NEW YORK-The Terri Schiavo controversy and death of Pope John Paul II mark the launch of a new rhetorical strategy by the American Right: presenting themselves as defenders of a "culture of life." Republicans, who have become the party of war, death penalty and opposition to helping the sick and downtrodden, exhibit brazen hypocrisy every time they dare proclaim themselves "pro-life." Fortunately for them, Democrats who defend abortion rights are disinclined to call them on it.
George W. Bush deployed Karl Rove's new L-word while defending his federal legislation seeking to abolish Michael Schiavo's spousal rights on March 23: "This is an extraordinary and sad case, and I believe that in a case such as this, the legislative branch, the executive branch ought to err on the side of life, which we have." The L-word was uttered again 10 days later on the occasion of the papal passing. "Throughout the West," Bush said, "John Paul's witness reminded us of our obligation to build a culture of life in which the strong protect the weak."
How does Bush square the idea that the executive branch ought to err on the side of life with the fact that, as chief executive of Texas, he only allotted 20 minutes in his schedule to consider each of the 152 death warrants that crossed his desk? (He decided to kill all 152, including famously reformed Born Again Christian Carla Faye Tucker. In an interview, Bush famously mimicked Tucker begging him not to kill her.) Did Bush "err on the side of life" when he ordered U.N. arms inspectors out of Baghdad so he could bomb more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians and tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers-in search of weapons of mass destruction that the CIA told him probably didn't exist?
Is Bush's drive to deny Social Security to the elderly part of his plan to "protect the weak"? In regard to fanatical Muslims, when Bush promised to "hunt them, find them and kill them," was that his version of a "culture of life"? Any politician would have trouble passing himself off as an across-the-board pro-lifer, but few would find it as impossible as George W. Bush.
One of John Paul II's greatest achievements as pope was to add a categorical ban on capital punishment to the Roman Catholic Catechism. The Catholic push for a culture of life manifests itself in the political arena via opposition to the death penalty, euthanasia, suicide and gratuitous wars. The pope's inflexible opposition to abortion and birth control-the latter of which contributed to AIDS-related deaths in Africa-disappointed American liberals. There were no exceptions to his stance in favor of life. That's why it's called dogma.
Nevertheless, John Paul II could only have been considered conservative by the standards of 1970s Catholicism. True, he slammed the brakes on the reform movement put into motion by the Second Vatican Council; he took women priests and celibacy off the table. He wrongly silenced priests who adhered to "liberation theology," the revival of Christ's instructions to defend the poor and oppressed by involving themselves in the struggle for economic and political justice. And his opposition to abortion put him in the same camp as those who wave photos of dead fetuses outside the grocery store.
If John Paul II were an American politician, however, he would be considered a left-winger.
The war against Iraq, Bush's biggest project? The pope was against it. On March 22, 2003, at the start of the invasion, he said: "Only peace is the road to follow to construct a more just and united society. Violence and arms can never resolve the problems of men." He criticized consumer capitalism's exploitation of women as part of a "culture of death."
He came off as a rad-lib-com-symp during a 1999 visit to the United States: "My fervent prayer is that through the grace of God at work in the lives of Americans of every race, ethnic group, economic condition and creed, America will resist the culture of death and choose to stand steadfastly on the side of life. To choose life involves rejecting every form of violence: the violence of poverty and hunger which oppresses so many human beings; the violence of armed conflict, which does not resolve but only increases divisions and tensions; the violence of particularly abhorrent weapons such as anti-personnel mines; the violence of drug trafficking; the violence of racism; and the violence of mindless damage to the natural environment."
How do Bush's Republicans stack up against the pope's 1999 definition of "stand[ing] steadfastly on the side of life"?
They cut the budgets of anti-poverty programs, refused to ratify the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty and, in 2004, canceled a Clinton-era pledge to eliminate 8.4 million of the 10.4 million "particularly abhorrent ... anti-personnel mines" in the U.S. arsenal. Bush claims the right to engage in "the violence of armed conflict" preemptively while offering no proof of an imminent threat. They replaced the Taliban, who eliminated opium poppy cultivation, with a puppet regime that has re-established Afghanistan as the world's largest narco-state, thus increasing "the violence of drug trafficking." Their homeland security goons have employed "the violence of racism" by throwing thousands of men into concentration camps based on their ethnic appearance rather than evidence of wrongdoing. What about "the violence of mindless damage to the natural environment"? Here's what the Natural Resources Defense Council says: "This administration, in catering to industries that put America's health and natural heritage at risk, threatens to do more damage to our environmental protections than any other in U.S. history."
Americans who truly support the pope's call for a culture of life won't find a perfect match among either pro-abortion Democrats or pro-war, pro-death penalty Republicans. With the exception of abortion, however, on the big-ticket issues that mattered most to the pope, Catholicism's call for a culture of life is far closer on the ideological scale to Howard Dean than George W. Bush.