When Sarah Palin described her choice about whether to “change the circumstances” of being pregnant with a Down syndrome baby, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus said she gave away the game in the abortion debate. She’s right. Words create and reflect realities. How we talk matters. The reason most faith communities missed it is because they’re the product of a faith tradition perfectly designed to give away this game.
Sarah Palin recently gave an honest account of when she discovered she was pregnant at 44 and that her baby would have Down syndrome. As Palin recounted the moment, she said she understood how a girl could be “influenced by society to believe that she’s not strong enough or smart enough or equipped enough or convenienced enough to make the choice to let the child live.” Palin made the “good decision to choose life” – just as her daughter did last summer: “We’re proud of Bristol’s decision to have her baby.” By invoking “choice,” however, Ruth Marcus said Palin gave away the game.1
Palin is an American Evangelical – a faith born of strange bedfellows: Enlightenment modernism and English pietism, writes Sidney Mead.2 They were wed on the European continent when Martin Luther ditched Roman authority. What made Luther remarkable, Joshua Foa Dienstag writes, “was not so much his views about God as his views about humans, their capacities, and their right to judge in their own cases.”3 Luther replaced papal authority with personal authority. Against the precedent of history and the institutional Church, he said, “Here I stand I can do no other so help me God.”
But America is not so much a Protestant society as it is a modernist one. Its religious movements are a result of modernism. Puritans prized individual faith over institutional structures. When the Puritan preacher Cotton Mather (1663-1728) was asked where the church was visible before Luther, he said it was visible not in open congregations “but in sundry individual members who were persecuted by the church of their day.”4 This explains why most Americans are clueless about church history between the time of Christ and the Puritans.
This America gave rise to the “American Dream” in three successive chapters called God, Nation, and Self, Andrew Delbanco writes.5 The Puritan God meant a vertical authority, so the founders spoke of duty, which means something owed to another. Duty is rooted in obligation, as the writers of the Declaration of Independence declared it was “their duty, to throw off such Government… appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions” and pledging “to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” Duty pointed to a Deity.
Modernism helped Nation replace God, and talk of duty began to decline. Duty to what? …to Whom? Protestant Evangelicalism emerged at this time, mimicking modernism and appealing to choice – an ideal founded on Chapter Three of the American Dream: self as the final authority. The most important evangelical by far was the Congregationalist Charles Finney (1792-1875). Finney taught that “religion is the work of man” and that revival “is not a miracle” but “the result of the right use of the appropriate means.”6 He introduced “new measures” to help people “make decisions for Jesus” that included mass advertising, protracted revival meetings (i.e., meetings that lasted as long as the Spirit led), and, most controversial of all, the “anxious bench” that coaxed even more decisions.
William James (1842-1910) later noted that this evangelical form of individual religious experience was not only free from, but inimical to, any “institutional form” that religious experience might take.7 Evangelical faith focused more on individuals than public, culture-shaping institutions. When public references to “God” began to collapse in the late 1800s, evangelical faith was relegated to personal preference and choice.
The evangelical pro-life movement waged a campaign years ago featuring this moniker: “Life: What a Beautiful Choice.” That was a mistake. Life is a duty owed to another; it is not a choice. People of course make choices, but as the poet Iris Murdoch observed, “at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over.”8 Choices are made inside frames of reality that are, as Michael Sandel puts it, “antecedent to choice.”9 This means Palin is not the problem; she’s the product of a system. It’s a system you can see in Presidential Inaugural speeches, Markella Rutherford writes. At the beginning of the 20th century, duty was still called for an average of 15 times per speech. Choice was rarely mentioned. By 2001, duty and choice were reversed.
“I’d like to thank Sarah Palin for her bravery in explaining the importance of a woman’s right to choose,” Ruth Marcus closes in her recent column. If “abortion is a personal issue and a personal choice,” Marcus concludes, “the government has no business taking that difficult decision away from those who must live with the consequences.” Whoops – there goes the game. Until American faith communities drop “choice” as their main frame of reference for everything from “I made a decision for Jesus” to the issue of abortion, they’re going to keep giving away the game. Pope Benedict XVI might sound quaint when he told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that Catholic politicians have a duty to protect life “at all stages of its development” – but he was also quite correct.
1 Ruth Marcus, “Palin’s Personal Choice,” Washington Post, April 20, 2009, A15.
2 Sidney E. Mead, The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1963).
3 Joshua Foa Dienstag, “Reflections on Sheilaism,” The Hedgehog Review 2.1 (Spring 2000).
4 Sacvan Bercovitch, The Puritan Origins of the American Self (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975), p. 11.
5 Andrew Delbanco, The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).
6 Douglas A. Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, Baker Publishing Group, 2005), p. 68.
7 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, in Writings, 1902-1910 (New Haven, CT: The Library of America, 1987), p. 34.
8 Heather Widdows, The Moral Vision of Iris Murdoch (London, UK: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2005), p. 109.
9 Michael Sandel, “The Politics of Public Identity,” The Hedgehog Review 2.1 (Spring 2000).