National Catholic Register

Commentary

Philadelphia Freedom

BY PAUL KENGOR

July 1-7, 2007 Issue | Posted 6/26/07 at 10:00 AM

 

When Rev. Jerry Falwell died recently we were told — by the secular-minded — that his greatest sin was blurring the lines of separation between church and state, of “shoving” his personal faith and values down the throats of everyone else.

While Falwell certainly had his faults, the reality is that he and many of his persuasion — including Pat Robertson, a former Democrat — were a reaction, a response to what they perceived as an assault on the values they held dear, a consequence of the absence of faith in politics and culture.

Falwell and his supporters saw what happened when they politely did as they were told by secularists, when they put their tails between their legs and whimpered out of the public square. When they quietly crawled home, they ceded the culture to secularists who were often contemptuous of their views.

In truth, Falwell’s Moral Majority was tired of having the values of secularists shoved down their throat.

Why mention this now? Because yet another example of this aggressive secularism occurred in recent weeks in Philadelphia, the July 4 birthplace of the Declaration of Independence, when secular values were again thrust upon religious-minded citizens who, in turn, were expected to politely express their misgivings in private consultation with a minister or around the dinner table or, better, not at all.

On June 8, by a vote of 9-8, the Philadelphia City Council took an extraordinary step, approving a resolution declaring Philadelphia a “pro-choice city.”

The resolution, sponsored by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, and drafted with the assistance of Planned Parenthood, declared the city an “advocate for the advancement of women’s rights and equality, and in particular women’s reproductive rights and freedom.”

“The City needs to pride itself,” explained the resolution, by “officially express[ing] its support for a woman’s right to choose.”

The gesture contradicted a much more thoughtful and certainly longer-lasting resolution affirmed by infinitely wiser legislators in the city two centuries ago: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

That word “life” — the first of those three unalienable rights recorded by Jefferson and borrowed from a Lockean tradition with far deeper roots than Roe v. Wade and modern feminism — also gets prominent billing in the U.S. Constitution, notably the 14th Amendment, which states, “nor shall any state deprive any person of life.”

Thankfully, many Philadelphians remain true to those timeless principles articulated in their historic city. Indeed, Brown acknowledged that many residents of Philadelphia would not describe themselves as pro-choice, but considered that fact immaterial to the larger cause: “It’s a democracy,” she said, meaning that a majority vote by city council would decide what was right — a curious position for a council that usually speaks of tolerance and diversity like two legs of a holy trinity.

So, there it was. It was done. “Now Phila is officially ‘pro-choice,’” proclaimed the headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer the next day. The proclamation by the City Council left pro-lifers like me in a bind: Should I lay down and roll over and accept this latest affront to my moral values, continuing to go to Philadelphia twice a year for business, where I spend my money at hotels, restaurants, on cabs and all else? Should my wife and I continue plans for that home-school trip to educational sites in the city? Should we take our four children there? Why should I tolerate this?

Yet, apparently, that was the expected course for folks like me.

Fortunately, pro-lifers in Philadelphia decided they weren’t going to put up with this latest assault. Spearheaded by Cardinal Justin Rigali, who became the public face of opposition to the resolution, they fought back.

Cardinal Rigali, the archbishop of Philadelphia, immediately issued a statement denouncing the “divisive and erroneous label” that the council had “forced upon” the city’s citizens.

“I reject the resolution because so many heroic efforts are made continually to safeguard children from the evil of abortion,” said the cardinal. “In a city where so many people vigorously defend life at every stage, proclaiming Philadelphia ‘pro-choice’ is inconsistent with reality. It unfairly saddles those who support life at all stages with this shameful label.”

Said Cardinal Rigali, “Everyone deserves to be born and live.”

These words ring especially true in Philadelphia right now. The city’s embattled struggle to protect life of late is widely known around the country, as it sets the national pace for homicide rates — an irony not lost on Cardinal Rigali.

“Philadelphia is experiencing homicide at a record rate,” he noted. “Now is not the time to affirm the false choice of procured abortion.”

For a city hoping not to be known for a culture of death, this abortion resolution would seem at the very least a poor PR move by the council.

Quite the contrary, the sponsor of the resolution had the city’s image in mind: “At the end of the day, we decide what we want the city to look like and be about,” said Brown in urging her colleagues to support her action. “We as council members will speak to our hearts and our minds and vote accordingly.”

They did just that, narrowly passing the resolution by one vote, with even the city council’s preponderance of pro-choicers ambivalent, understanding that it was unnecessary and inappropriate for council to wade into such a controversial issue completely unrelated to its jurisdiction.

This time, however, the puppies didn’t saunter home after a scolding and smack on the backside. They barked. And, lo and behold, they won.

On June 14, the City Council rescinded its week-old proclamation by a vote of 13-4. Councilman Jim Kenney, one of those pro-choicers who ultimately reversed his vote, confessed that he was angry with himself for not abstaining previously: “It’s not something I think we should have forced on the public at large.” Amen.

Cardinal Rigali expressed appreciation that the City Council paused to reconsider the sensitivities of all Philadelphians. And even Brown seemed penitent, “Regret is too strong a word,” she conceded. “I have learned as an enlightened pro-choice advocate that there may have been other ways to make my position known.”

Of course, Brown’s repentance had its limits: It was not enough to switch her vote.

Naturally, Planned Parenthood was angry — unfazed in the moral certainty of the righteousness of its cause — and vowed not to give up the crusade.

Dayle Steinberg, president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania, who deemed Cardinal Rigali’s application of the word “homicide” as “shameful,” remarked: “It’s unfortunate that there couldn’t be an agreement to support the rights of women and families in Philadelphia.” For Planned Parenthood, it is not enough that the women of Philadelphia already have the “right” to legalized abortion; rather, the entire City of Philadelphia must go officially on the record in declaring their city “pro-choice.” As for those residents who are uncomfortable with the label, too bad — swallow hard.

Ultimately, real rights, genuine freedom, the first of all freedoms — the right to life — triumphed in Philadelphia, shining through in a declaration of true independence, one to keep in mind next week as the city and the nation, on July 4, celebrates and affirms those eternal, unalienable rights resolved in that part of the world 231 years ago.

Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College.

His upcoming biography of Ronald Reagan adviser William P. Clark,

The Judge, will be released this fall by Ignatius Press.