The tragic case of Terri Schiavo writes a new chapter in the ongoing American saga that is often titled “the culture war.” It’s no longer just about a so-called “right to life.” The Christian right insists that it’s about a “culture of life.” They’ve been waving that slogan around for years. Now mainstream America is getting used to it. Those of us who actively oppose the Christian right had better get used it, too. We’re going to be hearing a lot about this “culture of life” from now on.
“Culture of LIFE?” we ask, with justified outrage. These same people who claim to be the guardians of life are the first to demand the death penalty for murderers, indiscriminate bombing for Afghanis, Iraqis, and anyone else they don't like, etc., etc. The hypocrisy is so blatant, it hardly seems worth spelling out the details.
When they talk about a “culture of life,” though, the right-wingers are trying to tell us that we’re missing the point. The debate is not about life, it’s about CULTURE. Everyone agrees that life is good. But the United States is split by a deep cultural divide about what makes a life good. Once we bring that divide into focus, the “culture of life” side begins to look a bit more logically consistent. And those of us who oppose them begin to see more clearly just where the lines need to be drawn.
Underneath the debate about the end of life, we find the same issue that underlies the debates about abortion, stem cell research, gay marriage, and all the other hot-button social issues of the day. The basic question that ties together all these issues is one that is all too rarely addressed or even spoken: How should we acquire our moral values? It may sound like the stuff of a college philosophy course. But it’s really the stuff of the headlines about the late Terri Schiavo and all the other battlegrounds of the “culture war.”
On one side are the religious and social (no, they aren’t all religious) conservatives who wave the “culture of life” banner. Basically, they are people who are afraid of uncertainty, ambiguity, and change in the realm of moral values. Their position is simple:
- moral values must be universal, timeless, unchanging truths
- we should receive them from religious traditions or authority figures
- once we get fixed truths, we should stick with them, no matter what
A society that doesn’t believe all this is in great danger, they warn. Why? Listen to a delightful story told by George W. Bush’s friend Richard Land, who heads the Southern Baptist Convention. Land recalled what his wife said when Bill Clinton became president: “She said, ‘The people that were sitting around [in the ‘60s] in Volkswagen vans, smoking pot with peace symbols on their vans and hanging around their necks, are running the country now, aren't they?’ I said, ‘Yes, they are.’ Basically, it breaks down to this enormous fault line. On one side of this fault line, you have people who have a traditional view of morality: Some things are always right; some things are always wrong; and if you accept a society in which that's not true, then anything becomes possible.”
That’s just what thrilled those people sitting around in Volkswagen vans, smoking pot with peace symbols. Anything becomes possible -- even a world of peace and love.
For the right-wingers, though, the idea that “anything is possible” is terrifying. Their “culture of life” is really a culture of fear. They believe that human nature is basically selfish, competitive, and aggressive, If anything is possible, who can predict what crime or evil will happen next? How can anyone feel safe? The world would be spinning out of control. We need fixed rules that come from unquestionable authority. That’s the only way to keep us all from running amok.
You can’t get that kind of certainty if you leave the rules up to human choice, the conservatives insist. People are “flip-flops.” They change their minds to suit their whims. They think with their hormones. They do all sorts of dangerous things, if we let them. That’s why we have to agree with our president, who says: “The right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is not a personal opinion, but an eternal truth.” That’s why we need to believe in an eternal higher authority.
From this very abstract point, it’s an easy step to the impassioned “defense” of Terri Schiavo’s life. Who gets to decide when someone dies. Is it the “flip-flop” human mind? Or is it the eternal will of the ultimate unquestionable authority, the good Lord Himself? For a conservative, that’s a no-brainer.
Once you let the human mind decide when people die -- or which fetuses come to term and which don’t -- anything is indeed possible. The world feels like it’s spinning out of control. It’s hard enough already for most people to feel they have any control over their lives. A world with no eternal authorities might make it feel impossible.
Of course, a world where some eternal authority tells us all what to do is not exactly what the Founding Fathers had in mind, as far as many of us can tell. We believe that a nation built on freedom has to free the mind to discover moral values for itself. That means moral values will indeed be different at different times and in different places. People will disagree. There will be conflicts. That is unavoidable.
So why not make a virtue out of necessity? Why not embrace the conflict as a sign of a healthy, creative diversity in society? We trust that people who have their basic human needs met can learn to get along reasonably. The problem is not human nature. It’s a society with skewed priorities that denies so many people their basic needs.
But if we trust the free mind to find the truth, we have to consider all points of view -- even the “culture of life.” Do they have a persuasive point to make? To figure it out for yourself, you might want to take a college philosophy course, or three or four. You’ll have to start way back with Plato and Aristotle. Great minds have been wrestling with this one for thousands of years, and they haven’t come to any consensus yet. Either side might be right.
But that’s just what the right-wingers can’t admit. It’s the “might be right” that scares them and drives them nuts. They need a “MUST be right” to feel safe, to feel that their own lives are under even minimal control.
We can’t let them inscribe their fear-driven beliefs onto our laws. No compromise on that one. And we ought to encourage them to join us in a civil discussion about the issue. All the while, though, it won’t hurt to remember that they are frightened and hurting.
We also have to continue the agonizing discussion about the specific issues concerning the end of life. Now that technology can keep people alive almost indefinitely, we are in a brave new world with no simple clear-cut direction ahead. The disability rights movement rightly reminds us how easily the masters of technology can get control over us if we are not vigilant. The advocates of individual liberty and death with dignity rightly remind us that we can keep our individual right to our own death as well as life only if we are vigilant. There are no easy answers here, either.
We can’t carry on that debate constructively, though, until we first disentangle it from the great cultural debate about how we get our moral values. Perhaps that clarification would move us all a small step beyond our fears.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea. He can be reached at