This op-ed in this past Sunday’s New York Times is one of the profoundest pieces I’ve read on military ethics in a long time. Again and again we hear about the allegedly excruciating dilemmas — can we torture this person to save scores of others?, and so on. The author, a soldier in Iraq, argues something very different: to compromise on ethics not only undermines the purposes the U.S. is fighting for but delays and hinders victory. He commends his piece to us in this age of Trump. Rightly so.
Over the past year or so, I and my colleague, friend, and fellow ArcU contributor, Tim Shah, have been arguing with what we call the “new critics” of religious freedom. They hold that religious freedom is a Western principle, reflecting Western power and history, and should not be exported, especially to the Muslim world. We demur. Some previous pieces are here, here, here, and here.
Now, Tim and I have written an extended review essay of their most recent work, published in the Journal of Law and Religion. It’s our most extensive critique yet. We welcome continuing debate!
Like many people, I experienced the vitality and vigor of the pro-life movement, marching with others in the streets this past Friday, January 27th — in my case in my home town of South Bend, Indiana. In Washington, DC, the marchers heard Vice President Mike Pence proclaim that, at last, “life is winning.”
The untruth of that claim brings me to tears. After that appearance, Pence joined the president to sign the order imposing a four-month ban on all refugees, an indefinite ban on (the most vulnerable) Syrian refugees, and a halt to the arrival of even those who have already been vetted and approved for a visa to enter the country.
This order is personal for me. Through the work of my parish, and then the help of lawyers obtained through the migration office of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, a family who came as refugees from Iraq has been working for over two years to obtain a visa for the matriarch of the family, who faced significantly higher and longer layers of vetting because she had been a teacher in government schools. The others could not miss the chance to flee when they were approved, and it has been a very tough two years. She is alone, in poor health, has no way to earn a living, and is isolated from those she loves the most.
Finally, last month the visa was approved. Her beautiful family–husband, two daughters and their husbands, each family with five little kids in our local schools, 15 total, waiting for one more–were all overjoyed. I was overjoyed. (See this story in the South Bend Tribune of February 1, 2017.)
And now this. On the same day that these leaders claimed the pro-life mantle–the same day!–this order comes down. I think of the effect on this family and on tens of thousands of families in very desperate situations, including thousands of others also already vetted and approved.
I want to emphasize here that I am not making the connection to the pro-life movement as a rhetorical device. I have been a public and staunch pro-lifer my whole life. Like many others in the movement I opposed the previous administration’s numerous attacks on the right to life, including the HHS mandate.
But the politics of this week will in the end erode, not build up, a culture of life.
And the policies of this week, in particular the executive order of Friday, deserve robust condemnation—especially from Catholics. We are the tradition of faith and reason. Not only is this order unchristian but it is also irrational. Of the terror attacks that have occurred in the U.S. since September, 11, the number of perpetrators from the list of banned countries is precisely zero. Why was Saudi Arabia not on this list, or Russia, both of whom have been home to terror perpetrators in the U.S.?
While there are more eloquent ways to state the opposition to this ban, I think that the faith and reason test is simple and clear. Indeed, if our Thomistic tradition teaches us that grace perfects nature, then what we are seeing is how irrationality perverts faith. And indeed, I dare say that some outside of our Catholic, pro-life fold are waiting to hear from more of us about why our faith—faith in the person and teachings of Jesus—is not quite as offended by the present actions as it was by the previous administration.
And so this is a call. In your parish, or university, or city, consider making it known you wish to join—in the name of the pro-life movement—the display of repudiation for the unjust and unchristian orders of this week. The point will not be to grandstand and feel good about being more righteous than the administration. It will be to try to seek some legislative, judicial, or cultural remedies for the sake of our communities’ many refugee families and immigrants in vulnerable legal statuses.
Perhaps you can meet with officials. Perhaps you know someone in a position of influence. We must have hope that some aspects of this order, and the direction toward which it leads, can be walked back if enough people resist. Whatever we do, I hope it involve praying together and saying loudly together: “this is not the culture of life.”
Two days after the order was signed, I brought the beautiful Iraqi family to a gathering of faithful people, people from the Church, who prayed with and over this family. What they witnessed was not an “issue” but an encounter with real people, people who themselves are afraid but whom we have no rational basis to fear (I was grateful when they explained the layers and layers of vetting they received).
Lastly, in addition to having no rational basis to fear this family—or their matriarch whose reunification with her family is now in question—we do in fact risk losing the grace which God is offering to us. For the words of Christ himself tell us that in encountering the refugee we encounter Him.
President Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigration and refugees have much to do with Islam. They are outrageous, in my view, and I will have more to say about them in a post to come soon. The orders are likely to play into a culture war over Islam that has been going on in the West at least as far back as the attacks of September 11th, 2001. It’s the same debate over and over again, flaring up every time there is an incident somewhere involving a Muslim or group of Muslims committing violence: Paris, San Bernardino, Berlin, Benghazi, ISIS, and so on. There are hawks who think that Islam is hardwired for violence and doves who think that Islam, like all religions, is basically peaceful but has its extremists.
Who is right? I take up this question through two pieces published in Public Discourse. See here and here. My arguments preview a book that I am revising for publication, Religious Freedom in Islam? Intervening in a Culture War. To preview my position, both hawks and doves are right and wrong. Understanding how can calm the culture wars and give us a more constructive approach to Islam, both within and outside the West. The key to it all is religious freedom.
My younger sister, Rachel, celebrated her birthday a couple of days ago. Growing up, there was never any question that my parents adored their new baby.
Rachel’s experience, however, was not shared by millions of girl children born into families who preferred to have a son rather than another daughter. Birth order is a significant risk factor; girls born second, third, or fourth (or later) face the highest risk. Today, as a result, millions of girls in India are missing. Since 1991 more than 12 million girls have been killed just because they were girls.
Unfortunately, India’s poorly enforced law to prevent prenatal sex determination and stop the country’s “gendercide” has done little to stop new and more advanced methods of determining fetal sex. For example, blood from a finger prick of a woman in Punjab in her seventh week of pregnancy could be rushed to a laboratory in the US, and the test results could arrive in less than a week. One can easily find modern sex-determination methods advertised on the internet that are euphemistically referred to as “family balancing services.”
Rachel arrived in the mid-1970s, at a time when India began to actively dispose of baby girls with the help of sex-selection technologies such as amniocentesis and ultrasound. Amniocentesis was introduced in India to detect genetic abnormalities. As government-sponsored family planning efforts began to persuade families to limit the number of children, however, many couples turned to these technologies to find out the baby’s sex. Then, knowing their child was female, families considered abortion in order to avoid having too many girls and to ensure that they would have at least one son. Some ultrasound clinics geared their business to families who feared paying for high dowries by promoting their sex-detection services with advertisements like this: “Pay a few hundred rupees now rather than lakhs (1 lakh = 100,000 rupees) later.”
Proponents of permissive abortion often cite financial exigency as one the main reason women choose to end their pregnancy. Yet money is not the issue. If anything, households with higher incomes have even greater financial capacity to engage in “family balancing” by one means or another. According to a Lancet study, the sex ratio for second-order children when the first-born is female is even more skewed (806 girls per 1000 boys) in wealthier households and where the mother has ten or more years of education.
Furthermore, Indian-Americans are among the most highly educated and financially well-off ethnic groups in the U.S. But signs of skewed sex ratios can be seen in the diaspora’s demography. Analysis of birth data in California between 1991 and 2004 reveals the growing use of sex-selection among Indian- Americans in California to ensure they have a son. Son preference has persisted in the face of tremendous privilege and wealth such that an Indian woman in California is more likely than women from any other ethnic group to terminate her pregnancy if she discovers she is carrying a girl and if her previous children were female.
In May 2015, California Assemblywoman Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) introduced a bill to ban sex-selective abortion in California. The bill was defeated by a 13-6 vote in its first committee. Opponents of the bill suggested that such bills could perpetuate “racial stereotypes” and roll back a woman’s right to choose and possibly criminalize the discussion about reproductive choices between a physician and their patients. Yet nations such as France and Germany, which boast staunch pro-choice and pro-abortion rights laws and protections, have banned sex-selective abortions.
In Britain, a bill to end sex-selective abortion was defeated after a letter by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) was circulated stating that ban may leave women “vulnerable to domestic abuse.” BPAS and the TUC suggested that a ban on sex selective abortions might increase the risk of women being abused by partners who do not want to father girls. In other words, a measure to stop the actual killing of unborn girls was criticized on the premise that it might lead to the abuse of some women. In fact, data from India strongly suggest that it is the practice of sex-select abortion — in contexts of virtual legal and cultural impunity — that is significantly associated with a wide variety of other abuses of women, such as abductions and forced marriages, levels of gang rape, assault, and dowry-related deaths.
The causal connection is not hard to fathom. Sex-selective abortion both presupposes and causes a grotesque misogyny. It presupposes that girls are of less worth. And once a society has succeeded in killing enough girls on this premise, the consequent shortage of girls sets in motion further assaults on the shrinking number of marriageable women.
In India marriage remains near-universal, with over 90% of men and women tying the knot. Right now, the statistics are worrying. Even if, by some miracle, the sex ratio were to stabilize by 2050, there would still be an excess of over 30 million single men waiting to marry. As a consequence, according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, kidnapping and abduction of women (much of which is related to forced marriage) increased threefold in the past ten years. Uttar Pradesh, which has one of the lowest sex ratios in India, is responsible for the highest number of kidnapping and abductions of women and the third-highest number of rape cases.
This year, when I and most likely hundreds of thousands of other people walk in the March for Life in Washington, D.C., we will be doing so with greater optimism than we have had in many years. We have a president in the White House who promises strong measures to protect the unborn.
This is ironic. I did not vote for Trump in good part because of his many statements that augured exclusions of entire classes of people from our national life as well as the compromise of human rights. Yet he is quite likely to take serious measures towards including the unborn in our national community. Meanwhile, the other candidate promised inclusion and tolerance but would exclude the unborn from the human family right up to the moment of birth. Her party brashly celebrated its extreme abortion rights stance and made no room for pro-life voices in its 2016 national convention, just as in 2012.
This is what may be called the abortion paradox: Powerful organizations and sectors that profess themselves devoted to human rights and the protection of the weak are indifferent to or even support the largest human rights violation in the world. Major mainstream human rights organizations, much of the development community, and the preponderance of voices for justice in academia practice this paradox.
The largest human rights violation in the world? Yes, these are strong words. Readers of this post may not agree that unborn persons are fully human and so may demur. Suffice it to say that at the moment of conception, the fertilized ovum is an entirely unified individual human being, wholly distinct from (albeit highly dependent upon) his or her mother, and begins a process of development that, unless halted by nature or human hands, will last the entire career of his or her life. Embryo textbooks make it clear: Conception is when you started being you.
When a person starts being a person, he or she has human rights. It follows that the right of unborn persons to life is violated on a scale of around one million annually in the U.S. Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that some 40-50 million abortions take place every year, though other estimates place it around 12 million. Either way, the numbers are orders of magnitude beyond other classes of human rights violations, including those committed in the largest civil wars and massacres of the past generation.
Yet, in 2007, Amnesty International, the world’s most venerable human rights organization, declared its support for abortion rights – the human right to carry out a major human rights violation. Human Rights Watch supports abortion rights, too, as do major development organizations like Oxfam, as have top United Nations officials in human rights and development. Often they cite their goal as providing clean, safe abortions for women but almost never do they mention the rights of the other person affected by abortions.
The Democratic Party included leaders who professed pro-life stances around the time of Roe V. Wade, including Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. It was not at all inevitable that the Democrats — the party of the little guy — would be the party of abortion rights. Once the abortion lobby gained control of the issue in the early 1980s, though, it became impossible to become a national leader in the party and still be in favor of the right to life for unborn persons. Politicians like Albert Gore and Richard Gephardt abandoned their previous pro-life stances. Now legendary is the denial of a speaking spot at the 1992 Democratic National Convention to Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey, who watched the proceedings from the rafters of the arena.
The upshot of the abortion paradox is that advocates of the right to life for the unborn receive no help from and are in fact opposed by some of the most powerful organizations that advocate for human rights and for the welfare of the world’s most vulnerable people. Compromised is the credibility of the human rights movement, which comes to look more like an ideology. The same paradox stands in the way of a unified coalition for human rights and of the possibility of a political platform that would support the right to life as well as provide substantial material help to women giving birth and to children at the youngest age. Instead, we are left with Trump for Life. In this endeavor, may he prosper.
At least two friends forwarded me this interview conducted in The Atlantic Monthly by religion writer Emma Green, a journalist whom I always find insightful. Here, she interviews a former Obama White House staffer, Michael Wear, on the failure of the Democratic Party to understand and appeal to religion — arguably a major reason for Hillary Clinton’s defeat. The whole interview is worth reading, but here were some of the most salient moments for me:
Green: I’ve written before about the rare breed that is the pro-life Democrat. Some portion of voters would likely identify as both pro-life and Democrat, but from a party point of view, it’s basically impossible to be a pro-life Democrat. Why do you think it is that the party has moved in that direction, and what, if anything, do you think it should do differently?
Number two, we’re seeing party disaffiliation as a way of signaling moral discomfort. A lot of pro-life Democrats were formerly saying, “My presence here doesn’t mean I agree with everything—I’m going to be an internal force that acts as a constraint or a voice of opposition on abortion.” Those people have mostly left the party.
Third, I think Democrats felt like their outreach wouldn’t be rewarded. For example: The president went to Notre Dame in May of 2009 and gave a speech about reducing the number of women seeking abortions. It was literally met by protests from the pro-life community. Now, there are reasons for this—I don’t mean to say that Obama gave a great speech and the pro-life community should have [acknowledged that]. But I think there was an expectation by Obama and the White House team that there would be more eagerness to find common ground.
Green: One could argue that among most Democratic leaders, there’s a lack of willingness to engage with the question of abortion on moral terms. Even Tim Kaine, for example—a guy who, by all accounts, deeply cares about his Catholic faith, and has talked about his personal discomfort with abortion—fell into line.
How would you characterize Democrats’ willingness to engage with the moral question of abortion, and why is it that way?
Wear: There were a lot of things that were surprising about Hillary’s answer [to a question about abortion] in the third debate. She didn’t advance moral reservations she had in the past about abortion. She also made the exact kind of positive moral argument for abortion that women’s groups—who have been calling on people to tell their abortion stories—had been demanding.
The Democratic Party used to welcome people who didn’t support abortion into the party. We are now so far from that, it’s insane. This debate, for both sides, is not just about the abortion rate; it’s not just about the legality of it. It’s a symbolic debate. It’s symbolic on the pro-choice side about the autonomy of women and their freedom to do what they want with their bodies. On the pro-life side, they care not just about the regulations around abortion, but whether there’s a cultural affirmation of life.
Even the symbolic olive branches have become less acceptable.
This past November 20th, the Catholic bishops of Rwanda issued an apology for the Church’s complicity in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. The apology and reactions to it are covered in this nice piece in the online Catholic journal, Millennial.
A Church apologizing? The phenomenon joins a global trend of the last quarter century, namely a sharp historical spike in apologies issued by heads of corporate entities – sovereign states, churches, business corporations – for misdeeds committed in the name of their organization. In the Catholic Church, it was John Paul II who practiced apology most famously, offering over 100 apologies concerning some 21 different historical episodes and people groups. This excellent book by journalist Luigi Accattoli covers it well.
As the Millennial piece suggests, political apologies are complex and not always well received. The Rwandan Church’s apology met with sharp criticism from the Rwandan government. One might suspect, though, that this government has narrow political reasons for its stance. Rwanda’s President Kagame can be credited for keeping the peace and promoting development in Rwanda since the genocide but has done so through favoring an elite of the Tutsi minority, repressing political opposition, promoting and enforcing a narrative that blames the genocide exclusively on the majority Hutus and almost entirely avoids acknowledgment of Tutsi crimes, and links the Catholic Church to a narrative of complicity in this genocide. There is much truth to this complicity, of course, as the apology attests and the article explains. Far from the heroic role that the Catholic Church played in standing up to dictatorship and violence in countries like Poland, the Philippines, Chile, and Malawi, the Rwandan Church, including priests and members of the hierarchy, associated themselves closely with leaders who carried out the genocide and in some cases participated in carrying it out. It is also probable, though, that Kagame wishes to maintain the Catholic Church in a position of weakness so that it will not become an alternative center of authority that can challenge the government (as the Church has become in many African countries). By continually insisting on the Church’s guilt and its constant need to atone, Kagame keeps the Church on the defensive and thus crippled in its moral authority.
Political apologies can be strong or weak. Do those articulating them take responsibility for the full range of deeds done? Do they acknowledge the role of powerful members of their hierarchies in the misdeeds and speak for their institutions? Prior to the apology, did those voicing it make efforts to listen to members of the victims’ community and to discover what was desired? How well was the apology received by victims? Was it answered with forgiveness and reconciliation?
By the first set of criteria – governing performance – the Rwandan Church’s apology seems like a good one. Whether it meets the latter criteria – being well received – is still an open question. The Rwandan government has criticized the apology, but this does not mean that others will not welcome it. We can pray that they do and that it will bring healing, which is ever critical even over 22 years after the genocide.
Six days ago Congress passed a bill strengthening the International Religious Freedom Act, which it passed in 1998. Three days ago, President Obama signed the bill into law.
Here is a piece detailing the good news.
From the piece, here are three features of the law that enhance the religious freedom capacities of the U.S. government:
- Requiring the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom to report directly to the secretary of State;
- Establishing an “entities of particular concern” category—a companion to the “countries of particular concern” classification used for nearly 20 years by the State Department—for non-government actors, such as the Islamic State (IS) and the Nigerian terrorist organization Boko Haram.
- Instituting a “designated persons list” for individuals who violate religious freedom and authorizing the president to issue sanctions against those who participate in persecution.
Let us now urge President-Elect Trump to appoint a strong Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom — though it would be hard to improve upon the present one, Rabbi David Saperstein.
A piece in the Boston Globe today by Jeff Jacoby floored me. He reports an atrocity in China — the government is killing more than ten thousand prisoners every year by harvesting their organs while they are alive and then selling the organs. The story, Jacoby reports, is being aired through two new films.
Here is how he describes that is happening:
The evidence, assembled by human-rights researchers and investigative journalists, added up to something unimaginable: China was killing enormous numbers of imprisoned men and women by strapping them down to operating tables, still conscious, and forcibly extracting their organs — and then delivering those organs to the hospital transplant centers that have become a major source of revenue.
To boot, those being killed are people being persecuted for their religious beliefs:
Chinese officials claim that organs come from violent criminals on death row. But “Human Harvest” makes it clear that most of those killed are peaceful citizens persecuted for their beliefs: Tibetans, Uighurs, Christians — and, above all, practitioners of Falun Gong, a Buddhist-style spiritual movement of peaceful meditation and ethical commitment.
Here is what he says about the two new films:
This week, two extraordinary Canadian films — one a chilling documentary, the other a riveting drama based on its findings — were released for sale on iTunes. Directed by Leon Lee, the films illuminate what may be the most depraved of all systematic human-rights atrocities in the world today: China’s industrial-scale harvesting of vital organs from prisoners of conscience, to be transplanted into patients paying exorbitant fees for a heart, kidney, or liver made available on demand.
And more on the drama:
Hence Lee’s newest movie: a feature-length thriller, “The Bleeding Edge.”
The film stars Anastasia Lin, a gifted Chinese-Canadian actress who also happens to be the reigning Miss World Canada. She plays Chen Jing, a young Falun Gong practitioner who is jailed and brutally tortured for her refusal to “transform.” A simultaneous plot line follows James Branton (played by Jay Clift), a hard-charging tech entrepreneur whose heart collapses while on a business trip to China to close a major deal with the government. Branton receives an emergency transplant that saves his life — and motivates him to find out how a suitable organ could have been located so quickly.
Lin drew international headlines last year when she was forbidden to enter China, where the 2015 Miss World pageant was being held. For Lin, who was born and lived in China until she was 13, beauty pageants are a means of calling attention to human-rights abuses in her native land, and Beijing was intent on denying her a Chinese platform from which to speak.
This deserves attention!