One of the basic premises of this blog and of my radio show is that the culture war is not primarily political or even ethical in nature but rather theological. That is to say, the basic dividing line is over questions such as "Is there a God?" and "If there is a god, what is He (or she or it) like and how is the universe He is in charge of set up?" Terry Schiavo case has made that battle more clear then ever. Even many in the media are starting to get it. For example, John Podorhetz in The New York Post writes a incomplete but fairly accurate summary of the differing worldviews in this case:
The looming death by starvation of Terri Schiavo has ex posed yet again the key fault line in American culture. Those who have sided with her parents in seeking the reinsertion of her feeding tube have a view of life that is profoundly different from those who have sided with her husband’s quest to have her die.
Those who want her to live tend to view life as a gift — a treasure beyond value that has been bestowed upon us and that we therefore have no right to squander. The giver of the gift cannot be seen by the human eye, and the essence of the gift cannot be seen either.
We usually call that essence the "soul." Our souls define us: They make us who we are in the deepest sense. And they transcend us as well: They are our connection to the divine, to all in the universe that is unseen and unknowable but is still there.
Most religious people share this set of beliefs, which is why those who have pushed hardest to save Schiavo are devout Christians.
Many of those who want her to die, by contrast, view life as a natural phenomenon — a collision of egg and sperm that gives rise 280 days later to a baby. That baby is the product of human interaction, deriving genetic information equally from mother and father and recombining it into a new human form. It’s a wonder, but it’s not a miracle. It’s explicable within the laws of nature, and so there isn’t anything necessarily transcendent about it.
In some sense, then, the human body has a mechanical quality to it. We are created by a rational process. We all look kind of similar (arms, legs, eyes, nose, mouth, shoulders all in the same place), and we all have an inborn capacity to communicate, to learn and to develop complex relationships with other people. We’re created and grow in the same way. Our core desires are the same — food, shelter, sleep, love. In this way of thinking, we are the world’s most marvelous, most spectacular machines.
This is the view of life shared by most secular people, who are uncomfortable with the idea of a divine spark within all of us and prefer to think that science is the best explanation for everything.
Peggy Noonan makes a similar distinction in explaining the people trying to save Terry Schiavo:
God made the world or he didn’t.
God made you or he didn’t.
If he did, your little human life is, and has been, touched by the divine. If this is true, it would be true of all humans, not only some. And so–again, if it is true–each human life is precious, of infinite value, worthy of great respect.
Most–not all, but probably most–of those who support Terri Schiavo’s right to live believe the above. This explains their passion and emotionalism. They believe they are fighting for an invaluable and irreplaceable human life. They are like the mother who is famously said to have lifted the back of a small car off the ground to save a child caught under a tire. You’re desperate to save a life, you’re shot through with adrenaline, your strength is for half a second superhuman, you do the impossible.
That is what they are trying to do.
They do not want an innocent human life ended for what appear to be primarily practical and worldly reasons–e.g., Mrs. Schiavo’s quality of life is low, her life is pointless. They say: Who is to say it is pointless? And what does pointless even mean? Maybe life itself is the point.
Exactly right. The clash here is primarily between the Christian view that life is inherently valuable because we are created in the image of God and the naturalistic view that matter is all there is and life is an cosmic accident and therefore inherently meaningless and worthless. The latter side believes that unless humans achieve some "quality" that makes life worth living, death is preferable to life.
The most interesting thing about both these columns is that the authors find themselves confused or troubled over the motivations of the "pull the tube people." Podhoretz points out:
For some reason, the conviction of those who believe in the divine fills the scientific rationalists with unreasoning rage.
The refusal of the federal courts to hear the last-ditch appeals of Terri Schiavo’s parents has caused some of their number to respond with glee.
And Noonan is mystified:
I do not understand the emotionalism of the pull-the-tube people. What is driving their engagement? Is it because they are compassionate, and their hearts bleed at the thought that Mrs. Schiavo suffers? But throughout this case no one has testified that she is in persistent pain, as those with terminal cancer are.
If they care so much about her pain, why are they unconcerned at the suffering caused her by the denial of food and water? And why do those who argue for Mrs. Schiavo’s death employ language and imagery that is so violent and aggressive? The chairman of the Democratic National Committee calls Republicans "brain dead." Michael Schiavo, the husband, calls House Majority Leader Tom DeLay "a slithering snake."
Everyone who has written in defense of Mrs. Schiavo’s right to live has received e-mail blasts full of attacks that appear to have been dictated by the unstable and typed by the unhinged. On Democratic Underground they crowed about having "kicked the sh– out of the fascists." On Tuesday James Carville’s face was swept with a sneer so convulsive you could see his gums as he damned the Republicans trying to help Mrs. Schiavo. It would have seemed demonic if he weren’t a buffoon.
Why are they so committed to this woman’s death?
They seem to have fallen half in love with death.
What does Terri Schiavo’s life symbolize to them? What does the idea that she might continue to live suggest to them?
Why does this prospect so unnerve them? Again, if you think Terri Schiavo is a precious human gift of God, your passion is explicable. The passion of the pull-the-tube people is not.
That is where I part ways with Noonan. I think it is explainable, and it comes down to religious fervor. The pull-the-tube people understand, deep down, that this is a theological battle and they are not interested in admitting that there might be someone out there to whom they owe allegiance. This is about not submitting to the creators or their souls by denying that he exists. Tom Wolfe nailed this phenomenon in his latest novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons . In describing two typical college professors, he explained:
Both were firm believers in diversity and multiculturalism in college. Both believed in abortion, not so much because they thought anyone they knew might want an abortion as because legalizing it helped put an exhausted and dysfunctional Christendom and its weird, hidebound religious restraints in their place. For the same reason, both believed in gay rights, women’s rights, transgender rights, fox, bear, wolf, swordfish, halibut, ozone, wetland, and hardwood rights, gun control, contemporary art, and the Democratic Party. Both were against hunting and, for that matter, woods, fields, mountain trails, rock climbing, sailing, fishing, and the outdoors in general, except for golf courses and the beach.
It’s about being anti-Christian, and not because they think Christianity might be false, but because they don’t like it’s morality. That is the real issue motivating today’s cultural warriors.
We will be discussing this and more on today’s radio show.