The best of Fred Hutchison
A battle of orthodoxies and the right to life
November 15, 2012
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst

Originally published April 19, 2005

The fight between the right-to-life movement and the right-to-die camp has all the ferocity and bitterness of two opposing orthodoxies. "Orthodox" is a word of Greek origin which literally means "right opinion." If there is such a thing as truth, there can be a body of right opinion.

Skeptics reject all orthodoxies out of hand and condemn both sides in a battle of orthodoxies. If the skeptics are right, then the culture war is an exercise in futility. A friend of mine has all but given up on the culture war and calls himself a "futilitarian," a word that makes me laugh because there are indeed days when fighting the culture war feels like jousting with windmills.

Skepticism must never persuade us that there is no truth, for that leads to a despairing nihilism. But if there is such a thing as truth, there can be good and bad orthodoxies, just as a true dollar bill has counterfeits. A good orthodoxy can triumph over a bad orthodoxy in the long run because truth is more powerful and durable than delusion. Delusion is inherently fragile no matter how many powerful people are seduced by it. Therefore, the culture war can be won if it is truly a war between a good and a bad orthodoxy. History is full of the wrecks of bad orthodoxies, like desert sands littered with the bones of dead warriors. Yet Christian orthodoxy still has vitality in spite of countless challenges from now-extinct bad orthodoxies. In order to win the culture war, however, and defeat the culture of death, it is necessary to understand the nature of a good orthodoxy and act accordingly.

The nature of good and bad orthodoxies

Interestingly, it is possible to define some of the characteristics of good and bad orthodoxies. A good orthodoxy must be motivated by the love of truth and have solid grounds for knowing truth. Truth includes a right understanding of good and evil. The right-to-life movement has an understanding of good and evil that is diametrically opposed to the moral conceptions of the right-to-die camp.

Two conflicting understandings of good and evil cannot both be correct, according to Aristotle's principle of non-contradiction (A does not equal non-A). Philosophers Immanuel Kant (1704–1824) and George Hegel (1770–1831) speculated that contradictory principles could be synthesized to form a new principle, a concept that can quickly lead to bad orthodoxies. By definition, first principles cannot be contradicted or synthesized and still be a first principles. The followers of a good orthodoxy will vigorously refute any contradiction or synthesis of a first principle. If two contradicting views of morality of life are both correct, there is no universal moral law and the world is in a state of moral chaos. Thus, any collection of concepts which behaves like an orthodoxy yet accepts the contradiction of first principles is a bad orthodoxy.

The right-to-die camp does accept contradiction by following the existentialist line — that whether or not assisted suicide is right depends upon the values of the individual. If in one individual case, assisted suicide is right and in another individual case assisted suicide is wrong based solely on personal subjective feelings, the principle of non-contradiction is violated and the existence of ultimate truth and universal moral law is denied. Therefore the cluster of concepts representing the right-to-die camp is either not an orthodoxy, or is a bad orthodoxy. At times, it behaves like an orthodoxy with institutional authority, group-think, and the rebuke of its heretics, but it has no moral authority to do this, because of its tacit rejection that a truth exists which is a first principle. Truth is what gives an orthodoxy its authority, not a consensus of those with institutional power. When the left persecutes its heretics, it is an abuse of power because it is indifferent to truth and has no uncompromised first principles.

When the internal contradictions in liberal thought are exposed through debate, liberals invariably retreat to the argument of the moral equivalent, which says in effect, "your camp is no better than the evil you point to" — which is a tactic for insulting the opposing camp while denying or watering down the existence of evil. We have all heard debates in which a conservative would say, "Saddam Hussein is evil," and a liberal would respond, "He is no worse than us." This is a double lie, of course. It is an explicit lie to say he is no worse than us. It is an implicit lie that Saddam's evil can be diminished by a false moral equivalent. We heard constant moral equivalents from the left during the cold war in the effort to depict a moral equality between America and the Soviet Union. The left demonized the American anti-communist movement and called it evil. It is not evil to fight evil, and communism was authentically evil. This confusion about evil is a sign of a corrupt orthodoxy. The false moral equivalent is the earmark of intellectual decadence and moral wickedness. Many Hollywood movies such as Dr. Strangelove, Failsafe, and The Russians are Coming strained to put forward this foolish moral equivalent.

A good orthodoxy is not, and cannot be, the moral equivalent of a false orthodoxy. A good orthodoxy never, never claims a moral equivalent with its opponents. C. S. Lewis humorously noted that a beautiful girl never says to an ugly girl, "I am as good as you." A genius never says to a moron, "I am as good as you." Lewis said no one ever says "I am as good as you," unless it is a lie. A good orthodoxy says, "We are of the truth, and the opposing camp which contradicts our first principles is false." The use of a moral equivalent is either the sign of a bad orthodoxy or an ideology that is not an orthodoxy, but which falsely tries to usurp the moral authority of an orthodoxy.

In a world of moral equivalents no orthodoxy can exist, and no moral outrage — as is often expressed by the right-to-die camp — is legitimate. "We are morally outraged because we have strong feelings." However, morality and immorality can produce strong feelings. Hysteria is no substitute for truth. The right-to-die camp is outraged that Christians have an orthodoxy, and are acting accordingly. However, the Christians are acting legitimately, because their orthodoxy is based upon time-tested truths that were painstakingly arrived at through a slow historical process which carefully sifted out truth and error. In contrast, the right-to-die folks make moral judgments as though they had an orthodoxy behind them, when all they have is the sloppy accumulation of sociological myths and ideologies assembled by institutional authorities and propagated through group- think. A careful study of the origin of these myths, as I did in a piece last year, makes for interesting reading of how illusion and wishful thinking are easily swallowed by academics of the left and incorporated into a pseudo-orthodoxy.

A bad orthodoxy involves: 1) a devotion to an orthodoxy for its own sake, or for the sake of power or self-righteousness and not for the sake of the truth; 2) the lack of solid grounds for knowing truth; 3) confusion about good and evil; 4) group-think that discourages an independent search for the truth; and 5) demonization and persecution of opponents that evinces a lack of confidence in the persuasive power of truth. Truth has power and influence without intimidation.

A good orthodoxy can go bad if the adherents a) become more loyal to the orthodoxy than to the truth, b) are motivated primarily by hatred of a bad orthodoxy, or by the paranoia of conspiracy theories; or c) switch from persuasion to persecution of wrong opinion. In a battle of orthodoxies, a good orthodoxy must be vigilant to avoid such temptations if a long, enduring victory is sought. The American anti-communist movement nearly lost the argument, even though it had the facts on its side, because of a few occasions in the fifties when it used intimidation.


A heresy is a concept that undermines an orthodoxy. Orthodoxies are supported by a small number of fundamental truths like key pillars which support a temple. The temple will fall if any of the key pillars are broken. A heresy contradicts one of the pillars of truth. A contradiction of a concept that is not essential for the temple of truth is not a heresy. Such issues are debatable because the debate is no threat to the key pillars of truth. For example, orthodox Christians often debate whether or not drinking in moderation is wrong. Neither view is a threat to Christian orthodoxy. A good orthodoxy never calls wrong opinion on a peripheral issue a heresy. Even if the contradiction of a right opinion represents a significant error, it is not a heresy if the main pillars of orthodoxy are respected. Thus, debates about whether the elements of Holy Communion involve a vital spiritual presence or are mere symbols is an important question. However, wrong opinion on this subject does not necessarily threaten the central pillars of truth, so it is not a heresy. What, then, is an example of a real heresy?

Saint Anselm (1033–1109) explained with crystalline clarity why Christ must be fully God and fully man in order to make a complete atonement for human sin at the cross. Without the atonement, there is no salvation. Therefore, the denial of the full deity or full humanity of Christ is a heresy. Saint Anselm's famous formulation became the rock of orthodoxy for Roman Catholics and Reformation Protestants.

What is the right-to-death camp saying that is heretical to Christian orthodoxy? They are saying that each person has the right to decide for themselves what is right and wrong regarding the termination of life. This is a heresy because it is a denial of the idea that there is an objective truth and the existence of a universal moral law. Some theologians say that when Adam disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he was claiming the right to decide for himself what is good and what is evil, and that this was the original sin. It is also heresy to claim that man can play God regarding issues of life and death. "Cain...the voice of your brother's blood cries unto me from the ground."

The ability to distinguish between heresy, error, and debatable issues has parallels in the right-to-life movement, such as the careful moral distinction between turning off an artificially-supportive heart or lung machine for a terminal patient and the withdrawal of a feeding tube for an essentially healthy patient. The pope left clear instructions that if he is terminally ill, he is not to be kept artificially alive by a heart or lung machine. However, he also instructed his minions that he was not to be starved or dehydrated to death. His feeding tube was not to be pulled out, as it was in the case of Terry Schiavo. He was not willing to resist death at all costs, but he was also not willing to hasten death. His training in theology sharpened his wits to make such important moral distinctions. This illustrates the necessity of intellectual acuity and moral clarity among the leaders of the culture war.

Muscular jaws on the right

An orthodoxy cannot defeat its enemies if it is splintered by needless division on minor points. Interestingly, the post-war conservative movement had its wits sharpened by internecine warfare about minor points. Conservatives cut their teeth and developed their minds during debates with other conservatives. "When I was young, I took to the law and argued each case with my wife. The muscular strength which it gave to my jaws has lasted the rest of my life." (Lewis Carol) The muscular jaws of some conservative leaders were exercised in debates with other conservatives during the 1964 presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was disastrously defeated in the election, partly because some conservative factions walked out or sat out the election. They now had "a voice and not an echo," in the words of that old war horse, Phyllis Schlafly, but too often those loud voices and newly muscular jaws were aimed at each other, instead of at the Democrats. However, all this squabbling over ideas led to an intellectual vitality among conservatives that is conspicuously lacking among liberals.

Some conservatives adopted the attitude of Henry Clay in a speech of 1850: "I would rather be right, than president." This was not necessarily a case of sour grapes. A good orthodoxy often requires one to sacrifice personal ambition and power in the name of principle. However, a bad orthodoxy walks out in a huff in debates over secondary principles. It was not until the 1980 election campaign that conservatives learned to unite because Ronald Reagan had a special magic for uniting conservatives. After the long presidency of Reagan, conservatives found a new rallying point in the culture war, because first principles were threatened and moral evil was advocated by the left.

A good orthodoxy unites with those who share first principles against a common threat. A bad orthodoxy loses the war by rejecting the help of those who agree on first principles and disagree on second principles. We should phase out of the era of muscular jaws and phase into the era of clear thinking. The Terri Schiavo case forced many conservatives to think more carefully about first principles and vital moral precepts.

Suicidal tolerance

Heretics who attack the key pillars of the temple of truth are enemies to an orthodoxy. An orthodoxy which allows the pillars to be attacked in the name of tolerance is suicidal. The defenders of truth must publicly renounce every heresy. In contrast, an orthodoxy which forbids debate on secondary questions is unhealthy because a gag rule evinces the lack of zeal for the truth.

There is a spiritual brotherhood between fellow members of an orthodoxy. Fellow members should seek reconciliation of their differences. We should be tolerant of their idiosyncrasies. Great conservatives such as Samuel Johnson and Russell Kirk were eccentrics. We should be open to discussion on strategy, tactics, and peripheral questions. But to compromise with heresies, like abortion on demand and assisted suicide, is fatal to an orthodoxy. Why not abandon the orthodoxy and become an ideological collection of issues? Then we lose our moral authority and our devotion to truth and first principles. When this kind of tolerance creeps in and reduces everything to mere politics, we lose our way and are doomed to defeat in the culture war. "When the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?" (Psalm 11:3).

A war between a good orthodoxy and a bad orthodoxy is not futile, because truth is more powerful then error. Good orthodoxies bear good fruit in this world, and they are able to prevail over bad orthodoxies. Bad orthodoxies destroy the foundations our forefathers laid. Every generation must fight anew over first principles, but never since the founding of the Republic has the battle been so fierce. But it is encouraging to recall that most of the vital theological doctrines were developed in response to heresy. If our orthodoxy is healthy, a good fight for truth will only make it stronger.

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at

© Fred Hutchison


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