Pro and Con on Homosexuality
Given a subscription to First Things, I read it eagerly for its cogent and coherent views on all things public. I read with dismay, however, the recent declaration of the Ramsey Colloquium in “The Homosexual Movement” (March), the ostensible purpose of which was to pass a moral judgment. While seemingly a “response” to “attack,” the paper launched a counteroffensive laden with value judgments, unfair comparisons, and righteous, but baseless, fears. Though self-effacing and nuanced in form, the content is highly oppressive as it, again, subordinates and dismisses a “distorted” love [in an argument] based on a tradition . . . that allowed, without effective challenge, the systematic destruction of homosexuals, and others, in death camps—the conclusive embodiment of oppression. This is not “culture” but barbarianism and rightly calls forth a “counterculture” response. One cannot, as the authors do, claim a proprietary interest in history without being called to account for that history, a history, moreover, of virulent aggression generally. If the charge of “homophobia” no longer “intimidates” or “persuades,” it can only be lamented, as the flourishing the authors seek is no house plant, but the bugle call to close ranks—where, once again, the ensuing militant excess will be disowned by those who sounded the tocsin.
William J. Cleary, Jr.
Los Angeles, CA
The article “The Homosexual Movement” by the Ramsey Colloquium is a superb response not only to the gay community but also the liberal straight community, which has supported, in varying degrees, the gay agenda. The article’s unconcern about being labeled “homophobic” is courageous, especially since the gay movement is saturated with its own streaks of intolerance and bigotry.
But if I had been a member of the colloquium, I would have dissented on your dismissing the analogy of the original gay rights agenda, confined to legislation ending discrimination in employment and housing, with the civil rights movement of the sixties. The manifesto states: “The public declaration of status (‘coming out of the closet’) is a declaration of intended behavior.” Not necessarily. Indeed, there seems to be a contradiction, since earlier the article refers to gays who “live lives of discipline and chastity.”
The private turf of “sexual orientation” is well-taken. But its public turf should be divided into the “economic,” by adding to the civil rights statutes “sexual orientation” in the areas of employment and housing, thus facilitating the remedy for decades of discrimination, and the “noneconomic,” with its affirmation and advocacy of current and proposed gay lifestyles that are indices not of a liberal society but of its course to social and moral decadence.
The Stonewall uprising of 1969 might have run its course on its economic agenda without any detrimental effects on the religious or moral sensibilities of American society. Tragically along the way it has become polluted with its focus on the Id instead of the refinement of the Ego and the Superego.
In the beginning, “The Homosexual Movement” seems to proceed in a reasonable and evenhanded way. The authors—all male, I notice—begin to show their true attitudes and fears when they ask whether a homosexual “predisposition” should be acted on or resisted. Apparently you have no conception of what resisting one’s real inner self entails. Such action brings with it spiritual wounding, soul trauma, often physical ailments, alienation from one’s soul, one’s self. To compare homosexual predisposition to a predisposition to alcoholism, for instance, is to misunderstand totally what it means to be homosexual. Neither am I speaking of indulging in promiscuity when I say one cannot resist one’s inner self with impunity. I am speaking of denying one’s inner self on a much deeper level.
Does the simple fact of two people of the same gender expressing their love in genital sexuality of itself constitute sin? Even in a committed, monogamous, nonexploitive relationship? Having exhaustively studied the passages in the Bible that deal with homosexual acts—not homosexuality, which is the condition of being homosexual—I believe that such a relationship is not sinful. I believe culturally conditioned fear leads to the conclusion that such a relationship would be sinful. Often we read into the Bible what we want to find there. . . .
The authors of the article unwittingly give one revealing reason why it is so difficult to combat the societal fear of homosexuality: “the largely intuitive and pre-articulate anxiety of most Americans regarding homosexuality.” Thus, when one presents facts, scientific evidence, logic, and reasonable arguments, such information is not heard. Prejudice and emotion block the hearing of reason in almost all cases.
Under the guise of scholarly interest and sociological information, your publication has contributed significantly to the continued misunderstanding of homosexuality and the mistreatment of lesbian and gay persons. Thus I write to protest the publication of your misinformed and distorted article.
Mary V. Borhek
The Ramsey Colloquium almost follows the exposition of its investigation to its logical conclusion. But, when the arguments made do not lead to the desired preconceived conclusion—that homosexual conduct is per se evil—the authority of the Bible is invoked and logic rather than the desired conclusion is jettisoned.
The Ramsey argument would have made sense if its purveyors could have admitted that a homosexual couple that behaves the same as its idealized heterosexual counterpart—that is, living together in a loving, long-term monogamous relationship not based primarily on sexual novelty—would fulfill the requirements of morally acceptable behavior. It is rampant promiscuity that is harmful to society because it results in wholesale seduction of the weak by the strong by means of lies, faithlessness, and serial abandonment. Promiscuity is harmful regardless of sexual orientation, but it seems to form such a central part of homosexual relationships that I believe it gives lie to the claim that stable relationships are the norm.
Having made this claim based simply on observation, I would like to ask if any reputable studies have been made on the average duration of homosexual relationships.
I applaud the Ramsey Colloquium commentary on the homosexual movement. It was measured, enlightening, and stimulating. However, it avoided the issue of the essential inability of Christianity, as well as every other religion, to deal with homosexuality.
Homosexuality is something like communism. As in the case of communism, we love the sinner but hate the sin. As with communism, homosexuality has moved from being a personal spiritual problem to being an ideological threat, promulgated not by the numbers under its sway but by a few leaders at the control of language and institutions. In fact, I would term this developing interpretation of society, history, and nature, “homosexualism.” As with communism, our best strategy is vigilance and containment, as we develop a superior alternative while it rots from within.
However, as with communism, we cannot claim in all honesty that Christian thinkers have promulgated an explanation of the cause of homosexuality, of what ultimately is wrong with it, and of how to avoid suppression, whether psychological, social, or legal, on the one hand, and unbridled license, on the other. . . .
Logic cannot prove homosexuality evil, nor can the Christian tradition, out of which the insurgency arose, answer it. At this late time, only love will save the world, but “most men’s love grows cold.” Who among the divorced majority can stone the prostitute, or criticize the homosexual? Are we to argue for the pallid state of marriage, which leaves the society panting for the zestful physical “culture” of youth? . . .
Hundreds of thousands of men would not enter upon a path of sure self-destruction if the reality of man-woman love in our culture possessed a modicum of hope or true joy. . . .
I believe that Christians of the medieval times understood themselves as standing in the mid-time between the first and second advents. With the renaissance of the notion of progress, the middle times began to draw to a close. People accepted romantic love as the new norm and sought in it personal satisfaction beyond the function of procreation. It was not long before beloved Luther liberated the nuns and esteemed Locke relegated the institution of marriage to the political function of creating good individualistic citizens. With the blurring of the line between religious and laity came a blurring of all social distinctions, including that of husband and wife, and parent and child.
Paul wrote that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. The separation into Jew and Greek, slave and free, I would submit, are results of the fall, and Paul was right with regard to the rightful ending of those divisions. But Paul was wrong, ultimately, concerning male and female. The separation into male and female is not a result of the fall; it is a principle of creation. In fact, the very image of God is male and female (Genesis 1:27). The male and female in and of God were concretized directly as a man and a woman, who naturally long to reconstitute the unity of God in marriage.
This reconstitution of God’s unity by two separated, complementary beings is the Unification model of the Trinity, the three-in-one: God, man, and woman. This is the substantialization of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and one should treat every Christian couple as a representation of the Trinity. Hence, the Trinity is life-giving, procreative.
From this viewpoint, ideological homosexuality, or homosexualism, is a denial of God, for it is denying the image of God. One could probably compare it with one or another of the classical heresies that denied the Trinity. Further, any worldview that accepts the balance of forces in nature summarized in the yin/yang duality—a description of multiplicity as subtly comfortable as the Trinity is with the unity of God—cannot countenance the homosexualist one-sided view of man, nature, and God.
Unification Church of America
New York, NY
“The Homosexual Movement” reflects the usual thinking today, which envisions a static, unchanging world. In actuality, the world is dynamic and, consequently, constantly changing. Lifestyles and mores that were proper and acceptable at one point in time may not be such at another time, and vice versa.
We live on a closed earth with fixed resources and, consequently, undoubted limits on the human population that it can sustain. As we improve personal health so that the average life span keeps lengthening, the earth cannot tolerate an increasing birthrate. The former disdain for contraception and abortion has no validity today if we are to maintain a viable earth.
An extension of the foregoing acceptance of contraception and abortion implies that other nonnormative sexual behavior may deserve consideration as acceptable today. Perhaps homosexuality is a fitting lifestyle in the world as it is today.
In actuality, we need to consider other animate forms of life in which the human reproductive cycle is not present. We need to ask the question, “Why do those animals have that lifestyle? Have they developed a satisfactory perpetuating lifestyle? Will some human beings develop a lifestyle comparable to drones in the apian world? Is homosexuality a natural evolutionary aspect of some members of the human species?”
Sumner B. Irish
I appreciated the statement by the Ramsey Colloquium because it expresses a serious, reasoned effort to address a difficult issue that challenges all of us. At the same time, I believe there are some critical weaknesses and oversights in the document that should be noted.
Given the significant number of clergy and theologians in the Ramsey Colloquium, it is strange to me that there is no effort to distinguish the homosexual “movement” and the voices of Christian homosexuals who now for the first time are speaking to the Christian community. The ignoring of those voices is reflected in the way the Colloquium identifies the homosexual agenda as one that espouses sexual gratification without discipline. It is further identified as “a declared desire for liberation from constraint,” and the belief that “the fulfillment of desire is the essence of the self.” This characterization obviously serves the argument of the Colloquium, but as one who has engaged Christian gays and lesbians in conversation on these matters, I find it seriously flawed.
The issue that holds my attention as a theologian and ethicist is how to address responsibly the situation faced by Christians who happen to be homosexual. While I cannot speak dogmatically on the matter, I have come to the conclusion that the primary issue is the authenticity of their claim concerning their personal identity. Whatever the reason for their sexual condition, the nature and scope of their relationships are governed by their being homosexually oriented, and that is a fact which heterosexuals should respect. We may not understand that fact, or may be uncomfortable with it, but if our society is going to treat gays and lesbians justly, we must respect it.
Recognizing this, I also believe that we should expect the same kind of responsible sexual practice from gays and lesbians as we expect from heterosexuals. The implication given by the Colloquium’s statement is that the homosexual world is not interested in or possibly not capable of establishing responsible sexual relationships. The fact of the matter is that we do not know how responsible most homosexuals would become in a society in which they were treated as first-class citizens and expected to establish open, permanent relationships. I want my fellow Christians who are homosexual to have that opportunity, with the legal support necessary to help make it happen.
Would such a development undermine the family and increase the seduction of minors? I’m inclined to believe that it would create a more healthy sexual environment. The “otherness” of the homosexual—with its attendant fear and even hatred—would lose some of its threat, and it is likely that a “live and let live” attitude would increasingly prevail. When the justice issue is defused, the impetus for confrontation and flaunting is also defused. Of course, the norm for heterosexual behavior should be taught and exemplified, just as it should for homosexual behavior. The kind of argument made by the Colloquium concerning “the heterosexual norm” can and must be maintained, but without denying the authenticity of homosexual persons for whom homogenital activity is a natural expression of who they are. To claim that they also must act like heterosexuals in order to meet the norm is to continue an expectation that has brought incalculable tragedy and grief into millions of families. There has to be a better way.
To find that way does indeed mean a departure from the moral tradition of the Church, but it is one based on a plea for humaneness and understanding. The departure is not one that replaces discipline with permissiveness, and certainly not one that forsakes morality for immorality. Instead it redefines responsible sexual conduct for the homosexual in the same way we define it for the heterosexual: Live your sexual life in union with another person in a spirit of commitment and fidelity. The alternative which insists that celibacy is the only responsible behavior open to homosexuals is an act of coercion that the rest of us would find utterly unconscionable. It reflects the lack of respect needed by the homosexual world in order to enter the mainstream and live the responsible life expected by society.
I wish to commend the Ramsey Colloqium for addressing a difficult and controverted subject—the homosexual movement. This is a difficult subject to speak to, since we all, I suspect, know and love individuals with a homosexual orientation who are struggling to integrate their sexuality into their personal lives in service to the true God. Yet both Judaism and Christianity must continue to uphold that vision of humanity with which they have been entrusted.
The significant weakness of the Ramsey statement is its failure to amply express the singularity of the Judeo-Christian understanding of human sexuality. The Judeo-Christian condemnation of homosexual practice (and it is homosexual intercourse that is condemned in Scripture, not homosexual orientation) belongs to an understanding of humanity that is specific to the biblical revelation. Few cultures and religions have condemned the practice of homosexuality in the way that Judaism and Christianity have. It can in fact be argued that the very distinction between heterosexual and homosexual practice is a Jewish-Christian distinction. In pagan cultures of antiquity, the fundamental distinction was between active and passive, with the former role affirmed and the latter denigrated. Most cultures, therefore, have permitted if not celebrated homosexual practice—as long as one engaged in the act of penetration and was not the one being penetrated. (Note that women must always be denigrated in this understanding.) Judaism and Christianity transformed all this by their insistence that sexual union is restricted to the heterosexual bond of husband and wife. In other words, they “maritalized” sex and thus made possible a new kind of relationship between man and woman—a relationship of love and fidelity.
I grant that this teaching is especially tough on single men and women. I also know a lot of married men and women who believe that our proscriptions of adultery and divorce are also destructive to personal well-being. Once again, most cultures have never been as absolute on this as Judaism and Christianity have. But of course Christianity has never accepted the belief, widely accepted by our culture, that sexual union is necessary to personal fulfillment. It can hardly do so in light of the personal example of Jesus and the insistence of the Church upon the holiness of the vocation of singleness and celibacy (which distinguishes the Church, I believe, from her mother community, Judaism).
The Judeo-Christian proscription of homosexual practice is not based on a few isolated biblical texts but is grounded in a vision of what it means to be a human being. This vision will always be countercultural and unpopular. I am reminded here of the disciples’ response to the teaching of Jesus on marriage and divorce in Matthew 19:1-14: “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” In his typical manner, Jesus does not back off from his teaching: “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given.” Synagogue and Church are thus called to a difficult vocation—a vocation that can only be served under the mercy of God and in his compassion and love—yet surely we must remain faithful to the revelation we have received.
(The Rev.) Alvin F. Kimel, Jr.
St. Mark’s Church
I have followed the often very fine theological discussion in First Things almost from its inception. As a Catholic who attempts to be faithful to the Church, and as an historical theologian-in-training, I frequently nod in agreement as I read. Nevertheless, your journal offers the same frustration on an almost monthly basis—your virtual obsession with homosexuality and gay and lesbian civil rights. If anything, the frequency of tirades, snide remarks, and other treatments of this subject has increased of late.
The various articles on homosexuality in First Things have, of course, not been without value. They clearly articulate points to which anyone advocating change must reply. However, three failings stand out:
(a) Constant complaints about “special rights.” No doubt there are some gay activists whose positions veer in this direction, and they are rightly criticized. However, the excesses of these few do not invalidate or represent the deeply thoughtful and responsible positions of many others.
(b) The implication that no reasonable, orthodox Christian could question the traditional stance on homosexuality. The Church, under the leading of the Spirit, has changed positions that had traditional and even biblical support, for example the permissibility of slavery. Were theologians wrong to question this teaching? Raising careful and respectful questions is not heresy, but rather is an indispensable activity in the Church.
(c) Worst of all, the tone of superiority and self-righteousness often found in your articles on this topic. A little humility can go a long way, especially when dealing with the difficult issues of life and love that gay and lesbian Christians face daily.
I would suggest giving your readers a break by maintaining silence on this issue for a while. In your resultant spare time, you could volunteer at an agency like New York’s Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project. These folks assist those who have been beaten, thrown out of their homes, and otherwise mistreated only because they were perceived, correctly or not, as homosexual. “Which now of these . . . was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves?” (Luke 10:36)
John P. Plummer
About John Boswell
Thank you for creating what is simply the best periodical in the U.S. today. It truly is.
Allow me one observation on the superb piece “In the Case of John Boswell” (Public Square, March). One should beware of saying: “Paul and the early Christians departed from the Greeks in judging homosexual acts per se to be unnatural and morally disordered.” That overlooks Plato’s explicit strictures in his Laws I (page 40, Loeb): Sexual relations are “contrary to nature when male with male or female with female. . . . We [Athenians?] all accuse the Cretans for concocting the story of Ganymede . . . to justify their own practice.” VIII (page 132): “Intercourse with men and boys as with women . . . is unnatural.” See also pages 153 and 158. On page 159 Plato seems to equate homosexual practice with killing off the human stock. . . . On page 107 he confines sex to marital intercourse and prohibits what he terms “unnatural seed” in the practice of homosexuality. Does Boswell somehow write all this off?
I always look forward to every issue.
Father Neuhaus’ discussion of homosexuality in the context of John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance & Homosexuality was, as usual, perceptive, reasoned, and balanced. As a guide for Christian belief and social action, however, it fell short at the precise point where Christianity generally has lost authority today.
1 Corinthians 6:9 is quoted: “Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.” Boswell would separate out homosexuals for exclusion or redefinition. But a church that has easily accepted, approved, and even ordained the immoral and adulterers, not to mention revilers, the greedy, and the drunken, has lost its authority to quote these passages against homosexuals.
This is not to question either God’s truth or God’s authority. But first cleansing our own denominational houses of selective reading and preaching would go a long way toward establishing credence for our proclamations of eternal truth.
D. T. Samuel
St. Cloud, MN
Are Postmoderns Moderns?
The article by J. Bottum, “Christians and Postmoderns” (February), perpetuates what I believe to be an error on the part of a growing number of believing intellectuals. This error is the view that “postmodernism” is good news for Christians, or at least that it can be put to good use by us. On the contrary, I would maintain:
Bottum establishes, or rather accepts whole cloth from the “postmodernists” themselves, a three-fold scheme of intellectual history: medieval faith, modern rationality, postmodern antirationality.
Every stage in this putative evolution is misrepresented. To begin with, the medieval scholastics always considered faith and reason to work together. Indeed, certain of their theological propositions may even have prepared the ground for the discovery of the laws of physics, as argued by Pierre Duhem and his contemporary interpreter, Stanley Jaki. . . .
It ought not to be such a surprise that while modernity indeed begins in a reaction against the Church, as Bottum correctly states, its voracious appetite for rebellion would eventually devolve into a reaction against being itself. At least as early as Bishop Berkeley we have the view that only perceptions exist—sustained in the mind by God, to be sure. Amazingly, a bishop of the church of England in the eighteenth century was already subscribing to an ontology closer to that of Buddhism than to Christianity, which has always accepted the ontological solidity of the world. That is why when Samuel Johnson kicked the rock to refute Berkeley, he was also giving the riposte to Descartes and in fact to the entire modern/postmodern enterprise. We know the world exists. When we speculate about it, and end up convincing ourselves that we cannot know that it exists, we are falling into a fundamental philosophical error, as Etienne Gilson (referred to by Bottum) demonstrated in The Unity of Philosophical Experience (1937):
If metaphysical speculation is a shooting at the moon, philosophers have always begun by shooting at it; only after missing it have they said that there was no moon, and that it was a waste of time to shoot at it.
But the claim that it is a waste of time is precisely the “postmodernist” claim of Derrida, Rorty, et al., here refuted decades before they even published.
To characterize modernism as “systematic rationality,” as Bottum does, following the self-styled “postmodernists,” is to engage in reductionism. Modernity has always had an antinomian, willful rebelliousness about it; it has also raised the “feelings” to giddy heights, hence the seemingly bizarre combination of sentimentality and absolutized skepticism. Foucault and company, by declaring themselves to be postmodern, have set up a straw man against whom to pose as courageous rebels. In fact, since at least the seventeenth century we have a parting of the ways between those who believe in God and those who do not (or are taking epistemological steps that will eventually lead to disbelief), a parting that continues in our century. Instead of making peace with the “postmoderns,” we should be singing the praises of the great thinkers from the seventeenth century on who are on our side. And I would argue in favor of making common cause with nonbelievers who nevertheless accept the essential reality of the world, today more likely to be found among scientists than among “humanists.” If one accepts the reality of the world, there is hope that a higher aspect of reality will eventually also be accepted.
But there is another reason for rejecting the thinkers Bottum apparently accepts, one that is more difficult to characterize. Allow me to wax personal for a moment. When I read—or attempt to read—Derrida and co., in English or, if they are French, in the original, I am instantly repelled by something I can only describe as putrescent. I intuit that I am in the presence of something ugly—even evil. Is my intuition merely subjective?
Professor of Chinese Literature
George Washington University
J. Bottum provides a lucid account of relations among postmodern, modern, and premodern philosophies. His argument that postmodern deconstructions of modernity allow Christians to resume the long-interrupted search for understanding is compelling. Yet Bottum admits an irony in our situation that appears inescapable: we are creatures and beneficiaries of modernity. “[M]y own modernness rises up to make me blush,” he writes. “We cannot revert to the premodern, we cannot revert to the age of faith, for we were all of us raised moderns.”
Modernness is shared alike by moderns, contemporary postmoderns, and those who see in premoderns a fullness of life and faith. For example, wherever we may differ on natural law and natural right, on metaphysical foundations of ethics, most of us tend to live as though there are some self-evident truths. Ask anyone: they affirm liberty and political equality; they oppose tyranny and oppression; most are committed to private property.
Postmoderns themselves are at the forefront of testing the limits of rights that modernity defined. But their commitment to rights should not be confused with belief in or knowledge of rights. Genuine belief and knowledge are incompatible with presuppositions of postmodernism. A world where value systems are fictions, where commitment to these fictions is arbitrary, where these fictions are necessarily enforced by the willful is not the world of civil rights or women’s rights or “rights” at all, coherently understood. The liberalesque rhetoric of contemporary postmoderns and modern liberalism are two very different things.
To what extent, however, are Christianity and modern liberalism two very different things? Part of the challenge for Christians today is to understand how a truly Christian social and political vision differs from those born of modernity. Thomas Aquinas and John Locke offer competing visions; both present themselves as Christian thinkers. One may be orthodox and the other heretical. Yet such a distinction cannot lessen modern appreciation for goods stemming from the Enlightenment rationalism of Locke’s era as diverse as the Declaration of Independence and the refrigerator. Christians must understand how a bankrupt epoch that went wrong in fundamental ways went right in many other ways, and vice versa. A “bankruptcy” (Bottum’s term) that relieves man’s estate is paradoxical. Fortunately there are some who address the paradox. John Paul II, for one, comes to mind.
J. Bottum replies:
We cannot assume what Professor Chaves calls the “essential reality of the world.” Yes, there is “essential reality”: our minds are full of essential beings, some of them “idols” (as Bacon said) and some of them “clear and distinct” (as Descartes said). And yes, there is the “reality of the world”: when Dr. Johnson stubs his toe, existential being cries out against the bishop. But the connection between them is our problem: I apparently conceive essences and I apparently perceive existences, and I haven’t a clue what they have to do with each other—for these are the “two principles which I cannot render consistent,” as Hume puts it, “nor is it in my power to renounce either.”
Of course, a perfect, infinite, and non-deceiving God could connect them; modern epistemology would be off to the races if we could prove God’s existence. But Kant points out what Aquinas saw five hundred years before: existence will not flow from concepts; from the fact we think of things a certain way, it does not follow they are that way.
Now, suppose we had a group of modern nonbelievers, say some atheistic but good-willed physicists of vaguely humanistic sentiment: We could show them something quite surprising: their everyday speech and technical practice both require the concept of god. Most of them would simply laugh (the notion of logical requirement to thought outside of science being alien to contemporary culture); but suppose there were one or two who would listen—those one or two in the hopes of whom C. S. Lewis always wrote. What would we have done? The last people left in modern times who still believe in the “essential reality of the world” would now see that their belief requires the hypothesis of a “useful” god. Such a god is an idol and a blasphemy; I can’t believe we gain anything by positing its existence. And the history of modernity shows us what we lose.
Hypothesis is the ape of faith, for the posited god confirms complacency while the believed God demands conversion. And the person who posits god eventually grows tired: tired of revelation’s contradiction of complacency, tired of all the chatter about what is only a construct, tired of what is irrelevant at last to everyday life. This, and not the paradox of wealthy bankruptcy, is the origin of the irony on which Mr. Flanders insists: misology and acedia—the weariness of words and the weariness of action—are the final products of the modern attempt to ignore God and get on with words and action. The postmoderns are epistemologically correct: modern claims of truth and morals are parasitical on a god who withers at last and dies—and with it dies truth and morals. We don’t get God from the world; our knowledge of the “essential reality of the world” flows instead from belief in God.
Of Politics and Religion
In his article “Christian Conviction & Democratic Etiquette” (March), George Weigel applauds the fact that President Clinton is “unabashedly public about his Christian faith and seems to understand that the engagement of differing religious connections within the bond of democratic civilities is good for America.” He tempers his praise by adding that the President’s policies and appointments are not entirely congruent with his rhetoric. He further appears to justify this incongruity by saying, “Politicians will always be politicians.” In trying to prove his thesis that there should be a place for religiously based moral arguments in the public square, he uses as an example a man whose biblical words are a mockery to his actions in the presidency. The immediacy of Mr. Clinton’s revocation of the hard-won gains in the pro-life movement, his timing of this with the annual pro-life march on Washington, and his blatant disregard for protests of his policies show an unprecedented callousness toward the rights of the unborn. Again, his appointments testify to a political agenda that is in total contradiction to the moral values he glibly professes.
The dichotomy between the words of President Clinton and his actions is so marked that one can only wonder whether he is quoting Scripture for his own political purposes. “Politicians will always be politicians” is a surprising statement for Mr. Weigel to make in view of his aim to help in the reconstruction of civil society in America at the close of the twentieth century. A sincere declaration of religious belief should presuppose a desire to act in accordance with that belief, and there is nothing in Mr. Clinton’s performance that demonstrates this. It was also surprising to see the juxtaposition of Mr. Clinton’s biblical references with those of President Lincoln during his presidency, our sixteenth President’s timeless utterances springing from his innate goodness and flowing forth into just actions. We can rebuild our nation only by electing men of principle whose actions do not belie their words, for as St. Paul wrote, “The man of eloquence who speaks without love is like a gong booming or a cymbal clashing.” The words of our current President are without love, for love can only pour out in deeds that are good. If we listen carefully, I think we can hear the booming of gongs and the clashing of cymbals in the biblical speeches of our President, and this should make us wary of mere talk in the public square.
Staten Island, NY
George Weigel says much that is true and valuable. Religious people should not be told to sit down and shut up when our convictions touch politics, and there is no reason why we should comply if someone undertakes to do so. And natural law provides a promising “grammar” for discussing public issues without ruling out religiously motivated perspectives.
Nonetheless, the project of invoking religion to stabilize American society has distinct limitations. For our society is in chaos for many reasons independent of secularizing intellectuals. These include the moral deficit remaining from the Cold War—including the legacy of forty years poised on the brink of destroying the whole human race, or at least countless innocent lives, and the gap created by the departed “Evil Empire.” They also include an economy in which layoffs and plant closings disrupt many communities, and, for those lucky enough to remain employed, the price is often an out-of-state move.
Religion is likely to take its color from the surrounding society. This is especially true in America, which has always nourished religious movements that Europeans regard as strange. We have Amish and Baptists inherited from the radical Reformation, Christian Scientists and Mormons from the nineteenth century, and New Age people and Moonies from the sixties, as well as many groups more eccentric still. And a society of immigrants must now deal not only with Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox people, and practicing Jews; but with Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims as well.
Religion is and always will be an important force in American politics. But religious people will raise a wider range of issues, and take a wider range of positions, than First Things perhaps desires.
Philip E. Devine
Professor of Philosophy
George Weigel leaves me wondering about the paradox of a democracy so swollen that it now lays claim to the social and generative process itself. Since entering the political fray, radical multiculturism and the extreme movements of gender and sexual politics have paved inroads into social and cultural matters. From strongholds within education, legal theory, and government social policy they strike at the core of Western Christian values and subvert the source of our collective social and psychic upbringing. The result is bringing down the framework of an American civic and spiritual consensus which, we are now realizing, depended on a principled attenuation of the political. Thus I ask Mr. Weigel whether some righteous resistance to “democracy” isn’t after all necessary to ultimately save us from ourselves.
Ocean Grove, NJ
Hierarchy, Anarchy & Animal Rights
Philip Zaleski (“A Peculiar Little Test,” February) is sure to receive some severe criticism for the bold stance he has taken with regard to hierarchy; he might as well have suggested to the frenzied Israelites that the golden calf they commissioned Aaron to make was ugly. There are certain things the entrenched intelligentsia of our society will simply not let one challenge, certain zones that are off-limits. Chief among them is the tenet that authoritarianism in all its forms is wrong, taboo, fascist. The intellectuals have exerted decades of effort attempting to enlighten us about this, so they certainly are not about to be cowed by one neophyte contributor to this publication, unless the subscription list is far more parochial than I thought.
Professor Zaleski is right, of course, which is why the Ten Commandments may not be posted in our schools any longer (for they teach submission to God and honor to father and mother), and why justice cannot convict criminals any longer. Both the acquittal of Lorena Bobbitt and the hung jury in the Menendez trial give evidence of an unsettling new trend, a newfound refusal on the part of jurors to put themselves hierarchically above the accused, notwithstanding the orders of the court. How else can one explain a failure to get a guilty verdict in two cases of self-admittedly premeditated assault on victims unaware even of the presence of their assailants? The arguments that the victims themselves are guilty of heinous acts can only be supported on the assumption that vigilantism has now become acceptable, further indicating a rejection of hierarchy in all its forms.
Western society and its denizens have become increasingly uncomfortable with all forms of authority, and one can make a believable case for the notion that we stand at the brink of anarchy, where no authority obtains. No wonder the jails are overcrowded; no wonder we have of late become alarmed about the rate of crime. . . . And if the people’s will has been stripped of its reverence for authority in society, then they will no longer be capable of serving as jurors in the interest of law and order.
We have been duped into rejecting hierarchy altogether by those who point to the abuses one can always find. Perhaps the cure at which Professor Zaleski gropes will have to begin, therefore, with education in another simple dictum, aimed at answering the gainsayers in this regard: abusus non tollit usus.
(The Rev.) Burnell F. Eckardt, Jr.
St. John Lutheran Church
As a generally conservative subscriber to First Things who is also a thoroughgoing skeptic, I read your journal with the expectation of agreeing with much, as well as the expectation of having usually fruitful disagreements. Philip Zaleski’s article contains an example of something I frequently encounter in the writings of conservative and/or religious people and with which I utterly, unfruitfully disagree, viz., a gratuitous, irrational slam at “extreme animal rightists.”
Zaleski’s use of the word “extreme” is telling, for presumably he does not dissent from anticruelty laws. Yet when these were first proposed in the early nineteenth century, proponents of these laws were tarred with the epithet “extremist,” as are those who today defend the rights of animals. And, I might add, so were the proponents of the abolition of slavery. Zaleski notes that “the great religions answer with one voice: all human life is infinitely precious.” Leaving to one side the question of the truth of that statement (consider Islam’s contempt for women), or whether that statement is analytic or synthetic, there are two “great religions,” Hinduism and Buddhism, that hold animal life just as sacred as human. That fact argues their superiority to Christianity and Judaism, at least to my way of thinking, which will no doubt offend your ecumenical sensibilities.
Zaleski’s talk of “hierarchy” and “the Great Chain of Being,” aside from its dubious philosophical validity, conceals a gigantic non sequitur: because man is higher in the hierarchy, he has a right to do whatever he likes to those lower. Because man is more intelligent, or more “spiritual,” he has the right to tear animals away from their mates and offspring, and coldly murder them for our supper? Because man has an immortal soul, he has a right to torture and vivisect? Not by any logic of which I’ve heard. Whoever invented these syllogisms never studied Aristotle, who happens to be the champion of “hierarchy.”
I will never cease to be amazed by so-called Christians who, with all of their talk about love and compassion, never allow these to stand in the way of a tasty dinner. These Christians, in their willful ignorance and bigotry, know nothing of the religious tradition of compassion for and mercy to animals, from Pythagoras to St. Francis to Albert Schweitzer to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, all of whom were vegetarians. Animals are exactly like humans in one great respect: they want to live, above all else. All the “great religions” also teach this: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. How can we, as Plutarch says, “for the sake of some little mouthful of flesh deprive a soul of the sun and light, and of that proportion of life and time it had been born into the world to enjoy”?
The way animals are currently treated will one day be considered barbarous. As for Christians, who ought to know better, the words of Jesus come to mind, something about Pharisees and hypocrites. For all of their talk of the “image of God” and “the Great Chain of Being” is just an excuse to keep conducting business as usual.
Redwood Valley, CA
Philip Zaleski replies:
Many thanks to both Pastor Burnell F. Eckardt, Jr. and Dennis Mangan for their thorough responses to my article.
Pastor Eckardt’s final suggestion is right on target and brings to mind a simple folk proverb: don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. But what to do when the bathtub itself is in the process of being disassembled (or should I say deconstructed)? This is the dilemma in which we find ourselves today.
I admire Mr. Mangan’s compassion for our bestial brethren, but perhaps a more nuanced view of world religions is called for. Although it can be argued that, in some cases, Hinduism and Buddhism “hold animal life just as sacred as human,” hierarchical distinctions remain. Both of these religions describe rebirth into animal form as inauspicious, the result of a failure to sow seeds of merit in a previous life; human rebirth offers the most favorable conditions for attaining liberation. Turning westward, I’ll note that profound respect for animals, even to the extent of perceiving them as heavenly messengers, in no way proscribes putting them on one’s dinner plate, hot and juicy—witness the hunting practices of most Native American peoples.
As for Mr. Mangan’s comment about “Islam’s contempt for women,” this is sadly typical of the denigration of Islam in America today. Islam has misogynist tendencies, as do all religions, east and west. But Islam raised the status of women from chattel to God’s viceregents, along with men (Quran: II, 30), and Islamic tradition venerates thousands of female saints. Scarcely signs of contempt.
I was both confused and disturbed by Richard Neuhaus’ commentary, “Clinton on Religious Freedom” (Public Square, March). He likes what Clinton says, but then appears to claim that in his actions the President is against religion. “On the issues that really matter to many people—abortion, population control policies, sex education and family values, school choice—Clinton is . . . hard-line. . . .” As many religious people and denominations agree with Clinton on these issues, how do those policies make him antireligious? There are devout members of what you like to call “Mainline” churches who support Clinton on these issues as strongly as other denominations oppose him.
No president can fail to offend various religious groups, some most of the time, and almost all at least occasionally. That does not make him antireligious. . . .
Peter B. Denison
In Richard John Neuhaus’ interesting article on Poland (“Poland: Reflections on a New World,” February), he speculated concerning the disappointing victory of the left that “it is part of democratic ‘normality’ to screw up and lose from time to time.” I think he was more precisely right than he may have realized.
Retrospective voters decide elections, as James Q. Wilson and other political scientists have pointed out. An overwhelming majority of people vote against or for the incumbents; in effect, elections are particularly ruthless job performance reviews. Thus, in 1993 in Poland, around 80 percent of the voters cast ballots against the center-right incumbent parties. Of the dozen or so alternative parties among whom the electorate scattered its largess, the ex-communists were the best-organized and the best-known, and they won the plurality required to gain a majority of seats in the parliament. Somehow the Democratic Union and its allies dropped the ball, and the voters sent in a new team.
Democracy is the best system known to man for removing bad rulers from power, but it is only a very crude tool for discriminating among challengers. If the incumbents fumble, just about any party or candidate has a shot, no matter what its past record may be. Just look at that very lucky man, Bill Clinton.
Stephanie D. Moussalli
With regard to Richard John Neuhaus and his attempt to defend religious freedom from the attacks of the Wisconsin Civil Rights Bureau (“Getting Tough on Crime in Wisconsin,” Public Square, March):
The derision with which you dismiss nondiscrimination requirements in public accommodation is astounding. I can see no religious impulse for defending, let alone advocating, a rejection of these protections. Would you have so gleefully defended a housing ad which said, “whites only,” if placed by a white supremacist seeking religious approbation? Perhaps you can smile at such quaint and simple pieties as using “Christian” to mean “reliable,” but if Ms. Schnell meant “reliable,” she should have said “reliable.” What she said was that I, as a Jew, need not bother to apply.
I do not know the particulars of this case; whether, for example, the landlady was seeking someone to live in a spare room in her home, or if she managed a large apartment complex. Obviously there is a difference, just as there is a difference between a religious organization advertising for employees and a property owner seeking tenants. But I cannot imagine that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act could be reasonably construed to include renting real estate. This is not the practice of religion.
I don’t know if the punishment is appropriate to the crime or not; perhaps the fine is excessive. Perhaps what Ms. Schnell really needs, in addition to a better editor for her advertisements, is a pastoral lesson in the rudiments of ecumenism, not endorsements of prejudice.
(Rabbi) Dan Shevitz
Oklahoma City, OK
Not His Cup of Tea
You advertised your magazine as a balanced treatment of social issues in the context of religious belief. It is anything but balanced. First Things, A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, is pure evil. It would be better described as a Journal of Greed and Bigotry in the name of Jesus Christ. Its editors must surely be agents of Satan.
Please cancel my new subscription immediately and send my refunded payment to your local Salvation Army corps.