Monday, November 03, 2008

Piper, Politics, and Abortion: A Few Thoughts

I'm closing the comments on the previous post (a video of John Piper sharing his heart for this election). Thanks to many of you for the thoughtful comments.

In the video Piper mentioned that he thinks it would be unbiblical for Sarah Palin to become Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. However, he didn't explain the biblical rationale for his position. So on Sunday DG posted a new entry by Piper: Why a Woman Shouldn't Run for Vice President, but Wise People May Still Vote for Her. I encourage you to read it. (More below on an important clarification in this new piece.)

This morning Piper posted A Prayer for This Election--which I would also encourage you to read (and pray!).

In the following, I'm going to express some reluctant qualms about what Piper said in the initial video. Everything I say, however, should be understood beneath the banner of my enormous appreciation for Piper in countless ways. One of the things I learned during my time in Minneapolis with him is that he invites criticism and believes in the serious (and at times spirited!) exchange of arguments in the marketplace of ideas. I hope everyone will understand the spirit, then, with which I write these thoughts.

I also think that folks should keep in mind the medium. Blogs and videos are great--but one of their virtues (conciseness) can also be one of their drawbacks, as you can't say everything. Piper was not giving a comprehensive theology of voting and political engagement--so that should be kept in mind when viewing the video and when reading my comments.

Piper on the "Unusual Challenges" and "Complicating Factors" of This Election

In the video Piper prefaced the discussion by framing it as an election that presents us with "unusual challenges," and then he cited three "complicating factors":
  1. Sarah Palin is a woman, and biblically, a woman should not be the Commander in Chief.
  2. Barack Obama is black, and it would be "thrilling" and "amazing"--"a golden opportunity"--to have a black President.
  3. Abortion is evil, and Barack Obama is the most extreme abortion-rights proponent in Congress. ("Abortion is an evil the scope of which and depths of which very few people in our culture feel. The magnitude of it’s just horrific. . . . 12 million black babies dead since 1973. I don’t think Barack Obama will touch that with a ten foot pole. And he should. . . . He’s the most radical abortion proponent in the United States Congress, and that’s tragic.")
Piper then went on to talk about the prophetic perspective, the sovereignty of God, and the gospel.

A Complicating Factor, or an Absolute Deal Breaker?

The first part left many--including me--confused and disappointed. We found it hard to square putting abortion into the category of a complicating factor--alongside race and gender--when previously Piper has powerfully and prophetically placed it into the category of an absolute deal breaker. In this video Piper offered no pastoral guidance as to how to prioritize these complicating factors--and it left many confused (with more than one person wondering, incorrectly, if he was encouraging a vote for Obama).

One-Issue Politics

Many of us have been influenced by Piper's 1995 article, One-Issue Politics, One-Issue Marriage, and the Humane Society. In it he explains that "No endorsement of any single issue qualifies a person to hold public office. . . . [But] Everybody knows a single issue that for them would disqualify a candidate for office" (my emphasis).

Here's the thesis: "I believe that the endorsement of the right to kill unborn children disqualifies a person from any position of public office." Piper ends by saying that his conviction is "never to vote for a person who endorses such an evil—even if he could balance the budget tomorrow and end all taxation."

In the blog post on Sunday, Piper not only explains his biblical case against a woman as president, but also makes clear that the issues of womanhood and abortion are on different levels :
. . . a person with my view may very well vote for a woman to be President if the man running against her holds views and espouses policies that may, as far as we can see, do more harm to more people than we think would be done by electing a woman President and thus exalting a flawed pattern of womanhood. In my view, defending abortion is far worse sin for a man than serving as Vice President is for a woman.
While I still wish that Piper had reiterated his point about abortion-rights as a disqualifier for office, I am thankful that he made the above point, which clarifies that he does not see the abortion issue as morally equivalent to issues related to race and gender.

God's Sovereignty . . . and Means

Piper, in the video, argues that we need a "big healthy dose" of the sovereignty of God with regard to this election.

Piper has influenced me greatly in this area; largely through his careful biblical-theological work, I am a passionate proponent of God's absolute sovereignty over all things. And surely politics is included in "all things." God removes kings; God sets up kings (Dan. 2:21). God does all that he pleases (Ps. 115:3), and he "works all things according to the counsel of his will" (Eph. 1:11). Even though a king (or a president) appears to be the most powerful person in the land, "The king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will" (Prov. 21:1). Amen and amen.

Theologically, we need to make at least two distinctions. One is between God's secret will (everything that will come to pass) and God's revealed will (what he tells us to do in his Word). The second important point is that God not only ordains ends but also commands and ordains means.

Where am I going with this?

(1) The fact that God ordains all things (i.e., his secret will) has a limited effect on our decision making. It can't prescribe how we act, but it can prevent us from having the wrong perspective (e.g., anxiety, fear, despair, misplaced trust, etc.). But in terms of interpreting events, the main way to read providence is backwards (as John Flavel wrote: "Some providences, like Hebrew letters, must be read backward").

(2) The fact that God ordains means ensures that our actions have significance. The ordained outcome can never be seen as an excuse for complacency or fatalism.

Now I don't think that Piper would disagree with the above theologically. But there may be a difference between us regarding how this works out practically with respect to politics.

For example, he says that the "prophetic perspective" speaks in this way: "I will always be pursuing his [God's] kingdom first, and let the political chips fall where they will" (my emphasis). But to my ears, a comment like this does not sound like a robust theology of means. It could be taken to sound a bit fatalistic.

Piper also says, God is "gonna get elected the one he wants elected, and if it's the person we think is hurtful, then we need to be hurt!" I agree that whoever is elected as president (and to all other political positions) on Tuesday is the person that God ordained to be in that position--and that that person might be a partial manifestation of God's already/not-yet judgment against us.

But again I fear that the phrasing of this could sound like fatalism. A few years ago I asked Piper about praying for persecution, and he responded, "I can’t help but think that a good heart would long for anyone who is being hurt not to be hurt anymore. In fact, I think our churches should labor to relieve suffering in the world, especially eternal suffering" (Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, p. 224). I think this is the right perspective to have. But I didn't hear that in this video.

To be fair, Piper does say that we should vote and be engaged (though in a way that is not all-consuming). But there is really no guidance or encouragement for political persuasion and engagement. Without pastors building a positive vision of what this could look like--only telling us the dangers and the attitudes we should avoid--should we be surprised that there are few Wilberforce-like figures today, engaging in risk-taking sacrifice for the cause of justice?


Now with all of that said, you may be surprised to hear me say that I really do resonate with Piper's underlying point. Politics can easily become a source of idolatry. We are dual citizens with a higher allegiance to the City of God. If our candidate loses, we should not grieve as the world grieves. And yes, there will be something enormously significant, historic, and amazing if we elect our first black president.

But . . .

But I want to plead with fellow evangelicals to recognize that this is a watershed election with regard to abortion. Barack Obama has promised to make signing the Freedom of Choice Act his first order of business in the White House--and with a Democratic Congress, he will be able to make this happen.

The Knights of Columbus recently catalogued the many small successes achieved in the pro-life political process since 1973:
  • The Hyde Amendment, which restricts federal funding for abortions;

  • The federal law banning partial birth abortions, which was finally upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in April 2007;

  • The “Mexico City Policy,” which has barred the use of federal taxpayers’ money to pay for abortions in other countries;

  • Laws in 44 states that preserve a parental role when children under 18 seek abortions;

  • Laws in 40 states that restrict late-term abortions;

  • Laws in 46 states that protect the right of conscience for individual health care providers;

  • Laws in 27 states that protect the right of conscience for institutions;

  • Laws in 38 states that ban partial birth abortions;

  • Laws in 33 states that require counseling before having an abortion;

  • And laws in 16 states that provide for ultrasounds before an abortion.

With a stroke of the pen, all of these would be gone.

I am under no illusions that electing John McCain will necessarily lead to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. But I do believe that McCain would be a good pro-life president, I know that McCain would veto the radical FOCA, and I know that Obama is the most extreme pro-abortion candidate to ever run for president.

I believe evangelicals should care deeply--though not idolatrously--about this election, and that they should do what they can to stop, or at least slow, the slaughter of the innocent. Voting is one of the things you can do. I encourage you to do it, and to do so with a view toward the weakest and most defenseless members of the human race--3,700 of whom are being killed every single day in the United States.