I feel kinda bad for the guy, honestly. Richard Mourdock, former Indiana state Treasurer and the Republican candidate for the US Senate, in a recent televised debate, said this: “Even when pregnancy results from that horrible situation that is rape, I think that God intended it to happen.” And so it began. Boom. Explosion. And Mourdock became a punch line.
The outcry that followed was predictable, furious and rapid. Governor Romney, running for President, who had previously endorsed Mourdock, distanced himself from his comments, though he remained an endorser. Jon Stewart weighed in, as did Leno, Letterman, Conan, all the rest of them. Commentators on the Left pointed out that Mourdock’s comments, outrageous though they might have been, were not vary significantly from the Republican platform or other positions from other conservative politicians. We all know how this game is played; a politician says something bizarre and extreme, and everyone piles on, takes partisan advantage.
What struck me, though, about Mourdock’s comments (and his subsequent ‘clarifications’) was how agonized the man seemed to be. He seemed horrified at the suggestion that he wasn’t morally outraged by rape. He seemed genuinely torn up. When he said that he had struggled with the issue, I believed him.
And his comments have a certain loopy theological foundation. I mean, if you genuinely believe that God is completely in command of absolutely anything, that God wills everything, then certainly a pregnancy resulting from rape is in His purview. So are earthquakes and hurricanes and tsunamis. So are wars and murders and violence. To say “God intended” a rape victim to get pregnant is like saying ‘God intended’ for someone to die in an auto wreck; something of a funeral talk commonplace, that one. Taken too far, God becomes either ineffectual, or monstrous. As Archibald MacLeish’s famous couplet puts it: “If God is God, He is not good, if God is Good, He is not God.”
While I certainly think most Christian sects view the problem of evil in more sophisticated terms theologically, it’s not like Mourdock said ‘boy, isn’t rape wonderful.’ When he said he was personally appalled by acts of violence towards women, I did believe him. His comments were more in the realm of ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ And his answer to that question would seem to be ‘we don’t know why. But we trust God. And we know that awful things seem to be consistent with His will.’
That’s not how it was received, though. Because his comments were in the context of a debate over policy, over what laws a Senate candidate would support. And what Mourdock said was that women who become pregnant as a result of having been raped should be forced by law to carry that pregnancy to term. And that’s a horrifying thought, and would be an indefensibly extreme requirement, in the unlikely event it became law.
Some years ago, I was sitting in a priesthood meeting in Church, and one of my good brothers offered the opinion that there were no gray issues, morally; that all issues were black and white. There was simply right and wrong and no middle ground was even conceivable. I offered the alternate view; that essentially all issues were gray, that there were almost no moral absolutes. That uncertainty and paradox and moral ambiguity were the water in which we swim. After a moment’s uncomfortable silence, the instructor changed the subject, but I came to a realization that day; that for my good morally absolutist brothers, even to suggest ambiguity was frightening. That to them, thinking of the world in black and white terms was reassuring, comforting. That they found my rejection of moral binaries incomprehensibly disorienting. And what I was not able to express was my own discomfort with their certainty. That to me, to think in black and white, right and wrong terms was as terrifying as they found my embrace of uncertainty.
It’s a cliche to say that abortion is a polarizing issue, but what’s underneath that polarization is something more fundamental, a basic approach to the world, a fundamental way of apprehending reality. For Mourdock, I think, abortion is wrong. Morally wrong, period, unambiguously wrong. It’s the slaughter of the innocents, it’s an American Holocaust, it’s institutionalized murder. So of course, even if pregnancy results from something as horrifying as rape, that act of violence should not be compounded with more violence, with violence towards an unborn child. Abortion’s bad, therefore all abortions are always bad. And some in the pro-choice movement, perhaps, see it in equally absolutist terms; to restrict any woman’s decisions over her own body, her own medical decisions, is wrong, is evil. Always, ever.
But there must be another way to see it. I would suggest that abortion is the very definition of a morally ambiguous issue; that nearly everything about the issue is gray. It’s about desperation and fear and pain, it’s about a horrible horrible decision that absolutely has to get made, it’s about how women, to give birth, risk death. And it’s an issue men can get pretty darn glib about. So what if something as violative as rape’s involved? Pain and fear multiply exponentially, do they not?
And what about even the rapist himself? Is rape unambiguously wrong? Sure; that’s how we define the term. It’s wrong, period. Sure. But how do we judge the rapist? Maybe there are even ambiguities there. We don’t know how damaged and vulnerable and angry and ill he is. We don’t know what his history might be. It’s a crime of violence and control, and often abusers were themselves abused. Does acknowledging that possibility diminish the pain of the rape victim, her helplessness and terror and horrific violation? No. But if we’re going to place God somewhere in the equation, it’s there, in the need for eternal compassion, genuine justice, actual mercy, endless atonement.
In Utah, we recently have followed the horrendous account of the Josh and Susan Powell case. In December, 2009, Susan went missing. Circumstantial evidence suggested that her husband had murdered her, but police never had a case they could take to court. Josh Powell lost custody of their two sons, but was allowed supervised visitation; during one such visit, in February 2012, he murdered the boys, then committed suicide, setting his house on fire. It’s not difficult to see Josh Powell as epitomizing evil, as the ultimate bad guy; triple murderer, killer of children. But we’ve learned a bit about Josh’s father, Steven. He was recently arrested on child pornography and peeping Tom charges. Steven’s now in prison. So where does guilt lie, where was damage done, what mental illnesses factor in? We don’t know. We’ll never know. I do think, though, that a ‘Josh Powell=inhuman monster’ meme inadequately reflects the complexity of the case.
I say I’m ‘pro-choice.’ But what I really am is ‘pro-ambiguity.’ Pro-complexity, pro-nuance. Does this make me a moral relativist? No, that would imply that morality itself doesn’t exist. But the alternative isn’t absolutism. Mormons aren’t absolutists, not really, even though many of us describe ourselves that way. What we believe in is contextual morality, a morality that takes all factors into account. And I do mean all factors. God’s judgment will be just, we think, which means complex, difficult, far-reaching.
I do think that Richard Mourdock would make a poor U. S. Senator. But can we also acknowledge even his pain?