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A Watershed Moment

A Watershed Moment April 27, 2009

Deal Hudson has apparently declared the reaction against Obama’s invitation to Notre Dame to be a “watershed moment”. He’s right, but not for the reasons he thinks. As the dust settles and we can observe the reaction to Notre Dame’s invitation with an element of dispassion, it becomes clear that the cheapening and dumbing-down of right-wing discourse over the past 20 years or so has now been fully integrated into Catholic discourse, and this will have dire consequences for the culture– both the political culture and the all-important culture of life. This is the point I wish to argue in this post.

When Obama was elected, the ferocity of the opposition among the Catholic right took me a little by surprise. This is a man whose views on abortion, while indefensible, are nonetheless fully in line with Bill Clinton and the vast majority of Democrats as well as  a  good chunk of Republicans. Since the election, he has restored the abortion status quo to the Clinton years. He has permitted public funds to be used for embryonic stem cell research, but he applied the exact same safeguards approved by the Clinton administration in 2000, but never implemented — basically, a prohibition on creating life to destroy it. 

And yet he is dubbed, so commonly in right-wing Catholic circles and across the me-too Catholic blogosphere as the “most pro-abortion president ever.” Huh? I fail to see how he is more “pro-abortion” than Clinton. And if you really want to get into it, how about Ronald Reagan? After all, this is a man whose liberalization of abortion laws in California paved the way for abortion on demand and the Roe decision, a man whose public opposition to abortion was backed up neither by his supreme court nominees nor his social policies  — and remember, the Declaration on Procured Abortion deems policies to mitigate abortion as important as penal sanctions (it is no accident that the steepest drop in abortion rates took place during Clinton’s two terms).

Oh, sure, there are the apocalyptic posts about Obama’s true intentions, but therein lies the danger. As I have noted many times on this blog, the political right decided to adopt a strategy of “total war” against that to which it was opposed. As Sam Tanenhaus put it, the tactics seemed almost Marxist, and that “movement politics most clearly defines itself not by what it yearns to conserve but by what it longs to destroy–”statist” social programs; “socialized medicine”; “big labor”; “activist” Supreme Court justices, the “media elite”; “tenured radicals” on university faculties; “experts” in and out of government.”

I don’t want to get into the American theological aspects of this uniquely American political culture (it’s derivative Gnosticism and Calvinism) in this post, but I do want to talk about the relationship to Catholics. Over the last quarter century or so, we have seen an increasing alliance between Catholics and right-wing evangelicals and other pseudo-conservatives in the public square, exactly matching the new intensity of discourse. In a great irony, as Weigel, Neuhaus and Novak tried to provide some intellectual underpinning behind this endeavour, the whole movement was becoming more and more anti-intellectual. It was the era of Limbaugh, Coulter, and Fox News. These figures and what they represent came in from the cold, and entered the political mainstream.

The tactic was one of constant attack against the demonized other, and they took advantage of media weakness  — its reduction of everything to a case of he-said-she-said, the preference for personalities over depth, and its cheerleading the general dumbing down of the culture. It was deceptively simple — the whole noise machine would say the same thing over and over and over, until it entered conventional wisdom. It would feign outrage at the mere hint of an insult. It would always stay on the offensive. It focused on the trivial, the symbolic. It saw conspiracies everywhere, from the New York Times to the science of global warming. Strangely enough, this often worked. The media played the game. Thus things like the abolition on inheritance taxes on the very wealthy became a standard bearer for unfairness. And with the ascent of Bush and the security state, it took a far more sinister tone.

But in the fading Bush years, progressive over-reach meant that the movement began to lose steam. And the worst economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression had an amazing effects of focusing minds on what was truly important. As Obama rose in popularity, the movement became increasingly unhinged and apocalyptic as each successive wave of attack failed to dislodge him. Wasn’t he a big government liberal? No? OK, a socialist? Anti-American? How about a fascist? As each attack failed, the instigators grew more irritated. We saw Sarah Palin’s shameless attempts to bring out the worst in people during the election, all the while being utterly oblivious to matters of policy and governance. We saw the increasing unhinged post-election tactics and rhetoric. We saw a huge spike in gun sales. To merely play the back-and-forth political game and call it “Obama Derangement Sydrome” would be a gross underestimation.

Into this melieu comes a number of core life issues, especially abortion and ESCR. By stressing these issues above all others, and by selecting choosing the Church teachings owed assent by the faithful, the Catholics of the right managed to associate themselves with this movement to a greater degree than ever before. For the Catholic right has borrowed the rhetoric, the style, and the tactics of the political right. Screaming about Obama being the most “anti-Catholic” or “most pro-abortion” president ever is simply the Limbaugh-ization of Catholic discourse. Catholics in other countries do not act this way, and are increasing puzzled by the behavior of their American cousins.

Of course, these tactics are defined by simplicity and certainty, black and white. There can be no equivocation. Translated into Catholic terms, this means the Democrats are wrong on a restricted number of non-negotiables and so cannot be supported, ever. They are the “party of death”. The Republicans might not be perfect, but they don’t peddle death. Well, except they do peddle death. Catholic allies of the movement are thus given two choices — defend their allies, or maintain a strict silence. Never one to stay quiet, George Weigel is still stubbornly and persistently defending the Iraq war, while the latest evidence suggests that the decisions taken by George Bush led to  a million dead, 4.5 million displaced, and 5 million orphans. But Bush cannot be held responsible for the vast majority of these deaths, right? Well, sure, just as Barack Obama is not responsible for the millions of abortions that take place annually. The best charge you can level against him is that he favors keeping in place the very conditions that allow the killing of the unborn to continue (but remember, these conditions relate both to the legal framework and the accompanying socio-economic circumstances). It’s not so simple after all, is it?

The outcome is slightly disoncerting. While the Catholic right obsesses over the Obama invitation to Notre Dame in apocalyptic terms, there is a huge silence over the release of the torture memos, the final proof that the Bush regime greenlighted the torturing of prisoners, something the Church deems intrinsically evil, and something Obama has ended. The response? Silence, or sad attempts to give Bush the benefit of the doubt.

The Catholic right may think they have won a major tactical victory with the “watershed moment” over Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame, but nothing could be further from the truth. More and more, the core life issues of abortion and ESCR will be seen as the domain of the crazy fringe, and will become more disassociated from the broader culture of life issues that define Church teaching. The reaction of many supposed pro-life Catholics to Iraq and to torture will not be forgotten. And that is an absolute disaster if Catholics have any hope of persuading the general culture that abortion is not a “right” to be cherished, much as Catholics have slowly but surely been turning the tide against the death penalty. When I see the lists circulating on the right pertaining to Obama’s abortion sins, these lists seem dominated by the fact that he is appointing people who support legalized abortion to various posts. What is left unsaid is that he is appointing people whose views on these matters are very much part of the mainstream. And because of the utterly failed tactics of the Catholic right, they will remain part of the mainstream. And that is the real tragedy.

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