No, It Wasn't a Cynical Ploy
A lot of sophisticated people are clucking at the actions of
Congress and George W. Bush that attempted to save the life of
Terri Schiavo. This was pandering to the religious right, we are
told, a cynical partisan ploy by Republicans, an intervention
by an activist, even ayatollah-like, federal government into a
state court case and a family dispute. I do not put myself forward
as an expert on this case, nor am I certain that Congress and
Bush made the right decision, or that the courts, state and federal,
made the wrong one. But I do think much of the criticism and condescension
is misguided. And I think that the response of elected officials
reflects one of the great strengths in our country: a confident
belief in moral principles that stands in vivid contrast with
what we see in much of Europe and in the supposedly sophisticated
precincts of this country.
Start with the federalism issue. During Reconstruction, Congress
passed laws authorizing the federal government to protect the
civil rights of individuals left unprotected or harmed by state
action. Those laws have been invoked in cases where the rights
of black Americans were violated and the violators went unpunished.
Invoked, I would say, not often enough. The law Congress passed
and Bush signed was an attempt to protect the civil rights of
one individual in light of substantial evidence that those rights
were not being protected by the state. You may not regard the
evidence as persuasive, though I think it's pretty strong: At
crucial stages Terri Schiavo had no independent advocate; some
medical tests that many neurologists regard as routine in such
cases were not administered. Federal interventions to uphold civil
rights should probably be rare. But they're not unprecedented
in this country.
A cynical partisan ploy by Republicans? Not really. It is possible
that Democrats, if in control, might not have summoned a special
session. But this was not a purely partisan issue. Democrats did
vote for the bill and made its passage possible. Proceedings in
the Senate could have been stopped by a single objection to a
unanimous-consent request. No senator objected. Minority Leader
Harry Reid cooperated fully with Republicans. In the House, enough
Democrats returned from recess to provide the necessary quorum,
and 46 Democrats voted for the bill, while 53 voted against.
Were all these Democrats and Republicans acting cynically? I
don't think so. Take Sen. Tom Harkin, a liberal Democrat who worked
for the measure. Harkin's interest arose from his long concern
for the disabled -- he was a chief sponsor of the Americans with
Disabilities Act -- and his desire to protect the rights of the
incapacitated. Were his views informed by his Roman Catholic faith?
I don't know, but what if they were? Legislators are under no
obligation to have moral principles entirely divorced from religious
beliefs. I can't answer for every member who voted for the bill
or against it. But the quality of the debate suggests to me that
large majorities on both sides were acting out of reasoned moral
conviction more than political calculation.
Reasoned moral conviction: That is one of our national strengths.
George Weigel, in his new book, "The Cube and the Cathedral:
Europe, America, and Politics Without God," argues that without
strong religious beliefs, tolerance degenerates into indifference,
mere "skepticism and relativism," which fail to provide
a reason that people should be tolerant and civil. I would broaden
Weigel's argument by saying, "without strong religious or
moral beliefs," but his larger point is well taken. Look
at Christopher Caldwell's recent accounts in the Weekly Standard
of how multiculturalist tolerance in the Netherlands and Sweden
has made them helpless against separate subsidized communities
of Muslims who refuse to practice tolerance themselves and seek
to destroy the tolerant society around them. A society that believes
only in skepticism ultimately has no means of self-defense. On
the Schiavo issue, most members of Congress, on both sides, were
not indifferent but acted on moral convictions in a difficult
situation. They were trying to do what they believed was right.
They deserve respect, not contempt.
2005 Creators Syndicate
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