On the Use of Political Pejoratives

Reading this tweet by Luke Dockery prompted some thoughts on uses of the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’.

Claims like "racism has deeply-rooted, ongoing effects" and "masks are helpful in limiting the spread of COVID" are true or false, not liberal or conservative. Assuming realism, the position that reality is what it is, independent of our beliefs, desires, etc., believing one of these claims does not, in itself, make a person either liberal or conservative, but only right or wrong with respect to the relevant facts.

Uses of the terms, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ seem to me to be so different now than what they traditionally were, that I’m not sure what they even mean anymore. Maybe it’s best to think of them as frameworks of fundamental commitments used to justify normative claims about political structures. If so, what makes one a liberal or conservative is not so much the normative beliefs that are held, but the reasons one has for holding those beliefs.

I’m confident that there are normative claims that are logically incompatible with a given set of reasons, but it’s important to understand that many normative claims can be justified on several different sets of reasons. So, both a conservative can reasonably believe something that is traditionally associated with liberalism, but believe it for different reasons than a liberal might. A good example is the belief that we should preserve the environment. A traditionally conservative reason for environmentalism would be the commitment to a Burkean social contract that includes, not just the present generation, but past and future ones as well, such that no single generation is a tyrant over others.

A rational conservative is unlikely to ever advocate abolishing the police, because another traditional central conservative doctrine is a commitment to established laws and institutions, insofar as they have served us well in the past. A conservative could, however, advocate "defunding" the police, on some proposed meanings of defunding — that is, making changes to existing police forces insofar as they have not served us well. (I grant that ‘defunding’ is an unfortunate term, but to assume that everyone means "completely defunding", especially when it has been made clear that they do not, is to commit a straw man fallacy.)

That means that, for most normative claims one cannot know if a person who holds them is a liberal or conservative unless one knows the reasons for which the claims are believed. Which means that inferences like "You believe X, therefore you are a Z" are rarely, if ever, examples of good reasoning. What is needed is "You believe X for the reason that Y, therefore you are a Z." Unfortunately, even when we reason like this, the reasons are often simply attributed to the interlocutor, not gained from them in dialogue. A memorable line from a former colleague is relevant here: "Labels are libel."

For non-normative claims, like the ones above about racism and the use of masks, the important question is not whether holding them makes one a conservative or liberal. The important question is whether they are true. Our responses to the facts may be liberal or conservative, but the facts themselves are neither. So, in both cases, the normative and the non-normative, the reasonable thing to do when a person claims something is not to immediately label them, the reasonable thing to do is to engage in dialogue, to discover the reasons, or evidence, for the claim.

What is going on when a person says, "You believe X, therefore you are a Z"? I can think of three possibilities, ranging from the best to the worst, although none are good:

  1. It is a charge of cognitive bias. There is no doubt that features of our particular psychologies, such as our beliefs, desires, emotional attitudes, etc., incline us to believe certain things. We consider these things to be cognitive biases to the extent that they incline us to believe falsehoods. So, again, the important question is not, ultimately, what biases tend to result in this belief, but whether the belief is true. Even more, imagine that you believe something only because you are biased to do so. That, in itself, does not give me good reason to dismiss your belief as false. Just because you have no good reasons for the belief does not imply that there are no good reasons for it. (Incidentally, one of the best ways to diminish the role that our biases are playing is to engage in honest, open dialogue with people who disagree with us.)
  2. It is a case of an ad hominem fallacy. "Since you believe X, you are a Z, and I shouldn’t believe anything that a Z says, include your claim of X." Dismissing someone’s belief by labeling the person as a liberal or conservative is an often persuasive ad hominem, but it is an hominem nonetheless. Ad hominems have their usefulness, however, especially when one doesn’t have good evidence for one’s own position.
  3. A third reason for dismissing a claim as false by labeling the speaker as liberal or conservative is because it’s simply not the way I want the world to be. This, unfortunately, seems to me to be more and more common. Consider one of the claims above, "masks are helpful in limiting the spread of COVID." Evaluating a hypothesis is a function of two things, initial plausibility and confirmation by evidence. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that any reasonable person should assess the initial plausibility of the claim as very high for two reasons. First, it’s a relatively weak claim — it does not claim that mask-wearing completely prevents COVID, but only that it is helpful in limiting its spread. Second, COVID is a respiratory disease; does it not make sense that wearing masks covering our noses and mouths would limit the spread of respiratory diseases? If not, then why cover our mouths when we sneeze, simply because it is polite? A high initial plausibility of a hypothesis does not guarantee that the hypothesis is true, but it does mean that greater evidence would be required to show that it is false. So, responses like, "this can’t be true, because one respectable scientist is saying that…" or "this can’t be true, becuase there is one study showing that…" are simply not enough. It strikes me as more likely that claims like this are rejected because we simply don’t like the inconvenience of wearing masks. This, however, is a kind of naïve anti-realism, demanding that the world conform to the way I want it to be. This is especially unfortunate for conservatives, for one thing that conservatives formerly prided themselves on was their commitment to realism, by recognizing that we have to deal with the world as it is, not simply the world as we want it to be.

A final point: it is useful to be able to sort beliefs, positions, etc. into typological categories. Such categories help us to predict behavior and better understand each other. It’s important to realize that these categories, though, are simply models, and that models are, at best, approximations of the landscape of reality, and, as approximations, will always have exceptions. Once those category terms become pejoratives, it strikes me that they are no longer useful for anything except for asserting power — the power to create a world that conforms to my desires, or the power to make others believe what I want them to, regardless of the evidence. The first is not a power that we finite beings have. The second is something we might have, but shouldn’t exercise.

Some Thoughts on Mass Shootings

The Second Amendment

Despite the Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision, I have never thought that a reasonable reading of the 2nd Amendment guaranteed an individual’s unequivocal right to possess firearms. In fact, the only Supreme Court decision that focused on the 2nd Amendment, US vs. Miller in 1939, found that there is no individual right to bear arms independent of the nation’s self-defense interests. There is also reason to believe that Madison wrote the 2nd Amendment to protect the rights of southern states to have militias that they could use to put down slave revolts. 1

I do believe, however, that every person has an inherent right to self-defense. 2 I take this to not be a civil right enshrined in law, but as a basic human right. Although there are weapons that are designed to be used for defensive roles, assault rifles, by definition, are not. I have no sympathy for those who argue that their guns are necessary for defense against a tyrannical government. I have seen four Apache helicopters on an attack run at a range in Fort Hood. If you think that your AR-15 will defend you, you’ve been watching too many bad action movies. 3

Good Guys with Guns

Lately, there have been demands to arm teachers to prevent school shootings. This is a variation on the idea that the only solution to gun violence is more good guys with guns. There are obvious reasons why this is untenable. We had problems with active shooters when I was in Afghanistan. The solution was not to have more people carrying guns, since everyone except me and the other two chaplains were already armed. The solution was to have a soldier standing at the ready at every meeting, doing nothing but looking for signs of hostility, prepared to shoot as soon as a weapon was drawn. That’s what the only “more guns” solution looks like – an armed guard standing with weapon drawn in every classroom, in every corridor of the mall, covering every line of sight in every public venue, etc. 4 That’s not a country where I want to live.

Possible Solutions

Mass shootings are a complex problem, but not irreducibly complex. We shouldn’t pretend that our only options are an impossible perfect solution and doing nothing. So, what should be done? There are some means that, I believe, would help reduce the level of gun violence.

  1. Treating sources of terrorism consistently would be a good first step. White nationalism has always been an ideology associated with terrorism, from the lynchings of Reconstruction to the mass shooting in El Paso. As a terrorist ideology, white nationalist demands for racial purity are no different than demands for religious purity from other movements that we rightly label as terrorists.
  2. Ban assault weapons – that has already been shown to be effective.
  3. Ban high capacity magazines. Otherwise, thirty people are dead before the “good guy with a gun” has an opportunity to respond.

May God forgive me, if I ever demand my rights at the possible expense of another human being’s life.

  1. Conservatives had no problem with gun control when the Black Panthers were taking up arms to press for equal civil rights. As Governor of California, Ronald Reagan signed an act in 1967 banning the carrying by members of the public of loaded firearms in cities. He said there is “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.” It’s also curious how reticent the NRA is to come to the defense of registered African-American gun owners.
  2. Specifying this right will, by no means, be simple. I do not believe that people have the right to do anything that will result in saving their lives. I also do not believe that the right to self-defense is automatically a right to kill, if there are other effective means available. There are also tricky questions about prisoners on death row, etc. This is also a right that implies certain duties, like the duty to ensure, as much as possible, that no innocent people are harmed. This means that gun-owners have a duty to acquire and maintain a high level of skill. This could mean that the public has a right to demand that those who wish to carry firearms in public be tested and certified.
  3. I’ve also recently heard that when criminals get semi-automatic weapons, then citizens need full-auto. In my infantry days, the only situation in which fully automatic fire was used was to spray a room with bullets before entering. So, saying this is the same as saying “When criminals get semi-auto, then citizens kill indiscriminately.”
  4. That doesn’t mean that a member of the public with a gun will not occasionally act to prevent, or minimize, some tragedy. That will have to be weighed against members of the public misidentifying a target or harm done by negligent discharges, a particular problem that we had in Iraq.

Ethics of War Handout

These are some concepts and terms used in a presentation on the ethics of war, given at Oklahoma Baptist University on December 1, 2017.


Consequentialist Pacifism: Although war is not intrinsically wrong, the benefits of war are always outweighed by the costs.

Deontological Pacifism: War is always intrinsically wrong, regardless of its consequences.

Doctrine of Double Effect

War could be permissible, even if we know that innocent lives will be lost, if

  1. Taking innocent life is not the reason that we go to war,
  2. The lives that are saved are proportionally greater than the lives that will be lost,
  3. Taking innocent life is not the means to saving lives, and
  4. Saving lives is otherwise permissible.

Just War

Jus ad bellum: Conditions that determine when a state can justly go to war.

Jus in bello: Conditions that specify how a war must be fought

Jus post bellum: Conditions that determine when one can justly end hostilities.

Jus ad bellum Jus in bello Jus post bellum
Just cause Obey international law Just cause
Right intention Discrimination Right intention
Proper authority/declaration Proportionality Discrimination
Last resort Humane treatment of POW’s Proportionality
Probability of success No means mala in se
Proportionality No reprisals

Just Peacemaking

Ten principles of just peacemaking: 1

  1. Support nonviolent direct action.
  2. Take independent initiatives to reduce threat.
  3. Use cooperative conflict resolution.
  4. Acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and forgiveness.
  5. Advance democracy, human rights, and religious liberty.
  6. Foster just and sustainable economic development.
  7. Work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system.
  8. Strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for cooperation and human rights.
  9. Reduce offensive weapons and weapons trade.
  10. Encourage grassroots peacemaking groups and voluntary associations.

  1. From Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War, 2d ed., edited by Glen Stassen (Pilgrim Press, 2004). [return]

Should the Church Bear the Welfare Burden?

I should have rather asked if the church alone should bear the burden of providing welfare. There is no doubt that the church, myself included, should bear more of the burden of caring for the poor, for that is just one of the many sacrificial things Jesus calls us to do. The church, though, cannot bear the welfare burden as it is today. Ron Sider, in Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America, estimates that shouldering just the cost of Medicaid would cost each Christian congregation approximately one-half million dollars per year. Note that this includes each congregation, including exceptionally large churches that may well be able to afford the cost, but the median size of a Christian congregation in America is now 75 regular participants.1 So, a family of four in the median-sized congregation would have to shoulder a burden of nearly 27,000 dollars, simply to provide the services now provided by Medicaid. One can only guess at the cost of providing the full level of social services now provided by the government.

This does not mean that the church should not be developing creative ways of caring for those that Jesus and the prophets called “the least of these.” It does mean, though, that the church taking on more of a burden2 does not relieve the state, nor the rest of the country, from sharing that burden. In Psalm 72, a prayer for guidance for the king, Scripture describes God’s hope for the one who leads the state: “May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” To allow the state to shirk its responsibility for caring the poor means that the state will no longer fulfill its God-given role of crushing the oppressor, but instead allows the state to become the oppressor — surely not something to which a government of the people should aspire.

  1. Hartford Institute for Religion Research [return]
  2. “Burden” is not the right word to use here. Caring for one another should be a joy. That we see it as a burden is a sin for which we will have to repent. [return]


I passed a church this morning that had this statement on the sign: “Indifference Not Hate.” I’m curious what is meant by this, is it supposed to be a statement of reassurance to the community? “It’s not that we hate you, we really just don’t care.” Would you rather be hated or simply ignored? At least hate is an acknowledgment of the existence and importance of the other person.

Reconciliation and Hope

I wrote this eight years ago, after President Obama’s election:

The year that I was born, 1963, was marked by these significant events:

  • In April, Martin Luther King was arrested and jailed in Birmingham.
  • In May, “Bull” Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham used police dogs and fire hoses on a demonstration in Birmingham.
  • In June, Medgar Evers, the NAACP Field Secretary for Mississippi, was murdered outside his home.
  • In August, Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
  • In September, four young girls were killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Tuesday, an African-American man was elected President of the United States.

The country has certainly come far. European countries are generally viewed as far more progressive than the United States, but, as far as I can tell, no European country is even remotely close to being able to select a member of a minority racial group as head of government.

That said, we still have a long ways to go before we can claim to have achieved racial reconciliation. On November 5, David Garland, President of Baylor University, issued a statement concerning recent incidents of racial conflict on Baylor’s campus. We cannot hope to achieve reconciliation in this country if we are not even able to achieve it in the Church. It is time for the Church to not only ask forgiveness for our past sins regarding slavery, but to recognize that failing to take action to create a better future is itself a sin.

If nothing else, this week’s election is a sign of hope.

The events of the past eight years proved that progress requires more than simply hope.

Guns, Cakes, and Gay Weddings

Internet memes rarely constitute a high level of discourse, but they can sometimes prompt interesting conversations. This morning, a friend postednone that read,

If selling a gay couple a wedding cake means a “christian” baker participated in their marriage, does selling a gun to a murderer mean a “christian” gun store owner participated in the murder?

The gun store owner does indeed participate in the murder, though not in a way that makes him1 morally responsible for the murder. He is even more of a participant in the murder than the baker is a participant in the marriage, because the actions of the gun store owner, however unwitting, are causally significant in a way that the actions of the baker are not. All other things being equal, without the gun, there would have been no murder. All other things being equal, without the cake, the couple would still be married.

The important question with respect to the gun store owner is what kind of participation is required for moral culpability. Although negligence complicates things, let’s assume that one is morally responsible for what one knowingly participates in. Since the gun dealer is not aware, (nor negligently unware — that is, there’s no sign posted saying “If you plan to commit a murder with this firearm, please do not tell me…”) then the store owner is not morally responsible.

From what some service providers have said, though, it’s not participation per se that is the problem, it’s that their participation could be viewed as tacit approval. I don’t understand why that’s the case — we wouldn’t take a Bar Mitzvah cake baked by a Christian baker to imply approval of Judaism, an Eid-al-Fitr cake to be an approval of Islam, or a Super Bowl cake to imply approval of professional sports.

Maybe the gun case is not close enough to be a good analogy. Maybe we should instead ask if the Christian restaurant owner is a culpable participant in my act of gluttony by selling me overly large portions with the full expectation that I will eat it all on the spot.

  1. I usually mix masculine and feminine pronouns to avoid sexist language, but in this case, I think it’s reasonable to assume that most gun store owners are male. [return]

Relativism and the Rights of Women in Afghanistan

Cultural Relativism

For many of those that hold the position, cultural relativism is motivated by a belief that we should be tolerant of the moral beliefs of other cultures. Most of the time, this is expressed in a way that is simply inconsistent, that is, given that there are no objective, universal moral truths, we ought to be tolerant of the moral beliefs of other cultures. Unfortunately, one cannot consistently assert both that there are no objective, universal, moral truths and that we have a moral obligation to be tolerant, especially since our culture is often intolerant.

Options for the Relativist

Even though relativists often are inconsistent, they need not be. Here are some ways that that one could try to assert a consistent relativism:

  1. When the relativist asserts that we ought to be tolerant, the assertion should not be understood as a moral claim. Instead, it should be understood as a pragmatic claim. That is, we ought to be tolerant, not because we are morally obligated to, but because it is in our best interests as a way of minimizing conflict.
  2. We shouldn’t adopt relativism because we have a moral duty to be tolerant, of course that is inconsistent. Rather, once our culture comes to realize the truth of cultural relativism, we would naturally come to adopt an ethic of tolerance. Then, it would be true that we ought to be tolerant, since it would be part of our moral code.
  3. When the relativist claims that we ought to be tolerant, she means simply that tolerance is a good. There is no need to understand this as a claim that tolerance is a moral good. A good is simply something that is worth pursuing, and there are several reasons why tolerance would be something worth pursuing.

Tolerance Only to a Point?

I have argued elsewhere that tolerance is not as good as one might think, since it implies an attitude of superiority toward the one being tolerated. Even so, I think it is psychologically impossible for relativists to adopt an attitude of genuine tolerance toward the moral beliefs of cultures that are radically different from our own.

For example, an Afghan woman reported that she was raped by her cousin’s husband two years ago, and she was subsequently sentenced to twelve years in prison (see CNN’s coverage). At first, it was reported that she would be released if she were to agree to marry her attacker, but authorities later said that the marriage was not a condition for her release. Even so, the imprisonment of a rape victim, who was then forced to care for her child in prison, is an unconscionable action according to most cultural relativists. That is, there are cultural beliefs and practices that should be changed, not simply tolerated.

So, what moral beliefs should be tolerated? I suspect that the level of tolerance would be highly correlated with the degree of similarity to our own moral beliefs and practices. That is, the relativist would maintain that we ought to tolerate the beliefs and practices of other cultures so long as they are not too different from our own.

That, however, is neither tolerance nor relativism. Instead, it is simply a thinly disguised moral realism.

A Parent’s Love

Saturday afternoon, protestors lined the bridge at Rogers Avenue and Interstate 44 in Lawton, Oklahoma. They held signs demanding that the children currently detained for illegal immigration be sent back to their home countries.

National Public Radio recently reported on another protest:

This week outside the southern Arizona town of Oracle, Marla and Bruce Bemis — along with several dozen of their neighbors — were lined up along a road waving American flags and holding signs, as patriotic music occasionally played in the background. Word had come that the federal government was planning to bring some of the detainees to a local academy for troubled youth.

“You know it’s a shame that they’re kids, if they’re kids, but I guess their parents didn’t care that much to send them on that journey to here,” says Marla Bemis.

This brought to mind the story of Moses:

A man from the family of Levi married a Levite woman. The woman became pregnant and had a son. She saw there was something special about him and hid him. She hid him for three months. When she couldn’t hide him any longer she got a little basket–boat made of papyrus, waterproofed it with tar and pitch, and placed the child in it. Then she set it afloat in the reeds at the edge of the Nile.

Exodus 2:1-3

How much love must it take to send one’s child into the unknown? These are parents who care very much indeed.

God of love,

Jesus took a little child
into his arms, and said,
“Whoever welcomes a child
in my name, welcomes me.”

There are days
when the Kingdom seems so near,
but others when it seems so far.

Today, as the death toll rises
in the land where
the Prince of Peace once walked,
help me to honor your words
with more than just my lips.


Talking About Suicide

I was saddened to hear that Robin Williams died this week, apparently by suicide. I was also saddened to read how some people in faith communities reacted to the news. Some of these reactions struck me as callous, demonstrably false, or, at best, simply irrelevant.

Over the past thirty years, I have known three soldiers who committed suicide, During my two deployments, I have been involved in more suicide interventions than I care to remember, and I regularly teach suicide prevention classes to Army units. To prepare for these classes, I always look at the latest studies, especially ones focusing on suicides in the military. The Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemembers is the largest ever conducted among military personnel, and will continue through 2015. Results are reported as they become available, and, so far, suggest that the problem is even worse in the Army than was previously thought. One thing is clear from the studies on suicide: suicide is a very complex problem, and there is no single determinant causal factor. So, any single-sentence explanation of a person’s death by suicide, no matter how effective that sentence is as a sound-bite, is nearly certain to be overly naïve and simplistic.

Suicide prevention classes in the Army have mostly focused on identifying risk factors and warning signs and learning how to conduct an intervention. Risk factors are those qualities that make a problem more likely to occur, and warning signs are indicators that the problem is occurring. For example, high cholesterol is risk factor for heart attacks, while severe chest pain is a warning sign. The problem with just thinking in terms of risk factors and warning signs is that it doesn’t help us know what to do to avoid the problem. I know that I should avoid having high cholesterol levels, but how do I do that? Knowing the risk factors and warning signs for suicide is essential for crisis intervention, but that alone won’t necessarily help us prevent the crisis stage from occurring. We also need to think in terms of “protective” factors, those things that can be done to minimize the risk factors. The three major protective factors for suicide are effective mental health care, positive connections to high levels of interpersonal connectedness, and effective problem-solving skills.1

So, here are two things that I suggest to keep in mind when discussing suicide, or any other complex problem that affects people deeply.

  1. Remember Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 6:12, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial.” A lesson that I continually have to relearn is that not every opinion, even if true, should be shared. Will expressing this opinion will help lessen anyone’s pain, or will it simply contribute to the pain that is already there?
  2. Be willing to engage in some critical self-reflection on the extent to which our individual actions, community interaction, and public policies have contributed to the problem. Do we tend to isolate those who are hurting because they make us feel uncomfortable? Do our attitudes concerning mental illness discourage those who are hurting from seeking help? Is there sufficient public funding for mental health care?

Matt Walsh recently stated that suicide is a spiritual problem. I think that is at least partly true, but maybe not for the reasons that he proposed. On one hand, since the common thread in most suicide cases is depression, the problem is a biological one—an illness for which there is treatment.

On the other hand, the extent to which these protective factors are not present in our society is a spiritual problem, our spiritual problem. For Christians, the center of reality is a loving community, the Trinity, and our spiritual health is partly a function of how we reflect that love. So, today, and every day, I must ask myself if my words and actions demonstrate love and grace, or do they contribute to society’s tendency to become ever increasingly individualistic, egoistic, and unwilling to care for the least of these.

This admonition from Teresa of Avila hangs on my office door, and seems to be appropriate for meditation today:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion
is to look out to the earth,
yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good
and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.


  1. For more information, see the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. [return]