Giving Away the Game

Michael Metzger

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).


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  1. I agree that Christians would do well to change the way we speak about abortion – perhaps this is will provide something new to be said in the debate. This is a necessary step forward but it only brings us to the real challenge: conflicting duties. I suppose this is where the “duty” hits the fan.

    Christians claim that it is the duty of humanity universal to protect human life. Americans, in turn, claim that it is the duty of the American legal system to protect individual choice.

    It seems that this issue is a matter of rights: which right are we more responsible to proect. Christians claim life as a universal human right. Much of the rest of the world claims that freedom to make such a personal choice as abortion is also a right.

    Choice has become a right; it is considered an integral aspect of personal freedom in America.

    How do we convince people that the right to life trumps the right/freedom to chose abortion? How do we convince people that community responsibility and duty not only trumps but is the very thing that upholds personal rights and freedom?

  2. Well said! I was raised to “be responsible,” which meant to do what was expected of me, and ultimately, to do what was right. Too often the decisions are perceived today is a matter of preference, ignoring the fact that there is often an option that is consistent with God’s will and one that is not. The decision to follow God’s ways is the path of faith, often requiring doing what one does not necessarily understand or find to be the most enjoyable path. However, it leads in the end to true satisfaction and fulfillment. This can be viewed as the way of fulfilling one’s responsibilities or ones duties.

    However, from a different perspective, one based on a personal and loving relationship with Jesus Christ, one should be looking toward what would please him and not what is our “duty.” We are free in him to make our own decisions, though those decisions are not independent of the consequences that they may trigger. So, if I am truly living my life for God, then I am not making decisions based on what is my duty as much as I am looking for what will be honoring and pleasing to him.

    The options I select should be the same, whether I see them as my duty or the things that will please the one I love, though my attitude will be significantly different in the two cases. I wholly support the need for us to live up to our responsibilities and to do what is our duty. They are are real and certainly far more black and white than people want to accept. I’m just not sure that “duty” language will get as much traction as one based on making choices that are consistent with a love for God. In the end, we definitely need to find the language to avoid giving up the game before we start.

    Thanks, Mike.

  3. Mike,

    Not sure I understand your comment about why most Christians are clueless about history. Please expound upon this.

    As a parent of a child with Down Syndrome, you are one of the few that has gotten it right by leaving off the “s” that most add. Although it is not a sticky point for me because most just don’t know, I appreciate your sensitivity.


  4. Troy – all I mean is ask a conventional evangelical, “Name three of the great cultural advances instigated by the church in, say, the 600s. Or the seventh century AD. Or, say, around 100AD.” Odds are you’ll get nothing but a blank stare. Church history is largely inconsequential to the evangelicals since “being relevant” is more highly regarded. I haven’t found many who honestly believe there is much to be learned from history after the Book of Revelation was penned.

  5. As always, appreciate the push towards further historical study: “most Americans are clueless about church history between the time of Christ and the Puritans.” These years are the most important for evangelicals to understand, as the foundations were set for today’s faith. Thanks for helping me to connect my faith with my study through these deeply historical pieces.

  6. I am curious how you would have Luther respond – is allegiance and obedience to something you know to be mistaken better than breaking from a flawed institution? I suspect that Luther would say that his break with the established Church was an attempt to re-connect to the living God he found mostly outside it.

    Wouldn’t he be abdicating his responsibility to follow Christ as best he understood if simply went along with the Church’s abuse of its authority?

  7. Luther never said he found God outside the church. Second, if abuse is the problem (as you write), then proper use is the solution – not necessarily a whole new use. This might sound like I’m saying the Catholic Church is the Only True Church. I’m not. I’m simply suggesting that Luther never imagined how Americans would come to understand “the priesthood of all believers.”

    Richard Popkin said Luther opened a “Pandora’s box” at Leipzig that “was to have the most far-reaching consequences, not just in theology but throughout man’s entire intellectual realm.” One of Luther’s guiding principles was “the priesthood of all believers.” But as Marc Kolden notes, “For Luther… the priesthood of all believers does not express religious individualism but its opposite, the church as community.” In other words, in the 1600s, the priesthood of all believers meant individuals holding community in tension. That’s why Luther was reluctant to leave the Catholic Church.

    Most Americans imagine “the priesthood of all believers” very differently. They see it through the lens of individualism – not held in tension with community. In other words, the frame is the issue, not the facts. Luther could have never seen America’s rabid devotion to individualism coming down the pike. This was the “Pandora’s box” that Popkin refers to and that Luther unintentionally opened: most Protestant evangelicals in the twenty-first century interpret Luther’s idea of the priesthood of all believers as promoting individual, inductive Bible study, individual interpretation, individual salvation, and individual direct interaction with God. Being an individual is a virtue – but only if it is held in tension with community. Few Americans hold these two in proper tension. They opt instead for individualism, and give lip service to the competing truth of “church as community.” If Luther had seen this coming, who knows what he would have said? I imagine him as a rather straight-talking chap and would have enjoyed listening to him.

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