Ethical Hysteria

This is a blog that I had no desire to write, and concerns a matter for which I have been troubled for a few days now.

I am a Hoosier, a resident (and native) of Indiana, which is a state that is either, depending on your perspective, the epicenter of common sense or a new hotbed of hatred. The week just passed was marked by the private signing of a law named “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act” in Indiana, by Governor Mike Pence. This came out of a legislative session that had, up to now, been considered rather tame and even dull to most who work within Indiana politics. The windup to this has been nothing compared to its national response, which has been abundant and vociferous.

Indiana has a sort of curious pride in its ability to be neither the first nor last to do much of anything. Hoosiers are a people who survey the passing scene, dwell on it awhile, and then decide to join when the water seems tepid enough. We continue to celebrate such things as a dessert item that can be deep fried at our State Fair, we crown a “Pork Queen” at an annual festival thirty miles north of our Capitol, and shake our head at the corruption in parts of the state while we mow our lawns and lay down fresh mulch on our flower beds every Spring, undeterred. If you move here you’ll probably receive a pie from someone, and a recommendation to the best steakhouse around. Indiana is generally a delightful, non-threatening place. One law seems to have changed some of that.

I actually have a complicated view of the legislation just passed, as many Evangelicals do. This is not especially personally commendable, as it should be no surprise; our faith inherently makes the sausage-making of legislation in a secular government complex. I own a small business; I am the president of a professional organization; I have clients and friends and colleagues that have a wide range of beliefs, life experiences, and moral positions. I can see the concerns that all sides have with the passage of this law.

What troubles me is the weight given to hysterics. And this is where we must all be troubled in the era of moral and ethical relativism. And yet it is hysteria, often promulgated by well-meaning people who are swept up in a sea of compassion, which seems to win the day. It isn’t even very good ethical relativism, where all views are to be held equal…the most valid ethical opinion is the loudest one. Perhaps it is my age or (hopefully) advancing wisdom that finds hysterical arguments so odious. I almost don’t care what position you take; I will discount it ten-fold if you resort to hysterical means to defend it. This, by the way, is not limited to any one side of most issues. People of faith are as capable of resorting to histrionics as anyone else.

I love to come to conclusions, and, sadly, my temperament must be satisfied with more musings than solutions this time. As those who seek to follow Christ, in His difficult teachings and astonishing sacrifice for those who didn’t deserve it, do we look at (and influence!) legislation, bad or good, and social evolution, similarly, with a winsome response, or a hysterical one? In an era of 24-7 news cycles and social media, where “he (or she) with the most ‘likes’ triumphs,” is hysteria the way to win? My darker angels are rather inclined to think that it is. What is maddening to me is how often hysteria is passed off as enlightenment. And this should continue to worry us in Bioethics because the “optics” and the “narrative” that surround an issue are what rule the argument. Can we continue to compete in the arena of ideas with elegant arguments but restrained by that darn Christian civility?

In fact we must. The price to win some battles with bluster is too great, for it may damage the cause of the very Gospel we seek to advance. We know that. Jeremiah wrote to the exiles held captive in Babylon that they should “pray for the welfare of the city” where they lived, for “in its welfare you will find your own welfare.” For each People spread that glorifies the values of the Hemlock Society, that find their object lesson in Brittany Maynard, a quiet Kara Tippets response is less flashy but exactly right. If “our side” on this issue eventually loses, I will find such means the most affirming way to have lost. Let us be wise in how we manage the optics and the narrative, to be certain, but in that process, defend our ethics in a way that is consistent with them.

I’ve not given my position on the law because, frankly, I consider it entirely irrelevant to the big picture of God’s ultimate plan, what the late Dallas Willard called the “Divine Conspiracy.” In six weeks I will travel with a team of eight to meet with fellow believers in war-torn Ukraine. One of them is a pastor from Donestk whose church was burned to the ground by rebels backed by a Russian madman who wishes to see the nation of Ukraine crushed into subservience, and who have already killed thousands and driven the church there into a Soviet-style bunker mentality. This pastor is now ministering to other refugees in Kiev. I do not expect to ask for their prayers for me to attain either greater religious liberty or freedom from persecution from anyone. The Ukrainian Christians have a perspective that I cannot fathom. My Ukrainian brothers and sisters are not hysterical; they are surviving. No legislation in America or anywhere else will stop God’s relentless conspiracy to make right that which was wrong. I hope many of His people will ultimately be marked by diligence and faithfulness, and less by how hysterically they defended our ethics in His name.

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Robin DiSilvestroJerry RisserJon Holmlund Recent comment authors
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Jon Holmlund
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Jon Holmlund

So I guess on one level I get it, but on another level I don’t. I believe and hope that the contributors to this blog, like you, have not been hysterical. If that’s not the case maybe you should call us out. I am not sure I find that the defenders of RFRAs–Christian or not, and including Gov. Pence–are as hysterical as the opponents, but maybe I haven’t read enough. To be sure, the Lord’s teaching on expecting and preparing for persecution is hard–and our brethren who are suffering set an example for us. But in my prayers for the… Read more »

Jerry Risser
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Jerry Risser

Jon, Thanks for the comments. I should have made it clear that the hysteria on this issue is exceedingly one-sided. I only hoped to be even-handed in noting that there have been times that “our side,” if you will, has sometimes resorted to emotional excess in our arguments. As becomes more apparent in my state with each passing day, this situation is not one of them. Also, I hope I can’t be interpreted as saying that optics and narrative should be the foundation of our bioethical arguments. Far from that! My whole premise is that we live in frustrating times… Read more »

Jon Holmlund
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Jon Holmlund

It is helpful. Thanks for your patient and extensive response. I do agree with you. Regarding hysteria, maybe another way to put it is what George Will said yesterday: “There is nothing more tiresome in modern American life than the indignation sweepstakes we get in all the time to see who can be most angry about this and that. There are obviously two important principles at stake [with RFRA]. One is, the government should only rarely, and with extreme difficulty, compel people to take actions contrary to their consciences. The other is that when you open your doors to commerce… Read more »

Robin DiSilvestro
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Robin DiSilvestro

I would just like to say I do not often comment on these because of the nasty comments I have received in the past. However, I do want to say that I do think we, as Christians, should respond with love, compassion, intelligence, and in God’s truth rather than just defending “religious freedom”. we should focus more on living out the gospel rather than just confront the issues. I want to be clear, both camps have their place, but living the gospel is a biblical calling, defending our political rights is not. We can do both, but must be aware… Read more »

Jon Holmlund
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Jon Holmlund

I think this is very well stated, and I agree. I do think–and I think Robin would agree–that civil, intelligent, and, indeed, loving argument on various policy issues is warranted NOT primarily to protect “our rights,” but to clarify the truth and its implications.

But that is not to disagree at all with Robin’s comment, which, again, I believe is right on, and well timed for Resurrection Sunday.