Phony Christians and phony outrage

Over the weekend a news show at MSNBC made some waves by making some bold claims regarding opposition to Obamacare by conservative Christians or politicians who say they are Christians.  Ted Cruz in particular was singled out for his comments about defunding ACA and also for his overtly Christian rhetoric.

The Blaze noticed the comments by Ed Schultz and promptly publicized them.

To quote from the Blaze piece:

“This is good for America and I won’t let them lie,” Schultz said. “They’re phony Christians. Phony Christians when they say that they are Christian but then they want to take away from their next door neighbor. They don’t want to be their brother’s keeper.”

“A growing number of right wing Christians are coming out day after day as a Christian,” he continued. “I think I have the right to expose their hypocrisy and call them out for all the things they are saying wrong and how misguided they are.”

[…]

“It is very simple. If ObamaCare is repealed, Americans will die. Children of God will die,” he said.

They are, of course, standard fare for politics and yet another common salvo against conservatives: A few weeks ago, President Obama said that “The one unifying principle in the Republican Party at the moment is making sure that 30 million people don’t have health care,” among other things, and this is used to great effect in attack ads during every election.  Rhetorically, they have great strength, and are a reliable way to put an opponent on the defensive in a hurry without allowing much time or room to recover.  No one wants to have to answer the question of why they want others to suffer and die for seemingly insignificant reasons.  And it’s very easy to say the wrong thing trying to answer it.  Which is why we see it so much, and not just by liberals but by conservatives as well.  In the video segment linked by The Blaze, Cruz himself has difficulty answering a point-blank question of why he wants to take peoples’ health care away.

But Schultz’ comments about Christians who oppose Obamacare deserves comment first.  For starters, it begs all sorts of questions: Are Christians obligated to endorse anything that contains even the slightest bit of good?  Is the Golden Rule the Gospel?  Can a Christian be right about the Gospel and wrong about other things and still be a genuine Christian?   Is Ed Schultz a phony Christian himself for using a not-particularly-unique-to-Christianity-reason to call others phony?  (Answer: no.)

To put these questions (and Schultz’ comments) in perspective, we will reverse the situation.  Suppose that Ted Cruz states that only “phony Christians” oppose restrictions for abortion on demand.  (Hint: it would be Thunderdome.) Would Cruz be correct in saying that?  Of course not.  It would be as offensive as it is foolish.  And such is the case with Schultz’s comments.

On that note: What actually makes someone a Christian?  True, Jesus did command us to care for the poor, and the OT prophets spent an awful lot of time blasting the elite of Israel for their negligence in justice and caring for the poor even then, but is that what makes someone a Christian?   Last I checked, the Gospel has a little something to do with a Jewish preacher who was crucified for sedition and who, as his followers claimed, rose from the dead and promised to come again.  “Caring for others” is hardly a uniquely Christian trait, and is not what got Jesus crucified.

Now on to his most provocative claim: the claim that these “phony” Christians are just fine with, if not approving of, letting people die needlessly.  Or to put it as Obama did, conservatives are willing to let people slide straight into the grave because of some hidebound evidence-proof ideology.

But they have something in common that allows them to be easily answered.  And it’s time for this tactic to be neutralized.  Here’s how and why.

These comments make the mistake of confusing intention with foresight.  This is typically a distinction that only gets discussed in ethical situations that involve the abortion debate, but they are applicable here.  Furthermore, there is a difference between intrinsic evil and contingent evil at work here that blunts the attacks by Schultz and Obama.

If intention refers to the desire of a moral agent to bring something about, foresight is the ability to anticipate what might happen if a given event occurs.  Intrinsic evil is an act that is always wrong; it always (and intentionally) deprives someone of an inalienable good; a contingent evil is one that may result a deprivation of good that is not the intent of an act.  (One example used of a contingent evil is civilian casualties in a just war.  The casualties are foreseen as possible, but they are not intended and are not the goal of a just war.)  In this particular case, Schultz and Obama have switched the two, and accused their opponents of intending an outcome that is foreseen, and treating a contingent evil as though it were an intrinsic evil.

So revisiting the Schultz comments, what he has done is take a foreseen outcome and accused some Christians of making that the intended outcome, which is effectively a strawman attack.  It is true that some would die if Obamacare is repealed than if it were left in place, but these deaths are not the intent of those who oppose Obamacare.  And defending the defunding and repeal of Obamacare is much easier after distinguishing between intent and foresight, intrinsic and contingent evil.  Furthermore, it makes the attacks look unnecessarily harsh and foolish.

And Obama’s remarks about his Republican opponents fare no better: he has taken a foreseen consequence and accused the Republicans of making it their intended consequence.  It also helps that he has a willing media to faithfully repeat this attack.  And it also really helps that the Republicans who were the targets of these remarks are heretofore unable to effectively respond to them.

This distinction applies to other issues as well, particularly the marriage debate.  Recently I was asked why I wanted gay people to be unhappy.  But upon closer inspection, this too confuses intention with foresight: unhappiness is foreseen, but not intended, in saying traditional marriage has no other form than traditional marriage.  It might make some unhappy, but that is a foreseen consequence and not the intended consequence (which is stable, mother-father families).  Moreover, the usual moral framework is still in play: the moral status of homosexual acts, moral equivalence or neutrality, etc.  But knowing how to defuse a terribly intimidating attack may change how marriage is discussed, or at least remove some of the hostility–on both sides.  Defenders of traditional marriage use bad arguments too that can be answered using this distinction.

Of course, there is more wrong with Schultz’ remarks than just this confusion of intent and foresight.  Specifically, that the Christians who oppose Obamacare maintain their opposition to it on the grounds that intended, intrinsically evil acts are both allowed and mandated: the abortion mandate, the contraception mandate (as regards religious liberties), the death panels that suddenly don’t seem so outlandish, etc.  Yet Schultz ignores these, and simply accuses others of gross moral turpitude.  And it isn’t like the Republicans or the Christians Schultz accuses simply prefer no alternative to Obamacare other than death and destruction.  The Republican opponents of Obama maintain (and it should be noted this is up for debate) that the market is a better judge than government.  The Christian opponents of Obamacare maintain that government is not a good substitute for the church when it comes to charity, and for that reason oppose this particular ‘separation of church and state.’  And both typically think that government is not the only appropriate answer to human suffering.  Simply to say that Obamacare needs to be repealed is not to say that there should be no health care or charity at all.

So for Schultz, Obama, and others to malign their opponents with accusations of intent to harm, this amounts to slander.  An easily answerable slander at that.