Abortion and Civic Virtue

Now that a democratic election has produced a liberal president, liberals praising the power of democracy. Michael Kinsley of the New Republic enthuses that America may finally get a "democratically enacted choice law." He's talking, of course, about the Freedom of Choice Act, which if passed will enshrine abortion-on-demand as the law of the land. If that happens, Kinsley thrills, abortion will be guaranteed not just by judicial fiat but by that most sacred of democratic conventions: "the consensus of the citizenry." Finally, he says, prolifers will have to resign themselves to the decrees of democracy and go home. But will they? Since when did a vote make something right or wrong? Since when did a 51 percent majority have the power to define moral principles? Only the most radical form of democracy accepts whatever the people want at any given time. Vox populi vox Dei, as the Romans called it: The voice of the people is the voice of God. But that kind of radical democracy has never been the American tradition. In America, democracy has always been tempered by the recognition of a higher law. Societies consist of three systems, explains Catholic scholar Michael Novak: a political system, an economic system, and a moral-cultural system. The American tradition consists of a government that is representative, an economy based on the free market, and a morality that is informed by biblical standards. In our century, all three of these systems have sustained serious challenges. The rise of the great totalitarian systems raised a question in the political sphere: Is democracy really better than socialism or communism? When the Berlin wall crumbled, democracy won that battle. Concerns about social justice raised a question in the economic sphere: Are free markets really better than a state-controlled economy? When the Soviet economy collapsed, there was no doubt that free enterprise had won that battle. Today the rights mentality has raised a question for the moral-cultural sphere: Is civic virtue really better than a relativistic ethic based on personal choice? That battle is still being fought. America is caught between conflicting visions of the kind of morality we need to maintain a free society. Novak calls it the last major political struggle of the twentieth century. And at the heart of that struggle is abortion. Abortion is not a narrow, isolated issue. It turns on the broad question of whether freedom can flourish in a society committed to moral relativism. Prolifers believe the answer to that question is no. Political freedom depends on the ability of citizens to order their lives by moral principles—the classic republican virtues of self-discipline, self-sacrifice, care for the weak, respect for life. Michael Kinsley hopes that democracy will guarantee abortion. But the truth is that abortion will destroy democracy—because it will help legitimize moral relativism, thereby undercutting our commitment to virtue. Two hundred years ago James Madison wrote, "We have staked the whole of all our political institutions upon the capacity of . . . each of us to govern ourselves . . . according to the Ten Commandments of God." That was true at the birth of our nation; it is still true today.


Chuck Colson


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