The Public Square

If you’re not a Christian and not about to become a Christian, but you’re a public intellectual who is paid to be an expert on a society that is overwhelmingly Christian, you have to make a decision about how to position yourself. For a long time, beginning in the first half of the last century and accelerating in the aftermath of World War II, many thinkers simply decided to ignore “the religion factor” in American life. The dogma was promulgated, and reiterated in textbooks from grade school through graduate school, that religion was once important, but now America is a comprehensively and irreversibly secular society. Historian David Hollinger of Berkeley has written with admirable candor about the decision of the American intellectual class to emulate the more thorough secularism of European thinkers. This decision was strengthened, he says, by the influence of émigré Jewish intellectuals in the 1930s and 1940s. Hollinger, one notes, strongly approves of the turn toward European secularism.

Over more than twenty years, that way of positioning oneself with respect to American culture became increasingly untenable, as religion of the unmistakably Christian kind began breaking out all over the public square. As a result, some non-Christian thinkers, and Jewish thinkers in particular, began to take a different tack. Since religion could no longer be ignored, one had to assume a posture toward it. In recent years, different postures have been assumed. (Not all the figures I will mention here would be recognized as public intellectuals, but they represent nodal points around which public attitudes and commentaries cluster.)

Some, such as Abe Foxman of the ADL, decided that the resurgence of religion in public poses a lethal threat to all they cherish about America, and to Jews in particular. Joining forces with older proponents of a rigid secularism, they rail against the dangers of the “religious right.” Foxman, like the very influential Leo Pfeffer of the American Jewish Congress before him, is personally observant. The insistence is that personally religious means privately religious.

Others, such as Michael Lerner of Tikkun magazine, recognize that religion in public is here to stay and therefore try to spin the phenomenon in the service of their “progressive” ideology. Lerner and a few others are the leftist Jewish counterparts to Jim Wallis (author of God’s Politics) in evangelical Protestantism.

A more thoughtful response to the religious resurgence was for decades represented by Irving Kristol’s magazine, the Public Interest. Kristol—and his mainly but by no means exclusively Jewish colleagues—took a generally benign view of the assertiveness of a new mix of religion, culture, and politics that challenged regnant secular liberalisms. Kristol’s understanding of religion in public was usually described as “instrumental”: It doesn’t much care about the particularities of Christian beliefs; the assertiveness of Christian morality is socially and politically useful.

A more explicit alliance between Judaism and public Christianity is pressed by the likes of Rabbi David Lapin and his movement, “Toward Tradition.” Writers such as Michael Medved, Don Feder, Dennis Prager, and David Klinghoffer adopt a similar posture. Such figures are not intimidated by the charge that they are the Jewish wing of the “religious right.”

Then there are those such as Rabbi David Novak and the hundreds of Jewish signers of the 2000 statement Dabru Emet (“To Speak the Truth”). Although Novak and others are generally on the “conservative” side of contested social and moral issues, their chief concern is the religious and moral engagement between Judaism and Christianity. This is presently the most vibrant expression of the long-standing Jewish-Christian dialogue. It is attentive also to grounding the search for a more just and free society in shared Jewish and Christian warrants. It is understood that, while there is not a shared Judeo-Christian religion, there is a shared Judeo-Christian ethic. In the long and troubled history of Jewish-Christian relations, this is the enterprise that goes most deeply and could, I believe, have the most lasting consequences.

Yet others take another approach to the problem of being public intellectuals who are expected to be experts on an assertively religious society in which they are, religiously speaking, in a small minority. One thinks, for instance, of figures such as Alan Wolfe, David Brooks, Harold Bloom, Stanley Fish, and Adam Kirsch. These people are very different. Brooks is a frequently brilliant observer of cultural manners and quirks, and Fish is an energetic philosophical provocateur who would be sorely missed. What this group has in common, and what distinguishes them from other the thinkers, is that they have taken it upon themselves to adjudicate what is real and what is only apparent in the Christianity professed by the great majority of their fellow citizens. This might be described as a particularly bold exercise in chutzpah, but it is not without its charms.

Here, for example, is a review by Adam Kirsch of Washington’s God by Michael and Jana Novak. Kirsch does not like the book at all. “It is not a serious work of history. It falls rather in the Parson Weems tradition of Washington biography, using the father of the country as a blank screen on which to project desires and fantasies about the country he fathered.” Kirsch is determined not to let the father of the country, which is Kirsch’s country, too, be claimed by the Christians. Now, as it happens, I think Washington’s God would be a stronger book if it focused less on the personal piety and beliefs of Washington and more on the structure of Christian (and Jewish!) thought that marked the American Founders, including Washington. That structure is nicely analyzed in Michael Novak’s earlier book On Two Wings. More pertinent to this discussion, however, is Kirsch’s confident assertion about the kind of religion that can be safely admitted to the public square. It is “a vision of faith that does seem genuinely American: pragmatic, experiential, internal, more interested in love and forgiveness than judgment and punishment. More of this kind of faith, at least can’t hurt the republic.” A safely neutered Christianity whose hard edges have been replaced by the warm and fuzzy may be, according to Kirsch, admitted, if somewhat grudgingly, to the telling of the American story.

The most audacious effort to acknowledge “Christian America” while, at the same time, redefining it in a way that raises no awkward questions, and especially no awkward questions for those who are not Christian, is represented by sociologist Alan Wolfe of Boston College. In First Things, I have regularly attended to his writings of recent years in which he assures his readers that Christians do not really believe what they say they believe. Wolfe, who says he does not have a religious bone in his body, set out his oft-reiterated thesis in the 1999 book One Nation, After All: What Americans Really Think About God, Country, Family, Racism, Welfare, Immigration, Homosexuality, Work, The Right, The Left and Each Other. Using interviews conducted by his assistants, Wolfe concludes that, except for their views on homosexuality, Americans are, despite their claims to be Christian, more or less good liberals like the rest of us. As for conservative Christians and the much-touted “religious right,” they hardly show up on his radar screen. As with other “extremists,” they are marginal, and must be kept that way.

In the days before religion began breaking out all over, the “religion factor”—meaning the Christian factor—was treated as epiphenomenal. Harold Bloom has an even more ambitious argument in his 1993 book, American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation. There we are instructed that Americans, with exceptions, have left Christianity behind in order to join Bloom in embracing an Emersonian gnosticism centered in the actualization of the “divine spark” within each of us.

In these instances, we have non-Christians negotiating their place in a dominantly Christian society and their standing as experts on that society—more specifically as experts on religion in that society—who contend that 85 percent of the population is living in a state of false-consciousness by thinking that they are, in some way that really matters, Christian. It is passing strange.

This attempted de-Christianization of America is not very polite. These writers, in effect, are asserting that Christians in America are the Laodiceans to whom the Lord says in Revelation 3, “I know your works; you are neither hot nor cold. Would that you were hot or cold. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew you out of my mouth.” Admittedly, with Bloom there is the interesting twist that they are not, in fact, lukewarm but hot for Emersonian gnosticism, albeit with some vestigial Christian trimmings.

It is undoubtedly true that many Christians are mediocre in their faith and its practice. Ordinarily, most people are ordinary. And there is surely a strong streak of gnosticism in popular spiritualities. More striking, however, is the claim that people are not what they say they are; that the majority of Christians who say that being Christian is very important to their lives are simply deceiving themselves. Among social analysts, there is no other social indicator or identity claim that is so cavalierly dismissed or redefined in ways contrary to what people say about themselves. If someone says he is a liberal Democrat or a fervent Red Sox fan, he is thought to have said something significant about himself. If he says he is very seriously a Christian, Messrs. Wolfe, Bloom, et al., are eager to disillusion him, or at least to explain to the rest of us why he is deluded.

Stanley Fish’s distinctive contribution is to argue that American Christians are not seriously Christian because Christianity is a “comprehensive account” of reality and comprehensive accounts of reality are of necessity fanatical. Since Christians in America are generally not fanatical but tolerant and quite nice, it follows that they are actually good liberals who do not really believe in the comprehensive account that is Christianity. If one accepts the premise, this has the charm of being logical.

Fifty years ago, Will Herberg published his justly influential Protestant-Catholic-Jew. In those days, the old Protestant oldline establishment was still very much in place, as was what was viewed as tribally intact Catholicism. Herberg insightfully traced the ways in which Jews and Catholics were successfully melding their religious identity with the American Way of Life as defined by the old establishment. A crucial part of this was the adjustment to an “unconscious secularization” that modified, but did not evacuate, religious particularities. Herberg himself was very seriously a Jew.

In American culture, politics, and religion, a great deal has happened in the past half century. The decline of the oldline Protestant establishment, and the energy with which Catholics and evangelical Protestants are prepared to challenge dominant patterns of thought and life are among the most obvious changes. The consensus about the American Way of Life that Herberg assumed has largely collapsed. Driving these changes has been the divide over abortion and related questions inescapably engaging morality and public policy. Yet all this seems to have bypassed some of the thinkers under discussion here. In 1961, sociologist Gerhard Lenski made the case in The Religious Factor that religion is a distinct phenomenon, not an epiphenomenon, in the ordering of public life. All these years later, and we still have public intellectuals working hard to deny that.

The de-Christianizing of America by definitional legerdemain sometimes assumes amusing proportions. I have previously discussed Andrew Heinze’s recent book, Jews and the American Soul (FT February). His lavishly documented thesis is that, beginning in the early twentieth century, a handful of Jewish psychiatrists and pop-psychologists succeeded in transforming the ways in which most Americans understand themselves and what they believe. It is a provocative argument and there is something to it. At the same time, one may be permitted to observe that the suggestion that American Christianity is now under the magisterium of Jewish psychotherapy warrants a measure of skepticism.

Thinkers and pundits of all varieties are today paying much more attention to religion than was the case fifty or even twenty years ago. Almost nobody today claims that religion is in the process of withering away. What is being said by some who are uncertain of their place in a pervasively and confusedly Christian society is that the resurgence of religion in public is nothing to worry about. It is nothing to worry about because it is not distinctively Christian, and therefore is not threatening to non-Christians. In the case of Jewish thinkers, this view reflects a longstanding assumption that the less Christian a society is the better it is for Jews. That assumption had some warrant in the European experience, although one does not forget that the regime that perpetrated the Holocaust was virulently anti-Christian.

Also in this respect, America is something quite new in world history. There is here a context of security and mutual trust that makes possible a genuine encounter between Jews and Christians, and between Judaism and Christianity. This is the encounter called for in the Dabru Emet statement and other initiatives. Almost all Christians, and some Jews, are convinced that America is good for Jews not despite but because it is a Christian society. The mutually respectful encounter between Judaism and Christianity that is called for is a unique opportunity in two thousand years of history. That opportunity will continue to be squandered if we allow ourselves to be persuaded that religion in America is merely an epiphenomenal muddle of congenially liberal dispositions passing as Christianity. Except, of course, for the members of the “religious right,” who really are Christianly serious and therefore really are dangerous. (Some critics now call them the “Christianists,” distinguishing them from the safe Christians.)

Once again, America is, as it always has been, an incorrigibly, confusedly, and conflictedly Christian society. There are relatively small minorities of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. Of these, only Jews play a large role in our public discourse, although that could change in the future. More important, of these only Jews have an intrinsic religious relationship with Christians. Christianity can be understood apart from Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism; it cannot be understood apart from Judaism.

Jewish thinkers who are determined to denature Christianity often do so because they view Christianity as a threat. Perhaps just as often, they do so because they are as alienated from Judaism as they are fearful of Christianity, or even more so. These factors converge in complicated ways. If they have given up religious particularity in order to be part of the homogeneous American “we,” they expect others to accommodate them by giving up their own religious particularity, and resent it when they don’t. Or else, as in the instance of Alan Wolfe et al., they convince themselves that others have accommodated them when they haven’t.

Will Herberg was right. Protestants, Catholics, and Jews were finding a shared world in the American Way of Life. He recognized the possibility that religious particularity would be sacrificed to the pseudo-religion of Americanism. Critical to his argument was the belief that the American Way assumed and required a vibrant identity as Protestant, Catholic, or Jew. This is the authentic pluralism in which difference makes a difference; in which, somewhat paradoxically, difference and habits of living with difference without denying that difference conduce to the distinctive form of unity that is the American Way.

Much has changed in the past half century. Protestantism in the form of the mainline-oldline Protestantism that Herberg had in mind has precipitously declined in numbers, influence, and confidence. The return of evangelical Protestantism from its fundamentalist exile was not in his line of vision. Moreover, the tribally intact Catholicism that he thought he knew gave way to the fissiparous dynamics triggered by the Second Vatican Council. Decades later, the more self-consciously orthodox sectors of Protestantism and Catholicism are converging in a new and more confident cultural assertiveness. There is every reason to believe that these are very long-term trends in American life.

The question inevitably arises: Where does this leave Jews and Judaism? And where does it leave Jews who are alienated from Judaism? In many cases, the latter make common cultural cause with Protestants who are alienated from the oldline Protestantism that Herberg took for granted. The upshot is that there is no longer the secure religio-cultural triumvirate of Protestant-Catholic-Jew. There is a large and more secularized sector of happen-to-be Protestants, happen-to-be Jews, and happen-to-be Catholics. These are the people who say they are Protestant, Jewish, or Catholic “by background.” Together, and quite suddenly it seems, they are faced by, and made uneasy or hysterical by, a combination of more orthodox Christians who are newly assertive about moral truths that they believe should inform the ordering of our common life.

It is all very unsettling. And not least for Jewish intellectuals who make their living as experts on explaining America to their fellow-Americans. The situation is not made easier by the fact that Jews are, as a proportion of the population, a much smaller minority than they were in Herberg’s day. It is understandable that some of these intellectuals resort to the ploy of definitionally de-Christianizing America. “I am only in a small minority,” they can tell themselves, “if you assume that the majority is Christian, which it really is not.” The ploy is understandable. It is also poignant. More important, it is a great disservice.

It is a great disservice in that it gravely distorts the effort to understand the maddening changes and confusions that are the permanent state of American society. In a larger context that should matter to us immeasurably more, it is a great disservice to a unique moment of opportunity and obligation in which Christians and Jews, precisely as Christians and Jews, can respectfully engage one another in discerning the providential guidance of the God of Israel, also in the right ordering of our life together.

The Death of William Sloan Coffin Jr.

Bill Coffin has died at age eighty-one. It was front-page news, and deservedly so. As much or more than any religious figure, Bill represented the turning of the mainline-oldline establishment toward “prophetic” activism and against the Brahmin hegemony to which it had historically been chaplain. To the end, Bill was not comfortable in the circles of radical anti-Americanism by which he was lionized. He always, and I believe sincerely, insisted that his was a “lover’s quarrel” with America. He understood himself to be a patriot, and his protest was, he said, the “higher patriotism.” It is the way many of us spoke at the time. Bill was a dear friend. There was a sharp parting of the ways and years of silence, but I am grateful for our friendly correspondence in the months before his death.

Bill Coffin has to have a major part in any history of American religion, culture, and public life from the late 1950s through the 1980s. As chaplain of Yale, he was among the Freedom Riders in the early efforts to desegregate the South. I came to know him well when, in the mid-1960s, Father Daniel Berrigan, the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and I established what came to be known as Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV), and we invited Bill to speak at one of our early meetings in New York. In the years following, Bill was probably the most prominent religious protestor against the Vietnam war, at least until Martin Luther King Jr. joined the campaign at a CALCAV-sponsored event at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was assassinated.

I now find it exhausting to remember the torrent of meetings, demonstrations, manifestos, and arguments during the halcyon days of what then was simply called “The Movement.” But there were also a lot of good times just hanging out. I recall with particular fondness Bill’s visits to St John the Evangelist, the very poor and very black parish I pastored in Brooklyn. We had in the rectory a rickety old square grand piano, and Bill was a fine pianist and a powerful baritone. He had once aspired to a career as a concert artist. One night, with the help of good whisky and cigars, we went through all the golden oldies of The Lutheran Hymnal until the early hours. I can hear now the virile seventeenth-century Norwegian hymn “Behold, A Host Arrayed in White” with multiple musical improvisations by Bill. He was great company.

Bill was what used to be called a manly man before that phrase fell into disfavor. I see that one obituary deplores the fact that Bill was initially unsupportive of the gay-rights movement but then, as it is nicely put, “he finally came around.” The Left is notoriously intolerant of deviations, including deviations on deviancy. Three marriages and much tumult notwithstanding, Bill adamantly declared that he was always a moral traditionalist, as he was always a patriot. At least in the realm of intentionality, he was both.

Coffins went back to the Mayflower, some of them commanding the great pulpits of early America. His uncle, Henry Sloane Coffin, was president of Union Theological Seminary and was influential in Bill’s becoming a Presbyterian minister. The places of power and privilege came naturally to Bill. A few years with the Central Intelligence Agency, then chaplaincies at Andover, Williams, and Yale, followed by a troubled term as pastor of Riverside Church, the huge gothic monument that John D. Rockefeller had built for Harry Emerson Fosdick, the prince of Protestant liberalism in his time. When he had to be absent, Bill would ask me to fill in for him at Yale, which I was glad to do, although I knew that I or anyone else was viewed as a poor substitute for the pulpit master. Bill’s style was very different: tough, humorous, sardonic, and marked by memorable one-liners. He cultivated a posture of prophetic defiance made possible by the security of privilege.

Coffin thrived on the constancy of crisis, and there were meetings without end on matters thought to be of national import. I recall a summer evening when Rabbi Balfour Brickner of Stephen Wise Reform Synagogue in New York and I were walking through the hallowed precincts of Yale and Balfour remarked that a generation earlier we—a Jew and Missouri Synod Lutheran from nondescript backgrounds—would not have been at home in such councils. “It’s a change for the better,” he said, “but sometimes I wonder if the WASPS are just weary of running things.”

I, too, sometimes wondered that. It is hard to remember now the ways of the old establishments, before their institutions came under assault from what we loosely call the sixties. In those days, for instance, the National Council of Churches was a national pillar comparable to, say, the American Medical Association. We, the young radicals, were on fire with anti-establishment rhetoric, and I was rather taken aback when the establishment evidenced such eagerness to be part of the movement against itself. As in the universities, there was a great fear of being out of step with the young and their putative revolution. Eugene Carson Blake of the National Council of Churches, featured on the cover of Time as “Mr. Protestant,” John Bennett, president of Union Seminary, and so many others happily signed up with “The Movement,” and I wondered what was going to happen to the institutions that they headed—the institutions that I had thought were running the world. Now we know.

None of the obituaries I saw mentioned Bill Coffin’s part in the 1975 Hartford Appeal for Theological Affirmation. That was a project that Peter Berger—then at Rutgers, now at Boston University—and I initiated in order to counter the then fashionable “secular Christianity” and “death of God” thinkers. As Bill always insisted that he was a patriot, so also he was uneasy with the casual jettisoning of Christian orthodoxy by so many of the brightest and best of the time. He was at heart, he assured me on many occasions, a Calvinist, convinced of human depravity and the indispensability of the blood-bought atonement of the cross, along with the hope of glory. (To the consternation of many allies, he was also not a pacifist.) Bill, it must be admitted, was neither a theologian nor an intellectual, but he readily accepted my invitation to be part of the Hartford project.

It was an impressive group that hammered out the appeal in several days of intense discussion in Connecticut. The final signatories included Fr. Avery Dulles, George Forell, Stanley Hauerwas, Fr. Thomas Hopko, George Lindbeck, Ralph McInerny, Kilmer Myers, then Episcopal Bishop of California, Richard Mouw, Fr. Carl Peter, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Fr. Gerard Sloyan, Lewis Smedes, Fr. George Tavard, and Robert Louis Wilken.

The Hartford Appeal caused quite a stir at the time. Berger and I edited the book, Against the World for the World: The Hartford Appeal and the Future of American Religion. (I see that Amazon. com says it has new and used copies from $3.75. I can’t imagine it is still in print.) The book contains the appeal and eight explanatory essays by participants. “The renewal of Christian witness and mission,” the appeal began, “requires constant examination of the assumptions shaping the Church’s life. Today an apparent loss of the sense of the transcendent is undermining the Church’s ability to address with clarity and courage the urgent tasks to which God calls it in the world. This loss is manifest in a number of pervasive themes. Many are superficially attractive, but upon closer examination we find these themes false and debilitating to the Church’s life and work.” The signers then set out thirteen pervasive, false, and debilitating themes, following each with a statement of the truth that it undermines.

That was thirty-one years ago, and I recognize that it is just possible that some readers are not familiar with the Hartford Appeal. So here are the themes. How many, do you suppose, are not relevant to our current religious situation?

(1) Modern thought is superior to all past forms of understanding reality, and is therefore normative for Christian faith and life.

(2) Religious statements are totally independent of reasonable discourse.

(3) Religious language refers to human experience and nothing else, God being humanity’s noblest creation.

(4) Jesus can only be understood in terms of contemporary models of humanity.

(5) All religions are equally valid; the choice among them is not a matter of conviction about truth but only of personal preference or lifestyle.

(6) To realize one’s potential and to be true to oneself is the whole meaning of salvation.

(7) Since what is human is good, evil can adequately be understood as failure to realize human potential.

(8) The sole purpose of worship is to promote individual self-realization and human community.

(9) Institutions and historical traditions are oppressive and inimical to our being truly human; liberation from them is required for authentic existence and authentic religion.

(10) The world must set the agenda for the Church. Social, political, and economic programs to improve the quality of life are ultimately normative for the Church’s mission in the world.

(11) An emphasis upon God’s transcendence is at least a hindrance to, and perhaps incompatible with, Christian social concern and action.

(12) The struggle for a better humanity will bring about the Kingdom of God.

(13) The question of hope beyond death is irrelevant or at best marginal to the Christian understanding of human fulfillment.

As I say, the Hartford Appeal caused a ruckus in oldline Protestant and some Catholic circles, and was widely discussed also in the general media. At least Schmemann and Hopko believed the themes were pertinent also to developments in Orthodoxy. Those attacking the appeal claimed that their positions were caricatured, and it is true that we provocatively stated the themes in an unvarnished form. Protests to the contrary, they were themes explicit and implicit in much Christian thought of the time, and are still with us today.

Soon there was a flurry of counter-appeals, notably one by a group of Boston-area theologians, led by Harvey Cox of Secular City fame. In our discussions after the Hartford meeting, Bill Coffin indicated to me his nervousness about the reaction to the appeal’s strictures with respect to social activism. In Against the World for the World, my essay was titled “Calling a Halt to Retreat: Hartford and Social Justice.” Bill said he agreed with the call for a more theologically-grounded understanding of social justice, but he was under strong pressure from others to choose between Hartford and those who understood themselves to be the objects of Hartford’s criticism. He knew, too, that by that time my credentials with the Left were hardly in order, and Bill was, for all his idiosyncrasies, a man of the Left.

Shortly after the appearance of the appeal, the National Council of Churches sponsored a debate about it up at the “Godbox,” 475 Riverside Drive. Bill and I were on one side, with Harvey Cox and, if memory serves, James Armstrong, a United Methodist bishop, on the other. Not surprisingly, my friends thought the argument of the appeal had clearly prevailed, despite the fact that, halfway into the discussion, Bill joined the other side in criticizing Hartford.

Of course, I was disappointed, but we remained friends, for a time. By then I had already distanced myself from “The Movement,” notably over abortion and other counter-cultural liberationisms, while Bill still had years of leadership in the nuclear-freeze cause and sundry other agitations about which he and I strongly disagreed. I suppose, looking back, that the friendship effectively ended that day at 475 Riverside. We saw each other from time to time after that, but it was not the same.

You’ve been very patient in reading these ramblings. But again, the story of Bill Coffin is in significant part the story of a once dominant sector of religion in the public square. In 2004, I reviewed a biography of Bill in these pages. I wrote then: “While Coffin is obviously a hero—indeed a moral and political prophet—to his biographer, the poignant story told here is one of an increasingly disoriented and marginal figure whose great privilege and talent spiral downward into a life and a mission in shambles . . . . Coffin has now found, Goldstein suggests, a measure of wisdom, even of tranquility. He employs a musical trope: ‘As he grows older, Coffin masters less and less; his God plays him more and more.’ William Sloane Coffin, Jr.: A Holy Impatience is very much worth reading to recall the excitements and certitudes of a now debilitated liberal Protestant establishment as that establishment was exemplified in a gifted leader whose like we will almost certainly never see again. Bill Coffin was the last blaze of a religious and cultural world now extinct.”

That’s about right, I think. Maybe I should have said all but extinct. But I’ll stand by what I wrote, only adding that I loved him like a brother, and pray that choirs of angels welcome him on the far side of Jordan.

Bonhoeffer Today

We have been listening to Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the centenary of his birth in 1906. Bonhoeffer’s time in America, shortly before the start of World War II, left him with a deep ambivalence about the connection between religion and democracy here. On the one hand, religion checked the ambitions of the state; on the other, Americans of the “free church” traditions (Bonhoeffer always calls them spiritualists or enthusiasts) were always prone to conflating the role of the Church and that of the state. He wrote in his Ethics:

At this point some thought must be given to the special development in the Anglo-Saxon countries and particularly in America. The American Revolution was almost contemporary with the French one, and politically the two were not unconnected; yet they were profoundly different in character. The American democracy is not founded upon the emancipated man but, quite on the contrary, upon the kingdom of God and the limitation of all earthly powers by the sovereignty of God. It is indeed significant when, in contrast to the Declaration of the Rights of Man, American historians can say that the federal constitution was written by men who were conscious of original sin and of the wickedness of the human heart. Earthly wielders of authority, and also the people, are directed into their proper bounds, in due consideration of man’s innate longing for power and of the fact that power pertains only to God. With these ideas, which derive from Calvinism, there is combined the essentially contrary idea which comes from the spiritualism of the Dissenters who took refuge in America, the idea that the kingdom of God on earth cannot be built by the authority of the state but only by the congregation of the faithful. The Church proclaims the principles of the social and political order, and the state makes available the technical means for putting them into effect. These two quite alien lines of thought converge in the demand for democracy, and it is enthusiastic spiritualism that becomes the determining factor in American thought. This explains the remarkable fact that on the European continent it has never been possible to find a Christian basis for democracy, while in the Anglo-Saxon countries democracy and democracy alone is regarded as the Christian form of the state. The persecution and expulsion of the spiritualists from the Continent has in this respect been fraught with the most far-reaching political consequences. If in spite of this the Anglo-Saxon countries, too, are suffering from severe symptoms of secularization, the cause does not lie in the misinterpretation of the distinction between the two offices or kingdoms, but rather in the reverse of this, in the failure of the enthusiasts to distinguish at all between the office or kingdom of the state and the office or kingdom of the Church. The claim of the congregation of the faithful to build the world with Christian principles ends only with the total capitulation of the Church to the world, as can be seen clearly enough by a glance at the New York church registers. If this does not involve a radical hostility to the Church, that is only because no real distinction has ever been drawn here between the offices of Church and state. Godlessness remains more covert. And indeed in this way it deprives the Church even of the blessing of suffering and of the possible rebirth which suffering may engender.

While We’re At It

• Here at the magazine, a regular scanning of Publishers Weekly is a must. It offers brief anonymous reviews of forthcoming books. Some of the reviewers are more than competent, while others are, well, judge for yourself. A Life in Secrets is about Vera Atkins, a high-ranking British intelligence officer who during World War II “sent 400 agents into France, including 39 women.” The author, we are told, “has produced a memorable portrait of a woman who knowingly sent other women to their deaths and a searing history of female courage and suffering during WWII.” Apparently the 461 men were cowards who managed to make a good time of it. One is reminded of the mythical but all too believable New York Times headline: “Washington Destroyed by Bomb: Women and Minorities Hit Hardest.” The same issue of Publishers Weekly reviews Unplugged by William Colby, a euthanasia advocate. The reviewer says he discusses the Terry Schiavo case and “reminds us that the right to die is a new subject because the technology that allows us to keep patients alive is recent.” Thank God for the technological breakthroughs that brought us food and water. And in the same issue, if you will believe it, we have The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, which details Darwin’s procrastinating habits “and then focuses on how he gained enough confidence and evidence to publish a book that would displace humankind from its privileged position as a special creation.” And now all the animals are publishing and reviewing books.

• Karen Armstrong was for seven years (from 1962 to 1969) a sister of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. She later wrote a book of the escape-from-the-convent genre, and in 1993 hit it big with A History of God. Now she has a fat tome titled The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (Knopf). It focuses on the so-called Axial Age from 900 b.c. to 200 b.c. , which produced Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and the philosophy of Greece. William Grimes reviews the new book in the New York Times and is not taken with the bloviating generalizations. “The Sophists taught systematic doubt at a time of deepening anxiety,” Armstrong writes. That period was an “age of transition.” I am reminded of that old New Yorker cartoon: As they are being driven from the Garden of Eden, Adam turns to Eve and says, “My dear, we are living in an age of transition.” In her discussion of karma, Armstrong says, “As this new concept took hold, the mood of India changed and many became depressed.” As will many readers. As she looks back on the Axial Age, Armstrong draws the lesson for the modern world that we should embrace the Axial ideals of “sympathy, respect and universal concern.” Grimes writes: “All right, fine. But these sentiments, however lofty seem squishy . . . . After an inspirational journey through more than two millennia of profound thought, struggle, and enlightenment, the reader gets a fortune cookie at the end.” Ouch. Armstrong described her beliefs in a C-Span interview in 2000: “I usually describe myself, perhaps flippantly, as a freelance monotheist. I draw sustenance from all three of the faiths of Abraham. I can’t see any one of them as having the monopoly of truth, any one of them as superior to any of the others. Each has its own particular genius and each its own particular pitfalls and Achilles’ heels . But recently, I’ve just written a short life of the Buddha , and I’ve been enthralled by what he has to say about spirituality, about the ultimate, about compassion and about the necessary loss of ego before you can encounter the divine. And all the great traditions are, in my view, saying the same thing in much the same way, despite their surface differences.” I am religiously everything, and therefore I am religiously nothing. In her poignant testimony, one hears the voice of Harold Bloom’s Emersonian gnosticism. And perhaps the echoes of a young woman of four decades ago seeking a spirituality in service of the self and deciding to become a Catholic nun, before moving on.

• In October, 1978, shortly after he was elected pope, John Paul II responded to a shouted question from a reporter who asked when he would visit Poland. The pope said he would visit Poland soon. Knowledgeable Vatican observers were astonished. It was the first time in modern history that a pope had answered an impromptu question in public. Benedict XVI is doing a genuinely new thing that has received too little attention. On a number of occasions with priests, lay people, and children, he has taken questions and responded with extended on-the-record responses. I suppose that previous popes and their advisors thought such a practice might dilute the attention paid their relatively rare and solemn pronouncements. Benedict clearly does not think that. In truth, the simplicity and clarity of his spontaneous responses illumine more formal messages. For instance, meeting on April 6 with young people preparing for World Youth Day, he was asked about creation and intelligent design. His response is a very helpful addendum to his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Here it is:

The great Galileo said that God wrote the book of nature in the form of mathematical language. He was convinced that God gave us two books: that of Sacred Scripture, and that of nature. And the language of nature—this was his conviction—is mathematics, which is therefore a language of God, of the Creator.

Let us reflect now on what mathematics is. In itself it is an abstract system, an invention of the human spirit, and as such in its purity it does not really exist. It is always realized approximately, but—as such—it is an intellectual system, a great, brilliant invention of the human spirit. The surprising thing is that this invention of our human mind is truly the key for understanding nature, that nature is really structured in a mathematical way, and that our mathematics, which our spirit invented, really is the instrument for being able to work with nature, to put it at our service through technology.

It seems an almost incredible thing to me that an invention of the human intellect and the structure of the universe coincide: the mathematics we invented really gives us access to the nature of the universe and permits us to use it. . . . I think that this intersection between what we have thought up and how nature unfolds and behaves is an enigma and a great challenge, because we see that, in the end, there is one logic that links these two: our reason could not discover the other if there were not an identical logic at the source of both.

In this sense, it seems to me that mathematics—in which God as such does not appear—shows us the intelligent structure of the universe. Now there are also theories of chaos, but these are limited, because if chaos had the upper hand, all technology would become impossible. Technology is trustworthy only because our mathematics is trustworthy. Our science, which ultimately makes it possible to work with the energies of nature, presupposes the trustworthy, intelligent structure of matter, . . . the ‘design’ of creation.

To come to the definitive question, I would say: either God exists or he doesn’t. There are only two options. Either one recognizes the priority of reason, of the creative Reason that stands at the beginning of everything and is the origin of everything—the priority of reason is also the priority of freedom—or one upholds the priority of the irrational, according to which everything in our world and in our lives is only an accident, marginal, an irrational product, and even reason would be a product of irrationality. In the end, one cannot ‘prove’ either of these views, but Christianity’s great choice is the choice of reason and the priority of reason. This seems like an excellent choice to me, demonstrating how a great Intelligence, to which we can entrust ourselves, stands behind everything.

But to me, it seems that the real problem for the faith today is the evil in the world: one asks oneself how this is compatible with this rationality of the Creator. And here we really need that God who became flesh and who shows us how he is not only a mathematical logic, but that this primordial reason is also love. If we look at the great options, the Christian option is the more rational and human one even today. For this reason, we can confidently elaborate a philosophy, a vision of the world that is based on this priority of reason, on this trust that the creative Reason is love, and that this love is God.


• Many were cheered when Father John Jenkins was appointed president of the University of Notre Dame. I have written in these pages on the recent and encouraging signs that Notre Dame was being renewed in a vibrant sense of its identity and mission as a Catholic university. In January, Fr. Jenkins took up the question of the performance of The Vagina Monologues and the sponsorship of a Queer Film Festival as an occasion to address what it means to be a Catholic university. In that statement, he asked many of the right questions and lifted the hopes of those who believe that clear Catholic commitment is the key to Notre Dame’s greatness as a university. Then, in April, after extensive consultation with faculty, students, and other interested parties, Fr. Jenkins issued his decision. The Vagina Monologues and the film festival would continue. This was met with cries of disappointment and outrage from those whose hopes had been lifted. My initial response was to urge calm. While he had made the wrong decision about a potty-mouthed play and a specific promotion of the homosexual cause, I wrote, this does not necessarily define his leadership of Notre Dame. While one does not want to abandon hope, I am afraid I was wrong. Fr. Jenkins himself made the controversy over these two issues a litmus test in defining his understanding of what it means to be a Catholic university. After discussion with friends of Fr. Jenkins, some of them on the faculty of Notre Dame, and after reading the open letters of protest issued by Fr. Bill Miscamble and Fr. John Coughlin, the one an esteemed professor of history and the other an esteemed professor of law at Notre Dame, it is difficult not to conclude that Fr. Jenkins has betrayed those who want Notre Dame to be unapologetically Catholic. In an interview with Our Sunday Visitor, Jenkins is on the defensive and can do no more than offer the assurance that Notre Dame will try to “achieve balance, to achieve the kind of conversation that is fair, that’s intellectually serious, that includes, when appropriate, the Catholic perspective.” A university that includes, when deemed appropriate, the Catholic perspective is something less than a Catholic university. Almost any university might make the same claim. The suggestion is that the Catholic perspective will have, as it is said, a place at the table. But it must stay in its place and have no illusions about being “privileged.”

• Most impressive is the open letter issued by John C. Cavadini, chairman of the department of theology at Notre Dame. He notes that there is “a missing conversation partner.” “The statement of our president barely mentions the Church . . . . It is as though the mere mention of a relationship with the Church has become so alien to our ways of thinking and so offensive to our quest for a disembodied ‘excellence’ that it has become impolite to mention it at all.” Cavadini refers to Pope John Paul II’s document, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which underscored that the university is “from the heart of the Church.” Cavidini writes: “Ex Corde Ecclesiae . . . speaks of a relationship not in the first place between the Catholic university and the Catholic intellectual tradition, but between the Catholic university and the Church. And, whether we recognize it or not, this relationship to the Church—to the real, incarnate Body of Christ, the Church as it is with all its blemishes and not the abstract, idealized Church in our minds—is the lifeblood and only guarantee of our identity as a Catholic university. There is no Catholic identity apart from affiliation with the Church.” Fr. Jenkins repeatedly speaks of the Catholic intellectual tradition, which prompts Cavadini to observe, “The ancient Gnostic heresy developed an elitist intellectual tradition which eschewed connection to the ‘fleshly’ church of the bishop and devalued or spiritualized the sacraments. Are we in danger of developing a gnosticized version of the “Catholic intellectual tradition,” one which floats free of any norming connection and so free of any concrete claim to Catholic identity? . . . Without a sense of the university’s close relationship with, and accountability to, the Church, the unique and precious intellectual fabric that we have woven here and which many, including many who are not Catholic, have come to value precisely because of its special character and witness, can never in the long run be sustained.” As I said, I have resisted the conclusion that Fr. Jenkins has set Notre Dame on the course of being no more than a nominally Catholic university. He has made it much more difficult, but we should all do our best to persist in resisting that conclusion.

• Not everybody dumped on Stephen Walt of Harvard and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago when they published in the London Review of Books their essay “The Israel Lobby.” The gist of the essay is that U.S. foreign policy, the media, and most American institutions of consequence are under the control of mainly Jewish organizations and are intimidated into toeing the line of uncritical support of the State of Israel, much to the detriment of America, the Middle East, and the world. Numerous critics charged Walt and Mearsheimer with reviving the myth of a vast Jewish conspiracy and encouraging, if not embracing, anti-Semitism. Tony Judt of New York University, on the other hand, came to the defense of Walt and Mearsheimer in a long op-ed in the New York Times. He ends up with this: “Thus it will not be self-evident to future generations of Americans why the imperial might and international reputation of the United States are so closely aligned with one small, controversial Mediterranean client state. It is already not at all self-evident to Europeans, Latin Americans, Africans or Asians, Why, they ask, has America chosen to lose touch with the rest of the international community on this issue? Americans may not like the implications of this question. But it is pressing. It bears directly on our international standing and influence; and it has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. We cannot ignore it.” Mr. Judt is right that American support for Israel may not be self-evidently just to future generations, or even to many Americans today. All the more reason to explain that support more effectively. America has not “chosen to lose touch” with the international community that condemns Zionism as racism; America disagrees with that judgment. The animus of so many others toward Israel is not driven solely by anti-Semitism but it is certainly false to say that “it has nothing to do with anti-Semitism.” Israel is not just “one small, controversial Mediterranean client state.” Israel is the testing of the survival of the Jewish people. One may think that the establishment of Israel in 1948 was a mistake, and one may disagree with some or many of the policies of Israel, but support for Israel is inseparable from support for the Jewish people. Support for the Jewish people is a Christian moral imperative that is to be clearly distinguished from the enthusiasms of Christian Zionists and their apocalyptic scenarios for Israel’s role in the End Time. Israel is surrounded by nations formally resolved upon its extermination. Mr. Judt is right. In terms of Realpolitik calculations, America’s commitment to Israel makes little sense, and those nations might be allowed to have their way. But the commitment of the American people—who are, not incidentally, overwhelmingly a Christian people—is, above all, a moral commitment grounded in a deep, albeit often confused, sense of the divinely forged bond between Christians and Jews. Mr. Judt and the Europeans whom he admires may view that as yet another eccentricity of those oddly religious Americans, and yet that bond, and not the sinister workings of the Israel lobby, is the key to understanding why America is steadfast, although not uncritical, in its defense of Israel against its declared enemies.

• Discussion of the Israel lobby is largely verboten, critics of Israel complain, because anybody who raises serious questions is in danger of being dismissed as an anti-Semite. Entering right on cue to confirm what he intends to deny is Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League: “Mr. Judt’s contention that ‘fear’ has caused a ‘continued silence’ on the subject in the Jewish community is just wrong. The Anti-Defamation League, for one, has called the Walt-Mearsheimer essay exactly what it is—shabby scholarship and a classical conspiratorial anti-Semitic analysis invoking the canards of Jewish power and Jewish control.” Critics are intimidated by the fear of being called anti-Semites. QED. To be fair, ADL’s routinized charge of anti-Semitism against anyone with whom it disagrees has by now lost much of its power to intimidate.

• There is nonsense, and then there is nonsense on stilts. The second applies to numerous media commentaries upon the first anniversary of the pontificate, declaring that Pope Benedict has turned out to be a pussy cat—and a liberal-leaning pussy cat at that. As I mentioned in my reflection in the last issue on Deus Caritas Est, many depicted the encyclical as a warm and fuzzy Valentine’s Day card without theological substance. Obviously, they had not read it carefully. Numerous commentaries cited my observation of some months ago that there was, also among some of his strongest admirers, a “palpable uneasiness” about some of the pope’s early appointments. That is a fact, but it hardly warrants the headlines declaring, “Conservatives Disappointed with Pope!” The reality is that much of the media, along with self-designated progressive Catholics, had long depicted Joseph Ratzinger as Torquemada redivivus and dreaded his election as the onset of a new Inquisition. When in his first year he did not publicly whack anybody over the head with his crozier or send dissenting theologians to the Vatican dungeons, he was declared to be a changed man. He smiles! He talks nicely to children! He has Fr. Hans Kung in for dinner! It would be harder to admit that for years they had been defaming Joseph Ratzinger. The truth is that Joseph Ratzinger, now become Pope Benedict, is a man of extraordinary grace, intelligence, courage, and fidelity. Even were he not all that, he is Peter among us, the universal pastor of the Catholic Church. As my friend Rabbi Marc Gellman is fond of saying about media-generated excitements and counter-excitements: All the rest is Nielsen ratings.

• There are a lot of good things that might be done with 2.4 million dollars. Or you might spend it on a study to see whether intercessory prayer “works.” You possibly saw news reports on the findings of Dr. Herbert Benson of the Mind/Body Medical Center near Boston. He and his team conducted a “scientific study” in which one group of patients was told that strangers would pray for them, a second group was told that strangers might or might not pray for them, and a third group was not prayed for at all (at least not by the designated strangers). The conclusion of the study is that the prayer of strangers did not help in the recovery of patients. The Rev. Raymond Lawrence, an Episcopal hospital chaplain, writes in a New York Times op-ed piece that the finding “came as welcome news.” Prayers of praise, thanksgiving, and repentance are fine, he says, “while intercessions of the kind done in the Boston study—appeals to God take some action—are of lesser importance. They represent a less respected magical wing of religion.” He ends up with the admonition that theologians and scientists should not meddle in one another’s business. I’m afraid the Rev. Lawrence is as confused as Dr. Benson. What is termed respected or respectable notwithstanding, intercessory prayer that calls on God to act is among the cardinal practices of historic Christianity. It is a pity that the Rev. Lawrence consigns everyone from Abraham to St. Paul to St. Therese to (quite possibly) his own parents to the “magical wing of religion.” Among the many things wrongheaded about the Benson study is the presumption that we can put God to the test, measuring the ways in which He does and does not act. Then there is the question of the spiritual state of the strangers who did the praying. It is part of Christian belief that God is attentive to the prayer of the righteous. On these and other scores, the entire project was misbegotten and undeserving of serious attention. The Rev. Lawrence writes: “The Lord’s Prayer, the central prayer of Christendom, contains no plea for God to influence specific events in people’s lives.” Really? Forgiveness is an influence of life-or-death significance, and “trespasses” are painfully specific, while “daily bread” includes a multitude of specifics, including health of mind and body. God is love and wills good for all. A sinful world resists his benevolent purposes. The prayer of the righteous, including intercessory prayer, creates an opening in a sinful world for God’s will to be done. How this happens is beyond our knowing; that this happens is an article of faith, sometimes reinforced by events we call miraculous. In their muddling of the meaning of prayer, Dr. Benson and the Rev. Lawrence are equally culpable; the one for presuming to control, and the other for denying, a great mystery.

• “The clergy are those particular people within the whole Church,” C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “who have been specially trained and set aside to look after what concerns us as creatures who are going to live forever: and we are asking them to do a quite different job for which they have not been trained [when we expect them to provide political leadership.] The job is really on us, on the laymen. The application of Christian principles, say, to trade unionism and education, must come from trade unionists and Christian schoolmasters; just as Christian literature comes from Christian novelists and dramatists-not from the bench of bishops getting together and trying to write plays and novels in their spare time.” John O’Sullivan cites that in a National Review article critical of the Catholic bishops’ campaign on behalf of liberal immigration laws. Along with the Wall Street Journal, which comes close to advocating the abolition of national borders, the bishops are the most prominent proponents of open immigration policies. I agree with the broad moral principles that the bishops say should guide our thinking on this matter, but O’Sullivan has a point when he criticizes what he views as the moral grandstanding of Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles who declares that he is prepared to engage in civil disobedience and go to jail rather than deny the sacraments or a cup of soup to an illegal immigrant. O’Sullivan writes: “The provisions that provoked Cardinal Mahony were aimed at organized gangs of people-smugglers (sometimes known as ‘coyotes’ or, in Asia, ‘snakeheads’) rather than at nuns and social workers. Nor were these aspects of the legislation very new. It has been against the law for decades for people to assist the smuggling and hiding of illegal aliens-and yet comparatively few cardinals have been dragged off to prison during this period. Maybe the cops, notoriously respectful of the cloth, have been turning a blind eye.” Bishops and other religious leaders are, as Lewis puts it, particular people with particular responsibilities. Public policy expertise is not ordinarily something acquired in one’s spare time. But, even if religious leaders do possess such expertise, it is not always evident why their being religious leaders should give a preferred status to their policy judgments. Of course, drawing the line between moral principle and policy prescription is a perennial problem, and most of us will frequently get it wrong. Keeping in mind the above counsel of C.S. Lewis can contribute to getting it right more often than not.

• Several years ago I noted the brouhaha in Germany where a maverick doctor was collecting human cadavers and putting them on public display. What then shocked is becoming routinized. The dead bodies have been on display here for some months at the museum of the South Street Seaport, and the exhibit is apparently doing a fairly brisk business. Watch for the show coming to a city near you. The corpses are gussied up with a special plastic formula and posed in interesting ways. Some people suffering from excessive scrupulosity have raised questions about where the cadavers come from. China seems a likely source, and some of the skulls have suspicious marks that look like bullet holes, suggesting that they are the bodies of prisoners dispatched in Chinese fashion. Francis X. Clines in the New York Times did a mildly funny piece on the Seaport display in which he noted the odd posturing of the cadavers and suggested the whole thing should raise no serious questions because, after all, medical students do interesting things with human bodies in the lab. Elizabeth Marquardt wrote a letter to the editor saying that she was not amused. “In these labs, the norm is to treat the cadaver with dignity, which precludes selling tickets or posing it as if it were playing baseball. Imagined conversation: After leaving the exhibit, a boy asks his father, ‘So, Dad, when Grandma dies can we pose her body as if she is, like, knitting?’ Dad gulps. ‘Um, no. Grandma is different.’ Really? Why?” Why indeed.

• I see that Kevin Phillips was over at a nearby Barnes & Noble the other day, pushing his book American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money. It is the theocracy theme that gets the attention. According to a report in the New York Sun, Phillips says we are living in a period of “disenlightenment,” “He gave the example of Galileo’s disagreement with the papacy to contemporary debates over creationism and stem cells.” It seems Galileo was a premature neo-Darwinist and supported the killing of human embryos for research purposes, or something like that. The report continues: “During the question and answer period, one person said that for most people the principles of religion are very uplifting. ‘So what is wrong with a politician saying he gets guidance from religion?’ she asked. ‘You can state it that way and it’s hard to disagree with,’ Mr. Phillips said. ‘But you could have asked the same question in the Catholic Inquisition: “Isn’t religion a good thing?’” He elaborated by saying that religion may have been uplifting to many, but the church in Spain the 16th and 17th centuries wanted to impose its beliefs on everybody else there. ‘You’re talking about the fringe elements,’ the questioner persisted. ‘Well, the fringe elements are very powerful at the present time,’ Mr. Phillips replied.”

• It becomes wearying to point out that the Inquisition of the thirteenth century resulted in the deaths of about three people per year; that the Spanish Inquisition of the late fifteenth century was a matter of crown policy and was significantly moderated by the Church; that at the time rulers thought that religious uniformity was necessary to the safety of the state; and that the same assumption in England, where there was no Inquisition, resulted in numerous deaths of both Protestants and Catholics. The Inquisition in its various forms over three hundred years accounted for fewer deaths—about three thousand in all, according to modern scholars—than the number of people killed on any given afternoon under the fanatically anti-religious regimes of Stalin and Hitler. Yet in the hysterical polemics about the threat of an American theocracy, the Inquisition is right up there with the Gulag Archipelago and the Holocaust. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the Inquisition was a good thing. The pertinent fact, however, is that secular rulers believed heresy was a threat to the state and were determined to stamp it out. The Church, mainly in the form of the Dominicans, was enlisted to conduct legal inquiry (inquisitio) into whether an accused person was really guilty of heresy. Most of those charged were acquitted, and those who recanted their heresy were given penances of the same kind as those imposed in the Sacrament of Penance, such as fasting, pilgrimage, or the wearing of distinctive crosses on their clothes. Unlike other penances, those imposed by the Inquisition were legally enforceable. Should the Church have stepped in to moderate and bring under control the determination of rulers to stamp out heresy? Today almost everybody would say no. It is, however, no more than a chronological conceit of superior righteousness to claim that the answer was self-evident at the time. For St. Thomas More against Protestants, Queen Elizabeth against Catholics, and Ferdinand and Isabella against Jews and Muslims, there was no doubt that religious uniformity was essential to the well-being of the state. If an argument can be made that it was the case then, it is certainly not the case now. (For a reliable overview of the pertinent scholarship, see Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition.)

• The great and audaciously new thing in the American founding is that for the first time in world history a state was established with the explicit provision that the religious beliefs and practices of the people are not the business of the government. That principle is embodied in the first freedom of the First Amendment, the free exercise of religion. It is a principle little understood by Kevin Phillips, Andrew Sullivan, and others who raise alarums about a threatening American “theocracy.” Like the rulers of centuries past, they assert that the free exercise of religion is a threat to the public order. They don’t come right out and put it that way, of course. Their argument is that people who have deep convictions that differ from their own should be, if those convictions are somehow grounded in a religious tradition, excluded from legitimate public discourse. As Lewis Lapham of Harper’s recently put it with chilling candor, “We err on the side of folly if we continue to grant the boon of tolerance to [such] people.” This, mind you, in the defense of liberalism.

• “Well, the fringe elements are very powerful at the present time,” says Mr. Phillips. The idea of government by the fringes was given currency last year by Garry Wills in a long article in the New York Review of Books. There Mr. Wills espied a vast conspiracy, in which your scribe plays a central role, that has enlisted the Vatican, the Southern Baptist Convention, George W. Bush, and I forget whom else in imposing upon everybody the views of those who are, in fact, on the fringes of American public life. The trope of government by the fringes is wondrously amenable to the paranoid style in political discourse. The charm of the paranoid style is that it is not vulnerable to inconvenient facts. If, for example, it is pointed out that those who think their religion should be imposed upon others are extremely marginal, the paranoid triumphantly replies, “Well, I said they were fringe elements, didn’t I?” The fact that they are largely invisible only shows how devilishly devious they are.

• What, finally, is the nature of this dreaded theocracy? A large number of Americans are actively engaged in democratically pressing for certain public policies. Most importantly, they argue that the unlimited abortion license imposed by Roe is egregiously unjust and must be remedied. They contend that same-sex marriage is a very bad idea that would do great damage to marriage and the family. They believe that students in the classroom should be free to, even encouraged to, raise questions about neo-Darwinist evolution. Some of them believe that the free exercise of religion should permit prayer in public schools. These are political positions, which is to say they are positions pertinent to what their advocates believe is the just ordering of society. Political arguments should be engaged by political arguments within the bond of civil discourse. Our constitutional order is in the service of deliberation and decision about political positions through the process of representative democracy. Those who disagree with the above positions are of course also participants in that process. Nobody is trying to drum them out of the public square. When Phillips, Sullivan, Wills, & Co. attempt to demonize those who disagree with them and deride their political opponents as “theocrats” and enemies of democracy, they are doing a profound disservice to the democracy that they claim to be defending. Demonizing opponents is a tactic of desperation. The public influence of these people and of the platforms available to them makes it hard to understand their apparent state of panic. They do have arguments to make and are, I believe, capable of making them. Robust and civil argument is to be warmly welcomed, whereas vulgar caricatures and name-calling is simply tedious.

• Various Orthodox theologians, including the late Alexander Schmemann, have raised objections to the Catholic understanding of “transubstantiation” in the Eucharist. Some Catholic theologians, such as David Fagerberg, a former Lutheran, are sympathetic to these objections. “Transubstantiation,” writes Fagerberg, “appears to be the process of removing something from the realm of nature into the realm of supernature, or turning natural stuff into super-stuff, under the suspicion that the natural world cannot function sacramentally . . . . When the West began exalting the change, it was only too easy to turn the sacrament into nature’s exception instead of nature’s perfection.” The last is a nice turn of phrase. These matters are discussed in Matthew Levering’s new book, Sacrifice and Community: Jewish Offering and Christian Sacrifice (Blackwell). Levering, who teaches at Ave Maria University in Florida, takes the point made by Schmemann, Fagerberg, and others but argues that a fuller understanding of transubstantiation along the lines advanced by Thomas Aquinas does not separate the created order from the divine. Rather, transubstantiation, he says, very much includes the dimensions of grace perfecting nature, of redemption as the fulfillment of creation, and of our eucharistic incorporation into the life of God (deification). Levering’s very scholarly and sometimes difficult argument is persuasive, but Fagerberg, who of course accepts the Catholic understanding of transubstantiation, is surely right in suggesting that, in popular catechesis and preaching, the effecting of the Real Presence is often misunderstood as nature’s exception rather than as nature’s perfection.

• For reasons I will not repeat here, I am opposed to capital punishment, believing it is warranted in only extremely rare circumstances. Yet I find myself in the odd position of frequently being portrayed as a supporter of capital punishment because I have on occasion publicly challenged the claims of some who oppose it. The most common claim, advanced by those who appear to be much more concerned about capital punishment than about abortion, is that the two are morally equivalent. This rather conveniently ignores, among other things, the difference between guilt and innocence. It is generally agreed that criminals should be punished. Nobody, or at least nobody I know, argues that the unborn baby should be punished. Although some feminists describe a pregnancy as an “unjust aggression.” A further claim is that supporters of capital punishment are lacking in compassion. No doubt some of them are. It is chilling to see, as we sometimes do see, crowds outside prisons cheering an execution. This is not solemn punishment but gleeful vengeance. But some of the most blood-curdling statements I’ve read come from those claiming the moral high ground in their opposition to capital punishment. Some years ago, in the paper of the New York Archdiocese, there was an editorial opposing the death penalty for a bombing in which children had been killed. The editor said he should be locked in an isolation cell, fed on bread and water, and be forced to listen to high volume simulations of the screams of his victims, without interruption, for the rest of his life. More recently, Michelle Cottle of the New Republic came out against the death penalty for Zacarias Moussaoui, the terrorist in the crash of Flight 93. He is, she says, a “sorry excuse for a human being” and “scum,” but he does not deserve to die—”not because death would be too harsh a penalty, but because it would be too easy.” She continues: “I mean, how bad can the idea of lethal injection be to a guy who was ready to fly a plane into a building? So while I personally believe that, in a just world, Moussauoi would be torn apart by angry ferrets, I can’t help but question our rush to turn him into a shining example of martyrdom for all his aspiring terrorist pals. Better to throw the failed jihadist into a cell with a large, surly redneck with a scorching case of xenophobia and let him spend the rest of his miserable life learning about pain and terror firsthand.” Whatever else may inform Ms. Cottle’s opposition to capital punishment, it is hardly compassion. Principled defenders of the death penalty do not view criminals as sub-human scum or hatefully wish upon them perpetual humiliation and suffering. Rather, they see the criminal as divinely endowed with human dignity and responsibility, and, precisely as such, required in justice to forfeit his life for the life or lives he has taken. As I say, I do not find that argument convincing, but it is the argument that needs to be engaged, and it is in sharpest contrast to the viciousness of the more zealous opponents, and supporters, of capital punishment.

• There was the Danish cartoon of Mohammed with a time bomb in his turban, for which Europe collectively apologized after Muslim protests that killed some thirty people. Now an Italian magazine, Studii Cattolici, publishes an illustration showing Mohammed in hell. It is based on Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” in which the poet and Virgil are looking down at Mohammed who is cut in half because he divided the world into hostile camps. The magazine is not published by Opus Dei, but the editor is a member. Opus Dei has some experience with being caricatured, as in The Da Vinci Code. The Rome office of Opus Dei said: “We consider it deplorable that this cartoon should appear in a magazine that has the name Catholic in its title. Its publication shows a lack of sensitivity and Christian charity. Although Opus Dei has no responsibility for this magazine, and each person is responsible for his or her own actions, we wish to ask forgiveness for the offense again.” If Opus Dei has no responsibility for the action, it is not clear why it is asking forgiveness for it. And it does seem a bit presumptuous for Opus Dei to be accusing Dante Alighieri and what many consider the greatest literary achievement of western civilization of a lack of sensitivity and Christian charity. Plus, according to Catholic teaching, it is distinctly possible that Mohammed is in hell. “The only road to peace and brotherhood,” says Opus Dei, “is respect for others’ convictions and practices.” One might suggest, to the contrary, that the only road to peace and brotherhood is to respect the human dignity of people whose convictions and practices may lead them to hell. It is a pity to see Opus Dei going squishy on Catholic theology and becoming a party to the emergence of Eurabia. The jihadists will be pleased.

• Peter J. Boyer of the New Yorker is a journalist of distinction. I have previously commented on his article on the rise of orthodoxy among younger Catholics (see date). In the April 17 issue, he has a fine article on Anglicanism, “A Church Asunder.” Boyer does not tip his hand as to whose side he is on, and he frequently employs standard liberal vocabulary in, for instance, describing disagreements in terms of “progressives” versus “traditionalists”—which I suppose is mandatory in the world of the New Yorker-but he has a rare gift for capturing the nuances of personalities and positions. The article is well worth reading. There is this, for instance: A commission report to the General Convention this June suggests that the church might retreat from, or at least fudge, the formal blessing of gay unions and the ordination of more gay bishops in order not to be excluded from the worldwide Anglican Communion. Boyer talked with the communications director of a liberal diocese who is strongly opposed to any “compromise.” He said, “What is the message we push to explain our desire to stay in the Anglican Communion? What is the slogan we put on our literature? Here is what I have come up with: ‘Join us in a diplomatically intricate, ethically ambiguous, and sometimes publicly humiliating tightrope walk toward Jesus.’ I think it needs work.”

• Boyer’s article includes a profile of Gene Robinson, the gay bishop of New Hampshire. Robinson started life under most difficult circumstances, almost dying in childbirth. His parents were very poor, growing tobacco in the South, and his mother, not expecting the baby to live, gave him a girl’s name, Vicky Gene. Speaking with Boyer about the crisis that his election as bishop has precipitated for the church and describing what is at stake, Robinson says, “What most people don’t realize is that homosexuality is something that I am, it’s not something that I do. It’s at the very core of who I am. We’re not talking about taking a liberal or conservative stance on a particular issue; we’re talking about who I am.” Think about it.

• Accept the epithet and wear it as a badge of honor. That’s the counsel of Ross Douthat, associate editor of the Atlantic Monthly. Writing in the Wall Street Journal in an essay titled “Theocon Moment,” he says, “Perhaps it’s time for religious conservatives to stop complaining about the term ‘theoconservative’-coined by Jacob Heilbrunn in 1996 and popularized by Andrew Sullivan and others—and accept it with a wink and a grin, as the kind of backhanded compliment that any successful movement earns from its opponents.” At present, he says, “the closest thing to a credible public philosophy the GOP has to offer emanates from the once-unlikely alliance of evangelicals and Catholics, and their God-infused politics of social reform.” It is, he says, a program of social reform that is on offer, in the tradition of “the abolitionists and populists, and progressives and the suffragettes, the civil-rights crusaders and even the antiwar activism of the middle 1960s, where Richard John Neuhaus (now the ‘theocon-in-chief’ to his enemies, but then a man of the religious left) cut his teeth.” Douthat continues: “Like the Victorian reformers who strove to mitigate the worst consequences of the Industrial Revolution, religious conservatism, at its best, is a response to the excesses of the sexual revolution—the fatherless children and broken homes, the millions of abortions and the commodification of human life. The eras aren’t parallel, but there are similarities: The Victorian reformers passed the laws against abortion that ‘theocons’ yearn to restore, and waged war against the same kind of crude, politicized Darwinism that’s associated with the contemporary culture of death.” The theocons, he says, have made a difference: “Given these obstacles, religious conservatives have made great strides—but for now, at least, they have changed American politics without fundamentally changing America. There have been gains: The abortion rate has dropped, and the country is marginally more pro-life than 30 years ago; the divorce rate has dropped as well; and the erosion of religious faith that prompted Time magazine to ponder the death of God has been halted, though not necessarily reversed. The push for euthanasia has been largely turned back so far, and if the courts are not yet prepared to overturn Roe v. Wade, there is greater reason for pro-life hope than in the 1970s or the Clinton years.” If this keeps up, says Douthat, “there’s a good chance that the ‘theocons’-like the Progressives or the civil-rights reformers before them—will some day be able to look back over the patient work of decades and see a nation transformed by their labors.”

• I suppose it is possible. But I don’t think I’ll go along with being called a theocon, not even accepting it with “a wink and a grin.” To too many, the term inevitably implies theocracy, which is the very opposite of what my friends and I have been contending for all these years. I will never tire of insisting that the alternative to the naked public square is not the sacred public square but the civil public square. The purpose is to renew the liberal democratic tradition by, among other things, opening the public square to the full and civil engagement of the convictions of all citizens, including their religiously-informed moral convictions. I am guilty as charged by some conservatives: I am a liberal democrat. For instance, I have argued over the decades that the pro-life position is the position of a liberalism that has an inclusive definition of the community, including unborn children, for which we accept common responsibility. Similarly, it is the liberal position to support the right of parents to decide how their children should be educated through vouchers or other instruments of parental choice. On these and many other questions, liberalism was radically redefined beginning in the 1960s, with the ironic result that I and others of like conviction are called conservatives. Our cause is the restoration and renewal of the liberal democratic tradition, which is the greatest political achievement of our civilization. There is another and more important reason why I will continue to decline the “theocon” label. No political cause and no political order deserves to bear the name of God. That honor is reserved to the Church of Jesus Christ, which in its faith and eucharistic liturgy enacts and anticipates the authentically new politics of the promised Kingdom of God. America is a nation under God, but not even at its very best is it God’s nation. And so, while I appreciate Mr. Douthat’s hopeful account of our influence, and while I know that critics will continue to use the term, I will just as persistently—and, I hope, gracefully—protest being called a theocon.

• The president of the United Church of Christ, John Thomas, has gained some prominence for his attacks on conservative Christians, and on the Institute on Religion and Democracy in particular, who, he says, are trying to take over the oldline Protestant denominations. You may have seen the United Church of Christ television ads that show racial minorities, homosexuals, and handicapped people being rocketed out of church pews in conservative churches by the use of “ejector seats.” This is in contrast, of course, to the very inclusive United Church of Christ which welcomes everybody. In the last four decades, United Church of Christ membership has declined from 2.2 million to 1.2 million. And that’s without the use of ejector seats.

• We all owe an enormous debt to Paul Hollander, now emeritus at University of Massachusetts. Over the years, he has tirelessly chronicled the atrocities of our time, and the ways in which so many American intellectuals have been gulled, willingly in many cases, by their perpetrators. His 1981 book, Political Pilgrims, analyzes the ways in which otherwise bright people were blinded by ideology to monumental crimes against humanity. Now Hollander has edited From the Gulag to the Killing Fields: Personal Accounts of Political Violence and Repression in Communist States, an anthology of almost 800 pages, published by ISI Books. From the Soviet Union to Poland, Rumania, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Cuba, those who were imprisoned, tortured, and slated for death bear witness to the malignant power of an ideology that is guilty of at least 100 million political murders. Some of the names are well known, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Vladimir Bukovsky, but most will be new to most readers. The book bears a foreword by Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag: A History, which won a well-deserved Pulitzer for non-fiction in 2004. These testimonials to the human capacity for murderous madness must never be forgotten if we are to reduce the chances of such crimes being committed in the future.

• In his extended introduction to From the Gulag to the Killing Fields, Hollander cites a study by the late Edward Shils of the similarities in beliefs and attitudes between the extreme ideological right and the extreme ideological left. His examples are drawn from Nazism and Communism, but the analysis applies to situations of ideological and political polarization more generally. Shils focuses on these characteristics: (1) Extreme hostility to “outgroups.” You are either for us or against us. Dialogue or civil conversation with the “enemy” is betrayal. (2) Complete submissiveness to “ingroups.” Our party and its leaders are to be supported without question. Criticism of our side is breaking ranks, and breaking ranks is treason. (3) All relationships are subordinated to the criterion of what will advance the “cause.” (4) The most important thing to know about the world is that it is divided by the conflict between them and us. (5) Purely theoretical ideas that do not clearly serve the cause are to be repressed. (6) The expression of sentiment is a sign of weakness. (7) We and our group can survive only by the manipulation of others, who are there to be manipulated. (8) The triumph of the cause will result in a harmonious world without conflict. There are some differences between causes, of course, as there were significant differences between Nazism and Communism. For all the talk about our polarized circumstance—about culture wars, the religious right, and threats posed by theocrats and secular humanists—we are far from those forms of political madness. Yet we deceive ourselves if we deny the possibility of being overwhelmed by fanaticism. It can happen here. Fanaticism, it is worth remembering, comes from fanum, referring to the pagan temple in which people worked themselves into an orgy of frenzied ecstasy. There is a seductive pleasure in hating, and hating absolutely. To judge by some of the vicious messages received in this office—and, I am sure, received also by those on the other side of controverted issues—more people than we would like to think are susceptible to that seduction. Securing the bonds of civility within which we engage our differences is a never-ending task.

• A reader sends a newspaper clipping of an article that contains some notably ungenerous comments about this magazine and its editor in chief. He included in his letter the following excerpt from John Milton’s “The Ways of God.” Perhaps you, too, will discover in it a wisdom conducing to serene endurance. Not, mind you, that I fancy myself oppressed. It is the patience that we need ever to learn anew.

Oh how comely it is and how reviving
To the spirits of just men long oppressed,
When God into the hands of their deliverer
Puts invincible might
To quell the mighty of the earth, the oppressor,
The brute and boisterous force of violent men,
Hardy and industrious to support
Tyrannic power, but raging to pursue
The righteous and all such as honour truth;
He all their ammunition
And feats of war defeats
With plain heroic magnitude of mind
And celestial vigour armed;
Their armouries and magazines contemns,
Renders them useless, while
With winged expedition
Swift as the lightning glance he executes
His errand on the wicked, who surprised
Lose their defence distracted and amazed.
But patience is more oft the exercise
Of saints, the trial of their fortitude,
Making them each his own deliverer,
And victor over all
That tyranny or fortune can inflict;
Either of these is in thy lot,
Samson, with might endued
Above the sons of men; but sight bereaved
May chance to number thee with those
Whom patience finally must crown.



Sources:

Incompetant reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, April 17. Karen Armstrong, New York Times, April 21. Tony Judt on Walt and Mearsheimer, New York Times, April 19. Abe Foxman on Judt, New York Times, April 22. Prayer study, New York Times, April 11. Artistic cadavers on display, New York Times, April 19. Captial punishment, OpinionJournal, April 14. Another Mohammed cartoon, ZENIT, April 16. Ross Douthat on accepting the epithet of theocon, Wall Street Journal, April 16.

Articles by Richard John Neuhaus

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