Interpreting Bart Stupak

Deal W. Hudson
Published December 28, 2009

In 1917, Wallace Stevens published “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” a poem now firmly ensconced in every anthology of American poetry. Generations of students have read it as a lesson in perspectivism – how the imagination can see the same thing under a variety of guises.

Bart Stupak (D-MI) is not the subject of anyone’s poem, but already a discernible pattern of Stupak caricatures are forming in the wake of his explicit rejection of the abortion funding “compromise” in the Senate bill and his rather barbed commentson the White House’s pressuring him to drop his objections. Over the next two weeks, these interpretations of Stupak will clash in the media coverage of the health-care bill’s final throes.

Perhaps the most dominant caricature of Stupak will be “Anti-Choice Fanatic.” For example, the Huffington Post’s recent headline, “Stupak Coordinating Anti-Choice Activism with GOP Senate Leadership,” included a link to Politico’s story on alleged e-mails between Stupak’s office and Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). A Google search of Stupak and “anti-choice” yields 190,000 hits.

A rather unfair interpretation of Stupak is as “The Bishops’ Puppet,” but that’s what Cliff Kincaid argues in an otherwise pertinent take on the bishops’ role in the health-care reform. Kincaid views the Stupak Amendment as “a ploy designed to keep the legislation alive,” devised by five lobbyists from the USCCB. If it makes Stupak feel any better, Kincaid casts Cong. John Boehner (R-OH) in the same role – “Boehner got his marching orders as well” from Francis Cardinal George who told him “that the Republicans shouldn’t scuttle the Stupak amendment.”

Probably the most utilized charge against Stupak is that he’s “against women’s health.” Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, began banging that drum, arguing (falsely, by the way) that the “Stupak/Pitts amendment would result in a new restriction on women’s access to abortion coverage in private health insurance.” In spite of this claim being proved false by independent investigators, it continues to be repeated in editorials nationwide. For Planned Parenthood, however, facts are less important than promoting its pro-abortion ideology.

Of course, not all the interpretations of Stupak are negative. Among social conservatives, Stupak is a “Pro-Life Warrior,” as named by blogger Stephen Dillard. More than a few preachers have invoked the David vs. Goliath story to describe Stupak’s defiance of the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats. Dillard asks aloud what many are asking in private: “Will Stupak cave like Nelson?”

“Well, call me a cock-eyed optimist, but I truly believe Stupak will stand his ground,” Dillard says. “Like the late (and great) Robert P. Casey, Sr., I am convinced that Stupak is the genuine article. For me, Stupak is the Catholic Politician Who ‘Gets It.'”

The evidence for this is not only his courage in sponsoring the amendment and refusal to accept Nelson’s compromise, but his remarks from an article in the New York Times published on Christmas Day. Stupak was evidently asked about the Catholic Health Association’s surprising endorsement of the Senate health-care bill containing abortion funding. “They don’t hold the same sway,” Stupak said of the CHA.

Stupak “gets it” because he’s not going to hide behind the skirts of Catholic groups who compromise the Church’s teaching on life issues, and who do so without any authority. By dismissing the influence of the CHA, Stupak not only rejects the cover of a lobbying organization with vested interests, but he also defers to the authority of the bishops and their insistence that the health-care bill be stripped of abortion funding.

In the coming weeks, Bart Stupak will be portrayed as everything from a saint to a demon… or just another political hack waiting to make his deal. Who Bart Stupak turns out to be will be the most important factor in this round of the health-care debate.

An Evening with Justice Blackmun on the Anniversary of Roe

Deal W. Hudson
January 21, 2010

It was the summer of 1993 – 20 years after Roe v. Wade – and I was teaching a seminar at the Aspen Institute in Colorado with Mortimer Adler. Adler, famous for his Great Books approach to philosophy, was in his late 80s then and had asked for my help in getting through his intense three-hour seminars.

On the day I arrived, Adler invited me to a cocktail reception at his home. Excited to be there, I arrived early and found myself alone in the living room with Adler and Justice Harry Blackmun. What I didn’t know was that I was to be a guest of honor at Blackmun’s lecture later that evening to commemorate 20 years of Roe.

When Adler introduced me as a Catholic philosopher who taught St. Thomas Aquinas, Blackmun smiled awkwardly. Before he could say anything, I couldn’t help but blurt out, “Yes, I am one of those guys who disagree with your decision onRoe.” We all chuckled, as polite people do over cocktails when they disagree, and moved on to other subjects.

When I took my seat in the front row of the lecture hall for Blackmun’s address, I looked around – it was clear this was going to be a love-fest for the author of Roe. Women filled the hall and stood in the aisles. They roared when Blackmun was introduced and interrupted every few sentences with loud applause.

After several of these ovations, Blackmun looked down at me in the front row – I was not clapping – and held up his hand for quiet, saying to the crowd, “You need to remember that not everyone here agrees with my decision.”

The crowd began to boo; there were a few shouts, and I slunk down in my chair, feeling I would be torn apart if my dissent were recognized. I felt a real moment of fear – the response from the crowd was that visceral.

Everyone who has served in the pro-life cause has stories like this. They may not have ever met Justice Blackmun, but they have looked in the faces of those who justify the murder of children in the name of freedom, of choice, of the right to control their bodies, to combat “overpopulation” and so-called global warming; the list goes on.

But as I look back, the fear I felt that evening did not compare to the fright I have experienced on other occasions in the presence of apologists for abortion. One of the first philosophy classes I taught was an ethics class at Mercer University in Atlanta, a Southern Baptist college. Abortion was on my syllabus, and when that day came, a female student in her mid-30s with two small children gave a presentation. I can remember what she said almost verbatim. She ended her report, a defense of abortion, with these words: “Before I had my two children, I aborted two others, because my husband and I didn’t want them. I did it because I loved them, and they wouldn’t be happy.”

The fear I felt then was deeper than what I’d experienced that evening in Aspen. Anger can always be turned against those who support abortion; it weakens their argument and suggests a lack of certainty. But love? And happiness? How many people, I asked myself then, have been convinced that abortion is good by an appeal to love and happiness? It’s a lie, of course – but the bigger the lie, as Goebbels once said, the easier it is for people to believe.

At that moment, as a freshman philosophy professor, I knew the “great ideas” had been taken away from us, had been torn from their roots. Ideas like love and happiness were being turned inside out to justify the worst of human crimes: the murder of innocent life.

More than a decade later, I published a book on happiness, attempting to trace the evolution of this philosophical mistake. That book was encouraged by Adler himself, who knew that I was using it to address the abortion debate. In spite of his conversion to Christianity, and his advocacy of Catholic philosophy, Adler supported Roe. Every time I pressed him – or Blackmun, for that matter – for deep intellectual convictions about the basis for Roe, the conversation went nowhere.

Adler and I would sit in his backyard, smoking cigars on a beautiful summer afternoon in Aspen. I would start the discussion with the Catholic metaphysics of being, act, and potency that he himself had espoused for more than 60 years, only to watch him throw up his hands saying, “Let’s not talk about this anymore; I just can’t go there,” and he would mutter something about upsetting his wife and friends.

With both Blackmun and Adler, I came to the conclusion that their support for abortion wasn’t really principled at all. Rather, Roe was an intellectually flimsy accommodation to the passions of the feminist movement, passions they did not want to oppose. For Adler, in particular, the contradiction he found himself in was painful – he knew that neither good moral choice nor sound laws were based upon mere personal preference or a supposed privacy right.

With the passing years, the rationale for Roe v. Wade appears more and more like the product of a vast sociological experiment: a moment in history when women, aided by compliant men, declared themselves free of creation’s order.

The Trouble With Mitt Romney’s Pro-Life Conversion

Deal W. Hudson
Published December 27, 2007

Mitt Romney, by his own admission, was a pro-abortion governor of Massachusetts. That changed on November 8, 2004 in his second term during a conversation with Dr. Douglas Melton from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

According to Romney, Dr. Melton dismissed the “moral issue” of cloning embryos for stem cells “because we kill the embryos after 14 days.” (Melton disputes Romney’s account.)

“It hit me very hard that we had so cheapened the value of human life in a Roe v. Wade environment that it was important to stand for the dignity of human life,”Romney said. From that moment of conversion, Gov. Romney declared himself pro-life and an opponent of embryonic stem cell research. I join those who applaud Romney’s new direction and agree that his promises are the right ones.

But there is a lingering problem: Romney is opposed only to creating clones for stem cell research; he is not opposed to using “discarded” frozen embryos. These frozen embryos have been the primary source of embryonic tissue for stem cell research. How can you declare yourself opposed to this research when you are not opposed to the way it is actually carried out?

Romney’s position became even more confusing during his December 10th interview on CBS with Katie Couric. She asked Romney whether he agreed with using discarded frozen embryos for stem cells.

Romney replied:

Yes, those embryos are commonly referred to as surplus embryos from in-vitro fertilization. Those embryos, I hope, could be available for adoption for people who would like to adopt embryos. But if a parent decides they would want to donate one of those embryos for purposes of research, in my view, that’s acceptable. It should not be made against the law.

My question is this: How can you consider a frozen embryo a moral entity capable of being adopted, while at the same time support the scientist who wants to cut the embryonic being into pieces? Even more, if Romney’s conversion was about the “cheapened value of human life,” how can he abide the thought of a parent donating “one of those embryos” to be destroyed?

Peter G. Flaherty, Romney’s deputy campaign manager, has made it clear the governor is opposed to using federal funds on frozen embryo research, calling it “ethically troublesome.”

As the primary in Iowa approaches, many Iowa conservatives have still not made up their minds. Gov. Mike Huckabee has surged because he became the candidate about whom social conservatives had the fewest doubts. Romney’s well-oiled campaign – the best of any candidate, in my opinion – was never able to overcome the lingering doubts created by his pro-abortion past and the glaring inconsistency of his position on embryonic stem cells.

Romney is not the first politician who tripped over this issue. Back in the summer of 2005, Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) appeared to be the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination until he declared his support for expanded federal funding for research on frozen embryos. When Frist refused to recant or clarify his position, his presidential aspirations came to a swift end. Frist’s meltdown came on the heels of the first showdown between the Bush White House and his pro-life supporters. The issue, again, was embryonic stem cells.

Jay P. Lefkowicz, who was domestic policy adviser at the time, describes inCommentary the huge effort made by Bush and his staff to make a decision on federal funding for research. Bush’s decision to limit funding to the existing stem cell lines pleased very few, though the pro-life message of his TV appearance softened the blow to the pro-lifers.

Romney now inhabits a similar political space: His overall pro-life message is pleasing to many voters, but they’re still looking for a safer bet.

Romney’s speech on religion, given at Texas A&M on December 6, was clearly an attempt to calm the fears of his social conservative base, not only about his religion but also his overall commitment to conservative values. Thus far, the former governor of Massachusetts has not received the bump in the polls his campaign hoped to see after the widely-covered speech. More helpful to Romney’s standing was the endorsement by National Review. The NR editors nevertheless acknowledged the chinks in Romney’s pro-life armor in their carefully-worded statement of endorsement:

He [Romney] may not have thought deeply about the political dimensions of social issues until, as governor, he was confronted with the cutting edge of social liberalism.

It’s clear from his convoluted statements on embryonic stem cells that Romney’s thoughts on this issue are still far from coherent and consistent.

For many grassroots conservatives, and those from the Religious Right, Romney may be too big of a stretch, especially when they – at least, for now – identify so closely with the preacher from Hope, Arkansas.

Chris Matthews, John Allen, and Odious Comparisons

Deal W. Hudson
Published February 10, 2011

John Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, routinely uses the phrase “Taliban Catholicism” to describe “an exaggerated allergy to anything that smacks of secularism, liberalization, or corruption by modernity – an angry form of the faith that knows only how to excoriate and condemn.” Allen says it’s become part of the “standard stump speech” that he delivers to various groups, such as the students and faculty at the University of Dallas (which he visited last year).

In defending the characterization, Allen explains that he intended it as the opposite of George Weigel’s use of “Catholicism Lite” to describe secularized Catholics. But the obvious flaw in this comparison is that there is no group of hard-line Catholics who have formed a worldwide terrorist network to kill innocent people.

Official reports of alleged Taliban atrocities include the killing of eight boys who laughed at soldiers, the burning alive of an entire family, and the killing of 100 Afghans whose bodies were hung from lamp posts as a warning to possible defectors. When members of the Taliban captured Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul in 1996, they castrated the country’s president and tortured and killed his brother. Genocidal slaughter, murder, torture, kidnapping, and mutilation are typical Taliban tactics used to enforce their version of Muslim orthodoxy.

Allen’s comparison of certain Catholics to the Taliban is outrageous, and he ought to know better. No matter how finely he tries to draw the distinction, the phrase will continue to be used as shorthand for conservative Catholics who are trying to hold the line against secular hegemony.

Odious comparisons seem to proliferate these days when media spokesmen for the Left attempt to describe the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and religious conservatives in politics. Oddly, Muslims seem to have become the favored example, replacing Nazis as the damning comparison of choice. (Because everyone is afraid of Muslims, right?)

While Allen compares conservative Catholics to the Taliban, Chris Matthews has lately compared the Tea Party with the Muslim Brotherhood. Discussing the demonstrations in Egypt, Matthews asked GOP strategist John Feehery: “So the Muslim Brotherhood has a parallel role here with the tea party. They’re the ones who keep you honest and decide whether you’ve stayed too long. Whether you’ve got a ‘sell by’ date looming.”

The Jesuit-educated Matthews is, obviously, thinking by analogy here – but the analogy fails when you press even lightly, comparing the manner in which the Tea Party attempts to keep the GOP “honest” and the stated goals and methods of the Muslim Brotherhood. A recent translation of a 1995 book by the fifth leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mustafa Mashhur, who headed the Muslim Brotherhood from 1996 to 2002, tells members of the Muslim Brotherhood that in their effort to reestablish the Islamic Caliphate:

It should be known that jihad and preparation towards jihad are not only for the purpose of fending off assaults and attacks of Allah’s enemies from Muslims, but are also for the purpose of realizing the great task of establishing an Islamic state and strengthening the religion and spreading it around the world.

Comparisons with Islamic extremists and terrorists are not only odious, they also trivialize the genuine threat these groups pose to human life and freedom in the Middle East and around the world.

There was some buzz recently among Catholic bloggers on the political Left when Pope Benedict XVI called for Catholic journalists to adopt a “Christian style presence.” Though the Holy Father named no names, some immediately assumed his words were directed at Catholics like me. Indeed, I am singled out by name on one site: “Deal Hudson, the former Catholic outreach coordinator for President George W. Bush, routinely lashes out on his InsideCatholic.com and other venues at ‘fake Catholics.'”

Yes, I have called Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good “fake” Catholic organizations, because they exist for the sole purpose of supporting a Democratic Party agenda to the exclusion of the Church’s teaching about life and marriage. “Fake” is a pretty tough term, but I didn’t compare them to religious groups who torture, murder, and mutilate innocent people. Which comparison wins the trophy for incivility?

The Left spends so much time talking to themselves, they become convinced that their own oft-repeated opinions constitute responsible journalism. Evidently, many of the faculty and students at the University of Dallas were willing to let Allen get away with the Taliban Catholicism comparison, but one faculty member described the phrase as “profoundly offensive,” adding that young Catholics should not be dismissed as fanatics simply because they seek “fidelity and clarity.”

“There are no suicide bombers in the Catholic church,” she went on, “but we have had an epidemic of Catholicism Lite for the last 30 years.”