Not Morality but Decency

What if Christians talked more about decency than morality, about what is normal than about what is righteous or God glorifying? Sure, we have churches to talk about the demands of God’s law and how believers glorify God. But, as 2kers are wont to point out, persuading non-Christians to embrace Christian morality sans regeneration or the means of grace seems to be bass ackward.

Does that leave us without a case for those sexual and family aspects of public policy or social life that so animate religious conservatives? It certainly leaves us without a moral high ground. But it’s not as if that high ground doesn’t look to non-Christians like a moral high horse.

So why not take a page from Joseph Epstein? His first collection of short stories about Jewish life in Chicago included one that revolved around a non-observant Jewish businessman meeting his daughter, who had just had an abortion, for dinner to express his disapproval. Part of dinner conversation went like this:

“Daddy, did you really expect me not to sleep with anyone while I was in college?”

“No,” he said, “I guess I didn’t really expect that, but I wouldn’t have minded if you hadn’t. I would have minded a hell of a lot less than I do about what has happened.”

The waitress set down their food. “Enjoy,” she said.

“You still haven’t told me why this bugs you so much, Daddy. Do you think your daughter is now, somehow, damaged goods?”

“I don’t know as I would put it that way, baby, but maybe I do. But not in the way you might think.”

“How then?”

“I think it’s a goddamned damaging thing for a girl to have had an abortion at nineteen,” he said, more emphatically than he had intended. He looked across the aisle at the two old broads and the expressionless face of the senile old gent, and hoped they hadn’t heard him.

“Look, Deb,” he said, talking more softly now, “if you’ve had an abortion at nineteen, what’ve you got planned for twenty-four, or thirty-one, or forty-two?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that, for the first time, as a result of what’s happened, I can imagine a terrible life for you. A life of confusion and sadness and heartbreak. And it terrifies me.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Maybe an abortion is a solution to the problem of a pregnancy, but I suspect that it brings its own problems. It isn’t as tidy as it sounds; I suspect that it takes its toll. Once you undergo something like this, your opinion of yourself changes, maybe in small little ways, but it changes. Maybe, because of something like this, you no longer think so well of yourself. Maybe it becomes easier to do more foolish things.”

“I don’t think that’s true, Daddy.”

“I hope it isn’t, sweetheart, I really do hope it isn’t.”

“But what could I have done?”

“You probably did all that you could do, but I think you may be making a big mistake if you think you got away with it. An abortion, anyhow one of this kind, is a dreary and common and pretty crummy thing.”

“What do you want, Daddy?” She had only been picking at her food, but now she gave up even doing that. Tears were in her eyes. Harry remembered her in braces.

“What I want you can’t give me, Deborah. What I want isn’t even reasonable. I want you back the way you were before this happened.”

“What I am supposed to do?” she asked.

“I don’t know what you’re supposed to do. The world is slipping away, my sweet girl, and there’s evidently not much any of us can do about it. But I don’t have to like it. And I especially don’t have to like my kid becoming a part of it.”

If we can join with all (how many?) those people who think abortion who think not that it is a violation of the sixth commandment but “crummy,” would social standards be higher? Maybe.

21 thoughts on “Not Morality but Decency

  1. I’ll take “crummy” over “my body my choice any day.” Dr. Hart, instead of always invoking God’s law in the public square as a reason for why we should or shouldn’t do something in society, why can’t Christians simply show or argue that for instance, ripping children apart in the womb creates problems for all of society in not only moral ways but economic, social stability etc… Of course at this point many committed leftist are so deaf to anything other than their own echo chamber, they probably would discount anything you said that didn’t align with their vision by sneeringly call you “Evangelical”


  2. Daddy wouldn’t have thought it crummy if abortion was neutral to the law. No, our “tactics” are heaven inspired; instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, forgive offenses, and console the afflicted, but still, do keep the sixth commandment holy.


  3. Besides if the culture is numb to children being ripped apart in the womb, it is ass-backwards to think they give a hoot about manners. Robin’s right, it’s an echo chamber and they shout you down using “my body, my choice” all the while science and reason are against them.


  4. @susan You do realize that the abortion rate is roughly what it was the year prior to RvW right? I’m not so sure that the culture is more willing to assign personhood to unborn babies today than it was in 1974 or 1994, yet the rate continues to fall. Perhaps casting the abortion issue as one of decency rather than morality is more effective at persuading people not moved by Thomistic arguments?

    As far as reason goes, the violinist thought experiment is pretty tough to address by pure reason – it captures why moral absolutism about abortion is so problematic. If you can’t provide a clear answer to that conundrum, then it seems that one is left with divine command (one I agree with!). But then you don’t get to assert that science and reason are against your opponents – it isn’t at all clear that they are.


  5. ” It is unreasonable to expect people not to kill or steal unless they have been regenerated?”

    I would drop the qualifier… It is unreasonable to expect people not to kill or steal (or lie or cheat, etc…). That’s why we need a state holding the metaphorical sword over our head (and why the state needs checks and balances). It is also why socialism doesn’t work (we are natural born freeloaders) and the very real risk of failure is valuable to society.


  6. The children… we can’t make them feel bad about themselves, or suggest they can be either good people or bad people, or virtuous or sexually wanton. Well, good people or Republicans….


  7. Dr Hart, I need to read up on what the historians are saying about him. Speaking of evangelical historians are you gearing up for Eric Metaxas book on Luther? I guess there haven’t been enough of those written…


  8. Zrim, I am hoping you didn’t read what I wrote as saying abortion isn’t a big deal. It is a terrible deal. I guess I was trying to make the point that any persuasive argument that could get a non religious person to be aware of the atrocity would be worth attempting in the public square. I always seem to say things that are misinterpreted which is I guess an idicrmwnr on my own intellectual inabilities.


  9. Robin, to the contrary. Describing abortion as “ripping children apart in the womb” indicates you think it a very big deal, but isn’t that the sort of high octane moralized language that shuts down more sane conversation? I take that to be the point here. Epstein is speaking with his daughter in more moderated tones while still getting across some necessarily strong feelings. I don’t imagine him describing his daughter’s actions as ripping apart children, rather making a set of unwise and crummy decisions that benefit nobody.


  10. D.G.,
    I take your answer to mean that expecting people not to kill and not to steal is unreasonable because one only needs to look at their hearts. So why would it not follow your answer that legal prohibitions against murder and theft make no sense and thus should be eliminated from our laws?


  11. Curt, because I believe in a difference between external and internal righteousness. You don’t since you believe in structural sin.

    Get off your high horse and simply be a non-Christian social justice warrior. It won’t make any more sense than a Christian social justice warrior. But at least you won’t be cheapening God’s word.


  12. SDB: As far as reason goes, the violinist thought experiment is pretty tough to address by pure reason – it captures why moral absolutism about abortion is so problematic.

    Thompson was never persuasive to me. For one thing, the violinist scenario is highly contrived. For another, she assumes that choosing to engage in sex using contraceptives does not constitute consent to the possibility of becoming pregnant, which is really dubious. It takes an unrealisticlly magical view of contaceptive efficacy.


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