[My September 6th "From the Chairman" blog for masscitizensforlife.org.]
These are strange and perilous times for the American republic.
Words come to mind from that canny Southern novelist, Walker Percy. He published a great book in 1971 called Love in the Ruins that more or less begins like this:
“Is it that God has at last removed his blessing from the U.S.A. and what we feel now is just the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller-coaster cars as the chain catches and carries us back into history with its ordinary catastrophes, carries us out and up toward the brink from that felicitous and privileged siding where even unbelievers admitted that if it was not God who blessed the U.S.A., then at least some great good luck had befallen us, and that now the blessing or the luck is over, the machinery clanks, the chain catches hold, and the cars jerk forward?”
Now, that was right before Roe, so things were in fact to get far, far worse. Has the inexorable historical process of civilizational decline enveloped this beloved land?
Our nation has always needed critique and elevation, as every society on earth perennially stands in need. But we once ordered our common life around the principle “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
A president of the stature of Lincoln could recall these principles to our nation and excise the cancer of slavery.
But we no longer acknowledge the principles that constitute American exceptionalism. If not perfect in virtue, at least we once acknowledged the claims of virtue. If not always learned, we recognized the value of a high cultural tone and of liberal education.
Now we have come to that crisis that Saint John Paul describes in Evangelium vitae, 18:
“…a long historical process is reaching a turning-point. The process which once led to discovering the idea of ‘human rights’—rights inherent in every person and prior to any constitution or state legislation—is today marked by a surprising contradiction. Precisely in an age when the inviolable rights of the person are solemnly proclaimed and the value of life is publicly affirmed, the very right to life is being denied or trampled upon, especially at the more significant moments of existence: the moment of birth and the moment of death.”
To use fancy philosophical language: this assault on the most vulnerable bare human life is the deployment of biopower. There is no resistance to such power but an existential commitment to follow the truth regardless of what it costs us personally, even if it leaves us in every way homeless in a world gone wrong.
The right and left and center no longer place the principles of the Declaration above the multifarious indefensibilities of partisanship.
This derives from the fact that every stratum of society (the poor, the wealthy, and the middle class) pursues consumer comfort and ego consolation.
Without recovery of the first principle of civilized life, that each “man,” that is, each individual of the human species, has an inalienable right to life, we cannot have anything else. (I will suggest how these principles apply concretely to this election year in the posts to come.)
We either make the preferential option for the powerless, or we embrace the principle of power and death. That’s what our grand republic has been tending towards for a long time now. We must become virtuous enough and learned enough to stand athwart this hurtling history.