Public Arguments: The Grammar of Dissent

The war of words continues. First we were told that Christian political activists, both Protestant and Catholic, comprise the “religious right,” and now we are told they are not “Christians” at all. The initial imprudence of Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders, widely criticized at first for her bigotry, is being echoed by others as the November elections approach. This change in rhetoric suggests that somebody in public relations on the political left has decided to up the ante. One wonders if they will get away with it, given that the leap in logic is so astounding. If groups such as the Christian Coalition were properly castigated for attempting to impose their beliefs on others, then the charge that they are not really acting in a Christian fashion, presumably for reasons of intolerance, is actually a compliment.

Yet it seems that the same issues that have labeled Christians the religious right have suddenly cost them their faith altogether. Protection of the unborn, the two-parent family, the normality of heterosexual relations, not to mention a pride in the founding of this nation and its traditions, have drawn the fire of a political establishment fearfully watching its grass-roots support dwindle. Citizens who once vaguely supported political goals of diversity and acceptance, out of their good-will and charity, have now caught on to the fact that their public institutions have been hijacked. Behind a call to tolerance for diversity, a right to equal recognition has been politically mandated. The “lifestyles” we were once asked to accept are now slated for entry into the public school curriculum in books like Heather Has Two Mommies.

Thus, there are good reasons why the public debate between the left and right, between liberals and conservatives, is heating up. Christian conservatives who value civility are caught in a tension between their preference for conciliation and the real need for confrontation. A good friend of mine, and regular contributor to Crisis, recently spoke to me about the need for a “more prophetic mode,” but did not know what form it should take. It is easy to sympathize with him. The phenomenon of Rush Limbaugh bespeaks a long:felt need for restoring the balance with a national print media that speaks with the same, left-leaning, voice. The new national weekly edition of The Washington Times, the best hard-hitting conservative daily in the country, is another welcome development.

Head-on attacks, however much they may offend our taste or rhetorical preferences, are particularly important in a political culture where there is such confusion about the language of virtue. Where appeals to love, justice, and courage are being used to justify everything from condom distribution to multiculturalism, the directness of two-fisted journalism is refreshing. More conciliatory tactics often fail to reveal not only the often blatant misrepresentations of the liberal agenda, but also the genuine philosophical and religious differences that need airing. Conservatives who complain about things getting ugly risk staying in the back lines while political battles are won and lost at the front. As important as it is to cooperate for the common good, it is just as important not be co-opted.

The specific problem for Christian conservatives is that their straight talk, like their commitment to moral standards, can be easily charged with lacking charity. Charity, as everyone knows, is the Christian virtue, without which nothing else really matters: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love. . . .” Those liberal critics of the religious right who have become so adept at telling believers from non-believers would like nothing better than the general public to regard the pronouncements of Christian political candidates as “nothing more than sounding brass and clashing cymbals.” Their degree of success will depend on the willingness of the public to dissociate Christian love from moral teaching. As St. Augustine taught, caritas first and foremost brings order to the virtues — it orients one’s entire life toward the goodness of God. Thus, it is entirely one thing to invoke love for the sake of forgiveness and the acceptance of the person, and quite another thing to argue that love obligates us toward the equal recognition and affirmation of diverse moral values.

Greater clarity may be around the corner. A hopeful sign is the renewed reflection on the virtues themselves as signaled by the popularity of William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues. The advantage of his book is its clear recognition that the virtues are taught through the telling and hearing of stories. Rather than abstract definitions, e.g., courage is doing the good in the face of danger, Bennett has gathered together a multitude of stories from around the world to illustrate the role of moral dispositions in the shaping of character. Virtues and vices, more than anything else, are the building-blocks of character. If the baby-boom generation needs an explanation why they have found basic moral laws so hard to follow, then here it is: Only a citizenry with a deeply-informed character will be able to follow consistently the dictates of its laws. Bare will-power, invoked at the moment of decision, can only go so far. As Willliam James put it, “Sow an action reap a habit, sow a habit reap a character, sow a character reap a destiny.”

The virtues are central to Catholic moral theology because, as Veritatis splendor makes clear, we are called to seek nothing less than perfection, the total transformation of our fallen nature. This point is lost on the author of “A Convert’s Confession,” an essay on the last page of Time Magazine (October 3, 1994). The writer laments the Church’s position on contraception and women priests, calling the Pope “strangely unevolved” on these issues. His rhetoric is mightily direct as he accuses the Church of committing the “Fallacy of Incidentals,” and suffering from “argumentative neurosis” and “doctrinaire reductionism.” Most of all, and most revealing of his mind, he regrets the “distortion of religion’s natural sweetness. . . .”

This is precisely the kind of misunderstanding that arises from having little appreciation for the role virtue plays in spiritual formation. First of all, any “sweetness” one might experience, and I hesitate to call it that, from the practice of religion comes from God alone. Secondly, there is nothing natural, indeed there better be something supernatural, about a religion that calls the Church to perfection, including the celibacy of its priests and the chastity of its laity. Virtue may accord with natural law but certainly not with the “natural sweetness” of our unredeemed inclinations. I would recommend, one convert to another, that the Time writer read Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, especially the chapters where an opportunistic evangelist attempts to change the stark message of Haze Motes, arguing “If you want to get anywheres in religion, you got to keep it sweet.” To which Haze responds dryly, “You ain’t true.”

The Time writer concludes his essay by remarking that because of his disagreements with the Church he does “not go to Mass much anymore.” I cannot imagine the doctrinal issue that could thwart my hunger for the Mass feast, and I am thankful for a Pope who thinks less about gratifying the demands of some self-indulgent Americans than preserving the wisdom of the Catholic faith for the next century.

As we have learned from the Pope on the airport runway in Denver, and from Mother Theresa at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C., this task requires the courage to speak the truth to the powerful. When Aristotle teaches that virtue always observes the mean, he did not imply that a courageous man should be timid, but that he should not be foolhardy. Taking an unsentimentalized charity as our guide, our rhetoric must indeed avoid this extreme, else damage be done to our cause. But given the confusion of our times, we must not allow our preference for civility to make us confuse sweetness with genuine conciliation. If so, we become no better than the evangelist, who, as Haze says, just “ain’t true.”

  • Deal W. Hudson

    Deal W. Hudson is ​publisher and editor of The Christian Review and the host of "Church and Culture," a weekly two-hour radio show on the Ave Maria Radio Network.​ He is the former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.

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