The Public Square:
A Continuing Survey of Religion and Public Life (January 1998)

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 79 (January 1998): 62-79.

On Not Permitting the Other to Be Other

In addition to being wrongheaded, the book is simply wrong on so many scores. That may be a good reason for ignoring it entirely, except that it represents a viewpoint that is influential far beyond the number of people who hold it. The book is Please Don’t Wish Me a Merry Christmas: A Critical History of the Separation of Church and State (New York University Press). I reviewed it for the Times Literary Supplement, but there is more that needs saying. Published by a reputable university press, the book is part of a series titled "Critical America," meaning "critical theory" that is sharply critical of America. Other books in the series examine racism, sexism, homophobia, and other favored multicult topics.

A wild ride through history with a deconstruction-bent postmodernist at the wheel has its risks, but it is not without its rewards. Behind an apparently frivolous title, Stephen Feldman, professor of law and political science at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, has a serious thesis, and parts of it are true. It is true, for instance, that what has come to be called "the separation of church and state" is not an American creation ex nihilo but is a product of the efforts of two millennia to institutionalize the distinction between temporal and spiritual authority. Also true, and less of a truism, is the claim that, in American law, the separation of church and state has been interpreted in very Protestant terms, reflecting the individualistic view that religion is a matter of personal decision or preference. Feldman notes that this is not fair to the Jewish understanding of Judaism, and he is right about that. He fails to appreciate the extent to which it is also unfair to the Catholic and Orthodox understanding of Christianity.

Neither is one inclined to question Mr. Feldman’s assertion that the separation of church and state is not entirely neutral in its consequences for different religions. The doctrine of separation does not obliterate the social reality of a country in which more than 90 percent of the people say they are Christian, 80 percent claim a church affiliation, and close to 50 percent say they go to church in any given week. It is the contention of Mr. Feldman’s very angry book that this social reality makes the separation of church and state no more than a "legal facade" for perpetuating the "hegemony" and "cultural imperialism" of Christianity in American public life.

The Christian Disaster

"I am Jewish." That is the very first sentence of the book, from which the author believes his argument follows. It is necessary to understand, he says, that the story of Jesus, and especially of his death, was "intentionally fabricated" by his disciples who were "motivated chiefly by political interest," their main interest being to condemn Jews and Judaism. The Jew is the "other" against which Christianity defined itself, and continues to define itself. St. Paul declared Christianity "spiritual" and Judaism "carnal," and that doctrine has formed the entirety of Western history, including the Holocaust and America’s present and oppressive political order. In this reconstruction of history, Mr. Feldman is guided also by revisionist Christian writers such as Rosemary Radford Ruether and John Dominic Crossan.

According to Mr. Feldman, Christianity is, in addition to being a lie, an exceedingly unattractive affair. It is a wonder that anybody has ever found it appealing, and inexplicable that it is professed by almost two billion people living today. Christianity is captive to a "dualism" that denigrates life, while Judaism affirms "the whole person" and "celebrates life." The only explanation proposed for Christianity’s appeal is that people hate Jews. Whether they become Christian because they hate Jews or hate Jews as a result of becoming Christian is not entirely clear, although the latter would seem to be the case. If they don’t know any Jews, they hate "the conceptual Jew," who is a construct of Christianity and gives birth to "unconscious anti-Semitism," which is the very worst kind. "The redefinition of Jews in the New Testament has generated and appeared to justify many subsequent imperialistic acts by Christians. . . . For nearly 2,000 years of Western history, Christian hegemonic power has been remarkably complete."

The bulk of the book is given over to a rambling account of the history of the West, accompanied by lavish, if eccentrically selective, documentation. The story of what is risibly called Western civilization is, quite simply, the story of Christian anti-Semitism. From Theodosius to Augustine, from Hildebrand to Aquinas, from the Renaissance to the Reformation, from the Enlightenment to Hitler and today’s Christian Coalition, it is one long sorry tale of Christian hatred of Jews. True, Christians were frequently tolerant and protective of Jews, but that was only "to allow them to endure their subjugated and miserable lives"—in the hope that they would voluntarily convert to Christianity. True, there were good features of the Renaissance and Reformation, such as expanded education and the introduction of the printing press, but this only "facilitated the rapid spread of anti-Semitic anecdotes and accusations." True, there were periods when there were no Jews to hate, as in England for four hundred years after the expulsion of 1290, but that only inflamed hatred of "the conceptual Jew." And so forth. Mr. Feldman is relentless. Some, less kindly, might think him fanatical.

Reverse Election

From the beginning, says the author, Christianity "declared that the Jewish covenant always had been defective and that the Jews never had known God." In Mr. Feldman’s telling one might gain the impression that Marcion (c. 85-160) was declared a Doctor of the Church rather than being condemned as a heretic for teaching that the God of the Old Testament is not the same God revealed in Jesus Christ. Implicit in the author’s argument is also an ironic reversal and an elevation of Judaism despite, indeed because of, the ascendancy of Christianity. Judaism was once the elect people of God and the nations (goyim) were the "other." Now Christians claim to be the elect people and Jews are the goyim, the surrogate "other" of everything that is not Christian. In addition, what is not Christian must be anti-Christian, since Christianity invented and maintains its identity against the Jew. Thus it turns out that, precisely by its marginalization, Judaism is the very epicenter of world history in its resistance to the Christian hegemony. As I say, the wild ride is not without its reward in interesting, if unpersuasive, ideas.

The author evidences limited respect for such as Thomas Aquinas. Sharply limited. "Nevertheless," he writes, "if Thomas proved anything through his consummate efforts at synthesis, he proved that Christianity and Aristotelianism cannot be harmonized: they are incompatible. And ultimately, Thomas remained a Christian. Thomas’ resolute commitment to Christianity manifested itself in (among other ways) his rote expression of standard Christian anti-Semitic dogma." Luther’s notorious rantings against the Jews are well known, but for Feldman they are only a more overt expression of the anti-Semitism that is at the heart of Christianity. Christian figures who quote the Old Testament prophets and their criticisms of the children of Israel thereby prove that they, the Christians, are anti-Semites. Feldman has Christians coming and going. Those who deny that Jews worship the same God are manifestly anti-Semitic, while those who say we do worship the same God are engaged in the anti-Semitic ploy of coopting Judaism for Christian purposes. Similarly, for Christians to say that Judaism is the different "other" is anti-Semitic, and to deny that Judaism is significantly different is anti-Semitic. "In America today, the more common (though not solitary) form of anti-Semitic redefinition is denial of difference."

Coming back to the separation of church and state in America, Feldman cites Michel Foucault and Hans-Georg Gadamer on the connection between discourse and power, and complains that the "neutral" constitutional freedom given religious discourse inevitably results in "Christian domination." "In short," he writes, "so long as the country remains pervasively Christian, the Supreme Court’s ability to change the structures (and eliminate the symbols) of the de facto establishment of Christianity is highly questionable (assuming that the Court actually wants to do so, which it does not)." The Court, the author says, is in a long tradition of the American refusal to eliminate Christian cultural influence. "As Madison himself revealed, the opponents of official establishments did not intend to reduce the Christian hold on America. To the contrary, Madison and others believed that Protestantism would spread most effectively without official establishment, through the congregations of the faithful." Americans have typically said that the separation of church and state in America has been good both for the state and for religion. That, according to Feldman, is precisely the problem: It has been good for Christianity.

What others call representative democracy by "we, the people" Feldman calls the oppressive tyranny of the anti-Semitic "mob" that is the "Christian masses." While Feldman says he is not sure the situation would be better without the separation of church and state, he deplores the fact that there is no serious consideration of interpreting the Constitution explicitly against the Christian domination. For example, the Court has ruled that clergy cannot give invocations at public school graduation ceremonies, but he complains that the Justices did not consider that it should be permissible for Jewish clergy to do so "because a rabbi delivers graduation prayers in the face of Christian domination" (emphasis in original).

Persecution Unbounded

Stephen Feldman is in-your-face all the way. Yet the book ends on a weak, almost whimpering, note about what it means to live within "the sticky web of Christian cultural and social power." He gives examples of the oppressions experienced by those "ensnared in the web of Christian domination." For instance, a Christian friend "said she had never before met a Jew, although she had seen two television characters who (she thought) were supposed to be Jewish." Mr. Feldman is deeply offended. But such a statement is hardly surprising in Oklahoma, since Jews are only 2 percent of the American population and are heavily concentrated in the urban North and the two coasts. For another instance, "The major intersection near my home had a temporary Christmas tree store with large signs advertising ‘Merry Christmas, Christmas Trees.’" And yet another instance: "On September 1, 1995, I received an advertisement in the mail from an exclusive shopping center in Tulsa: ‘Dear Christmas shopper: Every year you’re faced with the same question: what to buy your employees for Christmas.’" The persecution of Mr. Feldman knows no bounds.

After almost three hundred pages of a wild postmodernist ride through Western history and a radically revisionist deconstruction of American constitutional theory, what remedy does the author propose? The book concludes with this: "I ask for one small political act. I request each reader to consider making a simple and direct statement questioning Christian imperialism. My idea: next year, when someone wishes you a ‘Merry Christmas,’ just say, ‘Please don’t! Don’t wish me a Merry Christmas.’" In other words, the answer to the Christian cultural hegemony is for Christians to stop being Christian. It is an answer that is not likely to be well received in Oklahoma or anywhere else in the United States, which will, one fears, only confirm Mr. Feldman in his sense of being oppressed.

Bizarre and Important

Please Don’t Wish Me a Merry Christmas, despite its hundred pages of notes, is innocent of any engagement with biblical and historical scholarship that offers more credible accounts of the complicated relationship between Christianity and Judaism, and is dogmatically indifferent to the vast literature on the Jewish-Christian dialogue of recent decades. Feldman seems to be entirely unfamiliar with the tradition of Franz Rosenzweig, the historic development of Christian thought about Judaism coming out of the Second Vatican Council, or such contemporary works as David Novak’s Jewish-Christian Dialogue. For a dramatically different treatment of the contemporary questions addressed by Feldman, one thinks of—to cite but one instance—Elliott Abrams’ new book, Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America (Free Press). And the recently published Religion and State in the American Jewish Experience (University of Notre Dame Press) edited by Jonathan Sarna and David Dalin offers a treatment of the constitutional and social issues that is both much more believable and much more constructive than Feldman’s angry tirade (see review by Elliott Abrams in FT, October 1997). These and innumerable other Jewish writers are as emphatic as Feldman in beginning from the premise, "I am Jewish." Unlike Feldman, however, they do not believe that premise requires that others stop being, in the jargon of our postmodernist friends, "other."

As I say, Feldman’s is an atypically explicit expression of a viewpoint that has great influence in academic and legal discussions about religion and public life. There are all too many who share with Feldman a belief that Christianity is inherently anti-Semitic and that religion in public—especially Christianity in public—is necessarily a threat to others. It is a viewpoint we should try to understand. Christians who think that religion has been marginalized and that we live in a post-Christian culture may be surprised by Feldman’s repeated assertions about "the pervasive power of Christianity pulsing through the social body." For those who view the world as he does, every "Jesus Saves" bumper sticker is, as he claims, a slap at Jews and Judaism. He insists that in public schools every last vestige of religious influence must be eliminated lest his Jewish daughter suffer "a loss of self-esteem." This may strike readers as odd, since her father manifests a prodigiously healthy self-esteem that is directly related to his defiant "I am Jewish!" in the face of what he takes to be Christian cultural imperialism.

Feldman knows that Jews have been in the forefront of pressing for a "strict separationism" between church and state, and he is distressed about that. He thinks they have been "seduced" into settling for a separation of church and state when the real imperative is to separate religion from public life. Religion free from government interference, he complains, is simply freed for the exercise of social and cultural hegemony. Because the "Christian masses" are free to set the cultural pace, they have "effectively forced American Jews to Christianize to some extent" (emphasis in original). A minority has to define itself in relation to the majority, and that injustice can only be remedied by depriving the majority of its influence.

In his telling of history, Feldman acknowledges that Christians have at times been tolerant of Jews, but he complains that they do this out of "respect for Christian, not Judaic, tenets." This is the most galling thing, that Christians should have Christian reasons for being favorably disposed toward Jews. Thus is the Christian hegemony completed: Whether they oppress Jews or embrace Jews, it is always they, the Christians, who are calling the tune. Thus are Jews deprived even of the ownership of their own oppression. Feldman’s argument is inaccurate, convoluted, bizarre, and profoundly insulting to Christians, but it is not unimportant.

Christians should read Please Don’t Wish Me a Merry Christmas. It provides a window into a way of viewing the world and the American circumstance that needs to be understood. I believe it is a minority viewpoint, also among American Jews, but it is a viewpoint that needs to be engaged and countered by Jews and Christians alike if we are to sustain in America an historically unprecedented relationship of mutual respect and unquestioned security, despite differences that will not be resolved until they are indisputably clarified in the Kingdom of God. One says that in full awareness that Stephen Feldman and those of like mind will protest that way of putting it as an instance of what might be called preemptive hegemony, since Christians cannot deny that they think they know how the story will turn out. On the other hand, believing Jews think they know, too. What we know together is that God—the Father of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus—knows. That is enough. It is also the most secure basis of our living and working together in a world short of the final consummation.

Prime Time Religion

Back in the fifties, bien-pensant Catholics who had been touched by cultural aspiration were embarrassed that Fulton J. Sheen was, more than anyone else, the public face of Catholicism in America. Many of his clerical brethren criticized him for pandering to a general audience and not using his immense popularity to communicate the meat and potatoes of the faith. This came to mind in reading Andrew Delbanco’s review of Billy Graham’s autobiography, Just As I Am. Writing in The New Republic, Delbanco speaks of Graham’s mastery of television: "Other pioneers of TV religion—such as Fulton J. Sheen, whose one-man format of religious instruction was almost professorial, or Oral Roberts, whose hokey revival meetings featuring miracle cures failed to make it onto prime time in the big markets—never quite mastered the medium."

Leaving Oral Roberts out of it, the fact is that Bishop Sheen was the biggest show on network prime time and was the most popular show in America, putting into second place the putative king of television, Milton Berle. It does not detract from Billy Graham’s immense achievements to note that his crusades have over the decades been on bought time, mainly on independent stations. Between Sheen and Graham there is simply no contest about who "mastered the medium." It is important to get the history straight when thinking about the place of religion in the big time media.

Ten years ago I wrote a book called The Catholic Moment. Pat Buchanan had a book out around the same time, Right From the Beginning, all about growing up Catholic in Georgetown. He sent me a copy inscribed with this: "There was a Catholic Moment three decades ago, for some of us. Thought you might enjoy reading about it." I did. He meant the era of Bing Crosby priests in movies such as The Bells of St. Mary’s and, of course, of Bishop Sheen. It’s a long and steep slide from Bishop Sheen to ABC’s Nothing Sacred.

Today the insurgency of religion in public that catches the media’s attention is mainly under evangelical Protestant auspices. Promise Keepers and the many manifestations of "the religious right" are generally treated as both hokey and threatening, certainly not part of the cultural mainstream. One may well wonder whether we were better off, in terms of the public face of Christianity, when the dominant figures were Bishop Sheen and the Protestant master of positive thinking, Norman Vincent Peale. (Adlai Stevenson, in one of the many asides that failed to endear him to the American people: "I find Paul appealing and Peale appalling.") Sheen’s radio program, The Catholic Hour, ran from 1930 to 1952, and the television show, Life Is Worth Living, with some thirty million viewers, went from 1951 to 1957.

Peale, Sheen, and the catholic moment remembered by Buchanan were all part of a wondrous synthesis of religion and The American Way of Life represented by the Eisenhower era. (Rabbi Joshua Liebman filled out the interreligious troika.) Ike is often quoted as saying that America is built on religious faith, and he didn’t care what faith it was. Numerous scholars have tried in vain to track down the quote but never mind, it reflected the spirit of the time. A prominent conservative leader once told me that his conservatism could be very simply defined: "Back to the Eisenhower era!" Peale was passé in the 1960s, but still presided over a very considerable publishing empire until his death as a very old man. Sheen had a short and stormy time (1966-69) as bishop of Rochester, New York, and spent his last ten years as a somewhat reclusive hero of Catholics who shared his critical attitude toward so much that went awry in the aftermath of Vatican Council II.

Billy Graham endured. From the beginning, hard-core fundamentalists railed against what they viewed as his doctrinal trimming and ecumenical compromises, accusing him of presenting an anodyne gospel in order to broaden his appeal. Although for decades he has ranked as the first or second most popular figure in America, the prestige media have consistently treated Graham as the respectable, or at least more respectable, representative of a distinctly unrespectable religious subculture. He never attained the cultural acceptability of Bishop Sheen in his prime, but that probably has less to do with the differences between the two men than with the crash of America’s prime time in the cultural revolutions launched more than thirty years ago and continuing to this day.

This Is Not Just Any Old Democracy

"If the people want abortion, the state should permit abortion, in a democracy." Thus Justice Antonin Scalia in response to a question following his lecture at the Gregorian University in Rome in May 1996. He hasn’t heard the end of it. I believe Scalia has been getting a bum rap in some forums. The unguarded statement was made in a Q & A session, and it is clear that Scalia had reference to the need for judges to refrain from pitting their own moral judgments against the judgments of the people as expressed through their representatives.

Father Robert A. Connor addresses the Scalia brouhaha in a thoughtful article in the American Journal of Jurisprudence. It is a complex argument and I will not attempt to summarize it, except to say that Fr. Connor contends that the truth of natural law in jurisprudence is a "second tier" derivative from the religious faith of Americans at the time of the founding, and what Americans actually believed at the time should be taken seriously by anyone who subscribes to an "originalist" understanding of the Constitution. Justice Scalia may be right about a democracy, he says, but not about this democracy.

Along the way of his argument, Fr. Connor tosses in some facts and observations that you may find handy when across the kitchen table someone says that the Founders intended a secular constitutional order. "This absoluteness, appearing as consensus and self-evidence, coincided historically with an almost total presence of Christian faith as praxis in the colonies. Benjamin Hart asserts that ‘America at the end of the eighteenth century was overwhelmingly Protestant, and of the dissident variety. Though precise figures on church membership are not available, we do have numbers on church bodies. In 1775 there were 668 Congregational churches; 588 Presbyterian; 494 Baptist; 310 Quaker; 159 German Reformed; 150 Lutheran; 65 Methodist; 31 Moravian; 27 Congregational-Separatist; 24 Dunker; and 16 Mennonite churches. The Anglican Church had 495 congregations, making it a decided minority in America at the time of the revolution. About 75 percent of all Americans belonged to churches of Puritan extraction. When dissenting Protestants and Anglicans are combined, we find a religious composition in America that was 98.4 percent Protestant, 1.4 percent Roman Catholic, and three-twentieths of one percent Jewish.’ Besides the numerical presence of believing Christians, [Walter] Berns reports that ‘[t]o one degree or another, and in one or another of its Christian varieties, over half the states had an established religion. . . .’ Concerning the impact of this on the societal ethos, Washington remarked in his farewell address: ‘Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. . . . And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. . . . [R]eason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.’ Jefferson himself (enemy of ‘monkish ignorance and superstition’) questioned whether ‘the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God.’ Tocqueville, in summing up his observations on the country, remarked: ‘I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion—for who can search the human heart?—but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society.’"

From the peanut gallery: So what does all that prove? I don’t know that it "proves" much of anything, but it does strongly suggest that when the Founders spoke of the truths that make freedom necessary they didn’t mean—à la the notorious "mystery passage" in the Casey decision—the truths sundry individuals concocted in the shower this morning, or wherever people do their concocting. In this democracy, truths have a determinate history. Someone might respond, "At least they used to." But that’s not quite right. If these truths did, they still do. That’s the way it is with truths, and that, too, is what is meant by an originalist reading of the Constitution.

Sensitivity for the Oppressors

In a defiant defense of the Chinese Communist dictatorship, the Christian Century features major articles attacking the movement to protest religious persecution in that country. Based on work in China with Mennonite groups, one article solidly sides with the National Council of Churches (NCC) and the World Council of Churches (WCC), both of which are close to the government-sponsored religious organizations in China. The authors write, "The NCC urges attentiveness to the voices of Chinese Christians and takes its cues from the China Christian Council (CCC), China’s only nationally recognized Protestant organization." Another article, written by a Presbyterian pastor who teaches conflict resolution in Cape Town, South Africa, seconds the argument that religious persecution in China is being greatly exaggerated, and the best way to help Chinese Christians is through "constructive dialogue" with the regime.

While it is admitted that the CCC is subservient to the government, we are urged to understand Chinese sensibilities about foreign interference. For instance, "Mainland Chinese have great pride and sensitivity to territorial questions, especially those about autonomy for Taiwan and Tibet." About China’s cruel conquest of Tibet and its threat to take over Taiwan, if necessary by force, the Chinese are proud and sensitive, and we should be sensitive to that. The Century criticizes the U.S. State Department report on religious persecution in China. "The anti-China publicity that the report generated confirmed the Chinese fear that Americans are anti-Chinese." In fact, the report was generated by publicity about religious persecution, a subject on which the State Department had been shamefully reticent in the past.

Remarkable for a magazine that describes itself as "An Ecumenical Weekly," there is not one mention of Roman Catholicism in China. On the eve of a state visit by a head of state who is aptly called "the butcher of Tianenmen Square," the Century maintained its long tradition of soft-pedalling criticism of Communist regimes. During the Cold War, the agencies of liberal Protestantism repeatedly urged understanding of the difficulties faced by Communist rulers and claimed that questions of persecution are best addressed through "quiet diplomacy." This in dramatic contrast to their strident interventionism in South Africa, and equally strident support for leftist insurgencies in, for example, Central America. The argument advanced by the Century that American protest against religious persecution makes life more difficult for Chinese Christians should be recognized for what it is: an argument against human rights as an integral part of U.S. foreign policy, and an argument against Christians speaking out on behalf of persecuted brothers and sisters.

The position advanced by the Century, NCC, WCC, and others has a respectable place in the tradition of a Realpolitik approach to politics among nations. It would be more credible, however, were these organizations not so blatantly selective in their application of "principled protest" and "constructive dialogue." Added to the ideological propensities of these organizations is the factor that the protest against religious persecution in China is being pressed primarily by evangelical Protestants. If evangelicals are for the protest, oldline liberals must be against it. In addition to the repugnance of serving as apologists for a brutal dictatorship, this promotion of divisiveness among Christians in America is hard to square with the stated mission of "an ecumenical weekly." Did I mention that the Century’s special China issue had not one word on the millions of Catholics in China?

Truth Performed and Deformed

The children of the famous have a mixed blessing, especially if they try to make their mark in the same field as their famous parent. They can travel so far on the famous name, but then feel the need to do something dramatically different in order to assert that they are persons in their own right. Such would seem to be the dynamics driving the career of Susannah Heschel, daughter of one of the most distinguished Jewish thinkers of this century, the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. She has undeniably succeeded in making sure that nobody will confuse her work with that of her father. In a new book, Judaism Since Gender (Routledge), Heschel, a professor of Jewish Studies at Case Western University, has an essay titled, "Jesus as Theological Transvestite." She observes that some Jewish scholars, in an effort to upgrade Judaism in the eyes of Christians, have claimed Jesus as an entirely Jewish figure, while many Christian scholars have resisted that claim.

In what is, sad to say, not intended as a parody of current academic fashions, she writes: "In considering the inscription of Jesus at the boundaries, I would suggest turning from a binary view of Judaism and Christianity to a more usefully complicated picture of religious development that recognizes the performative nature of religious activity. The interpretive language that makes this move possible comes from recent work in queer theory, which offers a corrective to some earlier feminist approaches. In particular, queer theory addresses the problem of binary thinking, in which male and female function as static terms of reference in dichotomous relation to one another. Instead this theory suggests that the binary construct of male and female is fictive, calling our attention to categories of overlap and confusion of sexual identity, in which male and female become so intricately intertwined that no effective separation of their components appears possible. The emergence of queer theory stems from theoretical innovations that see gender not as an identifiable essence, as in the modernist tradition, nor even a social construction, as in the postmodernist tradition, but as a performance without any fixed referential point. Judith Butler writes that ‘there is no gender identity behind expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very "expressions" that are said to be its results.’"

The contribution of feminist scholarship, says Prof. Heschel, is to destabilize everything. In the old scheme of things, "Jews dressed Jesus as a rabbi" and Christians "insisted upon the opposition between Jesus and Judaism." "By contrast, Jesus as theological transvestite unsettles and ‘queers’ our understanding of the ‘boundaries’ between Judaism and Christianity." As indeed it queers the boundaries between reality and any truth we might choose to perform "without any fixed referential point." Of course, the post-post-modernist flimflammers who hold sway over so much of the academy would insist that "reality" and "truth" be ironically caged in quotation marks. As for the great Heschel, many of us who knew and loved him expect that he would be shaking his head in sad disbelief.

The Soul of Liberalism

"Contending for the soul of liberalism." That, I said in "The Liberalism of John Paul II" (FT, May 1997), is what we must be up to. There came in response the usual objections from the enemies of liberalism, both left and right. Don’t I know that the liberal regime is more than a political system? It is also a moral-cultural order that systematically destroys the bonds of tradition, community, and virtue. Yes, I know very well the arguments to that effect, and they are partially persuasive. But we live within the tradition and constitutional order of liberalism, and it is here that we must do the best we can. It is both too easy and counterproductive to blame liberalism for the moral shambles of our social circumstance. We ought not let the debilitated liberalism of more recent history control the definition of the liberal tradition itself.

Peter Berkowitz, professor of government at Harvard (though recently denied tenure) and occasional FT contributor, agrees, and sends along his excellent essay published in the Fall 1996 issue of Perspectives on Political Science, "Liberalism’s Virtue." Berkowitz examines the teachings of the founding fathers of the liberal tradition—Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill—and rescues them from their captivity to both critics and admirers who claim that it is the chief virtue of liberalism that it has dispensed with the need for virtue.

Berkowitz makes a lucid and convincing argument of many parts, including some interesting thoughts on why Mill was so opposed to the idea that government should be in the business of educating the citizenry.

Berkowitz writes: "If one rejects the simple equation of virtue with human perfection and understands virtue also as those qualities of mind and character that support the attainment of a range of ends and the performance of a variety of tasks, then such makers of modern liberalism as Hobbes, Locke, Kant, and Mill come into view as assigning an essential place to virtue in moral and political life. Their differences of opinion about virtue, as well as underlying continuities, can be brought out by examining in the case of each thinker the specific catalogue of virtues put forward, the end or ends virtue is asked to serve, and the means proposed for fostering virtue. . . . I do not wish to deny that the very idea of virtue in the liberal tradition is marked by basic and destabilizing tensions. What I do wish to affirm, though, is that the liberal tradition provides an illuminating and underappreciated source of instruction about the necessity of virtue where the natural freedom and equality of all is a principle on which the legitimacy of government is thought to rest."

Berkowitz recognizes that the liberal tradition has built-in tensions if not contradictions. "For example, in contrast to those who oppose contemporary liberalism and its concern for individual rights and fair procedures, a civic republicanism devoted to the goods of democratic participation and the energetic practice of civic virtue, the liberal tradition teaches how to affirm the importance of virtue and the associational life to which it is intimately connected without losing sight of the good reasons for protecting individuals against the authority of community and protecting communities as well as individuals, when necessary, against overbearing state power. In contrast to those who analyze the weaknesses of American democracy in terms of disappearing stocks of social capital and a declining civil society, the liberal tradition reminds us that social capital depends on moral capital—that is, on energetic and self-reliant individuals capable of forming and maintaining the voluntary associations that sustain the habits of cooperation and self-restraint that are so useful to liberal democracies. In short, in contrast to today’s democratic theorists who typically see only the need to restore some single element of democracy in the United States, the makers of modern liberalism teach the permanent necessity—at least for states based on the freedom and equality of all—of weaving together moral and political principles that must be made to support one another although they often pull in opposing directions."

Contemporary liberalism, which reduces all to individualistic self-expression and moral license, must be countered by another liberalism that can draw on the founding sources of the liberal tradition itself. An intellectually persuasive and socially effective countering, of course, must draw also on the religious sources that, however unrecognized, give coherence to the tradition’s treatment of virtue and human flourishing. Countering the currently prevalent notions of liberalism is today typically called conservatism. The better way to understand it is that we are contending for the soul of liberalism.

A Woman’s Choice

My colleague J. Bottum, who recently left us for the Weekly Standard, mentioned this rather different movie on the subject of choice, so I asked him to write up the following note. You might want to keep it in mind the next time you visit the video store.

Jorge Luis Borges has a story—one of his typically mocking, philosophically pointed tales—about a twentieth-century man who has spent his life painfully rewriting an exact replica of Don Quixote. How different look the little passages of Spanish prose the man has managed to produce, the narrator points out, when we know that they’re written not by Cervantes but by someone alive now. Borges’ story came to mind recently while thinking about movies, about how differently viewers would take Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night—essentially a film about the lengths to which two beautiful and highly aroused people will go to avoid having premarital sex—were it released today instead of 1934, when it took all the top Oscars.

The occasion for this reflection was watching a relatively new film from Columbia Pictures called Fools Rush In, now out on videocassette. Starring the amiably goofy Matthew Perry as a New York troubleshooter sent out to Nevada and the gorgeous Salma Hayek as the feisty Hispanic photographer with whom he falls in love, the movie is hardly great art—just a straightforward and perfectly enjoyable romantic comedy of the kind that Hollywood turned out at the rate of two a month back in the 1930s and ’40s.

But how different it seems now. Directed by Andy Tennant from a screenplay by Katherine Reback, Fools Rush In tells the story of Alex Whitman, a stereotypically ironic Manhattanite posted for a few months in Las Vegas, and Isabelle Fuentes, a Mexican-American working as a camera girl at Caesar’s Palace. They "meet cute," as the expression goes, in line to use the toilet in a restaurant (a scene that probably wouldn’t have made it into It Happened One Night), and they both get a little drunk. Awakening at five the next morning in Alex’s bed, Isabelle flees in disgust at her one-night stand—only to show up three months later to announce to Alex her resulting pregnancy.

From there the movie develops pretty much the way you’d expect, or at least pretty much the way you’d expect if this were 1934: he proposes, she refuses; she runs, he follows; they marry that same day and spend the next six months in shock at their sudden marriage, their expected child, and the fact that he lives in New York and she in Nevada. Oh, and it all turns out happy.

A successful screenwriter once described to me how easy he had found it to set pro-life themes in the movies on which he’s worked—always provided, of course, that the characters never talk about it. Sympathetic figures are not allowed to use pro-life rhetoric, and whenever the topic of abortion comes up, they have to mouth the accepted Hollywood cant of choice. But otherwise no one seems to notice if you put happy mothers and wanted children in your stories. It’s not so much a matter of sneaking the truth past the censors as letting the truth stand out unspoken.

Whether or not the director and the screenwriter intended it, Fools Rush In is astonishingly anti-abortion for a modern film. Completely absent are the slogans of the pro-life movement, but present is the truth about how most people actually think when they’re not talking abstractly about abortion. Alex falls back in love with his wife when he hears the infant’s heartbeat, while Isabelle’s obstetrician casually asks if they want an ultrasound printout as "the first picture of your baby." A lightning-fast but telling scene occurs when Isabelle first tells Alex she’s pregnant and knows what she has to do. "Oh, thank God," he cries before he catches himself and sententiously adds, "I mean, I have always believed in a woman’s right to choose." "Good," Isabelle answers, "because I choose to keep this baby."

As I said, if this were 1934, you probably wouldn’t notice, just sit back and enjoy the light film. But things have changed since then, and it seems worthwhile to mention a new movie that has the novelty of old-fashionedness.

Bearing the Cross

"The Catholicizing of the Holocaust." That is one rabbi’s way of putting the Jewish complaint against the canonizing of Edith Stein. One obvious response is that Edith Stein "Catholized" Edith Stein, and therefore her part in the Holocaust. One commentator has observed that she was killed as a Jew but died as a Christian. But that doesn’t seem quite right. A more compelling response is offered by Dominican Father J. Augustine DiNoia at a recent Mass commemorating Edith Stein.

In her essay, "The Road to Carmel," Edith Stein wrote: "I spoke to our Savior and told him that I knew it was His Cross which was now being laid on the Jewish people. Most of them did not understand it; but those who did understand must accept it willingly in the name of all."

These words hint at the deeply mysterious way in which Edith Stein vicariously identified herself with her people. It is a matter that she always understood to be of great significance for the meaning of her life—a conviction that her mother had inspired in her—that her birthday was October 21, 1891, the feast of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, that year. Indeed, forty-two years later, with her entrance into Carmel, she identified herself with Queen Esther (see Esther 8:3-6):

"I am confident that the Lord has taken my life for all the Jews. I always have to think of Queen Esther, who was taken away from her people for the express purpose of standing before the king for her people. I am the very poor, weak, and small Esther, but the king who selected me is very great and merciful."

She could not have known then how prophetic these words would turn out to be.

Fr. DiNoia continues:

The events of the last month of her life show clearly why this great saint is to be venerated in the Church as a martyr. There is a fact that is little known and of great significance for understanding the nature of her martyrdom. On July 26, 1942, the Dutch bishops protested the deportation of Jews in a pastoral letter read in all the Catholic churches of Holland. The Nazi officials retaliated by arresting all Catholics, but not other Christians, of Jewish origins. They came for Edith and her sister Rosa on August 2. After passing through several other camps, they finally arrived at Auschwitz on August 9, and they died in the gas chamber there on that very day. Thus it happened, in God’s mysterious design, that Edith Stein—Blessed Teresa Benedicta of the Cross—went to her death, as a Jew, embracing solidarity with her people, and, as a Christian, bearing witness unto death to the Catholic protest against the evil of anti-Semitism.

Only in the "science of the Cross" could such a death have the meaning of a victory. We learn this science from Christ himself who, in a definitive way, conquered the evil of sin and death through the Cross, and who leads each one of us, one by one, through the same passage—passio—so that sin will die in us and give way to the newness of life.

In declaring Edith Stein a saint and martyr, the Church expresses her faith that, in the end, it was God himself who blessed and enabled Edith Stein’s willing embrace of the Cross and her vicarious representation of her people and, by this sign, confirmed our faith in Christ’s victory over evil, even in the organized and seemingly superhuman form it assumed in Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.

While We’re At It

Author information