The Election and the (Culture) War
What does the 2006 election mean for Catholic participation in American political life? I think this country is sick of endless war – literal war and metaphorical war. Political commentators say that the midterm elections were a referendum on the war in Iraq, which is spilling the blood of both Americans and Iraqis with no clear political objective and no clear exit strategy. In my view, it is also a referendum on the culture wars: the take-no-prisoners-and-admit-no-doubt strategy of the Religious Right, which ended up being nothing more than a pathetic mirror image of the same strategy used by the secular Left twenty years earlier. I hope that the resounding defeat of Rick Santorum signals the end of this way of rhetorically framing controversial moral and social issues in both the Catholic Church in America and in American political life more generally. The way the theocons framed and defended the Iraq War was strikingly consonant with their framing of controversial domestic issues. I think – I hope – the viewers are saying that it’s this prophetic (and perhaps apocalyptic) frame that has to go.
1. A Manichean world view: it’s Good v. Evil, the forces of light v. the forces of darkness. And by the way, WE are GOOD.
2. A delight in demonizing the opposition: who could see anything good in the forces of darkness? How could the forces of darkness have any point worth considering whatsoever?
3. An inability to recognize hard questions, and to acknowledge good faith disagreement about difficult moral and political issues. To Catholic culture warriors, the question of stem-cell research, or the Terri Schiavo case, weren’t even hard questions. The very suggestion that they are hard questions proved your moral turpitude.
4. An ends-justifies-the-political-means mentality. If what it takes to rid the world of Saddam is prevarication on WMDs, so be it. If what it takes to save Terri Schiavo is to violate settled principles of federalism, so be it.
5. An inability to see nuance, or to take into account anything but one moral principle at a time. Abortion is the taking of innocent human life. Nothing else needs to be said. Therefore it should always be illegal, even in cases of rape or incest. If you think the question of the woman’s consent to sex is at all relevant to the legal status of abortion, you’re the enemy.
6. A preference for the stick rather than the carrot – after all, you can’t fight a war with a carrot. Support marriage by banning gay marriage; don’t provide married couples with the social support and other resources they need to make their commitment stick. Be pro-life by banning abortion, not by voting for social services that will prevent unwanted pregnancies or help mothers and fathers make a long-term commitment to raise children.
You can’t argue someone out of a culture war mindset – on either side. You can’t make someone see nuance if they don’t want to see it. It’s a waste of time to try and do so. But maybe social conservatives who aren’t culture warriors – who see distinctions, who see some good in their misguided political opponents — might find a way of working together with social progressives of the same ilk.
For Catholics, I suggest the following:
1. The theological model should be Benedict’s Augustinian Deus Caritas Est – not John Paul II’s “Culture of Life v. Culture of Death.” The culture of life v. culture of death language too easily feeds Manichean tendencies present deeply present in our culture.
2. The legal model on abortion and marriage issues should be Mary Ann Glendon’s Abortion and Divorce in Western Law. It also should be the rhetorical model. It is humane, gradualist, and more concerned with the role of law as a teacher than law as police officer. I quote my colleague Don Kommers’s blurb on the back of my copy of the book:
“This book is dynamite. It blows to bits the often-heard contention that compromise on abortion policy is impossible in a divided society. The experience of other nations equally sundered along religious and moral lines shows that it is possible to craft an abortion policy marked by compassion for pregnant women and respect for unborn life. The argument of this book is graceful, elegant and persuasive. One reason for its persuasiveness is the author’s sympathy for the commitments and concerns of both sides for the abortion controversy.” She appeals to their deepest convictions, as well as to the general values of American society, to show that somewhere between the extreme positions of abortion on demand and no abortion at all a sensible and sensitive policy favored by most Americans is to be found.”
The book was written nearly twenty years ago. I am not sure that Professor Glendon still endorses its approach. But I think it is worth taking a second look at.