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Bracing for a New Year

The Fifth Day within the Octave of the Nativity of the Lord. We are bracing ourselves now for the New Year about to open and unfurl its surprises. A character in one of Tom Stoppard’s stories remarks, in the familiar cliché, that “tomorrow is another day.” To which another character responds that, “No, tomorrow, I find, is usually the same day.”

It is the measure of the year we’ve already borne that we could take it as a ground of hope if the coming year promised to be no worse. A year ago we were bracing for the decision of the Supreme Court to install same-sex marriage as a “right” grounded now in the “fundamental law” of the Constitution, the law that will give proportion and standing to all other laws in every jurisdiction in this country. With eyes unclouded we could see this coming.

What we could not foresee was a militancy on this issue, driven by a moral surety that runs even beyond the convictions that fueled the civil rights movement. Chai Feldblum, descended from a line of rabbis, rejected out of hand the possibility that the religious could claim some ground of exemption from a policy formed now from a sense of unalloyed moral rightness. We don’t give people religious exemptions – do we? – from the laws that forbid discriminations based on race. Why should they be any more tolerated on this matter of marriage and sexuality?

There is no need to rehearse the record that has already begun to unfold, with people losing their jobs or their businesses if they refuse to accept this new ethic as their own. Small Christian colleges will be brought to the point of extinction if they will not agree to cover abortion and contraception in their medical insurance. Or, if they drop their insurance, they may find themselves threatened with crippling fines if they will not offer an “outreach” program for LGBT – Lesbians, Gays, Bisexual, and Transgendered. Transgendered. Paul McHugh, of the medical school at Johns Hopkins, showed that these were fantasies, untethered ideas, floated with theories, bearing no grounding in the world, and the nature, we inhabit. And yet, we find the administrations and trustees of leading colleges and universities signing on to this new orthodoxy as though it were indeed grounded in unbreakable facts and a moral doctrine no longer to be questioned.

It has become clear also that these ideas, nursed in the hothouses of American colleges, have made their way into the law schools. And from there they are already being projected into the federal judiciary. The federal courts have become a prime engine in coarsening our culture, for they’ve led the way in dismantling the laws that once applied a gentle, but telling restraint on pornography, contraception, abortion, and sexuality.

Darkness before dawn: World Youth Day 2013

It should be clear to anyone with eyes to see that this movement would be brought to a level even more astounding if the party of the Left had four to eight more years to fill the judiciary with people who reflect, with sharp edges, this ethic that now holds them.

It was a mark of our politics so telling that the media chose not to cover it: At the end of September, 177 Democrats in Congress actually voted against the bill to punish surgeons who kill babies born alive, surviving abortions. The bill was passed by 243 Republicans, joined by only five Democrats. I’ve taken a back seat to no one in complaining about Republican leaders who hold back from making the pro-life argument in public. But it takes a special obtuseness for pro-lifers to rail against both parties, as though they cannot see just which one stands now as the conservative party in our politics.

The sense of distraction is deepened by the current, unaccountable romance, among conservatives, with a man who has cut his public figure by saying things once thought unsayable in public. This new figure has drawn an outsized following so far in a pro-life party without offering any reflections, precise and serious, on how he understands the issues of abortion and marriage – or what he is prepared to do in acting upon them.

The late, dear Charlie Rice of the law school at Notre Dame, used to buck me up and say, “Don’t despair; remember: you’re on the winning side.” And I would say, “You may be right, Charlie, but every so often it would be good to have a win.” He reflected here a Catholic joyousness and hope that ran to his core. It began with an angel saying, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all people.”

We have seen ourselves the dramatic changes that have taken place, through conversion, in persons we know. And if it can happen with one, it can happen again, we know, with many. We have also seen recently the evidence of young people drawn by nothing more than religious persuasion, to a passion to sacrifice themselves in the slaughtering of the innocent. And if we know that can happen, why should we doubt that people can be reawakened, and summoned anew, by a religious truth that teaches the sanctity of human life?

We need, in this new year, a renewed hope, but it would help also to summon anew a certain clarity of mind.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of 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 available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.