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What's God Got to Do with It? Terri Schiavo makes a place for religion in politics

Denis Boyles

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Religion -- that is to say "popular" religion, old time religion, the kind of thing that will drive huge numbers of men and women into American churches this Sunday to sing out loud and be glad -- is not practiced well in Europe. Church attendance is low, headed south, and a revival of any kind is out of the question. In France especially religion simply has no place in public life.

France considers itself a secular republic. This means that in France, Catholicism is just another cultural ornament -- a collection of old music and pleasant buildings and the provenance of long holiday weekends, like this one. Practically speaking, modern secularism in Europe is forced de-Christianization in favor of humanism's new convictions. Meanwhile, the most avid followers of faith on the continent these days are all those imported Muslims, many of whom zealously follow their beliefs outside the mainstream of daily life -- forever destined to be Muslims first and Frenchmen second. In the 21st century, a "devout Frenchman" for example, is either a Muslim or an oddity, if not an outright oxymoron. Religion is for children and Yanks. If Americans didn't exist, Europeans would have to invent them, because otherwise, they'd never talk about God at all.

To our traditional allies -- them perfidious, unbelieving Frenchies and their Euro-kin -- the controversy swirling around poor Terri Schiavo is yet another example of dumb American over-simplification grown fat, an outbreak of lunacy inspired by Upper Room Baptists and the like. The attempts by the Congress and the president to limit the damage done by a judiciary that is unresponsive, elitist, arrogant, dictatorial, self-protecting -- something very much like the government of France, come to think of it -- looks, to Eric Fottorino, writing in Le Monde, like proof that Bush will do anything, including rushing to the "bedside of an almost-dead person" in a "coma," to cement his relationship with the Bible-thumping, gel-haired, tele-mullahs of the right. To the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the congressional intervention was a drama of "Life, Death and Power" with a grandstanding U.S. president bestirring himself from his Crawford ranch, something the paper claims he'd never do for a crisis or a mere war. In the leftwing Independent, the slow starvation of Terri Schiavo is how the paper's correspondent describes a death with "dignity," something Americans can't get right -- no doubt because of what Tony Blair described to the Daily Telegraph as the "unhealthy" American penchant for giving religion a prominent role in election campaigns. For Libération, the whole save-Schiavo spectacle was enough to merit a sneering headline on a piece or two, but nothing more.

Not that this kind of coverage is particularly surprising, of course. It reflects the general sentiment of the left toward muscular Christianity, something they find almost as appalling as actual muscles. Despite the fact that the New York Times has been in a persistent vegetative state for a lot longer than 15 years, the struggle to save Terri Schiavo was laughed off by one longtime columnist as part of the "God racket" -- a "circus" of "religio-hucksterism." Times writers routinely ridicule the concerns of Americans for things like the life of Terri Schiavo as a predictable byproduct of a surplus of stupid red voters held hostage by Bible-thumping extremists. That America is where all Republican policies are spun to accommodate right-wing Christian nuts, where the poor all starve and where religious fervor sweeps the land like a great, darkening storm, blocking the sun of French-style reason and the grand traditions of that enlightenment thing.

This Easter weekend, let's pray to God they're right. If you ask me, the widespread grieving for Terri Schiavo is not only an indicator of the political significance of moral values but also a barometer of the nation's spiritual health. Did people go too far to try to pretzel-twist the judicial process and cheek-slap states' right? Maybe -- but I don't think so, and anyway that's not the point. The alternative to being passionately engaged with the terrible fate of Terri Schiavo is to mutter a few words about how "sad and tragic" it all is and just move on. That's certainly what the New York Times and most Europeans would like to see. However, in the grim arc of two lifetimes, we've seen very often what happens when you shrug off one death, let alone many, many more. In fact, we saw it in France, where all those enlightened rationalists live, less than two years ago when 15,000 weak and elderly men and women were left to die in a summer heat wave while government services shut down and their families all went on holiday.

By the end of August 2003, 15,000 French people had died of simple neglect. That's the equivalent of five 9/11s in four months. One such event is all it took to transform America. In France, massive death received a massive shrug. I've reported this before, of course, but I still can't get over it: As a result of what happened during those awful weeks, nothing changed. The French press ignored the story almost entirely as it unfolded and only began reporting it in detail well after the fact. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, at his villa in the south of France, held a casual, poolside press conference as the bodies piled up -- and denounced "partisan politics." Chirac remained on holiday through the disaster, but addressed the nation and promised sweeping changes. Meanwhile, jammed funeral homes began turning bodies away. Many of them went unclaimed. Chirac's grand plan? If you are old and infirm and at the edge of death and French, do not go to an understaffed, overheated hospital. Instead, go to the movies, where it's air conditioned. The last I read, more than a year and a half after the event there are still unidentified bodies of grandmothers and grandfathers stuffed into the morgues of Paris.

I didn't mean to produce a homily for the holiday, but it does seem to merit mentioning that Terri Schiavo's plight has been caricatured by the French and European press for a reason other than just to make droll. France despises America because we display, rather ostentatiously at times, all the marks of spiritual enthusiasm while they cling tightly to rational secularism. Much of what distinguishes the U.S. from France follows from that: Where we are optimistic, France is pessimistic. Where we have hope, they have cynicism. Where we are energetic, they are complacent. Where we are open and occasionally naive, they are secretive, deceitful and aloof. Where we succeed, they cannot.

As I finish typing this early Friday morning, I don't know what Terri Schiavo's fate will be. But I do know that because of our affection for the "God racket," Terri Schiavo's body won't go unidentified, her passing won't be unnoticed, and, if the politicians have learned anything from this, the thousands of others like her without any written instructions concerning end-of-life care won't be shrugged off. Whether she's seen as an innocent woman neglected by an adulterous, grasping husband and murdered by dim judicial decree, or as programming fodder by news channels, or as a "sad and tragic" case by those inclined to side with the judge and the pseudo-husband (and by the way, where are all you timid feminists...?), everybody in America knows who Terri Schiavo is, where she is and what has happened to her, minute by horrible minute, slipping silently through Holy Week, from Maundy Thursday into Good Friday, while millions of Americans pray for her and for her family -- and especially for those who torment her and ridicule the unshakable faith of her mother and her father. Those two know that for their daughter justice of one kind of another is absolutely inevitable.

Denis Boyles is author of Vile France: Fear, Duplicity, Cowardice and Cheese.

Read this article on the National Review website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission of the author.

Posted: 03-Apr-05

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