Are Legal Obligations Enough? Did Penn State’s Joe Paterno Fail a Moral Test? What’s His Culpability?
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The Patriot-News editorial board has issued a stinging condemnation of the moral and ethical responsibility of Penn State officials, including the university’s legendary head football coach, Joe Paterno. How are you thinking through this mess and the moral and ethical responsibilities of Paterno about these alleged crimes against children?
Religion and Taxes: Reconciling the Views of Ayn Rand and Michele Bachmann with Jesus’ Concern for the Poor
by Alexander E. Sharp, special contributor
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) gives an interview to Pajamas TV in front of a “Kill the Bill” sign after addressing the Tea Party crowd at a protest on March 21, 2010. (photo: The Q/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The deficit and budget battles in Washington make clear that the divisions between us are deep, even spiritual. The fight is not over the size of the deficit, nor even about expenditure cuts. It is about taxes as the lifeblood of government.
Why are taxes so important? The playbook is no secret. Grover Norquist, the founder of Americans for Tax Reform and the driving force behind the “no-tax-increase” stance, said it over 20 years ago: “Our goal is to shrink government to the size where we can drown it in a bath tub.” The way to do that is to cut taxes.
The George W. Bush administration supported this goal. It happily organized the political religious right concerned about social issues: pro-choice, sexual orientation, sex education, and school prayer. Many of the religious right feared that secular values were eroding their fundamentalist reading of the Bible. Their numbers swelled Republican ranks.
Those seeking to limit the size of government surely continue to welcome this faith-based support, but they now have a new moral underpinning: Ayn Rand as their resident philosopher. We do not need to tackle her 800-page novels to get her message. The title of one of her shorter essays says it all: “The Virtue of Selfishness.” In it she writes, “Altruism is incompatible with freedom, with capitalism, and with individual rights. One cannot combine the pursuit of happiness with the moral status of a sacrificial animal.” For her, the Great Commandment to love your neighbor is tantamount to “moral cannibalism.”
Michele Bachmann brings another clear spiritual perspective. She received her legal training at Oral Roberts University School of Law. The curriculum was based on Christian Reconstructionism, which argues that “God granted certain jurisdictional authority to the government, the church, and the family — therefore any government action exceeding its God-granted authority is in violation of God’s commands.” Under this view, it is not within the government’s “authority” to take care of the poor.
Recalling her own family’s struggle against poverty as she was growing up, she has said, “We had our faith in God, we depended on our neighbors, we depended on ourselves, and we just did without… And we were just grateful for what we had. We knew that one day things would be better than they were. And God was faithful, and they were better.”
Her view of government, perhaps shaped by her law school training, may explain her questioning of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in a congressional hearing over federal bailout programs. She asked, “What provision in the Constitution could you point to that would give authority for the extraordinary actions taken by the Treasury since March of ‘08? What specifically in the Constitution?” In the current Iowa primary she is calling for the abolition of the Departments of Education, Energy, and Commerce: “Wherever we can cut and abolish, we should cut and abolish.”
Those who believe government has a role in providing society’s safety net think it is essential to give a hand to those whom society counts least. Protestants for the Common Good, for example, supported the recent tax increase in Illinois because we were both saddened and shocked at the cuts in human services. Aid to children, the elderly, the mentally ill, and the disabled has been reduced by $3.1 billion since 2002 and $600 million in the current year alone.
Protestants for the Common Good believe that freedom exists in two forms: we are free from loyalty to anyone or thing other than God; and we are free for the opportunity to serve all whom God loves. We are free to care for, and love, others. That’s what our faith calls us to do.
The political religious right may argue that they want the same things we do. But they would say that it is freedom from government that makes it possible for people to flourish. The best way to help others is to get government out of the way.
Those who are for smaller government rarely express concern for people in need, even though almost 20 percent of Illinois children live in poverty, only about half of the people who need treatment for mental illness receive it, and after health care reform, there will be over 700,000 Illinoisans without health coverage.
Those of us who think government is central to establishing community and serving others have been enablers in this debate. We have not insisted that the political religious right, and those who oppose raising the debt ceiling, explain why the current deficit is so high. We have not pressed for a public discussion of how the economy performed under the tax cuts and financial deregulation starting in 2000. How can the views of Ayn Rand be reconciled with Jesus’ concern for the poor?
There is no Christian answer to complicated matters of public policy, but there are spiritual values that should inform how we think about such questions. They are expressed as ideology and pursued through politics and the media. But they have an underlying spiritual basis that is as profound and explicit as it was at any time in our national history.
Sarah Posner, “The Perry vs. Bachmann Primary at Liberty University,” Religion Dispatches, July 11, 2011.
The Rev. Alexander E. Sharp is the founding executive director of Protestants for the Common Good, a faith-based education and advocacy organization in Illinois. He received his M.Div. from the University of Chicago Divinity School and has a Masters of Public Affairs from Princeton University.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Ritual sanctification is assumed to take place at the moment when questionably obtained information passes into the hands of a reporter. This is a little facile. … Journalists are indispensably well positioned to expose abuses of power, but a press pass is not a moral unlimited-ride card. If the scandal caused journalists to reflect upon their own power, and their capacity to abuse that power, it would be a good thing.
A few recent newsgames do something curious: They hide basic trivia questions under a layer of moral decision-making. It is often assumed that taking a tired design and adding some nominal amount of ethical choice — usually in the form of binary story branches or good/neutral/evil alignment meters — will somehow reinvigorate and edify its players.
But there’s a serious problem with this easy inclusion of moral choice: Even a simple move to branch out from the standard structure of a game results in an exponential need for more content. And in a genre where budgets are often tight, cuts will likely need to be made as a result. This means less thought goes into the causal chain between choice and consequence, undercutting the very goals that the inclusion of the simple moral system hoped to attain. A half-baked moral system can have the opposite effect on people’s reasoning, and can even become confounding.
—Simon Ferrari, from "When Moral Systems Miss the Point in Newsgames"
The 2010 Knight News Challenge winner’s post on MediaShift’s Idea Lab blog is a smart assessment of the pitfalls of applying morality or ethical veneers to news quizzes and interactive games. His premise, which ought to be deliberated upon more by reporters and producers, could just as well be applied to all forms of journalistic output too.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Your Morals and Ethics Behind Balancing the Federal Budget
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Our colleagues at the Public Insight Network have been getting some good response to the latest incarnation of their federal budget balancer. Designed to engage the American public in a conversation about the tough decisions necessary. Will you raise or lower taxes, cut Medicare benefits, maintain military spending or farm subsidies?
Try it out for yourself and let us know where you came out. Were there any moral quandaries you found yourself wrestling with as you had to make trade-offs. What decisions were the no-brainers for you? Where were you not willing to sacrifice a guiding ethic in order to balance the budget? I’m anxious to see where you come out.
I’ll be honest, it was not a great feeling that night. It was a good feeling that we got pulses back, but there was nothing in history to tell me he would survive this and that he could recover [with his brain intact]. I wasn’t sure we had done the right thing for him.
—Bruce Goodman, a flight paramedic with the Mayo Clinic’s Medical Transport unit who resuscitated a man without a pulse after 96 minutes had passed.
The Wall Street Journal reports this incredible story while explaining how new technologies such as the capnograph, which measures carbon dioxide levels of patients, are being used to revive what were once lost causes. As the paramedic indicates, ethical questions abound when it comes to weighing the results of bringing someone back to life after such a long period of time without brain damage.
On a lighter note, the cardiac arrest victim had the best line:
"I’m a regular guy. I happened to die at the right place at the right time."
Eager as I am to break a good story, I’d have wrestled long and hard about being first to publish this information. Isn’t it a private matter in the life of a man who is no longer a public official?
The associate editor at The Atlantic deliberates on the Los Angeles Times decision to be the first to publish the story about Arnold Schwarzenegger fathering a child with a household staffer ten years ago.
Is it a private matter? Would you have published the story?
About the image: Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks at a lighting ceremony at the California capitol building in 2008. (photo: Lon R. Fong/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
On Bin Laden Killing Tech Blogging
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
MG Siegler, a blogger at TechCrunch, takes a whack at Mashable and tech blogging in general for their capitalistic opportunism of the Osama Bin Laden news now that advertising dollars are beginning to ramp up online.
Is there some type of competitive rivalry going on here? Perhaps. But his question of business ethics and gaming the news and search engines in order to make money with SEO land grabs is something that is surely not relegated to the tech world.
The national tragedy question aside, do savvy operators undercut their own business in the long run in order to make short-term business gains? What kind of ethical responsibilities, if any, do businesses and news outlets like Mashable have in making sure their results don’t crowd out the most relevant news for quick access? What does Google owe its customer’s when businesses flood the search market with results?
The information in the image above is not surprising at all. But still pathetic.
Imagine that, you write 35 200-word posts featuring the words “Bin Laden” in the headline and they pull in traffic on the day it’s one of the most searched terms ever.
Were any of those stories really about technology? A few, maybe. But none were given the actual attention that a story of such magnitude deserves. It was a pure traffic/SEO play.
Live Video: Secular Ethics and Meditation
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Although the Dalai Lama wasn’t able to make it to the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, California due to illness, this substitute talk by Thupten Jinpa, His Holiness’ translator, and Robert Thurman, Je Tsongkhapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, should make for a great hour of learning. Two wise people discussing ethics and meditation should provide for some worthwhile contemplation and tips for living a more thoughtful life. The event starts now, at 5:45 pm (Eastern).
by David Gushee, special contributor
At the heart of my Christian faith is the belief that each and every person I encounter is absolutely cherished by God. I believe every human being is ineffably sacred in God’s sight. This implies a moral responsibility on my part to do my very best to treat them accordingly. If God loves each person, followers of God’s way must love each person too.
This is a mystical vision. It is a mountaintop perspective. It is very hard to sustain it, especially in the vicious street fights of politics. And it is often very hard to see any evidence for it. But this belief is not really evidence-based. It is faith-based.
I am a Christian, born and raised in the Catholic Church before a teenage conversion to Protestant Evangelical faith. By now I find that both strands of my religious history are deeply interwoven and help to define who I am. I think that both of these strands, at their best, teach this vision of the equal and immeasurable worth of each human being. Catholic tradition, especially as articulated by the Vatican II documents and by Pope John Paul II, taught me a “consistent pro-life ethic.” Protestant evangelicalism, as exemplified in men such as Billy Graham, taught me that God so loved the world (each and every person in the world) that he gave his only son on the cross for our salvation. For my salvation!
I am also a Christian ethicist, a moral teacher, and writer. So inevitably my work brings me into occasions in which it is my responsibility and my opportunity to address hot-button issues like abortion, health care, war, torture, or gay rights.
Most conversations about these kinds of issues are profoundly unsatisfactory to me. Academic conversations tend to be highly technical, theoretical, and irrelevant to everyday life. Popular conversations tend to be angry and polemical, partisan and politicized. Neither type of conversation ever really feels very sacred to me. Academics are often scoring their tenure points while politicos are scoring their partisan points.
Over the years, I have tried to do something a little different when I engage difficult issues such as abortion. I try to play neither academic nor political games. I instead try to discern what it might mean to deal with the substance of the issue as if every person involved is sacred in God’s sight, and I likewise try to deal with my dialogue partners as if the same were true.
I saw in Frances and most of the pro-choice activists and thinkers at that meeting a serious concern for women in general, and women facing unwanted pregnancies in particular. I could tell that they were drawn into this issue because they had caught a vision of the suffering of women whose pregnancies create a crisis for them, and the even more intense crisis that this would be for them if they had no legal recourse to an abortion. Their fixed gaze on the needs and the suffering of women impressed me, and I respected it. Anyone who cares deeply about the suffering of other people is on the right track — because that is one of the ways we demonstrate our love for the sacred persons around us.
I do continue to think that our gaze on this issue must be at least bi-focal — on the suffering pregnant woman, and on the developing human life that she is carrying. I do sense that decades of defending the rights and needs of the pregnant woman have trained many in the pro-choice side to avert their eyes from the child. But I also recognize on the part of many pro-lifers the parallel averting of gaze away from the woman and her situation as she experiences it. Decades of advocacy in a polarized debate have caused both sides to miss the intertwined sacredness of woman and child. And it is certainly clear to me that the only way those whose gaze is fixed on the child will succeed in saving more of them is if they learn not only to look at the woman, but to love her.
This vision goes with me to other issues. I have been an advocate for the apparently astonishing view that no matter how much we want to prevent another terrorist attack that would destroy sacred human lives; this does not mean we are free to create a system that abuses suspected terrorists — because those swept up as suspected terrorists are also sacred human beings whom God loves. This view shapes my thinking about the right of all our nation’s children to have a good education, quality health care, and parents who love them. And it means that I refuse to go along with the contemptuous demonization of particular groups that sometimes sweeps us away — most recently exhibited in very disturbing anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hysteria.
I find allies anywhere I encounter someone whose words and deeds show that they are operating on the basis of something like this vision. Often, sadly, these allies are not my fellow Christians, for sometimes the passionate commitment of my co-religionists to the positions they advocate causes them to forget their obligation to love even strangers and enemies. No, in public life, my favorites are those who surprise me with the tender and respectful way they encounter the sacred humanity of those around them. They give me hope.
About the images: (top) Atop the Klein Matterhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland stands a giant wooden representation of Christ on the cross. A metal placard beneath is engraved with the same phrase in four languages: “Mehr Mensch sein.” “L’homme d’abord.” “Uomo prima di tutto.” “Be more human.” (photo: mightymightymatze/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)
(second) Frances Kissling listens to the author at the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Fair-Minded Words” conference at Princeton University in 2010.
David P. Gushee is the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He is the co-founder and board chair of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, a columnist for the Huffington Post, Washington Post, and Associated Baptist Press, and a contributing editor for Christianity Today. Dr. Gushee also currently serves on the Church Relations Committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He has published 12 books, including Kingdom Ethics, Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, Getting Marriage Right, and Only Human.