When Hadley Arkes of Amherst College told a group of us a story in Washington last week about a fellow in Kansas City who went to get a marriage license so that he could marry his horse, but was turned down because the horse had not yet turned 18, I thought: We'd better get our trusty fact-checker on this one, for sure. But then I mused: Who would be surprised if it were true?
These days, of course, the most bizarre of stories is likely to be true. Indeed, the group in Washington had gathered to spend a day reflecting on how Christians should respond when the Supreme Court rules in a few days on two issues almost nobody a generation ago could have imagined. One is the demand that the Boy Scouts of America be required to accept an open homosexual as a scoutmaster. The other is the apparent inability of American society to outlaw the hideously vile procedure known as partial-birth abortion.
At the gathering, sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center under a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the consensus was that the Supreme Court is likely to rule that the Boy Scouts don't have to accept homosexuals as leaders-but that partial-birth abortions are still so ambiguous in their definition that the state can't really forbid them. Indeed, those rulings may well have been announced by the time you read this column.
If such an outcome by the Supreme Court seems at first glance to most WORLD readers like something of a split decision, the folks at the gathering I attended didn't see it that way. There was understandable dismay over the prospect of losing still another high court round on the issue of abortion-a round so final in some respects that it is likely, according to Mr. Arkes, to produce a "terminally demoralizing" effect on the pro-life movement. But a similarly gloomy spirit also pervaded the group because of the possibility that even in winning the Boy Scout case, opponents of "homosexual rights" might end up losing.
That will happen, according to law professor Michael McConnell of the University of Utah, when advocates of homosexual rights (even they expect to lose the Boy Scouts case) crank up their propaganda machines to radicalize and marginalize the Boy Scouts organization. "They will almost certainly work to get the United Way across the country to drop the Boy Scouts," Mr. McConnell predicted. "They are skilled at ensuring that no governmentally funded entity like a public school or a military or police group is allowed to let any of its resources benefit the Boy Scouts. And they will try to dissuade high-profile corporate leaders from lending their endorsements to the Boy Scouts." Having failed through the courts, they will make life miserable for the Boy Scouts in every other way they can-just as they have done recently with radio personality Laura Schlessinger.
So the sense of gloom in both cases-the Boy Scouts and partial-birth abortion-seemed to be that evangelical Christians were losing control, or maybe had already long ago lost control, of the terms and shape of the public debate. The issues are almost never discussed anymore in terms of basic right and wrong-but almost always instead in terms of rights and wrongs.
The assumption in society now seems to be that homosexual activists, of course, deserve a privileged and protected position. The only question still to be resolved is whether those who oppose homosexuality should be shot on sight or perhaps informed of their Miranda rights first-for the advent of "hate crimes" and penalties for "hate speech" are already an ominous reality. On the second issue, the right to all forms of abortion itself now seems unquestioned. "The injuries to the child don't count," says Mr. Arkes, "because the child doesn't count. Only the woman counts." So the only matter still to be debated is whether that right might sometime soon also extend to taking the baby's life a month or two after birth. What other interpretation can be drawn from the court's likely affirmation of partial-birth abortion?
The folks I heard in Washington last week were not the radical right. They were thoughtful, gentle, and determined to avoid the pitfalls of merely hurling wounding words at their opponents. But they were also clearly tired of clever debates and tedious issues of definition. They were weary of arguments that drag on and on, and too often on the enemy's terms. Their fatigue at playing a long game of defense was showing.
"We need," said Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw, "to renew the right to evangelize, the right to educate, and the right to speak out about the moral health of America." With his assertion came the suggestion that it's not just that the right to speak out is important. What's really life-giving is the content itself of what Christians have to say when they exercise their right to speak. Another participant, Diane Knippers of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, put it simply: "We need a new confidence that the law of God is really written on the human heart."