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Christians should speak frankly

02 November 2006


THE UNITED STATES is a religious country — how much so is borne out by a large-scale survey of college freshmen made in the autumn by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles. About 80 per cent of those surveyed reported that they believe in God, and that they attend religious services at least occasionally.

The question, of course, is what all this may or may not say about the quality and depth of the faith it reflects. Among the hot public issues of the day, the survey found some correlation between religious identity and opposition to same-sex marriage and to legal abortion. But the religious were much like others on such questions as government control over the sale of handguns or the banning of racist and sexist speech on campuses.

Since all of these issues are open to argument, both political and religious, this suggests that, for many of these students, being religious means that, where the leadership of their religious community is particularly emphatic, they will follow its lead. On issues where the leadership is divided or relatively silent, the religious are as unsure as the rest of the population.

There is a parallel with the Terry Schiavo case. The decision to withdraw life support in the face of irreversible brain death is made many times daily throughout the US. Religious and secular people alike see it as the difficult but private concern of the grieving family. It occasions no public outcry because we understand its ambiguity. Once this particular case exploded on to the national scene, however, it became an opportunity for the pressing of religious agendas, and a hunting ground for politicians looking for a boost from religious voters.

Conservative Christian voices of various types joined the hue and cry because they felt the case paralleled their battle against legal abortion. Conservative Roman Catholics demonstrated for a “culture of life”; but, ironically, they were probably in conflict with official Roman Catholic teaching, which holds that no one is obligated to follow “treatment that would only secure a precarious and burdensome prolongation of life” (from the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, 65 (1995)).

Various RC theologians interpret the language differently (some would regard a feeding tube as “ordinary” intervention, which has to be continued; some as “extraordinary”, which does not). But all ambiguity was erased from the public discourse. This was a disservice to Roman Catholic ethics, and ethics in general. Slogan trumped reflection.

Slogans repeated often enough and vociferously enough eventually come to seem self-evident. The question then becomes: where do religious people learn not simply to react, but to think and to discern the will of God in complex situations. In the US, the voices that commend reflection and discernment have become, if not silent, at least obscure and muddled.

One reason is that moderate-to-liberal Christian voices often fail to speak frankly in terms of faith. They could defend the legal availability of abortion as an implication of the spiritual equality of women with men; instead, they treat it as an issue of political rights. They could actively celebrate God’s calling of lesbians and gay men into the Church; instead, they content themselves with saying: “It doesn’t do any harm.” Religious Americans may find it difficult to recognise these pallid voices as speaking the language of faith.

The Revd Dr Bill Countryman is Professor of New Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.

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