Monday, June 22, 2009

Liberalism and the Pro-Life Movement

This post is going to be critical of the recently deceased Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (priest of the Archdiocese of New York, best known for founding and editing First Things), so let me begin by saying: Fr. Neuhaus was a great man. He did an awful lot to help me understand conservatism and the connections between faith and politics -- in fact, between faith and all of life. He is responsible for all sorts of conversions of all sorts of people in all sorts of directions. And he was one of the most cultured voices of our time (which, unfortunately, is kind of a back-handed compliment). That said . . .

Fr. Neuhaus used to describe his movement from the Democratic Party of the 1960's to the Republican Party almost entirely in terms of abortion. As far as I can tell, he wasn't all that interested in economics, and though he had sympathies with and friends in the so-called "neo-conservative" (really, neo-Wilsonian) camp on foreign policy, I don't think he was that interested in foreign policy, either. Perhaps it would be fair to say that he was firmly agnostic about issues of foreign policy and economics, but very committed to what is now known as "conservatism" in social issues, and therefore thought there was no good reason to vote for the pro-choice party against the pro-life one. You might say he was a single-issue voter -- and one of the most eloquent voices for that position.

Before criticizing part of his argument, let me say that there is much to be said for this calculus. I am a convinced free-market economic conservative, but I must admit: the cultural issues are much more black and white. And we might say that making cultural issues (especially life and marriage) our "single issue" is not about dismissing the importance of other issues so much as dismissing the clarity of them. A politician who holds tight to murky economic and foreign-policy theories -- Keynsianism, pacificism, Wilsonianism, or whatever -- but can't see the gross injustice of murdering the unborn . . . well, I would not entrust that moral compass with babysitting my children, let alone running my country. Whatever may be going on in Ted Kennedy's heart . . . gosh, do you really want someone that screwed up to run your country? So I'm with Fr. Neuhaus so far.

But here's the critique. Fr. Neuhaus always (and frequently!) described the pro-life movement as just the next-step in civil rights. 1960's liberalism, he claimed, was about "expanding the circle of inclusion." First we recognize that blacks are people too, and deserve full respect, then we recognize that even the tiny unborn are people, and we extend the protection of law to include them, too. As Fr. Neuhaus sees it -- and I think a lot of other people see it this way too, even stripes of conservative Catholics who don't generally like Fr. Neuhaus -- opposing abortion is just about extending legal protection to ever broader circles of human persons.

A Critique
The first tip-off to what's wrong with this approach is historical. The civil rights movement was about universal suffrage, the right to vote. That idea was only dimly conceived even at the founding of the United States. Even the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, passed in 1868 to enforce the gains of the Civil War, did not demand that blacks be allowed to vote. It guarantees that due process of law will proceed any deprivation of "life, liberty, or property" (which are, by the way, called "privileges," not "rights"); it guarantees "the equal protection of the laws" -- but when it comes to voting, it just says that if a State deprives any class ("of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens" ) of "the right to vote," then the State will proportionately lose representation in Congress.

Another amendment, number Fifteen, was required to give suffrage to all (male citizens of the right age), regardless of race "or color." (Apparently the two words did not have the same meaning.) This was in the revolutionary fervor of 1870. But it is remarkable that, for all the power of the Fourteenth Amendment, it clearly did not extend universal suffrage.

Abortion, on the other hand, has been considered grossly immoral since the beginning of Christian civilization, including documents from the first and second centuries. (I can speak, perhaps, as the world expert on an issue of particular interest: Joe Biden noted some peculiarities in Thomas Aquinas's embryology, and on the technical question of why exactly abortion is wrong -- but Thomas nonetheless held that early abortion was "lustful cruelty or cruel lust;" those who commit very early abortions "directly will the death of their own child, even before it lives;" and thus they are rightly called, among other things, fornicators, prostitutes, or adulterers. And that is only for very early abortions: about forty days in -- not half way through the first trimester -- abortion becomes full blown murder, says St. Thomas. Sorry Mr. Vice President, not a partial-birth pro-choice ally.)

So here's the problem for Fr. Neuhaus's narrative: Christians have always, from the very beginning, opposed abortion, but the notion of univeral suffrage, civil rights of any kind, or even the wrongness of slavery are distinctly modern -- in some sense, even post-Christian, and certainly do not originate in the Catholic Church. All to say, we don't need to talk about "expanding the circle of inclusion" in order to explain why abortion is wrong.

If we believe (as Catholics do, though many Protestants don't) that the most important moral issues are included in the Deposit of Faith, given once for all by Our Lord himself, and maintained always by his Church, we have to conclude that abortion -- and, yes, marriage, and the right of parents to educate their own children -- are issues of a wholly different order, far more black-and-white than anything (except lynching) in the Civil Rights movement.

Similarly if we believe (as the Greeks did, and most of the Christian tradition), that moral truth is discovered by the insight of upright people, not by any kind of progressive "science," then there's no reason to think that new moral issues would be discovered only in the 20th century. Good people have always known right and wrong; Civil Rights is just a different kind of issue.

That's not to say, of course, that I oppose giving blacks the vote. I am very much in favor! Just to say, these are not part of the same story. The pro-life "movement" does not take its origin in the march to civil rights.

Indeed, the greater problem here is the very notion of a "march," or progress.

It is often noted -- especially by people like Fr. Neuhaus -- that the word "liberalism" has gone through at least three very distinct, seemingly contradictory phases. In the nineteenth century (and still, in some Eur0pean discourses) "liberalism" went with what we now call the Free Market. Liberals were laissez-faire in economics.

But by the time of Presidents Wilson and FDR, the word was reappropriated (apparently) by the very opposite movement: liberalism came to mean economic progressivism, government entering in to redistribute wealth and protect the poor through vigorous regulation.

And then about the time Nixon was clobbering George McGovern, in 1972, liberalism "suddenly" stopped being interested in the intense moralism of the FDR-LBJ years, and suddenly latched on to Woodstock, sexual libertinism, and all that.

How confusing! Fr. Neuhaus showed little interest in the 19th century incarnation, but was quite chagrined that the great social concern of mid-20th century liberalism had given way to the libertinism of late-20th century Democrat politics. Can't we just resurrect LBJ, and his march of individual rights?

Well, what Fr. Neuhaus's narrative fails to see is the driving coherence of liberalism through all three stages. Liberalism originally -- and still -- fundamentally means Progress, "liberty" from ancient prejudice. Conservatism is a very good name for the opposite of liberalism -- whatever it is that conservatives want to conserve (and that's a story for another day), they "stand athwart history yelling stop!" in the famous opening slogan of National Review. The fundamental disagreement is whether human history is fundamentally about progress or . . . not.

19th-century liberals originally thought that the free economy would be the best way to subvert the traditional order, disengage from traditional morality, and religion, and aesthetics, and move on to the New Age. That's ironic, because in the late-18th century Adam Smith and Edmund Burke had already been arguing precisely the opposite -- but this is a post about liberalism, not conservatism. In any case, late in the 19th century, the liberals -- that is, those who wanted to overthrow the old order -- shifted from the free market to the State economy. They could do this because liberalism was never about economics. It was about social change. That included some things we find good -- like the abolition of slavery, maybe universal suffrage (I'll discuss that another time), etc. -- but it also included the race to contraception and abortion (from early on!), the elimination of Christianity, etc.

Of course, many Christians came along for the ride. I know nothing about the thinking of Woodrow Wilson and FDR as men, though reliable sources claim they would be appalled at the crazies surrounding George McGovern. But look at the role of the Catholic Church. When the New Deal came along, the Church saw it as a way of caring for the poor. In that sense, it was not "liberal" at all: the Church has always believed in the obligation for the rich to take care of the poor.

For a couple decades -- roughly 1952-1968? -- liberalism's primary aim was "racial" justice: more social than economic. The Church's embrace of this movement involved idealism, to be sure: the Church has always taught that human nature is independent of skin color. In fact, for Thomas Aquinas, skin color, black or white, is one of his favorite examples of something "accidental," something that doesn't touch one's essential nature. He used it, not because skin color was a big issue in his day, but because it wasn't: medievals wouldn't think of depriving someone of the protection of law on account of skin color. It just wouldn't occur to them.

(The race issue did appear in the 16th century, when Spanish colonists debated whether American Indians had souls. But it is important to note that this debate pitted Thomists and the papacy, who were both militant defenders of the humanity of the Indians, against the nationalist and economic goals of the Spanish crown: tradition stood on the side of the Indians. Which is why even Foucault could say that racism is a distinctly modern phenomenon, only really taking off in the 19th century.)

So the Church's horse in the Civil Rights Movement was not liberal but conservative: they were fighting for a return to Christian civilization. And thus they sided with the liberals, who had distinctly different goals. But we have to be clear: very few people outside the Catholic Church -- and, honestly, not even that many people within the Catholic Church -- viewed this as tradition against modernity. For the majority, Civil Rights was about progress: liberalism.

(The states rights issue is distinct, but I can't get into that here.)

And, it really has to be said, Church leaders have always played Realpolitik, usually badly. There was idealism in Catholic support for the New Deal and the Civil Rights Movement -- but there was also cynicism. Catholics supported economic justice: but in this country, they also took the side of the poor because they were poor. In the 1930s, Catholics were still a distinctly foreign, lower-class, labor population. And like many, they sided with the New Deal not just because they thought it was Right, but because they thought it was good for Number One. (I just heard a lecture about the biography of Fr. John Ryan, Catholic chaplain of the New Deal. Not exactly objective.)

A similar thing happened in the Civil Rights Movement. There was idealism, to be sure. But there was also positioning. On the one hand, Catholics weren't particularly conservative when it came to the United States. Although I think we've come to realize how good the US model is for the Catholic Church, the country has anti-Catholicism deep in its roots, from the religious establishments of the 18th century to the Know Nothings and public-school movements of the 19th century to the anti-immigration push throughout the 20th century. Subverting the old order seemed like a good thing -- kind of like President Bush ousted Saddam Hussein, figuring we must be able to do better than that guy. This kind of Catholic "liberalism" wasn't exactly idealistic: it just hoped it would come out ahead.

On the other hand, Catholics were also trying to become mainstream, and the Civil Rights Movement seemed like a good horse to ride into town. In 1928, Catholic Presidential candidate Al Smith was treated to burning crosses and electoral disaster. In 1960, JFK eked out a victory. World War II had provided a great way for Catholics to show that they were good Americans, too -- so after the war, Catholic leaders jumped on any bandwagon they could find, hoping to gain cultural tolerance. Again, this isn't exactly idealistic. It's more parallel to all the times in the middle ages when the Church sided with one king against another because they hoped to advance their own cause -- or to the Church's Ostpolitik in the mid-20th century, which agreed to be quiet about the evils of Communism, not out of any philosophical seriousness, but because they feared a Reagan/John Paul kind of opposition would result in reprisals. (It didn't.)

Of course, Father Neuhaus wasn't a Catholic when he was marching alongside Martin Luther King. But there was probably something of the same thinking. On the one hand, he honestly believed that racism was contrary to the Bible -- and thus, however poorly Fr. Neuhaus may describe his own thinking, it was conservative, not liberal, pushing for a restoration of ancient values, not "progress." And on the other hand, he wanted to hook Christianity's wagon to the best horse, and he thought this was a good way to make Christianity popular. More on that in a minute.

But we shouldn't be surprised that liberalism turned on us. Church Realpolitik is perennially unsuccessful. (In Catholic doctrine, infallibity extends only to faith and morals -- not to politics.) Marching alongside Fr. Neuhaus and other Christian Civil Rights folk were people who saw this as the latest battle in the March of History, the newest progress, yet another way to overthrow the Ancien Regime. When you look at it, I think it's intuitively obvious: LBJ's "Great Society" was not about perennial values, it was about progress. The youth of the '60s rose, not to work with their parents, but to overthrow them. They yearned for a new age. For Richard John Neuhaus and some people like him, Selma and Woodstock were polar opposites -- but for an awful lot of people, it was all part of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

It was all part of liberalism: a belief in unbridled progress, a belief that history moves from darkness to light. And in that project, the fact that marriage, parenthood, and the sanctity of life are ancient values is precisely an argument against them. To a true liberal, calling monogamous marriage "traditional" is argument enough for its abolition. Forward to a new age! At the very least, people infected with liberalism see no reason for deference to what is old.

Today's Pro-Life Movement
Today, the pro-life movement is crippled by the same mistakes as the mid-century Church. Fr. Neuhaus claims that opposing abortion is part of the march for Civil Rights, expanding the circle of inclusion. And the pro-life movement has swallowed that argument, hook, line, and sinker. We speak of abortion as a matter of individual rights.

This is, of course, utterly untraditional language -- because the tradition has never viewed persons primarily as Individuals, nor does it speak of people primarily in terms of "rights." Rights is a category of modern political discourse. It has a place in highly technical documents like the US Constitution. But traditional morality is about obligations, debts -- and relationships, not Individuals.

To speak of abortion as a matter of individual rights is also (I hate to say it) absurd -- because motherhood is not an individual thing. As long as the baby is in utero, those two individuals are inseparable; you can't pit one "person's" rights against the other's. "Leave that baby alone" is a ridiculous thing to say to the person whose womb it is inhabiting.

Why does the pro-life movement insist that abortion is a matter of individual rights? Perhaps because, like the mid-century Church, it thinks it can jump on the bandwagon of liberalism and seem less old fashioned. Oddly enough, we could criticize those old ladies holding up pictures of aborted fetuses for trying too hard to be liked. Opposing abortion is not like sticking up for the Tibetans -- or marching at Selma. It's not a matter of sticking up for the voiceless and powerless against the mean and powerful. (Though the abortion industry is mean and powerful.)

Because, above all, opposing abortion is not about the forward march of individual rights. It is, quite the contrary, a matter of standing athwart history yelling "stop!" It is a matter of voicing the timeless truth -- timeless, because written in Nature itself -- that mothers are inseparable from their babies, women inseparable from their motherhood, the person inseparable from her body. Abortion is violence against women.

Does it match liberal rhetoric to say we should prevent people from doing themselves harm? No. Is it dashingly modern to say that women should be bound by childbearing? No. Is it cutting edge to say that some things are just wrong? Of course not.

But what the pro-life movement has to realize -- what the Church has to realize -- is that we're not liberals. We're not about progress. There are places for progress: sewage, transportation, communication. But morality is not a place for progress: because human nature is always the same; because moderns are no more moral than the ancients; because the Deposit of Faith is once for all.

And we have to realize that we have something worth buying. What is ancient, traditional, perennial, and eternal is actually pretty attractive. We stand on the street corners shouting that we're the next great thing in Liberal Progress and Individual Rights, and we might even convince ourselves (as I think Fr. Neuhaus did), but ultimately, the reason people are pro-life is because they realize that abortion is not a matter of one person against another, but that it's just plain wrong, contrary to Nature, contrary to a woman's nature. It's not woman vs. baby. It's the abortionist against both.

And you know, I think people are interested in hearing perennial truths. Nature is actually a pretty attractive idea. We don't need to be liberals to win elections, or hearts.