Law and Religion in Contemporary US
Bill Long 10/30/06
Thnking About 2006--are we "In Decline?"
Yesterday I finished my eight-week course on this theme at First Presbyterian Church, Porltand OR. Though a number of things were "in the air" in our discussion, I want to focus this essay on the concept of decline and its use as a contemporary rallying cry for the Religious Right, both Protestant and Catholic. This essay will show how the notion of "decline" arose in contemporary discussion and then how it morphed into a "culture of death" which had to be combatted. I will close by asking whether the rhetoric of those who believe we are in decline has yet been superseded.
Progress or Decline?
The spirit in the air coming out of WWII and well into the 1960s was one of "progress." Technological sophistication, medical advancement, scientific development--all of these were embraced by the mainstream establishment in the decades after WWII. We were fiercely anti-Communist, were god-fearing and were democratic in our political system. The superiority of our system was evident for all who took the time to look.
But even as we were building up to a prosperity hitherto unseen in human history, we began to come apart, in the mind of many, in the social realm. The free speech revolution in Berkeley in the mid-1960s led to protests against the Viet Nam War. The Summer of Love in San Francisco in 1967 led to "freer" behavior, both with respect to sexual conduct and the drug culture. The divorce rate began to skyrocket. Crime rose. And, to top it all, the Courts, led by the US Supreme Court, seemed to be focused on expanding individual rights and the so-called right to privacy to include a woman's right to terminate an abortion on demand at any time before the third trimester of her pregnancy. The January 22, 1973 decision of the US Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade, propelled the Fundamentalists from their culturally-isolationist behavior to take a stand against this confusing welter of events. And they did so by adopting a one-word paradigm to describe America in the 1970s-1980s: decline. America was on the road to moral decline. We were "coddling criminals," letting the unborn die, not protecting the rights of vulnerable people, contracting marriages and divorces like we were changing new outfits of clothes, allowing rampant promiscuity, promoting violence on TV, etc. Forget the advances of science; forget the increased wealth of the country; forget medical develpments. America was on a collision course with God unless we reformed our ways.
But the exhortation to reform our ways was not simply a jeremiad derived from Scripture. Rather, the Fundamentalists tried to develop a kind of "Christian reading" of American history, where the Founding Fathers, the Constitution and the Declaration were "Christian" documents from which we had strayed. Though this was not, in my judgment, a very sophisticated effort, it bespoke a growing dissatisfaction with the "trends" in cultural life in the 1960s and early 1970s.
From Decline to a Culture of Death
The Fundamentalists and their Evangelical sympathizers really didn't have enough intellectual firepower to articulate a theory of society or of state which would garner widespread support. They needed the heft of a tradition that had been around for centuries but that was not fully incompatible with their vision. And, they found such a tradition in conservative Roman Catholicism. Catholics had themselves emerged from a rather long period of cultural marginalization and now were poised to take on a greater role in shaping America's future. Though they and the Fundamentalists had historically distrusted or not understood each other (indeed most Fundamentalists would not have considered Catholics to be Christians in the 1950s), now they began to see their common interests.
And so, in the years following the 1984 publication of Richard John Neuhaus' The Naked Public Square, in which he called on people of conservative faith to reclaim the political center of American life, conservative Catholics and Evangelical/Fundamentalist leaders began to work in earnest to see if they could hammer out a consensus document to express their common purpose. Remarkably, the 1994 agreement of these groups led to an extensive (some might say "rambling") statement both of agreements and areas of some disagreement. The fifth "paragraph" addressed the theme of "We Contend Together." For what, specifically, did they contend? Among other things, it was:
"That the unborn child has a right to protection, including the protection of law, is a moral statement supported by moral reason and biblical truth. We, therefore, will persist in contending-we will not be discouraged but will multiply every effort-in order to secure the legal protection of the unborn. Our goals are: to secure due process of law for the unborn, to enact the most protective laws and public policies that are politically possible, and to reduce dramatically the incidence of abortion...."
Notice one particular line in this section, however:
"Abortion is the leading edge of an encroaching culture of death."
It is sentence we have the phrase, the "culture of death," which will now replace "moral decline" as the clarion call for this new movement. The culture of death is most evident in the availability of abortion. But, what else? It goes on:
"The helpless old, the radically handicapped, and others who cannot effectively assert their rights are increasingly treated as though they have no rights. These are the powerless who are exposed to the will and whim of those who have power over them. We will do all in our power to resist proposals for euthanasia, eugenics, and population control that exploit the vulnerable, corrupt the integrity of medicine, deprave our culture, and betray the moral truths of our constitutional order....We reject the claim that, in any or all of these areas, "tolerance" requires the promotion of moral equivalence between the normative and the deviant."
Now we have a much fuller list of woes: euthanasia, eugenics (what do they mean by this, specifically?), and "population control." The list will go on, but you get the picture. The 1994 agreement between traditional Catholic leaders and Evangelical leaders was a militant attempt to state a common agenda to take back the culture from the precipice of death.
The document just quoted almost has a sort of apocalyptic tone to it, and that wouldn't be too far removed from the general philosophy of Neuhaus. We are in a crisis, he believed; something must be done to restore America's moral standing. I think it is the powerful joining of these two forces through the efforts of Neuhaus and others that has given most impetus to a movement which scholars now call the "Theocon" movement.
But let's close this essay with a comment on the last quoted sentence above. Fueling this effort is a sense that there is absolute truth and absolute wrong; that there is no equivalence between "the normative" and "the deviant." These words, I think, will come back to haunt this movement in the present and future, for they will increasingly be exposed as examples of discredited terminology to try to ram home a political agenda. For now, however, the Theocons seemingly have broad influence in shaping the American agenda. I don't believe they will have it, however, in a few years...
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long