Rhetorical questions du jour, 1/23/14

    1. What is it about culture war you don’t understand?
    2. Who’s really obsessed?
    3. Daddy: How do values get transvalued?
    4. What is it about “when hell freezes over” you don’t understand?
    5. Would you prefer Scylla or Charybdis?


[C]an there be a culture in which law is not reinforcing? It’s difficult to imagine such instances since law almost always seems to exist to reinforce cultural norms, but one example has stayed with me because it was such a singular instance. In 2002, some may remember, there was a horrific discovery that a crematory in Georgia had failed to cremate over 300 corpses, and instead had strewn the bodies around the crematory’s grounds. An article in the New York Times described the prosecutor’s conundrum: there was no law on the books against failure to perform cremation by which the owner could be directly prosecuted. … until that occurrence, no law existed because the behavior was inconceivable.

Patrick Deneen is magic. He’s no Andrew Sullivan in terms of churning out a couple of dozen blogs each day, but when he writes, he’s worth heeding. The block quote is from near the end of his A Culture of Life, published yesterday, the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade. He anticipated a huge March for Life, as usual, but dug deeper:

However, the March’s annual presence in D.C. obscures a number of issues, above all, whether abortion is ultimately a political and even legal matter. On one level, inescapably so: it has been a political matter for decades, even a “wedge” issue that has become a defining difference between the two political parties. It is obviously a legal issue, generating countless pages of legal theory and philosophical argument, as well as scores of subsequent High Court and even more lower court decisions that have responded to ongoing challenges and debates over the issue. So perhaps no further thought is necessary—destination D.C.

However, by other considerations, treating it exclusively as a political and legal matter obscures the extent to which it is most fully a question of culture. And, if conservatives would generally tend to agree on one thing—aside from the immorality of abortion—it is that culture does not originate in Washington, D.C., or at least that it shouldn’t.

Imagine that today’s March changed the mind of one or two justices and as a result the Court were to overturn its 1973 holding as poorly reasoned and wrongly decided (both true). This would have the effect of allowing states once again to set up their own laws governing abortion. Some states would quickly enact a series of prohibitions or limitations, from outright banning of abortion to severe restrictions on its practice. Other states, one supposes, including some of the most populous such as California and New York, would almost certainly maintain near-limitless permission to abort children. It’s quite possible that the number of abortions would be reduced as the practice was outright banned or severely restricted in some parts of the country, but it’s also likely that those with means would simply travel where abortion would be legal, and even possible that the pro-choice movement would provide funding to pregnant women of limited means. One certainly can’t predict in advance what would happen, but it’s at least conceivable that as long as some states permitted abortion on demand, that the number of abortions would hardly drop.

On the other hand, imagine that seven (or even just four) justices remained convinced that Roe v. Wade should remain the law of the land, but that American people’s view of abortion was transformed—that it came to be widely accepted that abortion was simply wrong, that it came to be widely held that it was the taking of an innocent human life, the brutal murder of the weakest and most needy among us. Abortion would remain officially legal but increasingly unpracticed—indeed, unthinkable as something a civilized person would do.

These are not necessarily mutually exclusive scenarios, but given a choice between the two, I’d hastily accept the latter …

The thought experiment of an America where “Roe v. Wade … remain[ed] the law of the land, but th[e] American people’s view of abortion was transformed” was what led him to that original block quote. But too few are working to change the culture, too many merely to change the law:

Law and culture are interrelated in complex ways, but by and large, the pro-life movement has reduced that complexity to the following assumption: culture follows law.  I suspect that this is at least partly true, but also partly wrong—we simply need to look at instances like Prohibition to know that law can sometimes be promulgated in contradiction to culture, which ends up creating an effectively lawless society.

I feel affirmed that after spending 5 years or so in pro-life political activity, I shifted my focus to saving babies despite the law (Matrix PRC) and thus, as I was always aware, gradually changing minds. The Culture Wars, in the political sense, were and are a dead end because culture doesn’t follow law always; usually, it leads, at least in representative government.


“The normal Catholic in the parish might hear a sermon on abortion once a year. They’ll never hear a sermon on homosexuality or gay marriage. They’ll never hear a sermon about contraception. But if you look at the New York Times, in the course of a week, there will be 20 articles on those topics. So who is obsessed?

(Cardinal Sean O’Malley; H/T Rod Dreher in Why Progressives Should Be Pro-Life) Many of those stories in the New York Times are feature stories that make the front page, at least in the online edition (to which I subscribe).


The abortion struggle of the past four decades teaches a very useful lesson. Evil talks a lot about “tolerance” when it’s weak. When evil is strong, real tolerance gets pushed out the door. And the reason is simple. Evil cannot bear the counter-witness of truth. It will not coexist peacefully with goodness, because evil insists on being seen as right, and worshiped as being right. Therefore, the good must be made to seem hateful and wrong.

People sometimes ask me if we can be optimistic, as believers, about the future of our country. My answer is always the same. Optimism and pessimism are equally dangerous for Christians because both God and the devil are full of surprises. But the virtue of hope is another matter. The Church tells us we must live in hope, and hope is a very different creature from optimism. The great French Catholic writer Georges Bernanos defined hope as “despair overcome.”

(Abp. Charles Chaput)


Well: So much for the notion that Frances is some kind of left revolutionary!
Well: So much for the notion that Frances is some kind of left revolutionary!


Near the end of the book, Roberts criticizes three theologians whose views legitimatize gay marriage: Graham Ward, Eugene Rogers, and David Matzko McCarthy. Ward’s postmodern Barthianism makes biology vanish altogether. Rogers’ reduction of procreation to a species good that not every union needs to pursue leaves marriage without any criteria other than desire. McCarthy’s emphasis on the social function of marriage strips it of its allegorical depth. Roberts also suspects that some theologians prize marriage too highly and thus make those who deny its benefits to gay couples seem cruel, while other theologians minimize its sanctity and thus make it seem peevish to limit it to opposite-sex couples.

(Stephen H. Webb, Theological Stakes of Sexual Difference).

I had to read that last sentence several times to appreciate the distinction Webb was drawing. Since we live (I and most of my readers) in a distinctly Protestant version of Christendom, where marriage is at best an “Ordinance” of God and by no means a “Sacrament,” I suspect that the American imagination, increasingly friendly to same-sex marriage, is arriving at its view via sanctity minimization, leading to the suspicion that refusal of SSM is “peevish” rather than “cruel.”

On the other hand, I am aware of broad swaths of religious landscape where marriage is assumed, singleness viewed with excessive suspicion, and single persons effectively left as outcasts. And that landscape does not at all appear uniformly Protestant; ecclesial Christians (those for whom faith in Christ and in His Church is one act of faith, not two), who generally view marriage as sacrament, are guilty often as well. These are the “cruel denial” folks in contrast to the “peevish denial” folks.

I have no doubt that it’s not good to be alone, but there are ways other than marriage to be together. One of the most perceptive criticisms of SSM – one that startled me when brought to my attention – was that it further devalues friendship and discounts its potential depth.

Caveat: I know how the proponents of SSM tend to pounce on evidence that opposition to SSM is merely religious and thus confuses civil and religious institutions. My point in this item is not that the State’s interests must coincide with and reinforce any religious view. I’m instead exploring how the popular imagination, to which religious notions contribute even if those notions are vague rather than rigorous, can make shipwreck either on Scylla or Charybdis.

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.