The Bible and the Politics of Sex

Discussions about the relative value of special (i.e. the Bible) or general revelation (e.g. natural law) for politics and society often bog down on the politics of sex. What about abortion? It is a heinous practice that cannot be outlawed on as flimsy a basis as natural law or private conscience. What about gay marriage? The Greeks were pretty good at natural law sorts of arguments but not necessarily reliable on same-sex relationships. Or what about women in the military? (I actually think nature is far more instructive here than God’s word, having seen some of the tortured reasoning from Presbyterian communions on women serving in the military.) The idea that most Americans will rally around an argument from general revelation to ban women from the armed services seems far fetched.

And of course beyond whether or not natural law will be more effective than Scripture in public debate is the issue of what’s right. If God requires certain kinds of holiness from his people, and believers are implicated in a host of immoral activities by virtue of their citizenship and taxes at work, then shouldn’t Christians object to laws and policies on the clear grounds of the Bible?

The problem for sufficiency-of-Scripture advocates, though, is that government these days involves a lot more than sex. After all, the president’s health care legislation is more than 1,000 pages. I haven’t seen it. I know many believers are concerned about the potential for government-funded abortion. But can this piece of legislation simply be boiled down to pro-life implications? At stake are questions about the power of the federal government, the private sectors of medical insurers, drug companies, the livelihoods of physicians, and even public health. In other words, I’d bet that 99 percent of the document involves matters that Scripture won’t resolve. And yet, Christians only seem to react to those aspects of law that pertain to abortion while insisting that the Bible is the standard for public life.

An article in the New Republic recently about copyright laws and Google’s attempts to make all books available on line illustrates the weak link in the Bible only argument. The author, Laurence Lessig, starts with the case of Grace Guggenheim, the daughter of a successful documentary film maker who wanted to reproduce digitally all the films made by her father. But Guggenheim could not complete the task. Lessig explains:

Her project faced two challenges, one obvious, one not. The obvious challenge was technical: gathering fifty years of film and restoring it digitally. The non-obvious challenge was legal: clearing the rights to move this creative work onto this new platform for distribution. Most people might be puzzled about just why there would be any legal issue with a child restoring her father’s life’s work. After all, when we decide to repaint our grandfather’s old desk, or sell it to a neighbor, or use it as a workbench or a kitchen table, no one thinks to call a lawyer first. But the property that Grace Guggenheim curates is of a special kind. It is protected by copyright law.

Documentaries in particular are property of a special kind. The copyright and contract claims that burden these compilations of creativity are impossibly complex. The reason is not hard to see. A part of it is the ordinary complexity of copyright in any film. A film is made up of many different creative elements–music, plot, characters, images, and so on. Once the film is made, any effort at remaking it–moving it to DVD, for example–could require clearing permissions for each of these original elements. But documentaries add another layer of complexity to this already healthy thicket, as they typically also include quotations, in the sense of film clips. So just as a book about Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Jonathan Alter might have quotes from famous people talking about its subject, a film about civil rights produced in the 1960s would include quotations–clips from news stations–from famous people of the time talking about the issue of the day. Unlike a book, however, these quotations are in film–typically, news footage from CBS or NBC.

The point of Lessig’s example is that reproducing documentaries becomes impossible because of the fees necessary to secure permission (again) to use footage contained in the original product. For instance, one documentary on the Civil Rights movement, considered the most complete visual chronicle of the events, will never be seen again because the original permissions have expired and the company that made the film no longer exists.

Lessig goes on to raise questions about the recent settlement of Google’s plans to reproduce books on-line. He believes that a similar set of hurdles has entered the realm of books that once only applied to other media. He concludes:

I have no clear view. I only know that the two extremes that are before us would, each of them, if operating alone, be awful for our culture. The one extreme, pushed by copyright abolitionists, that forces free access on every form of culture, would shrink the range and the diversity of culture. I am against abolitionism. And I see no reason to support the other extreme either–pushed by the content industry–that seeks to license every single use of culture, in whatever context. That extreme would radically shrink access to our past.

Instead we need an approach that recognizes the errors in both extremes, and that crafts the balance that any culture needs: incentives to support a diverse range of creativity, with an assurance that the creativity inspired remains for generations to access and understand. This may be too much to ask. The idea of balanced public policy in this area will strike many as oxymoronic. It is thus no wonder, perhaps, that the likes of Google sought progress not through better legislation, but through a clever kludge, enabled by genius technologists. But this is too important a matter to be left to private enterprises and private deals. Private deals and outdated law are what got us into this mess. Whether or not a sensible public policy is possible, it is urgently needed.

This is a long article, well worth reading for those interested in law and the future of the book. And this post hardly does justice either to the article or issues involved. But the article does illustrate a point: most of what magistrates do pertains to matters far removed from the clear moral teaching of Scripture about sex and marriage. So if some are going to fault natural law for not performing a slam dunk on the hot button topics of the culture wars (abortion and gay marriage), when will those advocates of a biblical approach to politics admit that Scripture won’t resolve important questions like this one about the copyright of words and images?