‘It’s a barbaric way to die,” multi-platinum country-music singer Collin Raye says to me, reflecting on the life of Terri Schiavo, the cognitively disabled woman in Florida who was starved to death in 2005.
Raye, who had 15 number-one hits in the 1990s, including “Love, Me,” “Little Rock,” and “I Think About You,” is talking to me about Schiavo because he has just become the official spokesman for the Schiavo Life and Hope Network, the foundation Terri’s brother Bobby Schindler heads, providing just that: hope for life. The network offers both education and support so that families faced with similar challenges — who are often given only deadly advice — can have the support they need in caring for their ailing loved ones.
“I know that there are a lot of complex issues involved,” Raye acknowledges. “But in the case of Terri, she didn’t need any extraordinary means. She wasn’t on a respirator. She simply needed food and water to stay alive. I think that is one of the saddest chapters in American history.”
“It’s amazing to me how spirited the other side is,” Raye tells me. “I don’t even understand why it’s controversial. In the case of Terri Schiavo, it was a slam-dunk to me. I don’t know how anyone can actually look at what happened with her and say, ‘This was right.’ That was wrong on so many levels, not the least of which is how it was carried out. Two weeks of starvation?”
“Prisoners on death row who are scheduled for execution are treated with more compassion,” he tells me, perplexed. “There are candlelight vigils outside of prisons making sure these people are humanely treated,” he recalls. “And maybe that’s a good thing, but that’s for another discussion,” suggesting he has the same discomfort with our use of capital punishment as I do. Without abandoning a concern for their human dignity, however, he adds that in the case of prisoners on death row, “these are people who chose to do something despicable to another — as opposed to Terri, who was an absolute innocent victim.”
Raye relishes, even treasures, his new role, as the Schindler family works to create a network of support for those who want to protect the dignity of the cognitively disabled, those at the end of life, and those dependent on the support of others for feeding and other regular, but basic, care.
“There’s a clear-cut goal here,” Raye emphasizes. “It’s not to keep talking about their sister. It’s about telling the whole story.”
Raye is grateful, he says, for the opportunity “to utilize my time in a more valuable way. It is a chance to weigh in and speak for those who can’t speak for themselves.”
The story is a personal one for Raye as much as it is political and cultural. His wife, Connie, suffered a heart attack and stroke when she gave birth early to their son Jacob. She would remain in a coma for eight months, and turning off the machines that were keeping her alive was suggested. But Connie would recover, after a lot of hard work relearning things such as walking and talking. She would live to be a grandmother. But that grandchild — Haley, born with a neurological disability that left her mute — would herself die at the age of nine in April 2010. In his 2008 song “She’s With Me,” Raye talks about what an undeserved honor it was to have her in his life:
She’s with me
I proudly tell the maitre d’ as we arrive
He seems surprised
In a clumsy moment as he looks for room, for her blessed chair
A table stares, and their eyes show only pity
As they try to sympathize
Oh, how difficult that must be, look away
Happy at the times I know that she’s with me
. . .
I know just what heaven looks like when I see that perfect face
For no other mortal heart could be so fair
I myself so weak and weary, so imperfect as a man
How could I be the one you chose to care for our girl
Never done a single deed to earn the right to share her light
Though it’s such a painful road we walk each day
Lord you have your ways, this I pray.
Approaching media interviews now, Raye says, “It’s almost like, if you don’t want to talk to me about this, I’m really not that interested in talking.” He doesn’t think many folks “in ‘the industry’ would be surprised, anyway. I’ve always been very outspoken, and I’ve gotten in trouble back in my heyday of the Nineties. I didn’t hold back then. Why would I now? It is not in my nature to walk the fine line.”
What kinds of things would he get in trouble about? He’s by no means casting himself as a saint (though clearly he holds onto the hope that he might strive to be), but he has always had the inclination to sing challenging songs — making cultural statements — like his jarring “What if Jesus Came Back Like That?”:
What if Jesus comes back like that
Two months early and hooked on crack
Will we let him in or turn our back
What if Jesus comes back like that
Oh what if Jesus comes back like that
Such talk can rub even some professed Christians the wrong way, as he recalls. But I seem to remember a lady from Calcutta who was known for shaking things up like that in polite company, too.
And so he talks to me about the eugenic roots of the “culture of death” he hopes he is playing some small role in combating. And he defends Sarah Palin’s calling out Obamacare’s “death panels,” which brought attention to the fact that “we’re quickly becoming a society where bureaucrats are empowered to decide who gets medical treatment and who doesn’t.”
And while he’s best known for singing love songs, what he sings about in his latest CD, His Love Remains, available from Ignatius Press, is what he believes is the source of all love: Jesus Christ. It contains some standard hymns and a testimony — written by him and his daughter, Haley’s mother, about the faith that has sustained them — entitled “Undefeated.”
He’s clearly a passionate advocate for innocent life. When we get on the topic of Planned Parenthood, which is deeply tied to the history of eugenics, he announces to me that Lila Rose — the young head of Live Action, which has been exposing Planned Parenthood clinics for what looks like a chronic willingness to provide otherwise under-the-radar support for sex trafficking of underage girls — deserves a monument built in her honor in Washington, D.C., for what she had done. Praising Rose for her courage and tenacity, he tells me: “I will do as many concerts as I need to do to fund it.” He pauses and adds: “I sure hope I get to meet her.”
Moments later, as if on cue, Rose comes over to us in the Washington, D.C., hotel lobby where the Value Voters Summit was being held — where his CD is debuting — to greet us. He made the concert offer to her in person. The 23-year-old is gracious but focused. She’s just going to keep doing what he’s doing: Making the world a little more welcoming to human life. Especially when it comes unexpected.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large for National Review Online.