Farr Gone on Religion
In response to Thomas F. Farr’s The Diplomacy of Religious Freedom (May): Before a temporary assignment to Vietnam and Indonesia last year, I received a briefing by the State Department’s office of religious freedom, then directed by Ambassador Farr. The team of which I was part was mightily impressed by the dynamism and dedication of his staff. One result of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act passed by Congress, which Ambassador Farr was responsible for implementing, was the institution of a separate religious-freedom report required of all embassies annually, amplifying what used to be merely one section of the annual human rights report. Both reports demonstrably effect change in the conduct of foreign governments. Ambassador Farr himself led a superhuman effort to charge up our embassies and consulates to further religious freedom. Given the untold hours they spent on the effort, it would be news to them that his office was marginalized within the State Department.
I respectfully differ from Ambassador Farr about the prevalence of a secular mentality in the State Department. On entering the Foreign Service forty years ago, I expected an anti-religious or at least irreverent attitude on the part of senior officers who came from a much more sophisticated background than my own in Vermont. Over the years, I found the opposite to be generally true. Not a few Catholic officers at the top of the State Department were daily communicants. Senior Protestants distinguished themselves by a rigorous, religiously based moral code. Jews were usually the most respectful and understanding of other religions. Ambassador Farr would perhaps not deny this. He just believes that the State Department feels driven by its convictions and experience to separate religion from international politics.
It is true, American diplomats believe that, by and large, secular discourse provides a safer common ground to explore political solutions than does religious discussion. Common ground is very difficult to hold, and it erodes as religious fervor rises. Better to shift the framework of talks, if possible, to worldly advantages that all can agree are desirable.
It may be a misperception, but religion and pragmatism often seem to work against each other. Muslim terrorists hear directly from God who deserves to die and why. In India, waves of religious fervor washed over secular compromises brokered at independence, so that a government stood by while Hindu mobs destroyed a much-venerated historic mosque. In Northern Ireland, religious pedigrees helped to determine whether a victim was extrajudicially murdered or merely neutralized. In Palestine today, Jewish civilian squatters invoke divine dispensation for taking over the land of others. Religious practice by non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia is punished by the very Muslims who boast of Islam’s historical tolerance for other religions.
Every diplomat knows that religion is nearly everything to many people. Ambassador Farr is right that religious attitudes play a huge part in the actions and motivations of opposing parties in international life. An effective diplomacy could never exist without this understanding. But American diplomats already act on the knowledge.
Our consul general at the American Consulate General in Surabaya was responsible for a consular district the size of Europe, with 100 million Muslims. This is half the total number of Muslims in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world. The consul general was fluent in Bahasa-Indonesian. With his tiny staff, he traveled the length and breadth of his district, which comprised Muslims but included a few radicals intent on blowing him up. He explained U.S. policy on Muslim radio channels,
visited Muslim religious schools, awarded prizes at civic debates, and repeatedly met with Muslim journalists to correct misimpressions of U.S. actions. He interviewed the new leader of a 50 million member Muslim benevolence society in the leader’s hotel room minutes after his election, when he probed for Muslim attitudes toward the United States on issues such as Iraq and the tsunami.
The State Department is far from indifferent to religion. Telegrams have poured into the State Department for decades from our embassies and consulates, emphasizing the role that religion plays in the decisions of nations. Failure to act on the warnings and recommendations does not lie with the Foreign Service.
John J. Eddy
U.S. Department of State
It was refreshing to see someone, namely Thomas Farr in his The Diplomacy of Religious Freedom (May), attempting to take religion seriously as the missing dimension of U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, many in the United States and the centers of media simply see the Bush administration and its policies as modern evangelical crusaders let loose upon the world. Yet the reality, as Farr rightly observes, is that secularization still remains the bread and butter of U.S. relations with the rest of the world.
Farr, however, intimates a great deal of optimism in the hope the United States might change its religion-blind ways, thereby leading to democratic success in the Middle East.
Farr mentions a new generation of young, religiously sensitive officers in American embassies, as well as the potential power of the president and secretary of state to affect change. But do these possibilities really offer the kind of sight to the blind that Farr is urging?
My personal experience of living in Egypt gives some cause for concern. As Farr correctly mentions, the radical Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt recently secured eighty-eight seats on the People’s Assembly, reaching beyond the critical 25 percent mark of that body. The Brotherhood, indeed, is rapidly positioning itself as the primary political opposition to the Mubarak regime, but the United States has no direct means of influencing it. Even under Mubarak’s regime, democracy is not a reality, as evinced by the recent arrests of two judges who spoke out against Mubarak’s overwhelming victory in the last democratic election and the plight of the Egyptian Christian minority.
What Farr recognizes and what the United States seems presently blind to is that Egypt and the Middle East (more generally) live and breathe religion. Religion is not the Western private act but rather the most common public currency. During public calls to prayer, people pray in the streets, in their shops, or on trains. Copies of the Qur’an can be found openly displayed on every good taxi driver’s dash. Perhaps the most common phrase I hear every day in Arabic is Hamdulillah”praise be to Allah.
Furthermore, this centrality of religion has never been envisioned as a separate institution from government, as it is in the United States’ separation of church and state. While in America, the most radical liberal and conservative can agree on this principle (though to varying degrees), Islam has always worked hand-in-glove with the political mechanism of a state. The idea that they would be separate is alien.
Thus, when democracy as mere rule by the people is introduced in the Middle East, the result should not be surprising. My Egyptian Christian friends point to the great irony that the American push for democracy in their country has brought about the quite democratic (in its most rudimentary sense) and largest election of Islamic fundamentalists ever to their government. Give the people a choice, and it turns out they choose religion and governance by religion as the only thing they know.
Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood’s party slogan in the past elections was simple but persuasive: Islam is the solution. A wise Christian pastor I know took a mock election sign with this party line and changed the first letters of the Arabic word Islam to render it salem (peace). Peace is the solution, but my question for Farr is: Is it really in sight? If it is to succeed in the Middle East, a form of democracy that embraces religion and yet also includes the typical expanded democratic hallmarks of freedom of religion and other basic rights (not just simple elections by the people) must be introduced. There are some signs of hope that democracy could be embraced, but there are also many apparent obstacles.
Whatever the case, Farr is entirely correct that the current form of secularist policy by the United States will not be able to encounter adequately the deep religious roots of Middle Eastern society. We can only hope and pray that the eyes of those in power in the United States might be opened to a deeper understanding of religion, even as the eyes of those in the Middle East might be opened to a deeper understanding of democracy.
Stephen R. Ogden
Thomas Farr replies:
I am grateful to John J. Eddy and Stephen R. Ogden for their thoughtful challenges to my argument. That argument holds that U.S. diplomacy, while willing enough to see religion as part of the problem, has been unimaginative in making it part of the solution, especially when it comes to Islam. Eddy suggests I am too pessimistic about American diplomacy, Ogden that I am too optimistic about Islam.
Eddy’s case is the more unusual. He argues that diplomats understand the importance of religion; otherwise effective diplomacy could never exist. He recalls serious religious believers in the State Department and cites a consul general who engaged effectively with Indonesian Muslims. Moreover, he writes, American foreign service officers would be surprised to learn that the office responsible for promoting international religious freedom was marginalized within the State Department.
Eddy is quite right on one point: Observant Christians and Jews have always been present at the State Department and in the diplomatic service. Today there are even a few serious Muslims, a very important addition. Moreover, our foreign service attracts bright minds and hard workers. But my argument is not about the religious practices of diplomats or the effectiveness of individual officers.
American foreign service officers are generally adept at mastering foreign cultures. Thanks in part to the International Religious Freedom Act, some are developing relationships with religious communities, as diplomats have traditionally done with, say, political parties or labor movements. It is also true that the United States is doing interesting things in Indonesia (one of the exceptions mentioned in the article), such as supporting madrassa curriculum reform. The point is that these are largely ad hoc developments rather than parts of a broad strategy to engage an increasingly religious world, especially the Muslim parts of it. One can certainly hope that U.S. programs in Indonesia become models for American policy in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other nations where Islamist extremism is being nourished. But don’t hold your breath.
As for whether the office of international religious freedom is isolated at Foggy Bottom, I’m afraid the evidence is overwhelming. It is a subordinate office in a marginalized bureau, and its head, an ambassador-at-large, is treated (incorrectly and unwisely) as a mid-level official. As noted, the office is growing and its officials are some of the best you’ll find in the department. But they are mostly drawn from outside the foreign service, whose officers know that working there will not be good for their careers. This must change if our religious-freedom policy is to be effective.
Finally, Eddy concedes an important point. Our diplomats, he writes, know that religious discussion stimulates religious fervor, so they seek the safer ground of secular discourse. I certainly don’t deny the need to discuss secular things with religious people. We’ve got to help Iraqi Shiites train a professional military and Afghan Sunnis build a free-market economy. But when people see the world in religious terms, their armies are more likely to function professionally and their markets to flourish if they understand these actions as consistent with belief.
More to the point, when the United States has an opportunity to keep Islamists on the right side of extremism (let alone embrace liberal democracy), we better have the depth of understanding and the vocabulary to do it. That vocabulary must include more than elections, women’s movements, and constitutional checks and balances, as vital as those issues are. We must also be prepared to integrate into the conversation concepts like the will of God in the political order, the proper differentiation between religious and civil authority, and the role of human freedom in the religious quest. Surely a nation founded on those very concepts can, in order to protect its own vital interests, develop a religious discourse that conveys how religion and liberal governance can flourish together.
Two inadvertent errors of fact in Eddy’s letter require brief mention. As director of the State Department’s office of international religious freedom, I did not hold the title of ambassador. Moreover, when that office’s fine staff briefed Eddy last year, I had already left the State Department.
Writing from Egypt, Ogden agrees that American diplomacy should take religion more seriously, but he is skeptical that Islam is capable of liberal democracy”certainly not the kind that would make Egypt a stable, functioning pluralist democratic state at peace with itself and its neighbors, and no longer a breeding ground for Islamist extremism.
I share Ogden’s skepticism, but I am convinced we have little choice but to identify and engage those Islamist groups that are tempted by democracy, such as Egypt’s Hizb al-Wasat, a promising offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Unless we are prepared for the foreseeable future to send American troops into failing states in order to defeat or forestall Islamist extremism, we had better develop a more effective way to encourage stable, liberal governments in the Middle East. A major problem is, of course, that Iraq has awakened the thirst for democracy in the region, but elections thus far have only empowered Islamist extremists”Hamas, Hezbollah, and, to some extent, the Shiite militias of Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq. Such developments, plus America’s own electoral process, may lead us to seek respite for a season in the stability represented by autocrats like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah.
A rebirth of reformed realism in American foreign policy is perhaps inevitable but will be almost impossible to sustain. We cannot go back to September 10. For better or worse, the forces of electoral democracy have been loosed and are unlikely to be suppressed for long by aging autocratic regimes. Nor will political Islam, as too many American policy makers hope, simply move to the sidelines as we promote democracy while ignoring the role of religious communities. That is a dangerous secular conceit.
The hard reality is that Islamists”Muslims who believe Islam has something important to say about public life and are prepared to act on their beliefs”are going to determine the future of the Middle East and of Islamist extremism. We had better identify those Islamist groups capable of liberal Islamic democratic reform and begin now to address the difficult tasks of making our voices heard and of influencing the outcome. The alternatives are simply not acceptable.
E. Christian Brugger in the essay Moral Stem Cells (May 2006) offers a defense of altered nuclear transfer-oocyte assisted reprogramming (ANT-OAR) that must be challenged. From the outset of the essay, I was left uncertain whether the assistant professor of theology actually understands ANT-OAR. The discussion launches by emphasizing the difference between a cell’s genetic material and its epigenetic state. The essay then declares, In the ANT-OAR proposal, before we transferred the somatic cell nucleus into the ooplast, we would preemptively alter its epigenetic state (emphasis mine). Shortly thereafter, we find, For ANT-OAR . . . genetic material in the nucleus is preemptively altered (emphasis mine). Which is it, or both?
Brugger observes that, under natural circumstances, cell multiplication by an oocyte does not always yield an embryo, as in the proffered examples of the disordered development of the hydatidiform mole or the teratoma. From this observation, he moves to his definition of the human zygote, namely, an oocyte that initiates multiplication with the inherent biological disposition for self-directed development toward species maturity (including the capacity to develop all tissue types necessary for a differentiated human body and extra-embryonic supporting materials). In other words, a human embryo would exist whenever an oocyte containing a diploid nucleus could, if implanted in a human womb, be expected over the course of years to develop into a man or woman capable of reproduction (i.e., species maturity). Any creation not meeting this expectation would not be a human zygote.
This definition should not be accepted as an ethical basis for the ANT-OAR route to embryonic stem cells, because self-directed development toward species maturity is effectively an undefined term that permits destruction of a broad swath of embryos and presumably of fetuses developing from those nonhuman embryos.
The definition does not prevent willful destruction of some embryos that should certainly be considered human, such as embryos that would develop into human adults lacking species maturity due merely to an inability to reproduce the species (because they have been engineered to lack testes or sperm, ovaries, or ova, for example). But it would appear also to permit destruction of embryos that would give rise to infants with a condition that would prove fatal before attainment of species maturity, for example, an enzyme deficiency that resulted in death of the organism in infancy or childhood. Unlimited possibilities exist under this definition for the willful creation and destruction of embryos that can be judged not human because their creators have designed them to be incapable of species maturity however defined.
Brugger proposes to tell us how we could produce pluripotent stem cells, functionally identical to embryonic stem cells, without ever needing to create, experiment on, and destroy human embryos. Unfortunately, the essay demonstrates no new technique that might achieve this. Instead, it limps to its goal merely with a redefinition of the human embryo that would permit a practically unlimited range of experimentation. These generalities give such broad range to the investigator that Brugger would likely struggle to describe an embryonic construct whose destruction would be unacceptable. One recent proposal in this arena has been the creation of embryos that cannot form a placenta. In this technique, the embryo develops until it dies because of its engineered inability to develop the placenta by which it could derive the nutrition necessary for its further development. The scientist effectively guarantees that the embryo’s feeding tube will never be in place. Does Brugger consider the creation and destruction of an embryo engineered in this fashion to be unethical, or is its destruction ethical because his definition of this deliberately hobbled organism renders it ipso facto not a human embryo?
But Brugger’s definition of human vs. nonhuman zygotes has other implications. Once an embryo is labeled nonhuman, what is to prevent its implantation and later abortion for purposes of medical research or treatment? Consider a product of ANT-OAR that Brugger’s definition would categorize as nonhuman, a product that will develop into what otherwise resembles a fetus, except that it is merely pluripotent and therefore nonhuman because, in this case, it lacks the ability to develop lungs that would be functional in a postnatal state. Brugger’s ethic would permit us to destroy this organism before it can be implanted in a uterus in order to harvest its stem cells. But the definition would also sanction the destruction of this nonhuman creation after uterine implantation in order to harvest its stem cells. Furthermore, since it is nonhuman, we should not be troubled to have this creation sacrificed for its kidneys or bone marrow later in development. Indeed, we should not be troubled even as we harvest stem cells, kidneys, and bone marrow at term in the minutes after its delivery from what must be called the uterus, not its mother’s womb.
The proponents of embryonic stem-cell research in Nebraska have already made clear their approval of the use of even the late-term aborted fetus for medical research and treatment. Similarly, the proposal by Brugger would appear to sanction for the purpose of obtaining stem cells or organs the late-term abortion of a hobbled organism that had been altered (and so merely pluripotent) so as to allow implantation and normal fetal development until expression of a fatal gene shortly prior to fetal maturity. Indeed, Brugger’s definition would appear to countenance the sacrifice of any hobbled creation that had been implanted in a uterus and allowed to develop even to term or past delivery”so long as that organism would have died spontaneously prior to reaching some later point closer to species maturity, this on the basis that it never was totipotent and thus was never human.
Brugger boldly asserts that totipotency in a cell is a necessary and sufficient condition for concluding that that cell is a human embryo. But I have patients who are blind or sterile, yet who are marvelous human beings. I would be loath to call an embryo nonhuman merely because it lacked the potential to develop functional eyes or reproductive parts. But if such a merely pluripotential construct (unable to develop functional eyes or reproductive parts) is indeed a human embryo that gives rise to a human being, Brugger’s necessary and sufficient condition would appear voided.
None of us are omnipotent. Limited as we each are to the confines of one sex or the other, we are each of us, at best, totipotent in only some strict biologically defined way. Many of us get along while being merely pluripotent, even in Brugger’s sense. While Brugger attempts to abet research by defining the humanity out of many an embryo, we need instead research that first divines the humanity of the embryo.
Louis Safranek, M.D., Ph.D.
E. Christian Brugger replies:
Many thanks to Louis Safranek for his reply to my brief essay defending ANT-OAR. I emphasize brief because much more could be, and has been, published in defense of the procedure than I was unable to allude to because of space limitations.
I agree that the central question concerns the definition of a one-celled human embryo. In my essay, I spoke about a set of biological properties that I said constitute together a necessary and sufficient condition (biologically speaking) for the actualization of human life: To be an embryo, a single-celled entity must possess the inherent biological disposition for self-directed development toward species maturity. I referred to this set of biological conditions as totipotency.
Safranek interprets me as saying, In other words, a human embryo would exist whenever an oocyte containing a diploid nucleus could, if implanted in a human womb, be expected over the course of years to develop into a man or a woman capable of reproduction (i.e., ‘species maturity’). It is understandable why he interprets me in this way, but I insist that his reformulation is not what I meant in other words. My assertion is based upon the premise that there is a radical distinction between a single-celled human embryo and a pluripotent stem cell. Both are alive; both possess cellular constituents; and if constitutive of and from the same person, both have the same DNA.
How then are they different? They differ in their capacities. An embryo has the capacity to undergo self-directed development to increasingly higher levels of coordinated human life”it is a living human organism. A stem cell has the capacity to divide into multiple instances of its own cell type. Because the embryo’s capacity is intrinsic, I referred to it as an inherent biological disposition, and the disposition is toward organized developmental maturity”it is not merely chaotic tissue growth, as with the growth of a tumor.
Asserting a necessary disposition for self-directed development toward species maturity is not coextensive with asserting an actual ability to develop to full species maturity. I asserted the disposition as a predicate of an embryo’s biological nature. It is like correctly asserting that an embryo has a rational nature, though we know it does not have an actualized rationality, nor do some people ever develop to the point of possessing a brain adequate for rational thought.
A one-celled embryo has and must have an internal capacity for development toward higher levels of maturity. This capacity may actualize for only a brief time or unfold to adulthood. In either case, the progenitor cell is still an embryo. Many privations and harms may prevent the embryo (or later the fetus, newborn, toddler, adolescent, or young adult) from continuing its development. But if the single cell began with the active potency, it was no less human than you or I.
If, however, a single cell lacks the capacity ab initio to direct its own development in the direction of greater maturity, i.e., it never possessed the capacity, never could do anything but divide to produce more of its own kind, then it is reasonable to conclude”even for a theologian”that it is not nor ever was an embryo. This is what ANT-OAR proposes to produce. If through animal experimentation”which is all I or any defender of ANT-OAR presently supports”there is evidence that what’s been produced is an embryo, however weak, crippled, and unable to flourish, then we are firmly committed to rejecting the procedure for experimentation with human cells.
Presently, no amount of caustic philosophical skepticism can resolve the important question as to the nature of the product of ANT-OAR, only rigorous, ethically informed scientific investigation in higher primates.
Food for Thought
With great anticipation, I delved into Gilbert Meilaender’s review essay on Crunchy Cons , a new book by Rod Dreher that attempts to articulate an ideology with which I am sympathetic. Meilaender is certainly entitled to critique a book as sharply as he likes, but after reading Dreher’s book myself, my suspicions were confirmed that Meilaender’s review is misleading. First of all, Meilaender exaggerates the importance of comments in the book that are mentioned in passing; one person’s suggestion that life in the suburbs is boring is interpreted and repeated in Meilaender’s essay as an all-out indictment that everyone (including himself) who does not embrace Crunchy Con ideas is boring.
Secondly, Meilaender overlooks the lighthearted tone Dreher often employs to express his ideas in a rhetorically winsome manner, and instead chooses to make heavy-handed pronouncements. Take, for example, the reference to Janet Jackson and the collapse of civilization”which, in Dreher’s account, is followed by good-hearted laughter and some thoughtful reflection. This becomes an opportunity for Meilaender to pronounce somberly, Well, a little philosophy is a dangerous thing. What is most ironic, of course, is that Meilaender complains about Dreher’s tone, implicitly asserting that he suffers from a contemptuous attitude, when it is really Meilaender’s essay that is full of contempt”from the title, Hold the Granola, to the anecdotal opening of the great time he had at Burger King, to his puzzling insistence that Dreher doesn’t know the difference between preferences and ethical choices.
Dreher’s whole premise of the book is simply to contemplate how conservatives can conserve the permanent things through the everyday choices they make. He questions what he views to be ideological inconsistencies in mainstream conservatism, especially in the context of a free-market society. He does not castigate the pleasures Meilaender describes in his opening story of stopping by the Burger King on the way home, but he does question the agribusiness practices in place that currently sustain the fast-food chain and whether or not we can, in good conscience, do business with it. Meilaender, on the other hand, never gives any good reasons why we should do as he himself did”deliberately pass over the topic of food. Instead, he justifies his own position in the language of preference: He had a good time, he liked the food, the little boys with their Chief Wahoo caps were cute.
Dreher’s frequent references to the sacrifice involved in adhering to Crunchy Con ideology hardly constitute the language of preference. It is the language of conviction. If Dreher’s convictions are not conservative, how so? How is Meilaender defining conservative? By dismissing Dreher’s convictions as preferences (and liberal ones, at that), he fails to take the book on its own terms. Dreher has taken great pains, it seems to me, in showing how conserving any tradition requires submission, and”quite brilliantly”he has shown how people who embrace Crunchy Con ideology, yet who are not religious, can often become more religious because of their yearning for tradition. If Dreher really is a prophet, as Meilaender suggests at the end of his review, perhaps his recalcitrance to open his ears to the message of Crunchy Cons should have been sufficient cause to give it a more just consideration.
Gilbert Meilaender’s main criticism of Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons is that the author is a snob, or at least a mere aesthete. Let Dreher have his Birkenstocks, his organic homegrown vegetables, and his meat purchased from the farm down the road: Burger King, baseball, and New Balance sneakers are the hallmark of the real heartland conservative. But Meilaender, while reluctantly praising the book, engages in a disingenuous misrepresentation of its real content. It’s not about sorrel soup vs. the Whopper.
Dreher points the reader to E.F. Schumacher’s central reflection that the economics of the West, as much as in the East of old, is built on philosophically materialist assumptions. Any debate among conservatives about economics must begin by acknowledging that man is not a purely economic being.
This seems to be the assumption within the political discourse of libertarian Republicanism. To a Christian, pro-life, organic-food, homeschooling mother, whose family is happily but barely able to get by, Dreher is one of several voices (including Russell Kirk, Christopher Lasch, and Wendell Berry) that critique Republican conservatism from within a more authentically conservative tradition. This publication deserves to give a book like Dreher’s a fairer consideration. The agrarian argument may be irritating, but it speaks to the heart of a new conservative generation.
At the beginning of his review of Crunchy Cons , Gilbert Meilaender reports on his eating and enjoyment of a Burger King Whopper. It must have given him indigestion. I found his review to be parsimonious rather than generous, dyspeptic rather than understanding.
In my experience of his work, Dreher is a serious and thoughtful young Christian; one of the few who is getting any ink in the mainstream media. In Crunchy Cons , he is limning the return of a kind of monastic impulse among some conservatives. A desire for a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience that is lived out not in celibate community but in communities of families who take seriously the lordship of Christ over all of human life.
Dreher is trying to get conservatives and Christians to focus not just on sexual morality and immorality but also on virtue more broadly and deeply understood. To focus not just on the sin of lust but also on the sins of greed, envy, and pride, which are equally deadly to the soul. In this he is surely being faithful to the word of God, which contains more teaching on the blessing, use, and abuse of material possessions than anything else. Dreher is also being faithful to Our Lord, who by choosing to be born in the way he was among the people he was, who by the people he chose as his friends and the people he chose as his enemies, who by the people he lifted up (the widow with two mites) and the people he confronted (the rich young ruler, the moneychangers in the Temple), showed that our relationship with wealth and the world is determinative in our relationship with him.
The choices we make about money and lifestyle are not, as Meilaender would have it, just a matter of likes and dislikes. In a biblical worldview everything”agriculture, food, city planning, politics”falls under the lordship of Christ. It is sometimes hard to sort this out, but Dreher is honestly trying to, by reporting on Christians who are striving to be faithful to the fullness of the witness of God as they live the whole of their lives. This is wholly admirable, and I can only blame that Whopper for Meilaender’s failure to understand and appreciate it.
Fort Worth, Texas
I was disappointed that Gilbert Meilaender chose to offer only the briefest comments on the topic of food in Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons . More troubling than the brevity of his comments, however, was the fact that he seemed to dismiss Dreher’s notion of ethically and nutritionally superior food”organic and locally grown food as opposed to food processed by agribusiness giants”as merely a personal preference. Of course, Meilaender is welcome to disagree with the idea that local, organic foods are indeed ethically superior, but what troubles me is that he doesn’t seem to think that food choices are ethically significant. When the number of undernourished people in the world is equal to the number of overweight people (1.1 billion), as it is today, I cannot see that Christians have any choice but to begin to ask serious questions about their own food choices and their global impact.
Since Meilaender mentions eating a slice of Hershey’s Sundae Pie at Burger King, I’ll use chocolate as an example. It is no secret that many cocoa farms on the Ivory Coast (the source of 43 percent of the world’s cocoa) use child slaves for labor”this is information reported by the U.S. State Department, the International Labor Organization, and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. The major chocolate producers in the United States have resisted taking any real action to end such abuses. And we, the American consumers, benefit by being able to buy lots of chocolate cheaply. But at what cost to the child slaves of West Africa?
This is but one example, and I’m sure that it can be debated, dismantled, and argued from many different angles. But whether anyone has the answers (I know I don’t), it doesn’t change the fact that there are questions”ethical ones”to be asked and wrestled with and, hopefully, answered, in the realm of food choices. Of course, it’s Meilaender’s personal decision to choose a burger and fries over quinoa and kale. But please don’t suggest that such choices aren’t ethical choices, or that it isn’t necessary to give careful Christian thought to food. What could be more basic to the ordering of society than making sure our choices help to contribute to justice for all?
Trinity Center, California
The Church’s Purse
Archbishop Chaput’s concerns about the questionable legal and moral merits of removing statute-of-limitation provisions retroactively, so as to enable a further flood of dubious sex-abuse-related lawsuits against the Catholic Church, undoubtedly have merit (Suing the Church, May). However, I believe that one must not lose sight of the deeper point: As a matter of faith, the Catholic Church is much more than the sum of its financial resources and physical assets here on earth. In fact, these are completely accidental to what the Church is, and therefore also entirely dispensable. The essence of the Church (very roughly stated) consists of a body of believers in Christ who are mystically united to the risen Christ as their Head, and to one another through Christ, which mystical union is effected by the ministrations of grace poured forth by the Holy Spirit.
It is worth noting again that the possession of physical and financial assets by the Church in its visible manifestation in no way enters into this essential definition of what the Church is. As such, I respectfully submit that the American bishops, as a matter of faith, ought to have relatively little concern over the prospect that all the physical and financial assets of the American Church might be lost due to unscrupulous attempts to reverse statutes of limitation and so on. I also submit that the American bishops could set a powerful example of trust in Christ for the rest of us by publicly entrusting the fate of the visible Church’s financial resources and physical assets to the loving providence of the triune God.
Morgan State University
Archbishop Chaput replies:
Mr. Wenisch’s grasp of essentials is correct but not quite complete. The Church has a mission from her Lord that requires engaging the world. She needs resources to do that.
Moreover, bishops have a duty to protect, steward, and properly use those resources, which flow from the faith of their people. They are not free to abandon those resources to a romantic misreading of Providence. God gives his people a conscience, brain, and spine, and we’re expected to use all three.
In his review of Victory of Reason (What Hath God Wrought? April), Algis Valiunas begins by quoting the apostle encouraging Timothy to abjure the material life. Timothy’s vocation was to be an itinerant tent-making preacher. Granted, there are lessons for all of us in that letter, but Valiunas (should I say cunningly?) ignores the context and forgets that this epistle was written to an individual, not a congregation. The same lesson is further elucidated in the epistle of Barnabas, describing the appropriate material relationship between the itinerant preacher and his temporary flock.
Valiunas’ notion that Max Weber deserves more respect from Stark baffles me. Should Stark have complimented Weber for ignoring a thousand years of history? As for Stark’s supposed cunning silence about Aquinas’ debt to Aristotle, I would think that any casual reader might have noticed that Aquinas does a more than adequate job of making us aware of that himself. Valiunas seems to have missed the entire point that Stark makes, which is that while the Christian religion did not produce a unique philosophy, the synthesis achieved by Christianity produced a culture less inhibited by dualism and the tendency that societies so influenced have toward religious and political (and, consequently, intellectual, educational, and economic) arbitrariness.
It may be that Valiunas’ prejudice against Stark’s work results from an atavistic longing for an economic morality that is uninformed by reason and thus arbitrary. In his disdain of economic rationality, he disdains rationality itself. The Schoolmen didn’t expend miles of parchment discussing economic issues for no reason. They realized that a Christianity overly obsessed with asceticism, the way he seems to be (could this be one of those cases where one person’s involuntary asceticism becomes the model for everyone else?), is a Christianity unable to feed its flock. If all Christians shared this misguided and self-centered view of the world, there wouldn’t be a Christianity to discuss. The monks themselves went into trade because subsistence farming leads to privation and starvation, Valiunas’ goal for us all.
Greg Walker, M.D.
Almost always I have found your articles and book reviews not only insightful but also objective in their analyses. Unfortunately, I found Algis Valiunas’ review of The Victory of Reason misleading and biased in favor of the reviewer’s own religious and, might I say, philosophical views that more closely reflect Eastern Christianity’s traditional approach to worldly endeavors.
Having read Rodney Stark’s book and some other reviews, I found the book enlightening in its presentation of the evolution of capitalism in the Western world and the influence that Catholic Christianity had on that evolution. That influence is presented as a historical fact, and the book illustrates how Western Catholicism in its application of reason to moral issues developed rationales for improving the well-being of the populace.
Valiunas apparently favors retreat from the world, in contrast to being in the world, which God has created and is good. A review of Stark’s book is hardly the forum to advocate that otherworldly theme in such a peremptory way.
There are a number of inaccuracies in the review that flow from Valiunas’ bias. Some are:
Valiunas’ assertion that Stark claims that Christian theologians invented reason is not true. The author acknowledges the role of the Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle, in the development of reasoning as a method of analysis. What Valiunas does not perceive is Stark’s position that the Greeks and Romans failed to apply reason to practical economic and scientific problems. For them, reason was a theoretical intellectual exercise and had little to do with practical living, especially in the arenas of economics and technology.
Valiunas says that Stark’s position is that liberty, power, and prosperity are the ends and Christianity is the means, and that the author sides with the world and the flesh, which value reason more than faith. Stark nowhere endorses such a position. Rather, I found the author’s position to be how faith, aided by reason, in fact communicated with and guided man to attain goals which render people’s lives more worthy.
Valiunas’ embellishment of Muslim philosophical accomplishments is unsupported by other authorities, including Bernard Lewis. The philosophies of Averroes and Alfarabi never had a widespread or enduring influence on Muslim culture, and they themselves were on the intellectual fringe of Islamic thought. As Stark points out, the Muslim world did not embrace the supremacy of reason and human equality and freedom. These failures contributed to the failure of the Muslim world to develop economically.
Bernard J. McNamee
Algis Valiunas replies:
It’s always amusing to hear the animadversions of those who take offense at what one writes, but never before have I been accused of being an agent of the Eastern Church (like most Lithuanians, I am Roman Catholic), a devotee of the scourge and hairshirt (not even on martyrs’ feast days), and an advocate of universal starvation (I would love to live in a world where everyone could eat as well as I do).
My philosophical quarrel with Stark and his defenders has to do with their slighting the greatest achievements of the ancient Greeks, particularly the achievements of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who were not merely learned men or scholars, as Stark tendentiously calls them, but the founding fathers of philosophy, which is the effort to understand the world by reason alone. Against the ancient philosophers, Stark exalts the great Catholic theologians and the free-market economists.
Stark describes Christian theology as the highest form of reasoning”formal reasoning about God”and finds the medieval theologians to be better reasoners than Plato and Aristotle. But theology begins by accepting certain unquestionable tenets of faith that unimpeded reason might indeed find questionable. As I pointed out in my review, theologians are not free to think as philosophers are; the Church still punishes heretical theologians. Stark declares that faith in reason is the most significant feature of Western civilization; in the activity he considers supreme, however, reason is subordinate to faith. The origins of Western rationality are to be found in fifth-century Athens, not in the medieval Church.
As for the free-market economists, while Adam Smith does pay due attention to the virtue of compassion, their thinking generally has little use for Christianity, although the famous invisible hand is rather more a matter of faith than of reason. And it is absurd to consider Adam Smith a greater thinker than Plato or Aristotle.
My religious quarrel with Stark and his defenders has to do with their apparent belief that the really important achievement of Christianity is the founding of a kingdom very much of this world. When Christ declared that his own kingdom lies elsewhere, he made clear that not even Stark’s trinity of Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, however fine it is, however blessed one is to enjoy its comforts, can be compared to the eternal life that matters most.
One ought at least to consider that the words of St. Paul and of Christ himself, however severe they might sound, just might address what is demanded of us to deserve that kingdom more fully than the teachers of economic rationality do.