11/21/2011 09:47 am ET | Updated Jan 21, 2012

When Legislating Morality Falls Short

I was doing my daily browsing of blogs, catching up on the news and opinions of the day, when I came across a piece with which I found some real resonance. Morgan Guyton, a Methodist pastor, wrote a reflection on why the recent "personhood amendment" failed in, of all places, Mississippi.

Anyone who follows politics even remotely can understand why advocates for the personhood legislation -- intended to afford full rights of any living person to an embryo in the womb -- would focus on a solidly red state like Mississippi. If any state would be likely to push through an amendment that ultimately would outlaw all forms of abortion (and even some methods of birth control), that's a reasonable place to place your focus. But the proposal failed, arguably because there were too many concerns about the amendment neglecting the health and well-being of the mother (also a person, it turns out).

Guyton articulates something I've danced around for some time in a very concise way. He says: "To me, the personhood movement itself is a witness of the failure of personhood in modern Western thought, because thinking the state can decree "personhood" negates the meaning of personhood. Rights do not make a human being into a person; only relationships can do that."

This implicitly raises another question: What is the mission of the church? Is it to cultivate relationships, one at a time, that ultimately will affect the sort of compassionate, community-minded change we seek? Is it to advocate at the legislative level, challenging the powers that be to change the system from the top down? Can it be both?

In a recent blog post, I suggested that it takes both to fulfill the Gospel-centered mission of the Christian faith. In it I described the face-to-face ministry (serving the poor, visiting the imprisoned, etc) as charitable ministry. There's really no questions that we're called to this kind of work. The other focus, social justice ministry, emphasizes an effort to exact systemic change on a larger scale. So instead of simply serving the poor a meal, we also are called to address the underlying issues that led them to need such help in the first place.

In that piece, I contended that charitable ministry without social justice lacks teeth; on the other hand, social justice ministry without charity lacks heart. We have to do both.

In that spirit, I have to support the intentions behind pushing for the personhood amendment, regardless of my personal feelings about it. if those who advocate for it feel this is their calling as people of faith to promote, it's hard to argue with that. But the failure of the amendment begs the question: What are these activists doing on the relationship side of the coin? And is it possible that the reason the amendment failed is because the focus of the movement seemed to place issues over people?

Now, I'm sure that those in favor of the personhood amendment would say this is not the case. After all, at the heart of the issue is an unborn child, I suspect they would say. But the problem is that when you push for the rights of someone (i.e., an embryo) with which the public has no real relationship at the possible expense of the actual people they see every day (i.e., the mother), it's a tough case to argue. The fear at the heart of the public's down-vote is that the rights of the unborn are being placed above those of those they already know.

And that's simply not a sacrifice many are willing to make.

Had the movement begun with a grassroots effort to serve those women in a loving, nurturing way, I think it may have been different. Had the group promoting this legislation spent a decade or more caring for distressed mothers, providing them with medical case, parenting skills, adoption alternatives and other help that recognizes a love and compassion for them as more than the carrier of a group's political agenda in her womb, things might have turned out different. But our zeal for a cause often trumps our patient service when we feel the stakes are high. Who can wait 10 years? What about the unborn in the meantime?

But consider the current situation. The amendment failed, leading to a deeper chasm between the pro-life and pro-choice camps (two binary labels I find counterproductive). The women still lack the care they require, our culture still foments a brokenness that leads to these issues being present in the first place, and meanwhile the personhood agenda is no closer to being realized.

This is hardly an exclusively choice/life phenomenon. Much of the same dynamics could be applied to the struggle for LGBT rights, the Occupy Wall Street protests, advocacy for the poor and so on.

For some, it's comfortable to serve at the local soup kitchen or visit a nursing home, while keeping politics and other issues of social justice at arms-length. For others, the thrill of making headlines and fighting for large-scale systemic change is too attractive to set aside. But until the two sides find some greater connective tissue, the brokenness will have little opportunity for healing or meaningful progress.