Time for a New Movement
Deacon Keith Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC
David Broder recently wrote an interesting column entitled "Among Conservative Scholars, a necessary debate". It is one of several efforts I have seen which assess the current "conservative" reaction to the changed political landscape in a post -Hurricane Katrina America. He refers within the piece to a larger article in the "Weekly Standard", a predominantly "neo-conservative" periodical, which, for its tenth anniversary, invited its regular contributors to opine on "what issue" they had changed their mind on in the last ten years. According to Broder, this inquiry belies a deep search within the core of the "conservative movement" for the current state of affairs now that they have had their chance at governing.
The contributors chosen for the article decried the growth of "big government", they expressed deep concern about "tax cuts", spoke with disdain for the lack of all the necessary troops for the War in Iraq and expresses their disappointment concerning the growing corruption in the ranks of conservative personalities who once rode into Washington D.C. pledging to eradicate it from politics.
Charles Krauthammer, a noted "conservative" columnist added to the discussion two days later with an intriguingly titled piece "Roberts Inquisition was all about abortion." Upon reading his piece I was not surprised but, rather, deeply disappointed. This "conservative" writer begins with a candid admission "I happen to be a supporter of legalized abortion". He then evaluates the subterfuge of the recent hearings concerning Judge Roberts and his appointment to the Supreme Court. His point was that the opponents of Judge Roberts concealed their singular efforts to get him to admit what they think is his opposition to Roe v Wade, but to no avail. The author ends the piece with his own analysis. In supporting the appointee, he concludes that Judge Roberts will not work to overturn Roe because "...he deeply respects precedent, and that he finds Roe itself worthy of respect. ...He is a perfectly reasonable traditional conservative, who will be an outstanding chief justice." Mr. Krauthammer believes that any change in legalized abortion, f it ever occurs, should occur at the ballot box.
For me, both columns pointed to the need for some Christian to reconsider their embrace of the current "conservative" movement. I have written for years concerning the dangers inherent within the acceptance of the "conservative" agenda by some activist Christians over the last twenty years. I wrote a piece several years ago entitled "Requiem for the Religious Right" which raised quite a stir. At this important moment in American politics is time for sincere Christians, of every ilk, to reassess their political participation. Not in order to back away from political participation, but to re-position it within the broader context of our call to the true conversion of human culture. It is time to learn the lessons that can be derived from following the pied piper movement of political partisanship. It is time to reaffirm our prophetic role in culture.
First, let me clarify some points. I was asked to "weigh in" on the Roberts appointment by two groups of Christians, those within the broader Christian community who distrusted the nominees' pro-life bona fides - as well as those who rushed to place their entire reputation on a wholesale endorsement of the candidate. The first group knew of my unwillingness to accept the political labels of "conservative" or "liberal", as well as my deep disappointment with both major parties. My thoughts have been expressed through my writings. They also knew that I had dedicated twenty five years of legal practice to overturning Roe and establishing a beachhead in the law that would institutionalize the respect for the dignity of every human life, from conception till natural death.
The second group knew that, during those years, I had served as co-counsel in several important U.S. Supreme Court cases, including the now famous "Bray" case in which then assistant solicitor general Roberts supported our clients position defending the free speech rights of pro-life protestors against strained efforts from pro-abortion activists to use the so called "Ku Klux Klan" act to stifle pro-life speech.
I refused both requests from both groups. Instead, I have written nothing concerning the nomination of Judge Roberts to the U.S. Supreme Court. Judge Roberts appears to be a brilliant legal technician and a good man. However, I have no idea how he views his first obligation to defend innocent human life. I can only pray that he has truly thought through the implications of that foundational and hermeneutic truth on every area of his life, including his public service. He may soon face a "Thomas More" moment. Further, I pray that he understands the infallible teaching of the Catholic Church concerning the inviolable dignity of every human life and the intrinsic evil of every procured abortion. The teaching of the Catholic Church is unequivocal concerning the primacy of that truth.
I am not a conservative. I am not a "neo-conservative." I am not a liberal. I am simply a faithful Catholic Christian who is committed to Catholic Social teaching and trying to inform my participation in every area of life in accordance with its principles. That includes my political participation. I know that this teaching is not simply "religious"- in the sense of speaking only to "religious" people - but, rather, contains within it principles for governing that will build a truly just society for all men and women. I also know that these principles are true. I am dedicated to making them known and offering them as a framework for social action serving the common good.
My commitment to the whole Social Teaching of the Catholic Church has caused me to be disliked by some, including some within the so called "religious right" movement and the "conservative" and "neo-conservative" movement. The contemporary "liberal" movement, lost in the insanity of its current leadership which seems to have lost its soul and integrity over abortion and euthanasia, has seen me as an enemy for quite some time. I am whole life pro-life, pro-marriage and family, pro-freedom (authentically understood), pro-poor and pro-peace.
These two recent editorials on the state of the conservative movement convinced me that it is time to address again the embrace by some Christians of the so called "conservative" movement. Not so these folks can then embrace the lunacy that has hijacked other political labels such as "liberal" or "progressive", but, rather, so that they can draw back, pray, take a deep breath and build a new movement, one that is at the service of the truth and the common good, rooted in the principles derived from classical Christian thought.
I reaffirm the assertion I made several years ago that the movement once called "the religious right" is over. Its impact on politics and policy is negligible. The primary mobilizing issue of the movement, securing in law a recognition of the inalienable right to life for every human person including persons in the first home of the whole human race, the womb, has made little discernible political progress in America. Abortion, which is always and in every instance intrinsically evil because it is the immoral taking of innocent helpless human life, is still legal in all fifty States. At least as of the writing of this article, even the most obviously barbarous practice, so called "partial birth" abortion, is still legal, because rogue courts continue to enforce a war on the womb.
Too many efforts that have challenged Christians to political participation have ended up being co-opted by partisanship. Unfortunately, the religious right is no exception. Let's face it, much of the "religious right" movement ended up becoming a politically "conservative", republican, and mostly evangelical Protestant movement. Though it claimed to include Catholic and Orthodox Christians along with evangelical Protestant Christians, most Catholic and Orthodox Christians never joined it. Even those who worked with the movement on pro-life and pro-family issues did not fit in within the culture or the model of the movement.
Theologically faithful Catholics, Orthodox and Protestant Christians share what has been called the "socially conservative" agenda. However, the 'religious right" movement was built upon a "persecuted minority" model of activism. Some of its efforts were also influenced by an "anti-" approach to effecting social, political and judicial change. The emphasis was placed on opposing the current problems and less on proposing alternatives and offering alternative solutions. The movement spoke of what was wrong with the culture and failed to articulate a better way to build a more just society. It failed to offer a compelling vision for building a truly just social order.
One of the effects of the movement was the very term, "religious right", which has now become a label used as a verbal weapon against all faithful Christians who -compelled by their faith and their sincere understanding of their baptismal obligations to be faithful citizens- seek to influence the social order. It has divided us, aided in the polarization of our Nation and, sadly, led to compromise. The term "religious right" is used to denigrate well intended Christians who engage in any form of political activism that does not fit a socially "liberal" agenda. It should be rejected.
Some of the earlier voices identified with the movement were first politically "conservative" and then wrapped Christian language around their polemics and their politics. Some leaders of the groups put biblical proof texts on their own pet political ideas. They failed to develop a hierarchy of values within which to posit which of their political positions were actually "Christian" (a position compelled by the Christian faith -like the right to life) and which ones were discretionary or fell within the large area of political concerns that are properly left to the exercise of prudential judgment.
Whether any of this was intentional, I cannot say. It was probably due to a lack of a cohesive social teaching in the particular Christian tradition of training of the individuals involved. However, the sad effect was that much of the rhetoric used by the movement made it sound as though all "conservative" ideas were somehow "Christian". In so doing, the movement lost sight of the proper exercise of prudential judgment that lies at the heart of human freedom. This failure to develop a hierarchy of values and respect freedom and prudential judgment weakened the movements influence. It failed to articulate "principles of engagement" for Christians who become politically involved.
In some circles, the movement espoused a model of engagement with the "world" that was hostile and at odds with a classical Christian worldview. It operated within a model of cultural participation that was antithetical to a Christian vision of the human person and an authentically Christian worldview. It was founded instead upon a notion of freedom that was infected with the autonomous individualism of the age. Some Christians now actually embrace the political lines of the libertarian movement as their own.
The Christian faith asserts that we are not be fully human, not fully the "Imago Dei", in isolation. We were made for family and we were made for community. We will only find our human fulfillment and flourishing by giving ourselves away to the other. Authentic human freedom is not found in a notion of the isolated autonomous individual as being able to do whatever he/she pleases, but rather flourishes in relationship- with God and with one another. It also recognizes the obligations that we have in solidarity to one another, to the entire human community and, in a special way, to the poor.
Today, we find some Christians actually opposing federal efforts to reach out to the poor left in the wake of the horrors of Katrina. They have apparently failed to understand the implications of our obligations in solidarity. I know that some rightly wonder about the proper role of the federal government, but others seem to have adopted a kind of notion that government is "intrinsically evil." Perhaps, after years of rightly questioning the overly federalized approach to governance of the past, they have failed to think the issue through and accepted some of the errant notions operating within some "conservative" circles.
The question we should ask ourselves is what constitutes "good governance'. For a classical Christian thinker, government simply is. God governs and invites us to participate in governance. Government occurs in marriage and family. It should involve the mediating institutions and begins from below. It operates best when it is closest to those who are its participants and its benefactors. The application of such a model of governance should apply the principle of subsidiarity, a social ordering principle which affirms that "good" government should be properly "limited" in the sense of being closest to the people, effective and efficient. A society should not give away the responsibility to govern, in the first instance, to a higher community. Rather, good governance must start with the smallest and the closest governing option and all other governance is there to assist, equip and empower.
Such principles, derived from Christian Social teaching, help us understand how we can build "good" government, if we work at it. They also help protect us against governmental abuse, usurping of rights, and corruption. Government must also be "good" in another sense of the word. It is "good" when it reflects "The good", we find this in the moral truths written in the natural law. These truths can be known by all men and women. For the believer, those truths are confirmed in - and deepened by - revelation.
However, they are available to- and can be known by - all men and women. They include such Truths as the inviolable dignity of every human life, which served as the foundation for the once universal recognition that it is always wrong to take innocent human life. Unfortunately, rather than develop both the language necessary to explain these principles and the actions necessary to apply them, instead we find some otherwise genuine Christians "parroting" libertarian notions of the evil of governance. Or, we hear some "conservatives" - who are also Christians- almost "baptizing" quotations from Thomas Jefferson (such as he governs best who governs least"), as though these maxims were rooted in Revelation.
Christians have lived under just kings, democracies and under a myriad of other governmental structures. While we welcome the contemporary model of western democratic governance, we do so because we cherish authentic human freedom. We must first think with a Christian mind.
Christians need to face a difficult fact. To borrow the words of the old "Who" song "we tipped our hat to a new revolution" and we were, as those old rockers warned us "fooled again". We need to rise up and assert that we are not first Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals - we are first, last and always Christians. Christian is the Noun. Because we are Christians we carry on the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ as His Body on earth. That mission has a social dimension. We need a new -- actually quite old -- model for a new Christian action, one that will not lead us to compromise, despair or open us to being co-opted by any political party or agenda.
I have proposed in the past that we come together around four "pillars" of political and social participation; the dignity of life, the primacy of family, authentic human freedom and solidarity with the poor. These pillars of participation can form a firm foundation for our social and political action. They can keep us issue and people focused. They will also help us to recover our prophetic role in culture. Some of the past approaches to political participation, both on the "right" and on the "left", were "outside in" rather than "inside out" in their approach. For example, even some Catholic Christians who got involved with the "religious right" ended up trying to dress up conservative political positions with the social teachings of the Catholic Church, using them as a sort of "proof text" for conservative ideology. It was a mistaken effort.
Christian faith and identity is not a coat that you put on. Our faith informs the very core of our identity and it should inform our participation in the social arena, including our politics.
These editorials which discussed the current efforts of the "conservative movement" to assess its influence should present those who are Christians with an opportunity to reassess what happened to our efforts to effect social and political change. If the best that the "conservative movement" has to offer on the fundamental human rights issue of our age, the right to life, is "strict constructionism", it offers very little. Perhaps as a judicial philosophy, it is better that the alternative, a misguided judicial activism that led to countless millions of children being killed under the profane cover of a so called "right to choose" created by unelected Judges, but it will not end the slaughter. There are rights that trump and precede all civil rights. They are fundamental human rights that have been endowed upon us by a Creator. They can be known by all through the natural law that binds us all. They must be reaffirmed and become the foundation for a truly just social order.
Our nation is in need of an authentically Christian social, cultural and political movement. Past efforts at organizing and engaging Christian citizens have accomplished some good. However, they failed to accomplish all that was hoped. I believe that this is partially because they had a faulty foundation. We need a new movement that understand and embody the classical Christian worldview and calls Christians to social, political, cultural and economic participation for the common good. Those who bear the name "Christian" carry forward in time the redemptive mission of the Lord Jesus Christ. That is our "apologetic" for authentic social and political action and public service. We are to be "in the world" in order to transform it from within. We are called to serve the common good.
The values we proclaim- and seek to both live and work into genuinely "good" public policy and discourse- are good for all men and women. They are not simply "religious" in the sense that they are to be held only by those who hold to a distinct religious tradition. They are a part of our common human vocation. They are the glue of any truly just society. These values are actually not really to be held at all-in the sense of clinging. Rather, they are to be given away and worked into the leaven of the whole society so that we may share this bread with every man, woman and child. In that way we promote the "common good" of all.
These values begin with a respect for the dignity of all human life, from conception to natural death. They acknowledge the primacy of the first cell of society, marriage and the family built upon it; the first vital cell of society, the first government, the first economy, the first hospital, the first classroom and the first church. Authentic human freedom recognizes the first freedom, religious freedom, as a fundamental human right. There are two sides to spending freedoms coin; a freedom from oppressive restraints but also a freedom for responsible living. Freedom has a constitutive connection to the truth and it must be exercised accordingly. We simply have no "right" to choose what is wrong; rather we must choose to do what is right if we want to be truly free. We are obligated to one another in bonds of solidarity because we are our brothers' keeper!
While pundits reflect upon the state of the "conservative" movement, Christians should reflect upon our call to be disciples and servants, taking a prophetic role in this age. It is time to throw off the confining labels of the political discourse of our age and build a new movement. It is time to follow Jesus Christ first.
Deacon Keith A Fournier is a Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia. A graduate of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University and the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Law, Deacon Fournier is currently a PHD student in historical theology at the Catholic University of America. His eighth book, "The Prayer of Mary: Living the Surrendered Life" is available in bookstores.
Third Millennium, LLC
https://www.catholic.org VA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - Deacon, 757 546-9580
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