    I am the quintessential social conservative. While also a fiscal conservative, it has been my experience that social conservatives are more often than not fiscal conservatives, while the converse is far from the case. But once the issues of life, guns, and family are agreed upon, I can comfortably vote for a candidate.

    Of perhaps greater interest to me, and certainly more relevance than their stated position on any issue, based on some of the reponses I have gotten from candidates of whom I have asked this question is this: “What is your attitude toward compromise as regards the passing of legislation, and on what issues are you unwilling to compromise?” The reason this question has more potency than simply ticking off their positions on issues is that most pieces of legislation considered are full of the kind of political give-and-take that necessarily characterizes a divided legislature. Are they like Ben Nelson, who infamously compromised his pro-life stance to retain party favor (and $) and bring home the pork to his state in exchange for betraying his principles?

    And then another worm crawls out of this barely opened can. Some of my friends have suggested to me that I am culpable for the votes cast by a candidate for whom I have voted, because he is my selected proxy. This is ludicrous, as can be ably demonstrated if not in your own mind, then by one my intellectual superior. My most basic remonstrance is exactly that – that I reserve the right of remonstrance against the vote of the candidate of my choice. If I voted for Candidate A and he then makes a decision to vote for an immoral piece of legislation, I may be construed to be obligated to remonstrate, but that is the farthest my culpability could go, in my opinion. Obviously, this liberty is subject to abuse.

    One of the most infuriating statements I have ever heard is this, or a variation of it: “I am personally opposed to abortion (meaning I would never have one), but I cannot justify forcing my views on others.” What if people had taken that stance on slavery? “Yeah, I am personally opposed to slavery (I would never own another human being), but I cannot justify imposing that view on others.” That is ludicrous! Slavery is immoral….

    Anyway, that’s my $.02 rant.

  6. Austin Barker

    Pardon my going on and on,

    The best sense that I can make of the 2nd Amendment is by seeking to understand it, not only from a Christian perspective, but also by seeking to understand the intent of the Writers of it.

    I think there are many legitimate Christian responses to the issue of the right to bear arms, not least of which is the range of opinions regarding the scope of the legitimate use of them. One of my favorite anecdotes on the subject would be the armed Quaker (obviously disingenuous) who confronted a late-night intruder and informed him that “I wouldst not harm thee for the world, but thou art standing where I am about to shoot.”

    However, the historical setting of the 2nd Amendment surely would shed light on the intent of the Writer(s) in seeking to preserve an armed citizenry. And certainly history has vindicated the validity of their suppositions most succinctly stated in the Declaration, that it is the duty of a people who believe that their government has become destructive of their future happiness and prosperity to throw off such an oppressive and tyrannical form of government and replace it with another which seems to them more likely to secure those ends. And how may that be reasonably be expected to occur unless the people themselves wield some power superior to that of the government – namely, the fire-breathing dragon of death – a gun? Many politicians make enormously unpopular decisions that adversely affect the freedom and prosperity of the people they propose to represent, and then, incredibly, they are often even re-elected, despite enduring a figurative and fleeting hail of criticism. But no politician can stand up indefinitely to the withering fire of a 30-caliber rifle, nor would many have the courage to venture it. My cynicism leads me to the extreme, Jeffersonian viewpoint that the tree of liberty must sometimes be watered with blood. To this point, it has gratefully been watered by the blood of patriots who love liberty and give their blood to preserve it, but as during the Revolution, there comes a time when blood must be shed by the tyrants who oppose it.

    And may God forbid that day should ever come (again) in America. As an armchair philosopher, I may also be a blow-dried Napolean, assaying to make outlandish assertions from the comparative comfort of my living room. But do we have the moral character to stand up and say, “So far, and no farther?” Still I am haunted by Martin Niemoller’s famous words,

    When they came for the communists, I didn’t speak out. I wasn’t a Communist.
    When they came for the social democrats, I didn’t speak out. I wasn’t a social democrat.
    When they came for the trade unionists, I didn’t speak out. I wasn’t a trade unionist.
    When they came for the Jews, I didn’t speak out. I wasn’t a Jew.
    When they came for me, no one spoke out, because there was no one left to speak out.

    As one Islamic extremist wrote while agonizing over the cost of giving his life as a suicide bomber: “When will my words taste my blood?”

    I know these are incendiary comments, and I hope that they will not be taken to represent the full scope of my opinions on these subjects; it just represents one aspect of the debate within a Christian framework that I believe has merit (a la Alvin York).

  7. Rod Decker

    > Anyone else who’s studied this care to weigh in?

    I guess I don’t qualify as “anyone else,” but since I broached the subject, maybe I’d be allowed a reply? 🙂

    > I wonder if Christian conservatives default to a constitutional hermeneutic too much like their biblical one.

    I’m not sure how else to interpret *any* written document other than on the basis of authorial intent.

    > including the future development of firearms… The framers of the constitution did not. Perhaps the right to bear arms ought to be reevaluated in that light.

    I’m not so sure that’s a good parallel in this situation since firearms were explicitly in the purview of the framers, so there’s little question as to their intent. (It might be more precarious if we were taking in general terms regarding “weapons” and wanted to address, say, nuclear weapons.) There is certainly a greater variety (calibers, manufacturers, actions, technologies, etc.), but current issues still relate to the same basic subject matter addressed in the 2d amendment: “firearms” are still handheld, portable devices for placing projectiles in flight, etc.

  8. Mark L Ward Jr

    Good points. And I didn’t mean to exclude you from “anyone else”!

    You’re tempting me into a fray I said I’m not sure I have the chops to enter… So I invite correction on my understanding of firearms, but isn’t there a difference between semi-automatic weapons owned by a largely urban populace and the muzzle-loading rifles used 300 years ago by a largely rural one?

    Back again to hermeneutics, however, I feel safe letting a divine Author’s intent rule my life even if the text through which He speaks is 2,000 years old. But I want to feel free to question the abiding wisdom of a dead human author’s intent. Perhaps calling this a “hermeneutical” issue isn’t accurate; perhaps the interpretation of each document is not really what’s at stake, but its use. That’s where I trot John Frame in and say that the line between those two is blurry. And in this case, that means I want to feel free to say that early constitutional amendments may be no longer usable according to their authors’ intent—something that, of course, cannot happen with Scripture. This was the point of my comment about interpreting the constitution like the Bible. The situation can change so drastically that new laws are called for. What was for them an important political right may be for us a violent liability.

    I’m NOT saying that I think judges should be free to use or interpret the 2nd amendment in a way that nullifies it. If the law has outlived its usefulness, it is the job of the legislature to change it. And there’s enough red blood in my American veins that something in me thrills to hear Charlton Heston say “They’ll have to ply this gun out of my cold, dead hands!” I understand how Austin feels.

    But I care about the inner-city folks I minister to, and I don’t see any reason to rule out heavier gun restrictions as a viable (partial) solution to the huge mess they live in.

    I think I’ve shot my wad.

  9. Brian Collins

    A few thoughts on your last comment:
    – There is some complexity in ascertaining the authorial intent of a document created by multiple authors. The Constitution can serve as a prime example. Madison and Hamilton both played a role in its formation. Both contributed to the Federalist Papers in an effort to see it enacted. And both soon discovered that they had different ideas of what this government was to be when it came into being. I think this is why justices such as Scalia prefer a textualist rather than an originalist approach to the Constitution.

    -I think you’re on safer ground when you say your objection is not hermeneutical but applicational. And I don’t think Frame helps here. He says we don’t really understand a text if we don’t understand its application. But I think we do understand the application of the 2nd amendment (I know there are debates, how the militia clause relates to the freedom to bear arms, etc.). You’re issue is not how to understand the amendment or even how to apply it. Your issue is that you think the situation has changed enough that a different application than the one specified in the amendment is necessary.

    -But if that is the case the correct thing to do is to push for another amendment–one that encapsulates the application you wish to see.