Welcome to our new contributor, Jeffrey Scholes. Jeff is finishing his PhD at Denver University, where he focuses on intersections of religion and American culture. He has written from the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture and other publications. Presently he also teaches in the Philosophy Department at my place, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Welcome to Jeff!
Venial vs. Mortal in Evangelical Politics
The Evangelical leadership overwhelming applauded John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate wholesale. Yet as revelations emerge from the biography of this newly minted public figure, the effort to maintain an unqualified enthusiasm for the initial endorsement may get tricky.
More interesting is what statements from prominent Evangelical leaders say about the complex relationship between the tenets of Evangelicalism and politics.
Specifically (for now!) the news that Palin’s 17 year-old daughter, Bristol, is pregnant, will deliver the baby, and will marry the father has presented leaders such as James Dobson with a more complex situation than Sarah’s decision to give birth to her developmentally challenged baby. The latter situation is a hanging curve ball for pro-lifers: the refusal to abort a fetus with Down Syndrome is an example par excellence within the pro-life community. However the approval of Bristol’s decision to take her pregnancy to term is more of a split-finger fastball.
Without missing a beat, Dobson cast the issue in terms of sin. “Being a Christian does not mean you're perfect. Nor does it mean your children are perfect. But it does mean there is forgiveness and restoration when we confess our imperfections to the Lord.” Bristol’s decision to have sex out of wedlock is the forgivable offense; a decision to abort the fetus is not. A hierarchy of sins is not a new way of casting judgments for Evangelicals or Christians in general. The tricky part, though, is balancing public statements that have political cache with the tenets of the Evangelical faith. Because abortion is and has been the most non-negotiable political (and perhaps moral) issue for most Evangelicals, being on the right side of it will always run cover for more negotiable factors that led to the situation. It is on this distinction that really separates the political sides on the issue of abortion.
More to the point, Dobson’s comments underscore the tendency for Evangelical leaders who are inclined to involve themselves politically to offer generalized statements about “the family,” while specifics that go on in all families are submerged. (See Dick Cheney’s awkward handling of his daughter lesbianism.)
I ask myself, “at what point would the Evangelical hammer come down?” Does Sarah Palin’s decision to give birth to Trig cover over a multitude of sins such as the alleged abuse of power she wielded in the firing of a government employee? Does it cover over the implication that she has a daughter who clearly went against the family’s morals and had unprotected sex out of wedlock as a minor? And finally, does the fact that Sarah Palin may become the second most powerful person in the country quickly force Dobson and Richard Land to erect a special filter for their judgments? Perhaps like sins, all people aren’t created equal as well.