On Religion, Abortion, and Politics: Dr. George Tiller’s Christian Ethics

Both Catholics and the religious right like to frame abortion, in their public rhetoric, as a war between Christians and atheists, believers against secularists.

It is not that simple.

Dr. George Tiller, who performed abortions in the last trimester of pregnancy, was was shot and killed in his own church (Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas) as he welcomed latecomers on Pentecost Sunday.

He had been so vilified by the anti-abortion movement and so regularly attacked by right-wing commentators that many people regarded him as completely without ethics, a “baby killer.” The fact that he was murdered in church has caused some unease among anti-abortion leaders; what if people suddenly realize that there are many Christians who are pro-choice? How could an abortion provider be a Lutheran in good standing?

As a Lutheran pastor who has studied these matters extensively, and participated in a bioethics committee of a major metropolitan hospital for several years, I will try to explain something about Lutheran theology and the Lutheran approach to ethical issues—which is quite different from either the Catholic tradition or those churches with Calvinist roots, such as Baptists and Presbyterians.

I will also try to explain how abortion cannot be understood today without the political dimension. Abortion is not simply a moral issue; it has been very highly politicized by groups who have much larger motivations and agendas than abortion itself.

The Terrified Conscience

I have not studied Dr. Tiller’s particular religious views. Rather I focus on the ethos of Lutheranism, the patterns of attitudes and beliefs, the habits of thought and common practices, that are likely to characterize most Lutheran congregations, and which likely influenced Dr. Tiller. Lutherans have always taken theology and ethics seriously, and we enjoy an open tradition, alive to the uniqueness of the present moment and the future, not closed in systems of absolute law or dead language, as we try to interpret the teachings of Martin Luther for our own times.

Martin Luther came to believe that the Roman Catholic Church of his time was an oppressive religious system that terrified the consciences of the people. As a monk he experienced the terror of fear of hell, never finding a gracious God even though he tried with all his might to follow the beliefs and practices of the church at that time. Luther came to teach that justification of the sinner before God was the result of faith alone; not moral behavior, not intellectual effort, not assenting to right doctrine. Salvation is something God does for us, not something we can do for God. Lutherans such as Dr. George Tiller hear this sort of gospel message again and again in sermons.

It is important to understand where this salvation occurs, it happens in the internal subjectivity of the human self. God acts directly on the internal self through actual words of gospel preaching and participation in the sacraments. In worship, an actual intersubjective relationship between God and the believer is experienced; and this relationship makes real the meaning of the word salvation. Luther became a fierce critic of the Catholic hierarchy because it placed itself between the believer and God, and used its power over people for its own ends.

To increase its own institutional power, the Catholic Church terrified the internal consciences of the people—it can be argued that the Church is doing the same thing today in its false teachings about abortion.

Vocation in the Secular World

It is difficult to overestimate the revolutionary changes in society that followed Luther’s preaching and teaching. He himself was relatively conservative in his social teachings about family and government, but his attack on the institutional power of the church led to great changes. Enormous numbers of people were “professional” religious. Luther urged them to stop trying to save their own souls: they should leave the monastery, go into the community and bake some bread, make some shoes, teach in a public school, build up the life of the community by serving the neighbor.

Luther rejected the distinction between divine church and secular world, the world was as much the realm of God’s grace and preservation as the church—the whole world is the place of God’s creation. So Lutherans hear in sermons again and again that they are sent into the world to love the neighbor, to carry out their vocation in the world.

The secular is not the place where God is absent, it is the place where Lutherans are called to serve, just as Dr. Tiller was doing in his medical practice. It is just this encouragement which may have under girded his dedication to serve the needs of women who faced desperate circumstances in their pregnancies, even in the face of constant vilification and hatred by those who attacked him on a daily basis outside his clinic.

Free From All, Free For All

One of Luther’s most popular writings is his pamphlet called “The Freedom of a Christian,” in which he declares that a Christian is free from all earthly authority through the power of the gospel, which establishes a reconciled relationship with God—a quite subversive political orientation since it relativizes all earthly authority. At the same time, this gospel creates in the believer a desire to serve the neighbor, not to satisfy any law or demand, but out of thanksgiving for the grace and mercy of a loving God.

Luther taught that good people engage in good behavior. The gospel creates good people, free from fear, anger, or guilt, people able to act to meet the concrete need of the neighbor known through practical reason. It does not take complicated moral reasoning to see the concrete need of the neighbor. The institutional church, with its detailed moral prescriptions, gets in the way of the ordinary Christian acting out of love for the neighbor, directly responsible before God for that action.

Lutherans live and worship within a community where such is the ethos. If Dr. Tiller had asked his pastor for help in making medical decisions, his pastor (if functioning from Lutheran tradition) would finally have told him that he had to make his decision within the context of his own relationship before God.

In other words, the significance of the subjective relationship extends to ethics as well as worship. The community of believers may help one another in moral deliberation, but each individual is the bearer of moral agency in Lutheran understanding. It is not an isolated individual making a choice outside of relationships (which is the tendency of liberal theory), but, indeed, it is living and choosing in the midst of concrete, intersubjective relationships with both God and neighbor.

From what I have read about Dr. Tiller’s relationships with his patients, he treated them with the utmost courtesy and compassionate understanding; entering into their ethical dilemmas rather than standing over and apart from them in self-righteous condemnation, respecting their own capacity for moral judgment.

Natural Law: Theology Alert!

Natural law is the shorthand term for the idea that God puts into the minds of all human beings a sense of right and wrong. The law revealed in the Bible is summarized in the ten commandments or in Jesus’ words: “love God and neighbor.” But even if a person has not heard of the Bible, according to natural law theory, he or she has been given a moral sense of right and wrong. Luther and John Calvin believed this was true, but Luther especially taught that natural law in the human mind is clouded by sin. That is why government is needed so that human beings are forced to live within some basic order for the good of all, and so that the church has time to do its work of preaching the gospel.

The distinction between natural and revealed law is important to understand in relation to those on the religious right who have been influenced by Calvinist traditions and who place primary authority in both scripture itself and the idea that the law presented in scripture, including detailed prescriptions, is absolute.

John Calvin in Geneva even had committees set up to study the Bible to determine how best to build the city’s sewer system!

Martin Luther did not see it this way; he saw the Bible as absolutely authoritative concerning the gospel, but detailed legal prescriptions in the Bible were for the people of that time. For Luther, ethical imperatives come from each person’s direct relationship with God (strange as that concept is for many people today).

Those in the religious right like to try to claim that they find prohibition against abortion in the Bible, but it is obvious that the people of that time had no detailed knowledge of the reproductive process. There is no convincing argument from the Bible about abortion.

And that may be one reason Catholics have especially become so enamored of the natural law argument. Since explicit religious or Bible-based doctrine cannot be used as authoritative within a democracy like ours, they argue on the basis of natural law—which applies to everybody, Christian or not. But then they insist that they themselves are the ones who know what natural law is. In fact, the Pope ultimately reserves the authority to interpret natural law. Lutherans disagree with both these claims: the manner in which Catholics have traditionally conceived of natural law and the authority of the Pope to be its final arbiter.

These differences have everything to do with the question of abortion.

And yes, it is possible to be an abortion doctor and a good Lutheran.

A key distinction needs to be kept in mind between natural law and nature itself. Natural law, to the degree it exists, exists inside the subjectivity of the human mind and gives us a sense of right and wrong. The term nature refers to the external world. How our internal minds conceive of external nature is a matter of great philosophical debate. But the distinction is important to be able to evaluate the assumptions made in writing and thinking about abortion and biology.

One of the most prominent current proponents of Catholic natural law theory, both in the academy and in Washington, is Robert P. George of Princeton University. In a paper before the American Political Science Association, he discusses his view of abortion, one based on Aristotle via the Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas. The basis for his view is the idea that there is a rational structure beneath everything we see, and that the human mind can come to know this structure through reason.

Robert George argues that the human mind, using reason, “naturally” sees the essence and purpose of human life in the meeting of the sperm and the egg. In other words, to conclude that life begins at conception, Robert George asks us to accept Aristotle’s view of reason and the human mind. And he goes on to say that if we are not willing to do so we do not care about the sacredness of human life.

But Professor George goes further. He argues that modern biological science proves the idea of natural law.

Here George is, I believe, making a huge intellectual mistake, placing himself in the camp of fundamentalists and others who try to use science to prove biblical or theological claims. Biology itself, as a science, cannot determine when God acts. One can believe and understand the whole process as part of God’s creative activity, but there is no absolute scientific method by which to make the claim that everything centers on conception as the point that God uniquely acts to create a human being deserving of legal protection. For Robert George to claim that science proves when God acts is an act of hubris, not careful reasoning.

Martin Luther didn’t like Aristotle at all. He saw this philosophy as part of the oppressive religious system against which he was fighting. He did not like that the institutional structures of the Catholic Church used abstract reasoning to intimidate and confound the conscience of the faithful and justify the power of the Church over the individual. Luther was not a philosopher or systematic theologian; he was a biblical scholar and preacher concerned with the direct relationship between the believer and God. He believed each person could hear and respond to the gospel of God’s gracious love, and then go into the world and see the concrete need of the neighbor.

That is exactly what Dr. George Tiller did. After earning his medical degree, he helped his father in his medical practice and discovered that his father was asked sometimes to perform abortions for women in need. George Tiller was likely not using Aristotelian moral reasoning; he saw the practical need of his patients and acted to relieve their suffering.

Both Luther and Calvin maintained a strong sense of the holiness and otherness of God beyond human rational comprehension. This is one reason Lutherans are hesitant to make large claims about knowing the will of God in specific instances. God is God.

Humans are fallible creatures who are constantly disobeying the first commandment not to worship other gods. The way people like Robert George talk about the biological process makes it seem as if the biology itself is a sort of divine power. They worship the biology rather than the source of life itself.

But one of the most important traditions of all Christian faith is that the world, including the biology, is broken. Indeed, for that reason the historic church has supported the use of medical arts for healing.

Women coming to Dr. Tiller did so as a last resort when the biological process was somehow broken. Medical technology now makes it possible for women to know the status of the fetus before birth; to learn, for example, that a fetus will be born without a brain with no chance of viability. Dr. Tiller would perform an abortion for such a woman out of compassion and care. He wanted to use his medical knowledge for the benefit of women so that they could see new possibilities for their lives in the future.

Open Future for Creation

The implication of law is that the future will be more of the same as the past. Everyone follows the “law” which never changes. Lutherans are quite suspicious of law in this sense. Rather, Luther taught, the gospel is a “living word” which opens life to be lived in the power of the spirit. Law is needed because of sin, but the promise of the gospel is new life, full, real, throbbing life.

Fundamentalism teaches that human beings need to make a decision to accept the gifts of God in adult baptism, or a “born anew” experience. Then they speak of the providence of God as if God mechanically controls every earthly process, where human beings have little actual freedom. Luther taught the opposite. He says we have no choices about the grace of God. But on the other hand, human beings are completely free to use their rational capacity to decide how best to live within the world. That is why their vocation in the world is so important.

But as Lutherans engage in their vocation in the world, they are not promised to be able to know any better than non-Christians what is right or wrong, good or bad. This is why Lutherans cannot, on the basis of any secret or specialized revelation, seek to tell the world how to run its business. This is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian killed by the Nazis just before the end of the second world war, says there is no distinct Christian or Lutheran ethics.

A non-Christian ruler may well be wiser than a foolish Christian. Wisdom is not a gift given only to Christians. The God worshipped by Christians is the same God who has created all other human beings, and so Christians participate with them to determine how to order life together in community.

This is why Lutherans today like to think of themselves as a “public church,” a church not of an exclusive God, but a God who is the source of life for all. This means that as Lutherans enter the life of the world they do so with a certain humility, willing to learn from the wisdom of all others in the world. This is quite a different stance than that of either Catholics, who think they know natural law better than others, or fundamentalists, who think everyone should follow their interpretation of the Bible.

Dr. Tiller refused to give in to the extremist voices and actions that the religious right and those inspired by Catholic natural law rhetoric organized against him. The man had the courage of his convictions even if others associated him with atheists and secularists and attacked him in every way they could.

Racism, Civil Rights, and the Politics of Abortion

Catholics have not provided the primary energy for the anti-abortion movement, though their thinking has provided that movement with a certain intellectual respectability. The real energy of that movement comes from what is known as the religious right, constituted primarily of Southern religious groups, such as the Southern Baptists and Pentecostals; especially the television preachers who emerged in the 1980s during the era of Ronald Reagan.

Jerry Falwell, now dead, was a Southern Baptist, as is Rick Warren. Pat Robertson is Pentecostal. Using methods pioneered by Billy Graham, also a Southern Baptist, the so-called “evangelical” movement has put together a formula for building large churches that is less informed by the theology of the Reformation than a desire for cultural power, big audiences, nativistic religion, and a prosperity gospel (lots of money in the offering plates). The religious right has become an Americanized and commercialized form of religion, far from the historic traditions of the Protestant Reformation. It has over these past decades aligned itself with a particular political party in this country, the Republican Party, which has dominated politics since the 1968 election of Richard Nixon.

Abortion as a moral issue cannot be understood without the realization that it has been, and continues to be, primarily a political issue promoted by religious groups with a far larger agenda than simply abortion—and driven by an energy that goes far deeper into the racial history of the country than most Americans want to admit.

After the Civil War in the 1860s, the white South was able to keep former black slaves from full participation in society for another 100 years. Only in the 1960s were African Americans given full legal rights in public life.

Then in 1968 came the election of Nixon with his “Southern Strategy.” Ronald Reagan was the first president to explicitly seek the vote of a religious right, now emerging as part of a white backlash against the gains of black citizens in the 1960s. It must be recognized that the South was forced to dramatically change its patterns of discrimination and segregation by the federal government. The Supreme Court had forced school integration in 1954. White churches set up their own religious schools rather than send their children to integrated public schools. This is the origin of the hatred of the religious right for public education which continues today.

In 1973 the Supreme Court—the same Supreme Court—made abortion legal. The white South, which already hated the Supreme Court, now had another rallying cry: abortion. It turned out to be a handy emotional issue, one which gave Southern religion a sense of moral superiority over Northern liberals who had forced integration upon the South.

The energy of the cultural wars, then—in addition to many key political fights of the past decades—is drawn from the single most important original sin of the United States: slavery and racism. Abortion, for these folks, has little to do with the idea of natural law; what was right and wrong in the minds of white Southerners was determined by their history as slave owners and their sense of themselves as racially and morally superior to blacks. As historian George Marsden has argued, the idea of inerrancy of the Bible (a fundamentalist tenet) emerged in a South which insisted on using the Bible to support the institution of slavery.

The racism in the public consciousness of the white South has been, and continues to this day to be, a major factor in politics. The only area of the country unable to vote for a black president in 2008 was the white South.

I have provided just enough of this political history to demonstrate that abortion is less a moral issue than a political issue and that the energy for it lies in backlash politics more than moral reflection.

It gives me great pain and sadness to say that too many leaders of the Catholic Church have (for what they construe to be moral reasons) sided with religious right expressions, rather than with those Protestants, such as Lutherans, who do indeed consider moral questions to be important; including the moral issue of racism, support for family life, economic justice, and concern for the environmental sustainability of the earth itself.

Lutherans organized in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have put together a social statement for its members in which abortion can be morally justified in certain conditions with a focus on the role of the woman as an agent of moral responsibility. Dr. George Tiller probably knew this statement well, for it supported his compassionate work as a physician who took seriously his moral responsibility to love the neighbor, just as Jesus said.

It is time for religious leaders to stop using inflammatory language in public. The Pope himself has stopped trying to get an anti-abortion law passed in Italy; the people there simply will not do so. The only reason the Catholic Church is making such a political effort in the United States is the political presence of the religious right with its central energy coming from a racist history. That is not a good partner for Catholics.

It is time to stop terrorizing the minds and hearts of the people over abortion.

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