The Corner

The Culture of Death and Our Towering Self-Regard

I’m still shaking my head at Wendy Davis — not that she lied about her biography (sometimes it seems as if every politician springs out of some kind of heroic narrative) — but that she, as a very young lawyer doing the simple, ordinary work that thousands of young lawyers do, conceded custody of her child on the grounds that “it’s not a good time for me right now” to be the custodial parent.

I’m also shaking my head at the president of the United States, speaking on the anniversary of the legalized killing of tens of millions of children, justifying this slaughter because it gives the former parents the ability to “fulfill their dreams.”

Our nation is awash in important people doing important things. We’ve got our TED Talkers, our policy wonks, our “masters of the universe” financiers, our Silicon Valley wiz kids, our athletes, our politicians (and their staffs), our actors — all of them running around thinking of themselves as “kind of a big deal.” The rest of us? Well, we can Lean In and be a big deal too.

This self-regard is hardly confined to the more liberal quarters of our culture. Spend much time at conservative events, and right alongside the humble folks who are doing what they can to advance causes that are good and true you’ll find the shameless self-promoters and the towering egos. “Don’t you know who I am?” is an implied message in many communications, and there is an unshakeable conviction by many that if only they were in charge — if only the conservative movement followed their advice – then we would be victorious. As I’ve written before, this arrogance underlies much of the vitriol between the Tea Party and the Establishment, which at its worst devolves into a war of the arrogant versus the arrogant, with both sides covering themselves in shame — even while pursuing a noble cause.

Here’s a news flash: It’s doubtful that a single person in politics or entertainment or finance today will be as important to the future of this nation as Seth Clark. Or Willard Pinkham. Or Warren Kendall.

They were three men from the 20th Maine Regiment. They each died on Little Round Top on July 2, 1863, and their stories are lost to history — leaving only the etchings on a monument. They stood, fought, and died — at a very young age — when Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia stood on the precipice of a victory that likely would have changed the course of American and world history. They never had a chance to lean in.

They changed the world. Good luck being important – no matter how many movies you make, filibusters you mount, TED talks you give, or even executive offices you occupy.

I bring up the 20th Maine because their monument’s silent witness helped change my life. Ten years ago, I had just left private legal practice, become the president of a small and wonderful nonprofit named FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), and was — for the first time in my life — enjoying the heady experience of speaking engagements, calls from the press, and even a magazine profile or two. I started to think I was “kind of a big deal.” 

Then, one afternoon after a speech at Gettysburg College, I walked the battlefield. When I came on the 20th Maine’s monument, I read the names and better grasped my true place in this world and this nation. I’m not a “big deal” at all, and I never will be. 

In recent weeks there’s been a measure of controversy over Lone Survivor, including whether the deaths of those brave SEALs were “senseless.” It’s never “senseless” to lay down your life for your brother. Indeed, “greater love hath no man” than when he lays down his life for his friend. It is “senseless,” however, to kill children – or to leave them behind — for something as meaningless and empty as our “dream.”

I bring this up not because every person’s arrogance inevitably leads to abortion — of course not — but because arrogance plants within us the seeds that yield the bitter fruit of betrayal, abandonment, and corruption. By misjudging our place in the world, we invariably begin to careen into others, and the sin of pride corrupts all that we do. 

How would our lives be different if we understood that we are never more important than our spouse? We are never more important than our children? We are never more important than our neighbor or brother? The culture of life — indeed, grace itself — begins with the denial of self, and unless we begin to deny self, we could overturn Roe and still not overcome abortion — much less the sins that separate us from God and man.

Our “dreams” will still be too big.


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