Spring 2005, Vol. 8, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2005

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
What's In a Name?

Getting Right with the Pope

Why Moral Values Did Count

What Athens Has To Do With Jerusalem

Evangelicals Discover the Culture of Life

Sin and Redemption in Atlanta

The Faith-Based Initiative Re-ups

Same-Sex Toons



Evangelicals Discover the Culture of Life
by David W. Machacek


Among the many consequences—intended and otherwise—of the Terri Schiavo affair, perhaps the most interesting was the emergence of the phrase “culture of life” into American political rhetoric. A Catholic term of art put into circulation by Pope John Paul II a decade ago, “culture of life” proved to be something of a double-edged sword for the conservative politicians who embraced it.

The prehistory of the expression traces to the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, who in the 1980s began to expound a “consistent ethic of life” that linked abortion to other issues such as euthanasia, the death penalty, and poverty. In his 1983 Gannon Lecture at Fordham University, Bernadin criticized those who focused too narrowly on particular issues, such as abortion. “Our moral, political and economic responsibilities do not stop at the moment of birth,” he urged.

“Those who defend the right to life of the weakest among us must be equally visible in support of the quality of life of the powerless among us: the old and young, the hungry and the homeless, the undocumented immigrant and the unemployed worker…We cannot urge a compassionate society and vigorous public policy to protect the rights of the unborn and then argue that compassion and significant public programs on behalf of the needy undermine the moral fiber of the society or are beyond the proper scope of governmental responsibility.” A consistent life ethic, Bernadin argued, would cut across “the spectrum of life from womb to tomb.”

John Paul II put the weight of papal authority behind such a comprehensive life ethic in a 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae—The Gospel of Life. While affirming in no uncertain terms the Church’s ban on abortion and euthanasia, the encyclical laid out a theology that linked a range of life issues—from war, poverty, and malnutrition to indiscriminate use of the death penalty and reckless disregard for the environment—as evidence of a growing “culture of death.” In the encyclical’s final chapter, the pope called for the creation of a “culture of life.”

George W. Bush seized on the phrase in his 2000 presidential campaign. When asked during his October 3 debate with Al Gore whether, as president, he would work to overturn the FDA’s approval of the “morning after” pill RU-486, he replied, “I don’t think a president can do that….I think what the next president ought to do is to promote a culture of life in America. Life of the elderly and life of those women all across the country. Life of the unborn.”  

The phrase underscored the Bush 2000 campaign theme of “compassionate conservatism” even as it represented a coded appeal to Catholic voters.

Bush again pressed the phrase into service in the October 13, 2004 presidential debate, this time in response to a question, put first to Senator Kerry, about reports that some Catholic bishops were telling parishioners that it would be a sin to vote for a candidate that supported abortion rights and stem-cell research. Asked his opinion, Bush replied, “I think it’s important to promote a culture of life. I think a hospitable society is a society where every being counts and every person matters….I believe reasonable people can come together and put good law in place that will help reduce the number of abortions.”

But it was the Schiavo case that put the “culture of life” on the American political map.

On March 17, Senator Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a Presbyterian, argued before the Senate that the chamber should move on a bill addressing the Schiavo situation before its Easter recess, saying, according to AP writer Jesse J. Holland, “It has to do with the culture of life.” (On March 21, after signing the emergency legislation, President Bush explained to reporters in Tucson, “This is a complex case with serious issues, but in extraordinary circumstances like this, it is wisest to always err on the side of life.”)

Writing in Slate on March 22, William Saletan was the first in a long queue of journalists to take Bush and company to task for embracing, as it were, an inconsistent culture of life. Those most vocal in the case “keep saying the case is about defending life, a presumption in favor of life, building a culture of life, and the dignity of the human person,” Saletan wrote. “But presumptions and cultures are generalities…The individual, Terri Schiavo, has vanished into a larger point. What remains is the impersonality of personhood, the indignity necessary to preserve dignity.”

In the March 24 Los Angeles Times, Ronald Brownstein pointed to another apparent inconsistency: “Although Bush made a special trip back to Washington from vacation to sign legislation offering a new federal right of appeal to Terri Schiavo’s parents, the president and his aides have said almost nothing about the mass shooting in Red Lake, Minn.—the deadliest outbreak of school violence since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre.”

The explanation, wrote Brownstein, might have had something to do with the fact that “the Schiavo case and the school shootings track with the preferences of two of his core constituencies. Conservative Christians pressed Bush to intervene for Schiavo, while the National Rifle Assn. and other gun-owner groups generally look to minimize the relevance of political responses to mass shootings.”

In his syndicated column in the Washington Post the next day, E. J. Dionne (noted for being a liberal Catholic) asked, “How has Terri Schiavo’s care been financed? The available information suggests that some of the money came from one of those much-derided medical malpractice lawsuits and that the drugs she needs have been paid for by Medicaid, both of which have been recent targets of Republican-sponsored legislation,” he said. “People who lack access to health care because they can’t afford insurance often die earlier than they have to—with absolutely no national publicity and with no members of Congress rising up at midnight to pass bills on their behalf.”

Still others, like Jac Wilder VerSteeg, deputy editorial page editor of the Palm Beach Post, on March 26 added the war in Iraq to the litany of inconsistencies: “It is hard to conclude that Rep. DeLay and Sen. Frist are serious about the culture of life, since they have not kept Congress in constant session over the killing of 1,500 U.S. soldiers, sent to war ill-equipped and with poor planning, much less concerned themselves with the Iraqi casualties…And did President Bush ever interrupt a vacation to get to the bottom of abuses at Abu Ghraib?”

Indeed, from the perspective of the ethical principles advocated by Pope John Paul II, VerSteeg argued, “Exploiting a tragedy for personal or political gain is as contrary to the culture of life as it gets.” The culture of life the pope advocated was much broader and more inclusive than the few hot-button political issues that concern political conservatives, and the result of such a narrow application of the principles John Paul II articulated in Evangelium Vitae “is a parody of the culture of life that ignores much of the papal document on which it supposedly is based.”

To be sure, there was debate within Catholic circles about exactly what the “culture of life” signified.

Controversy over the status of abortion and euthanasia relative to other life issues began as soon as Evangelium Vitae was released. While some saw it as an affirmation of Bernadin’s “seamless garment” approach, others, such as New York Cardinal John O’Connor, discerned a hierarchy of “life” issues. In a March 4, 1999 interview with Washington Times writer Larry Witham, for example, O’Connor employed the image of “God’s house, with abortion and euthanasia as the ‘foundation’ and unemployment, racism, housing and health care ‘crossbeams and walls.’”

Those differences of opinion were evident in the debate over Terri Schiavo as well.

In a March 23 interview on MSNBC, the Rev. John J. Paris, a bioethics professor at Boston College, argued that the application of Catholic ethics to the Schiavo case was more complex than the “right-to-lifers” were making it out to be. According to Paris, the case had to be seen “in the context of the pope’s 1980 Declaration on Euthanasia, which says that one need not use disproportionately burdensome measures to sustain life.” The operative question was what constitutes “ordinary” and “extraordinary” measures, he claimed. “Even such things as artificial nutrition and fluid can become extraordinary if they become burdensome when you have to sustain somebody for 15 years on it.”

On the other hand, in a March 27 Washington Post story by Manuel Roig-Franzia, Richard Doerflinger, vice president of the Pro-Life Secretariat of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, contended that for decades uncertainty about the ethics and obligations involved in technologically advanced life-sustaining treatment had “left Catholics free to decide.” As long as they had “prayerfully considered” the options, said Doerflinger, “either way, they would not have sinned.” But that changed after Pope John Paul II made a statement to an ethics conference in the spring of 2004 to the effect that providing food and water is “morally obligatory.”

On March 31, the day Terri Schiavo died, President Bush at a news conference expressed condolences to Terri and her “families,” and urged “all those who honor Terri Schiavo to continue to work to build a culture of life.” Bush’s continued use of this language—along with his attendance at Pope John Paul II’s funeral—signaled a new era, at least as far as UPI reporter Richard Tomkins was concerned. 

That “Bush—a born-again Chris-tian—shared a personal affinity and respect for the pope grounded in shared religious values surrounding the ‘culture of life’” suggested “the United States is no longer a stridently Protestant country in which dealings with the Holy See would automatically have a political backlash,” Tomkins wrote in an April 6 dispatch.

Others, however, continued to question whether the affinity was more than superficial.

“Then came the death of Pope John Paul II, and suddenly everybody turned Catholic,” wrote Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons April 6. “Except that, judging by TV coverage, you’d think that the late pontiff was the spiritual head of the Republican Party and that the ‘culture of life,’ as defined by GOP politicians, was the essence of the Catholic faith. Defined, that is, by ‘hot-button’ issues of sexual morality: gay marriage, gay priests, abortion, contraception, etc.”

“The pope had a notoriously broad definition [of the culture of life] and the president a very narrow one,” wrote Paul Heise in the Lebanon (Penn.) Daily News April 7. Similarly, Washington Post staff writer Jim VandeHei remarked the following day, “Not only did the pope emerge as a leading critic of Bush’s preemptive military policy, particularly in Iraq, but he also differed on international law, the death penalty and stem cell research.”

There was at least some indication that such criticism was leading some conservative politicians to expand their sense of what the culture of life included. 

“It started when Rick Santorum, a conservative Republican senator from Pennsylvania, announced two weeks ago that he was questioning his once unyielding support for the death penalty,” Anna Badkhen reported in the April 10 San Francisco Chronicle. “Then Sen. Sam Brownback, an equally conservative Kansas Republican, chimed in, saying capital punishment contradicts the efforts to establish a “culture of life.”

But to most journalists, the story remained that conservatives in the GOP were not yet Catholic enough when it came to applying a culture of life to American policy issues. As the headline on Wendi C. Thomas’ May 3 column in the Memphis Commercial Appeal put it, “Real ‘culture of life’ would embrace gun control.”

Reporting on an Earth Day event in the Merrimack River valley April 23, Matt Murphy of the Lowell (Mass.) Sun quoted an attack by Sen. John Kerry on the Bush administration’s record on mercury pollution in the nation’s rivers. “You can’t,” said Kerry, “talk about a culture of life in one breath and turn around and poison our children with the next.”

Or as NPR religion reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty suggested on All Things Considered May 7, on the rhetorical front the “culture of life” looked like it just might provide “ways for Democrats to find an opening.”



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