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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXII, No. 4
Christmastide 2007

Defining Political Terms

by Sheila Gribben Liaugminas

The caller challenged my use of the term “secular progressive” on a Relevant Radio show while the host, Drew Mariani, and I discussed presidential debates, faith and politics. She was distressed because it’s a term she attributes to one particularly feisty newsman she obviously doesn’t like much, and thinks I’m using it to label everybody who disagrees with me.

Is that what you heard me say?!” I asked her, because I happened to be reading a book that emphasized the point “it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.” She said “yes” firmly, and with about two minutes to go before the show ended, I talked fast and tried to explain the meaning of current political terminology.

The following week, Drew and I picked up the discussion on this topic for about another hour. We started with a fairly clear explanation of what liberals and conservatives stand for these days and then put those beliefs into context with the teachings and tradition of the Catholic Church. A caller challenged those explanations, insisting that he was a liberal who adheres lovingly to the teachings of the Church and that he and his wife staunchly defend the sanctity of all life.

We are clearly confused.

Left and Right … of What?
Where is the center of gravity in politics and culture at this point in time? Though it stays fixed according to natural law, most people don’t know what that means. People are influenced by the media, even though they don’t much like or trust the media. Whoever controls language controls thought, and media control language. Over time, language has devolved into a jungle of words that arbitrarily change according to what message works to influence thought and shape voters’ opinions. That’s why opinion polls very often tell people what they think more than ask them.

Some clarity is in order here, if little else is during election season.

What’s at stake is more than the competition of party politics. It’s a clash of worldviews and the source and center of the clash is morality. Princeton Professor Robert George’s outstanding book The Clash of Orthodoxies explains it well. It’s my textbook of choice, defining the battle in terms of competing belief systems. George declares: “This clash of worldviews characteristically pits morally conservative Jews, Christians, and other believers against secular liberals and those who, though remaining within religious denominations, have adopted liberal ideas about personal and political morality.”

That’s what made the woman caller confused, because the term “secular progressives” implies a group of people outside of religion. So they are better understood as liberals. Confusion is understandable.

George explains: “Orthodox Jews, conservative and evangelical Protestants, faithful Catholics, and eastern Orthodox Christians today find themselves allied with one another in defending, say, the sanctity of human life or the traditional conception of marriage against their liberal co-religionists who have joined forces with secularists of various stripes to support such things as legal and publicly funded abortion, physician-assisted suicide, no-fault divorce, and the social acceptance of homosexual and other forms of non-marital sexual conduct.”

“Does the predominance of orthodox Christians and Jews on one side of these conflicts, and of secular liberals on the other, indicate that the battle is between the forces of ‘faith’ and those of ‘reason’? Secularists frequently depict the struggle in these terms.” But faith and reason are not only not exclusive, they are “mutually supportive”. We are not hearing this in the dominant culture and elite media, pre-occupied as they are by celebrity atheists popular humanists. Because the secularist worldview has established itself as its own orthodoxy in our most prominent institutions of Western culture.

The false argument of politics and media is that the elections are between “values voters” and “tolerant” citizens. False, because everyone holds some values, and someone’s values will prevail in government and law, two institutions directly affected by elections. All voters are values voters.

Issues at Stake
So the two opposing worldviews are represented by “secular liberals” and “moral conservatives”. But liberals have morals, too, so those need to be defined for voters confused by the rhetoric. The clash is over the main issues of sexuality, marriage, sanctity of life and the place of religion in public life.

Life – Secular ideology believes that a child at any point up until birth — and even in the act of birth or soon after — “has no right not to be killed at the direction of its mother, no right, at least, that the law may legitimately recognize and protect”, states Professor George in Clash of Orthodoxies. “At the other end of life … every individual has a right to commit suicide and to be assisted in committing suicide, should that person, for whatever reasons, prefer death to life.”

But sanctity of life is primary to the Judeo-Christian moral worldview — “moral conservatives” in this dialogue — and the right to life is the fundamental human right. “The wrongness of abortion follows from the truth — fully accessible even to unaided reason — that the life of a human being is intrinsically, not…. Reason affirms that if any of us has a right to life, then all of us have it; it we have it at one stage of life, we have it at every stage of life; if we have it in the middle of life, we have it at both ends....

“There is no rational basis for distinguishing a class of human beings who have a right to life (and other fundamental human rights) and a class of human beings who do not. This is the moral core of the great ‘self-evident truth’ upon which our nation was founded: the proposition that all human beings are created equal’.”

SexualityClash of Orthodoxies defines the beliefs: For secular liberals, “what distinguishes morally good from bad sex is not whether it is marital, but, rather, whether it is consensual. The consent of the parties involved … is the touchstone of sexual morality. [Secular liberalism] proposes no ground of moral principle for rejecting premarital sex, promiscuity, ‘open’ marriage, etc.” In other words, “any type of mutually agreeable consensual sexual act is considered as good as any other”.

Moral conservatives hold that the sexual bond, as ordered by the natural law, belongs within marriage between husband and wife.

Marriage – Secular liberals hold that marriage is a legal convention that serves to support an emotional union, “which may or may not, depending upon the subjective preferences of the partners, be marked by commitments of exclusivity and permanence, which may or may not be open to children depending on whether partners want children, and in which sexual acts of any type mutually agreeable to the partners are perfectly acceptable.”

The view held by moral conservatives within Judaism, Christianity and other great cultures and religious traditions is that marriage is an inherently heterosexual institution. Beyond that fundamental core, they understand marriage as “a bodily, emotional, and spiritual union of one man and one woman, ordered to the generating, nurturing and educating of children, marked by exclusivity and permanence, and consummated and actualized by acts that are reproductive…”

Religion and Public Life – “Secularism aims to privatize religion altogether, to render religiously informed moral judgment irrelevant to public affairs and public life, and to establish itself, secularist ideology, as the nation’s public philosophy.” Furthermore: “orthodox secularism stands for the strict and absolute separation of not only church and state, but also faith and public life: no prayer, not even an opportunity for silent prayer, in public schools; no aid to parochial schools; no displays of religious symbols in the public square; no legislation based on the religiously informed moral convictions of legislators on voters.”

However, secular liberalism is itself “a pseudo-religion”, George argues, with its own moral rules and foundations and belief system. Whereas most Americans share the view “that everyone should enjoy the right to be free from coercion in matters of religious belief, expression, and worship; that people should not suffer discrimination or disabilities under civil law based on their religious beliefs and affiliations; and that government should be evenhanded in its treatment of religious groups”. Moral conservatives believe that religious faith and religiously informed moral judgment can be based soundly upon reason and defended publicly between people of goodwill and sound judgment, even without appeal to divine revelation in the Gospel and other Scriptures.

These opposing views of morality define the battle. It is cultural and political. And these views reveal the broad and deep consequences following from which worldview prevails.

Voices of Faith and Reason
Secular liberals argue that the struggle is between faith and reason, but George argues that faith and reason are not only not exclusive, they are “mutually supportive”, and that secular liberal views “fail the test of reason”.

Robert George is one of the pre-eminent voices of reason in the public debate over the issues of the day. Dr. James Hitchcock is another (whose columns are archived on the Women for Faith & Family web site:

Hitchcock contends that as an ideology, liberalism is “caught in a hopeless contradiction”. The issue of “hate crimes” is one clear example. “Traditional liberalism was passionate about this — ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will fight to the death to defend your right to say it”, notes Hitchcock in “Liberalism Repealing Freedom”. “Liberals have long condemned those court decisions which punished merely unpopular ideas.

“Now liberal opinion seems willing to draw a straight line between, for example, a physical assault on a homosexual and a clergyman’s preaching that homosexuality is unnatural. But it should be noticed that these ‘hate crimes’ are selective. No one, as far as I know, has been prosecuted for saying things against orthodox Christianity.”

Members of the Church hierarchy have been speaking out more assertively on the place of religiously informed voices in the public square.

Archbishop Thomas Collins of Toronto, Ontario urged people of all faiths to participate in public political debate. “There is wisdom in religious tradition which can be shared with persons of other faiths or of no faith, and shared not only through an appeal to faith but also an appeal to reason”, Archbishop Collins told the Empire Club of Canada in May 2007. “Whatever the irritation caused to those who profess a secularist faith — and secularism is itself a kind of faith — it is of great value to any healthy society that a strong religious voice speaks out on all issues of public concern.”

Rhode Island Bishop Thomas Tobin took a presidential candidate to task over his “ambiguous position on abortion”, publicly holding him accountable. “I’m personally opposed but don’t want to impose my views on other people”, was how Bishop Tobin summarized that position, in the Rhode Island Catholic newspaper in May 2007. He wondered in that column, what would be public reaction to a politician saying “I’m personally opposed to … racial discrimination, sexual abuse, prostitution, drug abuse, polygamy, incest … but don’t want to impose my beliefs on others?”

Good question.

His rational scrutiny went further. “Why is it that when I hear someone explaining this position I think of the sad figure of Pontius Pilate in the Gospels, who personally found no guilt in Jesus, but for fear of the crowd, washed his hands of the whole affair and handed Jesus over…. I can just hear Pilate saying, ‘You know, I’m personally opposed to crucifixion but I don’t want to impose my belief on others.’”

Another profound point.

Bishop Tobin called the “personally opposed, but …” position preposterous. And he added: “Catholic politicians of both parties, nationwide, have followed a similar path in abandoning the Faith for the sake of political expediency.”

Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann gave a talk called “Woe to Those Who Call Evil Good” at a conference in Denver, reproduced in First Things magazine in October, directed at the “crisis of truth” behind the “personally opposed, but …” politics of abortion.

“The question that needs to be posed to those who make the claim is: Why are you personally opposed to abortion? Why do so many of the pro-choice politicians even say that they want to make abortion rare? Why want to make something rare if it is truly a valid choice?”

More good questions, based on reason and logic.

“While it taps into some deeply held American values of personal freedom and individual liberty”, Bishop Naumann continued, “the pro-choice position is actually an exercise in illogic…. In some of the inner-city neighborhoods where I served as a priest, there was a great problem with gun violence. Could you imagine anyone saying that they were personally against drive-by shootings, but if someone else wanted to do it they should have that right?

“Without the acceptance of objective truth, everything becomes negotiable. The moral conscience of society and the individual are impaired.”

We are, he declares, confused.

“Degeneration of Tolerance”
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger entered the 2005 conclave with the body of cardinals after delivering his jarring “dictatorship of relativism” homily heard ‘round the world. He emerged the newly elected pope. In the middle of an address to dignitaries in Vienna, Austria in September 2007, Pope Benedict XVI warned that Europe had veered away from its Christian roots and suffered from “misguided courses of action”. These include “the degeneration of tolerance into an indifference with no reference to permanent values”.

That describes secular liberalism.

The caller to our radio conversation was mistaken, he is not a liberal. He subscribes to a set of values perfectly aligned with the morally conservative worldview of the ultimate respect for the sanctity of all human life, work for the common good and protection of human dignity, and belief in the teachings of the Church.

We have to understand what the labels mean, because they will continue to be used with more heat than light in the coming months. Words mean things, and they have a truth outside their distortion. “In fact, our faith is decisively opposed to the attitude of resignation that considers man incapable of truth, as if this were more than he could cope with”, Pope Benedict told the Austrian dignitaries. “This attitude of resignation with regard to truth lies at the heart of the crisis of the West, the crisis of Europe. If truth does not exist for man, then neither can he ultimately distinguish between good and evil…

“We need the truth. Yet admittedly, in the light of our history we are fearful that faith in the truth might entail intolerance…. [T]ruth prevails not through external force. Rather, it is humble and it yields itself to man only via the inner force of its veracity.”

Sheila Gribben Liaugminas, of Chicago, is a member of the Voices editorial board, and was host of “The Right Questions” on Relevant Radio and “Issues and Answers” news show. She and her husband have two sons, one a seminarian and the other a college student. Follow updates on this story (and contact Sheila) at

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