Politics & Policy

Humane Culture 101

Sheila Liaugminas discusses essential principles of the good society.

‘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.

LOPEZ: Why is the Universal Declaration on Human Rights so important? Why should anyone who has had it with the United Nations consider it? What might U.N. officials refresh themselves about it?

LIAUGMINAS: Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI delivered addresses to the U.N. General Assembly on important anniversaries — of the founding of that body, of the U.N. Charter, and of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Both popes reintroduced the moral grammar originally used and understood by that international body of nations but lost along the way over the past few decades, owing to political ideology. That the U.N. has strayed so far and so grievously from its founding purpose stated in those documents made it all the more urgent for both popes to attempt to recall the General Assembly to the clarity of its stated purpose. If the representatives of the member nations listened, heard, and carefully considered these eloquent addresses and applied them to their founding documents, one hopes they could see what must be done to live up to its noble purpose, and take action to carry it out.

LOPEZ: Why are you so into the Manhattan Declaration?

LIAUGMINAS: It’s a succinct, clear, and necessary modern-day Magna Carta. In an economy of words, the three brilliant drafters laid out a charter for rights and duties, liberties and limits on government, incumbent on all of us in the West to recall from our Judeo-Christian inheritance and to apply to current sociopolitical laws and affairs. Its recall of the earliest Christian witness and sacrifice and influence — to apply those ethics and principles to current cultural, political, and legal challenges, with the reminder of unchanging natural law cited by Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther King Jr. — is simply elegant and as pure and clear as a public document can get. I don’t see why it doesn’t have a million signatures by now, though when it does, it will be delivered to the White House, I’m told.


LOPEZ: What’s your beef with “political correctness” and “values voters”?

LIAUGMINAS: Politics don’t determine what’s correct. And everyone is a “values voter.” It just depends on whose values you support. There’s no such thing as a values-free education (though that’s a reference we commonly hear), no such thing as a values-free voter. Values don’t mean the same thing as principles, though they’re usually confused in reporting and even get convoluted in thinking. Every voter is backing someone’s worldview that values human life, rights, the size and role of government, property, responsibility, and the rule of law differently from other candidates’ worldviews. Political correctness is the tern for popular consensus — the “tyranny of the majority,” as Pope Benedict called it — when those in power can deem whatever they will to be the “right thing to do” given the cultural climate of the moment. First principles transcend time and regimes and government and culture. Their truth doesn’t depend on our belief in them. History is full of examples and evidence of this.

LOPEZ: You point out that “we are largely unable to have a civil discourse and have virtually lost the art of argument.” Are there examples today of people who can be civil while having robust arguments? Because that’s important, isn’t it? Civil discourse doesn’t mean surrender on matters of principle?

LIAUGMINAS: The art of argument is as important today as it was in the time of ancient philosophers. Understanding what it means to be human, and ordering our lives for the common good and human flourishing, sounds archaic to many people. But it’s the way of civilization from our earliest ancestors. The early Areopagus was the public forum in Athens where ideas were exchanged, challenged, defended. People debated, were convinced, or sat as bystanders sniping at the thinkers and speakers, without giving thought to the arguments. They were the sophists of ancient times, and they have modern-day inheritors of that tradition. But modern-day thinkers and philosophers do abound, who make their arguments in academic settings and then bring them out to the cultural setting of media and social media and into the forum for open debate. They are people who present well-grounded argument upholding civil discourse without surrendering principle, informed by transcendent truths. Modern culture’s denial of the transcendent doesn’t eliminate its existence. I tried to feature in the book some of the best scholars and thinkers presenting robust arguments respecting civility today.


LOPEZ: “Civility is not always a virtue,” New York Times writer Josh Barro recently explained to Ryan Anderson on Twitter. “Some people are deserving of incivility.” How might your “essential principles” maneuver and clarify?

Liaugminas: That, in itself, is a moral statement. Start with clarifying that. Ask which moral code informs the speaker. How do we determine what other humans deserve? By what measure do we judge that? By what authority do we carry out actions of civility or incivility? Define “virtue.” Define “incivility.” They aren’t relative terms. The moral code of natural law written into the founding documents of this country, cited by presidents and civil-rights leaders and human-rights activists, aren’t relative to the changing cultural climate, no matter how much power the cultural elite wields against those who hold views counter to the prevailing ideology. There’s a lot of truth to the oft-repeated warning by George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

LOPEZ: You quote the late former National Review religion editor Father Richard John Neuhaus asserting that “the profoundly human truths embodied in Christ are, quite simply, ‘the truth about everything.’” But that’s nonsense to a non-believer. However do you make it in the world today — and in the public square! — with that kind of attitude?

LIAUGMINAS: By believing it with all your being, in calmness, serenity, and charity, and living it rather than preaching it. If you’re able to do that, people will be attracted to whatever you have and want it themselves. Because, God knows, the world lacks the peace and order that comes from learning and embracing human truths. The great RJN spent his formidable adult life in service to humanity and in search of ultimate truths about our condition and about what we can’t not know, and what we must do. In his later years, his constant quest grew deeply and profoundly enlightened with spiritual insight, culminating in his classic spiritual treatise Death on a Friday Afternoon. That didn’t come up in my book, though his writing on the great civil-rights movement did, but it’s all of a piece.

LOPEZ: You describe Father Neuhaus as a “human rights activist”? Why is that important to remember and show new generations who didn’t know him?

LIAUGMINAS: People need heroes. The world needs the bright lights of those who spared nothing and braved anything to stand in the gap for their brothers and sisters anywhere who were marginalized, oppressed, mistreated, abused, and dehumanized. William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, and, yes, Father RJN are standouts among many others inspired by them who worked tirelessly and unceasingly for human rights for every single human being who exists, and those who will in future generations. History books and museums and legendary narratives record the great heroes of history who made a difference in civilization, thankfully. We owe a debt of honor and gratitude to them all — but also the duty to carry the mantle they handed down to those who come after and are inspired by the cause of protecting, defending, and advancing human dignity and rights. Many of the benefits recognized by law that we inherit and enjoy today are the result of their life’s work.

LOPEZ: Why are you so comfortable with comparing slavery and abortion?

LIAUGMINAS: It seems obviously analogous, in a very large way. In each case, laws have allowed some classes of human beings to be deemed “unworthy of rights,” which was the case with slavery and is the case with abortion. The former is so widely accepted as a heinous, grievous, evil, a sinful blot on our nation’s conscience and history, that it’s irrefutable. The latter is demonstrable in basic medical textbooks, science, human embryology: From the moment of conception, new life is formed in the most nascent (and therefore vulnerable) stage and it is of the species Homo sapiens, if we have to get that scientific to state the obvious. Abortion law allows the “holder” of that human life (the mother) to legally seek and choose procedures to remove that human life. Any number of those procedures are barbaric and torturous, as is demonstrated in legal documents (Justice Kennedy’s in the Carhart decision, and the grand-jury report in the Gosnell trial) and in testimony by Abby Johnson and other former abortion-clinic executives, and by Lila Rose, her Live Action team, and other investigative researchers.

On the pages of National Review, among other places, Princeton professor Robert P. George has explained this analogy with reference to the term Lebensunwertes Leben, or “life unworthy of life,” a Nazi designation for whole segments of the population that, the Nazis declared, had no right to live and therefore must be euthanized. It has reemerged in our society and other parts of the world under abortion and euthanasia laws.

LOPEZ: You contend that “hastening the end of a person’s life is not compassionate; it is cruel.” If they are in pain? Isn’t the desire to end the pain merciful, as it is often referred to?

LIAUGMINAS: “Mercy killing” is so oxymoronic. The former Hemlock Society changed its name to “Compassion and Choices” to soften the image and make it more acceptable to Americans who are compassionate people, who want to relieve suffering and pain and ease burdens. But the Christian understanding of “compassion” is “to suffer with,” and ending a person’s life or assisting in hastening his or her death is not compassionate, it’s an act of killing, no matter how we tweak the language. Christians also understand the value of suffering, a concept so foreign to the secular culture, which views suffering as one of the great evils of our day, since there are so many ways to eliminate it, on the face of it. Euthanasia and assisted-suicide laws, whether enacted or proposed, include among those who qualify for ending their suffering by ending their lives a broad category of people from the terminally ill to the depressed. That includes a great range and number of people with treatable conditions.

Even those with terminal conditions have the right to basic nutrition and hydration, which we have a moral obligation to provide, as John Paul II took care to stress in his writing and as the Vatican has continued to stress time and again. Only under specific conditions in the last days of a terminally ill patient, as is clearly taught by Church directives on bioethics, can we back off administering nutrition and hydration. Otherwise, it is cruel to deny food and water to human beings, starving and dehydrating them to death, as was done to Terri Schiavo, among others. We don’t allow that treatment to animals, for crying out loud.

One final thought on this: What is claimed as “merciful,” as in “mercy killing,” must be challenged for what it is, a disguise for euthanasia. Mother Teresa showed the world the face and actions of mercy.

LOPEZ: You have a chapter on marriage and argue that “the State’s primary interest in marriage is to propagate future citizens of the State,” that “the small social units that are man-woman-child families create the next generation and subsequent generations that keep society going, and these maintain social order.” But isn’t that a very dated view of things at this point? Haven’t we passed a point of no return on that view?

LIAUGMINAS: That’s what we are told by the very convincing and successful movement to redefine marriage in law, by people who fervently believe that their cause holds the same civil-rights truths as do other human-rights movements.

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen purportedly said that “the truth is the truth even if nobody believes it, and error is error even if everyone believes it.” That applies to this question, which presumes the validity of the argument proposed by the movement to redefine marriage in law that “it’s a done deal, get over it, there’s no going back.” Case law stands on the record for what the state’s interest in marriage has been, and fundamental truths about human sexuality and complementarity are biologically true. As Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, among others, has pointed out, men and women aren’t interchangeable.

As for social order, data are already out that show the results of this social experiment in changing the law defining marriage and rights with regard to children — the results as well for individuals and institutions that must adjust to the new law.

That said, it’s not an issue of discrimination against the dignity and humanity of the person, any person, no matter what his or her identity. Human dignity is an immutable truth. State law governing the institution of marriage, with the dramatic shift from the conjugal understanding to the revisionist one, is not directly about homosexuality but about marriage and society, and about the unique and irreplaceable role of both parents in the development of their children.

LOPEZ: “We are living . . . as if God did not exist.” What do you say to someone skeptical about this point? We invoke him, our houses of worship are not all museums yet, and I went to a pretty crowded weekday Mass today. It seems an implausible statement, and yet . . . it’s as true of many of us who profess to be religious as it is of anyone, is it not?

LIAUGMINAS: Yes, it is true of the churched as well as the un-churched. Fellow religionists who put in their time in the pews but don’t take the teachings and traditions of the faith into their daily lives and practice it as informed Christians, or good and faithful members of other religions who behave similarly, are going through the motions. We have members of Congress and in other positions high in government who declare themselves Catholic or Christian but staunchly uphold laws and social policies that deny dignity and human rights to whole classes of human beings, and they treat those who disagree with them with a distinct lack of charity and civility and with intolerance. We have Psalms that say, “They act as if there’s no God,” as if there are no consequences.

Pope Benedict’s warning that “we are living . . . as if God did not exist” was an alert to people of a culture in which secular orthodoxy is growing, and growing increasingly hostile to Christianity. So each of us has to do his own examination of conscience to see how he is “living out what we believe, in daily works of heart and hand,” which I think is a line somewhere in the Liturgy of the Hours.

LOPEZ: How was “the logic of abortion, carried through to its ultimate conclusion, . . . on trial” when Kermit Gosnell was in court? Has it changed anything? How can it?

LIAUGMINAS: When the grand-jury report came to public attention in the Gosnell trial, its revelations of what the abortion license had produced were so gruesome, so hideous and unthinkable, so inhumane, that even some high-profile columnist who self-identified as pro-choice to that point admitted they had to reconsider their beliefs on “abortion rights,” and some even changed their minds accordingly. It forced us, collectively, to face the reality of what abortion on demand can lead to without regulation or restriction, and its headlines were more or less “Murder in an Abortion Clinic.” But that’s a stark statement of what happens in every abortion clinic.

LOPEZ: How do we stop talking past one another on religious liberty?

LIAUGMINAS: We speak with clarity and charity. Words mean things, they have consequences. Use them carefully and clearly, be ready to make an explanation for what we believe. Religious liberty is a rich tradition in America, as any other liberty is, and we take our liberties very seriously. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, enacted by a nearly unanimous vote during the Clinton administration, upholds the First Amendment protection clause with a very high bar set for government to prove that it can impose on that freedom. Just understanding the facts of RFRA — the founding documents, key case law, including the 2012 Hosanna-Tabor case unanimously upheld by the Supreme Court, and the fundamental conscience rights at the center of religious-freedom law — makes a strong case in dialogue or debate over limitations of government to impose restrictions on our rights to exercise and express our morally informed beliefs.

LOPEZ: The road to “fighting for dignity in society,” as one of your chapter titles puts it, is not always clear. How do your non-negotiables counsel people of good will when people, including so many minors on their own, are flooding our borders?

LIAUGMINAS: The whole endeavor encourages readers to learn and understand what the Church teaches, and why, on the hot-button social issues of the day. When clergy of different churches, in solidarity, take action and address Congress and issue letters to the faithful with appeals about how to proceed with the crisis on the border — welcoming the migrant, and especially caring for vulnerable children, while working for just law in immigration reform to prevent such mass human crises — we learn from Church prelates and clergy how to see “the Other” while working for solutions in containing the problem both here and at its source.

LOPEZ: Out of obvious parochial curiosity: You quote items on National Review Online often in your book. Why?

LIAUGMINAS: Finally, an easy one! I’ve long followed NRO and do so daily. When people ask me which news sources I trust and follow, NRO is one of the first I name, with all the scholars and intellectuals providing exceptional commentaries and analysis on this site. The list is long of names I admire and draw inspiration from, for my writing and reporting and hosting my radio show. A number of NRO contributors are guests on my program, because of their incisive analysis of political, cultural, social, and moral issues of our time. In the daily news sweeps I make as a journalist, I just happen to find a wealth of resources on NRO, and have for many years. It was only natural that they’d wind up in a book I intended to be a resource and a good contribution to the public dialogue and to civil discourse about the big ideas of our time, and about eternal truths that transcend it.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.


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