Pro-life forces are on the defensive because of abortion clinic killings. They stand accused of encouraging violence because of their efforts to outlaw abortion and to discourage women from seeking abortions. The Catholic hierarchy and other pro-life leaders who are in serious doubt about the future of peaceful protest should learn a lesson from the Republican Party's response to John Brown's abolitionist raids in the 1850s. Just as the Republicans then were accused of encouraging lawlessness by speaking out for the natural rights of slaves, so pro- life advocates now are vilified for defending the natural rights of the unborn. And just as Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans then found a way to condemn violence while continuing to demand an end to slavery, so pro-life advocates now must find a way to condemn violence while continuing to demand an end to abortion.
Brown's band of zealots terrorized "bleeding Kansas" and killed five pro-slavery settlers. After illegally running fugitive slaves across the Canadian border they seized the U.S. Armory in Harpers Ferry under a vague scheme to create a secessionist, slave-free Appalachian republic. They killed the mayor and four others before being captured in the shootout that killed twelve more, including two of Brown's sons. A Senate investigating committee found that Brown had stored arms and ammunition to equip 1,500 men, bought with donations from abolitionist sympathizers.
At his trial, Brown rejected advice to plead insanity and claimed to have been acting under "the law of God," adding:
I believe that to have interfered as I have done . . . in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments-I submit; so let it be done!
Brown and several other terrorists were hanged in 1859 for murder, criminal conspiracy, and treason against Virginia. Abolitionists everywhere such as Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow, and Victor Hugo proclaimed him a saint, martyr, and messiah. To the tune of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," Union soldiers apotheosized Brown whose "body lies a-mould'ring in the grave," but whose "soul goes marching on."
Sectional interests and the national press whipped up memories of earlier slave uprisings in South Carolina and Haiti, charging that Brown had tried to start a black insurrection to murder slave owners and their families. The New York Herald ran Republican Senator William Seward's "irrepressible conflict" speech, and claimed that his party was implicated in the Brown raid. Democrats accused presidential candidate Lincoln of contributing money to Brown's cause. Even though the Democrat-dominated Senate investigation (chaired by Jefferson Davis) failed to show a Republican insurrectionary conspiracy, Stephen A. Douglas proposed a criminal sedition law that would in effect have silenced the Republicans.
In speech after speech, Lincoln repudiated Brown's fanatical actions. He equated Harpers Ferry with "the many attempts, related in history, at the assassination of kings and emperors. An enthusiast broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them. He ventures the attempt, which ends in little else than his own execution." In his Cooper Union Address, Lincoln challenged his partisan opponents: if you know of a single Republican who aided John Brown, name him; if you do not, then stop the malicious slander of the Republican Party.
The deeper problem, though, was Republican support for the anti-slavery cause. Millions of Americans, revulsed by the South's "peculiar institution," were voting for a government that would oppose it-or at least its extension into the Western territories. What would it take, Lincoln asked, to satisfy pro-slavery Democrats that Republicans, in opposing slavery, were not encouraging fanatics like John Brown?
This and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly-done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated. Senator Douglas' new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. . . . The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.
The "don't care" policy-Lincoln's name for Doug-las' "pro-choice" position on slavery-is sophistic, Lincoln argued. Republicans must care; they cannot compromise on the principle that slavery is morally evil. To seek a "middle ground between the right and the wrong [is as] vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man." Denying that the U.S. Supreme Court had the power to impose a pro- slavery policy, he urged recourse to elections as the proper means to reverse the Dred Scott decision. (In fact, Lincoln's Republican Congress easily legislated the reversal in 1861.)
Lincoln saw that slavery's proponents were using Brown's extremism as an excuse to stop national protest against the obscenity of slavery and to intimidate his party. Republicans should respond, he suggested, by separating the principle of equal rights from abolitionist violence. Brown's lawlessness was not part of the movement to legislate against slavery; it was closer to the pro-slavery interests' own lawlessness in claiming a power to secede from the Union.
For Lincoln, the U.S. Constitution was the original "Contract With America," supported by a national moral consensus on Thomas Jefferson's statement that all men are created equal in their natural rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. This self-evident truth of the Declaration of Independence is the central proposition of American democracy. Constitutional self-government secures these rights by monopolizing the use of force to uphold law, punish criminals, and defend the nation. Shred the consensus on equal natural rights, and the specter of civil war arises as government licenses some individuals (slave owners or abortionists) to use force to deny the natural rights of others (black slaves or unborn children). The social contract unravels when rights to life and liberty are infringed by private force under color of law. After the Dred Scott decision that slaves were property, mass handing over to slave owners the slaves' natural right to liberty, abolitionist and secessionist violence were equally inevitable.
Since the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade surrendered the right to life of fetuses, the same issue has risen again-who is human and therefore possesses natural rights-and the violence has also returned. What pro-abortion forces see as fetal matter under the control of women, pro-life advocates see as unborn human beings entitled to the same natural rights enjoyed by all others. This is not a political issue like taxes or welfare on which half the nation can disagree with the other half. Both positions cannot simultaneously exist in a liberal democracy, because America's central problem, according to Lincoln, is to maintain the consensus on who is human in the absence of which the social contract collapses. We should be horrified but not surprised by today's John Browns. Our crisis differs from Lincoln's only in that the slavery question split the nation region by region while abortion divides America home by home.
As Lincoln repudiated John Brown's appeal to bullets in 1859, so should pro-life advocates treat clinic violence. They should condemn all forms of murder while not allowing pro-abortionists to use violence as an excuse to silence principled opposition to the evil of abortion. A year after Harpers Ferry put anti-slavery Republicans on the defensive, Lincoln's party swept into the White House and Congress. Pro-life advocates should take heart at last November's astonishing election victory in which not one pro-life incumbent lost to a pro-abortion challenger and in which the overall pro-life vote increased by about thirty. Like the anti-slavery movement of old, the pro-life cause has growing majority support; its leaders should stop seeing themselves as an embattled minority. They should raise the debate to higher levels by asserting the self-evident truth that all human beings, including the unborn, are created with the natural right to life. Once the moral consensus on that Lincolnian proposition has been restored, a majority of ballots will simply end the abortion policy that has bred so much civil conflict.
It is all very curious. Once it became clear that the Republicans had won power on November 8, 1994, it took only seven days for the serious thinkers in the liberal press to rediscover the issue of poverty. "Scapegoat Time," wrote Bob Herbert of the New York Times, while Anna Quindlen evoked the left's favorite image for Republicans with "The Politics of meanness." "More for the rich, less for the poor," Mark Shields declared a week later.
Yet just a month earlier, when the October poverty statistics revealed quite clearly that the number of poor people had risen to an all-time high under Bill Clinton, the liberal columnists never said a word. When poverty rises under Democrats, it is a nonevent. It does not fit the prevailing view of the two parties. To the mainstream press, Democrats are never mean, only compassionate. For the press, "mean," "greedy," and "inequality" are stencils whipped out only when Republicans are in power.
Those religious people who normally do not specialize in economic statistics depend heavily on the press. They need to be on guard against partisan abuse of numbers. In an earlier column in First Things ("The Rich, the Poor, and Reaganomics" [April 1991]), I predicted that the number of poor people, after declining under Reagan, would rise under Bush despite the latter's "kinder, gentler" rhetoric. It usually surprises people to see what actually happened, because the press, having blamed poverty on Reagan, paid little attention to the problem after he left the scene. What actually happens to the poor is a matter too important to leave to journalists.
At the end of the first year of the Clinton Administration, the Census Bureau's Income and Poverty Report for 1993 found 39.3 million poor persons, the highest number since 1962. There are now 6.9 million more poor persons than in 1989, Reagan's last year. The percentage of the population that is poor is also much higher than in Reagan's last year: 15.1 percent versus 13.1.
Yet Mark Shields, Bob Herbert, Anna Quindlen and their colleagues have seldom expressed a worry about the poor under Democratic administrations, even on those occasions when Democrats presided over a large increase in poverty. For example, the greatest rise in poverty since World War II occurred under a Democrat, Jimmy Carter. Between 1977, when Carter took office, and 1981 when he left it, more than seven million people were added to the poverty rolls, the most ever in a presidential term. Meanwhile, the poor are used by the press as a club to beat Republicans.
In his column, Mark Shields described "the rich" as the top 20 percent in annual income. Yet Mark Shields-and his major newspaper and television colleagues-have incomes in the top 5 percent (above $106,000). Just the same, Mark (a great guy, by the way) and his friends have a way of using the expression "the rich" as if to distance themselves from it. When they say "the rich," they don't mean themselves and they don't even mean exactly "rich," they mean the non-liberal rich.
Moreover, Mark Shields writes about the poor in 1969 and the poor in 1994, twenty-five years later, as if nothing had changed during that period. Yet in the meaning of the term "income" and in the composition of those included in the poorest 20 percent of households great changes actually took place. During that quarter century Great Society programs for the poor increased exponentially. Welfare spending on the poor totalled more than $5.3 trillion and included every sort of noncash income that the new poverty industry could think up (Medicare, Medicaid, housing assistance, food stamps, Head Start, etc.), along with direct cash grants. If the effective income of the poor in 1994 was not far greater than it had been in 1969, a great deal of money was misspent.
Indeed, so much government money has been spent trying to improve the condition of the poor since 1965 that it would actually have been more efficient to mail every one of the poor families, households, and single persons in the United States enough cash to lift all of them above the poverty level every year. The cost-calculated each year as "the poverty deficit"-would today be about $50 billion, a small fraction of the money expended on means-tested programs.
In addition, the composition of the people officially classified as poor has changed dramatically since 1965. Proportionately fewer of the poor today are fathers of families or even single men. Far fewer, too, are in the labor force. The tide of immigration increased, and more of the poor are immigrants "passing through" poverty, soon to be poor no longer. Above all, and sadly, many more are a type of poor person new to America, healthy young people accustomed to staying dependent on welfare year after year.
Between 1967 and 1992, the number of households headed by persons over sixty-five grew by 9.2 million. This is because considerably more people are living to old age than was the case in 1967, and especially because the financial condition of older people has improved so much that nearly all of them now prefer to have households of their own. Most elderly householders have paid-up mortgages, and all benefit enormously from Medicare. Not only are more of them living longer, they are healthier and they look and feel younger than people their age did in the past. Even though many of the elderly are still to be found in the bottom 20 percent of household income, since they are retired and no longer earn income through employment, they are much better protected financially than their predecessors were in 1967. For the elderly, the poverty programs of the last twenty-five years have really worked.
For those under sixty-five, the picture has become far more bleak than it was. Crime rates (especially violent crime) have shot up some 700 percent. Illegitimate births have climbed more than 600 percent. Those of us who were in favor of the poverty programs never predicted such outcomes. On the contrary, our intention was that there would be less crime, less illegitimacy, and stronger families. Poverty programs may not have caused these unintended consequences, but they certainly did not achieve our intentions.
The picture for the bottom 20 percent by income looks like this. There were nearly 19.3 million households in this bottom fifth in 1992 (the last year for which data are available), and only one in five of these households is headed by a married couple, while three in five are headed by single females. Contrast this with 1960, when nearly two-thirds of households in the bottom fifth were headed by persons who worked. By 1991 the percentage of heads of households in the bottom fifth who worked (even part-time) had fallen to around one-third, and only 11 percent worked full-time throughout the year.
This sea change in household composition during the past twenty-five years explains why the old maxim "A rising tide lifts all boats"-used so effectively by John F. Kennedy in 1962-no longer seems to work. A hidden presupposition of this maxim is that household composition remains fairly uniform at all income levels. This is much less true today than it was twenty-five years earlier. In higher brackets today married- couple families predominate, with their capacity to generate two incomes; only 20 percent of households in the bottom fifth are married- couple households.
Moreover, in the bottom fifth today a majority of heads of households are not only unemployed but not even in the labor force (i.e., not even looking for work). Many are over sixty-five, retired, living on savings, pensions, and social security. Many are husband-absent single females with small children for whom to care. (These are the two most rapidly growing categories in the bottom fifth.)
These are the major reasons the real income of poor people has been declining in recent decades. Even an economic recovery (such as the great boom of the last six Reagan years, as well as the more modest boom that began in 1992) cannot lift incomes for those who are not in the labor force earning income.
The unemployment rate for married men is just over 3 percent (and for married women not much higher), which is why relatively few married- couple families in 1992 had incomes below $16,960, the cut-off point defining the bottom 20 percent. Employment matters. But it is not an option for those who, for various reasons, are not in a position to work full-time-the elderly, single mothers with small children, and others.
The press makes much of the "growing income inequality" between the poor and the nonpoor. But since most "in-kind" government subsidies are not counted in computing income, and since most of those in the bottom fifth are not earning income by employment, it is very hard to see what would raise the incomes of the poor. (Those in the bottom fifth report spending three times more than they report as income, but part of this can be accounted for by the elderly and others drawing on their savings.)
Age profile, marital status, and lack of paid employment are serious factors affecting the income of the bottom 20 percent of the American population. It helps no one to imagine that those in the bottom 20 percent are in the same position with respect to these factors as those with higher incomes. The composition of the bottom 20 percent is sui generis.
A final note. The percentage of the "officially poor" is, as noted, at the highest level in many years, 15.1 percent. Obviously, the "bottom 20 percent" includes a somewhat higher range of incomes. The poverty threshold in 1992 for a nonfarm family of four was $14,335, and lower for smaller families and persons living alone. But the cut-off point for the bottom 20 percent of families was $16,960.
What is behind "statistics"? My father and mother, perhaps like the parents of most readers of this journal, lived into their eighties and had an income that placed them well down in the bottom 20 percent. But they owned their home in Pennsylvania outright, as well as a condominium in Florida (with a small mortgage), and their expenses were few. They would have been astonished to have been counted as poor. My father thought he was rich; my mother marvelled at how much better they were living than they had ever expected to. "Statistics" often give a false impression of uniformity masking the variety of realities they cover.
The good news is that, after having been ignored by the press during the first two years of the Clinton Administration, the poor are in for an explosion of attention from the media now that the Republicans have won the House and the Senate. The bad news is that too much of this attention will be based on false conceptions, and too much of it will be used to score partisan points.
The first moral obligation, as Pascal wrote, is to think clearly.
J. P. Kenney
The Roman Catholic Church called it a sin. The American Medical Association described it as unethical. C. Everett Koop, the former Surgeon General, said it was dangerous to society's health. But Oregonians, enhancing their reputations as Western mavericks, have apparently ignored the advice of outsiders and made their state the first jurisdiction in the world to legalize doctor-assisted suicide. - The Oregonian, November 10, 1994
Election day in Oregon brought the unprecedented acceptance of physician-assisted suicide by voters. This event may represent only an anomalous electoral outcome, the result of the special social character and ethical climate of a single state in the American West. But it might also define a critical moment in our culture, a turning point in the nation's understanding of medicine, personal autonomy, and death. My purpose here is not to address the issue substantively, but to reflect on why the interdenominational campaign against physician-assisted suicide failed in Oregon and to consider the future.
The measure itself, number sixteen in a crowded field of ballot initiatives, read:
Question: Shall law allow terminally ill adult patients voluntary informed choice to obtain physician's prescription for drugs to end life? Summary: Adopts law. Allows terminally ill adult Oregon residents voluntary informed choice to obtain physician's prescription for drugs to end life. Removes criminal penalties for qualifying physician-assisted suicide. Applies when physicians predict patient's death within 6 months. Requires: 15-day waiting period; 2 oral, 1 written request; Second physician's opinion; Counseling if either physician believes patient has mental disorder, impaired judgment from depression. Person has choice whether to notify next of kin. Health care providers immune from civil, criminal liability for good faith compliance. Estimate of Financial Impact: No financial effect on state or local government expenditures or revenue.
Having learned from its earlier, failed attempts in California and Washington, the Hemlock Society, the national leader of the "right-to- die" movement, devised a measure phrased in the language of safeguards, permission, and personal choice. It avoided active physician involvement by selecting suicide pills as the means of death rather than injections. A waiting period, multiple patient requests, a second physician opinion, and certification of mental soundness were all included to reassure voters of the measure's deliberation. Readers should notice the extent to which family members are kept at a distance. Besides a privacy clause, allowing the patient to avoid disclosure of intention, the provisions of the act require that there be one witness to the patient's written request who is neither a relative nor a potential beneficiary. These stipulations were especially important in framing the public debate in Oregon, since voters on previous measures in nearby states had shied at the specter of physicians wielding hypodermic needles at the behest of relations and heirs. But this time in Oregon, the home state of the Hemlock Society, physician-assisted suicide was presented as a matter of personal autonomy, an act of Socratic dignity, the gentle embrace of death.
Opponents of the measure were cast as religious bigots. The "Coalition for Compassionate Care," the umbrella group that fought the measure, was initially organized and funded primarily by Roman Catholics. This was a great stroke of luck for proponents. They were able to introduce their measure as a secular and rational initiative directed against religious coercion. Citizens were invited to take back control of their lives. In its advertising, the campaign informed voters that "there are some people who think they have the divine right to control other people's lives." Oregonians needed little tutoring in discerning who such medieval theocrats were.
Several other facts must be supplied to explain why this strategy succeeded. Besides an aura of rationality, the Hemlock Society had demographics and local culture in its favor. Oregon is one of the "least-churched" states in the nation. About a third of the population is classified as religiously affiliated; only Nevada, where gambling and prostitution are legal, is lower. Roman Catholics make up the largest denomination, but are only 10 percent of the population. The other major groups are the Mormons and evangelical Protestants. Moreover, Oregon has a long-standing tradition of anti-Catholicism, harking back to strong Ku Klux Klan activities earlier in the century, as well as pre-World War II efforts to prevent religious (especially Catholic) schools from operating, a movement that failed only on appeal to the Supreme Court. Within the last few years, anti-papal billboards, with a caricature of John Paul II as the Antichrist, were to be seen at prominent intersections in Portland and in other Northwest locations. The Hemlock Society was thus able to depict itself as a proponent of rational choice, while simultaneously exploiting prejudice against the religious minority in general and Catholics in particular.
Identification of opposition to the measure with Catholicism might have been avoided if other religious groups had been perceived in the public's mind as early and strong opponents. Many were, but their opposition was not well known. While the major interdenominational group, Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, did join the Roman Catholic Church in placing its own opposition statement in the official state voter pamphlet, no member denominations did so. About six weeks before the election, Ecumenical Ministries began to campaign actively and to demonstrate that denominational opposition was widespread. Indeed, the religious coalition finally included most Christian denominations, many orthodox and conservative Jewish congregations, as well as several Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu groups. While efforts to mobilize opinion may well have been effective within these denominations themselves, the tardy coalescence of a unified front allowed proponents to marginalize religious opposition. In a state so "unchurched" and secular, this organizational failure proved costly.
The role of evangelical Protestants bears mentioning. The nascent alliance of traditional Catholics and evangelicals never developed publicly in Oregon. This was partly a function of limited organization among evangelical churches. However, as one long-time evangelical leader told me, his community has also felt the continuing effects of cultural and social "intimidation" by the largely liberal and secular Oregon establishment. The recent national media assault on the "religious right" has been a prevailing fixture in Oregon for several years now, particularly in the populous region between Portland and Eugene. And a tacit connection with the "gay rights" debate should also be noted. Oregon has been a major battleground for this issue: a ballot measure sharply restricting homosexual rights lost heavily in 1992; a scaled- down version was defeated by several percentage points in this election. Evangelicals, though not the originators of these measures, have been suspected as being sympathetic, and as a result have come under relentless attack in the mainstream media under the "religious right" rubric. This has led to political caution among Oregon's evangelicals. In the case of the doctor-assisted suicide measure, it produced a slow public reaction within that religious community.
Another factor in the victory for "the right to die" was a striking inability of the opposition, both religious and secular, to secure high- profile support within the cultural and political mainstream, despite strenuous efforts to do so. It is interesting to note the groups formally in support of the measure, and perhaps more important, those that were officially neutral. The political left, as expected, turned out in force: the Democratic Party and the ACLU were in favor. Although the national American Medical Association opposes physician assistance in suicide, the Oregon Medical Association remained neutral, along with the Oregon Hospice Association and the Oregon Pharmacists Association. These local defections from what had been expected to be a united front by the medical mainstream within the state were especially damaging.
A final factor bears mentioning. It is always difficult to characterize clearly the political and cultural character of any state. Nevertheless, it seems fair to say that Oregon has a strong, if inchoate, libertarian streak. Church affiliation and libertarianism seem to be inversely proportional in America. Thus the "right to die" campaign was able to represent the issue as a general referendum "on getting government out of this important personal decision," and "on returning control of end of life decisions to where it belongs-with the dying person." Against this libertarian backdrop the measure's proponents could offer genuine and moving testimonials from those whose loved ones had been forced by "the state" to die in protracted agony against their wishes and convictions. This strategy was aided, in highly personal terms, by the outgoing Democratic Governor, Barbara Roberts (whose husband died during her term of office) and by the widow of former Republican Governor Tom McCall (a totemic figure for many Oregonians). Opponents were thus faced with two tasks: to raise the level of debate to a plane of ethics beyond the emotive and the anecdotal, and then to argue against the regnant libertarian ethos. Communitarian ethics comes hard to Oregonians, especially to the rootless souls of the metropolitan areas who share in the Western propensity for frequent moves and scattered, broken families. While the sparsely populated rural counties generally opposed the measure, the more populated counties favored it. In the end it passed narrowly, 51 percent to 49 percent.
As the opening quotation from the Oregonian indicates, citizens of the suicide state are now reflecting on their status as "Western mavericks." A prominent Oregon historian averred, "Oregonians have a strong streak of individualism. It's been an element in Oregon character since pioneer days." Similarly, the head of the Oregon Historical Society was quoted as saying, "The fact that there has been no dominant religion has allowed a moral flexibility that a lot of states don't have." He went on to note, "This measure is in keeping with Oregon. Throughout history Oregon seems to be out there ahead of other states in testing things." The bottle bill, another national first, has been mentioned. Already the debate over public funding of physician-assisted suicide for those receiving state-supported medical care has begun.
Strangely enough, all sides are now pointing to the religiously anomalous character of Oregon, and to its consequent "moral flexibility." While this may describe Oregon accurately, there are some grounds for doubting that the state will remain unique. It is doubtless true that the sea of faith never had a high tide along the upper Pacific coast, but the melancholy roar of its receding tide-to use Matthew Arnold's image-has been heard in many other states. Perhaps Oregon will prove to be unusual only because it has had no cultural need to discard a religious heritage. Wherever the tide falls low enough elsewhere, the ethics of the autonomous self may surface and prevail.
That is too large a question to pursue here. But several final, political observations are in order. As this account indicates, there is a critical need for building an interdenominational coalition on this question both at the local and national level. Despite the laudable efforts of Archbishop William Levada, Catholics were left out in the lead too long in Oregon, with disastrous results. Early and highly public interreligious coalitions will be necessary in most states. There is reason to believe that these can be formed. The "right to die" has limited support in the ethics of the Western religious traditions. And the issue has not yet become a political litmus test, requiring leaders to revise their tradition's ethics in order to remain in coalition with their allies on the political and cultural left. Unlike abortion, there is no gender-political dimension to be overcome. Denominational leaders should make a concerted effort to press the ethical dimension of the issue, both within their religious communities and in the mainstream culture. A panorthodox coalition encompassing traditional Jews, Christians, and Muslims would be a potent force, difficult to dismiss as merely "the religious right." The ethical case has a fair chance of being seriously heard in most states.
This raises the difficult issue of the broader political ramifications of physician-assisted suicide. Here there is no certain line of demarcation. The Democrats, as the "pro-choice" party, can be expected to favor the practice nationally as they did here in Oregon. One goal for religious opponents of physician-assisted suicide is to keep the Democratic party at all levels neutral. If enough members of what remains of the New Deal coalition, especially Catholics and church- affiliated African Americans, make their ethical views known, there is some chance that neutrality might result. But that is unlikely for a reason as yet politically obscured, although it has emerged on the edge of the Oregon debate and will soon become central in the national discussion: the importance of physician-assisted suicide to homosexuals. The venereal plague of AIDS has made terminal illness a hideous fixture of life among gays. For this understandable and deeply felt reason, there appears to be overwhelming support for "death with dignity" among homosexuals. Because of their increased importance to the diminished Democratic party, homosexuals will put strong pressure on the national party and on liberal religious denominations.
The Republican Party, while nominally "pro-life," may not prove as reliable on this issue as it has been on abortion. It is well to remember that the GOP is a "qualified pro-life" party: anti-abortion but pro-capital punishment. The latter is particularly significant, since arguments regarding divine sovereignty and the taking of life may prove awkward for many Republicans. Although formally distinct, capital punishment and physician-assisted suicide are closely related in their ethical contours. Unlike abortion, both turn on the legal conditions under which the life of an adult citizen may be terminated. Admittedly, political dynamics may have more significance than ethical argumentation, but even here there is reason for concern. There is a long-standing libertarian tradition throughout the Republican Party in the mountain West, similar to that found in Oregon, and this region's attitude could well coalesce with the party's emergent Eastern wing. The latter, the faction represented by Governors William Weld of Massachusetts and Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, is socially libertarian, pro-choice, and fiscally conservative. They might very well choose to make support for doctor-assisted suicide a defining social issue. While it is unlikely that this faction could prevail in that struggle, Republican neutrality on the national level cannot be ruled out. Once again, a panorthodox coalition is needed to press the case.
A further point follows for the pro-life cause within the Republican Party. As readers of these pages are well aware, the GOP is under pressure to ease its platform plank favoring a constitutional amendment banning most abortions. The pressure has come not just from libertarians, but also from some pro-life supporters who seek limitations on abortion as first steps toward its elimination. Those who favor this course might consider forging some political link between the two issues. Modifications in the anti-abortion platform might be conceded in exchange for opposition to physician-assisted suicide. This is a bargain that the GOP's libertarians might accept, softening the party's language on the more exigent abortion issue while fixing its stance on an issue as yet politically under-defined.
This leaves the question of political venue: where should this political battle be carried out? Piecemeal in the states, or at the federal level? And what about possible legal strategies? Implementation of Measure 16 is at present on hold, pending an appeal in the federal courts. While this route might prove successful in banning the practice, it might also allow the solonic judiciary to discover in the Constitution a right to "death with dignity." There will need to be some immediate strategic reflection within the pro-life movement on these questions, along with some hard assessment of previous failures. It may indeed be the case that physician-assisted suicide could in the short run be confined to a few Western states. But a chain reaction from the libertarian West to the liberal East cannot be ruled out over the next decade. On the other hand, a federally focused political strategy would raise the stakes enormously. A constitutional amendment to ban the practice seems at present improbable.
These are some of the issues that the "moral flexibility" of Oregonians has brought into the world. Unlike the Netherlands, where the practice has only been tolerated, doctors in Oregon may soon begin to help their patients kill themselves with full legal support. If a further, vertiginous decline in the nation's public morality is to be averted, we must insure that Oregonians remain the mavericks they take such pride in being.
Peter L. Berger
In recent decades, both among Roman Catholics and Protestants, there has been much talk about liturgical reform and a great amount of activity resulting from this talk. Some people have even described these developments as a liturgical revolution.
There have been different theological and pastoral rationales given for the changes in worship, and, of course, some changes have been more radical than others. But there is one central assumption that underlies most of the changes-namely, that the traditional, pre-reform modes of worship were too remote from the lives of ordinary people and that the language of worship had become incomprehensible. Much of the liturgical reform of recent decades was consequently a great turn toward the vernacular. To be sure, there have been other motives, notably those that have animated the promoters of so-called "inclusive language," which is a political project designed to change the content rather than the comprehensibility of liturgical language. In a wider sense, however, this project too is related to the vernacular urge, for that political project is relevant to the lives of ordinary people.
Undoubtedly the most dramatic moment in this recent history came when the Roman Catholic Church, virtually overnight, replaced the Latin mass with a polyphony of vernacular languages. Protestant churches, which had eliminated Latin four hundred years earlier, could not now match this dramatic gesture. But in their own little ways they went through similar motions. Both the language of the Scriptures and that of congregational worship were subjected to translations that were supposed to make the message and the proceedings more understandable to the people in the pews as well as more relevant to their lives. In Protestantism, too, there has been a turn to the vernacular. But closest in drama to the Roman aggiornamento (an apt phrase indeed in this context) has been the radical revision of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, translating the solemn Elizabethan cadences of that great monument of the English language into the antiseptic prose of, say, the British Broadcasting Corporation.
There has been some overt resistance to these moves. Conservative Catholics travel long distances to a parish where, almost furtively, a Latin mass is still celebrated. Traditionalist Episcopalians gather in a dissident congregation for the old service, carefully leafing through the worn-out pages of ancient prayer books no longer printed by the denominational presses. There have even been some rather feeble schisms, reminiscent of the rebellious Old Believers in Russian Orthodoxy. But very few protests came from the ecclesiastical intellectuals, most of whom endorsed the vernacular revolution with varying degrees of enthusiasm. As to the ordinary people in the pews, when they were asked (which, and then only rarely, was typically by pollsters rather than church officials), they said in large numbers that they disliked the changes. Very few of them organized in any serious way to resist. Many of them voted with their feet, quietly slipping away from the liturgies that had been updated for their benefit.
As a sociologist of religion I was already struck at the time of the Second Vatican Council by the fact that there was little if any empirical evidence to indicate that ordinary Catholics found the Latin mass remote or difficult to understand (especially with English missals in hand). The remoteness and the incomprehensibility were posited a priori by theologians and prelates. The same lack of evidence pertains to all the other programs of vernacularization. I'm not aware of any studies showing that ordinary people in England or in the United States had problems with the language of the old Book of Common Prayer. Conversely, there is at least some empirical evidence to the effect that many faithful Catholics and other Christians have been put off by the liturgical innovations of the recent past, some so seriously as to become alienated from their church. There is some exquisite irony in this. But there is another, massive movement in contemporary Christianity that sheds unexpected light on the rationale of the vernacular movement: the worldwide ascendancy of Pentecostalism.
The rapid growth of Pentecostalism in the United States is a well-known fact. It has also become clear that this phenomenon is international in scope. It is spreading in South Korea, all the Overseas Chinese communities, apparently within China itself, in the Philippines, in the South Pacific, and in sub-Saharan Africa (where it has also entered into syntheses with traditional African religions). Most dramatically, it is spreading like a prairie fire throughout Latin America, where there are now an estimated forty to fifty million Protestants, some 80 percent of them Pentecostals. Most recently, there is some evidence that Pentecostalism is making inroads in Eastern Europe. And Pentecostal forms of worship and piety have been spreading within non-Pentecostal churches, both Protestant and Catholic (as manifested in the so-called Charismatic movement). Given the massiveness of this phenomenon, it is very unlikely that any single factor can explain its remarkable success. But it is noteworthy that there is one universal and indeed defining characteristic of Pentecostal Christianity-its language of worship.
Pentecostals are Christians whose worship is dominated by glossolalia, the "speaking in tongues." Pentecostals, of course, explain this practice by the presence of the Holy Spirit, who, as at the original Pentecost reported in the Acts of the Apostles, descends upon the faithful and allows them to speak in alien tongues. This is not the place to dispute this explanation theologically. I only want to make here one simple, empirical observation. The fastest-growing Christian community in the contemporary world, and one that consists overwhelmingly of very ordinary people, worships by way of glossolalia- that is, in a language much more remote from the vernacular than Latin, Elizabethan English, or any other archaic language (including church Slavonic).
This observation is hardly conclusive, but it suggests what may well be the underlying mistake of the vernacularist assumption. It is, to be sure, not the only mistake. There is also the patronizing notion that ordinary people are unable to find their way through proceedings in an unfamiliar idiom-a notion, as noted before, that is almost certainly mistaken when it comes to liturgical language. But there is a more fundamental error in the notion that worship must minimize the remoteness of God as much as possible. To be sure, the error is not total. Of course any form of worship will seek to mediate between the remoteness of the supernatural and the reality of everyday human existence. Of course the Bible, if it is to be read by ordinary people, must be translated into a language that they can understand (far be it from me to disapprove of Luther's great achievement in this matter). And of course it makes no sense for a preacher addressing, say, a German congregation to speak in Greek. Thus there must be a place for the vernacular in Christian worship. But vernacularism, as it has come to be widely established in the churches, may well be described as a subtle and yet very damaging heresy. It is fundamentally misguided to use linguistic means to deny the transcendent remoteness altogether, to pretend that we can speak of God as we speak of politics or commerce, to try to conceal the divine otherness. The Pentecostals, lustily uttering their incomprehensible and untranslatable glossolalia, offer a welcome corrective.
A few months ago I was in London on a Sunday morning. I made my way to the local Anglican church, a rather ornate edifice not far from the financial district. The church was almost empty (not an unusual condition in today's Church of England). The congregation consisted of some thirty people, mostly old ladies, each one sitting by herself. I was probably the youngest person in the place, except for five teenage boys who constituted the choir and who looked like parolees from a home for juvenile delinquents. An old man waddled toward the organ, to be followed by an even older man who turned out to be the vicar. It was a thoroughly depressing gathering and I wondered whether I would not have been better advised to stay in my hotel room and, in good Protestant fashion, use the thoughtfully provided Gideon Bible for my private devotions. But then the service began, using, I happily noted, the unexpurgated text of the Book of Common Prayer. The mighty language, even as spoken by this rather uninspiring priest, suddenly seemed to fill the building. The empirical reality of what was evidently a moribund congregation fell away, to be replaced by something gloriously other:
Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us, and to all men: We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ: for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. . . .