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The Seduction of Changing the Culture Print E-mail
By Hadley Arkes   
Tuesday, 12 August 2014

It came as a kind of cry of the heart, or a cry of moral despair, from a dear friend who has contributed deeply to the defense of marriage in California. All of the labors, all of the treasure expended, were whisked away by one federal judge, and by a Supreme Court that would not overturn that judgment.

One by one now, federal judges were picking up the theme and striking down the laws on marriage in the separate States, the laws that confined marriage to a man and a woman. Our friends have been wringing their hands, hoping that the Supreme Court may yet brake this movement in the lower courts. But some of us insist that it is necessary to keep the hand of Congress in on this matter – that there are measures that can still be put on the table to check the momentum of the courts.

But my friend was despairing now about the state of our politics and a “culture” that has become quite inverted. And who could fault her for that despair? But in the depths of her disappointment she has felt driven to the sense that the moral reasoning of the natural law was not “going to win this argument in our culture. Our culture wasn’t changed by reasonable argument. We have to fight this another way.” She has seen the campaign waged against contributors to the cause of marriage: not an exchange of arguments, but brutal waves of vilification and intimidation, bereft of syllogisms, yet powerful in their results.

My friend was surely not drawn to a countering campaign of political terror. She was despairing at the moral shallowness of our politics. But it has been all too tempting for people to talk about “changing the culture,” as though there were some path to moral change that can be detached from the life of the polis, the life of political engagement. That becomes all too easy an excuse with politicians who affect to believe that changing the culture on these matters is someone else’s business.


       We’ve come to this selfish moral confusion . . .

As I wrote to my friend, the counter-example was caught for me in this scene:  I was on my way to the Supreme Court to hear the oral argument in the Hobby Lobby case last March, and outside the Court was a massing of young women of college age. They were carrying signs proclaiming that contraception was their deep private right, that it was no business of their employer.

It seemed to escape these women that their employers would share their sentiments fully. They too don’t wish to make that contraception their business, their responsibility. The question then was, How did we get from the freedom to buy contraceptives, unencumbered by the law – how did we get from the Griswold case (in 1965) to the point now in which young women seem really to believe that their rights are impaired if an employer cannot be compelled to buy those contraceptives for them.

What was on display on the street that day, outside the Court, was evidence of the most radical change that had taken place in the “culture.” And how could anyone possibly doubt that the Supreme Court itself had played a dominant role in the shaping of this moral sensibility by teaching lessons from the highest levels of authority on the deep rightness of contraception and abortion?

What is curiously neglected on all sides, conservative as well as liberal, is the classic understanding of the connection between the “logic of morals” and the “logic of law.” A moral judgment moves away from statements of merely personal preference and speaks of the things that are right or wrong for others as well as ourselves. And the law sweeps away private choice to impose a rule claimed to be rightful and justified for all.


. . . from this selfless moral clarity

When the question was raised in the past of how the polity engages in moral teaching, the answer was that it teaches through the laws. When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, the freedom to discriminate on the basis of race in certain businesses was removed from the domain of private choice. It was treated now as a wrong; it was forbidden, in a moral voice, to everyone, to anyone who came within the terms of the laws.

Before that law was passed, there were rival majorities in the North and South, supporting and opposing that bill. But three years later there were strong majorities in both sections in support of the law. Had the culture of the South changed so dramatically in that time? Or did all of this have something to do with the fact that different moral lessons were being taught now, at the top of the State, through the laws?  

And in the same way, how do we account for the growing support for pro-life measures were it not for the measures themselves, constantly coming, constantly putting the question anew?

On the matter of marriage, the voices of opposition may be recovered more readily if something is “put on the table” in our politics – something that will take the issue out of the realm solely of judges and bring it back into the realm where ordinary people can be drawn to argue and vote and think anew, as though it mattered – as though the outcome hinged again on their judgment.

 
Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College. He is also Founder and Director of the Washington-based James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is now available for download.
 
 
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Comments (12)Add Comment
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, August 12, 2014
As to the influence of legislation, one has only to recall Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy 1534, Edward VI’s Acts of Uniformity of 1548 and 1552 imposing the First and Second Prayer Books, their repeal under Mary I in 1553 and Elizabeth I’s Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity of 1559 re-imposing King Edward’s book.
All these acts were generally observed and most of the parish clergy conformed to the changes of that remarkable quarter-century.
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written by Manfred, August 12, 2014
I believe it was Robert Royal who quoted John Adams on this page who, in writing, stated that this Nation could only endure if the People were Religious and Moral. Otherwise, they would end up replacing one Tyrant with another.
We are there. The Nation's People are predominantly secular.
When the Mother of God foretold of a period of "diabolical disorientation", she was not just referring to the Church, but rather, the civil society as well.
This nation is being punished for the sins of its people. Does anyone really think that fifty million murders of children in the mothers' wombs will go unpunished? Does anyone really believe that the legitimation of an "abomination" so severe and reprehensible that Christ never once mentioned it, leaving that to St. Paul, could ever be ignored by God? Why did World Wars I and II occur? They were punishments by God for the sinfulness of the world. How do I know? The Mother of God told us so.
The ONLY solution is the conversion and penances performed my MANY to atone for our sins (yes, including attending celebrations of adultery). Otherwise, it is obvious we are DOOMED.
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written by Myshkin, August 12, 2014
@Manfred
Um ... This world is "doomed" in the sense that it is passing away to be replaced by "a new heaven and a new earth" (Rev 21:1). We have it from St. Paul "neither fornicators nor idolaters" will be there (1 Cor 6:9-10). There is no hope for this world, only hope in the coming Kingdom of God.
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written by grump, August 12, 2014
"When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, the freedom to discriminate on the basis of race in certain businesses was removed from the domain of private choice. It was treated now as a wrong; it was forbidden, in a moral voice, to everyone, to anyone who came within the terms of the laws."

Would it be "wrong" for a prospective business owner to decide not to open shop in Ferguson, Missouri, on the "basis of race"? Would that business person be "wrong" in deciding that an all-white area would be preferable and more likely to succeed?

Discrimination, which is merely the act of making a good judgment assuring a good outcome, therefore, can be justified in the sense that personal choice, majority rule and the right of association are freedoms that ought to be upheld rather than denigrated. Even Jesse Jackson admits that he gets more nervous when he sees black men around him than white men. Racial profiling, while generally condemned as "discrimination," nonetheless is a natural and pragmatic response to a given situation in which a threat is either perceived or palpable.







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written by Ted Seeber, August 12, 2014
I have my doubts it will work. Like everything else, our culture is determined by what is good for the rich, not what is moral.
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written by Jim, August 12, 2014
may we look forward to another column that identifies one or more items "to put on the table"?
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written by Hadley Arkes, August 12, 2014
A response while traveling--
To Jim: Yes, Ill pick up your invitation and take up in columns to come the main proposals I would "put on the table" now.
For Manfred: Even if we put aside the argument over whether the Civil Rights Act did a demanding justice, the point remains that the law teaches moral lessons by removing issues from the domain of private choice and replacing them with commands binding on all. That implies nothing less than a moral judgment--though that classic understanding has disappeared from the education of most lawyers.
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written by Robert Hill, August 12, 2014
The law is a teacher; unfortunately all the voters, lawyers and lawmakers learn more from Hollywood. Our paganism is now so deeply entrenched that even the plague of AIDS didn't wake us up to the reality of the natural law. Addiction can be defined as a state in which reason no longer holds sway and the drug is the only god. Idolatry is similar: reason cannot penetrate through the loyalty of modern pagans to their gods. And what was once repugnant is now required.
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written by Manfred, August 12, 2014
My apologies Dr. Arkes, but I don't think I mentioned Civil Rights at all. I agree completely that issues have been removed from the "domain of private choice" and these have been "replaced by commands binding on all". Certainly if you are a baker, photographer, or hotelier, and two males or females enter your establishment to avail themselves of your services at their "wedding", you had better oblige them or you will be fined, ask to file quarterly reports and told to take awareness training by the Federal Gov't.
This is happening under the first of the tyrants which John Adams and I described above.
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written by Paul V, August 12, 2014
Civil Rights Laws are the government taking away the rights of their citizens. Just think of the end result --- If I had a basement apartment in my house for rent I could not discriminate against a non-married couple who wanted to rent it. If I owned a bakery I could not discriminate against a SSC that wanted a wedding cake. I could be fined or go to jail. Government is intruding further and further into our personal business and people think it's great we're making the world a better place, this is the spirit of anti-Christ.
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written by Carlos, August 13, 2014
censorship in this place must be severe if quoting Christ is too much for the moderator to bear.

May God pay you according to your deeds. This site will collapse soon I am sure.
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written by Rosemary, August 13, 2014
I stand by my previous comment that you have not published. The issue is not the culture. it is the weakness of our bishops. Instead of being leaders of the moral order, they are accommodators for the secular order. Looking to the government for high moral principles is an exercise in frustration. it should not be so with the Church. I think that this Catholic site is not the one appropriate for your commentaries.

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