Voices

Failure at the finish line

The Schiavo case exposed even her defenders as practicing secularists

Issue: "Terri Schiavo: In memoriam," April 9, 2005

"March Madness" turned out to be an apt term not just for collegiate basketball tournaments this year-but for judges, lawmakers, governors, and presidents as well. While Terri Schiavo lay dying in Pinellas Park, Fla., some good public servants wilted at the finish line. It was hard to point to any heroes.

It's true that the U.S. Congress took bold steps to pass midnight legislation that might have proved helpful-if only there had been a few clear-eyed and steel-ribbed judges along the way to make use of the law that Congress passed. And a pajama-clad President Bush was similarly forthright as he stepped out in the wee hours to sign the bill. His brother Jeb Bush, Terri Schiavlo's governor, urgently pushed the Florida legislature to do the right thing.

And then, things turned relatively and ominously silent.

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I am not among those who cynically accuse Congress and President Bush of mere grandstanding to curry favor with the religious right. The evidence is overwhelming that these were issues they really believed in. But you don't have to be a practicing hypocrite to fall short of the standard. You can also fall short just because-well, just because you fell short. You ran out of breath at the finish line. Ask any of the basketball teams that almost won the championship, but didn't. They weren't pretending to be serious; they just didn't have it in them to follow through.

So of course it would have been much better last week if President Bush had called a press conference featuring as his special guest the neurologist from the Mayo Clinic who needed a national platform to testify that the evidence was not at all clear that Terri Schiavo was in a "persistent vegetative state." Presidents, after all, aren't limited to the passive role of adding their signatures to what others have concocted. They occupy bully pulpits of their own, with very loud PA systems attached. Yes, it might be possible for a president to overuse and trivialize those privileges-but Mr. Bush isn't close to the danger zone on that front. He has great speechwriters who could have served him well in his role as Teacher-in-Chief, helping him help the nation think through the life-and-death issues being played out in Florida.

And of course it would also have been better if his brother Jeb had done something similar on the state level. If indeed this was a state and not a federal issue, wasn't there a place for the governor to stride in, maybe with a bottle of water in hand, just to say he wanted to see for himself the condition of one of his citizens? Who could have challenged that? It wasn't just liberals who were upset last week.

And of course it would have been absolutely wonderful for just one activist judge somewhere to say, "I don't care what the technicalities of the law have to say. We have to protect this woman's life!" But judicial activism apparently never wanders in that direction.

So why no follow-through?

It is because all of us-not just a president, a governor, a legislator, a judge, but all of us-have become practicing secularists. The call goes out, even from our president, to foster a "culture of life." But that's not the culture we live in; it's not the air we breathe; it's not the water we drink. So neither is it the way we think-and it is therefore not the way we finish the game. The air we breathe, the water we drink, and the culture that shapes us-all that is altogether secular, and it is quite impossible to foster a "culture of life" in a secular context.

Secularism makes man the measure of all things. So life itself is no longer a gift from an outside Creator. It becomes instead something we can take or leave, however we may be inclined. And because, as secularists, we have become enthralled with "personal peace and affluence" (as Francis Schaeffer predicted 25 years ago), we're quite content to let go of life at its very messy earliest and latest stages.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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