(BARACK OBAMA, ADDRESS TO PLANNED PARENTHOOD, JULY 2007)
When the term “culture” is brought up people’s eyes glaze over. The term is abstract and often provides a screen for pontificating on a subject of one’s private interest. But there are few realities more universally relevant to human beings and more central to shaping people’s well-being than culture.
The term derives from the Latin verb colere, an agrarian word meaning “to till” or “cultivate.” Fields and gardens are cultivated; the wilderness and forests are not. This gets at an important dimension of the term. Culture is that to which we set human hands, as opposed to nature, which is untouched by human hands. More precisely, culture can be said to be the sum total of human accomplishment of a people. It extends to art, science, sport, communication, cuisine, attire, technology, language, law, leisure, customs, ritual, and, of course, religion.
Some would say that in addition it includes a people’s system of values. But it’s more correct to say that all and every part of culture reflects a society’s values and incarnates what a community holds sacred. Moral values—i.e., what we judge to be good and bad, right and wrong, worthy of praise and blame—are the core of culture. They’re fittingly called culture’s soul, its life-principle or vivifying well-spring. A culture’s art, music, rituals, and attire all reflect what a people values, and in this regard, reflects the moral health of that people as a people.
But like virtue and vice, culture not only reflects what kind of people we are, it also shapes what we can be. It’s not only the harvest of a people’s values. It’s also a seedbed of values. Each novum saeculum, each new generation sprouts in the seedbed of its elders. And the new is shaped by the old. So a healthy culture will generally bear healthy fruit in the newer generation. But a corrupt culture will corrupt next year’s harvest.
Of course, no culture is homogeneous. There are always revolutionaries who seek to overthrow the established order, and reactionaries who loath change. But in regard to a people’s most sacred values—concerning religion, family, birth, suffering, and death—there is always a dominant middle. These can be called the keepers of the community’s values. This is amusingly illustrated by the character of Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father in My Fair Lady. After unwittingly becoming transformed from a lowly dustman to a picture of middle class morality, he’s miserable. Why? Because now he’s got to clean up his life. The message—the middle class for better or worse are the guardians of a people’s values.
Conflicting values, at least important values, can only coexist among the keepers for a time. A people cannot live long in a state of moral fracture divided on its core values. Appropriate patriotism diminishes, motive to sacrifice for the people’s good weakens, public leaders become a target of blame (in part rightly) and lose the people’s trust, factions develop, widespread diffidence deepens, isolation of families and individuals increases, bitterness toward the community waxes, and citizens begin to wish and will the downfall of large populations of their own community. In effect, opposing societies arise within the same community both viewing the other as they might a foreign enemy. If civil war can be avoided for long, a culture divided in this way can hardly last long against formidable external threats. History is replete with the fall of once-great cultures. And the demise begins with a malignancy from within. The fall can be predicted in advance in the moral fracture lines that develop at its core, beneath its hearth.
Roe v. Wade was a cultural earthquake, a radically brutal blow against a tenuous moral homogeneity in the early 70s. It wasn’t the fruit of the keepers’ values. It was violently imposed by cultural revolutionaries. And it was sold to the keepers only with skillful subterfuge. It introduced an astonishingly counter-intuitive value into American culture. 5000 years ago the Chinese, quite apart from Judeo-Christian Revelation, came up with a cultural symbol—an ideogram—representing the foundational value of goodness. It is the image of a woman and child, a mother holding her baby. In the West we have, of course, the powerful symbol of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, ubiquitous in Western art up until recently. The mother-child image speaks many things: about family, love, devotion, tenderness, unity, serenity, belonging; the weaned child on its mother’s breast is the picture of contentment, safety, and rest—all most fittingly summed up by the term goodness. Roe introduced the image of an isolated woman liberated from her children because she’s killed them. Until recently, such a woman would be imaged in art or literature as a hag or a witch. But now she’s presented to us as thin and beautiful, financially and socially successful, and most importantly, independent—‘free’ (for example, see www.plannedparenthood.org/). This image has germinated in our cultural soil now for 35 years. And we’ve labored under the fracture of values that the reality of abortion has introduced. Many of our fellow citizens have been affronted from the start by the anti-value introduced by Roe. But many others have grown benignly indifferent—tolerant—of the disvalue of child killing. This illustrates that our culture’s soul is lacerated. (1)
Addressing Planned Parenthood, Barack Obama said that “culture wars” are a thing of the past. He also said he would sign the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA). But doing so will hardly pacify our culture wars. By establishing unrestricted abortion as a “fundamental right,” FOCA will nullify every one of the more than 500 federal and state laws that presently limit abortion in the U.S.— as it reads, “every Federal, State, and local statute, ordinance, regulation, administrative order, decision, policy, practice, or other action enacted, adopted, or implemented before, on, or after the date of enactment” (S. 1173, H.R. 1964, 2007). This includes the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, the Hyde Amendment limiting federal funds on abortion, informed consent laws, parental consent and notification laws, safety regulations on abortion clinics, conscience provisions for health care providers and private hospitals, and many others. (2) The law will constrain and coerce consciences to conform with the evil of abortion. It will impose an artificial conformity and attempt to staunch moral debate. But it will be as effective at pacifying grave moral differences as King George III’s attempt to quiet the dissent of the Massachusetts colonists against British outrages in May 1774 by annulling the Massachusetts Charter and imposing despotism on the region.
When law and public authority proclaim life to be instrumental, many come to think it’s true. Law among other things is an impediment to base inclinations. Enshrine in law the legitimate disposability of the weak, and a yellow brick road is paved for the darker parts—indeed the darkest parts—of human nature to assert themselves. And if a community’s most powerful leaders begin proudly to hold and defend such a belief, citizens may soon come to see their own leaders as enemies.
FOCA will result in a pyrrhic victory for abortion defenders and have terrible cultural consequences for everyone. No one can deny that our national boundaries are increasingly coming to enclose two moral cultures with the dividing line between two contrary views of the value of life (and of sex, the handmaid of life). Let anyone who has ears to hear …
(1) Pope John Paul II addresses the “roots of this remarkable contradiction” of values in Evangelium Vitae, no. 19.
(2) For more details, see Denise M. Burke, J.D., “The Freedom of Choice Act,” Ethics and Medics, vol. 34, no. 2 (Feb. 2009), 1-3.
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