Is being an absolutist absolutely wrong?

stern pope.jpgDamon Linker, former editor of First Things, has written a provocative (and sometimes annoying) essay on how he believes Pope John II’s moral absolutism has affected Americans’ discussions of embryonic stem-cell research and the court-sanctioned dehydration death of Terri Schiavo:

After a century of mass murder, John Paul’s unconditional defense of human dignity cannot fail to impress. His articulate and passionate advocacy for human rights helped to bring about the fall of communism, and it justly earned him the respect and admiration of humanists (Christian and non-Christian alike) around the globe.

Yet there are reasons to be suspicious of all absolutisms — even the noblest kinds. While they inspire great certainty and conviction, they also distort our vision, obscuring the exceedingly complicated, even paradoxical, character of morality itself.

Take the Pope’s influence on the way stem-cell research is discussed in the United States. John Paul convinced many American conservatives that the union of sperm and ovum instantly produces a unique person who possesses the same dignity (and thus rights) as a mature human being; embryonic stem-cell research, which destroys this person within two weeks of conception, must therefore be prohibited. From this standpoint, those who support such research appear to be immoralists advocating a bloodthirsty “culture of death.” But this is far from fair. . . .

It also tends to poison and polarize political debate, as we recently observed in the rancorous conflict over the fate of Terri Schiavo. It is an eerie coincidence that John Paul’s death followed so swiftly on the heels of this saga, since it stands as a further, and even more troubling, example of the Pope’s influence on moral argument in the United States. Those who sided with Schiavo’s parents in their efforts to have her feeding tube reinserted (including President Bush and leading members of the Republican Party) explicitly described themselves as defenders of a “culture of life” against its enemies. It didn’t matter to them that 19 judges had ruled that removing Schiavo’s feeding tube was permitted under Florida law. It didn’t matter that established legal procedures precluded appeals to the federal courts. It didn’t matter that the U.S. Constitution left open no role for Congress or the president. Such procedural and pragmatic considerations were irrelevant. The only thing that mattered was that they turn back the “culture of death” by any means possible.

Both culture of life and culture of death take sneer quotes throughout the essay, but that’s pretty much inescapable in reports that acknowledge the concepts. In writing about the dangers of moral absolutism, Linker paints with too broad a sweep. It would help, for instance, to see an acknowledgment that some activists opposed Terri Schiavo’s death on grounds other than moral absolutism.

Still, given how often religious leaders favor avoiding difficult moral stances, it’s refreshing that the pope affirmed moral absolutes clearly enough to attract criticism. Compared to an editorial that blames millions of African deaths on John Paul II’s opposition to contraception, Linker’s essay is a model of restraint.

Tom Round of the Father McKenzie blog says Linker’s essay is a man-bites-dog phenomenon because in 1996 First Things questioned the American government’s legitimacy amid earlier culture of life/culture of death debates. But First Things raised that question five years before Linker joined the staff as an associate editor.

Linker’s subsequent employment at First Things is a tribute, I think, to that journal’s editorial ecumenism and to Linker’s diverse interests as a writer. More specifically, Linker — a Roman Catholic — has:

• Taught for two years at Brigham Young University.
• Written as the first non-LDS contributor at a Latter-day Saints blog called Times and Seasons.
Criticized Richard Rorty’s liberal absolutism.
Tagged Bruce Wilkinson’s Prayer of Jabez as a work of New Age theology.
• Ticked off the right people in a letter to his alma mater’s Ithaca College Quarterly.

Linker’s bio line in The New Republic mentions that he is “writing a book about the influence of religious conservatism on American politics.” However that book turns out, it’s unlikely to be boring.

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  • Molly

    “Is being an absolutist absolutely wrong?”

    Yes. And that’s an absolute answer. So I am also wrong!

    Anyway, I had an other question for you…

    How close to the mark is Wasserman?

    Here’s the “money quote”:

    “Besides, religious people may say they want more coverage, but do they really? Have they forgotten what news is? Do they want stories about disgruntled parishioners and intrigue within the archdiocese, or reviews of the new pastor’s lame homilies?

    No, like everybody else, whether devout or agnostic, they want favorable stories. They want testimonials, not news coverage. They want help spreading the Word.”

    I see some evidence of this lately on GetReligion; angles that are critical of the pope (stances on condom use and the spread of AIDS in Africa) and the less savory sides of the whole Schiavo debacle (bulimia and family issues) are absent. Granted, the point of your website is to examine how MSM covers religion and not to do this yourselves. I suppose I should accept this as your natural bias, but I find it ironic.

    Is the point of your mission to find only the favorable mentions and throw the rest in the trash? Aren’t you doing what you criticize MSM for doing? Maybe GetRelgion doesn’t quite GetItself.

  • Brian Lewis

    In my experience, religious people don’t want favorable stories only. They want stories competently written that take their beliefs seriously and that get those beliefs right.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    That’s my experience too, Brian.

    Regarding your concerns, Molly, I don’t believe GetReligion ignores the rougher edges of stories — but our editors perceive where those edges are differently than some of our readers do. GetReligion’s editors would not always agree with *each other* on where those edges are.

    Happy-face journalism would ignore the story of Terri Schiavo entirely, and not bother commenting on Damon Linker’s essay.

    Having said that, I do think it’s shrill to accuse the pope (as The Independent did) of being responsible for millions of African deaths because he opposes condoms.

  • Stephen A.

    I have to agree with Molly here (mark the calendar on THAT ONE!) on both her points.

    Religious leaders, just like mayors, aldermen, town selectmen and school board members, tend to want fluff pieces. When controversy erupts – a congregation splitting over some point of doctrine or practice, for example – they prefer it ignored.

    I don’t mind writing fluff pieces in my local paper about new ministers or priests, or even interesting after-school programs they’ve started in their churches or some other thing, but the “negative” stories are vital for balance and a full picture, and that’s really our job as reporters. (I do agree with Douglas that religious people want competent, informed reporting on those controversies. Something they don’t always get.)

    I also have to level a public criticism of this fine Weblog, too. I know the pope’s death drowned out everything else in the last week, but GetRel has not seriously reported on and analyzed the role of the Internet blogs and international news reports on the rather bizarre comments uttered by the Episcopal Church’s first gay bishop.

    He implied in a lecture that Jesus was a homosexual, though he denies he meant to make that exact implication. Whether out of context or not, here in New England and in the original England, it’s caused a firestorm of outrage since the story broke in the UK, and it was a three-day story, even in the midst of the pope’s funeral.

    I would have liked to have seen some analysis of the old and new media’s roles in creating, covering, and possibly covering UP this story. Maybe the owners were waiting until after the pope’s funeral.

  • Terry Mattingly


    I totally agree that many if not most religious leaders prefer a PR approach to news. This blog understands their desires and considers them sinful and, often, we think they should go jump.

    In recent years, I hve seen positive signs that some religious leaders realize that 50-50 coverage is a miracle in and off itself and they should polish up their best soundbites, return calls from reporters and enter the fray.

    On the Bishop Robinson story: Yes. Guilty. I had no idea, in part because I am on the road and swamped with speaking duties. Send us URLs for the worst and the best and let’s see what’s cooking.

  • Stephen A.

    No problem.

    I summarized and distilled the various reports here:

    And there are links within the blog entry and below it to the various media outlets that broke and covered it.

    Both sides (“left/right”) clearly put their spin on this story to serve their own agendas and fit their own worldviews, and that’s what makes it so interesting as a story.