The Screwtape Letters begins with Screwtape, an experienced demon, giving his demon nephew Wormwood advice on how to keep a person from becoming a Christian. Screwtape’s first bit of advice is this: Don’t allow the discussion of Christianity to be moved “onto the Enemy’s own ground.” But on the flip side, C.S. Lewis might have had the Angel Gabriel give similar advice to a Christian—don’t argue on the other side’s “own ground.” A decision last week by a Christian judge shows just how important it is not to unwittingly argue on the wrong ground.
Last week, Kentucky family court Judge Mitchell Nance decided to recuse himself from all future cases of adoption by same-sex couples. He did so because he does not believe it is in the “best interest” of a child to have gay or lesbian parents. As a Christian, based on his understanding of the nature of the family, a child is best served by the unique contributions that come from having both a mother and a father, contributions that flow from a belief in the complementariness of the two sexes.
But then, in my opinion, he made a mistake.
Conscientious Objection or Objectively True or False?
In recusing himself, Judge Nance cited his “conscientious objection” to “adoption of a child by a practicing homosexual.” This, he reasoned, was a kind of personal bias—not unlike being biased in favor of a friend who is a party before the judge. Then he noted that the ethics rules allow judges to recuse themselves from a case when they know they are “biased.”
His “mistake” is that he conceded that his beliefs about homosexual adoption and a child’s best interest are not true or false, but more like a “bias.” And the liberals nailed him on it.
One of them wrote:
It’s important to be clear on what Nance is not saying: His argument here is not that he believes gay adoption is wrong. It’s that, “as a matter of conscience,” he believes it harms the interests of children. Yet it’s impossible to square the circle: By placing debates over facts, which tell us that adoption by gay people does not harm children’s interests, into the realm of conscience, Nance conflates empirical claims with moral ones. He cannot meaningfully claim a “conscientious objection” to adoption by gay people any more than he can claim a conscientious objection to gravity. (emphasis mine)
Relying on a ‘Conscience’ Claim Could Backfire
Judge Nance retreated to an argument grounded strictly in conscience because the “other side” will only allow “empirical claims” based on “facts.” But in doing so, he allowed the “other side” to determine the “ground” upon which the debate could proceed and, for them, debates about the truth or falsity of “beliefs” are out-of-bounds arguments.
While Nance may think he has “won” because the LGBT community can’t “empirically” say his “conscience” is wrong, he may have unwittingly opened himself to a charge of discrimination. The ethical rules governing Kentucky’s judges say, “A judge shall not, in the performance of judicial duties, by words or conduct manifest bias or prejudice . . . based upon . . . sexual orientation . . . .” Seems to me his own words will condemn him under this rule.
‘Conscience’ Claims Made Life Safe and Easy
Here’s the point: In recent decades, Christians have assumed it was safer and easier to just retreat to the subjective realm of conscience and concede that what we believe is subjective. That certainly made what Christians believe immune from attack.
But now that is catching up to us. Those arguments are not going to be allowed to get us out of doing things we don’t want to have to do. Beliefs are, to the other side, just “biases,” not right or wrong, true or false.
Contending for the Truth
At some point, Christians are going to have to argue for the truth of their religious claims and not be afraid to back them up with data. But in presenting the data, we must be careful not to make yet another fatal mistake, the mistake of conceding that data is determinative. We can’t concede that data alone is determinative because experience proves that data can shift over time. As with no-fault divorce, we may later lament and condemn what earlier we approved because the preliminary data looked “good.”
The only thing that endures forever is truth. And the only question is whether Christians are going to become more willing to contend for propositional truth such as whether a child’s interest is best served when he or she has both a mother and a father.
I hope we are because debating issues strictly on the ground of conscience will not work much longer. As Wormwood said in The Screwtape Letters, we can’t argue on the “other side’s” grounds and expect mere “conscience” claims to win anymore. For the other side, “conscience” is just another word for “bias.”
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.
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