Ramesh Ponnuru has kicked off a very important discussion with his book The Party of Death , and nobody has contributed to the discussion more intelligently than Ross Douthat over on The American Scene . The discussion is most importantly about abortion and the related “life questions,” but it goes to the heart of how we understand our society and constitutional order, and how we deliberate and debate in the public square. Christians, says Douthat, could live with a liberalism that affirms, as the American Founders did affirm, a Creator who endowed people with inalienable rights. That is far from being all that Christians want to say about the reality of which we are part, but it is enough to give Christians a place to stand, so to speak, within this constitutional order.

The pro-choice party today, Douthat notes, has largely abandoned the constituting affirmations that make this polity morally tolerable for Christians. And, one must add, for believing Jews and Muslims. But let’s hear Douthat, and then I’ll have a couple of words to add. (He’s responding, in part, also to John Derbyshire, who claims Ponnuru is trying to impose his Catholic beliefs on others. Derbyshire is a Mencken manque who, as St. Paul might say, boasts of his shame in not really caring about those embryos, fetuses, or whatever they are.) Douthat writes:

However, the Lockean settlement was obviously a long time ago, and most of today’s liberals no longer believe in the “endowed-by-their-Creator” theory of human rights. Which is why abortion has become such a flashpoint—because it’s the place where modern liberals have instituted a utilitarian approach to killing in place of the older natural-rights-based understanding, and the place where Christians are resisting. This explains, in turn, why pro-lifers make liberal arguments even though the source of their conviction is usually religious: it’s not because they’re dishonestly concealing their Christianity, but because they still think that rights-based liberalism is the common ground between Christians and secularists, and so they naturally attempt to argue on that ground.

And the current pro-life frustration, I think, flows from the fact that pro-choicers have half-abandoned this common ground, but often won’t admit it. Hence the constant talk about slippery slopes and infanticide from my side of the debate: it’s not because we necessarily think America is about to legalize infanticide, but because we’re trying to demonstrate to the pro-choice side that they only have one foot left in rights-based liberalism, and that there are some pretty awful things waiting where they’ve put their other foot down.

The question for Christians, of course, is whether the common ground can be saved at all, and whether American liberalism can be brought back from the utilitarian regions where it’s been straying. Restoring this common ground is the main project, for instance, of a writer like Richard John Neuhaus , who—despite Damon Linker’s rather silly view of him as a would-be destroyer of liberalism—spends much of his time defending the continuing relevance of the liberal project to Christians, and criticizing those Christians who would give up on it.

The good folks at the New Pantagruel , on the other hand, would have Christians to pull up stakes in the liberal project entirely. As the blogger at their Japery puts it, commenting on the Derb-Ramesh throwdown: “In sum, Derbyshire is a scientific materialist who approaches issues of politics and reason as a tribalist, while Ponnuru is a Christian who approaches politics and reason as a universalist. Derbyshire has no practical belief in God, thinks religion is functionally necessary as crowd control, thinks moral truth is hokum, and relies almost exclusively on accumulated tribal prejudices and protections for social cohesion and order. Ponnuru, on the other hand, is a committed Catholic, thinks the Catholic natural law tradition provides clear moral guidance to everyone reasoning rightly, and relies on a Lockean (which is to say liberal) notion of a procedural pluralism to provide social cohesion and order. Ponnuru argues the pro-life position as a procedural liberal Christian. Derbyshire argues against the invasion of his tribe by such puritan busy-body liberal do-goodism as an unapologetic prejudiced conservative atheist. What fun!

“Ponnuru is right: a Christian cannot countenance (within his tribe at least) the various evils of abortion, euthanasia, etc., which are defended by the party of death. Derbyshire is right: Christianity is a cult, and plastering a thin veneer of natural law over procedural liberalism is an incredibly rickety construct to hang the whole moral order of a society on (which is likely to be co-opted by a totalitarian state). What is needed is some Christian Derbyshires (or Christian Machiavellians as I have elsewhere called them ): those willing to discard the flimsy liberal assumptions about politics and reason and argue from within the cult; from within a specifically and tribally Western understanding of right order and the way the world is.”

This is an idea that occasionally sounds very attractive to me in theory, but in practice—well, I have no idea what it would mean in practice. My own sense is that the Christian compromise with liberalism may not be salvageable in the long run, but that for the moment, Christians have no choice but to try.

The New Pantagruel position is familiar, of course, and not without its attractions. One thinks, for instance, of the writings of Stanley Hauerwas of Duke and, among Catholics, his disciple at Notre Dame, Fr. Michael Baxter. I’m a bit puzzled by Douthat’s saying we’re not heading toward infanticide. Partial birth abortion, allowed by the Supreme Court under the unlimited abortion license, is not just as the late Senator Moynihan called “close to infanticide”; it is infanticide.

But Douthat is right: What is the real-world alternative to a rights-based liberal polity? Fr. John Courtney Murray was right as well: This polity is based on “articles of peace,” not “articles of faith.” At least until recently, Christians could supply the articles of faith that support and fill in the gaps of the constitutional articles of peace. I believe we must continue to try to do that.

As to whether this political order is “salvageable in the long run,” I don’t know either. Which is why I persistently say, as the American founders said, that this is an experiment, and experiments can fail as well as succeed. Many people, including many conservatives, think that such failure is unthinkable. Hence the uproar almost ten years ago over the First Things symposium “The End of Democracy?”

I do not say frivolously but with utmost seriousness that “in the long run” we are confidently expecting the Kingdom of God. We live “between the times” of the resurrection victory of Christ and the historical vindication of that victory in his Second Coming. (Please do not confuse this belief with the modern innovation of pre-millennialist dispensationalism that fascinates so many Christians today.) Along the way to the oncoming Kingdom, our ultimate allegiance is to Christ and our primary polity is his Church. Christians are, as they have always been when they’re faithful, dual citizens.

A critical question is whether abortion, euthanasia, and related crimes are a logical working out of the founding principles of liberal democracy or a betrayal of those principles. Is Roe an aberration or a necessary consequence of this kind of polity? Obviously, I think it is an aberration. And even if that position fails to prevail politically and legally, it does not mean it is not an aberration. History is littered with triumphant aberrations.

As at other times in our national story, we are engaged in a great contest over whether a nation so conceived can long endure. We don’t know how it will turn out, and a decisive victory for one side or the other may be long delayed. And, in fact, there may be no decisive victory one way or the other. Considering the alternatives, there is something to be said for muddling through. Meanwhile, it is the case that we have no choice—no morally responsible choice—but to try. Unless, of course, somebody comes up with a plausible proposal for replacing this constitutional order with something better, which I do not expect.


In addition to which :

Jews, being focused on doing well and doing good in this world, are not interested in eternal life. That is a stereotype debunked by Rabbi Byron Sherwin in the June/July issue of First Things . What may be true of many Jews is definitely not true of Judaism, he argues in “Jews and the World to Come.” Rabbi Sherwin underscores truths that are essential to an honest and productive Jewish-Christian dialogue, which is an abiding concern of First Things . Isn’t it time you subscribed ?

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