The Church Still Has Standards

While Ross Douthat worries about changes in church teaching about marriage and divorce, the cardinals in Rome have not lost discernment when it comes to commerce and food. At issue is the opening of a McDonald’s close to St. Peter’s:

Cardinal Elio Sgreccia, a former president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, has publicly voiced his opposition to the move, telling the Italian daily La Repubblica it is “a controversial, perverse decision to say the least”. The Italian cardinal doesn’t live in the property, a former bank that borders Borgo Pio and Piazza Leonina, but spoke on behalf of the residents who wrote to the Pope. Cardinals Walter Kasper and George Pell also live in the block and Benedict XVI was resident there when he was a cardinal.

Opening a McDonald’s so close to the Vatican basilica is “not at all respectful of the architectural traditions of one of the most characteristic squares which look onto the colonnade of Saint Peter’s, visited everyday by thousands of pilgrims and tourists,” Cardinal Sgreccia said. He added that the “business decision” is a “disgrace” which “ignores the culinary traditions of the Roman restaurant”, is “not in line with the aesthetics of the place,” and would “inevitably penalize” other restaurateurs in the area.

He also criticized McDonald’s, saying its mix of burgers and French fries are “far from the traditions of Roman cuisine” and that “according to analyses and studies by not a few nutritionists and doctors, do not guarantee the health of consumers.”

Is that a vote for In-and-Out Burger?

Once upon a time, Vatican officials worried about Americanism as a form of government and freedom of religion. Not any more.

Make America Great (just like England, France, Russia, and Germany)

Ron Granieri reminds that idolizing one’s nation is something that came to Americans late:

We begin with England. Formerly a semi-barbaric province of the Roman Empire, England re-imagined itself during the Reformation as a specially favored place, threatened by Spanish tyranny and Inquisitional obscurantism. As this story developed, this favored land defended itself thanks to its native creativity and bravery and the divine blessings of a Protestant Wind.

The poet of English exceptionalism was, of course, Shakespeare, who, sunning himself in the glow of Gloriana herself, wrote less than a decade after the defeat of the Armada these immortal words in Richard II:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands, —

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

Those last lines in particular suggest the ultimately defensive nature of English exceptionalism, the idea that the blessed plot could retreat behind its moat and revel in the perfection of the “little world.”

Don’t forget France:

England’s great rival as it grew into a world power was France, and France also displays the imperial temptation of exceptionalism. Threatened with extinction in the 15th century after English victories at Agincourt and elsewhere, the French monarchy reasserted itself in part thanks to a sense of exceptionalism. Jeanne d’Arc heard divine voices calling her to save France from the invaders and to restore a divinely sanctioned order—a crusade that made her a saint to her fellow Frenchmen and a dangerous witch to her English coreligionists.

After going through its own internal religious struggle during the Reformation and Wars of Religion, France then reasserted itself as a special model of its own, thanks to the Absolutism of Henry IV, Cardinal Richelieu, and Louis XIV. This organization of the state magnified French power and led to triumphs in wars that expanded the size as well as the wealth of France. The more that France imagined itself to be special, the harder it was for French leaders to keep it to themselves. Henry IV was assassinated in 1610 on the eve of a major campaign against France’s Habsburg rivals; Richelieu opened the era of secular warfare when he allied France with Protestant Sweden against those same Habsburgs during the Thirty Years’ War; and Louis XIV spent virtually his entire reign attempting to expand France into its “natural boundaries,” while asserting France’s claim to cultural leadership on the continent and beyond.

It was the French Revolution, however, which especially marked French Exceptionalism. Shaped by their interpretation of Enlightenment thought, the Revolutionaries initially imagined France as an island of new thinking in a sea of obscurantism. When Revolutionary France declared war on Austria and Prussia in 1792, France’s initial posture was completely defensive. The revolutionary anthem embraced during the first months of war, the Marseillaise, called on the “children of the fatherland” to rush to arms and march on to fight off invaders “so that their blood can water our fields.” After the surprising French victory at Valmy that September, however, which offered the chance to go on the offensive, Revolutionary France dropped its defensive pose and embraced the mission to expand and spread the benefits of revolution. Victory at Jemappes in November 1792 was just the beginning, and by the time the Revolution had been co-opted by the military dictator and future Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, the Marseillaise was associated with expansion and conquest. Indeed, when writing his 1812 Overture, Tchaikovsky drowned out the Marseillaise with God Save the Tsar to symbolize Russia’s deliverance, turning the revolutionary anthem on its head as a hymn to monarchy triumphs.

Exceptionalism Russian-style:

France’s rise in the 19th century provoked two other large cultures to action and to develop their own sense of exceptionalism.

The first was Russia. Already having developed its own historical narrative about shaking off the “Tatar yoke” and defending Christianity against the Asiatic hordes, Russia was uncertain about its place in the larger world. Leaders such as Peter the Great and Catherine the Great had hoped that selective embrace of western ideas would make Russia modern and strong, and they pursued aggressive expansion of Tsarist power at home and imperial conquest abroad. But it was the mystic Alexander I, in the wars against Napoleon, who tried to formulate a specifically Russian vision of conservative stability and engagement with Europe, heavily flavored with Orthodox religiosity. Alexander’s Russia was the architect of Napoleon’s defeat, though the Hundred Days and Waterloo robbed Russia of its role as the Corsican’s conqueror. Alexander also joined with Metternich of Austria in creating the Holy Alliance as a vehicle for preserving the postwar order. Alexander’s vision faltered on his own odd personality and his early death, and he bequeathed a mixed legacy to his successors. After the failed liberal Decembrist revolt in 1825, Nicholas I and subsequent conservative Tsars rejected the liberal ideas of the West and adopted a more defensive posture toward the outside world, but continued to believe that Russia had a special mission. As the “third Rome,” Russia imagined itself as the defender and cultivator of Christian civilization, which encouraged imperial wars against the Turks in the south and expansion into Siberia in the east. By the mid-19th century, conflicts between Slavophiles and Westernizers marked differences within the Russian elite, though both groups could be motivated to expand Russia.

And then there was Germany:

Which brings us to France’s other rival, Germany. In a way, Germany was born to consider itself exceptional. It was a German philosopher, Johann Gottfried Herder, who first explicitly developed the idea that every individual culture had its own unique Volksgeist. That was Herder’s way of reacting to the universalist claims of French Enlightenment thought, using its principles to develop the idea that the Germans—indeed, every people—were different from other peoples, and thus each nation should cultivate its own identity and also govern itself. The French may have invented the idea of modern nationalism to serve their revolutionary purposes, but the Germans were the first culture to shape it both retrospectively and prospectively developing a historical narrative to impose coherence on a scattered collection of territories with no natural boundaries. Thus, various past leaders whose Germanness was, at best, notional, from Arminius to Frederick the Great, were absorbed into a nationalist narrative that made the creation of the German empire the inevitable product of historical logic, irrefutable in the eyes of scholars who had themselves created it in the first place.

German nationalism offered, in AJP Taylor’s famous phrase, two faces: to the West, it offered the eager face of the mimic and aspirant, attempting to measure up to the cultural trendsetters across the Rhine. To the East, however, the Germans offered the cold sneer of cultural superiority, justifying centuries of conquest and dominance over allegedly inferior cultures of the East. By the 20th century, as the German Empire emerged as a powerful state in its own right, German opinion leaders tired of the earnest mimic pose and complained of the encirclement of Germany by envious inferiors.

This new attitude crested during the First World War. Novelist Thomas Mann was the most distinguished of thinkers who attempted to explain this by distinguishing authentic German Kultur, with its deep appreciation of art, community, and history, and the shallow, materialistic civilisation of France and Britain. . . .

In bringing up the Nazis, I realize I have just violated Godwin’s Law, but in this case, it is unavoidable. For the Nazis took ideas of exceptionalism and imperialism to their logically illogical conclusions. The greatest temptation for a people that considers itself exceptional is to conclude that it is superior, and that superiority justifies spreading the word to other peoples—even imposing this allegedly superior system on them and removing those people who stand in the way. Indeed, as Mark Mazower’s monumental work, Hitler’s Empire, has demonstrated, the Nazis essentially applied the lessons European powers had perfected in their overseas empires to their European empire. By forcing Western Civilization to recognize the barbarous implications of their conquests, the Nazis delivered a fatal blow to justifications for empire.

One lesson is that American exceptionalism is pretty ordinary.

The second is that the United States had a real chance to be exceptional by not following the ways of European greatness. A modest republic of hardworking and self-discipline citizens with a limited government was what some had in mind. That would have been great.

What Am(mmmeeeEEEE) I Missing?

A few more observations about religious journalism after the news that Books & Culture is ending its run next month. A couple of evangelical academics have taken this news about the way that I felt when I heard that Chris Hughes had bought the New Republic and its editorial staff resigned.

According to Alan Jacobs:

For twenty-one years, Books and Culture has been one of the most consistently interesting magazines in the English-speaking world. I have often been surprised at the number and range of people who agree with me about that. Alex Star, a former editor of the New York Times Magazine and now an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, once told me that he read every issue in full. Cullen Murphy, former editor of the Atlantic, told me that John Wilson is the best editor in the business.

Chris Gehrz seconds Jacobs:

… in any event, it’s certainly a good moment to celebrate what John Wilson has been able to accomplish over twenty years of editing B&C — and how much I appreciate that he has gone out of his way to encourage young authors and scholars. Thanks, John, and all those who have made Books & Culture possible these last twenty-one years.

Both authors mention personal ties to John Wilson and my own relations to the magazine no doubt inform my reaction to the news which is a measure of sadness, especially for people who are losing the jobs. But I can’t say I’ll miss B&C because I haven’t subscribed to it for years.

One reason was precisely those young writers that Gehrz believes John Wilson cultivated. For me that was a fault of John Wilson’s powers as gate keeper for what could have been the jewel in intellectual evangelicalism’s crown. If you want to point to the rich treasures of the evangelical mind, why not turn to its intellectual statesmen and make your publication evangelicalism’s go to place for your movement’s most insightful writers? But evangelicalism suffers from an implicit egalitarianism that elevates the ideas and opinions of the novice and untested to the same worth as the tried and true.

This was exactly what Leon Wieseltier refused to do with the New Republic. In the “back of the book” he turned to some of the academy’s best minds (including Mark Noll) and gave them lots of room to explore a range of ideas that — sorry — B&C never approximated.

Maybe it is apples and oranges, but I doubt Jean Bethke Elshtain could have evaluated Hillary Clinton for John Wilson the way she did for Wieseltier:

I am no a family-above-all person. Some families are rotten and the children in those families should be spirited to safety as quickly as possible. But truly rotten families are, thank God, few and far between. More commonly we have good enough families or almost good enough ones. How high do we place the threshhold in assessing good and bad parenting? Whose business is it anyway? Here Clinton makes one of the more lamentable moves in her book. She is dead-on about the importance of being attuned to the needs of infants, feeding them, cuddling them, holding them, but in a discussion of the fact that there is not “substitute for regular, undivided attention from parents” we learn that the “biggest difference” that emerged from a study she cites and endorses, was “in the sheer amount of talking that occurred” in various households. It is no surprise that Clinton favors the chattering classes, but she proceeds to malign poor and working-class parents because they interact less with their children….

Like Clinton, I recoil when I hear a parent shout at a child. I, too, cringe when a parent is curt, abrupt and dismissive. But I recognize that this is not the same thing as neglect, not the same thing as abuse. Perhaps, as the late Christopher Lasch insisted, the working-class or lower-middle-class style aims to instill in children a tough, early recognition that life is not a bowl of cherries, not a world in which everyone is telling you how great you are; that their lives will be carried out in a world in which they tasks they are suited for, the jobs they do, the lives they live, and even the way they talk (or do not talk) will be scrutinized and found wanting by their “betters.” I know that Clinton would argue, in response, that she means no invidious comparison. But the comparison is there and it is invidious. According to her book, the higher the income and education, the better the parenting, all other things being equal….Don’t get me wrong. As a general rule, children shouldn’t have to…[suffer]. And no group of children should be stuck in such a situation as a permanent condition. But life is hard, and its necessities bear down on people. In the light of such recognitions, it is best at times to restrain ourselves and not rush to intervene and fix everything and tell people struggling against enormous odds that they are doing a crummy job. Sometimes Clinton understands this, sometimes she doesn’t.

It’s Always Sunny In Religious Journalism

The New Calvinists have to be feeling pretty good with yet another puff piece about one of the under home boys (as in under shepherd in relation to Jonathan Edwards as the New Calvinist home boy). Tim Keller is once again the darling of a national media outlet, the Weekly Standard, and he is doing what few pastors seldom can — showing that faith is not backward or sectarian but young, urban, even urbane:

Timothy Keller lists the types of congregants filling his auditorium pews: “A cross-section of yuppie Manhattanites—doctors, bankers, lawyers, artists, actors, and designers, some of them older, most of them in their twenties or thirties.”

Huh? We raise our eyebrows. How could this be, when the city runs on secular selfishness? Or at least, secular selfishness drives the creative class and their upwardly mobile professional counterparts to pursue material success and swami-organic “self-actualization.” The traditional mainline Protestant denominations may be mostly dead, making way for the ongoing rise of a new orthodox evangelicalism. But in Manhattan?

So contrary to the secularization-is-winning narrative that predominates the media and academy, Keller (and the rest of the evangelical megachurch world) is what is really happening:

The truth remains: Megachurches from the Upper West Side to the Bible Belt draw mega-congregations. For Episcopalians, who can’t stomach evangelicalism, the rule is attraction rather than promotion. As empty pews and dwindling parishes testify, gospel-as-metaphor doesn’t attract troubled souls, particularly when the 21st-century’s troubled soul wants to know what’s it got to do with me?

It’s not news that yuppies, creatives, and masters of the universe have immortal souls, too. In 2016, it might take a minister like Timothy Keller to remind us what that means.

Granted, this is a short piece and so the author may not have had room to dig a little deeper in the Keller phenomenon to see if it is all numbers, success, and orthodoxy. Old Life readers likely are aware that some in the Presbyterian world (okay, me) wonder if the New York City pastor is as fully committed to the orthodoxy of his Presbyterian communion as this journalist assumes. Some of those critics (okay, me) also think that Keller’s cooperation with Baptists, Pentecostals, and other Protestants in planting churches in New York City and around the world not only raises questions about his commitment to Presbyterianism but also demonstrates the tell tale signs of the kind of interdenominational cooperation that turned the Protestant mainline from evangelical to liberal. If you can cut corners with the Shorter Catechism, your successors can cut more than corners — maybe an entire block.

Feature stories in journalism to be sure rarely go into great depth regarding the controversies or critics that surround their subject. But when the New Yorker recently ran a feature on the University of Chicago philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, they did not shelter audiences from some of the less than flattering aspects of her life. Not only did the writer cover the philosopher’s complicated relationship with her father, but also refused to ignore Nussbaum’s run-in with feminists:

In 1999, in a now canonical essay for The New Republic, she wrote that academic feminism spoke only to the élite. It had become untethered from the practical struggle to achieve equality for women. She scolded Judith Butler and postmodern feminists for “turning away from the material side of life, towards a type of verbal and symbolic politics that makes only the flimsiest connections with the real situations of real women.” These radical thinkers, she felt, were focussing more on problems of representation than on the immediate needs of women in other classes and cultures. The stance, she wrote, “looks very much like quietism,” a word she often uses when she disapproves of projects and ideas.

In letters responding to the essay, the feminist critic Gayatri Spivak denounced Nussbaum’s “civilizing mission.” Joan Scott, a historian of gender, wrote that Nussbaum had “constructed a self-serving morality tale.”

The feature story on Keller also reminded me of Christianity Today’s coverage of Bill Hybels back when Willow Creek was emerging as the more important megachurch in the U.S. The article sounded more like the Weekly Standard on Keller than the New Yorker on Nussbaum:

Because of Willow Creek’s size, the church’s leaders feel participation in small groups is essential to the spiritual support of its members. And in keeping with its megachurch status, Willow Creek is loaded with specialized ministries for virtually every need among its believers: programs for four age divisions of youth, three categories of single adults, married couples, divorced persons, single parents, and physically and mentally challenged individuals, as well as outreach services to the homeless, the poor, and prison inmates, are just a few of the selections from the church’s huge and diverse menu.

Willow Creek’s success has not gone unnoticed. Three times a year, the church sponsors a conference at which 500 church leaders gather to see how it is done. And in 1992, Hybels and his church elders formed the Willow Creek Association—which currently has a membership of over 700 churches—to provide support to other seeker-sensitive congregations.

Bill Hybels says Willow Creek is simply following the pattern of the first-century church. In the meantime, hundreds of twentieth-century churches are: eager to follow the pattern of Willow Creek.

So aside from questions about Keller or Hybels and their way of doing ministry, what’s up exactly with Christian and conservative readers of journalism? Do we always need to hear the positive and fear any mention of the negative? Faith is about inspiration, not about troubles? That may be what editors think and what marketing reveals. But for a religion that features all those animals butchered in the Temple, the execution of the son of God, not to mention Jesus’ followers clear teaching about suffering, it sure seems odd that secularists appear to handle the dark side of human existence better than believers.

When the Election is not about the Nation but MmmmeeeeEEEEE

Why do Christians on both sides of the Tiber frame the current presidential contest in a secular republic no less in terms of what a believer’s vote says about his or her devotion or virtue? Here are a few samples.

First, how the character of a candidate may affect the character of the voter:

Christians can, morally, either support Trump over Hillary or not support either. Nearly all Christians who support Trump over Hillary do so without adopting strong-man messianism. Being clear that one is not endorsing specific moral flaws, and having one’s eyes wide open about the calculation, is not an internal threat to the Church. It’s not even a problem unique to this election cycle.

Whew. If I vote for Hillary I won’t stain my soul.

But morality won’t resolve my dilemma of for whom to vote (if I’m Roman Catholic):

. . . it’s plain to see that Catholic moral reasoning does not map on to the current American political grid. What then should Catholics do? What should be the final thought of the undecided American Catholic voter, behind the sacred veil of the voting booth?

Some Catholics react to their complicated political instincts by isolating one issue about which to make an electoral decision. At the national level, we find many “single-issue voters” on the topic of abortion. As a fundamental matter of life and death, one of the non-negotiables of Catholic moral teaching, it makes sense why many Catholics highlight abortion as a way to clear a path toward a conscience-protecting vote. But there are other non-negotiables in Faithful Citizenship too, such as torture and racism. And some Catholics also believe that recent uses of American military power, especially targeted killings through drone strikes or accidental bombings of allies, have crossed the line of non-negotiable moral teaching about the dignity of human life and the protection of noncombatants during war.

Uh oh.

For Protestants, voting winds up functioning as a part of self-disclosure:

A vote for Trump is a vote signifying that evangelicals are owned by the GOP. Part of the tragedy here is that evangelicals are still a big enough voting bloc that we could prevent either candidate from winning the election.

Let that sink in. If evangelicals just said, “No, I refuse to be coerced into supporting candidates who do not meet a very basic standard,” we could swing the election. You probably read that sentence and immediately dismissed it, thinking something like, “That is a fantasy. The reality is people are going to vote for one of the two major candidates.”

People won’t vote for a third party candidate because third party candidates don’t win because people won’t vote for a third party candidate—which is great for the two major parties because they don’t really have to even try to address the concerns of voters.

A vote for Trump also communicates to our neighbors that we believe he would be an acceptable leader for our country. Sure, you can qualify your Trump support by saying you have reservations but you believe he’s better than Clinton; however, by casting a ballot for him you are fundamentally claiming that it would be good for Trump to govern you and your neighbor.

How would anyone actually know how I vote? Isn’t the ballot supposed to be private? If so, then maybe ordinary Christians should not be so glib about how they are going to vote. Propriety, people!

But no. For some this election season is so wicked and Trump so depraved that the only response is revulsion (which it seems you should display so that people know you are not so morally compromised):

I believe that the proper response of the well-former mind and heart to the very idea of Donald Trump as President of the United States is, to put it bluntly, revulsion. . . .

What concerns me far more deeply is the ordinary, everyday Christian — the person who claims to be an evangelical Christian — who is not revolted by Trump, who lacks the requisite “wisdom of repugnance.” I think, for instance, of the people who have compared Trump to King David, presumably because both are guilty of sexual sin. But those who make this comparison have failed to recognize the difference between one who says “For I know my transgressions, / And my sin is ever before me” and one who says that he doesn’t “bring God into that picture” when he does something wrong and follows up by saying “I am good. I don’t do a lot of things that are bad.” And if you don’t understand that distinction — and equally if you understand it but for political reasons pretend not to — there is very little about the Christian message that you truly grasp.

By the way, I’m not talking about Hillary Clinton here because there is so little evangelical support for Hillary Clinton. She also offers much for us to be appalled by.

And I’m not even making the argument that an evangelical Christian should never in any circumstances vote for Trump. (Not today, anyway.) I am simply saying this: the fact that so many American Christians feel no revulsion at the thought of electing Donald Trump — this man so palpably “unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit” — as the leader of this or for that matter any other nation, but rather express great enthusiasm at the prospect, indicates not just a lack of knowledge but also, and more important, a lack of moral training. The immediate responses are missing or wrong.

Voting as fruit of the Spirit. Politics as sanctification.

It seems to this 2ker that investing voting with such moral and spiritual significance is to overestimate (way way so) the United States or a Christian’s place in the nation. Everyone has ideas about American government, what would be good for the nation, which candidate may offer a corrective to certain trends, which figure symbolizes a part of the nation’s worthwhile qualities. Of course, Americans could be more informed about policies and how government works, though if members of Congress can’t parse the Affordable Care Act which of us can stand in that pretty good day of national or state debate? Chances are that after this election, even if Congress impeaches the next president (which could happen to either major candidate), the republic will go on and the forces of consolidation and centralization will also remain thanks to the United States’ standing as a global hegemon.

Life will go on.

Sanctification for the saints will continue.

Christians will more or less throw themselves into policy, activism, party politics.

CNN and Fox will sensationalize.

Large sums of money — almost as much as professional athletes make — will go to politicians in hopes of access.

It’s all bigger than mmmmeeeeeeEEEE.

So it’s time to switch from the summer cocktail of choice — the gin and tonic — to the one for cooler temperatures — the whiskey sour. Somewhere in the world it’s 5:00.

I Just Wanna End Small Group Prayer

This should put a stop to it — just have believers think about what they say before they pray:

1. Avoid vain repetition. The one leading in prayer should be careful not to say, “O Father,” “Holy Father” or “Lord” over and over and over again.

2. Avoid hesitation and stumbling. The one leading in prayer should spend time on the prayer prior to the service so that he does not come across unprepared.

3. Avoid ungrammatical expressions. For example, the one leading in prayer should avoid such phrases as “Grant to give us…” “Grant to impart to us…” Grant and give are verbs expressing the same thing. This is a redundant and inaccurate use of language.

4. Avoid disorder. We need regularity and order in our prayer. The ACTS acronym is helpful: Include prayers of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication (i.e. Petition and Intercession). By following an order, the one leading in prayer can help those he is leading pray along unhindered.

5. Avoid praying in minute detail for certain things. Balance out prayers in general. Especially for a Lord’s Day morning service. It is good to pray according to the same general nature for all the things for which the one leading prays. If there is a man or woman who has a terminal sickness, it is sufficient to plead with the Lord to heal that individual. There is no need to go into all the specifics of that with what he or she is dealing.

This is based on Samuel Miller’s thoughts on prayer which goes on for another 13 items. Not quite Rick Warren like, so not enough for forty days of driving your way to a life of purpose. But if Christians ever had to consider that praying in public does not come naturally to some believers, this post might get them started. And it really would throw a wrench into the praying patters of the seemingly intimate small group.

When the Gospel (Coalition) Needs Conservatism

At a time when out-of-wedlock births are skyrocketing (forty percent in 2013) and straining urban life in major ways, Bethany Jenkins, who writes with the blessing of the Gospel Coalition and who swims the the heady streams of New York City evangelicalism, considers being a single mom:

These days it almost seems passé to talk about needing marriage before having children. Today’s single woman doesn’t need marriage—or even a man.

Single mothers by choice (SMBC)—in contrast to by circumstance or chance—are single women who have chosen to have children through sperm donation (75 percent) or adoption (25 percent). The difference between these women and women like me who choose to remain childless, says Kate Bolick in Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, is desire:

Again and again, the [SMBC] I spoke with described how they’d wanted to be a mother for as long as they could remember and how the urge to get there became so overpowering, it felt less like a rational decision than a compulsion. This conviction—that no matter what, they would have a child—is, I’ve concluded, the most common denominator uniting all choice moms.

Such women are praised for their courage and confidence. One SMBC, who became a mother through sperm donation, says her friends called her “amazing” and “brave.” Yet she confesses she didn’t feel brave. “It’s not about being brave—it was about wanting to stop feeling like a childless mother, and take the next step before I ran out of time.”

My single friend, Christine, on the other hand, became a mother by adoption. Her journey was less a pursuit of self-actualization or self-fulfillment and more a response to a need—not a need she felt within herself, but a need she saw in someone else.

While working with high schoolers through the faith-based nonprofit Young Life, Christine met Ana, a 15-year-old expectant mother. When Ana’s water broke, her mother refused to take her to the hospital. That’s when Ana called Christine. Christine drove her to the hospital and stayed with her through the birth, holding her hand in the delivery room. Over the next few years, it became apparent that Ana and the birth father couldn’t care for their daughter, María.

It wasn’t easy, but Christine stepped up. At one point, she and María shared a 425-square-foot apartment and, since María’s biological familial ties weren’t completely severed, there were some relational challenges, too. But Christine says María is the greatest joy she has ever known—in spite of the obstacles. She also says she didn’t stumble into motherhood: “I longed to become a mom, so I diligently prayed for God to give me a child. When this opportunity arose, I had eyes to see it. If this hadn’t happened, I believe I’d have seen another opportunity. I was on the lookout for it.”

Hasn’t she heard about the importance of fathers in socializing children (especially boys)?

Meanwhile, Gracie Olmstead who writes regularly for American Conservative, puts motherhood in perspective, as in it’s not all about her but about the child:

Motherhood is not easy. It is often painful, frustrating, and difficult. It involves a host of unpleasantries. In our age, in which the self reigns supreme, motherhood runs counter to every society-endorsed impulse and mantra. Motherhood is all about sacrifice—from the moment our bodies begin to reconfigure themselves in order to grow a new human being.

Motherhood means sleepless nights, sore nipples, baby blues, weight gain, aching backs, temper tantrums, frightening doctor’s appointments, endless laundry, constant cleaning, incessant worry, near heart attacks, and lots and lots of money. Motherhood isn’t about self-filling. It’s about self-emptying.

That isn’t to say motherhood can’t be fun and joyous. It truly is and can be. But in order to embrace it, one must believe that all of the pain and hardship involved in motherhood is good, and that the child that results from all our work and hardship is inherently, intrinsically good as well. One must have a moral imagination, a “stable sentiment.” Mothers must have chests.

Olmstead adds that today’s decision to have a child could turn into tomorrow’s regret at giving birth:

As soon as we take away the idea of virtue—the idea that an act, despite the pains and sacrifice it might require, is objectively good and worth pursuing for its own sake—we permanently impede humankind’s ability to pursue selfless action. It does not matter if you tell a woman she should procreate “for the good of the species,” or tell her that she’s biologically predisposed to want children. If there is no overarching moral code related to the bearing and raising of children, then motherhood is subjugated to the wild and changeful whims of human emotion and desire. One second, you might want a baby; the next, you might spurn your child—and there is no law or code that can suggest you should do otherwise. “Instinct” becomes “impulse,” and so we waffle from whim to whim.

What accounts for the difference between an evangelical and conservative outlook on motherhood? Could it be that born-again Protestants really put the mmmmmeeeEEEE in all about mmmeeeeEEEE since personal experience and fulfillment is so important to being an evangelical? In contrast, conservatives (who may also be evangelicals) tend to think about the traditions and webs of social networks that go with marriage and rearing children. If the New York evangelical intelligentsia had given Bethany more instruction in conservatism than the gospel, maybe she’d see the problem with single parenthood.