Matters of life, death -- and politics

Posted: Aug 15, 2001 12:00 AM
So we're all frothing along, wondering where Chandra Levy might be, and whether Gary Condit should resign, when up pops the question of stem-cell research. Then a televised presidential address; and a general surfacing and spouting by bio-ethicists; and a general summons to decision-making regarding matters of life and death. Gosh. There is some oddities here. I think I can explain. All this discussion, all this argumentation and debate goes forward within a political context: over microphones more naturally used for mooting questions of national defense, tax cuts and Social Security. Matters of life and death are not political. Are they? It depends on whether you mean political by nature or by adoption. By nature, no. Politics concerns the right ordering of human affairs -- secular justice and so on. Questions of life and death -- of ultimate purpose and destination -- are inherently theological. Theology, as any American Civil Liberties Union lawyer will inform you, is outside government's purview. Therefore, why should an American president concern himself with questions centering on the starting point of life? Because democratic politics has swallowed up ... everything. Nothing eludes its jaws. Little enough room these days even for God (or His prophets) in a world where important senators and solemn jurists and experts who shout at each other on television "talk" shows claim possession of ultimate truth. No, democratic governance and theology don't consort well: not when governance claims the privilege of making all the final calls. Consider stem-cell research. What unique kinds of questions might theology raise concerning it? One would be enough: Who makes life in the first place? A book called the Bible is clear enough on that point (e.g., "[I]t is he than hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.") -- the problem here being that democratic politics, as currently practiced, puts no stock in such claims. Everything is "Opinion." Politics is for sorting out Opinions. OK? Not OK, actually. Not when a particular "opinion" may actually embody Reality. Ignoring Reality isn't smart -- which is why some would say modern culture's biggest problem is the extent to which it has emptied itself of theology; specifically, of the Christian theology that once occupied its heart and soul. For nearly 1700 years, the West held that Christianity provided an authentic account of The Way Things Were. Nowadays, you can't even get all Christians to buy into that account. As for those who couldn't care less, or who affirm "theological diversity," forget it. The obvious consequence: We end up with no convincing account of reality, hence no idea how to proceed. Accordingly, like good 21st century folk, we hand off to politicians and judges. Isn't that why they're there -- to make those calls too tough for the poor uninformed and confused citizenry? Human life questions first became deeply political in 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court discovered, hidden in the Constitution's inmost folds, the right to get rid of an unwelcome "fetus." Ohhh. How interesting. So it wasn't any longer a case of "(I)t is he that hath made us"? The newly discovered "right to privacy" trumped all that stuff. The court said so; the political process acquiesced. From there it's not much of a jump to stem cells and presidential addresses on same. We live in, morally speaking, the messiest times ever: in which Reality is what the majority, at a given moment, decides it to be. On stem-cell research, I gather, Americans are according their president cautious support, without being sure whether he was right or wrong. Whatever our views, I'm for extending the man a little sympathy. He's a politician, not St. Augustine of Hippo. He shouldn't have to be doing this, and we shouldn't be forcing him to.