The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in 1983 began arguing that opposition to war, capital punishment, euthanasia, and abortion fit together in a “seamless garment” of pro-life issues. The seamless garment concept was popular with Catholic and Protestant thinkers who mixed theological conservatism with political liberalism but has not gained universal acceptance within the pro-life movement. One of the rare politicians who championed the idea was the late Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey, an economically progressive Democrat who argued that protection for the unborn was consistent with the “widening circle of democracy” that extended rights to the poor, women, and racial minorities. Some more socially liberal seamless-garment exponents would include gay rights in this list.
As a practical matter, it is easy to see how such views would drive a wedge between pro-lifers and their conservative allies. Critics of the seamless garment ideal argue that it gives liberal Democrats a pass on abortion by elevating other issues. Therefore, the argument goes, pro-life Catholics would still feel justified in voting for pro-choice Ted Kennedy because of his opposition to the Iraq War and the death penalty.
Perhaps the most audacious and improbable attempt to re-brand the pro-life movement was undertaken by Joseph Bottum in First Things, the highbrow religious-conservative journal of which he is now editor. Bottum inverted the logic of the nonviolent consistent life ethic to argue that the “new fusionism” in American politics inextricably linked pro-lifers to supporters of the Iraq War and neoconservatives more generally.
In terms of electoral politics, Bottum’s portrayal is certainly closer to the mark than the Seamless Garment Network’s. The so-called values voters, most of whom are pro-life, and people who favored President Bush’s interventionist post-9/11 foreign policy together formed the basis of the 2004 Republican majority. Social conservatives are the largest mass constituency on the Right; any dominant conservatism, like the supply-siders of the 1980s and budget-balancers of the 1990s, needs their support. But Bottum does not stop with this uncontested political reality. He argues for the ideological compatibility of opposition to abortion and what he calls “the remoralization of foreign policy.” ~W. James Antle III, The American Conservative
Mr. Antle’s article was a pleasure to read, and I appreciate the opportunity it affords to return to the subject of Mr. Bottum’s “new fusionism” that I have already discussed at length last month. It also provides the occasion, in connection with the question of the so-called “seamless garment” of “consistent life” advocates, to relate more closely Mr. Bottum’s sloppy thinking on his version of conservatism to his uninspired theological reflections on capital punishment.
Mr. Antle makes short work of the universalist impulses that motivate Cardinal Bernardin’s system and Mr. Bottum’s new (con)fusionism. Not only does he ridicule the dubious link Mr. Bottum makes between opposing abortion and supporting aggression in Iraq, but easily shows that respect for life, which might motivate concern for the lives of the poor or the oppressed, does not necessarily translate it into the preferred government policies advocated by the “consistent life” and “new fusionist” crowds. But there is a larger problem with these views that Mr. Antle did not, probably because of space limitations, have a chance to discuss. In straitjacketing a variety of different ethical and political questions in the constraints of a generic universal right, neither the “consistent life” nor “new fusionist” position can make the proper determinations about the scale and circumstances of specific cases or the different ways in which justice should be sought for things as widely varying as civil rights, environmental policy and war.
Such is the nature of this sort of universalism that consequences of, say, “moral” military intervention in a country are deemed irrelevant because it is the “right thing to do” to free or otherwise “improve the lives” of the erstwhile oppressed. In this way, the actual injustices of aggression, interfering in another nation’s internal affairs and sending Americans into someone else’s fight are simply erased from consideration because an intervention will make the people in question “better off” in some abstract way.
As with all universalists (whom we might distinguish from genuine defenders of moral absolutes with whom they have little in common) both the “consistent life” advocates and “new fusionists” seem to move from a general idea of the Right to Life that is applied in blanket fashion with no concern for means, circumstances or, indeed, any standard of justice. For both camps life is defined essentially in what Voegelin called “immanent-worldly” terms, the purely material, non-transcendent life of biological man. Both justify unjust policies of redistribution or coercion on the claim of defending not just human life but the quality thereof, which makes both believers in Sozialtechnik and the state-as-caretaker (in Bottum’s case, not only our caretaker, but ultimately the caretaker of the oppressed everywhere). The purpose for which men live, virtue, the state of the soul, repentance and salvation never enter prominently into their understanding of what life is or what it is for, yet it is only these things considered in addition to material welfare that allow for full participation in Life.
Where Bernardin supposedly sees an equal obligation to defend the unborn and provide, say, universal health care (the latter achieved, of course, through coercion and theft of other people’s substance to the impoverishment, one might add, of their lives), Bottum seems to see something like an equal obligation to defend the unborn and start wars against for the purpose of improving political conditions in foreign countries, because opponents of abortion and opponents of “Islamofascism and rule by terror” (with which, presumably, pre-war Iraq is supposed to be connected) are supposed to be committed to human life and dignity in similar ways. The latter is something of a qualitative assessment about life that life under certain political conditions, I suppose, is not really life at all, but for that dedication to an abstract notion of life Mr. Bottum is willing to sacrifice real lives, American and foreign, and actually tolerate the general worsening of a country’s “quality of life” for the sake of a political project, again with scarce concern for means or justice.
Fearful that the death penalty attaches too much “cosmic” significance to the state, thus making it into an idol, Bottum prefers instead the idol of life to which he readily sacrifices justice for the victims of murder. (He seems to miss that the state does not claim to be “balancing the books” of blood-debt or cosmic imbalance, but is depriving from someone exactly what he chose to deprive from others in the simple justice of giving someone what he deserves.) Real human dignity and life are, in fact, most expendable for those who, like Bottum, claim to be defending them more consistently. His pro-life, pro-war combination is “consistent” to some degree in Bottum’s system, but only because he has such a diminished sense of why we respect life and even less of what our lives are for.
But if someone idolises human life as good for its own sake, which many materialists and pro-life advocates do (the latter sometimes quite unwittingly in their desire to protect the innocent), rather than for the purpose for which it was created (salvation), he will likely not be so concerned with how it is prolonged and preserved so long as the notion of Life, not the God Who is Life, is advanced and glorified. This is the moral vacuum of vitalism and the “life-affirming” ethic that makes improved, extended and lengthy biological existence into the Good. Hence, I suspect, the hysteria over Mrs. Schiavo, where the real dividing line was not nearly so fundamental as we were led to believe: on the one side, those who wish a certain standard of living, after which life is expendable, and on the other those who are intensely attached to prolonging life, no matter how utterly meaningless such a “life” becomes. Transhumanism is only the most extreme and ludicrous form of the view of biological life as the Good to which I believe “consistent life” advocates and “new fusionists” subscribe.
But isn’t there real virtue and clarity in holding thoroughgoing, “consistent” views across the board? If we understand consistent as a description of a body of thought organised by a single standard that purportedly determines all ethical and political judgements, I think not. ‘Consistency’ as a defining feature of thought may be said to be the mark of an ideologue, if the measure of consistency is not compatibility with reality but with the closed system of ideas being advanced. Being consistent in this sense is to be impervious both to the extensive diversity in the world, to historical contingency and change and to changing circumstances. A consistent person in this sense is not a principled person, but someone who has certain reflexive responses by which he judges all things. It would be as if someone were to take one prejudice, reasonable in itself, and attempt to understand all of life by that prejudice.
What it quite clear about the “consistent” views of Cardinal Bernardin and Mr. Bottum is that they are developed for mobilising political supporters in certain directions (for one political party or another), not for the discernment and understanding of virtue and truth. Coherence is a far more important trait in a man’s thinking: does a set of ideas tend to accord with and make sense of reality, the human predicament, and the evidence of history and observation, and do they contradict one another, or does the set of ideas not do these things? It would be very fair to say that the Bernardins and Bottums of the world are extremely consistent in their views, and completely incoherent.