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Eat The Poor!
George Bush's "culture of life" is a bit different from the late Pope's, writes Amy Sullivan on Salon:

You could be forgiven for thinking that "culture of life" was a concept created not by John Paul II but by George W. Bush. Few people have done have more to popularize the phrase -- if not its correct spirit -- than our current president, who used it even before his first presidential campaign in 2000. While the use of "culture of life" was almost always intended to communicate Bush's position on abortion, it was actually part of a larger strategy to reach out to Catholic voters.

The phrase was a central part of what is arguably John Paul II's best-known encyclical, Evangelium Vitae ("The Gospel of Life"), which he released in 1995. Bush's savvy Catholic advisors -- including conservatives Deal Hudson and Tim Goeglein -- knew that the phrase would immediately resonate with Catholic voters while indicating nothing more than vague pro-life sentiments to non-Catholics. Bush's communications staff did the same thing with Protestant hymns and phrases, using code words that went over the heads of those who didn't recognize them while resonating deeply with those who did.

During Bush's tenure, the phrase has been employed in the service of opposing abortion, stem-cell research, cloning and -- most recently and publicly -- the removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube. When, in the third presidential debate, Bob Schieffer asked the candidates a question about abortion, the first words out of Bush's mouth were: "I think it's important to promote a culture of life." A quick Internet search for the words "John Kerry and culture of life" and then "Tom DeLay and culture of life" revealed that the phrase is most often used by conservatives to attack Democrats who "flout the culture of life" and by liberals to sneer at Republicans and their "culture-of-life cronies." The culture of life has become cemented in American conventional wisdom as equaling conservative social issues.

But a fair look at John Paul II's use of the phrase and his political priorities must conclude that although he was undoubtedly concerned about abortion and stem-cell research and euthanasia, that list is far from complete. The pontiff also wrote about "the dignity and rights of those who work," and he spoke out against the widening gap between the world's rich and poor. He opposed both Gulf Wars in no uncertain terms and strongly communicated his outrage when the abuse at Abu Ghraib was revealed. During a 1999 visit to the United States, John Paul II spoke out against the death penalty, calling the punishment "cruel and unnecessary" and successfully petitioning for the commutation of a death sentence for a Missouri prisoner when he spoke in St. Louis.

Anti-death penalty, antiabortion, antiwar, anti-stem-cell, pro-worker, pro-poor, pro-sick. It's hard to think of any American politician whose positions reflect the entirety of John Paul II's "life" concerns. Even the American Catholic Church doesn't always reflect the pope's priorities. While John Paul II applied a fairly consistent ethic of life -- what the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin called the "seamless garment of life" -- the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has taken a different stance. In 1998, the conference issued a letter called "Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics" in which the bishops asserted that failure to following church teaching on abortion was more serious than any other issue, implying that a Catholic politician could neglect all other "life" issues and still be considered a good Catholic as long as he opposed abortion; at the same time, no amount of work for the poor or imprisoned or sick could save a pro-choice Catholic.

Yesterday, I saw a guy who'd just parked his car, clearly frustrated by the lurking meter maid and his inability to find change anywhere on his body. He looked flustered, and in a hurry, so I came over and offered to put a quarter in his meter. I turned out he needed a dollar's worth of time. I put the money in, not expecting a dollar back. He then realized he had a dollar bill in his wallet, which he gave me. A woman who saw the whole exchange came over to me and said, smiling broadly, "God brought you to him!" When I told her, number one, I'm an atheist, and number two, god had nothing to do with it, she asked me, "Aren't you worried about going to hell?" "No," I said, "And astonishingly, I manage to be a nice person from time to time despite that."

Posted by aalkon at April 4, 2005 8:54 AM

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Yes-- imagine that! People behaving in a civil, nay-- friendly and helpful fashio simply becasue it's the right thing to do!

Wonder if it will ever catch on.

Posted by: Deirdre B. at April 4, 2005 3:24 AM

Recently in traffic school (is that the same as "this one time - in band camp..."?) I had an instructor who, much to my chagrin, used his time to prosyletize. He asked each student in the class if they believe in heaven and hell, and when he got to me and I responded "NO", he held me up as an example of everything that was wrong with society. Niiiiiiiice. Why do so many people need a threat (hell) or a carrot dangled (heaven) to do the right thing? Isn't it satisfying enough just to do it, hoping the next person will 'pay it forward'? This man knew nothing about me, but was very quick to judge me based on my reticence to believe in an imaginary, angry, horrible, jealous, mean-spirited, judgemental asshole of a god. :shudder: It was an interesting demonstration of how far down the path of ignorance religion has ventured.

Posted by: Goddyss at April 4, 2005 4:30 PM

I think I've told this story here before, but it's part of my blissful suburban Detroit childhood. When I was six, neighborhood kids chased me and told me I killed Jesus. I thought to myself, "I'm six, I don't even kill bugs."

When nerdy kids of any stripe who get pushed around write me, I always tell them that the mean kids will probably end up strung out on meth and working at 7-11. Being a loser as a child is often an extremely temporary thing -- although not while you're experiencing it!

Posted by: Amy Alkon at April 4, 2005 9:28 PM

The Goddess writes:

I think I've told this story here before, but it's part of my blissful suburban Detroit childhood. When I was six, neighborhood kids chased me and told me I killed Jesus. I thought to myself, "I'm six, I don't even kill bugs."

You should have simply confessed to the crime, but had your lawyer argue for a statute of limitations. I realize that murder is a horrible thing, but 2000 years? Time for the law to just get over it.

Posted by: Patrick at April 5, 2005 1:31 AM

And about the "being nice without the threat of hell to goad you," Dear Abby (the current one's mother, not the incompetent who replaced her) was once called on the carpet for calling someone "Christian" for doing something nice. So apparently, it's not only atheists who can't do nice things. Muslims, agnostics, Jews, Buddhists, Confuscionists, Hindus, or whatever can't do good deeds or be nice people either.

I'm a Christian, myself, but have been told many times in fire and brimstone thunderings that I'm going to hell. I just reply, "If you won't be there, how bad could it be?"

Posted by: Patrick at April 5, 2005 4:11 AM

Patrick, where were you all the times somebody said that to me. Thank you for the absolute best comeback for every person who's ever said that to me. As L'Amerloque knows, this is called "L'esprit de l'escalier" -- the spirit of the staircase, ie, staircase wisdom -- the brilliant comeback you think of, after you've had a fight with your lover, and you're sprinting down the stairs. (Not that French people tend to sprint anywhere.)

Posted by: Amy Alkon at April 5, 2005 5:25 AM

The "Christian thing to do" comment reminds me of the time I was watching an NFL game on the idiot box years ago. One of the Oakland Raiders' defensive backs, Vann McElroy, knocked out an opposing player with a brutal hit.

The color commentator remarked that McElroy obviously didn't mean to hurt his opponent, adding that "...after all, McElroy is a Christian."

The commentator's name? O.J. Simpson.

I'll go the secular route, thank you very much.

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