‘I leave you, hoping that the lamp of liberty will burn in your homes until there shall no longer be a doubt that all men are created free and equal.”
It’s with this quote from Abraham Lincoln that Sheila Liaugminas, a Chicago-based journalist, winds down her new book Non-Negotiable: Essential Principles of a Just Society and Humane Culture. The book is both a call to arms and a reminder about who we are as a country and why we need people of serious, committed faith in it.
Noting that “we the people are losing our ability to think clearly or reason well” and that “we no longer even have a common language with the moral grammar of our Founders, the grammar of ethics that formed the Judeo-Christian tradition which shaped and directed our nation,” Liaugminas aims to help. The host of A Closer Look on Relevant Radio, on which Kathryn Jean Lopez is a frequent guest, Liaugminas talks with her about justice, humanity, and Non-Negotiable.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: “Bridging a respect for human dignity to practical politics can be a daunting task.” So where to begin?
SHEILA LIAUGMINAS: Bringing up human dignity as an essential, foundational, core principle at the center of everything else is a beginning. Talking about it as a “given,” a truth inherent in being human, preexisting the state and every form of government and society, a dignity wholly and equally and inestimably present in every human being . . . is rather radical and certainly countercultural. It should certainly be a conversation starter.
LOPEZ: Some are going to pick up your book, see the title “Non-Negotiable,” and assume you’re another conservative Catholic making the case that so-called social issues are more important than social-justice issues. Why should exactly that person pick up the book?
LIAUGMINAS: Because it’s a challenge in the unfortunate and lamentable cultural climate where Christians see social justice as an “either/or” proposition, Christians who have thought of issues for decades in terms of carrying out the social-gospel mandate to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, welcome the migrant, care for the poorest and weakest and most vulnerable — all covered under the mantle commonly known as “the seamless garment” approach to what Christians must do always and everywhere . . . as opposed to fellow Christians who see the mandate to guard the right to life as preeminent among rights, to ensure that the most vulnerable humans will live. . . . There’s rich and abundant precedent for that “both/and” gospel proposition, in the teachings of the Church, in the documents of U.S. founders and presidents, and in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Most people either don’t know that or have lost those reference points in modern-day political rhetoric and ideological alignment.
LOPEZ: What is non-negotiable, and how is it about the whole person and every single one of our lives more than it is simply about abortion and assisted suicide?
LIAUGMINAS: As the popular saying goes, “the Ten Commandments weren’t suggestions.” It’s not negotiable that we have to treat “all God’s children,” as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said so often, with dignity and respect and response to need. But you can’t make a coherent argument that people — and especially the classes of people falling into the categories of most vulnerable — must be given protection, provisions, rights, and privileges if you can’t first safeguard their right to live in the first place. We can’t declare an entire class of humans as “unworthy of life,” which happened under the grievous slavery laws and does today under abortion and euthanasia laws, but then make “rights” claims for other humans arbitrarily classified as “worthy of life,” and we can’t then insist on safeguards for them ensured by government. Such actions are politically and ideologically motivated. The writings of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., the U.N. Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and the teachings of the Catholic Church and other Christians who uphold the natural law all reveal the same understanding of “whole life” truth.
LOPEZ: Who decides what is non-negotiable? Or what is just and humane, for that matter?
LIAUGMINAS: These have become political terms, unfortunately. Language has become so distorted, people aren’t able to grasp the truth or even search for it anymore, said Josef Pieper decades ago in the small but powerful work Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power. Whether it was Brave New World or today’s Hunger Games, whether it was Nazi Germany or modern global authoritarian regimes that became the tyranny that Pope Benedict warned of in his U.N. General Assembly address in 2008, there are always ruling elites willing to usurp power over the people to determine which classes of people get which rights. The power elite can govern who gets what rights and what is non-negotiable in political terms — but not in terms of absolute truth and moral order. King quoted Thomas Aquinas in asserting that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
LOPEZ: “The propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.” Why do you quote George Washington before you even get started?
LIAUGMINAS: To grab the reader’s or curious browser’s attention, to say, “Look, listen, consider this.” Because it’s foundational. We have such a rich heritage both in the Church and in our nation’s founding documents, among other historic and timeless teachings. But people, generations, will forget if they are not taught or reminded, and truths will be eradicated from our collective memory if we don’t hand down our narrative of inheritance. George Washington is widely beloved, as is Abraham Lincoln. But ask people why and they may be hard pressed to cite what these early presidents represented in their personal beliefs, lived in their personal character, and stood for in their political battles to carry out their understanding of natural law and moral order. To “get” Washington or Lincoln, you have to get them right, and in full.