Your symposium “The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics” (November 1996) did a great service by sounding the alarm about the risks and costs associated with the farce that is modern American constitutional law. Judges have claimed the power to make our moral choices for us, and, thus far, we have permitted them to do so. As a result, our pretensions to self-government are increasingly hollow, as is our public morality. This state of affairs is indefensible. It persists only because so many people view it as an immutable part of the political landscape. Unfortunately, your symposium did little to dispel that misunderstanding. It was a theme of the symposium that there is no good remedy for judicial usurpation of power. Your introduction expresses certainty that the judiciary has abused its power but says, “Like our authors, we are much less certain about what can or should be done about it.” Later you summarize the remedies considered in the symposium, “ranging from noncompliance to resistance to civil disobedience to morally justified revolution.” All of these options are extralegal, some are catastrophic. Nowhere do you or your authors consider the possibility that a practical remedy for judicial overreaching is built into our Constitution . . . . The framers may never have anticipated the bold claim of authority Chief Justice John Marshall made in Marbury v. Madison , but they believed that the judiciary could not, under any circumstances, threaten self-government because the constitutional plan made it utterly dependent on the other branches of government. As Alexander Hamilton said in The Federalist , No. 78, “The judiciary . . . has no influence over either the sword or the purse . . . . It may truly be said to have neither force nor will, but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments.” What the framers failed to anticipate was that the “executive arm” would slavishly enforce any error the judiciary chose to pass off as constitutional interpretation. Hamilton assumed that the executive would independently assess the merits of what the Supreme Court had to say, and if the Court was out of line, the executive would ignore it. If our practice were in accord with this assumption, the Court could not threaten the foundations of democracy in America. The fact that it does should not be taken as evidence of a defect in the constitutional scheme, only as the occasion for a small adjustment in our constitutional practice. We need to restore the power of the executive to determine for itself whether judicial decisions merit enforcement and to deny enforcement to those decisions that do not. This power is inherent in the constitutional design. Without it, that design is suicidal, a futile effort at self-government doomed to end in a judicial oligarchy. The President of the United States is the head of a coequal branch of government. He cannot uphold the dignity of his office and fulfill his oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and, at the same time, subordinate his own judgment regarding constitutional interpretation to the Supreme Court. All it would take to confine the courts within their proper boundaries would be a President with the courage and vision to maintain those boundaries . . . .
J. Peter Mulhern
Bowie, MD . . . Any notion of Christian “moral legitimacy” to government or governing authorities must always be provisional, not absolute. Most American Christians have not taken the time or effort to reflect seriously on the whole of New Testament teaching regarding the state and our individual and corporate responses to it. The writers of the New Testament, in my view, indicate that no matter what government Christians find themselves under, they are to live responsibly (pay taxes, give proper respect to governing authorities, and comply with just laws). At the same time, the New Testament clearly teaches that all governing authority is temporal and ultimately bounded by God’s authority. As Christians, our allegiance to any government is at best provisional and always defined by our ultimate loyalty to God and his purposes. Our lack of biblical reflection has meant that American Christians have vacillated between one approach that sees the United States as a special dispensation in God’s economy (the temptation of many within the Christian Coalition) and another that views this nation as the source of much of the contemporary evil in our world (the view that drives much of the religious left). Historical reality is much more complex than either position allows for, and it is only through sustained and thoughtful reflection on the biblical witness that Christians can articulate and practice a responsible personal and social witness in our present historical situation . . . .
Robert J. Mayer
Charlotte, NC Regarding your symposium, I found the tone, much of the content, and the apparent intent outrageously intemperate and irresponsible. I cannot but wonder, if recent judicial decisions had been more in keeping with the views of the symposium participants and of the editors of First Things , that there would have been proposals “ranging from noncompliance to resistance to civil disobedience to morally justified revolution.” I am appalled! There are reasonable and responsible alternatives to what you propose, including the very obvious one of persuading legislators to address the issues raised by Casey (1992) and other judicial decisions. The constitutional system has not collapsed. We simply need to insist that our elected representatives see to it that it function democratically and effectively. And that insistence goes well beyond legitimate concerns about the federal judiciary . . . .
Robert W. Heywood
Flint, MI Shame on Robert Bork for playing politician and not scholar in his article “Our Judicial Oligarchy.” He claims in short that democracy has met its demise at the hands of a liberal Supreme Court . . . . What role the unelected judicial branch should play in American government is a question of supreme importance. The Supreme Court has unprincipally asserted itself for causes liberal, conservative, and otherwise. This should concern anyone who values democracy. Mr. Bork’s real concern, however, is the perpetuation of traditional values, which is a valid but completely different issue. Mr. Bork and the editors of First Things should be more honest.
Kenneth C. Hardy
Long Beach, CA All five essays in your November symposium were thought-provoking. I didn’t agree with all of the suggestions presented in them, but I wrestled with them all”which I assume was the aim of the exercise. I am puzzled by the vehement reaction it evoked from some in the conservative camp. What is conservatism? Surely not an abstract, objectless doctrine. Conservatism aims to conserve things, especially the vital cultural traditions of our civilization. Among those traditions”central to them, I would contend”is the proposition that “laws” that aren’t really laws but usurpations of legitimate authority are unjust, and unjust laws are not morally binding. This is the core argument of all five essays, and if it is a “radical” proposition, I will inform my radical friends that they now have to include St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, and the Old and New Testament in their canon. Perhaps there is a place for them there (Aquinas went so far as to call an unjust law “an act of violence”), but I seem to remember my conservative friends also considering them worthy of serious study. As a living doctrine, conservativsm is hearty, robust, and challenging. It is not to be confused with timidity.
Tenafly, NJ I write to commend and thank you for publishing the symposium on “The End of Democracy?” In my opinion, this is the most important and needed project you have ever done, and thinking and concerned Americans should applaud and become activated by this most serious and thoughtful discourse. My hope is that it will be widely circulated, reprinted, and become the subject of consideration in legislative bodies, law schools, religious organizations, and civic groups, so that the analyses and warnings of the dangers and threatened end of our democratic experiment will not be ignored. My fear is that the current culture is such that the authors and thoughtful conservatives will be condemned, demonized, and marginalized as radicals and extremists for daring to discuss these issues.
Melvin J. Spencer
Oklahoma City, OK I read the symposium on “The End of Democracy?” in the Westchester County Jail completing part of a five-day sentence for disorderly conduct. Bishop George Lynch, Brother Fidelis Moscinski, CFR, and I were arrested in front of a notorious abortuary in Dobbs Ferry, New York, for attempting to dissuade people from killing children. In fact our disorderly conduct was quietly saying the rosary while sitting in the driveway of this place where children were actually being dismembered at that moment. A representative of this agency admitted in federal court that they performed third trimester abortions, that is, the killing of viable children separated from the protection of law only by their mother’s womb and the hideous legal fiction that they are not human beings. As I sat reading in my cell, each article of the symposium took on greater significance, with one writer after another describing in legal and philosophical terms the origins of our constitutional crisis. This crisis has lead to the legalized murder of infants and is now threatening to extend to the chronically ill and the aged . . . . At the entrance to the huge military cemetery above Honolulu there is a sign that reads, “War is ultimately a spiritual problem.” . . . To paraphrase the cemetery sign, “Abortion, euthanasia, and the constitutional crisis are ultimately spiritual problems.” We Americans with our hedonism and moral relativism are the real causes of the constitutional crisis.
(The Rev.) Benedict J. Groeschel, CFR
Larchmont, NY I have practiced law for over twenty-one years and I completely agree with the major thrust of the symposium”American courts, particularly the federal courts, have abandoned the concepts of rule of law and limited government under constitutionally delegated authority. In many instances they have substituted rule by judicial fiat. However, if our nation does face the end of democracy, and I fear it does, I submit that the problem cannot be traced simply to usurpation of power by the judiciary. That is merely a symptom of the disease, and the prognosis is extremely grim. Our founding fathers recognized that limited, constitutional government by majority rule was possible only for a people imbued with certain concepts of the obligations of a citizen, and subject to restraints imposed by an authority higher than government. Even the deists among our founders would have agreed that these concepts of duty and restraint were based on the Christian faith . . . . I think there is a universal tendency in mankind that will always worship the greatest force, and in America that greatest force appears to be the force of secular government.
Steven Kropelnicki, Jr.
Asheville, NC For a small but growing number of conservatives today, there comes a terrible moment when one realizes that America is not just illegitimate in isolated pockets (as many conservatives have long believed), but that it is in some sense fundamentally illegitimate, because its dominant institutions and ideals have become illegitimate. For me, this epiphany came with the Supreme Court’s decision against the Virginia Military Institute last June, and the broad public acceptance, even celebration, of that decision. At the time I said to friends: “We’re not living in a free country any more, we’re living under a tyranny.” . . . The importance of such insights-painful though they may be to those who want to believe in America-cannot be overstated. The fact that we are no longer living under a free government based, however indirectly or unofficially, on Christian morality, but under an entrenched countercultural tyranny, makes the usual conservative slogans and solutions meaningless . We need a whole new politics, aimed at dismantling the illegitimate powers that the federal courts have usurped over the past sixty years and at directly challenging the culture of decadence enshrined in the schools and the media. Without such a counterrevolutionary politics, to go on speaking of conservative goals like “remoralizing society” or “returning to the limited government of the Constitution” is to indulge in empty rhetoric. Indeed, the extreme distress of leading establishment conservatives over the First Things “End of Democracy?” symposium spectacularly confirms the suspicion, long held by some on the right, that those conservatives’ opposition to liberalism is at bottom only an intellectual game. They don’t want to face the truth of how corrupt and illegitimate our regime has become, because that would require them to challenge it seriously . As their indignant denunciations of the symposium suggest, the only thing these conservatives really want to conserve is the existing left/liberal system, and their own comfortable (if essentially powerless) places within it . . . .
New York, NY I’m finishing my third reading of your symposium and I can’t think of enough good things to say about it. But the more I think about the Supreme Court’s dictum in Casey (“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”), also taken up by the Circuit Courts of Appeal in the assisted suicide rulings, there’s either less to it than appears, or it’s much worse than that. The heart of liberty as defining one’s concept of existence? What does it mean, in a secular understanding, to define a personal concept of existence? You either exist or you don’t, what’s to conceptualize? Is there a grey area in between? And how can suicide be a defining of one’s concept of existence? If you’re dead, you have no existence to define. The first rule of logic is that a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time. Oh, but that’s Scholasticism, which is disallowed on the grounds of religious motivation. The heart of liberty as defining one’s concept of meaning? At the heart of madness lies the fact that one’s concept of meaning has been defined privately. Madness is the privatization of meaning. The ancient Greek word for a private person was idiotes . According to the Supreme Court’s dictum, the most free person in the world would be the schizophrenic. This isn’t freedom, it’s solipsism. The heart of liberty as defining one’s concept of the universe? Do astrophysicists define their personal concept of the universe? Or do they try to discover and explain what is really there for the benefit of all? Why does the Court bother to elevate the legal status of fictional constructs of the universe? Is it the juridically correct understanding that the universe is an occasion for the projection of fantasies? So, apparently illogic and insanity are the only legally permissible meanings of meaning. As to “the mystery of human life,” where to even begin, except to say that if the justices would recognize the natural right to life, they might not find it such a mystery . . . .
Chestnut Hill, MA Thank you for your brilliant and most appropriate symposium. Thank you for saying what has been on the minds of so many of us. Having read the article on the symposium by David Brooks in the Weekly Standard , I know that you are taking many hits, but I believe it is our old friends who are abandoning you who are wrong in this instance. How are we to demonstrate the truth to our children who must be raised in this philistine culture? How do we pass on the faith to them? If I am right about the harsh despotism that is showing signs of coming forth, I trust our old neoconservative friends will see that their self-interest, as well as the interest of constitutionalism, resides in discussing these kinds of questions.
Kennesaw, GA . . . Felix Frankfurter, reflecting the constitutional sensibility of a bygone era, once observed that “the circumambient condition of the Constitution is federalism.” The contemporary judiciary, in a development that would have appalled Frankfurter, makes bold to offer a substitute proposition. For our present robed oligarchy, the circumambient condition of the Constitution is the “mega-right” enveloped in the “mystery passage”: “the right to define one’s own concept of existence.” If in common law, as its practitioners are wont to say, there is no right without a remedy, then perhaps we might similarly contend that, in constitutional law, there is no right without a reference. At one level of encounter, the “all-purpose right to define the meaning of the universe” represents a right without a reference, either in respect to procedure or in respect to substance. First, what would constitute the process according to which this right might find expression? Presumably, the process would amount to nothing more than the untutored promptings of the unfettered self. Second, given this protean provenance, what reasonable substantive content could conceivably result? In referential perspective, the mystery mega-right”since the process of its exercise would be as boundless as the myriad promptings of the myriad selves within a society, and the resultant product no less so”can mean, in hopeless indetermination, anything, at any time, under any circumstances . . . .
Edward J. McBride
Halifax, Nova Scotia Bravo for your symposium. It makes compelling Lockean arguments that the judicial usurpers who rule us lack legitimacy. I like to say we have a system of “student government,” because we are treated like high school students”able to govern ourselves only insofar as our black-robed “principals” care to let us do so. But a more focused critique is called for both by prudence and by practicality. Political prudence requires that we affirm rather than abjure the American constitutional tradition, for it was a relatively good one of ever-expanding inclusivity up to the time of Roe . Practicality requires that we provide ways for ordinary citizens, rather than only for political leaders, to express that affirmation through what Evangelium Vitae calls “conscientious objection” to unjust laws. My proposal would be to avoid the broader issue of regime legitimacy and simply identify the concrete consequences of the fact that Roe v. Wade is invalid both under the Constitution and under natural law . . . . One would hope that the Catholic bishops and other moral or religious leaders would join this educational effort and would point out, for example, that any police officer or judge who understands the invalidity of laws denying human dignity commits a legal and moral wrong in arresting or condemning rescuers at abortion clinics. Public officials could be initially excused who had made a reasonable mistake of law in reliance on the U.S. Supreme Court, though as the legal invalidity of Roe became more widely known, the reasonableness of such a mistake would become less and less plausible . . . . Perhaps we and the bishops should begin with, and specifically encourage and participate in, nonviolent sit-ins to stop partial-birth abortions. Not that children partially born have a right to more protection than other unborn children, but the natural law tradition counsels active resistance to injustice only insofar as one has a reasonable hope of success without causing still greater harm. (For this reason, among others, violence must be absolutely excluded.) . . .
Valparaiso, IN The symposium dramatized the dilemma of those concerned, from a faith perspective, with the future of this Republic. Somewhere in Democracy in America , Alexis de Tocqueville joined the survival of the American system to popular confidence in the Supreme Court. The symposium’s careful and responsible analysis of the reasons for the erosion of confidence contributes to a discussion that can only grow more insistent in the years to come. Many thanks.
(Most Reverend) Francis E. George, O.M.I.
Archbishop of Portland in Oregon I strongly disagree with the underlying assumption of the symposium. Despite some legitimate grievances concerning some bad court decisions, I believe the judicial branch remains our “least dangerous branch.” You let the other branches of our government off too easily by asking the essayists to focus exclusively on the failings of the judicial branch . . . . Our governmental regime is suffering from a crisis of legitimacy, but your symposium sought to frame the issue in terms of a choice between democratic self-governance and judicial ukase. The issue should have been framed in terms of the appropriate role of government in a free society. The American experiment is not so much about democracy as much as it is about human liberty. Our Founding Fathers recognized that our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property preceded all human legislation. They sought to create a government that would secure those rights. And by establishing limited, constitutional governments (federal and state), the Founders thought they could keep government from interfering with the way individuals choose to live their own lives. Over the course of the twentieth century, however, our social contract of strictly limited government has been severely breached and more and more of life’s decisions have become politicized. The American people resent this loss of control over their lives”and this is why the current American regime is in a crisis of legitimacy.
Your correspondent has dispatched to Alan Jacobs (“Flags, Tradition, and Charity,” November 1996) the gift of a flag”the Stars and Bars”confident that he will be able both with devotion and with charity to display it for the Wheaton College Dixie Club. The Stars and Bars, you see, being the first national flag of the Confederate States of America, is wholly to be distinguished from the Southern Cross”also known as the Battle Flag”which is strictly a military banner. The Stars and Bars was designed by Nicola Marschall at the behest of the Confederate Congress; the Southern Cross was designed by General P. G. T. Beauregard in response to battlefield contingencies. One hesitates to remark the sundry other misjudgments of history that detract from Mr. Jacobs’ poignant musings on an unnecessary predicament. Perhaps his misgivings with regard to Southern symbols and his Southern heritage would be happily resolved were he to consider A Defense of Virginia (And Through Her of the South) by the redoubtable Presbyterian divine Robert Lewis Dabney, the pertinent poems of Father Abram Ryan, Catholic priest and poet laureate of the Confederacy, and the contemporary observations on history, slavery, and the American South by David Brion Davis and (especially) Eugene Genovese. Perforce Mr. Jacobs would discover that he is anguished only by misconceptions of the Southern tradition, and that these misconceptions have been foisted upon unsuspecting generations by the overzealous victors in 1865 and by uninformed or ideologically committed zealots since. Moreover, perhaps Mr. Jacobs would be comforted in apprehending that the resulting misconception of Southern purposes and practices has not only confounded him but also has confused and therefore misled generations of all Americans. The confusion amounts to nothing less than the loss of our actual patrimony, including a true understanding of our only original quest of a comprehensively just social and political order (see Anne Norton’s Alternative Americas and Genovese’s The Slaveholders’ Dilemma ), of our founding principles of self-government, and of inspiring examples of devout faith in the face of the ideological forces that Southerners confronted in the nineteenth century. Those forces, having prevailed over Southerners then, bedevil us all now. Indeed, if First Things finds itself compelled (wisely and courageously) to ponder “The End of Democracy?” a Southerner might be forgiven for suggesting that it manifestly is not “democracy” that is imperiled today”would that it were so. Rather, the peril is for those remnants of the republican institutions (including the Constitution) that were either damaged, destroyed, or destined for dismantling by the politicians of the 1860s and thereafter who knew which Southern flags were which, what the several Southern flags meant, why they had been unfurled, and why”if the god Demos were to prevail”the symbols and thus the principles of the fighting South had to be discredited. The long list of Supreme Court usurpations decried bravely and well by Messrs. Bork, Hittinger, Colson, Arkes, and George is the inevitable consequence of the purposes and the policies of the victors and the ideological heirs of the victors of Appomattox. Which is not at all, one must hasten to add, to diminish, let alone to condone, the admitted imperfections of the Southern past. Rather, it is to remark and to lament the gold that has been so carelessly and disastrously discarded with the dross, and also to suggest that the lead foot of a national (as distinct from a federal) tyranny, and especially of a national judicial tyranny, was made inevitable when Thaddeus Stevens and his cynical cohorts won and the Confederates were conquered. Now that even Virginians have shamefully forsworn their ancient credo” sic semper tyrannis !”and acquiesced in United States v. Virginia , what state, what sovereign of any sort, remains to defy Leviathan for the sake of liberty?
David A. Bovenizer
Indianapolis, IN . . . When Alan Jacobs refers to the Stars and Bars, he is showing an ignorance of Southern history endemic to those who have not studied it. The Stars and Bars was the first national flag of the Confederate States of America. It appeared in 1861 and had three wide horizontal stripes: red across the top and bottom, and white through the middle. The canton was blue, and contained seven white stars arranged in a circle. If we took “a walk through the south side of Chicago with the Star and Bars on our (shirt) backs” as Professor Jacobs dares us to do, nothing unusual would happen. The flag Jacobs meant when he called it a symbol of “pain,” “racism,” and “causing our brothers and sisters to stumble””the flag he compares with the Nazi swastika”is the Confederate Navy and Battle Flag. It is red, with thirteen white stars on a blue St. Andrews cross edged in white. (It is worth noting here that the St. Andrews Cross is the flag of Scotland, and was chosen by the South because it belonged to an agrarian country which also fought for independence from an overbearing government.) Professor Jacobs is remarkably concerned about symbolism, if somewhat indifferent to reality. He says “symbols have histories,” and, because white supremacists have carried it, he cites “racism” and “slavery” as the message symbolized by the Confederate Flag. Would he say that, because Madonna and Mapplethorpe have adopted the cross of Christ as their “symbols,” the cross now represents coarseness and obscenity and should be discarded by Christians? The enduring message of that ancient Scottish flag and the beautiful flag of the Confederacy is freedom from oppressive government . . . . I fly this beautiful banner at my home because I love it, and because there is a bit of the rebel in my tired old heart. I love it because it gives the soul a lift . . . because it whispers, “None can own your spirit.” It does not speak of color; rather it touches the spark of independence which lives in us all. And when arrogant white supremacists, resentful blacks, liberal professors”or any others”would reduce this bright banner to a dark “racist symbol,” I must protest that only the most grievously ignorant, the most woefully confused, and the most mindlessly hostile would participate in that effort.
Mary L. Kaoy
Otis, OR Professor Alan Jacobs presents a new and interesting argument in suggesting that his fellow Southerners strain Christian charity when they display the Stars and Bars. Perhaps so. But he is wrong when he says the flag “was created to serve as the symbol of an institution whose members . . . agreed about the moral and legal acceptability of slaveholding.” The Stars and Bars was the Confederate battle flag, created for purposes of battlefield identification, not the lesser known Confederate national standard against the display of which he might have made a moot case since it’s almost never flown today. And while there were virulent racists who fought under the Stars and Bars (as was also the case with the Stars and Stripes), one cannot accuse Southern soldiers of a blanket agreement on anything, including slaveholding. The record of their lives and letters proves otherwise. Professor Jacobs would have been more accurate to say that the Stars and Bars was the battle flag of armies that fought primarily to resist armed invaders so that their new nation might go about its business without molestation and in peace. Those who fly the Stars and Bars intending to give offense surely sin against Christian charity. Those who take offense where none is intended may be guilty only of ignorance.
Robert P. Hilldrup
Richmond, VA I am a native New Englander living in Virginia, and as such I have developed a sympathy for both sides with regard to the strained feelings that still remain after the Civil War/War Between the States. Alan Jacobs expressed well some of these feelings and problems in his discussion of conflicting interpretations of the meaning of the confederate battle flag . . . . There is more to this issue than North vs. South rivalry. Since the defeat of the Confederacy, the nation has swung too far in the other direction, toward unitary government. The constitutional principle of federalism is all but forgotten, and the states have little power to resist the mandates of the “federal” government. The articles on the “judicial usurpation of politics” elsewhere in the journal are a good example of this problem. I appeal to native Southerners not to let us Yankees distort your understanding of the symbolism of the flag of the Confederacy, to remember what it stands for (not racism), and to keep pride in your heritage. And Professor Jacobs: please let the students wear their club T-shirts displaying their flag!
John A. Tinkham
Virginia Beach, VA Re Alan Jacobs’ “Flags, Traditions, and Charity”: To quote in part . . . “the history of a symbol is an ineradicable part of its meaning.” Does Mr. Jacobs erect a Christmas tree at Christmas?
Michael L. Ward
Vero Beach, FL Alan Jacobs replies:
My thanks to David A. Bovenizer and Mary L. Kaoy for pointing out that the Confederate battle flag is not the “Stars and Bars””though any number of reference books (and Robert P. Hilldrup!) think it is. Interestingly, Bovenizer, Kaoy, and Hilldrup all want to inform me that the flag under discussion was the Confederate battle flag; apparently none of them noticed that I specifically identified it as such in my essay.
To Mr. Hilldrup: the “members” of the CSA I was referring to were not individual persons, but rather the states. To John A. Tinkham: I don’t know that I have the authority to deny my students the privilege of wearing their shirts. I was making a moral and prudential argument, not justifying a commandment.
I can’t respond in much detail to Mary Kaoy’s letter because she hasn’t actually read my essay. Apparently my argument set off so many alarms in her mind that she simply assumed that (for instance) if I mentioned the swastika I had to be comparing the Dixie flag to it. She picks out words that she finds offensive and quotes them without bothering to note how they were used in my sentences and in my argument. She defends her flying of the flag at her home as though I had protested against that, when in fact my argument was about what prudential and charitable rules of conduct should prevail in an overtly Christian community, which is what Wheaton College tries to be.
In fact, it doesn’t seem that any of my correspondents noticed that that was my purpose, which could mean that I am a very bad writer indeed. Of course, I would prefer to believe that feelings are so strong on the issues I was discussing that those feelings got in the way of careful reading.
This is not the place for further contention about the causes, results, and interpretations of what many Southerners still call “the late unpleasantness.” Insistences that the war was about slavery, period, are just as tiresome as insistences that it was about states’ rights, period; both do violence to a complex history. But because I believe that nothing in the history of this continent has been more shameful than the practice of enslavement (only our treatment of our unborn equals it), and because the Confederate States of America sought, though it also sought many good things, to preserve that practice, support of the CSA is not compatible with what I understand to be my duties as a faithful Christian and a faithful Southerner. Therefore, though I thank Mr. Bovenizer for his gift of a flag, I prefer not to display it. I think I’ll give it to one of my students.
I hope Michael L. Ward will be pleased to know that I do indeed erect a Christmas tree each year, and that its history is for me not only an ineradicable but also a welcome part of its meaning. It’s good to be reminded, especially in these times, not only of the defeat but also the transformation of pagan powers in the working out of God’s purposes through Christ and His Church.
While it is not surprising that Terry Schlossberg, who is Executive Director of Presbyterians Pro-Life, an advocacy group within our denomination, would be critical of church leaders, it is surprising that First Things editors would allow her to mobilize so many factual falsehoods in the defense of what she and they obviously regard as the “cause of orthodoxy” (“Presbyterians Hold the Line,” October 1996). At the heart of her argument lies a glaring distortion of some rather basic facts. She writes, “Since 1983, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has suffered continuous demographic, financial, theological, and spiritual decline, as its radical leaders increasingly alienated its congregations. Many members”indeed, whole congregations”responded to the national leaders’ leftist stances by leaving the denomination. In the past two years alone, the church lost 77,000 members; since 1983, fully half a million of the original three million members have gone . . . .” In fact, Mrs. Schlossberg overstates the membership loss during this period by 165,000, but this is a minor error of arithmetic. Her larger falsehood is the assertion that half a million Presbyterians have left the denomination in response to the national leaders’ “leftist stances.” In reality the membership loss for Presbyterians began in the 1960s and since that time there have been any number of in-depth studies undertaken to identify causes for the decline. Among the clearly identified factors is, first and foremost, the low birth-rate among Presbyterians. In addition there are several other nonideological trends that correlate with membership losses, including the upward social mobility of its membership and the percentage of its members who enjoy the benefits of higher education. During the same period the Presbyterian Church has gained far more members from “conservative churches” than it has lost to them. While these same studies do document that national church executives often hold positions to the “left” of the laity, such differences also distinguish ministers of local congregations from members of their own churches. The clergy/laity differences are more significant than the national/local divisions that Mrs. Schlossberg hangs her argument upon. Yet none of these studies has given credence to the view that such differences of opinion account for what is happening within the Presbyterian family. At the heart of the Presbyterian predicament lies the demography of its traditional constituency. Presbyterians are generally more prosperous, more highly educated and, above all, more committed to family planning than members of more conservative churches. None of these factors would be altered were leaders of the denomination to espouse positions further to the “right.” Closer to the heart of the matter is the challenge of presenting the gospel of Jesus Christ in ways that are more credible and compelling to a population that will continue to be “better educated,” as well as reaching out to a whole new population of Americans who have enjoyed the benefits of a higher education but who have never been exposed to a more thoughtful presentation of a biblical, theologically grounded faith. In this task a thoughtful journal like First Things can play an important part, but not by permitting glaring falsehood to be marshaled in presumed service of the truth.
(The Rev.) Charles P. Henderson, Jr.
New Rochelle, NY While the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) may have held the line on homosexual ordination, the tragedy is that those “unprecedented numbers” who were expected to leave if homosexuals were ordained don’t seem to have the same qualms about killing babies. The same General Assembly Terry Schlossberg discusses refused to condemn partial-birth abortions. Other recent assemblies have refused to admit that human life begins at conception (1995), or to condemn late-term abortions (1994), or to resign membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, or to change the church’s health care plan. The PC (USA) is the only denomination that provides unrestricted abortion coverage for pastors, staff, and their families according to the Presbyterians Pro-Life Newsletter, Fall 1996. As it now stands, every church member who puts money in the plate supports abortion. Perhaps the most horrifying statement on abortion is the minority report adopted in 1992. It was written by the more conservative element to oppose the majority report, which states that since we don’t know when human life begins, abortion is not a sin. The minority report emphatically affirms the full humanity of the unborn child. It then anticipates Naomi Wolf by stating that we may need to kill our baby if it is grossly deformed or conceived through the father’s sin of rape or incest.
Cuba, MO Terry Schlossberg replies:
Nancy Harvey’s observations point out how far we have to go and illustrate my point that in times of transition there may seem to be more evidence of decline than of renewal. However, change gripped even the authors of the minority report she refers to-none of them today holds to the exceptions for abortion they wrote into their report in 1992.
Charles P. Henderson, Jr., on the other hand, offers familiar rationalization for decline of the Presbyterian Church by citing reasons that seem to argue that neither theology nor morality matter to us. In fact, the “in-depth” studies which he neglects to cite are characterized by disputes over the real reasons for decline. The work of Benton Johnson, Dean R. Hoge, and Donald A. Luidens (“Mainline Churches: The Real Reason for Decline,” FT, March 1993) challenged other attempts to explain the reasons for the decline, which in the 1960s utterly reversed what had been growth among the mainline denominations that equaled or exceeded that of the United States as a whole up to that time. Mr. Henderson tries to attribute our decline to such positive reasons as education, prosperity, and low birthrates. But Thomas C. Reeves in The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity (Free Press, 1996), along with Johnson et al., notes that the primary reason for decline is not low birthrates but rather teenage dropouts, the children of members who reach the age of decision and leave: “Fully 48 percent of Presbyterian youth drop out of church-going altogether.” Further, one expects growth to be associated not merely with reproduction within the membership but in a significant way with evangelism and mission work. But overseas mission giving is in decline; George Gallup found in 1989 that evangelism is “virtually ignored by the mainline churches.”
We may be upwardly mobile and well educated, as Mr. Henderson says, but per member giving to churches associated with the National Council of Churches today is lower than in the depths of the Great Depression.
Other chroniclers note the loss of distinctives that give people no reason to choose church over the Rotary Club. Reeves quotes former PC (USA) Stated Clerk James Andrews commenting on the loss of distinctives in the church: “Churches without any self-understanding lose members.” Reeves’ well-documented chronicle supports his conclusion that the mainline churches’ loss of members and influence is linked to the increasingly empty theology and politics of its leaders, which was my thesis.
In 1993 one of our Presbyterian pastors, A. Russell Stevenson, listed churches in our denomination that qualify as “mega-churches” ( Presbyterian Layman , September/October 1993). His group of thirty-nine churches all have Sunday morning attendance in excess of 1,000 and total income of at least $600 per member. “The remarkable common factor” among them, noted Stevenson, “is that they are all evangelical churches!” Contrary to Mr. Henderson’s theory, decline is not the natural state of the Church. Those that uphold biblical standards for living our lives, offer a clear exposition of orthodox Christian faith, and communicate that faith clearly in the midst of the moral confusion of our culture are not in decline. Those of us working for renewal hope for a reclaimed vitality in the proclamation of the Gospel that will come to characterize the whole of Christ’s Church once again.
I read Professor A. J. Conyers’ article “Protestant Principle, Catholic Substance” (November 1996) and wanted to cheer. I too, have over the years developed an increasing awareness that “something is seriously missing” in most of our Protestant churches. That missing something is, as Prof. Conyers says, catholic substance. However, I fear that sometimes we may confuse catholic substance with catholic form. Many Protestants (especially Lutherans and Anglicans) are rightly concerned with forms of worship. The often quoted phrase “lex orandi lex credendi” is recited in support of the theological importance of forms of worship. And although I agree that the basic form of the mass is a confession of faith, it is no guarantee of that confession. It is probably stating the obvious to say that many conservative evangelical or fundamentalist churches that have little concern with catholic form may preserve catholic substance more faithfully than their liturgically correct brothers and sisters. I say all of this not to suggest that liturgical forms are adiaphora, because what we do in worship is a confession of faith. But perhaps one reason why conservative churches are growing is because the faithful sense that these churches are conserving something of the catholic substance. This is true particularly of the catholic moral consensus regarding abortion and homosexuality, but it is also true in matters of doctrine. For most oldline/sideline Protestant churches there is only confusion about these issues. What, it seems to me, is needed in our oldline/sideline Protestant congregations is a return both to a recognizably catholic form of worship and also to a recognizable confession of the catholic substance of faith and moral teaching. Someone may ask why I would not simply become a Roman Catholic if it is catholic form and substance I desire. This is a question that many of us have wrestled with, and the answer for me is that the Protestant Principle (grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, Scripture alone) is still a needed corrective in today’s Roman Catholic Church. If the Protestant Principle is still a needed corrective, then a renewed Protestant church is the needed ecumenical partner in dialogues with Rome.
(The Rev.) Eric M. Riesen
Zion Lutheran Church
While I find your journal most illuminating”indeed, a bracing breath of fresh air in these times”I write to take issue with a disquieting theme that crops up from time to time. I refer to your disparagement of the Anglican Communion. Every issue seems to take a potshot at Anglicans. Not that many of these cracks are not well deserved. As a traditionalist Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian, I am continually outraged by the actions of the corrupt and decadent leaders of the Episcopal Church, who are in many cases no longer recognizable as Christians, and thus welcome the kind of reasoned Christian critique I find in First Things . I speak rather of the occasional cracks at Anglican legitimacy . . . . First Things seems to me to be preaching a traditionalist ecumenism, where those who adhere to the historic tenets of “Mere Christianity” unite to defend them against an increasingly hostile modern world and increasingly apostate church hierarchies, regardless of their Reformation-era differences. It seems to me that the Anglican tradition of a Church both Catholic and Reformed, with a broad variety of usages within, and its solid historical claims to Apostolic legitimacy, is peculiarly well suited to helping to bridge the divisions between traditionalist Christians. Granted that the current Episcopalian leadership in the U.S. is appalling, but it has this in common with the other “mainline” churches, and traditionalists exist who still fight the good fight. I would appreciate more recognition of this . . . .
Richard John Neuhaus, in his November 1996 While We’re At It, remarks on a recent Mother Jones expose of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. Specifically, that magazine was disturbed that a “former” CIA agent, at IRD’s behest, analyzed the works of the Rev. Dr. J. Philip Wogaman, the pastor to Bill and Hillary Clinton. I am that former CIA “agent.” And I confess to having read (or at least skimmed) about thirty years worth of books and articles by Dr. Wogaman in the course of several clandestine visits to the library of Wesley Seminary, Dr. Wogaman’s old haunt. Mother Jones blamed IRD’s subsequent report for having persuaded Bob and Elizabeth Dole to leave Dr. Wogaman’s congregation. But I believe that Dr. Wogaman himself deserves all the credit. Dr. Wogaman’s “dry” odes to socialism seemed to me more quaint than disturbing. Of more interest were his views on the Bible (whose veracity he believes to be on par with the Washington Post ), on the Person of Jesus (whose literal claims of a Virgin Birth have “injured” many people), on abortion (which he defends even in the partial-birth variety), and homosexuality (which he sees as a divine gift to especially blessed persons). My disagreements with Dr. Wogaman on these issues derive from training I received not at the CIA but from the Sunday Schools of the denomination (United Methodist) to which both Dr. Wogaman and I belong . . . .
United Methodist Director, IRD
I am writing to express my strong disappointment with your review of the Rutherford Institute’s Handbook on Religious Liberty Around the World (Briefly Noted, November 1996). For you to label the Handbook , and by implication the Rutherford Institute, as having an “anti-Catholic bias” demonstrates a partial reading of the Handbook and a total disregard for our record, offends our institution, and worse yet, tarnishes truth itself. As you mention in your review, the Rutherford Institute has in fact a “distinguished record” in defense of religious liberty. It has provided legal assistance not only to Protestant and Catholic Christians, but also to Jews, Hindus, and members of other religions. We have always acted based on principle”liberty for all, not self or denominational interest. Countless Catholics in the United States, Latin America, Europe, and other regions of the world have been assisted by the Rutherford Institute. For instance, in Latin America we have worked closely with Dr. Luis Ossio Sanjinez, former Vice President of Bolivia and currently President of the Pontifical Council for the Family. We have also assisted priests and other Roman Catholics on issues related to human life and family autonomy . . . . Your criticism of the Handbook refers to the “lack of uniform analysis” and highlights the fact that “militantly atheistic regimes” such as North Korea and Vietnam “have almost no mention.” The Introduction to the Handbook clearly states that it is “divided into seven major regions,” each one of those containing a “representative sample of countries which illustrate the full spectrum of religious liberty” issues, from “relatively free countries to oppressive ones.” Our intention, thus, was to highlight not only the injustice that people and governments do, but also to provide some positive examples of nations that protect religious freedom . . . . Out of forty-three country reports covered by the Handbook , only nine concern Latin American countries. Your review intentionally focused on minor violations of religious liberty detailed in the Handbook , but failed to mention the serious ones. The latter include the persecution (including rape and murder) of Chamula Indians (Presbyterians) in Mexico at the hands of self-described Catholics who count on the indifference of the government (p. 243); the recent memorandum issued by the Commander of the Bolivian Army which prohibits all non-Catholic religious activity in the Army (p. 216); and the arrest in May 1992 of Bishop Edir Macedo, a Protestant leader, on charges of “charlatanism, illegal exercise of medicine [because of his miraculous healings], and fraud.” Bishop Macedo was released only after a massive demonstration took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in defense of religious liberty for all (p. 221). These and all other cases of religious discrimination and persecution must be confronted openly and vigorously, and that is what the Handbook does . . . .
Pedro C. Moreno
International Coordinator, The Rutherford Institute