In recent years, a stir has been created by the vocal and aggressive involvement of evangelicals in such issues as abortion, homosexuality, and end-of-life decisions. James Thobaben, the dean of Asbury Seminary, provides what he calls a [End Page 203] “comprehensive resource” for evangelicals, and promises better understandings of their perspectives and commitments for those who are baffled or frustrated by the actions and claims of those on the religious right.
Thobaben casts a wide net when defining those he includes as “evangelicals”—Southern Baptists, members of Campus Crusade, Pentecostals, the Holiness movement, neoevangelicals, charismatics, and Anabaptists. These diverse groups are evangelicals because of their “consistency on moral choices,” doctrinal orientation, and styles of social advocacy (24). Although they differ in a number of ways, they all share having been influenced in some way by John and Charles Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and the Reformation. All stress conversion in that “one must say yes to the divine Jesus Christ” and become identified with the community of faithful believers (57). And in recent decades, they have become a potent political force with regard to the issues of abortion and homosexuality.
Thobaben covers a wide range of topics in this book: from a general discussion of theodicy and healing to bioethics, disability, sickness, family and congregational care, professional truthfulness, managing care, end-of-life decisions, assisted reproduction, organ donation, and death. Yet, although he claims to provide a “comprehensive resource” on evangelical Christian health care ethics, he fails to provide a thorough examination of his subject matter. For example, Thobaben pays little attention to the historic beginnings of the religious right. One misses any mention of political action groups or the coalitions formed with or by conservative Christian groups to pursue social reforms, or of why such disparate groups have cooperated for political or social goals under the same umbrella. He focuses solely on identifying and articulating the consensus among those who embrace certain moral values on the current scene. Thobaben’s uncritical approach to his subject matter leaves the impression that this book is essentially an apology for evangelical, right-wing Christian social thought. One searches in vain for any critical discussion of the beliefs and values he presents or any thoughtful engagement with those who might view the stances he presents as an assault against women’s rights or an attack on the rights of gays, lesbians, and transsexuals.
Moreover, in a book like this, one would have expected a more careful assessment of biblical passages and historical precedents. Thobaben does not provide much rationale for his method for moving from the Bible to current social issues. For example, no prohibition against abortion is found in the Bible and the few passages about homosexual practices hardly add up to the fierce opposition to gays found among strident evangelicals. Moreover, Thobaben does not mention that in 1965 laws against contraceptives were declared unconstitutional by the Griswold vs. Connecticut decision, the Supreme Court’s rejection of a ban supported by an evangelical crusade led by Anthony Comstock. [End Page 204]
It is interesting to note that Thobaben holds a strongly qualified commitment to religious liberty and only a “thin” version of the social contract basic to the Bill of Rights (37). He argues that in at least some situations “intolerance is not only morally understandable but strongly preferable,” as in the examples of the “abolition of slavery and prolife/antiabortion advocacy” (29) or, in another context—where he distinguishes between tolerance toward those outside the church and intolerance toward those within it—with regard to homosexuality and alcohol intoxication (30).
The task of Christian ethics is to enlighten believers and the general citizenry by a careful exposition of the sources of wisdom available to those who want to think and think morally about issues of importance to human flourishing. That task is especially important in an age of demagogic hostility toward unpopular groups. Sadly, this book does not engage such critical questions. It may prove popular, however, with those who believe such prejudices are biblically supported...