Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Defusing Culture Wars -- Senator Danforth

Remarks by Senator John Danforth at the 25th Anniversary event of the Center for Practical Bioethics on May 7 continue to prompt comment. Here's link to blog commentary by Bill Tammeus, who writes the Faith Matters blog for the Kansas City Star.

You will also find link to text of Danforth's remarks.


Cooling hot-button issues, Bill Tammeus, Faith Matters Blog, Kansas City Star, May 12, 2009

Text: Address by John C. Danforth, May 7, 2009 (pdf document)

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Blogger Practical Bioethics said...

I hope some of you downloaded former Senator Danforth’s remarks at our 25th anniversary celebration and will comment on your reactions.

He rues the lack of civility in today’s political discourse, especially in medical ethics and especially among “religious activists” who claim that “God is on our side.”

The Senator called for “watchful waiting,” an expression used by the courts when trying to judge if a case has fully matured and is ready to be resolved.

And until that time, we citizens ought to agree to disagree, live and let live. “When wedge issues split the country, I think the best strategy is inaction.”

It was a thoughtful talk, but I’m reading a novel about pre-WWII Germany. Inaction characterized that period, and the forces of bigotry, nationalism, and discrimination grew into an implacable mass.

I am not equating our bioethical wedges with their political wedges, but I wish for more literacy, more education around issues, impassioned as that discussion can be, before we head to the courts.

Inaction can be ethically reprehensible.

Rosemary Flanigan

Any comments???? Help Help

Tuesday, May 12, 2009  
Blogger Practical Bioethics said...

Delivered in a church setting and with a different oratorical style, I’d have said “Amen!” to about 85% of this “sermon.”

I think the disappointment with dry and unengaged oratory, as a ministry educator and fellow clergyperson, initially set me off. But if this was one of the ethics papers I have been grading this week (and need to still…), he’d surely get an “A”.

I’d also write in the margins a few places, however.

a) When he writes about the “killers” language often used in the Schiavo debates, I applaud Danforth’s critique of that sort of rhetoric, but regret his over-generalization: “This is what public discourse has come to, especially on issues of medical ethics” (p. 3). I wish he had been present at our public symposium the following morning—or that he had included his own overtly civil discourse in the assessment. It’s not all Schiavo-like out there, as he well knows and demonstrates.

b) I wish too that Danforth had not succumbed to temptation at one point, and had not included his potentially unfair jab at Clarence Thomas confirmation opponents (p. 5). Was it really all about abortion for “them”? This seems to me an over-simplification of the controversy, giving no credence whatsoever to the NAACP’s worries about affirmative action, or feminist concerns about sexism grounded in credible allegations of sexual harassment by more women complainants than just Anita Hill--although her testimony alone surely warranted concern and caution.

c) Danforth settles that argument by writing, “He [Thomas] is my friend. I stuck by my friend. That was that” (p. 4). Was it? So loyalty to one’s friends trumps all other testimony and any other moral considerations? I expect that this priest and former senator does not really mean that.

d) I also think that serious charges against one’s opponents—“They stopped at nothing to block Senate confirmation”—are best left unsaid unless there is time and evidence to support the claims.

e) Danforth lists several examples (p. 6) of relatively noncontroversial legislation involving what he assumes are legitimate limitations on the free exercise of religion: laws forbidding polygamy, child marriages, sacramental peyote use, and others mandating immunizations. I am less certain than he is, apparently, that all items on his short list are of equal and clear-cut legitimacy. In particular, some American Indian arguments for religious peyote use may bear more thoughtful reflection than what is granted here. Do peyote prohibitions really “protect the health, safety and morals of the people” (p. 6)? As is, Danforth’s offhand comment may simply constitute a needless religious and ethnic offense against a minority population already marginalized by majority offhandedness.

f) The choice of the term, “inaction” (p. 6) is unfortunate, I think. He means to apply this primarily to the various branches of government in the face of “wedge issues” that “split the country.” But the former senator might do well to clarify that he does not mean to imply (does he?) a proposal for governmental inaction on some moral matters of great import, such as slavery or genocide or torture, despite the potential lack of a majority opinion against such inhumane immorality, much less a super-majority consensus.

g) Danforth might be misunderstood to imply that even public “inaction” is the appropriate course when we vociferously disagree, perhaps to the point of “splitting.” But he clearly doesn’t intend to apply this advice to the rest of us not in government, for whom the appeal is significant action: “Don’t ignore it. Think about it. Talk about it. Shed light on it. React against it. Remove the wedges” (p. 10). To that I say, “Amen!”

h) So why in the world does he end his lecture with the dialogue dousing, rhetorical rally cry, “Hold America together”? Reverend Senator, I wish that you had stopped writing/preaching just three words sooner.

Or so I would write in the margins of Danforth’s ethics term paper. Followed by:

“Overall, an excellent paper, well crafted, thoughtful and very provocative. I wish we had opportunity to engage in the sort of dialogue that it begs. Someday, perhaps. In the meantime, thank you for contributing to my learning, while demonstrating yours."

Terry Rosell

Tuesday, May 12, 2009  

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