In Sunday’s New York Times, two men who have had “heated debates” on gay marriage conducted the latest peace talk in the culture wars. David Blankenhorn and Jonathan Rausch propose a compromise on gay marriage, saying the federal government should recognize civil unions while allowing a religious-conscience exemption. “When a reasonable accommodation on a tough issue seems possible,” they say, “both sides should have the courage to explore it.”
The Wall Street Journal wondered recently if culture wars are “going the way of the fights over the oil embargo or the Soviet missile gap,” Bluntly, no one cares as much as the activists—especially now, when economic survival seems more pressing. Organizations like Third Way, an evangelical think-thank, propose “a governing agenda to end the culture wars” that reduces abortion, gives employment protections to gay people, denounces torture and reforms immigration. Even a majority of young evangelicals support civil unions.
“When it comes to culture, Obama doesn’t have a public agenda; he has a public anti-agenda. He wants to remove culture from the political debate,” Peter Beinart, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in The Daily Beast. Also in Sunday’s New York Times, consistently thoughtful Slate columnist William Saletan advises Obama on this effort to negotiate the culture wars: “He’ll have to tell two truths that the left and the right don’t want to hear: that morality has to be practical, and that practicality requires morals.”
There’s more to this than prioritizing economic survival or wanting hope and change. For Christians, many of whom are deeply invested in “culture war” issues, there may be times when compromise is not just the second best but the best—the most Christian—way to think about policy.
When we wrestle with morality in the public square, we are talking about public policy, not private morality. Our private morality shouldn’t be practical. If you believe contraceptives are wrong and have an impractically large family because of it, then good for you. You’re doing what you think is right. In our personal lives, we don’t weigh the cost of a moral action versus the benefit. Morality may be inconvenient, and we sometimes live uncomfortable lives because it’s the right thing to do.
But public policy is another matter. Governance is not about growing saints; it’s about containing sinners.
Abstinence only really makes sense if you believe in a God who asks for sexual restraint. But if you’re not going to catch an STD or get pregnant and there’s no public shame attached to doing it (and let’s be honest: there isn’t), there’s not much of a rational reason to put off sex. In fact, to quote Bristol Palin, it’s “not realistic at all.”
“Compromise” usually connotes ceding ground, or choosing the lesser evil. But in culture-war issues, it’s more helpful to see it as pursuing the greatest good—the best end result. A birth-control-and-free-love culture doesn’t fit with a Christian worldview, but holding out for ultimate worldview victory isn’t stopping abortions or reducing the pregnancies that lead to them. We need to ask what works. If abstinence education and virginity pledges don’t work—if as a recent study suggested, they only make kids more likely to have unprotected sex—it’s not a “compromise” to stop advocating them. And making sure more people use birth control isn’t “promoting evil” if it’s preventing the pregnancies that typically end in abortion.
Public policy takes practicality. It means setting aside the utopian idea that we can bring heaven to earth and taking a wide-eyed, realistic look at human nature and our own culture. Maybe certain positions are irrelevant as the rest of the world moves on. We’re not writing laws for 1950 but for 2009—and we’re writing them for imperfect people, including ourselves.
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