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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.
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On January 22, 1973, the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision regarding Roe v. Wade. Forty years later, the decision remains a hot-button topic in the news but, as this Pew study points out, there has been remarkable consistency in public opinion over the last two decades:


“More than six-in-ten (63%) say they would not like to see the court completely overturn the Roe v. Wade decision, which established a woman’s constitutional right to abortion at least in the first three months of pregnancy. Only about three-in-ten (29%) would like to see the ruling overturned. These opinions are little changed from surveys conducted 10 and 20 years ago.


White evangelical Protestants remain outliers in this respect:


[They] are the only major religious group in which a majority (54%) favors completely overturning the Roe v. Wade decision. Large percentages of white mainline Protestants (76%), black Protestants (65%) and white Catholics (63%) say the ruling should not be overturned. Fully 82% of the religiously unaffiliated oppose overturning Roe v. Wade.


However, the U.S. public continues to be divided over whether it is morally acceptable to have an abortion:


“Nearly half (47%) say it is morally wrong to have an abortion, while just 13% find this morally acceptable; 27% say this is not a moral issue and 9% volunteer that it depends on the situation. These opinions have changed little since 2006.”


For a more in-depth discussion about the nuances of this conversation, I recommend listening to this conversation I produced for On Being with David Gushee, a Christian ethicist who advocates a “consistent ethic of life,” and Frances Kissling, a long-time abortion-rights activist, who reveal what they admire in the other side and discuss what’s really at stake in this debate.

trentgilliss:

On January 22, 1973, the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision regarding Roe v. Wade. Forty years later, the decision remains a hot-button topic in the news but, as this Pew study points out, there has been remarkable consistency in public opinion over the last two decades:

“More than six-in-ten (63%) say they would not like to see the court completely overturn the Roe v. Wade decision, which established a woman’s constitutional right to abortion at least in the first three months of pregnancy. Only about three-in-ten (29%) would like to see the ruling overturned. These opinions are little changed from surveys conducted 10 and 20 years ago.

White evangelical Protestants remain outliers in this respect:

[They] are the only major religious group in which a majority (54%) favors completely overturning the Roe v. Wade decision. Large percentages of white mainline Protestants (76%), black Protestants (65%) and white Catholics (63%) say the ruling should not be overturned. Fully 82% of the religiously unaffiliated oppose overturning Roe v. Wade.

However, the U.S. public continues to be divided over whether it is morally acceptable to have an abortion:

“Nearly half (47%) say it is morally wrong to have an abortion, while just 13% find this morally acceptable; 27% say this is not a moral issue and 9% volunteer that it depends on the situation. These opinions have changed little since 2006.”

For a more in-depth discussion about the nuances of this conversation, I recommend listening to this conversation I produced for On Being with David Gushee, a Christian ethicist who advocates a “consistent ethic of life,” and Frances Kissling, a long-time abortion-rights activist, who reveal what they admire in the other side and discuss what’s really at stake in this debate.

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Getting Revenge and Forgiveness: Science That Liberates Us from Reductive Analyses

by Krista Tippett, host

I first began to gain a kind of respect for the revenge impulse in human life when we worked, in the early days of this program, on a show about the death penalty. I came to understand that revenge was the original “criminal justice system.” For most of human history, prior to the rule of law, prior to structures of justice that transcend the messiness of human interaction, the threat of retaliation has been a primary tool humans possessed to pursue justice and also to deter cycles of violence. I’ll never forget Sister Helen Prejean, a great campaigner against the death penalty, The Last Words of Texas' Death Row Inmatsdescribing anger as a moral response. The question, of course, is where we let that anger take us.

Now, as Michael McCullough lays out passionately, science is able to document how normal, and purposeful, our instinct for revenge is. In the brain, the instinct for revenge looks like a “craving,” a felt need that begs for satiation. We do range into the realms of global geopolitics in this conversation — to the world around Joseph Kony in Uganda no less — Michael McCullough is just as interested in the mundane forms this craving takes: in our reactions to neighbors and irritating co-workers or to our political opposites.

The good news is that Michael McCullough’s research is also revealing that forgiveness is hard-wired in us — purposeful and normal. He says that to think of forgiveness as a trait of the weak and the vulnerable reflects a simplistic imagination about evolutionary biology. We tolerate and excuse the deficits and mistakes of those we know and love and work with — Grocery store parking lotand even those we don’t love but need to work with — many times each day. Forgiveness doesn’t work in real life as it too often works in media portrayals of dramatic stories of conversion and high emotion. It happens constantly, and we rarely stop to glorify it with the lofty word “forgiveness.”

This science, in other words, liberates us from reductive analyses of ourselves and the world around us. If we accept the normalcy of our instincts both to revenge and forgive, and can see what triggers them both, we have more control over both.

On its cautionary side, it offers lucid explanation of why human societies remain vulnerable — physiologically, not merely politically — to falling back on retaliation and violence as a form of justice. When we cease to see our own well-being as linked to that of others, when we feel threatened by their very existence and are only able to see them amorphously as part of an opposing group, the forgiveness instinct becomes less possible and violence more likely.

This conversation with Michael McCullough heightens my sense of what is at stake in the present global and national moment. One the one hand, the interactivity of the globalized world should make it possible — even necessary — for us to know people far beyond our families and “tribes” as necessary to our survival and even our flourishing.

I am also deeply concerned, as we roll through another toxic election year, at how complete the chasms in American society have become. We have divided ourselves in countless ways — between red and blue, between the 99 percent and the 1 percent. Such distinctions are surely inevitable. But the utter lack of communication, courtesy, and curiosity across these divides seems new to me. Alarmingly, the religious traditions that have been humanity’s moral respositories are also implicated in some of these divisions. How intriguing to imagine that we might harness lessons of science towards a more reconciliatory, peaceable future.

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Reuben found that, on average, both men and women lied about their performance. When participants had an incentive to lie, they lied more; and the incidence of lying increased as the monetary award for being chosen as leader increased. But while women kept pace with men on how frequently they lied, women did not exaggerate their performance to the same degree, and it cost them: women were selected a third less often than their abilities would otherwise indicate.
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Rebecca Knight of the Financial Times "Women at the Top" blog highlights research by Columbia Business School professor Ernesto Reuben, who finds that men “honestly believe their performance is 30 percent better than it really is.” This is research that should make all men and women pause as it concerns not only gender equality in the workplace but also ethics and morality.

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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GOP Presidential Candidates’ Stories Reveal the Depths of Their Positions at the Thanksgiving Family Forum

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Republican Candidates at the Thanksgiving Family Forum

"You guys are in a church, and that is not by accident."
~Bob Vander Plaats

There’s something that “opens everything up,” as Paul Raushenbush said on our program, when you ask a person about their religious or spiritual tradition. Asking such an intimate question conveys a sense of respect. And to be asked may be somewhat disarming; it tells the person that you’re interested in not only his or her worldview, but what makes that person who he or she is. More importantly, it communicates that you’re ready to sit and are willing to listen to a thoughtful, complex, nuanced response. That’s something we don’t expect or demand enough in our national political races.

The Thanksgiving Family Forum at First Federated Church in Des Moines, Iowa gave six GOP presidential candidates that chance. Absent were the gotcha questions that left Rick Perry fumbling to remember the government agency he wanted to eliminate and prompted Herman Cain’s Libya flub. Instead, personal storytelling and exploration of formative experiences fueled this faith-focused conversation.

Moderator Frank Luntz, a pollster for FOX News, began the two-hour conversation by laying out his intentions in his introduction, “I want you to understand what’s in these people’s hearts, not just the soundbites” and “understand their worldview so that you will know what to do come January 3rd.” His style of questioning gave the candidates an opportunity to flesh out their ideas and explain their moral positions in the context of their Christian traditions.

There were plenty of unscripted, dare I say sometimes moving, moments too. Luntz asked several valuable questions to draw out the candidates’ character: to describe a personal failing that would inform their work as president, to share an experience that helped shape their faith and spirituality. A choked-up Herman Cain relayed a story about facing his mortality upon being diagnosed with cancer. Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann describes the pain of her parents’ divorce while she was a teen. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum confessed to seeing his daughter who suffers from Trisomy 18 as less of a person, and trying not to love her to avoid the pain of losing her during her medical crises as an infant. Rick Perry confesses that Jesus filled a hole in his soul.

And even though Luntz, in an artful move, invites Occupy Wall Street protestors to address the audience before the roundtable discussion, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich did not extend a hand across the aisle of the culture wars in America with his attack on Occupy Wall Street protestors and specifically secularism, “…(secularism) has dominated our academic world, our academic world supplies our news media, our courts, and Hollywood, so you have a faction of America today who believes things are profoundly wrong…they are determined to destroy our value system.”

The event was hosted by The Family Leader, a conservative Christian organization based in Iowa, and co-sponsored by Focus on the Family-affiliate CitizenLink and the National Organization for Marriage. Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of The Family Leader, said in introductory remarks, “We don’t the church to be political…we don’t need you to be Republican or Democrat, but we need you to be biblical.” His effort to make religiosity non-partisan was later overshadowed by his comment that the next President of the United States will come from the Republicans present at the debate that night.

The civil nature of the discussion was the real standout of the evening, and how that tone was created and sustained is worth pondering. Was it the way Luntz established the ground rules for the discussion? Without overtly saying so, he somehow made it clear that the “winner” of the night would not be the candidate who outdid or shamed the others, but the one who emerged from the discussion with the most integrity.

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WWJD: The Slogan That Was Once a Moral Compass

by Susan Leem, associate producer

"I want volunteers from the First Church who will pledge themselves, earnestly and honestly for an entire year, not to do anything without first asking the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ And after asking that question, each one will follow Jesus as exactly as he knows how, no matter what the result may be."
~Charles Sheldon, from In His Steps

In the halls of my high school, back in the 1990s, the initials W.W.J.D. (What Would Jesus Do) appeared as a seemingly sudden trend, gracing armbands, lanyards, backpacks. I associated it with teens either trying to fit in or proclaiming their Evangelical Christian faith through (then) fashion-forward accessories. But, Charles Monroe Sheldon, a Kansas preacher, first coined the phrase in 1893 in his novel, In His Steps. In a sense, those woven armbands draw a loop back to the Social Gospel Movement and the Evangelical impulse it grew out of.

Sheldon was a high-profile Congregational minister and an early advocate of civil rights for African-Americans and women. He also supported prohibition to battle alcoholism, seeing it as a serious social disease. And though Sheldon had the spirit of social activism, he was in many ways out of step with his time. He intended the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” to guide moral behavior as well as be applied to all aspects of living, including one’s occupation.

The novel begins with a young man who was “evidently a tramp” in shabby clothes coming to town looking for work and for help. He approaches the fictional congregation, even the pastor of a small Kansas town (much like the one Reverend Sheldon served), and finds that no one will help him. He later walks into the middle of the Sunday service and shames those present for the hypocrisy of turning their backs on him asking, "But what would Jesus do? Is that what you mean by following his steps?"

In the audio above, theologian John D. Caputo talks about the evolution of this powerful phrase. It’s a way to see what drives Christianity, he says, even the soul of it. But how it’s been appropriated today as mainly a slogan of the Christian Right is a degradation of a very good question, one that has a “magic to it.” According to Caputo it has most impact when applied to one’s own morality, but when used to with a prescriptive morality for others, “you take the teeth out of the question” and it becomes a kind of weapon with which to judge others.

However, Reverend Sheldon was not exclusively applying WWJD to public or private morality himself. He had a more nuanced approach. He felt that as much as one needed to be responsible for their own actions, “people were defenseless against these larger structural forces in this society,” hence his own contributions to social activism.

One intriguing interpretation issue is the challenge of actually determining what Jesus would have done. As Caputo puts it, “the question really is a question and it’s a difficult question because it involves making an interpretation, of taking Jesus who lived in a very different time a remote corner of the Roman Empire, in an occupied country, and who probably was not a very political person. So we’ve got to look at the New Testament narrative and figure out for ourselves what it’s telling us to do in our time.”

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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?

The Patriot-News calls for Joe Paterno's Removal

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Which Catholic Values and Social Teachings Get Noticed?

by Martin Marty, guest contributor from Sightings

Maureen Dowd wrote an almost innocuous column in The New York Times in which she noted, or argued, that “American bishops have been inconsistent in preaching their values.” Any reader who is up on the teachings of the company of bishops should not be surprised that they are inconsistent or that Ms. Dowd caught them in action. Such a reader who is up on the parties in play can also expect that the columnist is zeroing in on a zone of teachings about sex, which are of a different nature than are the rest of the social teachings. Someone had to notice her generalization.

Someone did. An authoritative if informal response came in the Letters to the Editor column from Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany who wrote on “The Values of the Bishops.” He argued that Ms. Dowd and so many like her were not paying attention, so he cited all kinds and degrees of interest they had shown in focusing on the social teachings. Since we don’t often hear about almost all of them, it pays to note his list.

Bishop Hubbard pointed out that the bishops consistently raised grave moral concerns regarding the decision to invade Iraq back when that stance was unpopular, before the war became unpopular in the mind of the larger public. Who noticed? The bishops have been consistent supporters of efforts to repeal the death penalty, and have held this position for decades. They challenge the capital punishment culture and routinely request clemency for death-row inmates, in low- and high-profile cases alike. Who noticed?

Cover to "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholics Bishops of the United States"The full body of bishops in 2007, Bishop Hubbard argued, overwhelmingly adopted "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," a document which showed them “preaching their values.” Who noticed it? Bishop Hubbard listed some of the specific “values” positions, e.g., against torture, racism, and the targeting of non-combatants in acts of terror or war. These were “intrinsically evil.” Facing up to the need to deal with the suffering “from hunger or a lack of health care, or an unjust immigrations policy” also escaped public notice among many. “Today, we bishops are exercising our leadership in advocating for the protection of poor people at home and abroad in the continuing budget debates.” Notice, anyone?

Included in the values list were condemnations of “abortion, euthanasia,” and he could have added, “homosexual” activity. Now, check these three as “noticed,” “noticed,” and “noticed” by much of the Catholic public which likes to ignore all the other “values” here, and by non-Catholic publics who never heard of other parts of the “seamless” or consistent ethic about which we heard some years ago. Now we are left to ponder: which zones of values get noticed by Catholics (including “by which Catholics?”) and which not? Who praises the bishops for what they put on the extensive values lists which are as old as 1893 or 1917 or other times of the formulation of social ethics? And is “consistency” among them to be valued? Also, which consistent instances help the Catholic “values” cause, and which are counter-productive? An election year is a good time to ponder some answers to the questions. One hopes that the whole range of issues will get noticed.

A last question: how do these values differ from those of most humanist, mainline Protestant, and Jewish choices? Believers and unbelievers are in much of this together. Do the old lines and definitions still serve? It’s time to notice.


Martin MartyMartin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago. He’s authored many books, includingPilgrims in Their Own Land and Modern American Religion.

This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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Religion and Taxes: Reconciling the Views of Ayn Rand and Michele Bachmann with Jesus’ Concern for the Poor

by Alexander E. Sharp, special contributor

Michele Bachmann and the Tea Party 2Rep. 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.

References

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.

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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.
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Nicholas Lemann makes some astute observations and smart points in The New Yorker's Comments section.

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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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.

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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

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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.

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Sacred Conversations

by David Gushee, special contributor

Crucifix on the Klein MatterhornAt 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.

Frances Kissling Listens to David GusheeWhen I met Frances Kissling and dialogued publicly with her at the Princeton "Open Hearts, Open Minds" conference, I hope that this is the spirit that I brought to that conversation.

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. GusheeDavid 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.

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Cinema as a Moral Compass

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale in "The Fighter" (2010)
Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale in a scene from “The Fighter.”

"We are a storytelling species, and we have always used our stories to teach one another how we should live, and how we should not."
— David Gushee, "Teaching virtue at the movies in 2011"

In a recent article from the Associated Baptist Press, David Gushee, a professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, highlights four recent films, including The Fighter, that have narratives with accounts of moral virtue. This is a fresh way for me to share and evaluate new films.

I want more meaningful categories with which to talk about films rather than discussing whether it goes on the holiday viewing list or is an Oscar contender. Though I trust Roger Ebert’s judgment implicitly, the number of stars doesn’t tell me anything about how to live well or how to treat other people. Gushee’s language does.

What four films come to mind that have provided you with some teaching moment in the shape of a moral compass?

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I found this a difficult as well as instructive debate (that occasionally left me nearly speechless) precisely because we had virtually no common ground, no relevant, mutual vision of a good society. Since we didn’t share some fundamental moral values or social and political goals, our debate was less an argument than an exchange of opposing beliefs.
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— Lawyer and social critic Wendy Kaminer writes in The Atlantic about her debate with Femi Otitoju, a British equality campaigner and diversity consultant, on the moral limits of free speech.

Kaminer’s essay is a provocative and challenging perspective that really makes the reader think. I found myself creating scenarios in my mind and trying to think through all the options. I look forward to hearing from Ms. Otitoju when Intelligence Squared releases the video.

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

[via theatlantic]

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