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.