The Public Square
The argument advanced by Zev Chafets—with an engaging mix of urgency, frustration, and humor both high and low—is really quite simple: American evangelicals are, next to American Jews, Israel’s best friends, and American Jews are monumentally dumb in not appreciating that fact. His book is A Match Made in Heaven: American Jews, Christian Zionists, and One Man’s Exploration of the Weird and Wonderful Judeo-Evangelical Alliance, and it is published by HarperCollins. Chavets was born in Michigan and has spent most of his adult life as an journalist in Israel. His report is an education in U.S.-Israeli politics, the contradictions within American Jewish leadership circles, and the worlds within worlds of American evangelicaldom.
Chafets begins his story with this: “I’ve been keeping a sharp eye on Christians ever since an eleven-year-old first baseman named Monroe informed me that I, one of the Chosen People, would be going to hell when I died. It wasn’t a threat, or a recruiting pitch. He didn’t care. It was just a piece of information he had picked up at the Emmanuel Baptist Church Sunday school in Pontiac, Michigan. We were Little League teammates, and he figured I should know.” Chafets sustains this note of theological insouciance throughout. His interest is not in saving his soul but in saving Israel.
As a teenager, he accompanied a friend to a revival meeting where eager Baptists implored him to come forward and accept Jesus as his Savior. “I tried to politely refuse but they didn’t want to hear it. Someone handed me a little information card and a ballpoint. I could picture an evangelical posse turning up at my house the next day if I filled it out.” So he wrote down the name and address of the local rabbi and got out of there. “I found the foray into foreign territory exhilarating.” From early on, Chavets was not offended by the fact that other people were Christians, nor did it occur to him that this was cause for Jewish complaint.
He admits his Jewish education was somewhat thin. Most of the Jews he knew in Pontiac were Reform Jews. “Their denomination (and mine) in those days was almost entirely about civil rights. We didn’t speak to one another about God. Our prayers, such as they were, consisted mainly of reflections on an abstract being who resembled Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Bible was second-rate Shakespeare. To the extent we read it at all, we concentrated on those prophets whose teachings were in line with Pete Seeger. The Holocaust was never discussed. Israel was a foreign country.”
He went to Israel for his junior college year, and he loved it. “I was delighted to learn that you didn’t have to be a nice Jewish boy to be a Jew in good standing. Some Americans were put off by the rough manners and macho posturing of Israelis, but I loved being in a place where the Jews got to be gentiles.” Chafets stayed in Israel, working his way through journalism and politics, and at one point running the press office of Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Johnny Cash, June Carter, Pat Robertson, and other celebrities of Christian Zionism came visiting, and Begin embraced them. “The prime minister was a man who divided the world into three parts: Us (the Jews), Them (the gentiles), and Me.” He didn’t judge Christians by where they went to college or their rural accents. “The Christian Zionists supported Begin’s policies, and that was enough.”
This is the situation today, according to Chafets: “Evangelical Christians—led by George W. Bush—were offering an alliance with Israel and its American Jewish supporters based on what they were calling ‘Judeo-Christian’ values. Liberal Jews were disinclined to accept this offer because it would mean tolerating, if not supporting, the evangelical domestic agenda and cultural style. Maybe in peacetime I would have been, too. It is more emotionally satisfying to fight the Falwells than to join them. But this isn’t peacetime. And, no matter how often Jewish liberals declare that the United States isn’t a Christian country, that is exactly what it is. Jews make up less than two percent of the population—an influential percent, to be sure, but still a tiny minority. The bargain extended by the evangelicals—to add ‘Judeo’ to the name of the firm—is not easily dismissed.”
As it happens, the phrase “Judeo-Christian” has its origins in Jewish-Christian dialogue with oldline Protestants and Catholics and was adopted for theological reasons not directly related to support for Israel, but Chafets can be forgiven for overlooking that. His interest is in the Christian Zionists, who are overwhelmingly evangelicals. He is on firmer historical ground when he notes that Protestant philo-Semitism goes back long before figures such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and John Hagee. In 1891, William Blackstone, author of Jesus Is Coming, organized a petition for restoring Palestine to the chosen people; it was signed by, among others, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the speaker of the house, John D. Rockefeller, Cyrus McCormick, and J.P. Morgan. There is also a long history of Christian Zionism in Britain, and Chafets notes as an aside that the Zionist theme song of the 1961 movie Exodus—”This land is mine, God gave this land to me”—was written by the born-again crooner Pat Boone.
In his travels through evangelicaldom, Chafets visits Falwell’s Liberty University and Robertson’s Regent University, contrasting the buoyant enthusiasm of the former with the sedate sense of achievement prevailing at the latter. Most of the students at Regent have never met Robertson, he says, but “they seem almost proud of his eccentricities, like kids with the craziest uncle on the block.” Crazy uncle or not, Robertson is very close to governing circles in Israel, and he, along with other evangelicals, is the foundation of tourism in Israel. An Israeli tells him: “The future of tourism is Christian American. Jews will still come in the summertime, but that’s going to be the icing on the cake. The cake is Christian Zionism, and that’s just going to grow.”
Chavets contrasts evangelicals with oldline liberal Protestants. Although the latter were, and still are, involved in Jewish-Christian dialogues, their sympathies are much more with Christians in the Middle East, and Christians in the Middle East are under severe pressures to side with the Palestinians against Israel. Last year, at the World Council of Churches assembly in Brazil, American Christians issued an apology for the terrible things done by the United States. “Our leaders turned a deaf ear to the voices of church leaders throughout our nation and our world, entering into imperial projects that seem to dominate and control for the sake of our own national interests.” Chavets delicately observes, “For people who feel such a strong animus toward the United States, Israel’s status as America’s best friend in the Middle East is not a character reference.” He thinks oldline Protestant leaders may “harbor a tiny, un-Christian resentment” of Jews who have more access to power than they do. A Jewish lobbyist told him: “A couple of years ago the heads of the United Methodist Church came to us and asked us to set up a meeting with President Bush. And Bush is a Methodist. I can’t imagine they liked that very much.”
Accompanying an evangelical tour group in Israel, Chafets was struck by two factors. First, the powerful anti-Catholicism that sharply divided “Christians” from Catholics. Second, the contrast with oldline liberal Protestants, who were in some ways like the Reform Jews of his childhood, who were devoted to a God who bore impressive similarities to FDR. “Mainstream Protestants tend to locate sin in the moral malfeasance of others—slaveholders, colonialists, capitalists, settlers, oil barons, and the Bush administration. Evangelicals look inward. The sins are theirs, personally owned and operated and, in a perverse way, cherished. After all, the bigger the sin, the bigger the salvation.”
Jews are wrong, he says, to worry that evangelical support for Israel is driven by a desire to convert Jews or to have them play a part in their choreographing of End Time scenarios. While he plays down the number of Jews who do convert to Christianity, including “Messianic Christians,” who are hardly limited to “Jews for Jesus,” he is probably right to emphasize that evangelical support is most deeply grounded in a straightforward belief in the biblical promise that God will bless those who bless the Jews and curse those who curse the Jews.
Chafets gives major attention to Yechiel Eckstein, an Orthodox rabbi who founded and has raised millions of dollars for the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. He says that Eckstein has raised a quarter of a billion dollars from evangelicals for his various projects. “No rabbi since Jesus has commanded this kind of gentile following.” Eckstein has found a very good thing. “I consider what I do more than fundraising,” he says. “It’s a ministry. Christians have a need to give.” Jews give out of a sense of communal obligation, and with an eye to tax deductions. “Evangelical Christians find that abhorrent. . . . They give because the Lord told them to give. They’re moved to do it.” Eckstein adds: “Jews have such a cynical, negative view of these people. There are all sorts of crazy conspiracy theories out there about what the evangelicals want. But they don’t have ulterior motives. These are good, religious people who love Israel and want to help. What’s the matter with that?”
The Anti-Defamation League
Among those with the most cynical and negative of views is Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, who is increasingly depicted, and not only by Chafets, as a kind of crazy uncle leading the pack of Jewish paranoids. Foxman has called for an all-out war on conservative evangelicals, who, he says, are threatening a theocratic takeover of America. “No mainstream secular Jewish leader had ever taken such a confrontational line against conservative Christians,” Chavets writes. “Evidently it didn’t occur to Foxman that, as a representative of, at most, less than two percent of the population, he himself could be accused of arrogance. It also didn’t appear to dawn on him that the very act of taking on millions of evangelicals, including the heads of the party in power, was an act of self-confidence not likely to be undertaken by the spokesman of a genuinely endangered minority.”
James Rudin, for many years head of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, has in recent years quite thoroughly stifled his irenic instincts. In his over-the-top book Baptizing America, he writes, “There’s a war going on, in case you haven’t noticed.” As Chafets writes, “The ‘war’ he had in mind—the war Rudin and his fellow Jewish liberals wanted—was against Christian fundamentalism and the Republican Party.” There are other Jews who are wary of such extreme partisanship. A rabbi is quoted to the effect that there are “plenty of Jews” fighting with the U.S. in Iraq. To which Chafets comments: “Plenty is a relative term. The army doesn’t publish statistics, but the usual estimate is that Jews make up less than two percent of the military, and many are recent immigrants from the former USSR or Israel.”
A chapter heading is “Jews Are Democrats, Israelis Are Republicans.” He means American Jews, of course. George W. Bush is the most pro-Israel president in American history, and in 2004 he did everything possible to make this evident. “All of this got George W. Bush 24 percent of the Jewish vote,” Chafets observes. “American Jews might be grateful, and they might be Zionists, but they were, first of all, Democrats.” A big-time operative in the Democratic party tells him: “You can replace Jewish votes, which might be four percent nationally, but you can’t replace Jewish money. Big-donor lists begin at twenty-five thousand dollars, and at that level of national politics, forty to fifty percent are Jews. The higher the bracket, the higher percentage.” That account of Jewish political proclivities since the New Deal is supported by many studies. It is a reality probably not unrelated to the devotion to a God who bears a striking resemblance to FDR.
Chafets quotes (without attribution) the observation of the late Milton Himmelfarb that “American Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” That is often taken to mean that Jews, being liberal and altruistic, vote against their own interests. Chafets has a different interpretation. “Voting Democratic is a Jewish interest,” he writes. Jews have, he says, a major stake in the fortunes of the party that reflects both their economic concerns and their cultural and ideological sensibilities. “Internationalists like George Soros and show business figures whose foreign income is dependent upon American popularity abroad tend to take a ‘European’ view of the Arab-Israel conflict. Less exalted, grassroots Jews often belong to ‘helping’ professions, the trial bar, or academics—all areas with a direct interest in big government.” (It should be noted that Soros emphatically distances himself from any connection with Judaism and, as for Zionism, told the New Yorker, “I don’t deny the Jews their right to a national existence, but I don’t want to be part of it.”)
Chafets’ inside Democratic operative tells him: “Jews contribute more than money to the party. We’re a necessary piece of the progressive movement. We are its leaders, in fact. The Ivy League is one third Jewish these days. MoveOn is funded by Jews. All the major advocacy groups—People for the American Way, the ACLU, the human rights organizations, NOW, even some of the labor unions—rely on Jewish leadership. Take the Jews away from the progressive movement, and what’s left?”
Some Jews worry about the End Time scenarios proposed by evangelicals, yet they have their own eschatological vision of a new world, says Chafets. “They, too, promote an end-times utopia, a day when evangelical Bible-thumpers scrape the Confederate decals off their trucks and the mayonnaise off their sandwiches, beat their hunting rifles into sixteen-speed bicycles, replace Genesis with Darwin, and embrace Seinfeld values.”
After his “weird and wonderful” travels through evangelicaldom, Zev Chafets’ conclusion is unequivocal. “I looked hard for evidence that the evangelicals are insincere, cynical or devious in their attitude toward Israel and the Jews, and I didn’t find it. They may love Jews too much. They may love Jews for the wrong reasons. They may, in the future, not love Jews at all. But for now, the evangelical Christians of America are not the enemy. They are the enemy of the enemy, and they want to be accepted and appreciated. In return they are offering a wartime alliance and full partnership in a Judeo-Christian America. It is an offer the Jews of America should consider while it is still on the table.”
A Match Made in Heaven is a book remarkable for its candor about both Jews and evangelicals. It is written for evangelicals. Chafets wants them to know they are appreciated. But, most of all, it is written for liberal American Jews, with whom the author is palpably frustrated and not a little angry. Here and there, almost between the lines, he is warning them that their unbridled hostility to such a large number of their fellow citizens is flirting with an anti-Semitic backlash. “They may, in the future, not love Jews at all.” The evangelical offer should be considered “while it is still on the table.” Throughout, Chafets accents the dramatic difference between Israeli Jews and American Jews in their attitude toward American evangelicals.
One can imagine the response to his argument by many American Jews: “Yes, it is good that evangelicals support Israel. It is a distasteful alliance, but justified by wartime necessity. The more important reality, however, is that they are trying to take over what is, after all, our country, too, namely America. Israel, with the help of the U.S., will take care of itself, and we’ll see that it gets the help it needs. But whatever happens to Israel, we’re not about to surrender to those conservative Christians what we’ve achieved and hope to achieve in this country.” Zev Chafets has already anticipated that response. He has anticipated and rejected it. Because he is anxious about the well-being of Jews in America, because he is convinced that the liberal Jewish reaction to evangelicals is based on ignorance and bigotry, and because, above all, he is concerned about the survival and security of Israel.
A Match Made in Heaven is an unabashedly partisan book; there is no doubt about that. The author’s depiction of the prejudices and influence of liberal Jews in America—meaning the overwhelming majority of Jews in America—is frequently hyperbolic. His embrace of evangelicals for their political utility in the defense of Israel will strike some as opportunistic. Yet, for all that, Chafets provides a bracingly candid assessment of important dimensions of Jewish-Christian relations in America, for which both Jews and Christians have reason to be grateful.
While We’re At It
• We do not live in an empire, nor do we any longer live in a nation-state. So says William J. Abraham, the Outler professor of theology at Southern Methodist University, and one of the most influential Methodist voices in the country. We live, he says, in the “market state” brought about by changes in communications, technology, and globalization that have undermined the nation-state and reordered the world according to the delivery of goods by means of the market. This is the context in which we must make the case for the culture of life against the culture of death. His reflection is published in a fine newsletter, Lifewatch, put out by pro-life United Methodists. Abraham writes: “The state does not kill us. It is milder and smarter in its actions. It sanctions the slaughter of the innocents and wraps its evil in a cloak of rhetorical deceit about freedom of choice. The court chaplains of this holocaust, of course, are all too ready to provide spurious justifications for such evil. We long ago saw through their deceit and complicity. In this time and place we are irrevocably committed to a life of holiness. This is not a passive holiness. It is an active holiness that seeks to bring an end to the shedding of innocent blood. Not surprisingly, this is also a holiness that provokes vicious opposition. In response to such opposition, we will keep our nerve, for we are also called to strive for peace. Striving for peace is a complex practice. Striving for peace calls for intentional immersion in the life of God. We begin there with a peace ‘which passes all understanding’ (Philippians 4:7) as we move out into the political arena. Striving for peace in that arena requires joining hands across Christian churches and across other religions in defense of the life of the unborn. Striving for peace in that arena also requires active engagement in the political order informed by the deepest intellectual resources and skills we can muster. Happily, our current political arrangements permit such striving for peace. The grace of God makes possible such striving for peace. The evil of abortion makes imperative such striving for peace.”
• James Tooley is professor of education at England’s University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and he has for years, with the support of the Templeton Foundation, been researching education in countries where extreme poverty is rife. He started in India, where thousands of small entrepreneurial schools charging a few rupees (less than a dime) a day far excel the government-supported public schools on every score. He has since conducted research in Africa and Asia, with the same result. Needless to say, his findings are not welcomed by the development and educational experts who advocate pouring more billions of dollars into statist programs. For more information, see “The Ten-Cent Solution” in the March 1 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Author Clive Crook does not overlook the implications for educational freedom, and effectiveness, here in the United States.
• I have written in Catholic Matters and elsewhere of standing in St. Peter’s square many years ago and being suddenly struck by the wonder that both St. Peter and St. Paul were drawn from the distant origins of the faith to die in Rome. That the remains of Peter are indeed in St. Peter’s is well attested by historical and scientific evidence, as it is, or so it now appears, that the remains of Paul are in St. Paul Outside the Walls. In terms of Catholic ecclesiological claims, it is more important that Peter died in Rome. In the modern era, that belief has been challenged by non-Catholic scholars, for reasons usually not untouched by theological polemics. Of particular interest, then, is an article in the Scottish Journal of Theology by Markus Bockmuehl of the University of St. Andrews. He writes:
The first two Christian centuries underscore the remarkable uniqueness of Petrine memory in Rome. There simply are no competing localities for Peter’s tomb, during this period or indeed later, East or West, orthodox or heretical, Jewish, pagan or Christian. Even Porphyry, like other leading ancient critics, never calls this into question, despite his manifest contempt for Peter. But such alternative hagiography or polemic is precisely what one would expect if the location of Peter’s body were indeed narratively “available” in the sense that Professor Goulder and some other critics envisage for an unknown burial in Jerusalem. The competing claims evoked by such “narrative availability” are indeed what we find in the case of burials like that of Mary (Jerusalem, Ephesus) or of John the Baptist (Palestine, Istanbul, Damascus, Amiens, etc.). Conversely, too, the tombs of David or James the Just that were venerated in antiquity may be fictitious, but they do not migrate or bilocate. These tombs can only be in Jerusalem, because the bodies they hold can only be in Jerusalem. Why, finally, should any of this matter? After all, it is hardly of decisive significance for major early Christian credal assertions. Nonetheless, it is on the faithfulness of this Petrine memory that a good deal of subsequent Christian ecclesial identity ultimately rides. If the twin apostolic pillars were indeed martyred in Rome within a relatively short time of each other, then their uncontradicted adoption by the Christian community of that place inevitably weakens, in fact as well as in rhetoric, the explanatory power of theories that presuppose two permanently irreconcilable poles of early Christianity. Such views undoubtedly have an ancient and venerable pedigree, being famously advocated in the second century by Marcion of Sinope (d. c. 160), a powerful interpreter of Paul and temporary resident of Rome. And they may help to shine a probing critical searchlight on certain silences and interstices of the New Testament sources about Peter, subtle and enigmatic as they are, for example, about what happened to the apostle after his escape from Jerusalem and his dispute with Paul in Antioch, why he does not feature more clearly in Romans, or where and when he died. But the idea that Peter ended his life literally and metaphorically two thousand kilometers from Rome or indeed from Paul, finds no known support, whether friendly or hostile, during the period of living memory. For Peter in Rome, the continuity of a plural living memory attached to a person in a place provides a powerful counterargument to both divide-and-rule minimalism and kaleidoscopic relativism. He was remembered as the leading apostolic witness of Jesus, who, like Paul, came to Rome to advance the gospel and gave his ultimate testimony there.
Good stuff, that. But when it comes to “narrative availability” of fanciful alternatives, don’t underestimate the inventiveness of Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) and the Discovery Channel.
• The same issue of the Scottish Journal of Theology has a symposium on David Hart’s remarkable book The Beauty of the Infinite. John McGuckin of Columbia University writes, “It is undoubtedly one of the most important and timely works of theology written for many decades past, and will prove itself to be so, I suspect, despite many eccentricities and idiosyncratic judgments.” “Many decades” may be pushing it, but certainly the most interesting and provocative book of theology in the past decade. McGuckin, who is Orthodox, says Hart, who is also Orthodox, is not really Orthodox, to which, as you might imagine, Hart takes vigorous exception. But that’s an argument for another time. Those familiar with the current theological scene will relish McGuckin’s final sentence, “The book comes among us like a satellite fallen through the roof of the hen house.” The academic guild of theology as a hen house. It is a suggestive image.
• “If we really wanted to, we could . . .” Complete the sentence with your favored cause: end war, eliminate poverty, achieve educational equality, eradicate racial and ethnic prejudice, or whatever. No, we can’t. We can often contain evils and sometimes reduce evils, but we cannot abolish evil. Nor is it a Christian virtue to think we can. To think we can is a prideful and thoroughly un-Christian idea that becomes particularly odious when joined to self-flattering but empty gestures. This observation is occasioned by a press release from the government office of the ELCA Lutherans. “More than 1,500 members of the ELCA were among the 110,332 U.S. citizens and 23.5 million people worldwide who stood up during worship on October 15 to fight global poverty. The ‘STAND UP’ event set a national and global record in the Guinness World Records for the largest number of people to stand up for a cause. . . . Lutherans across the U.S. participated in the event organized as part of ‘ONE: The Campaign to Make Poverty History,’ in cooperation with the United Nations’ Millennium Campaign.’“ Better than half of the Lutheran stand-ups were in three congregations. In one Minnesota church, “52 people stood for a moment during worship, 14 of whom participated in a house party later that day” to discuss and act on global hunger and poverty. Were I in the congregation that Sunday, I would not have stood up. Not because I don’t care about world poverty but because one should not contribute to the delusion that saying you’re against an evil discharges your duty, or even partly discharges your duty, to deal with the evil, and because it is unseemly to trumpet your moral superiority to the people who didn’t stand up and therefore are, in this peculiar way of thinking, not as caring as you. (In whispered tones: “Emma, don’t just sit there. Don’t you want to end poverty?”) Now if one were challenged to give, say, a thousand dollars to programs that actually feed the hungry, one might, with the help of friends, try to come up with the money. But, rather than stand up to be counted among the righteous, one might also follow Our Lord’s counsel not to let the left hand know what the right is doing. And one certainly would not tie one’s effort to a United Nations program with the pretentious title ONE: The Campaign to Make Poverty History. There are numerous programs, most of them church-related, in which thousands of people are selflessly working to help the poor around the world. It’s steady work, and will be until Our Lord returns in glory. They are deserving of our constant prayers and generous support. Better cough up than STAND UP. I’m all for a little guilt-mongering in a good cause. Moral preening, however, is always in bad taste, and it is damaging to the soul. The editor of Forum Letter, who brought the ELCA release to my attention, adds a wry observation on the claim of Guinness World Records: How many people, do you suppose, stood up that Sunday to profess the Creed in the cause of the faith?
• Calvinists of a more strict observance broke away from the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1973 in order to form the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), while others, who have yet another reading of Calvin, broke away in 1981 to form the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). Now a writer in Nicotine Theological Journal laments the fact that there are not more breakaways after PCUSA, at its General Assembly in Birmingham last year, countenanced novel sexual unions and linguistic experiments with the truth that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Such violation of orthodoxy, says the writer, “crosses another Rubicon.” The unwillingness of conservatives to leave PCUSA “will keep them on the Titanic, even in the wake of the General Assembly.” (I thought it was an iceberg, not a wake, that took the Titanic down.) “Some leaders go so far as to equate their continued presence in PCUSA with that of Athanasius fighting for Nicene Christology in the fourth century. In their minds, leaving PCUSA is like leaving the Christian church itself.” Hey, it’s just another Protestant denomination. It’s not as though we’re talking about like, you know, the Church of Jesus Christ. The writer is a mean man with a metaphor. I’m particularly struck by the reference to crossing “another Rubicon.” The mark of a church that understands itself merely as an association of the likeminded is the belief in multiple Rubicons.
• Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco, who counts House Speaker Nancy Pelosi among his flock, recently had hand-delivered to her office a strong letter urging support for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), “so that our nation approaches the day when every child in the United States has access to affordable health coverage.” SCHIP may be a wise and helpful program. I don’t know. I understand the program is supported by Speaker Pelosi and the Democratic Congress. But it can be good to have bishops speak truth to power, as they say, even if what they say is more confirmatory than challenging. On another question that arguably has a bearing on the health of children, and on the public responsibility of bishops, Niederauer was recently asked in an interview how he was dealing with Pelosi’s longstanding and very public support for the unlimited abortion license. One might think that nobody in the country today does not know Nancy Pelosi’s stand on abortion. The archbishop said: “We haven’t had an opportunity to talk about the life issues. I would very much welcome that opportunity, but I don’t believe than I am in a position to say what I understand her stand to be, if I haven’t had a chance to talk to her about it.”
• Gene Nichol has tied himself into knots, becoming so desperate that he’s now playing the anti-Semitism card. As you may not have noticed, Mr. Nichol is president of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Established in the early-seventeenth century, it boasts of being the nation’s second-oldest college. The school has a Christopher Wren chapel, and Mr. Nichol decided that the cross in the chapel might make some students feel unwelcome, so he ordered it removed, allowing that it might be restored upon request for special occasions. A tremendous brouhaha ensued among students and alumni, and Mr. Nichol has taken to the local newspaper to defend his decision. In his op-ed, he quotes a letter from a faculty member who says that “Jewish families have asked about the cross and have decided to send their children elsewhere.” One non-Jewish alumnus “blamed the increasing number of non-Christian students accepted since his graduation for everything wrong with the college.” Nichol writes, “I know the statements reflected in the last paragraph of [the] letter don’t represent the sentiments of our alumni.” Oh? Why, then, one might well ask, does he quote the statements? The disingenuous and vicious point is that those who support the cross don’t want non-Christian and, very specifically, don’t want Jewish students at William and Mary. Nichol writes: “The William and Mary community is generous and embracing—it touches, it entwines, it reaches past barriers to form loves and friendships that endure. These bonds are the best part of the life of the college, old and new. Polarization is not our way. We’re a Tribe.”
• Polarization, however, is precisely what Mr. Nichol has created by his version of the ethic of touching and entwining. And the use of “tribe” seems odd, since tribes are typically emphatic about who is included and who is excluded. Never mind, Mr. Nichol writes, “if we’re to be the national treasure we’re called to become, William and Mary must be open and welcoming to all.” National treasures, one might note, are national treasures by virtue of celebrating their history, as in the nearly four-hundred-year history of William and Mary under the mainly Christian auspices that so embarrass Mr. Nichol. The upshot is that a no doubt well-intended administrator got so tied up in his touching-entwining version of multiculturalism that he seems to have offended almost everybody. An institution that is genuinely sensitive to “others” may make additions to help them feel welcome but serves nobody by subtracting its historic identity. He says the cross in the chapel makes “Muslim, Hindu, and other non-Christians” feel unwelcome. One has to wonder how many complaints he has received from Muslim or Hindu students. The much more frequent complaint, from Muslims in particular, is that Christians have abandoned their religion in favor of a pervasive secularism. “We must,” Nichol writes, “place all religions on an equal footing, rather than signing on to a particular tradition.” However awkward the president may find it, William and Mary signed on to a particular tradition a very long time ago. He ends his op-ed with this: “There should be no strangers here.” It is an admirably Christian sentiment.
• Since the foregoing was written, a committee has decided, with Mr. Nichol’s agreement, that the cross will be displayed in a glass case somewhere in the chapel area, together with a notice explaining its historical significance. An artifact from the past, or so it would seem. William and Mary is, of course, named in honor of British monarchs. In that respect, it is like King’s College in New York City, now called Columbia University. For centuries, the emblem of Columbia was a crown topped by a cross. A couple of years ago it was decided to remove the cross from the crown. One wonders what Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, might have made of such venerable institutions being more embarrassed by Christianity than by monarchism. In fact, there is no evidence that Columbia is at all embarrassed by its crown or William and Mary by its name. Despite the fact that America repudiated monarchism more than two centuries ago while Christianity continues to flourish. On second thought, it is not despite but because.
• It is not only in the Eucharist and in other sacramental acts that the priest acts in persona Christi. He also represents Christ in preaching. Timothy Dolan, archbishop of Milwaukee, mentions a parish church in which there is inscribed in the preaching ambo the words of the visiting Greeks in John’s Gospel, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” In preaching, the priest is not doing his own thing or aiming at applause or popularity. Among widespread misunderstandings of the preacher’s vocation, Dolan mentions this: “For some preachers it seems obligatory to criticize the Church in their homilies. They claim she is hopelessly outmoded, patriarchal, oppressive, insensitive, corrupt, unenlightened—all of which really translates: unwilling to do what they want! She is the cause of every problem in the world, from global warming to male-pattern baldness. And so they say, we’ll be prophetic in the pulpit and chide her, berate her, criticize her! Listen to us, they say, not the Church. Basta! We are in the pulpit not to speak against the Church but to speak about her, for her, with her, from her.”
• There they go again. The folks at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) have issued a thirteen-page report on the alleged resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. The story was picked up by newspapers and wire services, which prompted the interest of the noted historian of the civil-rights movement and biographer of Martin Luther King Jr., David Garrow, who writes in the Los Angeles Times that the ADL has once again rendered a service to fringe hate groups by recklessly exaggerating their influence. It turns out that in a couple of instances Klan-connected efforts rallied as many as twenty people to protest illegal immigration. Garrow’s column, titled “The Klan Is Still Dead,” concludes: “It can be dangerous and counterproductive to hype the threat of racist hate groups. Anti-immigrant sentiment is an undeniable feature of today’s world, and immigration issues no doubt merit more media coverage. But based on present evidence, the efforts of both KKKers and their opponents to publicize the Klan’s supposed importance should be debunked rather than embraced.” Which makes this as good a time as any to respond to a reader’s concern that I am too hard on Mr. Abe Foxman and his ADL, who are constantly issuing alarums about the growth of extremism, and of anti-Semitism in particular. “Were they not around to call attention to anti-Semitism,” he writes, “no one would notice.” I beg to differ. Over decades of experience with the ADL, I have become convinced that it is a major threat to positive Jewish-Christian relations in this country. By its incessant, reckless and self-serving fear-mongering, the ADL has probably done more than any other organization to discredit the necessary concern about anti-Semitism. Moreover, Foxman and the ADL espouse an extremist form of “strict separationism” between religion and public life and have quite explicitly declared war on fifty million or more evangelical Christians, whom they depict as theocrats and, at least implicitly, anti-Semites. We will continue to do our modest part to counter the excesses of the ADL. As other Jewish leaders also recognize, if the ADL was taken to represent the attitude of American Jewry toward the non-Jews of this country, we would likely see a truly frightening rise in anti-Semitism. The reader says my comments on the exaggerations of the ADL are snide. I intend them to be joshing. The spiritual relationship between the People of Israel and the Church, and the security of Jewish-Christian relations in this country, are too important to let the ADL’s reckless and potentially dangerous assertions go unchallenged.
• Many years ago, in 1967 to be precise, Peter Berger wrote with Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Many times since then, Berger has lamented the uses to which that title has been put. In an essay occasioned by the death of sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, Wilfred McClay notes that “the discipline of sociology itself may now be ebbing away, as so many of its leading practitioners depart the scene without, it seems, anyone standing ready to replace them.” Books such as David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950) and Philip Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966), along with the writings of Peter Berger and others, once put sociology at the center of our public discourse. A few decades ago, it is said, sociology was the major chosen by undergraduates above all others. In our October 2002 issue, Peter Berger asked, “Whatever Happened to Sociology?” which is also McClay’s question. Both say that a large part of the answer is that sociologists turned from analysis to advocacy. McClay writes: “If, as many sociologists came to believe, all reality was ‘socially constructed,’ then nothing was grounded in nature, nothing was justified by tradition or custom, and nothing was to be treated as enduring. All things were provisional, and could be reshaped, usually along predictable political lines.” Founding fathers of the discipline, such as Ferdinand Töennies, Max Weber, and George Simmel, were intensely interested in the changes worked by modernization and what that means for what sociologist Robert Nisbet called “the quest for community.” (McClay includes Tocqueville among the sociologists, although I’m not sure he would be happy in their company.) To put it differently, sociology once tried to explain ourselves to ourselves, helping us understand who we are and are becoming. In the past two decades, sociologists typically have been telling us what we ought to do in order to become who they want us to be. Everybody has an opinion on that. For that we do not need sociology departments, although that doesn’t mean they will disappear any time soon. And, let it be said in fairness, that some sociologists have not given up on the tradition so ably described by McClay.
• The always lively newsletter catholic eye reflects on why it is that older people who are strongly pro-life are tempted to succumb to a measure of ambivalence when the subject turns to euthanasia. They are nearing the end and have witnessed difficult deaths. catholic eye continues: “It is simply a fact that pro-life issues get much less cuddly and appealing towards the end of life. Many who accept the Church’s teaching on euthanasia do so without enthusiasm, and even with some sense of personal fear or threat. For pain, decline, and helplessness seem more threatening to many aged people than the ministrations of Dr. Kevorkian or the occasional health care worker who dispenses mortal doses of painkillers. How then to defend life on the sometimes unlovely verge of eternity? First, by stressing not that life is a right, but that it is a good. If it were merely a right, we could relinquish it when it no longer appealed to us. We could choose not to exercise it, as some people choose not to vote. Second, it is an objective good. It is not merely a good when it seems good to us. Life is good because God made it, even though we can’t count on seeing the point of everything we undergo at the time we are undergoing it. But, on the other hand, even the great good of our physical pre-Resurrection life will come to an end, and the point is not merely multiplying minutes by any and all means. We know it is quite possible to make pro-life arguments without reference to particular religious beliefs. However, for most people, what makes contemplation of those hard cases bearable is trust in a loving and all-wise God who promises ultimately to wipe every tear from our eyes.” What we may one day learn again to call a “good death” is defined less by ease than by faithful surrender.
• The Alliance to Rescue Civilization (ARC) has been folded into the Lifeboat Foundation. One of the founders of ARC, William E. Burrows, who is also author of The Survival Imperative: Using Space to Protect Earth, writes in the Wall Street Journal: “Its purpose is to start an archive on the moon that would be a continuously updated international record of our civilization. That way, if a major catastrophe happens, the record would survive. Keeping a record on the moon (and perhaps at one of the poles on this planet) would be like backing up a computer’s hard drive.” I don’t want to knock the idea, but one wonders how people would get there to read the record. One encouraging thought, however: There would then be, as there is not now, unanimous agreement on the virtues of nostalgia.
• As is evident from letters received, some Catholics continue to be confused about the binding authority of church teaching with respect to abortion and euthanasia, on the one hand, and capital punishment, on the other. A pertinent document in this connection is the letter sent to the U.S. bishops in 2004, “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles,” by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, now Pope Benedict XVI. The letter includes this: “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.” There is confusion also, unfortunately perpetuated by some bishops, about whether pro-abortion public figures should refrain from or be refused Communion. The letter says: “Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.” And this: “When ‘these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible,’ and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, ‘the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it’ (cf. Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts). This decision, properly speaking, is not a sanction or a penalty. Nor is the minister of Holy Communion passing judgment on the person’s subjective guilt, but rather is reacting to the person’s public unworthiness to receive Holy Communion due to an objective situation of sin.” The foregoing letter was issued in Cardinal Ratzinger’s capacity as head of the doctrinal office of the Church a year before he became pope, and there is no evidence that this teaching or pastoral practice has been modified. In their responsibility to be of assistance to their bishops, priests and laypeople may want to bring these texts—respectfully, to be sure—to the attention of bishops who seem to have forgotten them. In fact, they may want to mention, ever so delicately, of course, the fine statement on the same subject adopted by the U.S. bishops just last November, “Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper.”
• The Jewish Social Contract by David Novak is the subject of a lively exchange in the scholarly journal Hebraic Political Studies. In his book, Novak argues that Jews can be at home in a democratic polity based on a social contract, as distinct from a covenant. Covenant, he notes, is the term appropriate to the People of Israel and the Church in their understanding of their relationship with God. Limited government is essential in a democracy, and it is kept limited by citizens who have a prior allegiance to a covenant. Against the criticism of Michael Walzer of Princeton, who suggests that Orthodox Judaism is incompatible with democracy, Novak writes: “Of all Jews, Orthodox or traditional Jews are best able to consistently participate in the social contract as adherents of Judaism, both in terms of the coherence of their theology and in terms of the specific correspondence of their theology with the data of the Jewish tradition.” He readily allows that some Orthodox Jews, notably in Israel, are at war with democracy, but in principle they shouldn’t be. The greater problem in America is that Jews tend to be secular and tenuously related to Judaism. “Hence, they cannot present themselves in the secular public arena as clearly enough connected to a precontractual somewhere to be able to be anything more than a special interest group within all-encompassing secular society. Ultimately, they have no Archimedean fulcrum with which to move the world.” To put it differently, if one comes from nowhere rather than somewhere, one has no identity as an acting agent able to enter into the social contract in the first place. This is why, writes Novak, he finds his most constructive interlocutors among Christians who also come from somewhere. “Secularists, whether Jewish or gentile, seem to be interested only in descriptive truths about Judaism rather than any normative truth Judaism speaks in its own voice.” Along the way, Novak explains why Jews are better off in a Christian than in a Muslim society. A Muslim society is monolithically ordered on the basis of a “covenant” defined by the Qur’an and Sharia, excluding the possibility of a social contract in which Jews and other minorities can have equal standing. Readers interested in religion and democratic theory might want to see the complete exchange in the Fall 2006 issue of Hebraic Political Studies.
• The movie Amazing Grace, relating the struggle of William Wilberforce’s (1759–1833) long and finally successful battle to abolish the slave trade, has received generally favorable reviews, surprisingly favorable from some sources. To be sure, there are complaints that his explicitly Christian motivations are slighted. In their place is put a kind of generalized humanitarian idealism. Wilberforce is understandably celebrated by evangelical Christians in particular. He belonged to the “Clapham Sect,” often derided as pietistic prudes. (Two of his four sons became Catholics, while another, Samuel, became a bishop in the Church of England.) Last year, the distinguished historian Simon Schama published Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution, which also covers the story of the abolition of slavery. Strangely enough, in that big book Wilberforce gets only a couple of cameo appearances as the abolitionists’ parliamentary point man. His role was considerably larger than that. Of course, the story of slavery and opposition to it is much larger than Wilberforce or Britain. In Conquests and Cultures, Thomas Sowell very effectively demonstrates the near-universality of slavery before the eighteenth century. Christianity was the decisive factor in its eventual extinction, the seeds being sown in St. Paul’s teaching that there is neither bond nor free in Christ (Gal. 3:28, 1 Cor. 12:13, Col. 3:11). In the early centuries, Christian masters and slaves shared in the Eucharist together, as they were also drawn together in suffering and martyrdom. With Constantine in the third century, and even more with Justinian in the sixth, slaves who became priests or entered the religious life were freed. With the christianization of Northern and Eastern Europe, slavery was transformed into the much milder institution of serfdom and then gradually disappeared, for a while. It came back with a vengeance after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, when Turkish Islam subjected thousands of Christians to a servitude that was mitigated only by the heroic labors of religious orders such as the Trinitarians and St. Vincent de Paul’s “Congregation of the Mission.” With the discovery of America, the slave trade flourished, although it was vigorously condemned by Paul III in 1537 and Urban VIII in 1639. In Pennsylvania, the Quaker William Penn abolished slavery, but the issue was not decisively settled until the bloodletting of the Civil War and the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865. It is within this long and complicated history that the contribution of William Wilberforce is rightly understood and justly celebrated. (Those interested in learning more about Wilberforce might consult the unapologetically hagiographic book that accompanies the movie, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas.)
• Oh, to be young and rebellious! Yale Law School was the scene of “The 13th Annual Rebellious Lawyering Conference.” Subjects included: “Animals, Factory Farming, and the Law”; “Can Government Employees Speak Freely”; “Institutional Racism and the Suburban Landscape”; “Intelligent Design Meets the First Amendment”; “Courts as Forums for Protest”; and “The Path to Employment Protections for LGBT Individuals.” Nothing there about protecting the unborn or defending the public role of religion or reining in judicial activism or advancing equal opportunity by parental choice in education. In short, nothing that is not in conformity with the establishmentarian opinions of the New York Times editorial page. Some rebellion. As it is said, everything changes except the avant garde.
• In preparation for Lent this year, a number of bishops issued impressive pastoral letters calling for renewed practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation—or, as most Catholics will likely continued to call it, confession. I hesitate to pick out just one, but I was particularly struck by “The Tender Mercy of God,” issued by Archbishop José Gómez of San Antonio, Texas. He underscores the ways in which a sense of sin—and, consequently, of forgiveness—is undermined and obscured in our culture and draws on the ways in which heroes of the faith understood the connection between confessing their sins and making a good confession to the world. “Let us remind our culture of people like Blessed Luis Magaña Servin, one of our newest American blesseds, a devoted husband and father, martyred in Mexico in 1928. Facing a firing squad, he was able to speak words of forgiveness to the soldiers about to execute him: ‘I pardon you and I promise you that on arriving in the presence of God you are the first ones I will intercede for. Viva Cristo Rey! Viva Santa María de Guadalupe!’“ Recognizing that many priests today neglect the sacrament, Gómez says this to his priests: “My brothers, we have been entrusted with the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ given to the apostles (2 Cor. 5:18). What he spoke to the twelve in that upper room on the first Easter night, Christ has spoken to each of us: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained’ (John 20:22-23). Your spiritual fatherhood is the sign and instrument of the Father’s mercy in the world. You are ministers of his mercy, making that mercy real and present in people’s lives. This is an awesome and demanding responsibility, as you well know. But how beautiful the privilege of being the confessor, of standing in the place of the Good Shepherd, of guiding souls along the narrow path that leads to holiness and heaven. In your ministry in persona Christi Capitis, you guard and guarantee our people’s sacred right to confess their sins personally to our Lord, and to hear personally our Lord’s words of pardon and peace. In the gift and mystery of your priestly calling you are servants of God’s forgiveness. To you, our people entrust the most delicate and private matters of their hearts and souls, with full confidence that what they say will remain absolutely secret, ‘sealed’ in absolute confidentiality by your solemn vow of silence in the sacrament. Your dialogues with penitents are sacred conversations that must always be marked by deep respect and sensitivity, as you guide them to full honesty in the disclosure of their sins, and to complete openness to God’s healing grace.” And, along with that, some very specific pastoral advice: “We know from experience that large numbers of the faithful come to confess their sins when parishes find ways to accommodate their busy lifestyles and work schedules. My brothers, please consider setting aside more of your time to hear confessions during the lunch hours of the workday as well as in the late afternoons and early evenings when the workday for many has ended.” Toward the end, Archbishop Gómez cites the words of John Paul II in Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, “Every confessional is a special and blessed place from which there is born new and uncontaminated a reconciled person, a reconciled world.” (The full text of the letter, which is well worth reading, is available at the website of the Archdiocese of San Antonio.)
• Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest is a vigorous polemic by John G. West of the Discovery Institute. Dr. West properly takes to task prominent conservatives such as George Will and Charles Krauthammer who, to all appearances, insouciantly ignore the serious arguments advanced by proponents of Intelligent Design and other critics of Darwinian ideology. There is considerable merit in West’s conclusion: “Conservatives who are discomfited by the continuing debate over Darwin’s theory need to understand that it is not about to go away. It is not going away because the accumulating discoveries of modern science undercut rather than confirm the claims of neo-Darwinism. It is not going away because Darwinism fundamentally challenges the traditional Western understanding of human nature and the universe. Finally, it is not going away because free men and women do not like to be told that there are some questions they are not allowed to ask, and there are some answers they are not allowed to question. The debate over Darwin is not a sideshow. It is central to arguments over moral relativism, personal responsibility, limited government, and scientific utopianism. If conservatives want to address root causes rather than just symptoms, they need to join the debate, not scorn it or ignore it.” However . . .
• I believe Dr. West goes too far when he insists that “mainstream Darwinists,” or, for that matter, Darwin himself, have a monopoly on what today is meant by neo-Darwinism. West writes: “Other, more thoughtful, conservatives remain troubled by what they regard as the excesses of Darwinian ideologues, but they seem to think they can neutralize Darwinism by redefining it. For example, physicist Stephen Barr has argued in First Things that neo-Darwinism, properly understood, need not require a process that is ‘unguided’ or ‘unplanned.’ ‘The word “random” as used in science does not mean uncaused, unplanned, or inexplicable; it means uncorrelated,’ he insists. The problem is not that Barr is wrong about the appropriate meaning of ‘random,’ but that mainstream Darwinists do not accept his point. As pointed out in the introduction, Darwinism from the start has been defined as an undirected process. That is its core, and that is why Darwin himself emphasized that ‘no shadow of reason can be assigned for the belief that variations . . . were intentionally and specially guided.’ Barr may be correct that a more modest Darwinism that does not insist on evolution being undirected would be harmless, but the more salient point is that it would no longer be Darwinism. Conservatives cannot resolve the problems with Darwinian evolution merely by offering their own idiosyncratic definition of the term.”
• Stephen Barr’s understanding of neo-Darwinism is by no means “idiosyncratic.” Among Christians who are superbly credentialed scientists and have written on these questions, see, for instance, Francis Collins’ The Language of God (reviewed in First Things December 2006, and, yes, reviewed by Stephen Barr.) Among opponents of ideological Darwinism, it is commonly said that the three great intellectual and cultural heretics of modernity are Marx, Freud, and Darwin. The first two have fallen, and the third is teetering on the edge. This is a dramatic image, but of limited usefulness. There is much that is untrue, and much that is morally odious, in the writings of Charles Darwin. But the goal is not to shatter the image of Darwin. The serious debate today is over the adequacy of the evolutionary theory that bears his name. Barr, Collins, and many other thinkers make the case that Christian faith is compatible with neo-Darwinian theory. It is possible that they are a minority among contemporary scientists who address these questions. But there is no reason, intellectually or strategically, to concede that another minority, that of stridently atheistic ideologues, defines what is “mainstream Darwinism.” On the contrary, such a concession plays into the hands of those who would perpetuate what they have an interest in portraying as an inevitable war between science and religion
• I see that Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali has made it to the bestseller lists. Hirsi Ali, it will be recalled, is the Muslim from Somalia who sought refuge in the Netherlands and took up the cudgels against Jihadism, and indeed against Islam, which she believes is inseparable from Jihadism. As a consequence, she was the object of death threats and, finally tired of living in a security bubble, fled to America, where she was given refuge by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Claire Berlinski reviews Infidel and concludes with this: “The chances are small, I fear, that Ms. Hirsi Ali will persuade one billion Muslims to accept that their future is not Paradise, but a reduction to a bag of bones. What she is saying about God may be true—I for one do not know—but I do know that very few people want it to be true. And thus do I fall, reluctantly, into the camp of people who admire Ms. Hirsi Ali’s bravery, but doubt that her words will do much to temper the Muslim world’s terror and loathing of the West. This does not make her a fundamentalist of any dye, and it certainly does not make her simplistic. Nor does it render her animadversions pointless: She has opened the eyes of many Europeans to the problems posed by Islam. But it does make her an unlikely—nay, an impossible—candidate for the leadership of any real movement to encourage Islam into modernity and welcome it into the bosom of civilization.” True enough, but it will hardly come as a surprise to Hirsi Ali. It is precisely her point that Western intellectuals in constant search of “moderate” Islam are chasing the wind. Which, it is obligatory to say—even if one says it with waning confidence—we must hope is not true.
• Alberto Manguel, the author of, among other books, A History of Reading, was serving as a clerk in a Buenos Aires bookstore when he was picked up by Jorge Luis Borges. Not for any nefarious purpose, you may be sure, but because Borges was blind and needed someone to read to him. Manguel says: “Borges used people as his notepads, which was fine by me. He wasn’t one to encourage intimacy. Do you remember the story in which he describes ‘one of those English friendships that begin with excluding confidences and end with no need for conversation’?” Many years ago, I was seated at dinner beside Borges, who was receiving one of his numerous literary awards. He was taken with my being a Lutheran, and went on about Luther’s failure in not making a cathedral of the book. Or something like that. I don’t quite remember. Maybe I had one drink too many, or maybe he did. He was well into his eighties by then. He had a lovely younger woman in tow, presumably to read to him. But back to Manguel. He spoke recently at the New York Public Library, and an account was provided by the Times Literary Supplement: “‘We come into the world as readers,’ Manguel said, ‘with the impulse to decipher, to find narratives. Stupidity is something that has to be learned.’ He is perfectly groomed, bespectacled and bearded, with a faintly nostalgic air. Comparing the Library of Alexandria to the World Wide Web, [Manguel] says, ‘one aspired to include everything, the other will include anything, without context, a constant present, which for Medieval scholars was a definition of hell.’ For readers, he pointed out, the computer is a technological step backwards, since it replaces the codex with the scroll.” I don’t know about the codex and the scroll, but I suspect the medieval scholars had a point.
• A couple of issues ago, I said I was going to give the subject a rest, but here I go again. Marilynne Robinson, author of that beautiful book Gilead, reflects on Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in Harper’s, a magazine not known as religion-friendly. She writes: “Since Dawkins’s declared intention in this book is to hearten the many atheists who, he is sure, exist, but who conceal their convictions for fear of disapproval or rejection, no doubt his tendentiousness is meant to be enjoyed by the like-minded, as is so much that is called ‘objectivity’ in these fulminating times. Yet Dawkins is in earnest in presenting himself as a man in possession of liberating truth—another characteristic of the genre—and his readership is sure to be much wider than the crypto-atheist community. So it seems fair, if not strictly possible, to take him as seriously as he takes himself.” The terrible things done in the name of science, such as eugenics, are not, says Dawkins, authentic science. Robinson observes that he has no category for authentic, as distinct from inauthentic, religion. Says Robinson: “The gravest questions about the institutions of contemporary science seem never to be posed, though we know the terrors of all-out conflict between civilizations would include innovations, notably those dread weapons of mass destruction, being made by scientists for any country with access to their skills. Granting for the purpose of argument that Dawkins is correct in the view that the majority of great scientists are atheists, we may then exclude religion from among the factors that recruit them to this somber work. We are left with nationalism, steady employment, good pay, the chance to do research that is lavishly funded and, by definition, cutting edge—familiar motives of a kind fully capable of disarming moral doubt. In any case, the crankiest imam, the oiliest televangelist, can, at his worst, only urge circumstances a degree or two farther toward the use of those exotic war technologies that are always ready, always waiting. If it is fair to speak globally of religion, it is also fair to speak globally of science.”
• She suspects Dawkins has taken refuge in a world of arguments removed from reality. “Finally, there is the matter of atheism itself. Dawkins finds it incapable of belligerent intent—’why would anyone go to war for the sake of an absence of belief?’ It is peculiarity of our language that by war we generally mean a conflict between nations, or at least one in which both sides are armed. There has been persistent violence against religion—in the French Revolution, in the Spanish Civil War, in the Soviet Union, in China. In three of these instances the extirpation of religion was part of a program to reshape society by excluding certain forms of thought, by creating an absence of belief. Neither sanity nor happiness appears to have been served by these efforts. The kindest conclusion one can draw is that Dawkins has not acquainted himself with the history of modern authoritarianism.” Dawkins is in this book “full of indignation,” says Robinson, and he “has turned the full force of his intellect against religion, and all his verbal skills as well, and his humane learning, too, which is capacious enough to include some deeply minor poetry.” Thoughtful atheists, and there are some, as well as thoughtful agnostics, and there are many, deserve better than the deeply minor arguments of Richard Dawkins.
• Martin Marty notes that Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion has been whacked by the critics but is still a bestseller. Many reviewers, he says, have responded the way William Paley did in the nineteenth century, when he was faced with Edward Gibbons’ attack on Christianity, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Paley’s response: “Who can refute a sneer?”
• Jason Byassee of the Christian Century wrote about six Protestant theologians who have in the last few years become Catholic. One of them, Bruce Marshall of Southern Methodist University and a former Lutheran, protests the suggestion that he had an idea of catholicity and then looked around for a church that most closely approximated that idea. He writes, “There have no doubt been converts who approached the matter in this way. But as for myself, I wasn’t drawn to the Catholic Church because I had a catholic vision; I had a catholic vision because I was drawn to the Catholic Church. A catholic vision of things is the work of the Catholic Church, built up and borne by it over time in aid of its own witness and self-understanding. This is a product of the Catholic Church ‘scrutinizing her own mystery,’ as Vatican II says in another connection. Such a vision depends upon the reality of the Catholic Church, without which it would not be attractive or credible.” Rusty Reno of Creighton University, a former Anglican, says that the weighing of ecclesiastical options was irrelevant to his becoming Catholic. He writes: “I didn’t so much choose to become Catholic as collapse into Catholicism out of a spiritual exhaustion that was as much a result of my own sinfulness and intellectualized perversity of heart as any defect or failure of the Episcopal Church. The sheer fact of the Catholic Church, its place as the prime substance of Christianity in the West, did not attract me. It was simply there, and it stopped me from falling into unbelief—or worse, into a loveless simulacrum of belief that derives its life and energy from imagined roles of crusader-for-orthodoxy and defender-of-faith—something my own acknowledged attraction to Newman’s polemical passages indicates was a real danger. I grant that one can theorize and theologize about the givenness of the Catholic Church and its role as source of Western Christianity (just as one can theologize about its betrayals of that role). But at least for me, the fact of the Church worked upon me rather than any ideas or theories I might have had about ‘catholicity.’“ For a fuller statement of Reno’s decision, see “Out of the Ruins,” First Things, February 2005.
• “The biblical prohibition ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is a piece of naïveté compared with the seriousness of Life’s own ‘Thou shalt not’ issued to decadence: ‘Thou shalt not procreate!’—Life itself recognizes no solidarity, no ‘equal right,’ between the healthy and the degenerate parts of an organism. . . . Sympathy for the decadents, equal rights for the ill-constituted—that would be the profoundest immorality, that would be anti-nature itself as morality!” Thus spake Nietzsche. Of course, the statement is from the texts edited by his pro-Nazi sister. But, as Fr. Edward Oakes points out, similar statements are to be found in other writings. For instance, in Ecce Homo, one of the last books he sent to the publisher before he collapsed into insanity, there is this: “‘If we cast a look a century ahead and assume that my assassination of two thousand years of opposition to nature and of dishonoring humans succeeds, then that new party of life [!] will take in hand the greatest of all tasks—the higher breeding of humanity, including the unsparing destruction of all degenerates and parasites.’ The metaphysical and ethical continuity from these grim passages to Mein Kampf is seamless.”
• Oakes is reviewing in Books & Culture Richard Weikart’s From Darwin to Hitler (Palgrave Macmillan), a painstakingly detailed study in the history of ideas demonstrating the consequences of the idea of “the survival of the fittest.” (Herbert Spencer coined the phrase but Darwin enthusiastically adopted it in the sixth edition of his Origin of Species as a substitute for “natural selection.”) But then there is the oddity that, of the influences most vigorously denounced by Nietzsche—Plato, Jesus, and Darwin—there is the occasional grudging concession made to Plato and Jesus, but never to Darwin. Oakes thinks he may have an explanation of the oddity: “These concessions to Plato and Christianity, however, are mere fragments, whereas Darwin forms the warp and woof of Nietzsche’s ethics. So why the denunciations? Because, in my opinion, he saw that it would be impossible to accept Darwinian theory in any of its guises without falling into the abyss of nihilism. And because he had imbibed too deeply from the fetid waters of Darwin’s well, he could only stave off its implications by positing his myth of the eternal recurrence of all things: only by embracing and affirming the idea that all this pointless suffering would be repeated endlessly could he face the nihilistic implications of Darwinian man, that bag of fleshly straw wired for sound. Hence his contempt for all programs of social amelioration based on Darwinian principles. Hence his denunciation of anti-Semites, who he said should be shot (an oddly Darwinian solution to the problem, but there it is).”
• Although Hitler was no deep thinker and picked up the logic of the “survival of the fittest” from popular journalism and street-level bigotries, Weikart makes a convincing case for the genealogy of the logic and its fateful consequences. Oakes writes: “What Hitler added to social Darwinism was merely the ruthlessness to apply on the stage of history what had only been mooted by so many writers and professors in the two generations preceding him. Where they only suggested, he acted.” Eugenics by other names—and sometimes under its own name—is making a comeback today. Programs for breeding the strong and eliminating the weak were embraced in theory, and sometimes in practice, by the most enlightened minds in America and, especially, in Germany prior to World War II. Then the revelations of the horrors perpetrated by Nazism discredited such ideas, but only for a time. Today compassion for the weak (reflecting that ancient Christian morality so despised by Darwin and Nietzsche) exists in competition with biotechnological programs premised upon the proposal that, however kind we must be to the existing weak, there is no room for them in the future.
• Adam Sedgwick, a scientist who had been Darwin’s mentor at Cambridge before his journey on the Beagle, wrote to him shortly after the publication of Origins: “Passages in your book . . . greatly shocked my moral sense. There is a moral or metaphysical part of nature as well as a physical. A man who denies this is deep in the mire of folly. ‘Tis the crown and glory of organic science that it does, thro’ final causes, link material to moral. . . . You have ignored this link; and, if I do not mistake your meaning, you have done your best in one or two pregnant cases to break it. Were it possible (which, thank God, it is not) to break it, humanity, in my mind, would suffer a damage that might brutalize it, and sink the human race into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen since its written records tell us of its history.” Fr. Oakes writes, “This should be the sticker affixed to every biology textbook in the nation.” I’m not so sure. Yes, if the textbook in question promotes the reductionist materialism and “survival of the fittest” logic often associated with Darwinism. Darwin was in important respects a moral monster who, as Weikart demonstrates, provided a rationale for monstrous acts committed by others. But Darwinism or neo-Darwinism understood as a theory of evolutionary development is accepted by the great majority of scientists today for its explanatory force, including many thoughtful Christians who are convinced the theory is compatible with Christian doctrine. See the comment on John G. West’s polemic against Darwin elsewhere in this section.
• I am sometimes chided for my use of the phrase “ecclesial Christian.” Every Christian is an ecclesial Christian, it is objected, because nobody ever came to know Christ except through the Church, even if it is the Church represented by a mother teaching her children the faith. That is true enough. Yet an ecclesial Christian is one who thinks of the Church as a person, indeed as an encounter with the person of Christ. He is not always looking back to origins in order to discover the “real Jesus.” The real Jesus lives in the Church. He does not pit Scripture against tradition. It is the tradition, speaking in the voice of St. Athanasius, who in 367, after many years of wrangling over what should be included and what excluded, announced, “Here is the New Testament!”—listing for the first time the canon that would later be ratified by the bishops in council.
• The sensibility of an ecclesial Christian is caught in a 1924 letter of Hilaire Belloc to Mrs. Raymond Asquith. Speaking of the Church, he wrote: “Is not this what it always has been? Am I not here in converse with That which heard the words and saw the gestures and was startled by the cry of death and stupefied by the resurrection?” Belloc continues: “It is the answer to that question which is the core of the affair; and there is only one answer. There is only one voice on Earth which speaks in the tone of the 1st century and of the 13th, and of the men who had gooseflesh at Emmaus, and of the men and women who have the later visions down to the last, and the many who are to come. It is the Church-as-it-is which commands attention, convinces, and receives assent. So in a long devotion one looks with a smile or a little fear at the portrait 30 years old. But the object received and loved is that of today, and therefore of forever; and of the past, all of it, and of the time to come. For my part I rejoice at new things. They are to me the proof of life: and the sudden burst of devotion to the Mother of God 400 years after, the special exaltation of the Eucharist in such a rite as Benediction—not 400 years old: these and the lesser things are a part of a living thing in which I live: not a document or a mere record. And that living thing is not of man. It is for man from that by which man is and by which we have our knowledge of any and all beauty.” That’s not the only way of putting the matter, but it is a striking expression of what it means to be an ecclesial Christian.
• And now for something completely different. As I discuss in my recent book Catholic Matters, I have been fascinated from early days onward by the stories of old folks, and am not entirely accustomed to being viewed as one of them by certain young whippersnappers, not least around this office. I therefore welcome In Diebus Illis . . ., an occasional newsletter published by older priests of the Archdiocese of New York who live at the John Cardinal O’Connor residence up in the Bronx, a beautiful place with a commanding view of the Hudson River. In diebus illis means “in those days,” and the newsletter unapologetically majors in nostalgia. But it is nostalgia of a sharp and frequently invigorating kind. The current issue has a homily preached at the funeral of a priest and it includes a marvelous quotation sometimes printed on memorial cards for such occasions. It is a reflection on the priesthood by the nineteenth-century writer Fr. Jean-Baptiste Lacordaire: “To live in the midst of the world without wishing its pleasures; to be a member of each family, yet belonging to none; to share all sufferings; to penetrate all secrets; to heal all wounds; to go from men to God and offer Him their prayers; to return from God to men to bring pardon and hope; to have a heart of fire for charity and a heart of bronze for chastity; to teach and to pardon, console and bless always—what a glorious life! And it is yours, O priest of Jesus Christ.” That is the priest we ontologically are and daily aspire to be. Every issue of In Diebus Illis . . . breathes that aspiration and reflects that achievement.
• This issue relates how Francis Cardinal Spellman was once asked by a pastor to stop by the hospital and visit a dying parishioner who was a doctor, which the cardinal gladly did. With all the tubes in his mouth and nose, the patient couldn’t speak, but at the bedside Spellman offered words of comfort, going on about all the good people the doctor had treated and how their grateful families would always pray for him. As the party was leaving the hospital, the pastor turned to the cardinal’s secretary and said in a whisper, “My God, I forgot to tell him that the guy was a veterinarian!”
• Oh well, one more from this issue of In Diebus Illis . . . A priest’s tribute to the late Bishop Austin Vaughan recalls the mood of the late 1960s at St. Joseph’s Seminary up in Dunwoodie, New York. “The years immediately after the Council were turbulent, especially for the seminaries. Bishops and rectors appeared confused and timid. Seminary faculties quickly became divided. The best and the brightest seemed to lead the charge, and seminarians were caught in the fray. With tradition now disparaged, a dark cloud seemed to enshroud the seminaries with a negative spirit. Doubt and dissent were endemic, and St. Joseph’s was not immune. A troubled pontiff wept openly, seemingly helpless, as he witnessed the Church tearing itself apart. This, it seemed, was ‘renewal.’“ In this dispirited circumstance, Austin Vaughan, as faculty member and then as rector, was a pillar of strength. A champion of justice, he would later become the first bishop to be arrested and jailed in protest against the killing of the unborn. In the pages of In Diebus Illis . . ., there is frequent reference to the miscarried “renewal” that followed the Second Vatican Council, and to the sadness of the many friends and classmates who abandoned, as it is said, “the practice of the priesthood.” Yet every issue of the newsletter is pervaded by a sense of vibrant hope and, above all, gratitude for having been called to be a priest. As though echoing Lacordaire: “What a glorious life!”
• It may well be that I live in a rarefied world. I do not deny it. My impression is formed by the junior fellows on the First Things staff, by my regular preaching for the student Mass at Columbia University, by fifteen years of the Tertio Millennio seminar in Cracow, Poland, and by my encounters with thousands of students on campuses as various as Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Duke, Steubenville, and Wabash College. And that very definite impression is that there is today—in sharp contrast to, say, twenty years ago—a large cohort of exceedingly bright and persuasively assertive young Christians and religiously serious Jews who are determined to make their mark in transforming our intellectual and political culture. There is no little gratification in discovering that, in case after case, they are avid readers of First Things. Most recently, we advertised two junior fellow positions at the magazine, and received almost a hundred applications, one more highly qualified than the other. (It was, to say the least, a tough decision, and in the next issue we will be introducing the two selected.) The large cohort is made larger by readers who give gift subscriptions to promising young students of their acquaintance. And, of course, we are pleased to send a free sample issue to people, young or not so young, who you think might become subscribers. We will include with the issue a note indicating that you’re the one who has such a high estimate of their good judgment.
Abraham on abortion, Lifewatch, March 1. Bockmuehl on Petrine ministry and McGucken on Hart, Scottish Journal of Theology, Spring 2007. Presbyterians, Nicotine Theological Journal, January 2007. Archbishop Niederauer letter to Pelosi, Origins, March 8. Nichol on William and Mary, Richmond Times Dispatch, March 1. Archbishop Dolan on preaching, Origins, February 1. Garrow on the ADL and the KKK, Los Angeles Times, February 27. McClay on sociology, Wall Street Journal, February 2. Lifeboats on the moon, Wall Street Journal, February 2. Hirsi Ali’s Infidel, New York Sun, February 21. Manguel on Borges, TLS, November 10. Marty on Dawkins, Christian Century, November 14. Byassee on converting Protestants, Christian Century, October 31.