It’s Legal, Sure, But So What?
“But it’s legal,” he kept saying. Three words, repeated no matter what I said. He didn’t speak angrily, but as if he’d said everything that needed to be said even though I was too thick to see it.
My friend and I were arguing about abortion just a few years after Roe v. Wade. He had been the star Christian youth at his church back home in the Midwest and I was a newish Christian. I hadn’t paid any attention to the Court’s decision when it was made and I suspect he hadn’t either, but life as a Christian had taught me to see abortion as an evil and one you had to oppose. In fact, my secular education by itself had taught me that, though I had to become a Christian to see it.
The argument seemed to me simple: we protect human beings; the unborn child is a human being; therefore we protect the unborn child. I had grown up in a world that stressed the defense of the vulnerable and standing for and with the poor, and the unborn child was, in terms of worldly power, the poorest of the poor. Q., as they say, E.D.
But for him and (I dimly remember) most of the people we were with, sitting at our usual table in the college dining room, it wasn’t a problem at all. It was legal. Period. They were all serious Christians but abortion wasn’t a moral question for them. It was okay with them. The Court Had Spoken.
Years later, my friend’s response still strikes me as weird. I was a new Christian and didn’t have a very good idea which end was up. But I saw this clearly. Why didn’t they? It was like a five-year-old knowing that two plus two equals four and watching the adults add up the numbers and get seven.
Why would a Christian abandon his duty to think about these things just because his country’s highest court had ruled on it? American history showed that the court had made a hash of things before. The name Dred Scott or Plessy v. Ferguson by itself destroys any possible belief in the infallibility of the Supreme Court and any belief that we can trust in the moral sensitivity of the majority.
Christian views on abortion have clarified since then. More Christians now recognize it as an evil. Others see it as a good. Very few will just say “It’s legal” as if that settles the matter. Now everyone has an opinion.
And that’s much better. 42 years after the Supreme Court legalized it in every state with one of the dopiest decisions in the Court’s history, abortion remains a matter of public debate. Those who think abortion a good thing are completely, utterly wrong, but at least they offer some arguments you can argue with. As long as it remains a matter of public debate, and as long as so many people reject the Court’s reasoning (such as it was), it remains an evil that may be overturned.
But the experience with my Court-submissive Christian friends says something about our witness and work today. Christians must keep working in the political and legal world. There’s the obvious reason. We can do good and resist evil there.
There’s a less obvious reason. We need to keep working in the public square because so many people, Christians included, defer to the law and the courts for their moral understanding. Like my friend arguing across the table in the college dining room, they think that “It’s legal” means the debate’s over. We have to shock them out of their drift into conformity and complacency.
Still, still, after all these years of bad Supreme Court decisions, even some Christians will react to news like the court’s endorsement of same-sex marriage as if that settled the matter. I’ve seen it in Facebook discussions of Obergefell and even heard it from some Christian leaders. “It’s the law of the land,” they say, with a kind of verbal “whaddya do?” shrug. That’s the law, might as well get used to it, got to accept it, need to move on now.
Yes, it is the law of the land. But so what? So is Roe v. Wade. So was Dred Scott. So was Plessy v. Ferguson. Obergefell is a bad law, justified by another of the court’s dopiest decisions. (Even the liberal New Republic called it “a logical disaster.”) The Obergefell decision no more settles the question for Christians, nor for anyone else who recognizes the natural moral order, than the court’s 1973 decision that the unborn could be killed settled that matter.
“But it’s legal.” True. It’s also wrong.