The Public Square
Richard John Neuhaus
Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 102 (April 2000): 79-95.
How We Got Here
So David Frum sends me his new book, with the inscription, "Hope you like this one better than the last." I definitely do. The last one was Dead Right, in which Mr. Frum contended that conservatism was making a big mistake by letting itself be distracted by the social and cultural issues when what really matters is economics. (I oversimplify, a little.) The new book is How We Got Here: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life—for Better or Worse (Basic, 418 pp., $25). It does not neglect economics (Frum is particularly effective in describing the cultural and moral impact of inflation), but the bulk of the book is devoted to the fads, ideas, movements, inspirations, and delusions that marked the 1970s as a decisive turning point in the way Americans live. It is a rollicking good read, as well as a catalogue of the people and crazes that shaped what Frum, following Auden’s judgment of the 1930s, calls "a slum of a decade." Those of a certain age will frequently be prompted to think, "Ah yes, how could I have forgotten that?" Younger readers are in for a lively tour of what to them are "the olden days."
I’m not inclined to argue with Frum’s claim that it was the seventies and not the sixties that most influenced the last of the twentieth century. This habit of "decadizing" history is mainly a book publishing gimmick. Books on the sixties have been done to death. In any event, the story of the seventies is in large part the working out of the unbounded liberationisms proclaimed by the avant garde of the sixties, and I’m not sure that David Frum would want to waste much time in disagreeing with that. Almost everything is here: divorce up, marriage down; the marginalizing of the urban underclass; mushrooming pop therapies centered on the great god Me; school busing and related schemes of the elite imposed upon their supposed inferiors; the rise of identity politics and the crash of the academy; feminism’s liberation of men from sexual responsibility; the hucksters of environmental apocalypse; bilingualism and the non–assimilation of a flood of immigrants; "homophobia" and the role of gays as arbiters of high correctness; smoking as heresy against the cult of the healthy self; the collapse of confidence in institutions, and in politics itself. When your friends tell you that your view of the cultural, moral, and social depredations of recent decades is exaggerated, you can pull out How We Got Here and cite chapter and verse.
On religion, Frum tells the story in a manner familiar to readers of this journal: the demoralization and decline of the mainline/oldline, the growth of conservative evangelicalism, and so forth. I do wish he had not cited what he calls President Eisenhower’s "deservedly famous statement": "A system of government like ours makes no sense unless founded on a firm faith in religion, and I don’t care which it is." The statement is indeed famous but not deservedly so, since nobody has been able to document that Eisenhower ever said it. Among other complaints I have, Frum greatly underestimates the vitality of Catholicism in America, and his treatment of evangelicalism inclines to the indulgence of caricatures. He is undoubtedly right in saying that at the end of the seventies many people "hungered for religion’s sweets, but rejected religion’s discipline; wanted its help in trouble, but not the strictures that might have kept them out of trouble; expected its ecstasy, but rejected its ethics; demanded salvation, but rejected the harsh, antique dichotomy of right and wrong." Cotton Mather said much the same in 1725, and preachers will likely be saying it until Our Lord returns in glory. A difference in the seventies is that more of the country’s religious leadership turned toward the marketing techniques of pandering to the "felt needs" of the spiritually debased. But that, too, has a long history. The treatment of religion, while devastatingly accurate on some scores, is not the strongest part of the book.
Despite everything, and contrary to the massive evidences of depredation that he musters, Frum wants to sound an upbeat note. Along the way there is even this: "The 1970s were America’s low tide. Not since the Depression had the country been so wracked with woe. Never—not even during the Depression—had American pride and self–confidence plunged deeper. But the decade was also, paradoxically, in some ways America’s finest hour. . . . For a short time [the American people] behaved foolishly, and on one or two occasions, even disgracefully. Then they recouped. They rethought. They reinvented. They rediscovered in their own past the governing principles of their future. Out of the failure and trauma of the 1970s they emerged stronger, richer, and—if it is not overdramatic to say so—greater than ever." It is not overdramatic and it is not paradoxical; on the basis of the book’s ample documentation, joined to the experience of those who were there then and are here now, it is, as David Frum might say, dead wrong.
In the actual conclusion of the book, Frum is somewhat more tempered. "Early twenty–first century America is a newly cautious society, not a remoralized one, and even that caution extends only so far." But the final sentence holds out the wan prospect that we are moving not backward but onward "away from the follies and triumphs of the 1970s and toward something new: new vices, new virtues, new sins—and new progress." Ah yes, progress. It is a very American book after all. The triggers of what went wrong in the seventies, according to Frum, were Vietnam, race, inflation, and, maybe, technology. Abortion—the single most fevered and volatile issue in our public life—receives but passing notice. That is the issue inseparable from a host of changes related to the redefining and redesigning of human life, and our moral responsibilities to one another. Some of those more grim prospects were explored by writers in the symposia in our January and March issues. David Frum shies away from digging so deep, lest he further undercut the shaky platform from which he issues what I expect he also recognizes is a limp half–cheer for progress.
But do I like the book better than the last one? Most definitely. In fact, I warmly recommend it for its frequently incisive cultural criticism, its spirited jeremiads, and its provision of detail and documentation about where we have been. Dr. Johnson was in large part right when he said that mankind has a greater need of being reminded than of being instructed. How We Got Here is an engaging and instructive reminder.
The editors of the New York Times are worried about the "muddle" over "just where the line is drawn on school–sponsored prayer." Judicial line–drawing in church–state questions is an exceedingly delicate business. A Texas public school district let students lead prayer over the public address system before high school football games. The Times draws a very bright line against that: "The practice plainly breaches the First Amendment’s wall of separation between church and state, and the [Supreme Court] should not hesitate to say so." Earlier, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals drew a zigzag line, declaring prayers at football games unconstitutional while allowing them at commencement exercises because the latter are "singularly serious."
The editors favor a "principled" position that would compel conformity to the exclusion of all public prayer since such prayer creates "pressure for religious conformity." This is especially the case with student–led prayer, they say, "given how susceptible schoolchildren are to peer pressure and how seriously Texans take football." The Supreme Court has agreed to decide an appeal from the Fifth Circuit. It appears that that august body will have to determine whether Texans are more serious about commencement exercises than about football. The Fifth Circuit seems to take the position that, the more serious the occasion, the more allowance should be made for prayer, while the view of the Times is that nonserious prayer is less threatening.
As aforesaid, drawing these lines is a delicate business. It is not clear how the Supreme Court will be able to establish the facts of the case regarding the relative seriousness of Texans about football and commencements; and, if it succeeds in that, how its findings can be applied in a judicially principled way to the rest of the country. My impression, for instance, is that most New Yorkers are distinctly unserious about football. It’s something that happens across the river in Jersey. Baseball is a different matter altogether. The conflicting constitutional doctrine here, if I understand the arguments, is that the Fifth Circuit principle would, because of their seriousness about the sport, allow New Yorkers to pray at baseball games, while the Times, precisely because of that same seriousness, would forbid it. If this sounds crazy, it is because it is crazy.
The editors say that "for mysterious reasons" the Supreme Court has agreed to review only that part of the Fifth Circuit ruling that disallowed prayer at football games, letting stand the allowance of prayer at commencements. My hunch is that there is nothing mysterious about the Court’s reasons at all. The justices want to get out of the crazy business of drawing First Amendment lines that requires them to calibrate gradations of seriousness, sincerity, and hurt feelings about the expression of religion in public. Such factors cannot be rationally determined; the Constitution has not a word to say about them; and they are not remotely pertinent to the danger of the government unconstitutionally establishing a religion. The last fifty years of the Court’s embroilment in the crazy business of drawing arbitrary lines, however, has everything to do with the infringement of the free exercise of religion, and free exercise is the entire purpose of the religion clause of the First Amendment.
If, as may be the case, the Court is finally ready to free itself from its excessive entanglement with the impossible task of monitoring the maddeningly complex dynamics of religion—and we will likely know whether it is by the end of this term—that is a most welcome development. It will leave Texans and everyone else free to be as serious as they want to be about their games, and those who object to an opening prayer will be free to dissent. During the prayer they might, for example, very ostentatiously bury their heads in the pages of the New York Times.
At the Origins of the Culture War
One of the many contributions of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s new book, One Nation, Two Cultures (Knopf), is to remind us that the phenomenon now called the culture wars is not all that new. She begins with this passage from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776:
In every civilized society, in every society where the distinction of ranks has once been completely established, there have been always two different schemes or systems of morality current at the same time; of which the one may be called the strict or austere; the other the liberal, or, if you will, the loose system. The former is generally admired and revered by the common people; the latter is commonly more esteemed and adopted by what are called people of fashion.
I was recently reading Sam Tanenhaus’ splendid biography, Whittaker Chambers (Random House), and was reminiscing over dinner about my own brief brush with a vestige of that tumultuous period. The Hiss–Chambers trials of 1949–1950 happened long before I came of political age, and I had no firm views on the contentions surrounding those events. Years later, however, in the mid–seventies, I was connected with an organization that routinely invited the then elderly Alger Hiss to its receptions and other occasions. He was something of a celebrity and seemed very much the gentleman. I never raised with him awkward questions about the past, but after one such occasion I asked an older colleague whether he thought Hiss was guilty of the crimes for which he had spent more than three years in federal prison. I was taken aback by the insouciance of the answer, "Oh, of course, he was a perjurer and Soviet spy." If that is the case, I naively asked, why on earth did we invite him to our affairs? The response came in the tones of a self–evident truth: "He insists he is innocent and to publicly disagree is to lend aid and comfort to McCarthyism." The reference, of course, was to Senator Joe McCarthy, who contributed so powerfully to the anti–anticommunism that was then regnant among "what are called people of fashion." What is a little perjury and treason, or even a lot of perjury and treason, among friends who agree on the important questions?
Later I would read Whittaker Chambers’ Witness and come to reckon it one of the most important books of the century. There Chambers wrote:
No feature of the Hiss case is more obvious, or more troubling as history, than the jagged fissure, which it did not so much open as reveal, between the plain men and women of the nation, and those who affected to act, think, and speak for them. It was, not invariably, but in general, the "best people" who were for Alger Hiss and who were prepared to go to any length for him. It was the enlightened and the powerful, the clamorous proponents of the open mind and the common man, who snapped their minds shut in a pro–Hiss psychosis, of a kind which, in an individual patient, means the simple failure of the ability to distinguish between reality and unreality, and, in a nation, is a warning of the end.
On the basis of what is now known from the files of Soviet intelligence and other sources—all helpfully summarized by Tanenhaus—nobody but the willfully obtuse believes that Hiss was innocent. Among people of a certain age, however, and until quite recently, whether one sided with Hiss or Chambers divided the liberal bien–pensant from the ignorant peasantry. But the larger divide between the "strict" and the "loose" described by Adam Smith has not always been the case. Perhaps it has always been the case that many among the wealthy and aristocratic, along with the riffraff and criminal elements of society, have deemed themselves largely exempt from general moral norms. (This is what I have described as a culture caught between the overclass and the underclass, a locution subsequently picked up by the prolific Michael Lind and turned to quite different purposes.) In the modern period artists and intellectuals typically certify themselves to be such by their defiance of what they take to be established norms. Lionel Trilling called this the "adversary culture," and a decade and more ago the phenomenon was much discussed in terms of the "new knowledge class."
A Deeper Divide
Whittaker Chambers, among others, thought the phenomenon not so universal as did Smith nor so new as do more recent thinkers. As he wrote in Witness and in earlier days when he was a major voice in Henry Luce’s empire of Time Inc., the phenomenon is to be traced to modernity’s decision against God and the human soul. Chambers frequently wrote in the mode of the prophetic jeremiad, a mode that found a readier audience in the 1950s when figures such as Reinhold Neibuhr, Hannah Arendt, and even the Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. of The Vital Center also spoke in urgent tones about the crisis of the West. Less than twenty years later, the once lionized Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would lose most of his audience in the West when he, like Chambers, traced the problem to the origins of modernity. For instance, in A World Split Apart (1978): "The mistake must be at the root, at the very foundation of thought in modern times. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was born in the Renaissance and has found political expression since the Age of Enlightenment. It became the basis for political and social doctrine and could be called rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy. . . . The West has finally achieved the rights of man, and even to excess, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society has grown dimmer."
In the Hiss–Chambers period and up through the fall of the evil empire a decade ago, the divide between the two cultures of the one nation was, at least among intellectuals and the politically engaged, the divide between anticommunism and anti–anticommunism. Behind that and deeper than that, according to thinkers such as Chambers and Solzhenitsyn, is the chasm opened by modernity’s divorce of the human project from its source and end in God. That chasm created the space for the growth of modernity’s children, of which communism was perhaps the most destructive in its deformity. The future of the culture war in this nation will depend in large part upon whether we come to think that the American experiment is another deformed child of modernity—a view increasingly urged by some religious conservatives—or whether we engage its capacities to be corrected and renewed by the prophetic critique of the modernity of which it is undoubtedly, but by no means exclusively, the product. Put differently, the American experiment—as the word "experiment" suggests—is a work in progress. The culture war is about, inter alia, how the experiment is to be defined. It would be a great pity were conservative thinkers to join with "what are called people of fashion" in so defining it that it must be rejected by the morally and religiously serious. That, too, would be a kind of treason.
A while back there was a story in the Times expressing puzzlement as to why there was so little interest this time around in the sale of the Village Voice. In years past, when the Voice changed hands there was much anxiety among the chattering classes about whether it would lose its edge as the liberal–left "conscience" of New York. But that was a long time ago, before the Times remade itself into the voice of the cultural and moral avant garde. It used to be that, on issues such as homosexuality, the role of the Times was to maintain standards or at least set limits (hence "All the news that’s fit to print"), the Voice challenged those standards and limits, and then there were the really "alternative" publications that catered to the subcultural hard core. It was a well understood division of cultural labor. But in recent years the Times has veered to the left, displacing the Voice by making it superfluous. On every issue of consequence in the cultural wars, the Times has become ever more stridently partisan, and on none, except for "abortion rights," more shrilly so than gay liberation. Almost every week there are stories hailing new "firsts" in advancing the homosexual cause, and every week there are stories deploring the way conservatives are obsessed with the homosexual cause.
Here, for instance, is a story by Bernard Weinraub going on and on about the cultural significance of a man who won $500,000 on ABC’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire embracing his partner on camera. The story is spread over the front page of the Arts section. (On the same day, the 100,000 people in the annual march for life in Washington rated a small picture toward the bottom of page sixteen of the first section, and no story at all.) The audience of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire happily applauded, and Weinraub contrasts this with protests against homosexuality on television in decades past. This, we are instructed, is a big cultural and moral breakthrough testifying to the "acceptance" of gays and the decline of "homophobia." Never mind that on the program nobody, including host Regis Philbin, mentions gays or homosexuality. There is no reference to the nature of the relationship between these two guys. Unlike Mr. Weinraub, the people in the audience, except for some gay friends of the two, know nothing about it. The audience goes crazy with excitement when the guy wins $500,000. That’s the point of the program. They applaud the guy who rushes up to hug his lucky friend, they applaud Mr. Philbin, they applaud themselves. That’s the way it is with game shows. There is not the slightest hint of a heavy–duty "statement" being made. But Bernard Weinraub knows a cultural breakthrough when he sees one. (The Times headline reads, "‘Millionaire’ Quietly Breaks TV Barriers.")
The executive producer of the show offers a more sensible explanation of what is going on. "We treat everyone the same way, and there’s never been an issue about people’s personal relationships. . . . Whether somebody brings their college buddy or mother or sister or lover, we don’t care. We don’t care about ethnic things, we don’t care about sexual things. We treat everybody the same. The show broadly reflects society." In other words, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire cares about people winning money. One could hardly want a more perfect statement of the cash nexus as the solvent of social distinctions.
There is one problem, however. It is not quite the case that the show "broadly reflects society." There are relatively few minority and female contestants. "This bothers me," says the producer. "I don’t know what the reason is. There may be something about trivia and the amassing of knowledge of trivia that’s essentially white and male." His speculation is exquisitely correct. Excluded are the possibilities that white males know more or are smarter or more assertive or quicker on their feet. No, they are more inclined to waste their time amassing knowledge of trivia. This, one is invited to infer, is a character flaw characteristic of white males. Of course, the point is not pressed, lest it end up at the conclusion that Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is premised upon exploiting and encouraging a weakness of character to which white males are peculiarly prone.
As of this writing, the editors of the Times have not followed up on Mr. Weinraub’s story by proposing another of their favored causes. The unrepresentative nature of the program might be corrected by affirmative action. Women and minorities could be given easier questions, which is the approach the Times strongly supports when it comes to tests for government employment (and as is the practice with police and fire departments in New York and elsewhere). Or maybe a gender–and race–balancing handicap could be provided by wiring white males to a contraption that gives them a painful electrical shock when trying to answer a question. Mr. Weinraub notes the problem but does not address these possible solutions. It is enough that Mr. Philbin asked Mark to come up, that he bounded out of the audience and hugged his friend Rob, and that the people applauded. One big cultural breakthrough at a time.
It is the kind of story about a culture–shaking "first" that some years ago might have run in the Village Voice. No wonder nobody cares about who takes over the Voice, which is now given away free on the streets. The Times, a multibillion dollar enterprise, has taken over its market share, and that’s what really matters. The phenomenon is explained by—to paraphrase Daniel Bell—the cultural depredations of capitalism. Aided, of course, by ideologically driven editors and writers whose larger purposes neatly coincide with serving as capitalist tools. It is what happens when the very good thing that is a market economy becomes the very bad thing that is a market society, when culture is taken captive to whatever can attract a paying crowd.
"Real Existing Christianity" in America
Resistance to the incorrigibility of Christian America takes many forms. Those who are taken with the idea of post–Christian America speak also of our having become a religiously pluralistic society, and lift up the presence of Islam and various Oriental religions in America. Asians are 2 to 3 percent of the American population, a little larger than the number of Jews. But Asians in the U.S.—notably Koreans, but also Chinese and Vietnamese—are very often Christians. Then there is Islam. A City University study concluded that there are about a million and a half Muslims, with about half of them being American–born blacks. The researchers noted that earlier and larger estimates assumed that anyone with a Middle Eastern name that was not Jewish must be Muslim. But they found that a large number of these people were in fact Christians—frequently Palestinian Christians or Chaldean Christians from Iraq. Muslim organizations, as is the pattern with immigrant groups seeking influence and recognition, claim a much larger figure, from six to eight million.
A reporter with a national newspaper tells me that his paper routinely refers to four million Muslims, conveniently splitting the difference and thus warding off angry protests from Muslim organizations. The Census Bureau, regrettably, does not ask about religion, but a generous estimate, based on what we know from other sources, is that 3 percent of the American population is Muslim or non–Christian Asian. Apart from the relatively small number of people who claim no religious identity whatever and the little over 2 percent who say they are Jewish, the rest of the American people are, in however muddled a fashion, Christian. (Allowing, for purposes of this discussion, that the somewhat less than 2 percent of the population that is Mormon is, as Mormons insist, Christian. See "Is Mormonism Christian?", March.) This is not what is usually meant by "a religiously pluralistic society." It is, for better and for worse, something very much like Christian America.
Immediately before the Second World War, T. S. Eliot published The Idea of a Christian Society. It is a problematic book, not least because of his incomprehension of the deep connections between Christianity and Judaism. Yet it is suggestive of the ways in which one may speak of a society being Christian. "A society has not ceased to be Christian," Eliot wrote, "until it has become positively something else. It is my contention that we have today a culture which is mainly negative, but which insofar as it is positive, is still Christian. I do not think that it can remain negative, because a negative culture has ceased to be efficient in a world where economic as well as spiritual forces are proving the efficiency of cultures which, even when pagan, are positive; and I believe the choice before us is between the formation of a new Christian culture and the acceptance of a pagan one. Both involve radical changes; but I believe that the majority of us, if we could be faced immediately with all the changes which will only be accomplished in several generations, would prefer Christianity."
America is Christian at least in this minimal sense that it has not become positively something else. We might prefer that it were otherwise. The idea that ours is a post–Christian society has its attractions. It goes a long way toward letting people who have a steep investment in Christianity off the hook. They can then blame the ills of society upon its having rejected Christianity. But that is too easy. It used to be that Marxists, faced with the sorry failures of socialism, would make a sharp distinction between socialist theory and "real existing socialism," thus rescuing the theory from the failure of its practice. In a similar way, the necessary embarrassment is that "real existing Christianity" is not an entirely edifying sight. But it should not be defined out of existence. There is, I believe, also a theological reason for facing up to the disconcerting facts. Of course, we can try to escape the embarrassment by positing Christianity as a Platonic ideal and the Christian people as an "invisible church," but that is hard to square with the stubbornly historical nature of the biblical story. Real existing Christianity is doctrine, worship, moral teaching, and traditions of holiness, but it is also and inescapably the people who claim to be Christian. Their claim should not be dismissed lightly. St. Paul reminds us that "no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:3).
We may wish it were otherwise, but those who say they are Christians are Christians in ways that we cannot easily deny. They may be "I just happen to be" Christians or they may be Christians by the deepest and most reflective conviction. We may dismiss many who say they are Christians as merely "cultural Christians," but there is nothing mere about culture. Christianity is not exhaustively, but it is unavoidably, the Christian people—a people as determinate as the Jewish people with whom they are providentially entangled in different understandings of what it means to be faithful to the one God of Israel—the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. As Judaism is inseparable from Jews, Christianity is inseparable from Christians. The racial and ethnic factors are different; one is not born a Christian in the way one is born a Jew. There are unfaithful Christians as there are nonobservant Jews, but such people are still unfaithful Christians and nonobservant Jews. In either case, formal apostasy is possible, but it is rare. No doubt many are not seriously Jewish enough or seriously Christian enough to bother with apostasy. My limited point is that, no matter how marginally or ambiguously many may be related to it, there is a definite Christian people as there is a definite Jewish people, and the first is in strict biblical analogy with the second.
"Christian America" is all these Christians in America. It is more than that, but it is at least that. It is not sufficient to say that this is only a "sociological" way of speaking about Christianity, for the social is the historical, and history is, quite simply, social reality through time—the very stuff into which, as Christians believe, God became incarnate in Christ. If that is true, history has become a theological category. In this view, one thinks of historical things spiritually and of spiritual things historically. In His elect people, the Jews, the God of Israel has bound Himself to history, and that self–binding is fulfilled in the incarnate Messiah and his Body, the Church. Christian theology, if it really is Christian theology, cannot float above history; it is immersed in, entangled with, accountable to, embarrassingly particular historical realities, such as the Christian people of America.
The term "Christian America" speaks of a cultural reality that cannot be adequately captured by survey research about what people say they believe and do religiously. Polling data provide a snapshot, and many polls over a long period of time provide many snapshots. Just as we do not live with a snapshot or snapshots of a person but with the person himself, so we know a culture by living within it. "Culture"—both the word and the reality—is, of course, derived from "cult," and the American cult is Christian. To be sure, there are other cults, both in the religious sense of the term, and what are called cults surrounding rock stars, the obsession with physical health, or the consumerism of malls unlimited. But none of these alternative cults has produced a society that, in Eliot’s terms, has become positively something else. On the contrary, those alternatives are routinely criticized by cultural standards and ideals that are unmistakably Christian. A culture is defined not so much by what people live up to as by the criteria they invoke in determining that they fail to be who they intend to be—and, they insist, who they "really" are.
"Christian America" is an embarrassment both to those who want to believe that ours is a secular society, and to those who hold to a normative understanding of Christianity that is not matched by the "real existing Christianity" of the American experience. An honest appraisal of our religious and cultural circumstance will not satisfy either party. The twentieth century produced a vast scholarly literature explaining why secularization is more or less inevitable. The basic assumption, which goes back to the eighteenth–century Enlightenment, is that, as people become more educated (read "enlightened"), religion will either wither away or be safely sealed off in the purely private sphere where it cannot intrude upon "the real world." At the beginning of the third millennium, it is obvious that things are not turning out quite the way the theorists had assumed they would. (Next month: What has happened to secularization in theory and fact.)
While We’re At It
- Craig J. Rolwoods of Titusville, New Jersey, spotted this explanation from the U.S. Postal Service. It accompanies a commemorative postage stamp series on insects and spiders. "Insects have been around for about 350 million years. Today their numbers reign supreme. More than a million species are known, but scientists estimate that millions of species may remain undiscovered. At this very moment, there are some 200 million live insects for every human on Earth. Insects as a group have achieved something that has eluded humans—sustainable development. Insects are the primary consumers of plants, yet they do not merely exploit plants, they also pollinate them, thereby ensuring the plant’s reproduction. Humans have yet to strike such a balance between use and conservation of nature. Spiders, in comparison, are a lesser group. Only about thirty thousand species are known. Most survive by feeding on insects, using venom to kill their prey." We may not be as good as insects, but at least we’re superior to spiders.
- We had some deservedly kind things to say about Father Anthony Ruff at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota and what he’s trying to do with sacred music. Dr. Kurt Poterack, who edits Sacred Music, a quarterly published by the Church Music Association of America and advocating what it is not embarrassed to call a more "traditionalist" approach, thinks a little equal time is in order. In truth, there is an encouraging competition today among groups and publications that, whatever their differences, are united in trying to retrieve and renew the Catholic musical legacy in accord with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. Sacred Music is available from 134 Christendom Drive, Front Royal, Virginia 22630. While we’re at it, so to speak, there is also Adoremus, published by the Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, P.O. Box 3286, St. Louis, Missouri 63130, and Antiphon, c/o Msgr. M. Francis Mannion, 331 East South Temple Street, Salt Lake City, Utah 84111.
- A seriously Catholic friend whose line of work has him hanging out with equally serious evangelical Protestants has a problem. "I’m not very good," he says, "at giving the kind of formulaic ‘personal testimony’ that they seem to expect." I know what he means. For many years I’ve been responding to evangelical friends who want to know when I was born again or, as it is commonly put, when I became a Christian. "I don’t remember it at all," I say, "but I know precisely the time and place. It was at 357 Miller St., Pembroke, Ontario, on Sunday, June 2, 1936, when twelve days after my birth I was born again in the sacrament of Holy Baptism." (I was baptized at home because the chicken pox was going around.) That usually elicits a wry smile, and then the question, "Yes, but when did you really become a Christian?" In sober truth, there have been not one but several moments in my life that would no doubt qualify as what most evangelicals mean by a conversion experience. In circumstances appropriate to the disclosure of intensely personal experiences, I have told others about these moments. And some day, in pathetically pale imitation of Augustine and other greats, I might write about them in detail. My public testimony, however, is not to my experience but to Christ. It is not upon my experience but upon Christ that I rest my confidence that I am a child of God. The same set of questions is addressed from a Calvinist viewpoint in a recent issue of that mordant publication, Nicotine Theological Journal. The article includes this from the 1902 Heidelberg Catechism, Twentieth–Century Edition: "Nor need you doubt your conversion, your change of heart, because you cannot tell the day when it took place, as many profess to do. It did not take place in a day, or you might tell it. It is the growth of years (Mark 4:26–28), and therefore all the more reliable. You cannot tell when you learned to walk, talk, think, and work. You do not know when you learned to love your earthly father, much less the heavenly." The editors add, "This is the Reformed doctrine of ‘getting religion.’ We get religion, not in bulk but little by little. Just as we get natural life and strength, so spiritual life and strength, day by day." Of course, some do get it in bulk, and with a bang. One thinks, for instance, of the zealot from Tarsus on his way to Damascus.
- John L. (Jack) Swan was a piece of work. Friends and foes agreed on that, and he had plenty of both. He was called a "community relations consultant," but that doesn’t come near to suggesting the half of it. He believed in the capacity of people for self–government, and worked quietly, relentlessly, and effectively against those who don’t. In 1977, working with only $11,000, he organized the campaign in which 60 percent of the voters of New York rejected the Equal Rights Amendment. He devised the strategy that twelve times defeated the "gay rights" bill in this city. He was crucially important in overturning the infamous Children of the Rainbow Curriculum in New York’s public schools (remember Heather Has Two Mommies?). In addition to everything else, he orchestrated the publication of the forty–six–volume Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, published by Ignatius Press. He was always a gentleman. His friend George Marlin recalls a time when Jack was trying to do the Lord’s work with the legislature in Albany. A reporter wagged his finger at Jack’s nose and declared, "I know you’re orchestrating this session, and I am going to interview you." Jack smiled his choirboy smile and calmly replied, "I do not grant interviews to the New York Times." When Jack died just short of his seventy–first birthday, Cardinal O’Connor said, "Jack was a scandal to the modern world and I thank God for that." Another friend, Donald Barr, a distinguished educator, was inspired to undertake what he says is his first attempt at poetry in ten years. I think it gets the man just right:
Life was his trade and Innocence his care.
He fought in silence in the dreadful strife.
His fingers, like Commandments, straight and bare,
He spread between the infant and the knife.
And the bath–house bravoes; the unfaithful priests;
The milkless Liliths of a Second Fall;
The artificers of decay; the beasts
In the forest of our nerves—he fought them all.
We loved to see him, leaning on his cane
And smiling slowly, coming from the field:
Smiling his answer to his bodily pain,
To loss, to hope deferred, to truth concealed;
Smiling in answer to the shrieking guile,
Ultimate victory in his slow smile.
- Michael McManus is a syndicated columnist and founder of Marriage Savers, an ecumenical program that has had significant impact in reducing the incidence of divorce. A recent column begins with the words, "Confession time." His confession is that he left the Catholic Church and became a Protestant "in part because I did not believe in the Catholic Church’s position on birth control." At the time, he believed the line about the dangers of a population explosion. Rather than joining legions of Catholic dissenters from Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, he writes, "I thought it more honest to be a Protestant." Now he recognizes that Paul VI was right, and that his prophetic words about the consequences of contraception have been vindicated many times over. McManus notes that "evangelical Protestants are reconsidering their once solid support of contraception." The column does not say whether he is considering a return to the fold of the Catholic Church.
- Now in the "whatever happened to" category is the once prominent German Protestant theologian Jürgen Moltmann. His Theology of Hope made a considerable splash in 1967 when a school of theologians known by that title, including the distinguished Wolfhart Pannenberg, was stirring widespread interest. Moltmann’s The Crucified God in 1974 also received deserved praise, although mixed with criticism for his cavalier dismissal of aspects of the tradition of Christian orthodoxy. Now he has completed his five–volume "messianic theology" with The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (Fortress), a book that is something of a curiosity piece. The overall thesis is that God created Heaven and Earth in order to dwell upon Earth as His home. Rather than our leaving the world to be with God, the Christian hope, according to Moltmann, is God’s utopian transformation of the world. Short of that happy prospect, the whole world is divided into the murderers and the murdered, with America and Americans being the chief murderers, since they are the bearers of the modernity that is at war with God’s purposes. Reviewing the book in Pro Ecclesia, Randall Zachman of Notre Dame says that Moltmann’s claim is that "American society murders everything it gets its hands on: women, children, the Third World, and the natural world itself." Moltmann writes, "If the whole world were ‘America,’ the whole world would already have been destroyed." American capitalism is the Beast from the abyss described in Revelation, threatening the entire world "with its open sewer of unemployment and homelessness, hunger and nakedness, despair and death." Zachman describes the book as an extended "antimodern frenzy." Zachman observes, however, that there is finally something very modern, and very American, about Moltmann’s position. "Nothing could be more in accord with the spirit of the modern era, and more in accord with the traditional view of the sin which destroys us, than Moltmann’s vision of an eternal life, given to everyone [including the murderers] by divine necessity, for which we need to sacrifice nothing, and which leads us to affirm unconditionally our life in this world." For all the sounds of radicalized frenzy, it would seem that the message is pretty much what is to be found in innumerable books of feel–good spirituality: I’m okay, you’re okay, and don’t worry about salvation; it’s a done deal.
- The way in which some Catholics have internalized anti–Catholic stereotypes never ceases to amaze. Father James Heft, Chancellor of the University of Dayton and prominent opponent of the bishops’ efforts to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae, writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education that the proposal that teachers of Catholic theology should be recognized as such by the bishops "runs the risk of diminishing academe’s already shaky confidence in the compatibility of Catholicism and serious intellectual work." Oh dear. In view of the Catholic intellectual tradition and the innumerable Catholics who are distinguished in every field of scholarship, those who even hint at such an incompatibility should not be pandered to but clearly labeled as the bigots they are. The most durable anti–Catholic canard is that there is a tension or conflict between being authentically Catholic and authentically American. Heft writes: "Pope John Paul II’s apostolic statement on higher education says that Catholic colleges and universities are ex corde ecclesiae—from the heart of the Church. In biblical thought, the image of the heart combines the capacities of a believer both to think and to love. Catholic colleges and universities are also ex corde patriae—from the heart of the nation. . . . Learning how to maintain that duality without division requires vision, humility, and courage." Paul Blanshard (American Freedom and Catholic Power ) would agree. What requires vision, humility, and courage is to enrich the pluralism of American intellectual and academic life with colleges and universities that are, without apology or embarrassment, Catholic. The real embarrassment is Catholic educators, hat in hand, poignantly eager to be accepted by their presumed academic betters.
- Two high school students who are otherwise well qualified are denied membership in the National Honor Society (NHS) because they are unmarried and pregnant. They sue, and the ACLU takes up their case. The NHS has a "character" clause for membership, but its lawyer says, "Becoming pregnant is not a sign of immorality." A federal judge grants an injunction against the NHS. This is hardly a matter for a court to decide, but it is a matter that lends itself to civil debate. Of course becoming pregnant is not immoral, but one assumes the students became so as a consequence of sexual intercourse outside marriage, which, put to democratic deliberation and decision, would likely be deemed immoral. At the same time, in an abortion culture they decided against getting rid of "the problem," which may also be a sign of character. So should the NHS admit them to membership? As I say, it is eminently arguable.
- Richard Dawkins of Oxford University (The Selfish Gene, Unweaving the Rainbow) is about as straightforward an atheist as we have around these days, and he employs a lively style in smiting hip and thigh those whom he thinks indulge in sloppy thinking about religion and science. About some things he is quite right. For instance, he is agitated about The Sacred Depths of Nature by biologist Ursula Goodenough, which is sold as a religious book and is laced with prayers and devotional meditations. Rails Dawkins: "Yet, by the book’s own account, Goodenough does not believe in any sort of supreme being, does not believe in any sort of life after death. By any normal understanding of the English language, she is no more religious than I am. She shares with other atheistic scientists a feeling of awe at the majesty of the universe and the intricate complexity of life. Indeed, the jacket copy for her book—the message that science does not ‘point to an existence that is bleak, devoid of meaning, pointless,’ but on the contrary ‘can be a wellspring of solace and hope’—would have been equally suitable for my book, Unweaving the Rainbow, or Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. If that is religion, then I am a deeply religious man. But it isn’t. And I’m not. As far as I can tell, my ‘atheistic’ views are identical to Ursula’s ‘religious’ ones. One of us is misusing the English language and I don’t think it’s me." Dawkins continues: "If God is a synonym for the deepest principles of physics, what word is left for a hypothetical being who answers prayers, intervenes to save cancer patients or helps evolution over difficult jumps, forgives sins or dies for them? If we are allowed to relabel scientific awe as a religious impulse, the case goes through on the nod. You have redefined science as religion, so it’s hardly surprising if they turn out to ‘converge.’" If there are good reasons for finding a Supreme Being more plausible than the proposition that there is a teapot orbiting the planet Pluto, says Dawkins, those reasons should be spelled out "because, if legitimate, they are proper scientific arguments that should be evaluated." It is the fashion for agnostics to say they are respectful of religion, but in the absence of real arguments, those who call themselves agnostic about religion should add that they are equally agnostic about orbiting teapots. Dawkins complains that some theologians and philosophers want to have it "both ways"—presenting religion as congruent with science when they are among intellectuals but still encouraging the religion business with its popular beliefs in miracles, answered prayers, and all the rest. "What is surprising," he writes, "is the readiness of liberal agnostics to go along with it, and their readiness to write off, as simplistic, insensitive extremists those of us with the temerity to blow the whistle." Dawkins is right about the proponents of a too facile "convergence" of Christianity and science, especially when convergence means that science gets the "what" questions of reason and evidence and theology gets the "why" questions of poetry and wonder. But he is dreadfully wrongheaded on a number of scores. There is no evidence that he has seriously engaged Christian thinkers who do present scientific arguments in support of their belief, never mind the thinkers who challenge his restrictive notion of what constitutes "proper scientific arguments." As for the gap between intellectuals and the believing hoi polloi, Christian theology provides what many of us think is a convincing account of why access to the most important truths is not limited to scientists, philosophers, or theologians. For all the charms of his polemic, Richard Dawkins as "whistle–blower" is simply the old–fashioned village atheist complaining that those who do not think the way he does are ignorant boobs. Historically and at present, honest searchers for truth are marked by intellectual curiosity and a generous measure of humility. Professor Dawkins, it seems, has long since stopped searching, having concluded that anything bearing the mark of "religion" is a scam, but not being able to let go of the subject. His "science" is an ideology that precludes consideration of what it cannot explain. With respect to miracles or the supernatural, his mind is made up. He refuses to be disturbed by evidence. Call it whistle blowing or call it a sustained rant, it contributes little to intelligent conversation.
- In what he acknowledges as an "optimistic" reading of affairs, Ralph Braibanti of Duke University attempts to counter Samuel Huntington’s "clash of civilizations" thesis with a fifty–five–page essay, Islam and the West: Common Cause or Clash?, published as an occasional paper by the Center for Muslim–Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Drawing heavily on materials published in these pages, Braibanti suggests that the Catholic Church is uniquely situated to bring Muslims and Jews together, perhaps even in an interreligious Third Vatican Council, an idea that he admits may be "utopian." He also underscores differences between Islam and Catholicism, contending, for instance, that in Islam abortion is permissible up to forty days after conception "when an angel breathes into [the developing life] a soul." (Some scholars say four months rather than forty days.) Braibanti takes seriously the perception and reality of Islam as a terrorist threat, but asks, "Why is it that departures from scriptural ideals in the Muslim world are identified with Islam and similar transgressions in the non–Muslim world stand apart from their religious contexts?" It is likely a rhetorical question, for, as he knows, a more secularized West tends not to identify its actions as Christian or motivated by scriptural ideals. While it is not untouched by wishful thinking, Islam and the West is a thoughtful proposal of a possible future to be read alongside Huntington’s sobering anticipation of intensified conflict.
- One of the pleasures of the annual time at the family cottage up in Quebec is that we have there an old Eleventh Edition of the Encylopaedia Britannica. That’s the Britannica before Mortimer Adler and the Chicago crowd turned it into the propaedia–micropaedia–macropaedia mishmash that is not content to supply information and opinion but presumes to provide a structure for how we ought to think. In the absence of a morning paper at the cottage to get the day off to a depressing start, I read Britannica articles, which makes for an annual refresher course in anything and everything. For instance, I read the twenty–nine page article on the Crusades, more accurately described as the Christian effort to reconquer the Holy Land and northern Africa four hundred years after the Islamic conquest. Launched in 1096, the Crusades, as ordinarily defined, lasted for about two hundred years and met with something less than mixed results. The Britannica article was written by Sir Ernest Barker, from 1927 to 1939 professor of history and politics at Cambridge. His vigorous conclusion is a case study in numerous ideas that today’s thought police have criminalized. Sir Ernest writes: "When all is said, the Crusades remain a wonderful and perpetually astonishing act in the great drama of human life. They touched the summits of daring and devotion, if they also sank into the deep abysses of shame. Motives of self–interest may have lurked in them—otherworldly motives of buying salvation for a little price, or worldly motives of achieving riches and acquiring lands. Yet it would be treason to the majesty of man’s incessant struggle toward an ideal good if one were to deny that in and through the Crusades men strove for righteousness’ sake to extend the kingdom of God upon earth. Humanity is the richer for the memory of those millions of men who followed the way of the Holy Sepulcher in the sure and certain hope of an eternal reward. The ages were not dark in which Christianity could gather itself together in a common cause and carry the flag of its faith to the grave of its Redeemer; nor can we but give thanks for their memory." Herewith, for purposes of comparison, the limp academese of the concluding paragraph of the twelve–page article on the Crusades in the current Britannica: "It must be emphasized that the Crusades should not be viewed too exclusively in terms of cause and effect. If they were sometimes a factor contributing to changes in the West, so also were they affected by those changes. Rather, the Crusades and the Latin Kingdom should be considered as an integral part of the diversified culture of Europe in the Middle Ages." Thus endeth the lesson on the majesty of man’s incessant struggle. Except for one more thing. I checked out a yet earlier imprint of the Eleventh Edition, from 1911, and there Ernest Barker (not yet knighted) is identified as teaching history at St. John’s College, Oxford. It is the same article on the Crusades but for the last line. After saying we should give thanks for their memory, he added in 1911, "even if for us religion is of the spirit, and Jerusalem in the heart of every man who believes in Christ." Do you suppose that was edited out of later printings for being too overtly Christian, or did Sir Ernest doff his faith when he donned his knighthood, or what? Any information on this would be welcome.
- Forget the articles in What Is Enlightenment?, a publication of the Impersonal Enlightenment Foundation dedicated to the "enlightenment of the individual and the expression of enlightenment in the world" as taught by Andrew Cohen. The best part of the magazine is the advertisements. Here you can find out how to purchase the Pocket Guides to Practical Spirituality and The True Life of Jesus of Nazareth (described as "the eye–witness account, taken from the actual parchment"). You can also hire the architect who sketches "individually channeled designs for homes" or the counselor who teaches people to "move beyond the limits they have placed on their creative expression." Or, if you’d like to branch out to other like–minded journals, you can find subscription information for ReVision: A Journal of Consciousness and Transformation, which explores the "fundamental questions of our times," which, it says, include nonmechanistic forms of science and archaeomythology. Some of the ads enlighten before you buy, such as one for a booklet from the Sixth Patriarch Zen Center, which advises that "Garlic has hot dry fire energy and is medicine for people with cold damp stomach energy." On the other hand, if you’d prefer a more rigorous academic training in these fields, you can apply to study at John F. Kennedy University for a Master of Arts in Consciousness Studies (courses in "Deep Ecology and Consciousness" and "Lucid Dreaming") or to Sophia Divinity School, seminary of the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch–Malabar Rite, which thus far boasts two hundred ordained clergy worldwide and freedom from canon and creed, since "theology has killed much of the church." Whatever else enlightenment really is, it is definitely entrepreneurial.
- The papers regularly turn up Washington politicians quoting our friend William Bennett’s counsel that "every saint has a past and every sinner has a future." As it happens, that is Oscar Wilde on "the only difference between the saint and the sinner" (A Woman of No Importance), and he was wrong about that too.
- So what is the significance of "full communion"? If the Episcopal Church establishes it with the ELCA Lutherans (who have already given approval) it means Episcopalians will be able to invest in Lutheran Brotherhood and Aid Association for Lutherans. Barron’s, the financial paper, notes that Episcopalians don’t have anything like the insurance and financial operations of the Lutherans. "Now," says Barron’s, "the question remains whether Episcopalians will vote for full communion. More important, will they buy load funds?" Episcopalians securing their worldly goods through the Lutheran connection does play against stereotypes.
- The Anglicans of Sydney, Australia, have in their diocesan synod voted for allowing lay people to preside at the Eucharist. The step has been temporarily blocked in a courageous decision by Archbishop Harry Goodhew. The Archbishop understands, as his synod apparently does not, that such a change is a certain formula for (further?) schism within the Anglican communion. The downside is that Goodhew is scheduled for replacement in a year and his successor may be of a more "progressive" stripe. It’s not the most important story on the world Christian scene, but it deserves attention.
- "The Foundations of Academic Freedom." The very title goes against today’s anti–foundationlist grain. It is one chapter in Michael Polanyi’s The Logic of Liberty, first published in 1951 and now reissued by the Liberty Fund (256 pp., $16 cloth and $9 paper). Polanyi, best known for his remarkable book Personal Knowledge, makes a trenchant argument that freedom, including academic freedom, cannot stand apart from its foundation in truth. This from the conclusion of the chapter: "In other words, while a radical denial of absolute obligations cannot destroy the moral passions of man, it can render them homeless. The desire for justice and brotherhood can then no more confess itself for what it is, but will seek embodiment in some theory of salvation through violence. Thus we see arising those skeptical, hardboiled, allegedly scientific forms of fanaticism which are so characteristic of our modern age. The study of academic freedom which we have pursued may serve to show what is the decisive point in the issue of liberty. It consists in certain metaphysical assumptions without which freedom is logically untenable, and without the firm profession of which freedom can be upheld only in a state of suspended logic, which threatens to collapse at any moment and which in these searching and revolutionary times cannot fail to collapse before long. Man’s rapidly increasing destructive powers will soon put the ideas of our time to a crucial test. We may be faced with the fact that only by resuming the great tradition which embodies faith in these realities can the continuance of the human race on earth, equipped with the powers of modern science, be made both possible and desirable." Modernity’s homeless passions. It is a phrase to remember.
- From the Book of Revelation: "A great sign appeared in the heavens: a woman clothed with the sun and with the moon at her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars." The flag of the European Union with its twelve stars was officially adopted on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1955, even though what was then the European Council did not have twelve members. Paul Levy, then the press secretary, explained at the time that twelve is "a figure of plenitude." It now turns out that the artist who designed the flag, Arsene Heitz, an octogenarian living in Strasbourg, has a fervent devotion to Mary and believes he heard a word from God to base the design on the traditional iconography of the Immaculate Conception. Maybe this, too, is part of the re–Christianization of Europe for which John Paul II urges us to pray?
- Dennis Prager suggests in his newsletter that maybe some day historians will be able to explain the anti–smoking hysteria that took hold toward the end of the twentieth century, with the chief result of transferring, in the name of health concerns, enormous wealth to trial lawyers. Prager cites a parental guidance notice in the Los Angeles Times for the PG–13 film Jakob the Liar: "Robin Williams in touching, comic fable about man who makes up news stories to raise morale in Jewish ghetto. Dead bodies, deprivation, suicide; Nazis torture Jakob; characters smoke." There it is—"characters smoke" along with dead bodies, suicide, and Nazi torture. As in hysteria.
- Roger Haight’s Jesus Symbol of God (Orbis) is reviewed in America by Elizabeth Johnson of Fordham. She celebrates the author’s postmodernist reconstruction of Christology, adding only that in a time of religious pluralism, "To say that Jesus is the symbol of God implies that he is this for Christians." Yes, and for everyone else, as is emphasized in the 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio, which clearly states that whoever is saved is saved only through Jesus Christ, whether they have heard of him or not. I recall reading somewhere another review of Haight which observed that he has nothing to say about Mary and opined that the reason may be that "Mother of the Symbol of God" doesn’t sound quite right.
- It’s a clever title: "Who Was That Masked Composer?" The teaser for the article in the Atlantic Monthly by David Schiff reads, "Aaron Copland’s politics, his emotions, and his sexuality lie concealed beneath his music—but not so deep that they can’t be recovered." Apart from prurient interest, Why? He was a composer, not a politician, psychologist, or sexologist. If they are concealed, maybe he intended to conceal them. Except for factors of class and education, what is the difference in this case between the Atlantic Monthly and the National Enquirer?
- A growing number of Jewish thinkers are insisting that "Holocaust consciousness" is not a sufficient foundation for being Jewish. This is poignantly expressed by Marc Ellis, who teaches Jewish Studies at Baylor University, in "Ending the Era of Auschwitz." Writing in the Christian Century he says, "As many Christians, in light of the Holocaust, have critiqued and abandoned Constantinian Christianity, a Christianity aligned with the state, Jewish leaders have adopted a version of Constantinianism under the rubric of Holocaust consciousness." What Ellis calls the remarkable development of Jewish power as a "global force" has been accompanied by a loss of "moral compass." The destination of the Jewish people "cannot be either Israel or America, two nation–states with their own agendas and self–interests," although most Jews have no choice but to live in the history of those nations. He concludes, "Both the Holocaust and the illusory promises of Israel and America are part of our history. We cannot find our way alone, but must do so with others who realize that the promises they have been handed are equally illusory." It is a grim conclusion. Whether the very different promises of Israel and America are illusory is an open question. But surely between Jews and Christians our way forward together is in obedience to the God of Israel whose promises do not fail, however unlike our way of understanding what that obedience entails. The way forward is not in shared disillusionment but in shared faith.
- The aristocratic (at least in manner), wealthy (by actual count), and conservatively eccentric (by frequent demonstration) columnist Arianna Huffington raves about Jim Wallis’ new book Faith Works. Her column, a blast at George W. Bush, is titled "Political Posturing and the Poor" and is an instance of political posturing about political posturing and the poor. The occasion is Bush’s expression of justified skepticism regarding claims made about the number of hungry children in Texas. Without addressing the question in dispute, Ms. Huffington asserts that Bush is indifferent to the poor although claiming to be a Christian. She has learned from Wallis that "In the New Testament, the subject of poverty and the responsibilities of wealth is found in one out of every ten verses in the first three Gospels, and in one out of seven verses in the Gospel of Luke." Apparently she did not bother to check out those figures by reading the Gospels. She says that for dramatic effect Wallis in his preaching sometimes uses a Bible from which every reference to poverty has been cut out. The result: "The Bible is full of holes." Much like the agitprop practiced by Mr. Wallis over the years in support of almost every fever of the leftish mind. One need not indulge in fatuous verse–counting to know that the Bible has a great deal to say about the poor. Nor does it make more persuasive Ms. Huffington’s conclusion that George W. should follow Al Gore’s example in asking himself, "What would Jesus do?" Not being Jesus, I never ask myself that question. I do ask, "What would Jesus have me do?" I do feel rather certain that he would not have me—or Ms. Huffington, or Mr. Wallis—engage in manipulating the Bible in the service of political posturing about the poor.
- J. F. Powers, author of, among a few great books, Morte d’Urban, died last year, and John Derbyshire remembers him in the New Criterion. Powers was cool toward most of the changes in the Church worked by the Second Vatican Council. He remarked in a 1988 interview, "There isn’t anything the Church can do that it hasn’t already done to disillusion me, but I still think it’s it." Requiescat in pace.
- If we are to believe Harold Meyerson, even a god that failed might be better than no god at all. He notes in the Nation that the left still rails against capitalism but is largely silent on the "values" question in public debates, although "it is hardly a stranger to issues such as the collapse of community and the dislocations of modernity and postmodernity." The left can "still plumb the void at the core of capitalism, yet it no longer proclaims the transcendent humanism of socialism." The possible reason for the silence of the left? "Entering a ‘values’ debate without a god of one’s own is tricky business."
- When George Roche III, President of Michigan’s conservative Hillsdale College, was plausibly accused of gross sexual immorality, leading also to the suicide of his daughter–in–law, conservative publications such as the Weekly Standard and National Review immediately jumped on the story, preempting liberal taunts of "conservative hypocrisy." Behind the story and how it played out were deeper currents, according to Steven M. Hutchens, writing in the Religion & Society Report: "Conservatives repeat La Rochefoucauld’s maxim L’hypocrisie est un hommage que le vice rend à la vertu (Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue) within the broader context of a moral striving that is both good and necessary, while liberals use it to belittle this striving, particularly in matters of sexual virtue, the compromise of which is the almost invariable sacrament of initiation into this way of life and thought. For the liberal, the inability to achieve what conservatives approve is all too often reason to surrender to undisciplined appetites, urges, and desires they try so consistently to endorse as ‘natural,’ but which are known by the honest appraisal of bitter experience as tending to chaos. This moral striving, together with our fellow citizens, is the very thing that holds together the civil societies that history has shown to be so very fragile and ephemeral. However well or badly the Hillsdale trustees handled the fallout from the Roche affair, the fact remains that in dismissing a man whose moral reputation has become damaged beyond repair they have done the minimum necessary to hold together the institution for which they are responsible, while the failure of the Senate to do the same in the case of President Clinton is a reflection of the death wish that seems, in the end, to overtake every nation."
- "Not every abortion foe is a single–issue, right–wing ideologue." That reassuring thought heads a story in the National Catholic Reporter, which discovered many liberals at the big pro–life march in Washington. Affirming the "seamless garment" metaphor, these people somehow manage to link their pro–life convictions with positions not associated with right–wing ideology. What next? The same issue of NCR has a truly singular take on the oppression of Catholics and other Christians under the Chinese regime. In a rude rejection of Rome’s overtures for better relations, the regime recently directed the ordination of five new bishops. The headline in NCR is "China’s ordinations may be traditional after all." The paper notes, correctly, that in centuries past governments sometimes decided, even against the Pope’s wishes, who would be ordained bishops. The Chinese Communists, says NCR, are simply agreeing with the retired Archbishop of San Francisco, John Quinn, that alternatives are needed to "the present procedure for the appointment of bishops." Persecution in China? Nonsense. Beijing is part of the movement for progressive church reform.
- We could all do with a touch more humor about ourselves. Note three little items scavenged from here and there. A priest–sociologist–novelist says on an early morning television talk show that the Church is too negative and should advance its message by accenting charm and charity. Promptly followed by his assertion that Republicans are "racists" and Catholics who vote Republican are in danger of committing "mortal sin." Charm and charity? Charm and charity? Item two: an editor of the Jesuit weekly America bridles at the observation by Francis Cardinal George of Chicago that "liberal Catholicism" is too prone to seek accommodation with the culture. The editor, who has long advocated almost every progressive accommodation coming down the pike, describes a meeting with his liberal Catholic friends. He says he looked around the room and didn’t see anyone who matched the Cardinal’s description. Nobody here but us chickens. Item three: writing in the Nation, another priest editor, also a Jesuit, deplores George W. Bush’s public statements about his faith in Christ. He quotes at length what Bill Bradley has said about his own religion ("lapsed fundamentalism," the editor calls it) and concludes, "Ironic, isn’t it, that the most religiously introspective and, in the biblical sense, prophetic candidate is the one who remains silent." Even more ironic, isn’t it, that there is so much silence to quote. One might also note that Mr. Bradley undoubtedly knows that there is a limited political constituency for lapsed fundamentalism. But I started by suggesting we need more humor about ourselves. So why do I keep noticing such items when I tell myself that they are unworthy of notice? Probably because they keep intruding upon my natural reticence. Or maybe just because they are funny, and the funnier for being unintentionally so.
- Clark Pinnock, a Canadian Baptist theologian, has been pushing "openness theology," an approach that is roiling passions and threatening divisions among evangelical Protestants. Like "process theology" among liberal Protestants, openness theology conceives of a God who is historically contingent, learning along with the rest of us, and changing His mind in the face of new circumstances. This, of course, against a God who is omniscient, immutable, and perfect. The editors of Christianity Today know that these are very old questions attended by a venerable history of reflection turning on an understanding of analogy. In the absence of direct knowledge of God, His revelation to us and our knowledge of Him is not univocal but analogical. Put too simply, orthodox Christianity insists that any tendency to suggest that God is the same kind of entity as any describable creature must be rejected, while the analogy of being (analogia entis) makes it possible to speak of God by reference to creaturely experience and common rules of logic. These are heavy–duty questions and I mention them only to second the wise advice of the editors of CT to both sides in the controversy: "Do not attempt to read the words of Scripture outside the context of twenty centuries of interpretation. The Holy Spirit has not been snoozing since he inspired the New Testament. Please read the Scriptures with the help of those who have gone before."
- The Kansas City Star has published a series of articles alleging that Catholic priests are four times more likely than the general population to have AIDS. A Rome–based press agency, ZENIT, points out that only a self–selected 27 percent of priests responded to the Star’s survey, and that the appropriate comparison is with the adult male population, since few children have AIDS and only 20 percent of new AIDS patients are women. A corrected survey might lead to the conclusion that the rate of AIDS among priests is lower than among adult males in the population, and very much lower than among adult single males. That having been said, and the Star’s sensationalism notwithstanding, any incidence of sexually–contracted AIDS among priests reflects a grave and undeniable moral failure. An examination of the Star’s actual survey and the responses to it are in many respects encouraging. For instance, despite the self–selection of the respondents, which students of survey research say likely biased the results in the other direction, only a small percentage of priests favor a change in doctrine regarding homosexuality or dropping the requirement of celibacy. Yet the reality is undeniably sobering. Of priests dying with AIDS, typically contracted through homosexual acts twenty or more years ago, Ralph McInerny of Notre Dame University writes: "All this is an effect of the rebellion among academic theologians that has characterized the post–Vatican II era. The Second Vatican Council ended during the mid–1960s, the decade when secular culture went off the moral rails. In retrospect it is clear that many professional theologians of that time were urging the Church to sign on to the sexual revolution that secular society embraced. Well, the Church’s teaching remained—and remains—unchanged and increasingly countercultural. But all around us now are the victims of this supposed liberation by dissent. They are perishing not because of the Church’s doctrines on sexuality (which, had they been followed, might have saved their lives), but because a generation of theologians charged with teaching them those doctrines led them profoundly and tragically astray." (For a detailed and withering critique of the Star survey, check out the Center for Media and Public Affairs at www.newswatch.org.)
- George Weigel, author of that magnificent biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, also writes a regular column for diocesan newspapers. A recent column took note of the unseemly bitterness among opponents of Ex Corde Ecclesiae after the bishops adopted an implementation plan by an overwhelming 223–31 vote. For instance, in a signed editorial, Father Thomas Reese, editor of America, warned against the prospect of "inquisitorial" proceedings, and suggested, among other things, that lawsuits are in order claiming that Catholic universities are now "pervasively sectarian" and therefore ineligible for government aid. Weigel writes: "Some of the country’s finest constitutional lawyers flatly deny that that is the case. But even if aggressively anti–Catholic secularists waged such legal battles only to lose them, what is the editor of America doing by providing them rhetorical ammunition for their case? Does Fr. Reese relish the thought of an ACLU attorney brandishing the December 4, 1999 issue of America in court, citing its Jesuit editor’s palpable concern that Catholic colleges and universities may become ‘pervasively sectarian’?" The question, I take it, is not merely rhetorical.
- The title on the cover of the New York Times Magazine is "Church and State: How the Wall Came Tumbling Down." On the inside it is the more clever "Is Nothing Secular?" The article by Jeffrey Rosen correctly notes the way in which jurisprudence is moving away from the "wall of separation" metaphor to concepts of "equal regard" and "nondiscrimination." This means equal regard for religious and nonreligious institutions, and an understanding that, in public funding, it is not permissible to discriminate against a program or institution simply because it is religious. All in all, this is a heartening development, and the people and arguments crucial to it are very familiar to the readers of this journal. Rosen writes: "Thirty years later, sects that used to compete over whose vision of revealed truth would triumph in the public square began to see value in one another’s work. In an age when everyone is a hyphenated American, religious identity became just one more prefix in the pluralistic mix." Forget the pejorative use of the word sects; Rosen is referring to the fact that the "strict separationism" of the past was closely tied to anti–Catholicism among Protestants, and that has now dramatically changed, as witness efforts such as "Evangelicals and Catholics Together." Rosen is also astute in recognizing that Jewish organizations—which once acted on Leo Pfeffer’s dogma that the more secular the society is, the better it is for Jews—are today challenged by other Jewish organizations and thinkers who recognize the dangers of the naked public square. Rosen’s article is, all in all, an unusually competent summary of the current state of the church–state question. He underestimates how long and how damaging was the rule of "strict separationism," and he is still attached to the atavistic fear that there are "religious supremacists" who, as he puts it, want the state to do the church’s work. He may also be too confident about how decisive is the turn in the thinking of the Supreme Court. A great deal depends on the three or four justices nominated by the next president. But he ends, rightly I think, on the note of agreement with Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley, who says of the new circumstance, "This is not a radical new intrusion of religion into public life. It’s a loosening of rather recent boundaries that in the minds of many people might themselves be seen as a radical innovation." Just so. We have come a considerable distance, but certainly not far enough, from the militantly secular strict separationism that held intellectual and judicial sway when I published The Naked Public Square in 1984. While much remains to be done, it would be churlish not to admit one’s gratification with what has been done, and with Jeffrey Rosen’s essentially fair–minded telling of that story.
- A while back I admitted to having a grudging respect for people who say they don’t even have a television set in their homes—if only they weren’t so smug about it. Joe Wall of Philadelphia writes that he is very smug about it indeed, and sends along this little article he did for a local newspaper, "A Matter of Choice." He begins by noting that, according to some reports, the "average" American spends a sixth of his life—"his most precious resource"—watching television, and then goes on to list what you get if you choose to watch and what you can do if you choose not to watch. His catalogue of what television offers is doleful, if somewhat familiar. But I much like his list of things to be done with the time saved by not watching television. "You can: Take a walk. Write a letter. Plant a flower. Read a book. Call up an old friend. Watch a child play. Say a Rosary. Wash the car. Go on a picnic. Day dream. Knit a sweater. Fly to Europe, Mexico, Pittsburgh, anywhere. Talk to your husband, your wife, your children. Go to Mass. Wash the windows. Picket an abortion clinic. Perform a kind act. Fix something broken. Enjoy a hobby. Visit a lonely old person. Paint a picture. Sing a song. Play with your dog. Sweep the sidewalk. Befriend a small child. Coach Little League, soccer, whatever. Catch up on your sleep. Smile at a baby. Do push–ups. Fall in love. Go to a play. Mow the lawn. Learn Spanish, German, Japanese, whatever. Write out your family history. Play cards with old friends. Take your wife (your husband) out to dinner. Walk through your neighborhood. Think. Compliment your wife, your husband. Learn to play the guitar, banjo, bagpipes, whatever. Go swimming. Embroider a quilt. Straighten out your photos. Get to know your neighbors. Plot a revolution. Clean out the cellar, the garage. Toss a ball back and forth with your son or daughter. Go skiing, sky–diving. Drive down old country roads. Plan a party. Thank your pastor. Memorize a poem, a song. Join a local civic group. Help your kids with their homework. Write your Congressman. Learn to do calligraphy. Gaze at the nighttime sky. Watch the sun set in the west." That is a very winsome list of things to do, and we might all ask ourselves when was the last time we did some of them. I suppose, however, that my respect is a little less grudging but grudging nonetheless. Watching very selectively as I do, I’m not yet ready to throw out the set. If Mr. Wall comes visiting, I might put it in the closet. Then we’ll see who can out–smug whom. He has the advantage, to be sure, of coming by his smugness honestly.
- "I always thought that I would have made a great archbishop in Salzburg during the time of Mozart," reflects Archbishop Rembert Weakland, who is a classical pianist. "But instead I’m the archbishop of Milwaukee in the time of rock ’n’ roll. That’s the way life turns out." No doubt there are many Catholics, and not only in Milwaukee, who share his wish that things had turned out differently. He goes on to say, "Many of us Catholics have a certain ambivalence, a love–hate relationship, with our church. You can see that if you watch your newspaper’s letters to the editor. We are the only church that publicly criticizes itself in the newspaper." With due respect, there are a couple of things wrong with that. I don’t believe for a moment that the Archbishop hates the Catholic Church, although, admittedly, he sometimes has an odd way of showing his love. The business about letters to the editor, on the other hand, reflects the lingering influence of the Catholic ghetto mentality. It may still be true in Milwaukee, but out there in the big world that is America all kinds of people write letters critical of their churches. Check out, for instance, letters about the Southern Baptist Convention in Memphis. It probably is true, however, that most other churches do not have bishops who regularly and publicly distance themselves from their church. Friends in Milwaukee tell me there is widespread agreement with the Archbishop that he does not deserve Milwaukee, and vice versa. Such harmony of feeling between a bishop and his people may be construed as an edifying spectacle.
- There is an opening for a one–year internship with FT, beginning in June or September. Please send resume, reason for interest, and writing samples to the editorial office, Attention: James Nuechterlein.
- You may not believe this, but some readers say they miss those gentle and ever so whimsical proddings to send us the names of people who are prospective subscribers. Admittedly, other readers complain about, as one put it, "that incessant begging." Please. It is not begging to suggest that you share what you have found. In any event, we will be happy to send a sample issue of this journal to people you think are likely subscribers. Please send names and addresses to First Things, 156 Fifth Avenue, Suite 400, New York, New York 10010 (or e–mail to subscriberservices@pma–inc.net). On the other hand, if they’re ready to subscribe, call toll–free 1–800–783–4903.
- It would be more funny than chilling if it were not the epigraph for a scholarly book dealing with medicine’s changing ways of thinking about death (The Definition of Death, edited by Stuart Youngner et al., Johns Hopkins University Press). A boy at his first baseball game asks his father, "How can the umpires tell a ball from a strike?" The father says that after the game he can ask the three umpires. The first says, "I call them as I see them." The second says, "I call them as they are." The third steps back, stares at the boy, and says, "Son, they ain’t nothing till I call them." On that little story hangs a brief history of moral philosophy.
Sources: On Supreme Court school–prayer case, New York Times, November 26, 1999. On TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and gay man winning $500,000, New York Times, January 25, 2000.
While We’re At It: Quote about conversion experience in Nicotine Theological Journal, October 1999. Michael McManus on birth control, syndicated column of November 18, 1999. Jürgen Moltmann’s The Coming of God reviewed by Randall Zachman, Pro Ecclesia, Fall 1999. Father James Heft on Catholic colleges, Chronicle of Higher Education, November 12, 1999. On high school students denied membership in the National Honor Society, Cincinnati Enquirer, October 25, 1999. The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough reviewed by Richard Dawkins, Forbes ASAP (online magazine), October 4, 1999. Oscar Wilde quoted on saints and sinners, The Quote/Unquote Newsletter, October 4, 1999. On "full communion" between ELCA Lutherans and Episcopalians, Lutheran Forum Letter, December 1999. On Archbishop Goodhew of Sydney, Australia, Tablet, November 13, 1999. On the flag of the European Union, ZENIT news agency, December 7, 1999. Dennis Prager on smoking, Prager Perspective, October 15, 1999. Jesus Symbol of God reviewed, America, November 6, 1999. David Schiff on Aaron Copland, Atlantic Monthly, January 2000. "Ending the Era of Auschwitz" by Marc Ellis, Christian Century, October 6, 1999. Arianna Huffington on George W. Bush, Jim Wallis, the Bible, and the poor, San Diego Union–Tribune, January 1, 2000. J. F. Powers quoted by John Derbyshire, New Criterion, September 1999. Harold Meyerson on values without God, Nation, October 11, 1999. On the George Roche III case, Religion & Society Report, January 2000. National Catholic Reporter articles on abortion foes and Chinese dissidents, January 21, 2000. On "openness theology," Christianity Today, February 7, 2000. On Catholic priests with AIDS, www.kcstar.com/projects/priests/, and ZENIT, February 3, 2000. George Weigel on Thomas Reese, Catholic Northwest Progress, January 13, 2000. "Church and State: How the Wall Came Tumbling Down" by Jeffrey Rosen, New York Times Magazine, January 30, 2000. Archbishop Rembert Weakland quoted on the Church, St. Anthony’s Messenger, June 1999.