October 31st, 2012


say what you mean, mean what you say [on Mourdock's rape comments]

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

Back before Sandy, you may remember a different type of storm, involving Indiana Senate hopeful Richard Mourdock making some *cough* controversial statements about rape. If you need a refresher, Stephen Colbert did a truly hilarious take-down:

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(If Colbert isn’t available in your country, the Daily Kos has a full transcript.)

There’s a lot to be upset about in this brief quote. The suggestion that an impious act (refusing God’s gift) should also be an illegal one, for instance, or even the idea that a woman who refused to let her rapist’s child grow within her for nine months was somehow immoral. If a woman found out she was pregnant and decided to carry the child to term, I’d consider her a kind of moral saint, but I certainly wouldn’t blame a woman who oped for the morning-after pill in that situation.

I also find this more than a bit disconcerting that we’re still arguing on this point. I don’t mean that we’re arguing over whether abortion shouold be allowed if it’s conceived through rape. I can see someone making a case that pregnancy due to rape is horrible but outweighed by the wrongness of a murder. I disagree with that argument but I can at least respect it. What really makes me uncomfortable with Mourdock’s comments is he seemed to be implying that pregnancy is a good thing. That gets entirely too close to the problem of coerced reproduction, both in war and as part of domestic violence. It makes my skin crawl precisely because this is a problem many women around the world struggle against, including many women trapped in DV relationships right here in America.

(Incidentally, the Atlantic recently ran a really good piece on coerced reproduction. I highly recommend it.)

I really want to focus on a different issue, though. Compared to the things that bothered me so much about Mr. Mourdock’s comment, they seem like small potatoes, but I think this issue is getting overlooked. Nearly everyone who has commented on Mourdock, Colbert included, has read him as saying: God intends for raped women to get raped.

So everyone’s on the same page, here are Mourdock’s actual words:

I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God, and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.

This does come close to implying God intends for rape to happen. After all, as Sarah Sentilles argues over at the Religion Dispatches:

If it’s only the pregnancy that’s the gift, then, as Amy Davidson points out in The New Yorker, Mourdock’s God is “an absent-minded God,” who must be looking in the other direction when the rape is occurring before “rush[ing] in to make the best of it.” Mourdock can’t eat his cake and have it, too. If the pregnancy is a gift from God and God is in control of everything, then the rape is also God’s work—for that’s how the woman got pregnant.

I know a lot of Christians will say that Mourdock’s comment does not apply this. I can see the argument now: that God allowed the rape for the same reason He allows all evil resulting from bad choices, as the necessary price of free will. Following up, they might add that while God had to allow the pregnancy He did bring good out of evil through the pregnancy. This is actually very similar to a story Tolkien tells in the Silmarillion. (I’m thinking of Iluvatar’s statements that while Melkor/Morgoth meant his new songs as a way to detract from the music Iluvatar was creating, Iluvatar would still use it for good.)

I don’t find this argument convincing, for a few reasons. Most importantly, it’s awfully convenient to praise God for the baby and not blame him for the rape. You can’t will an end without willing the necessary means to that end, as some philosopher (Kant? I can’t remember precisely) argued. Maybe there’s a way to frame things to get around this problem, to say that faced with a bad situation God did his best to make lemonade from lemons. To make that work, you’d need to explain first things. First, why were there lemons in the first place? And what do we make of the person who suffered the same rape but that God didn’t think to gift with a child? If the pregnancy is so good, isn’t this a massive act of negligence on God’s part?

I don’t mean to say that this particular brand of theist don’t have answers to this problem. It’s all wrapped up in the Problem of Evil, and this is one of the hottest areas in philosophy of religion. It would take too much space to go into it in any detail here (maybe in another post, if there’s interest?). But even if you think we can make sense of how God lets bad things happen to good people, maybe through appealing to free will or blaming evil on someone else or saying evil isn’t really a thing at all – it’s a whole other thing to say we should praise God for the good things coming out of our choices but not blame him for the bad.

And here’s my point. I think Mourdock’s statement implied some really nasty things that he deserves to be called on. Not all of them are deep philosophical points, but some are. This is in fact what sets him apart from Akin’s rape comments, which showed a shocking lack o knowledge about basic anatomy. And as XKCD pointed out years ago, when people in power believe wacky things it creates problems for the rest of us. Mourdock’s comment, however, wasn’t just illiterate; it showed a lack of critical reasoning ability. And saying he just said God approves of rape is good for a laugh but bad in many other ways. We end up having a discussion about what he actually said rather than what those beliefs imply.

It’s happened before. Rather than debating whether Romney should have needed binders of resumes from qualified women after all those years (and yeah, there was so much wrong with that comment it’s actually a bit hard to know where to start), we got actual women walking around in actual, woman-sized binders. It felt good and was pretty funny at a moment where I think a lot of people needed a laugh. I get that. But when you’re actually trying to have a real discussion, give the other guy some credit.

And while we’re at it? We need news, editorial and entertainment that actually aren’t used interchangeably. Now, that’s change I could believe in. As a philosopher, the current way we do things is so far beyond frustrating, words fail me.


P.S. – In case it’s not clear, I have many, many other problems with what Mourdock said. I could be blogging about this for a while if I let myself. I actually would love to see a “Philosophy for Everybody” volume devoted to this comment – it could probably support it! Please don’t take the fact that I focused in on this one issue as saying other parts aren’t worth railing against.