Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 77 (November 1997): 2-7.
In "Debriefing the Philosophers" (June/July), J. Bottum puts special emphasis on the following statement by assisted-suicide advocate Ronald Dworkin: "In the meantime, the public would have had the opportunity to participate more fully in the argument about principle; and, when circumstances make it possible, wide public discussion is a desirable and democratic preliminary to a final Supreme Court adjudication." Mr. Bottum calls this "among the most blatant declarations of judicial rule in America."
Oddly, it both is and isn’t. On the one hand, in assuming the Supreme Court is competent to adjudicate into existence a new "right" to be killed, it is certainly sufficiently blatant. But consider that the context of the remark was Dworkin’s suggestion that the Supreme Court postpone its decision on assisted suicide, since the Court seems disinclined at this time to approve it. Dworkin is therefore pleading for more time to bring more public opinion to bear on the Court, in the hope that the Justices can be influenced to come around to his way of thinking.
This hope that a "democratic preliminary" will aid the Court in ruling as desired actually undermines the notion that judges should rule. Such argument as exists for judicial autocracy states that the power of judges is legitimate, within their jurisdiction, because they base their rulings on dispassionate evaluations of the facts of a case in the light of special legal knowledge and wisdom. The justification for their independence therefore demands that public sentiment not be permitted to sway their logic. Dworkin’s plea for more time to rally mobs to chant slogans outside judges’ chambers reveals that he does not respect this independence in principle, but only when it suits him. Dworkin’s argument demonstrates that our pragmatic intellectual activists are not actually interested in democratic principles, or even judicial authoritarian principles. They are interested in power, however they may find it.
Elliott Abrams describes a very plausible scenario as to why most American Jews today are so antagonistic to any public display of religious practice ("Judaism or Jewishness," June/July).
But there is one serious issue not addressed by Abrams’ otherwise comprehensive analysis: abortion. Why is it that polls have shown not only that 90 percent of American Jews support elective abortion but also that many are leaders of the pro-abortion movement? How can descendants of Holocaust survivors justify this? The Holocaust fatally attacked an entire class of humans identified by race and religion. Abortion attacks an entire class of humans identified by age (too young) and place of residence (still living in the womb).
If efforts to protect the unborn could be neatly filed away as only a religious belief, Mr. Abrams’ analyses would apply. Abortion, however, is far from that. It is in fact a human right, and, as such, Jews should be leading the effort to provide legal protection for the unborn.
It goes without saying that equal effort should be exerted to provide help to the mother. However, to give to one person (the mother) the absolute legal right to kill another (her pre-born baby), and to have so many Jewish people support this, is a paradox that this observer (who has been a leader in the right-to-life movement for over twenty-five years) has never understood.
Perhaps Mr. Abrams could explain?
J. C. Willke, M.D.
Life Issues Institute, Inc.
Elliott Abrams makes a common error when he tells us that early American Jews "eagerly supported the Revolutionary ideal of individual rights and freedom of conscience, which American statesmen learned from the Enlightenment." I am happy to hear that early American Jewry supported those principles. But American statesmen had long known about those ideals from sources that predated any thought of an Enlightenment, namely from biblical principles as mediated through the medieval Church and the development, especially in England, of common law.
M. Stanton Evans makes a compelling case for this in The Theme Is Freedom, with numerous quotes from the medieval period. He notes: "As might be expected from biblical ideas of kingship, the foremost political concept of the Middle Ages was constitutionalism—establishing limits on the power of kings and on the scope of government in general." The Magna Carta was not only a medieval, but a specifically feudal, document, with the Church, notably Archbishop Stephen Lancton, playing a major role in its development. As Lancton insisted: "Whatever service is rendered to the temporal king to the prejudice of the eternal King is undoubtedly an act of treachery." The king was a limited monarch, under a law higher than himself, the same law under which the people live. That principle is the foundation rock of any free society and of any democratic republic. It is also a principle that is logically incapable of being supported outside the biblical framework of a personal Creator. . . .
Sadly, for the most part the Church dropped the ball and bought into the alleged opposition, common in modern thought, between reason and revelation. But the Reformed tradition in alliance with English common law salvaged much of the truth, transported it to America with the Puritans and Pilgrims, and set up the principles by which the American democratic republic was established. A democratic republic cannot be founded apart from biblical principles, and it will not survive the loss of them.
(The Rev.) Earle Fox
I cannot fully answer Dr. Willke’s questions.
As to the general support for "abortion rights" among Jews, this is not so hard to understand. No doubt support for those rights is highest among upper-middle-class people, people with college and graduate school degrees, and people who are liberals and/or Democrats. Jews are disproportionately found in all three groups, so it is predictable that they will be more pro-choice than the average American.
Yet I believe that even within these groups—that is, among well-educated, well-off Democrats—the support for "abortion rights" among Jews and in particular Jewish women is exceptionally high. Why? Not, I think because they routinely have recourse to abortion as a means of birth control, for as a group they use birth control successfully and turn to abortion rarely.
Perhaps it is related instead to the fact that Jews have long viewed family planning as entirely legitimate and believe—under even the strictest interpretations of Jewish law—that abortion is under certain circumstances permitted. Thus laws that prohibit all abortions would in fact contravene Jewish teaching.
As for the Jews who are leaders of the abortion-on-demand movement, they are acting not as observant Jews but as observant liberals. Jewish law sees abortion as the ending of a life, and therefore as a tragic event even when it is permitted—and it is not permitted "on demand."
I do not think, by the way, that the discussion is helped much by Holocaust analogies. For what it’s worth, American Jews are not, in fact, descendants of Holocaust survivors any more than American Christians are descendants of Holocaust perpetrators.
The Founding Fathers agreed (as do I) with Rev. Fox that our democratic republic could not survive without religious faith. They understood that the institutions they were creating did not create virtue, but rather assumed that belief in God and in divine reward and punishment would sustain it. I would not agree, however, with Rev. Fox’s view that biblical principles as mediated through the medieval Church and common law explain the actions and beliefs of the Founding Fathers without reference to the Enlightenment. The Church and the common law did not provide for the degree of individual liberty and freedom of conscience that the American republic adopted, and the history of the Jews of England is evidence enough of this. Washington’s famous letter of 1790 to the Jews of Newport was not a restatement of medieval Church law or English common law principles, but a ringing declaration that in America there would be a greater assurance of individual rights than any offered in Europe.
As a devoted reader of First Things, I was intrigued to discover the opinion item by Michael R. Linton on the "Glory of Easter" Passion Play at the Crystal Cathedral ("Smoke and Mirrors at the Crystal Cathedral," June/July). Generally the writer appreciated the magnificence of the production that thousands witness every Lenten season.
He doesn’t say so, but I would think he would admit it may well be the finest such performance presented anywhere in the nation and rivals the long-celebrated Oberammergau to which over the years countless folk—this writer included—have made a pilgrimage.
While having many good things to say about the "Glory of Easter," he makes, along with some rather petty criticisms, two major charges: one, that the production does not involve the spectators and, two, that it omits the theme of sin and redemption. . . .
To the charge that the audience is not involved, I respond that it is as fully involved as the audience at, say, Oberammergau. One place where this is clearly true is during the moving singing of the beloved song "Were You There?"
To the charge that sin and human guilt and the need of atonement are absent, I respond that such is not the case. One point where this becomes crystal clear is during the singing of the also beloved hymn "Because He Lives!"
God sent His Son, they called him Jesus,
He came to love, heal, and forgive.
He lived and died to buy my pardon,
An empty grave is there to prove my Savior lives.
That the "Glory of Easter" is not intended to put people on a guilt trip is greatly to be commended. It should be noted that neither did Jesus with those he was trying to reach. With both the woman caught in adultery and the woman at the well he might have done just that, but he did not. It was not his way, even though some theologies fail to take this into account. . . .
(The Rev.) Donald W. Morgan
First Church of Christ
The problem of the distanced "audience" is probably even worse at Oberammergau than at Garden Grove. But I did not (and would not) cite the Bavarian production as a model to be emulated. Instead, I suggested that liturgical presentations of the Passion and Bach’s two extant settings showed ways that more deeply involved congregations (and not audiences) in the unfolding gospel story than the Garden Grove "Glory."
By its very definition, I take that gospel story to be penitential (Pastor Morgan’s "guilt trip"). It’s hard for me to see how the crucifixion of the world’s Savior for the redemption of sins could be anything else, but Pr. Morgan seems to think that it can be. But he is quite right to point out that the production includes a performance of the Gaither song "Because He Lives" with the song’s line about pardon. Perhaps I should have mentioned that. But eight words in an hour and a half script does not appear to be a weighty statement on the matter, especially when significant biblical texts that deal with sin and culpability are either mutilated beyond recognition or simply eliminated. Instead of making it "crystal clear," I think that the evidence suggests that the Crystal Cathedral clouds the doctrine pretty skillfully. In any case, it shows a disrespect for the Bible surprising—to say the least—within the Reformed tradition.
Writing about spiritual renewal in Latin America in the June/July issue of First Things, Pedro C. Moreno says that he is a Latin American Pentecostal, though nobody would be able to guess the fact from the information he provides in "Rapture and Renewal in Latin America." Which proves that the discipline of textual criticism is a very doubtful science, and that conclusions derived from "internal evidence" may not be very sound.
Be that as it may, the information reported in the article is good news indeed. In reference to Pentecostal congregations it is reported that 66 percent are women, which means that 33 percent are men. That, I think, is positive. Also, it is reported that Christians in the renewal are not concerned with becoming wealthier or with economic development in general, but are concerned instead with spiritual growth and their eternal salvation. . . .
There are those who measure everything, even religion, in economic terms. Let them be aware, then, that the positive economic consequences of piety follow from the rationality of God’s creation. What is good for eternal life is also good for earthly life. The Christian virtues are not designed to make us unhappy, but to allow us to have a better life "and have it more abundantly." The Marxists, and other materialists, thought they could attain wealth more efficiently by converting church buildings into factories; but this idea sprang from an unsophisticated view of human nature that ignored reality. Our psychology is much more complicated, and our needs are more nuanced. This is unfortunate for the materialists, because it is a fact that "man does not live by bread alone." . . .
It is unfortunate that Michael W. McConnell ("Breaking the Law, Bending the Law," June/July) saw fit to criticize Judge John E. Sprizzo’s decision acquitting Bishop Lynch and Brother Fidelis for their abortion clinic pray-in. While Professor McConnell can be read to be "praising with faint damnation," I do wish he had found a way to be fully and explicitly supportive of Judge Sprizzo.
Judge Sprizzo apparently wrestled with a legal and ethical dilemma commonly faced by agents of an authoritarian government who wish to use their positions of power to mitigate that regime’s injustice. His third footnote indicates that "positive law" is not alone sufficient for conviction, citing fugitive slave and Nazi legislation as well as international human rights. Why, then, did the good judge not rule directly that the defendants were innocent because laws that deny equal protection to the unborn are invalid as violative of natural human rights—as the defendants had argued in accordance with Evangelium Vitae?
Any answer to this question must take into account the fact that a ruling on the law alone would almost surely have been reversed on appeal. Only insofar as Judge Sprizzo acted as "fact-finder"—the traditional jury role—could his acquittal stand. He had to focus on motivational facts and "jury nullification" in order to keep the defendants from being punished under unjust laws decreed as a result of Roe v. Wade.
Moreover, "jury nullification" was a particularly appropriate vehicle for the judge to use. Contrary to Professor McConnell’s brief summary, jury nullification in its genesis did not involve a lawless refusal to convict "for no reason at all" or "out of sympathy for the defendant." In the 1735 Zenger case, cited by Judge Sprizzo, the jury’s right to acquit is founded squarely on its duty to judge the law as well as the facts. This law-and-fact competence of the jury has long been part of the constitution of the state where I teach, Indiana, and is surely one of the strongest reasons for our standard practice of letting the jury deliver "general" (i.e., "guilty" or "not guilty") verdicts rather than only "special" (i.e., purely factual) verdicts. The jury’s duty to find a valid legal basis for its verdict requires it to ignore laws that are invalid because unjust—as entailed by natural human rights—without the danger of being overturned on appeal. Jury nullification is thus a most convenient doctrine for a conscientious judge acting as jury to use to acquit nonviolent abortion clinic obstructors. I hope that it will be often so used.
Professor of Law
It is not a loss of respect for the sanctity of life but rather a loss of respect for individual identity that is at the heart of the Heaven’s Gate tragedy ("Rancho Santa Fe and the Culture of Death," Public Square, June/July). While the suicide of a despairing individual is no less tragic than the mass suicide of cult members, it is in no wise comparable.
What sets the two deeds apart is the surreal calmness and unity of purpose the cult members displayed by taking their own lives in a well-planned, multi-stage operation. By their actions, the cultists showed that they had already discarded their individual identities with the casual indifference with which they now sought to dispose of their earthly "containers."
Cult leaders (like Heaven’s Gate’s Marshall Applewhite) teach their followers to fear their pre-cult personalities; their aim is to replace each individual’s identity with a group identity that loosely mimics the personality of the cult leader. It is in this way that cults present their most potent threat to democracy and society; for it is only by affirming the value of the individual within the context of community that a truly democratic society becomes possible.
Rancho Santa Fe must therefore be viewed as part of a continuum of cultic behavior that also includes the mass weddings staged by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. I was once a participant in such a mass wedding—on July 1, 1982, four years before I quit the Unification Church. I had not chosen the woman who marched beside me into Madison Square Garden for my bride; rather, "True Father" selected her for me in late 1980. I believed this sacrifice of my individual preference was an altruistic act. I was, however, never allowed to live with this woman, and our "marriage" ended two years later when she quit the Unification Church. For a while longer, I tried to maintain my connection to that group, but ultimately I abandoned the effort and returned to my family in Canada. Ten years had transpired since I joined, and I had lost much of my sense of self in the interim. The recovery of that loss remains an ongoing challenge.
While my own loss of personal identity is certainly not as tragic as the loss of life at Rancho Santa Fe, it nevertheless forms part of the same phenomenon. The act of discarding one’s identity is itself a symbolic death; the Heaven’s Gate members merely chose to turn that symbolic death into a literal one.
K. Gordon Neufeld
While I am normally impressed with the clear light Richard John Neuhaus is able to cast upon the themes of books and films, I was a little disappointed that he bought into Linda Chavez’s depiction of the movie Lone Star as a pro-incest film (While We’re At It, June/July).
As a committed Christian who has both seen the film and read Ms. Chavez’s comments, I confess I found the film to be more thoughtful. While it is true that the film depicts an incestuous relationship, viewers and the characters themselves find out about it only in the final three minutes of the film, so it seems unfair to link it with Kathryn Harrison’s book The Kiss as attempting to break a major taboo in order to sell the product in question.
Also, while it is true that the characters agree to continue seeing each other romantically, I don’t believe the makers of the film intend this to be the blanket endorsement of the behavior that Ms. Chavez seems to. For starters there is a great irony in the revelation of the incestuous relationship. The male participant has been convinced that his father was trying to keep him and his then-girlfriend apart solely on the basis of racial prejudice, so his finding out that there was a "legitimate" reason for opposing the relationship suggests how often we are all mistaken about the past. Also, the female character sums up her philosophy with the line, "Forget the Alamo." While this line indicates a desire to escape from the historical and, yes, moral influences of the past, the entire film up to and including that moment has powerfully made the point that such a venture is impossible. The past continually reasserts itself, defining us even as we seek to reject or escape it. The film I saw was not a melodrama like The Kiss that said incest was okay; it was a tragedy that said our past, corporately and individually, will always make claims upon us, whether we choose to acknowledge them or not.
Kenneth R. Morefield
Northern Illinois University