A week after her stunning upset in the Delaware primaries, I find myself in the odd position of defending Tea-Party-endorsed Christine O’Donnell, about whom I am mostly agnostic.
O’Donnell is like Palin-Lite; half the experience, less bitter. In her favor, though, is that she appears to be utterly without guile. She projects the sort of wide-eyed-innocent openness that personifies American naiveté to our cousins in Europe and often embarrasses (and trips up) the dismissive post-American sophisticates on the Upper West Side.
I rise to defend O’Donnell on two points tender to the Christian conscience, those of lying for the greater good, and masturbation.
A decade ago, O’Donnell asserted that she would not lie to a Nazi about hiding Anne Frank in her attic. These rhetorical scenarios are amusing “gotchas” in casual discussion-panel debates, but O’Donnell’s soundbite has been found objectionable by some, precisely because it is a soundbite; as such, it encourages reactions rather than reasoned musings. First Things’ own Joe Carter writes: “As a virtue ethicist I believe it would be immoral to not lie in that situation . . . If your hiding some of the Chosen People from enemies who want to kill them, it’s your duty to lie to protect them.”
No less then the Jew-hiding heroine Corrie ten Boom might disagree. In her book The Hiding Place, ten Boom recounts an episode where Nazis sought her nephew, Peter, who had been hidden in a root cellar, a rug and table hastily placed over the trapdoor. When soldiers demanded to know Peter’s whereabouts, his young cousin Cocky replied, “Why, he is under the table.”
The soldiers peered under the table while the family suppressed nervous chuckles. Humiliated, the Nazis threatened the family, then left. As others chastised Cocky for putting Peter—and the whole family—at such risk, her mother defended her, saying, “God honors truth-telling with perfect protection!”
Simplistic, right? Some might say “fundamentalist” and “anti-intellectual” to boot. But the story bolsters O’Donnell’s position; it suggests that power resides in a complete abandonment and surrender to the will of God and his laws, a faithful reliance that says, “If God is truth, he will be found only within truth, and not in a lie.”
This is the sort of heart-over-head theology that invites mockery, even as it zeroes in on Christ’s urging toward “childlike faith.” Jesus enjoyed the sophisticated reasoning of Nicodemus, but he rewarded the Centurion whose servant was sick, and who approached him wholly on faith. Intellectual debate did not lessen his appreciation of simple trust.
Catholics should appreciate O’Donnell’s Anne Frank answer; it is of a piece with a theology that recommends natural family planning over artificial contraception, adoption over abortion; it leaves room for God to enter into any given situation, rather than closing off access, and God—being all Good and without negatives—travels more naturally upon the truth than upon the lie.
And how refreshing might it be to have a Congress in place full of people dedicated to serving the truth, over truthiness.
Another long-ago-and-youthful remark by O’ Donnell, “The Bible says that lust in your heart is committing adultery, so you can't masturbate without lust" has also become fodder for the hyena set. Huffpo—in an impressive display of intellectualism—predictably called her youthful admonitions “crazy.”
Perpetual adolescents will demand that the masturbation quotes dog her campaign (and O’Donnell should prepare to hear boisterous strains of “Every Sperm is Sacred” from the Monty Python crowd), but here again, a Catholic (and for that matter a Buddhist or a Taoist) should appreciate the point O’ Donnell was clumsily trying to make: that human sexuality is deeply powerful in co-creative and energetic ways, and that it has meaning beyond its pleasures, which are great, but never meant to be solitary.
O’Donnell recently worked to reassure voters that sexual matters are ultimately private and that her “faith has matured” since her early pronouncements; she has had a masturbation maturation. But a “matured” faith could mean anything from Puritanism to Relativism; doubtless, someone will eventually ask her to be more explicit.
At that point, O’Donnell might wish to borrow some of the sane and helpful language of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which has already wrung the matter through the processes of faith and reason:
“The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of “the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.”
To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability (CCC 2352).
It is impossible, and probably impolite, to attempt to pinpoint where another person is on the “journey of faith,” but since O’ Donnell’s religious beliefs have become a prominent part of her political persona, we may safely assume she has signed on for the sojourn. As the saints can attest, the way of faith is curiously circuitous; one begins with a passionate move toward surrender, and urges others toward it.
Then one is challenged and must find a way to reason-out and articulate the faith. If one can do that soundly, without dropping articles of faith or dangling dogmatic participles, one is inevitably led once again toward surrender, but with a fuller—a matured—understanding of its meaning.
If one cannot, relativism becomes one’s campaign manager.
The chasm between religion and politics is wide and voracious; politicians more sublimely gifted than Christine O’Donnell have disappeared into its abyss while attempting to navigate between the two. Those who manage it end up compromised or despised, or both. O’Donnell’s Frank Capraesque turn at these precarious edges will make her the irresistible story of the 2010 elections.
Elizabeth Scalia is a contributing writer for First Things. She blogs at The Anchoress.