But when the “party of life” is in power, its advocates will lurch to the opposite extreme, deferring to political authority, shutting down critical thinking, giving in to the worst temptations of American exceptionalist and providentialist thinking. We’ve seen some of this in the Bush administration itself and quite a lot of it among his theocon supporters, especially with regard to the war in Iraq. ~Damon Linker at The American Scene

Mr. Linker does happen to be right about this, particularly with respect to the attitude of editors at First Things about the present administration and the war, but not exactly for the reasons that he gives (more on that in a moment). Yes, there really is a “culture of death” (one of those “absolutist” phrases that makes Linker criticise John Paul II), and one of the places where the GOP and many conservatives tend to muddle their own critique of this is in their sometimes fairly slippery grasp of what justice requires with respect to different kinds of war. There is also something of a “culture of life.” Of course, Linker’s own extreme conclusions about what the reality of these would imply should not be mistaken for anything like the serious view of what a “culture of life” entails. The problem, according to Linker, is this:

The use of the rhetoric of the “culture of death” to describe such issues as abortion and euthanasia, which in my view is both alarmist and irresponsible. Is one of the two political parties in America today — and one of its three branches of government — in the hands of an elite that is spreading an ideology of “death”? And is, then, the nation’s other party toiling away to spread a “culture of life”? I find it hard to imagine a closer approximation to the Manichaean rhetoric of the “children of light” and the “children of darkness” against which Reinhold Niebuhr warned several decades ago. If this is the American reality — as theocon ideology maintains — then every incendiary word of the “End of Democracy?” symposium was warranted. Then the populist indignation and contempt for the rule of law displayed by the Republicans who intervened in the Terri Schiavo case was fully justified. Then theocons such as Robert P. George and Hadley Arkes are right to propose absolutist, uncompromising solutions to the problem of abortion by seeking to outlaw (and presumably punish) it in all cases. After all, death is death, life is life, and murder is murder. End of debate, discussion, and compromise.

Wow. So if there really was a “culture of death,” the rule of law no longer has any importance whatsoever? If it exists, all deliberation and discussion must cease? Only total war against the Darkness remains an option? Linker’s frenzied imagination of what a “moral absolutist” must think explains a fair amount about why he is so terrified of them.

Mind you, the question of judicial usurpation is and ought to be independent of whether or not there is a “culture of death”–the Constitution gives the judiciary certain powers, and usurpation would mean that the judiciary had exceeded those powers. Properly speaking, the arguments advanced against judicial usurpation in “The End of Democracy?” symposium should be the same arguments advanced against legislative usurpation of the sort practised in the Terri Schiavo case. The Terri Schiavo case was a good example of how the rhetoric of the “culture of life” can become detached from more general moral reasoning–abstract Life becomes a sort of reified thing that is absolutely good in and of itself, and nothing else needs to be considered. The problem in that case was not the idea of the “culture of life,” but the contempt for the law and an exceedingly materialistic obsession with prolonging physical life regardless of the circumstances or consequences. As it happens, I think that the Schiavo case does not necessarily follow from the “culture of life,” but comes instead from a misunderstanding of what being pro-life means. But that is an argument for another day.

There are duly designated limits to each branch’s authority, and the Florida legislature and governor violated those limits pretty blatantly. It is quaint to talk about such things in an era when Mr. Bush can brazenly violate the Constitution at will, but since we are talking about them we might as well be consistent. Funny how real moral “absolutists,” of which I would consider myself one, are capable of balancing numerous claims and complex ideas–almost as if we were rational and not the bogeys of Linker’s nightmares!

Whoever is originally responsible in the modern age for applying the word Manichean to every strong contrast of principles, as if stark opposition between truth and falsehood were something that only gnostics practised, needs to be found and duly punished for making a word with very specific meaning completely worthless. Manicheanism, or theological dualism or any kind, is exactly the opposite of what Linker would call moral “absolutism.” As C.S. Lewis explained fairly well, if the Manichees and other dualists were right then evil men are simply acting according to the evil principle and good men according to the good principle, and neither is inherently or naturally prior, more real or more true than the other. Evil acts become accidents of cosmology, not moral decisions. On the other hand, opposing murder, be it abortion, euthanasia or some other kind of murder, presupposes a single, ultimate standard of justice and the ultimate reality of the Good.

I would suggest that the flip-flopping nature of this attitude towards those in power (condemning Clinton’s lawless regime here, praising Bush’s regime there) is precisely not rooted in so-called “absolutist” doctrines, but in the attenuation of the same and in the opportunism and shifting rhetoric that attends an increasingly autocratic system of government. With the rise of autocracy, flattery and invective become two sides of the same coin, and the rhetoricians use the exaggerations of both genres interchangeably depending on whether they are in favour at court and whether they support a rival to the throne. The two parties in this system function as a sort of permanent crew of sycophants, while the think tanks of each side serve as the intellectual arsenal for the justification of whatever strikes the new autocrat’s fancy. First Things is not alone in playing a sort of Prokopios to different presidential autocrats (of course, Prokopios’ two sides were even more extreme because he was applying both invective and praise to the same man), vilifying the one and praising the other, but its shifting claims are more a function of the nature of the regime than of their commitment to the “culture of life.”