Politics & Policy

Risking Culture War

Obama is playing with explosive questions.

 

Now that the Santorum campaign — the last and most durable of the non-Mitt efforts — is finally fading, a little analysis of it is warranted before it vanishes from mind. It didn’t flame out absurdly like the Bachmann, Perry, Cain, and Gingrich challenges, partly because Rick Santorum didn’t have the vulnerabilities or commit the terrible faux pas of the others, but partly also because he actually stood for something solid.

The truism has been solemnly asserted that economic issues can win the election for the Republicans, but moral issues cannot. A reasonably serviceable nominee could invoke both, and the real criterion for the effectiveness of the moral issues is the precise selection of the issues to be put to the voters.

The Democrats telegraphed the contraception offensive with George Stephanopoulos’s badgering of Mitt Romney on the subject on television as the Sebelius directive obliging Roman Catholic–affiliated institutions to insure employees’ and students’ costs for birth control, abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization was issued. This offensive seems to have backfired, as the effort to portray it as illustrative of a resistance to the Republicans’ War on Women, rather than as a gratuitous, unconstitutional assault on a religious institution (which is what it is), has not succeeded.

#ad#But it did smoke Rick Santorum out as personally an opponent of contraception, and may have helped marginalize him within the Republican party as too vulnerable to caricature in the eyes of independent voters as an antediluvian monastic dreadnought in an unbecoming sweater vest. As with his statement that too many people aspire to go to university, with this comment he was disquietingly prone to seem like a harking-back to, at best, a William Bendix 1950s American working-class man with, to boot, a rosary in his hands.

But as my distinguished NRO colleague Mark Steyn wrote a couple of weeks ago, almost everything Santorum was proposing, including aid to the benighted American family and the equally diminished American manufacturing sector, was supported reflexively by almost all Americans 50 years ago, and is still supported by most of them, and certainly by most Republicans.

Rick Santorum’s pluck has been remarkable, as he has run for many lean months on a shoestring, through much ridicule, on what was largely seen as an antiquarian platform, and finally mounted a serious challenge to a well-funded front-runner who has been campaigning for this prize almost uninterruptedly for six years, and whose campaign bus is stuffed with well-paid professionals. He earned the credit due to an indomitable underdog and to a conviction politician, and he had, in his homely, slightly awkward, unpretentious doggedness, a gravitas, seriousness, and plausibility that set him apart from the buffoonish pizza executive, the absent-minded (“Oops”) armed jogger, and the super-flake millionaire historian emeritus of Freddie Mac.

But there has been something more to the Santorum campaign. He did not, to my knowledge, and probably would not, put it in these terms, but the confluence of his campaign with what Pope Benedict XVI specifically described as this administration’s “radical secularism” brought this country a long way closer to a showdown, a turning-up of the cards, between the continuators and apostles of a materialist age of reason, the plenitude of the Enlightenment, and those who believe that the United States is a country that tolerates dissent equably, but is fundamentally and profoundly based on Judeo-Christian principles.

The moralists and the relativists have coexisted quite comfortably, usually, in the public political arena since the country’s earliest days. Jefferson wrote of the “creator” but was a deist. Washington prayed at Valley Forge (but in those daunting circumstances, probably even Stalin would have prayed), and called for Haman’s gallows for war profiteers in the Continental Congress. Franklin and Hamilton hovered on the verge of agnosticism. Madison’s religious views are indistinct, and the only one of the principal founders who was a regularly and conventionally practicing Christian was John Adams.

Abraham Lincoln was not a fervent Presbyterian, but he was clearly, and with electrifying eloquence, a Christian. “Fondly do we hope and fervently do we pray that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away”: a line of poetry from the second inaugural. “But if God wills that all the treasure piled up by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and that every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be repaid by a drop of blood drawn by the sword, then as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” He was saying that no matter how many Union soldiers died emancipating the slaves, it was God’s will that they be emancipated.

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Woodrow Wilson was a son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers and is rivaled only by Jefferson as the greatest intellect who ever lived in the White House. He took the nation to war in 1917 “to make the world safe for democracy . . . God helping her, [America] could do no other.” And Franklin D. Roosevelt, on being inducted into the presidency in the midst of a terrible economic depression, said, “Our problems, thank God, concern only material things.” The point is not what the religious views and practices of these statesmen were; it is their acceptance of and deference to both main competing currents of thought in Western civilization and American public policy, the light of faith and the voice of reason.

Junior Interior Department officials of the Obama administration tried to excise from the FDR Memorial his D-Day supplication: “These young men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They yearn but for return to the haven of home. Some will never return. Accept these, Father, Thy most heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.” I have no standing to comment on President Obama’s religious beliefs, and they are no one’s rightful concern but his, but his administration has gone farther than any previous one to exalt moral relativism, deemphasize long-traditional references to spirituality, and elaborate domestic policy in exclusively material terms. To some extent, this is a commendable avoidance of unction and hypocrisy, and prayerful words are no substitute for public funds.

#ad#Rick Santorum, typically, awkwardly, went too far in saying John F. Kennedy’s famous address to Protestant clergymen in Houston in 1960 made him want to “throw up.” JFK was dealing in the only way he could with the issue of being the first Roman Catholic in history to have a real chance to become president. But in his unelectable way, Santorum was on to something. Tactical matters aside (which were all Kennedy was concerned with on this occasion), why should a politician’s religious faith not inform, to some degree, his public-policy decisions? They should, and where the politician has such views, they do.

The Obama administration has come closer than any preceding one to an outright embrace of anti-spiritual rational materialism and the complete avoidance of even lip service to America’s religious tradition. There will be abortion on demand and assisted suicide at the taxpayers’ expense, all despite the vocal Roman Catholic majority on the Supreme Court: Life is officially not sacred, ecclesiastical institutions no longer have clear constitutional standing. God has been expelled from the schools and is officially not mentioned. People may go to their churches but instead of the official toleration of atheism, which has always existed, we are moving toward an officially partial indulgence of religious practice.

Mr. Obama would deny, probably sincerely, that his administration is following that path. But it has belied any such doffing of the presidential cap to the God who has blessed America for these centuries, and in whom the nation officially still trusts. It is impossible to measure with any exactness the distance the administration has lurched toward secularism, and away from Mr. Santorum’s fellow Pennsylvanians whom the president famously described four years ago as losers seeking solace in guns and religion. But at the end of this philosophical road are the perfectibility of man, the death of God, and His replacement by man. We are obviously a long way from any official espousal of such a radical departure from American tradition, from American Gothic to an American Götterdämmerung. There need not be any friction between faith and intellectual rigor, though in practice there often is. But if this trend continues, it will produce a culture war, in the original sense of German Chancellor Bismarck’s attack on the Roman Catholic and other churches 135 years ago.

At that time, the papacy had just been deprived of its secular authority by reunified Italy, and the First Vatican Council promulgated the much-misrepresented doctrine of papal infallibility, essentially over matters that were uncontested, as a consolation prize to Pius IX for his loss of the Papal States. The Health and Human Services directive about contraception indicates that this administration thinks that the societal correlation of forces has shifted and that it can take ground from the Church by exploiting the premier Christian Church’s anachronistic counsel of perfection in birth-control matters and its very late response to the sexual-abuse and molestation crisis.

Bismarck entered the first culture war as victor of three quick wars with Germany’s neighbors and unifier of Germany for the first time since Charlemagne 1,100 years before. This administration, on its record, does not deserve to be reelected, and the Roman Catholic Church should not be underestimated, though it often is. It is not a bumblebee defying all laws of nature and about to fall down, as the Obama entourage seems to think. It is getting through the sexual-abuse nightmare, and the septuagenarian, celibate leadership and the communicants have agreed to wink at each other while the Church assimilates, at a stately pace, the implications of contraceptive advances.

For all people of faith, and not just religious cranks, these are disquieting developments. Rick Santorum made these concerns visible, even if he didn’t really articulate them. He is exiting, but the president, if he persists, has not heard the last of this. He is playing with explosive questions. His former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, was just an apocalyptic scene-stealer. This has the makings of a real culture war, which should be avoided.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.

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