Failing at Calculus

3166520949_b31875c53b_b                                                                                                                                            [1]

I recently encountered a blog post by Howard Snyder entitled “Moral Calculus: Abortion or Creation Care?” which deals with the dilemma of how Christians should vote if faced with a choice between two candidates. As Snyder puts it:

“An election is approaching. I must choose between two candidates for U.S. representative to Congress. One strongly opposes abortion, but not unrestricted pollution. The other supports effective action to protect the environment, but is not anti-abortion.”

He goes on to suggest that despite most Christians instinctively opting to vote for the pro-life candidate, he beliefs it is more consistent to vote for the environmentally friendly candidate for the following reasons:

1) Numerically, more people will die or suffer horribly because of climate change in the coming decades than children will be killed as a result of abortion laws.

2) Strategically, international action on climate change is more feasible and achievable at the present time, due to public consensus, than widespread changes to abortion laws.

3) In terms of urgency, action on climate change now is key and whereas abortion also calls for urgent response, the number of lives destroyed by abortion seems to be decreasing, while the number of deaths from climate change will only increase.

4) Politically, in the US, electing environmentalist candidates will have an affect on climate change, whereas electing pro-life candidates is unlikely to have a concrete effect on lowering abortion numbers.

5) Practically (though he uses “compassion”), Christians can address abortion by supporting ministries that already deal with some of the contributing factors and succeed in preventing some abortions, whereas they can address climate change by “supporting candidates who will champion effective climate action.”

4248409028_c4cbac7c20_b                                                                                                                                            [2]

While Snyder makes a valid point in terms of the destructiveness of continued environmental degradation, I think there are very good reasons to reject his attempt at moral calculus and for Christians to focus on the battle against legalised infanticide, rather than climate action/creation care. Here are some of my reasons:

1) Culpability: The anti-life candidate can be considered an accomplice to state sanctioned murder, while the environmentally irresponsible candidate can only be held accountable for criminal negligence leading to death. Abortion involves directly and intentionally acting to destroy an innocent life without moral or legal justification. Many Christians would agree that it is ethically equivalent to murder in the majority of cases. Polluting the environment for economic gain and productivity is irresponsible and if it leads to the death of innocent people, it must be mitigated somehow and people who do it must be held accountable.
But though we can concede that it might, potentially cause harm to more people internationally than abortion (though this is by no means automatically true), the acts in themselves that cause pollution and environmental destruction are not as directly and intentionally evil as what transpires in an abortion. Therefore Christians should be very concerned about laws which allow for abortion (especially the unrestricted, on-demand, out-of-convenience type), which are categorically more evil than laws that fail to restrict environmental damage.

2) Strategically, I have to disagree with Snyder. It is a flawed, overly pragmatic attitude to say climate action deserves the focus because there is more international, political will to do something about it than abortion. The Planned Parenthood videos in America have provided an incredible new opportunity to galvanise more people and political players in their opposition towards the major abortion provider in the US. This is not an opportunity that should be squandered.

What’s more, voting for abortion supporters is strategically unwise if Christians are to succeed where they stand the best chance of turning the public debate around: through widespread education about abortion, its effects, and the services that are available to help people with unexpected or unwanted pregnancies. Elected officials who view abortion as a positive or necessary element in society are likely to obstruct attempts to increase awareness and change people’s hearts and minds (which is essential, prior to any legislative reform). Snyder might be right that if we don’t elect environmentally responsible candidates, the situation in years to come will be worse. But he ignores the fact that this will likely be the case if we surrender political ground on abortion.

3) Consensus: Serious evangelicals, Catholics and Orthodox Christians are united in terms of opposing the evil of abortion (even many people of a more progressive or liberal persuasion have concerns about it). Not so with the issue of climate change. Christians are far more divided when it comes to the questions of a) How real/problematic is man-made climate change? & b) What is the most responsible course of action in light of the present environmental situation? Since abortion is more directly evil, as I’ve argued above, it is a good idea for us to work collectively with other faith traditions to oppose a problem we’re united against, rather than separately seeking action on an issue, which while important, lacks consensus of perspective.

For the record, I’m personally confident of humanity’s ability to stuff up the environment, but sceptical of a) our ability to undo the damage we’ve caused b) to slow down future damage if the world’s biggest polluters are not on board. Which brings me to:

4) Local action: For Australians, one of the problems has always been that our response to climate change needs to be economically responsible towards our own people, as well as environmentally responsible towards the world we share with everyone else. Australians should seek to limit their ongoing damage to the environment, but we also need to be realistic that the problems will not be mitigated without significant changes by China, India, USA and others. On the other hand, the availability of abortion-on-demand in your local jurisdiction is something you should seriously consider addressing as an individual and member of the Christian church. Supporting those politicians who are brave enough to consistently support the rights of unborn children is a good move, while we seek to influence our neighbours about this issue and prepare for future opportunities to test the public will in parliament.

5) Philosophical incompatibility: Snyder’s dichotomy pro-life/anti-environment vs. pro-choice/environmentalist ignores the fact that those who are overly concerned about climate action often have other philosophical commitments that may be antithetical to Christianity. While he is no doubt thinking about a Republican vs. Democrat contest in the United States, where candidates tend to fall in one of his two camps, we must nonetheless consider what his moral calculus would mean in other contexts. In Australia for instance, one could opt for significant climate action by voting for the most environmentally serious party – the Australian Greens. But the Greens have a range of policies that stem from a thoroughly non-Christian (sometimes even anti-Christian) worldview, which means that support for this party would have more far-reaching consequences than simply picking environmental protection over abortion as the deciding issue on polling day. Likewise the Australian Labor Party is increasingly operating under a policy platform that should make conscientious Christians think twice about casting a vote for them. The Liberal Party is by no means a pro-life organisation and are likely to maintain the status quo in their jurisdictions, if anything. But Christians should seriously consider voting for parties that have platforms based on principles more consistent with our worldview, values and priorities. Voting Green will never achieve that.

In conclusion, Snyder is not wrong to insist that Christians do something about environmentally irresponsible politicians. We should care about this issue and take personal, as well as political responsibility for God’s gift of nature where possible. But I submit that he is wrong to elevate this issue above the need to combat abortion-on-demand at the local and national level – seemingly out of a progressive attempt to shake up the tendency of conservative Christians to vote for conservative politicians. There are good reasons for Christians to think twice about voting Liberal, conservative or Republican (whichever the case may be), but this is most certainly not one of them.

Combating the slaughter of the defenceless unborn should remain one of the highest priorities for Christian social and political action, irrespective of what international conferences are next on the calendar.

[1] suparna sinha “fetus 10weeks” CC BY-SA 2.0 flickr.
[2] Mikael Miettinen “#431 Global warming get warmer houses, sweet” CC BY 2.0 flickr.

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