The Public Square
An election year does strange things to people. For instance, Father John Kavanaugh’s helpful homiletical reflections in America are usually about the scriptural text for the Sunday. But he, too, succumbs to the quadrennial political itches when confronted by the Sermon on the Mount, and he offers to his preacher readers a little tract on “Christian Faith and Politics.” Among the homiletical inspirations: “Imagine the irony of a Christian political movement that along with public prayer trumpets the priorities of military security, tax cuts for the well-to-do, and capital punishment.” A bit uneasy about the hint of partisanship in that political swipe, he writes, “This is not a put-down of any particular political party, even though, at first sight, it may seem so.” At first sight and at as many other sights as you may care to give it.
“A Representative [Henry] Hyde,” Fr. Kavanaugh writes, “is very Christian in his defense of unborn babies, but I wonder what he thinks of capital punishment, capital gains, and military adventures.” I cannot imagine that Hyde or any other sensible person is in favor of military “adventures,” but I would not be surprised if he views capital punishment as a sometimes regrettably necessary means to protect society, and thinks capital gains taxes drag down the economy, thereby hurting everybody, especially the poor. Those positions are perfectly permissible in Catholic moral teaching. Support for killing unborn babies is not.
Protecting his nonpartisan credentials, Fr. Kavanaugh notes that Senator Ted Kennedy is “a great defender of women and the poor” but he criticizes Kennedy’s support for abortion. The conclusion is inescapable: the Republican Hydes and Democrat Kennedys are more or less morally equivalent, except that the Hydes take a non-Christian position on a lot of things while the Kennedys fall short on only one. Never mind that Catholic teaching solemnly declares abortion to be an “unspeakable crime,” while the points on which Fr. Kavanaugh disagrees with the Hydes are matters of prudential judgment on which people of equal Christian commitment might legitimately disagree.
If we take the Sermon on the Mount seriously, says Fr. Kavanaugh, we must all admit “how readily we compromise the revolutionary message of Jesus.” Who would dare to deny it? But then he leaves us with this edifying thought: “Upon that admission, we might then discover a Christian politics that illumines the world far more brilliantly than the dim ideologies we guide our lives by.” Admittedly, some ideologies are dimmer than others, but a “Christian politics”?
One is reminded of Fr. Kavanaugh’s fellow Jesuit, the late Fr. John Courtney Murray. Asked by a politician how he could base his political philosophy on the Sermon on the Mount, Fr. Murray incredulously responded, “What on earth makes you think that a Catholic political philosophy is based on the Sermon on the Mount?” He explained for the thousandth time that a political philosophy has to do with the virtue of justice as discerned by reason and directed by the virtue of prudence. Similarly, the great Protestant teacher Reinhold Niebuhr devoted his life to warning against the dangerous sentimentality of a “Christian politics.” Love compels Christians to seek justice also through politics, Niebuhr insisted, but we must never equate our penultimate judgments about what might serve justice with the ultimate truth that impels us to seek and serve justice in the first place. In sum, we must never declare our politics to be “Christian politics,” thereby implicitly excommunicating those Christians who disagree with us.
I would not pick on Fr. Kavanaugh, who, as I say, usually does not ride his political hobby horse in public. But his mindset is representative of a widespread and growing phenomenon on both the left and the right”the religionizing of politics and politicizing of religion. In recent American history, it started on the left in the aftermath of the mainline churches’ moral euphoria in having been so very right about the early civil rights movement of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the years that followed, that euphoria inflated the moral certitude of those churches, and their bureaucracies were soon pronouncing God’s definite opinion on almost every question in public dispute.
That could not last very long, and it didn’t. After a while the members of those churches turned a deaf ear to their leaders, and then began drifting away, leaving mainline Protestantism in a spiral of decline that has yet to hit bottom. Still on the left, something similar is happening in Catholicism as the bishops are inclined to generously loan their teaching authority to the church-and-society curia of the United States Catholic Conference. Analysts of the mainline declension of the last thirty years watch this Catholic development with an eerie sense of having been here before.
Of course the more publicly potent religionizing of politics is today on the right of the ideological spectrum. Conservative leaders regularly say that they are only doing what the religious left did for decades, indeed going all the way back to the Social Gospel movement at the turn of the century. They’re right about that, and that’s what should worry them. The conflation of Christian faith with a specific political agenda inevitably leads to the distortion of faith. The equally inevitable failure to achieve something worthy of being called “Christian politics” produces a crisis in which people will feel forced to choose between their politics and their faith. Devotion to “God and country” is a fine thing, but when the two are given equal standing “country” will always fall far short of what people hope for and they will then find themselves faced with the prospect of “God or country.”
For organizations such as the unhappily named Christian Coalition, that prospect may not be far off. How many electoral setbacks will it take to undermine the relentless triumphalism necessary to sustaining such a political insurgency? When the disillusioned despair of achieving a Christian politics in a Christian America, “God and country” might very quickly become “God or country.” Most will choose for God, no doubt, but we should not be surprised if there are others for whom the “Christian” in the Christian Coalition is subservient to the political goals of the enterprise. The more seriously Christian, on the other hand, may think it necessary to choose for God against further political engagement. The result could be a return to the political passivity that marked evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity during most of this century. Not inconceivably, profound disillusionment could also produce a much more radicalized “Christian politics” on the right, a politics aimed at dismantling what is believed to be an incorrigibly evil constitutional order.
The last possibility is more than hinted at in movements that go by names such as Christian Reconstructionism and Dominion Theology. Such movements, with their assertion that America must be refounded on the basis of “Bible law,” claim relatively few adherents today, but they are waiting in the wings, alert to their opportunity when enough Christians decide that it is not possible “to work within the system.” Once again, there is an eerie sense of having been here before. Except the last time, in the 1960s, these questions preoccupied a left that thought itself to be in revolutionary ascendancy.
Do not misunderstand. I sympathize with most of the stated positions of the Christian Coalition. That is not the question. The question is the conflation of Christian faith and political agenda. I have even spoken at the annual “Road to Victory” conference of the Coalition. I pleaded that, while there may be welcome achievements from time to time, Christians are called to walk not the road to political victory but the way of the cross. The speech met with a great ovation, maybe because it’s the kind of thing Christians are expected to say, but I have very limited confidence that most of those who cheered understood what I was trying to say. Afterward, one participant, on the edge of tears, said he felt betrayed. It was my writings, he said, that had led him to become politically engaged, and now I was telling him that he had made a mistake. That is not the point. That is not the point at all.
Psalm 146 warns, “Put not your trust in princes.” Even when they are your princes and you think you put them on their little thrones. Especially when they are your princes, because that is when the temptation arises to invest your soul and your highest allegiance in their rule. No politics can liberate us from the limits of a fallen creation. We can probe and press at the limits, but the politics for which we were made, the politics that is the right ordering of all things, the politics of the Sermon on the Mount, will, short of the Kingdom, always elude us. Liberation theology”whether of the Marxist or the Reconstructionist variety”is idolatry.
Christian political engagement is an endlessly difficult subject. Our Lord said to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, but he did not accommodate us by spelling out the details. Over two thousand years, Christians have again and again thought they got the mix just right, only to have it blow up in their faces”and, not so incidentally, in the faces of others. We’re always having to go back to the drawing board, which is to say, to first things. Even when, especially when, we are most intensely engaged in the battle, first things must be kept first in mind. It is not easy but it is imperative. It profits us nothing if we win all the political battles while losing our own souls.
A very long time ago, when Christians were a persecuted minority of maybe fifty thousand in the great empire of Rome, an anonymous writer explained to a pagan named Diognetus the way it is with this peculiar people. Until Our Lord returns in glory, Christians do well to embrace the second century “Letter to Diognetus” as their vade mecum:
“For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life. This doctrine of theirs has not been discovered by the ingenuity or deep thought of inquisitive men, nor do they put forward a merely human teaching, as some people do. Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed. It is true that they are in the flesh,’ but they do not live according to the flesh.’ They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.”
It is an awkward posture, being an alien citizen. It poses irresolvable problems for both “God and country” and “God or country.” Christians critically affirm their responsibility for the politics of the earthly city, knowing all the while that their true polis is the City of God. Loyalty to the earthly city is joined to an allegiance that others who do not share that allegiance cannot help but view as subversive. It is as with Thomas More on the scaffold, “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.” And, had Henry only known it, Thomas was the king’s better servant because he served God first. Like so many others over the centuries, Henry had a “Christian politics” that demanded a totality of allegiance that no alien citizen could render him.
Christians are commanded to love their neighbors, and politics is one way”by no means the most important way”of doing that. In a democracy, everybody is asked to accept a measure of political responsibility, and most do. For some it is their life’s work, as in “vocation.” Like everything worth doing, it is worth doing well. And, for those who are called to do it, even when they frequently fail, it is also worth doing poorly. Christians engaged in politics, we may hope, will bring to the task the gifts of personal integrity and devotion to the common good. But that does not make their engagement “Christian politics.” It is still just politics. A Christian engineer who builds a really good bridge has not built a “Christian bridge.” The merit of the project depends upon qualities pertinent to the “bridgeness” of the thing, although we may believe that those qualities are well served by the Christian conviction and integrity of the builder.
So where does this leave us with the Sermon on the Mount? Deeply troubled, for sure. It leaves us, against our sinful inclination, attending to a “preferential option” for the poor and the sorrowful, the meek and the persecuted. Attending to them not by politics chiefly but by politics also. That sermon depicts a way of living that Niebuhr variously called an “impossible possibility” and “possible impossibility,” with the one never being entirely overcome by the other. Yet the never is not forever, for, above all, it leaves us alien citizens with an insatiable longing for that other polis He told us about, when all those around the throne and the angels numbering myriads of myriads declare with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”
And then, around the throne of the Lamb, we will have reason to hope that all our efforts, including our political efforts, did not get in the way of, and maybe even anticipated in some small part, that right ordering of all things that is the only politics deserving of the name Christian. Until then, talk about “Christian politics””whether of the left or of the right or of ideologies as yet unimagined”is but a refusal to wait for the Kingdom. It is the delusion that we Christians are called to be or can be, in our exile from the heavenly polis, something other than the poor in spirit, the sorrowing, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted”to be, in sum, something other than those whom the Sermon on the Mount calls blessed.
It’s easy to make fun of academics who haven’t heard the news that Marx is dead. Perhaps too easy, suggests Michael Ignatieff in his review of Frank E. Manuel’s A Requiem for Karl Marx (Harvard University Press). In the last few years it has become respectable to write about the seamier side of Marx, a subject long avoided except by those awful anti-Communists. Ignatieff writes: “As a study in the psychology of loathing, Manuel’s biography is truly first-rate. Marx despised most everyone: his mother, Jews, black and Asiatic peoples, Poles and other lesser Europeans, most fellow revolutionaries, all bourgeois politicians, as well as the bailiffs and the bill-collectors who tormented his penurious exile. The correspondence with Engels drips with scorn for niggers,’ Juden,’ and the Dreck and Scheisse’ of the Socialist International. The German socialist leader Ferdinand Lassalle earned the ultimate compliment: Jewish nigger.’“ At the same time, Ignatieff is not persuaded by Manuel that Marx’s self-loathing had all that much to do with his Jewishness. For us, says Ignatieff, Marx’s being a Jew was critical to his identity, but perhaps it was no big deal for Marx himself. He had a kindly, if condescending, relationship with his father, who had converted to Lutheranism.
While Marx-bashing may be on the edge of becoming fashionable, Ignatieff thinks there are reasons for his enduring appeal to some intellectuals. “If Marx will enjoy another afterlife, it will not be his particular doctrines themselves, but his larger intellectual project, his incredible ambition, which will provide the inspiration. What is so striking about the post-Marxist intellectual situation is the general theoretical silence about causation in history, the conceptual timidity, the refusal to even engage with the question of what general causes” demographic, technological, economic”determine the broad trends of our future. Analysis has been replaced by futurology, as in Alvin Toffler, or by academicism, as in Immanuel Wallerstein. At the very least, Marx was not shy of ultimate formulations. His theory was grand.”
As numerous writers have concluded over the years, the attraction of Marxism is quasi-religious. Ignatieff observes: “Nowadays as every discipline retreats into the contemplation of its particulars and all engage in the forswearing of synoptic ambition, as philosophy gives way to irony, the Marxian project seems more tonic and even more difficult to contemplate. It is important to see that the human longing for the big picture will not disappear.” The utopians of this century who have hitched a political program to their Explanation of Everything, and have along the way perpetrated atrocities beyond measure, are temporarily discredited. But it is only temporary. Another Explanation of Everything will surely come along, and we should not be surprised if it is ghostwritten by that self-loathing, inexhaustibly resentful dreamer of bizarre dreams, the unhappy madman Karl Marx.
“Insidious.” “Sinister.” “Chilling.” These are some of the words used to describe Care of the Spitfire Grill , which was the big hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. So what’s wrong with the film? There’s nothing at all wrong with the film itself, according to almost everybody who saw it. It is a wonderful film that moved viewers to laughter and tears. The insidious, sinister, chilling factor has to do with its financing. It was sponsored by an order of Catholic priests who created the Sacred Heart League to advance “Judeo- Christian values” through film.
In two long stories in the New YorkTimes, film critic Caryn James explores the meaning of this sinister connection. The film finally was bought by a major production company, she reports, but others turned it down after learning about its financial backing. Everyone agrees that Spitfire Grill does not proselytize and does not ostensibly promote an ideology, but, as one film executive said, “If you know the context of the financing, an agenda does emerge in the film.” The story continues: “I was sitting in the theater when I read this statement of purpose [of the Sacred Heart League] and my jaw dropped,’ said Bingham Ray, a partner in October Films. It sent a slight chill; that was the collective reaction.’“
In her second story, James notes that “the manipulatively heartwarming story about a young woman just out of prison who finds spiritual redemption in Maine” won the festival’s feature film Audience Award. Contradicting her earlier story, she writes, “Nobody seemed to notice that it was financed by a conservative Mississippi company affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church and founded, as its mission statement’ puts it, to present the values of the Judeo-Christian tradition.’“ Conservative yet! Southern yet! Roman Catholic yet! You just have to know that great evil is afoot. Whatever the film’s merits, says James, “watching it with the Sacred Heart League in mind makes all the biblical imagery seem slightly sinister.” Biblical imagery by itself might be harmless enough, it seems, but here it is being employed by people who probably think it has something to do with the truth.
Caryn James continues: “The director, Lee David Zlotoff, is Jewish and, he says, extremely religious. But the movie’s multidenominational roots” Catholic backers, Protestant characters, and a Jewish director”don’t diminish the eerie sense that viewers are being proselytized without their knowledge.” Eerie indeed. So are we to think Hollywood and the New York Times ”not just Caryn James, for somebody at the paper approves of her and others taking zillions of column inches to vent their bigotry”are antireligious? Can one imagine a hit film being declared sinister and insidious only because of its source of funding” whether that source be casino owners, drug traffickers, cigarette manufacturers, or arms merchants? An instance of that happening does not come readily to mind. Religion is in a class by itself.
In the cultural world of Caryn James, religion”Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish”is alien and suspect. As is the intent to advance “Judeo- Christian values.” It is all the more threatening when it takes care not to proselytize because then people “are being proselytized without their knowledge.” The articles by Caryn James stand out only because they are more vulger than usual in declaring the dominant antireligious prejudice of Hollywood and the media, a prejudice that has given rise to what is inevitably called a culture war. And that has contributed, happily, to the decline of the circulation of the Times and of the audience for Hollywood movies.
We can look forward to the release of Spitfire Grill , and hope that it is not so inhibited in making a moral and spiritual point as Ms. James says. Its smashing success at the box office may have a salutary and collective chilling effect upon Hollywood producers. And maybe not, for, as Ms. James makes clear, that is a world driven more by ideology and prejudice than by the relatively innocent desire to make money.
Surveying the Republican field back in February, the editors of the Weekly Standard lament the absence of those who might have run, notably Colin Powell, Dan Quayle, William Bennett, and Jack Kemp. “Perhaps Dole will rebound and win. Perhaps Gramm or Alexander will emerge against a weakened Dole and a Forbes whose fortunes begin to flag. But what a pity that so many qualified, capable men”ones whose lives ought to have prepared them for this endeavor”chose to leave the field to those now running. A healthy democracy requires grand political ambition among those who would be its leaders. We may not be at the end of history, but we do seem perilously close to the end of such ambition.”
Recall St. Augustine’s reflections in The City of God on the ambition for glory in the Roman empire. The Romans called such striving for glory a virtue, but Augustine deemed it a “splendid vice.” Such ambition, he said, is nothing but the vice of pride, albeit a very big vice that keeps many smaller vices in check. In our circumstance, it is not evident that pride does even that. The American people may not get the candidates that they deserve, but they get the candidates this nominating process can produce.
Writing in the same issue of the Standard , Alan Ehrenhalt says, “No nominating system is guaranteed to produce good Presidents. The process that created Dwight Eisenhower and Franklin Roosevelt also created Warren Harding. The circus we are engaging in now may yet serve up a statesman. It is impossible to be sure. What can be said with confidence is that the present system comes close to screening out conservatives of a particular temperament and attitude toward life. Taft’s traditionalism, Eisenhower’s caution, Stevenson’s tragic perspective”all are bound to be scarce in a politics of self-nomination and compulsive Solutionism.” Given the problems facing the country and world, says Ehrenhalt, candidates who possess “an instinctive caution and respect for consensus would be reassuringly appropriate.”
Reviewing Richard Brookhiser’s new book on George Washington ( Founding Father ), Edmund Morgan of Yale writes: “Washington seems to have been born with a thirst for public respect of a special kind. He wanted nothing more than honor, and he had identified its ingredients so clearly that he knew he would miss getting it if he showed himself wanting it as badly as he did.” A long slide from Washington, but still to the point, one recalls Walter Mondale saying he did not have the “fire in the belly” to overcome the prospect of sleeping in a thousand motels on the primary trail. And George Bush expressing honest puzzlement that people were skeptical of the patrician view that the political life is a matter of offering oneself for “public service.”Today’s nomination ordeal is designed for the self-promoters, and for such it is not an ordeal but an orgy. Honorable people may submit themselves to it because they honestly want to serve, but it was not designed for them. We are told that jumping through the primary hoops tests the mettle of candidates, but it is not clear that it tests for any gift pertinent to being a good President, while it very likely does corrupt such gifts. The old saw may again be vindicated, the one that says God looks out for children, drunks, and the American people. But so far this year has produced nothing to challenge Augustine’s insight that the governance of the earthly city is driven by vice”what the Standard calls “grand political ambition” that is anything but grand. If Augustine is right, and I have no doubt he is, that is the way it will always be short of the sure establishment of the City of God. Yet one cannot help but wish that the vice were just a bit more splendid.
“Protestantism now faces the most difficult struggle of all the occidental religion and denominations in the present world situation.” So wrote the very influential Paul Tillich almost fifty years ago in The Protestant Era . Douglas John Hall of McGill University takes up Tillich’s challegs, noting that he, like Tillich, is referring to “classic” or “mainline” Protestantism. He says that there are those who, like Peter Berger, question whether Protestantism’s “culture religion” ever did internalize the theology of the Reformation. While Hall admits the question is valid, and well knows that what was called mainline is increasingly viewed as sideline, he does believe there is something to salvage.
“The judgment that Protestantism, classically conceived, has never achieved a hearing on this continent, however, is obviously excessive. One name alone, that of Reinhold Niebuhr, suffices to banish such a suggestion. It is nonetheless true, as Niebuhr’s own struggle with his society demonstrates, that the spirit of Reformation Christianity never sat easily with the New World experiment and could only become the dominant element in American culture religion by being significantly reduced. That reduction, in my view, has become visible in the latter part of the present century. The question that Tillich asked half a century ago”a question that seemed strange to North American ears at the time”is today altogether existential with us.” There is an existential urgency in Hall’s prognosis: “Unless there is a radical theological renewal affecting the Protestant denominations at the congregational level, the remnants of classical Protestantism in North America will not survive the twenty-first century.”
Not just any kind of theology will do. “Just here, however, we encounter the nub of the crisis of Protestantism in North America today. The theology that has been undertaken by professionals since the failure of Protestant liberalism, which in our context coincides roughly with the societal crises dating from approximately 1960, has simply not affected the churches. Liberalism”to be sure, in reduced forms”made its way into the pews, partly because of its relative simplicity and partly because it was so compatible with the regnant worldview. One does not lament its passing, but one does lament the passing of the incipient articulation of thought that liberalism engendered at the congregational level. Neither so-called neoorthodoxy nor any of the various theologies of’ that have succeeded it can claim to have continued and deepened that beginning.”
Particularly unhelpful, Hall believes, are feminist and other theologies born from and chiefly borne by a sense of grievance. “As for the theologies emanating from special-interest groups, while they have undoubtedly contributed to a certain necessary ferment in the churches, they have not greatly stimulated the kind of foundational thinking that (in the language of my thesis) renews. At their best, they challenged the status quo by bearing witness to the real oppressiveness that is the shadow side of the good’ pursued by the dominant culture and church; at their worst, they have created the impression that the only thing that can be said about the majority element in the churches is that it is inherently oppressive.”
Hall, like this writer, is of a certain age, and he recalls the books that in the 1960s stirred young Protestant theologians to dream dreams of a theological renewal that would break Christianity out of its cultural shackles”books such as Berger’s The Noise of Solemn Assemblies , J. C. Hoekendijk’s The Church Inside Out , and William Stringfellow’s My People Is the Enemy . Hall’s article appears in Theology Today , the very mainline publication that once championed such dreams, and he wonders why those books are now forgotten, and why others like them are not being written. One answer, he believes, is the aforementioned “interest group theologies,” and the ways in which theology has been commandeered and politicized by the “justice and peace” cadres. Theology as grievance and theology as political tool are much easier to deal with than a theology that demands “a whole new understanding of the Church and its vocation in the world.”
It may be, Hall suggests, that “as the mainline churches dwindle and the question of their raison d’etre becomes more blatant” a few serious people will undertake the deep rethinking that is required. Quoting Hegel, “The owl of Minerva takes flight at evening,” he thinks desperation, too, may have its uses. He holds out the hope that “mainline Protestants will form new alliances with moderate evangelicals and progressive Catholics, and, in the process, begin to recover a gospel that is more than both law (ethics) and culture religion.” As much as one sympathizes with Hall’s lament, that seems less than plausible. After all, it is the self-consciously moderate evangelicals and progressive Catholics who are most entrenched in the liberal tradition that Hall rightly says has brought Protestantism to its present sorry pass.
Nonetheless, Hall is not giving up. “In any case, serious Christians have no alternative other than to believe that such a renewal is possible, and to work for it in whatever ways open to them. Protestantism is not eternal. Jesus Christ did not promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against Protestantism! But the Protestant spirit and principle (Tillich) is of the essence of Christianity; therefore, to abandon the once-mainline Protestant churches to their own confusion and the designs of the ideologues ought to be considered in some profound sense a sin against the Holy Spirit!” It is a touchingly wan note on which to end. Given his own analysis, there is no apparent connection between maintaining oldline Protestantism and maintaining Tillich’s (and the Reformation’s) Protestant principle. In historical fact”and the Protestant principle, among other things, attends closely to history”they would seem to have become antithetical.
One wonders if in his conclusion Douglas John Hall might not have done better to return to his reflection on the “raison d’etre” of the oldline churches. What purpose do they serve? Is it not possible that a gospel that is “more than ethics and culture religion” can be and is today proclaimed among orthodox Catholics and among evangelicals who do not think of themselves as moderate? While he calls for a basic and radical rethinking, Hall stops short of where his argument would seem to lead. After all these years, he seems still captive to the mainline/oldline/sideline Protestantism that Dietrich Bonhoeffer nearly sixty years ago aptly described as Protestantism without the Reformation. As Bonhoeffer understood, the Protestantism that is truly of the Reformation must always be returning to the question of the raison d’etre of its separation from Catholicism. That is the question to which Hall’s reflections tend and to which, one hopes, he will attend in the future.
“There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” The maxim is attributed to the late A. J. Muste, who figured for a large part of this century as a leader of pacifist thought and activism. Of course, today everything is more complex, as Adam said to Eve on their way out of the garden. “In the 1990s, the means of living out a commitment to nonviolence for many seem more complex,” opines the editor of the National Catholic Reporter (NCR). The reference is to Bosnia and the fact that a remarkable number of the champions of nonviolence have also championed President Clinton’s sending of U.S. troops.
Bosnia is not a hot political topic right now, and probably won’t be unless, God forbid, there are many American casualties. The date of withdrawal is safely set on the far side of the election, and if the slaughter then resumes, the U.S. mission will be chalked up as yet another on a growing list of foreign policy fiascoes. Meanwhile, NCR and others fret about squaring the circle of nonviolent violence. “For many in the peace movement, the issues appeared clearer in . . . the Reagan Administration.” That is understandable. Moral clarity is wondrously enhanced when one is opposing the policy of the other side’s President. Moral complexity sets in when it is the policy of your President. (Bill Clinton being, for some unexplained reason, the President of people in “the peace movement.” It is probably related to something he did back in the 1960s, a decade that for NCR and like-minded Christians has never died.)
The editor notes that complexity in the peace movement is not new, and recalls earlier disagreements between such as Daniel Berrigan, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. He fails to note that they never disagreed about the moral impermissibility of supporting the use of military force. “Have we stayed faithful to the Christian call to a radically nonviolent way of life?” the editor anxiously asks. “Faithfulness to a nonviolent lifestyle cannot help but call one to further soul-searching and a wider reexamination of conscience and life.” Wider, but not necessarily deeper. Having bowed in the direction of the requisite soul- searching, NCR comes up with the inoffensive observation that “the Spirit can move good women and men to respond honestly in different ways.” Then, as though eager to escape the quivering incoherence of this limp defense of Christian nonviolence, the editor concludes by reaching for a quite different tradition. “As Chinese Taoist philosophy teaches: There is one path; there are many paths.”
So A. J. Muste got it wrong after all. Sometimes the way to peace is to send in the troops. That conclusion doesn’t bother those of us who have never been pacifists. It is a poignant thing, however, to see people who have pledged themselves to “a radically nonviolent way of life” offer up their conscience to the exigencies of presidential politics. One is reminded of the scene in Man for All Seasons where Thomas More at his trial asks to examine the new seal of office worn by the perjurer Richard Rich. “Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for Wales!” But for Bill Clinton?
I am prejudiced, of course, but I thought J. Bottum’s “Facing Up to Infanticide” (FT, February) a big help in clearing out the cant in current talk about an outbreak of pro-choice honesty in the abortion debate. He focused on the much discussed articles of last fall by Naomi Wolf in the New Republic and George McKenna in Atlantic , and he argued that the newfound “honesty” was in fact laying the groundwork not for the restriction of abortion but for the extension of the abortion license to born babies and other inconvenient persons.
As it happens, McKenna, professor of political science at the City College of New York, does not disagree with Bottum (see letters in this issue). Writing in that admirable quarterly, the Human Life Review , McKenna notes that Wolf does not hesitate to call the fetus “a baby” and is critical of “Yuppie parents-to-be who buy those nice holistic birthing books, with pretty color pictures of unborn babies, [and yet] are ready to consign the unwanted unborn to the trash bag.” McKenna likes the following in Wolf’s article: “So, what will it be: Wanted fetuses are charming, complex, REM-dreaming little beings whose profile on the sonogram looks just like Daddy, but unwanted ones are mere uterine material’?” That’s the right question, in McKenna’s view, but he has big problems with where Naomi Wolf goes from there.
McKenna writes: “All right, then, unborn babies are babies. But now Wolf goes on to insist that sometimes the mother must be able to decide that the fetus, in its full humanity, must die’ [emphasis mine]. Putting it more bluntly”Wolf, after all, wants straight talk”her proposition is that sometimes a mother must be able to kill her baby. When? She does not directly answer that question, but her view is not hard to detect. She notes that when the pollsters ask Americans whether they think abortion should be a matter between a woman, her doctor, her family, her conscience, and her God,’ support for abortion shoots up to 72 percent. She recalls her own success in silencing a pro-life critic by admitting that of course’ she had a baby inside her but that if she felt the need to kill it, that would be between myself and God.’ This suggests a triangular relationship: the woman, her baby, and God. But that is not what she means. In acknowledgment of the fact that many of her pro-choice readers do not believe in God, Wolf adds that if you are secular and prefer it’ you can just say conscience.’ God’ is a kind of tempo-setter here, a pious word meant to convey a sense of solemnity. The decision actually involves only the woman, the baby, and herself. And, since the baby has no voice in the decision, it comes down to the woman and herself. So if the question were asked when a mother must be able to decide’ whether or not to have her baby killed, her answer would have to be: whenever she feels like it.”
When Atlantic Monthly published McKenna’s article urging a Lincoln-like approach to the limitation and final abolition of abortion, the magazine was deluged with letters of protest, and its electronic bulletin board nearly exploded. Not so over at the New Republic , where Wolf’s article elicited little response. How could this be, since both articles had been declared so daring in their political incorrectness? Cut to the bottom line: McKenna’s article challenged the unlimited abortion license while Wolf was simply proposing a rhetorical strategy to maintain it, and perhaps extend it. Stop saying that abortion doesn’t kill a baby, she advised. Admit that it is a baby and then kill it, but regretfully. The readers of the New Republic can go along with that. A tear, real or feigned, is but a small price to pay for maintaining the right to abortion at any time for any reason throughout the course of a pregnancy. And it no doubt did not escape the notice of some readers that the self-absolution of soulful regret may come in handy when it is time to get rid of grandma or others whom we acknowledge, with a brave honesty that does us credit, really are real people.
Last December, in Euless, Texas, a young magazine salesman was charged with assaulting an elderly woman who refused to buy a subscription from him. Six months earlier, in Fort Collins, Colorado, a man who turned away another subscription salesman was similarly attacked. Ours is a somewhat more low-key sales approach: send us the addresses of those you think might like the journal, and we’ll send them a free sample copy in your name. Please do it now, before we’re forced to consider alternative measures.
Professor Melvyn New of the University of Florida reviews a book on anti-Semitic stereotypes in English culture. He criticizes the author (Frank Felsenstein) for not recognizing that “the Jewish way of thinking is not a good idea superseded by a better idea, but an idea legitimately, potently, eternally in conflict with Christianity.” And it is in conflict with Christianity because Christianity is in conflict with it. New says Felsenstein is so much a liberal that he cannot take theology seriously. “Felsenstein is blind to the deep embeddedness of anti-Semitism in Christianity’s self-definition: the annihilation of Jewry is not an afterthought of Christianity, but its violent point of origin.” Only when that is understood does one see “why anti-Semitic notions put down sturdy and unkillable roots in Christian societies.” One wonders if Prof. New really believes that 90 percent of his fellow citizens are pledged to a religion that is originally and irradicably set upon the violent annihilation of Jews. It seems very unlikely. The more probable explanation is that some religions can be slandered with impunity, and some academics enjoy the frisson of fantasizing that they live in great peril. In a victim society, not to be threatened is not to be. Imagine the burden of everyday life at the University of Florida where most people are oblivious to your existence and those who aren’t are so very nice. How much more interesting to believe that they really want to kill you.
In New York, Berkeley, Madison (Wisconsin) and a few other places in the country there are still lots of people who feel complimented if charged with being socialists. The main political writers for the New York Observer are among them. Shortly before the New York primary, its headline declared, “A LOOSE BUCHANAN IS HEADING THIS WAY!” But Observer pundits were not sure whether this is bad news or good. After all, Buchanan had picked up the fallen standard of the socialist crusade against Wall Street and all its works and all its ways. Columnist Joe Conason is skeptical. He says Buchanan is captive to a bunch of right-wing Protestant kooks who champion Christian Reconstructionism, in obedience to the teachings of R. J. Rushdoony, who, he claims, looks forward to a society that executes people for adultery and homosexuality. Buchanan, according to Conason, “is beyond the pale of modern Catholicism, Mr. Buchanan’s nominal religion.” Feature writer Terry Golway, on the other hand, is intrigued by Buchanan as the standard-bearer of leftist class warfare and attributes this to the fervor of his Catholic devotion. “If it sounds to liberal ears as if Mr. Buchanan has gotten religion, at least on matters economic, it should be noted that the religion was always there to be had. American Catholicism, of which Mr. Buchanan is a fervent member, has a long tradition of two-fisted dissent from WASP individualism and market- driven inequality. The Civil War-era Catholic bishop of New York, John Hughes (who was sort of the Rev. Al Sharpton of his day), complained that the rich were buying their way out of the draft, a practice that allowed the wealthy to become wealthier in their quiet homes.’ And New York’s Gilded Age saw the rise of a remarkable priest and social critic named Dr. Edward McGlynn, who quickly fell in with Henry George, the writer and mayoral candidate of single-tax fame. McGlynn’s Anti-Poverty Society placed the Church in opposition to the voracious robber barons and the social misery they inflicted on late-nineteenth-century America. Yet there are many who believe Pat Buchanan attracts his coreligionists merely because he is a champion of the unborn, the orthodox, and perhaps even the Latin mass.” That’s a pretty quirky reading of Catholic history (Fr. McGlynn was in fact a notable dissenter from Church authority), but within hailing distance of part of the story. For Conason, Buchanan is “Fascism Lite” and his defeat “will come from the same quarters that smashed fascism the first time around””mainly from “a revitalized union movement.” These are but tiny samples from the eruption of hysteria sparked by the thought that Mr. Buchanan might actually win the Republican nomination. As this is written I am just off the phone with a network producer who wants to send over a crew to interview me about my “different view” on whether Pat Buchanan is an anti-Semite. The received view, it appears, is that he is. My “different view” is that anti- Semitism is a vice so evil as to exclude a person from legitimate public discourse, and that, while many sensible people worry about it, the evidence that Buchanan is an anti-Semite is, in my judgment, less than conclusive. For some, however, it seems that “anti-Semite” is just one more on a long list of epithets to be thrown at people you don’t like. By the time this sees print, the Buchanan candidacy may very well be yesterday’s news. But already he has been treated to a deluge of political vitriol rare even in the rough history of American democracy. For all that one might agree with him on some questions (abortion being the outstanding instance), Buchanan has recklessly and, it seems, gleefully been pushing hot buttons in our national life with all the exuberance of one who enjoys making mischief more than providing leadership toward a truly common American future. As Harvey Mansfield of Harvard recently observed in the Times Literary Supplement , however, most of us are oddly reluctant to admit that there is a close connection between democracy and demagoguery. The latter ( demos + agogos from agein ) means to lead the people, but one person’s democratic leadership is another’s exploitation of prejudice and faction. In trying to sort this all out in the months ahead, I expect we will all be put to an uncommon test of civility and common sense.
Contrary to Yeats, it sometimes seems to be a narrowing gyre that keeps circling in until it arrives at the point where it started. The Rev. James R. Adams directs a new “Center for Progressive Christianity” that is going to hold a national forum this June at the Episcopal Cathedral in Columbia, South Carolina. Against the conservative turn in religion and culture, Mr. Adams says that “Many people may be attracted to aspects of Christianity but also have respect for other religious traditions. They think how people treat each other is more important than what people say they believe. Churches today too often fail to provide a place where such people can be supported in exploring their deepest questions about life. Instead many churches peddle exclusive dogmas that cause divisions in society.” Deeds not creeds, questions not answers. And so, as Eliot didn’t say, they arrive where they started and know the place for the umpteenth time, survivors of a disappointing journey, huddling together to assure one another that, despite all, they have seen the future and it is liberal Christianity. (And, if the word Christianity threatens to “cause divisions,” that too can be negotiated.)
The Children’s Zoo in Central Park has been a beloved fixture for generations and is now being redesigned. The committee in charge announced that they would have to get rid of sculptures such as Noah’s Ark and Jonah’s Whale since they are religious, and the use of public funds for their renovation would be a violation of church and state. Now, according to the New York Times , Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern is stepping back a little. “He said Noah should not be viewed as a biblical character, which the [wildlife] society has called inappropriate for a public park, but as the first conservationist because he saved animals before the flood.”
On any given weekend, more than half of America’s teenage population is in church, significantly higher than the adult percentage. Gallup asked teenagers, How important is it that parents go to church with children and teens? Thirty-eight percent said it was very important that parents go with teens, and another 35 percent said it was somewhat important. Fifty-one percent said it is important they go with children twelve and under, and 33 percent said it was somewhat important. So about 55 percent of teenagers go to church each week, and about 75 percent of them think their parents should go too. I don’t know how much good news you can take at one sitting, but there are these other findings. While expressing tolerance of situations where single parents are raising children, teenagers have very traditional attitudes about their own future. Ninety-five percent of teenagers plan to marry, 93 percent plan to have children, only 19 percent think it likely they could have an illegitimate child some day, 80 percent think it is too easy to get a divorce, 70 percent think divorced people did not work hard enough at saving their marriages, and 65 percent think they will never be divorced. Interestingly, there is slight difference between teenagers who do and those who do not go to church, except that 72 percent of those who do attend think it unlikely they will ever be divorced, compared with 56 percent who do not attend. There are other questions one wishes Mr. Gallup might have asked, and of course these answers tell us nothing about what these kids will actually end up doing, but what they say they intend to do is, all in all, an encouragement.
Here’s a mailing inviting me to join the ACLU. Not to worry. It begins with highlighted quotes of Ralph Reed and Newt Gingrich, who apparently want to, among other horribles, revive the Inquisition and repeal the First Amendment. “But we must fight back now”before it’s too late,” exhorts executive director Ira Glasser. The mailing includes a flyer with glowing endorsements of the ACLU and its importance to American freedom. There are three such endorsements, one by John F. Kennedy, one by Adlai E. Stevenson, and one by Earl Warren. It would probably be unkind to tell Mr. Glasser that they are all dead.
Arriving in the mail is this attractive prospectus from the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. They do some good work, but I was struck by the motto on the prospectus cover: “Progress: The belief that Mankind has advanced in the past, is presently advancing, and will continue to advance through the foreseeable future.” O ye of great, and tragically misplaced, faith.
“When you consider the issues of the day, which of the following is most likely to influence your own views?” According to Gallup, only 7 percent of Americans check “Your own religious leaders.” Forty-two percent say “News media commentators and reporters,” while 30 percent opt for “Your family or friends.” David Frum has a nice term for those who are always saying that their views are “beyond” liberal and conservative, or that liberal and conservative are no longer useful categories. He calls them the “Beyondists.” The same Gallup poll provides slight support for Beyondism. Asked whether religious leaders have too much or too little influence on public opinion, 34 percent of self-identified liberals say too much and 21 percent say too little, while only 16 percent of conservatives say too much and 36 percent say too little. This poll, like many others, shows a strong correlation between those who say that religion is important in their lives and those who describe themselves as conservative. Just one more item: Asked whether the government or religious organizations should be more responsible for “providing assistance to the poor,” 74 percent of liberals and 39 percent of conservatives answer the government. And so it goes with question after question. It does seem, all in all, and the Beyondists notwithstanding, that Gilbert is still right in saying that nature does contrive “That every boy and every gal, That’s born into the world alive, Is either a little Liberal, Or else a little Conservative.”
In his presidential address to the Central Division of the American Philosophical Association, Philip L. Quinn of Notre Dame takes on the question of “Political Liberalisms and Their Exclusions of the Religious.” He goes on at length about “religion and the public square” without mentioning you-know-who, which bothers you-know-who only a little (see “He Who Steals My Words . . . ” January). Unlike conservatives, says Quinn, liberals affirm “the duty of civility.” Liberals who are religious are “in a position to argue for liberal laws and policies from religious premises and thereby show secular liberals that some religious people are their allies, and they would also be in a position to dispute the political agenda of the Religious Right on religious grounds. I am convinced that such a challenge would be good for the health of the American body politic.” Quinn also wants “to encourage religious citizens to refrain from advocating repeal of the Establishment Clause or trying to make the United States into a Christian nation,’ whatever hat might mean.” In addition, “I would make similar claims about other, less dramatic cases in which it is morally permissible but less than ideal for citizens to introduce their religious concerns into politics.” So religion in public life can serve the limited purpose of scoring a point against the awful “religious right” and of showing that religious people can be good liberals, too, but in general citizens should keep their religion to themselves. Word about the movement to repeal the Establishment Clause, which is apparently a big thing in South Bend, Indiana, has not yet reached New York or, as far as I know, Virginia Beach, Virginia. Once again, Notre Dame is ahead of the curve.
Some articles have a longer shelf life than others. Last August, Jerry Muller published “The Conservative Case for Abortion” in the New Republic , and it has established itself as a standard reference for political and economic conservatives who are unhappy with the pro-life movement. The article was a grave disappointment in this shop, since Muller, who teaches at Catholic University, is a gifted intellectual who had played a valuable part in some of our Institute’s programs. The article’s argument is that conservatives strongly support “the bourgeois family” and the bourgeois family depends upon the control of reproduction that contraception and abortion provide. Writing in a new magazine, Culture Wars , John J. Reilly indicates that he is not persuaded. Muller, he contends, is but a typical member of the “Overclass” that acknowledges no truth other than personal preference, and that is the very antithesis of anything that warrants the name conservative. Reilly writes: “Muller’s argument is really about the need for a eugenic contraceptive policy, one designed not to weed out bad genes, but bad culture. Abortion is regarded simply as another technique to that end. Overclass culture is capable of acknowledging that there may be some special ethical issues involved in the abortion question, but is quite without any mechanism for assessing the importance of one moral principle with respect to another. That is why it calls principles values,’ like quantities that can be added up and averaged out. There is therefore nothing bourgeois’ about the Overclass, if by bourgeois you mean the culture of people like the well-to-do Victorians. To the Overclass every virtue is a construct, subject to no scheme of value but their own will. People who think like this are not conservative,’ whether they are Overclass lawyers or illegal aliens. They do not and they will not create strong families, because they think that families are arbitrary constructs, defined according to personal convenience and dissoluble at their own considered whim. Having rejected traditional moral norms, they have no history to conserve, and they will make nothing worth keeping.”
The line between quackery and medicine has never been quite so bright as the professionals would have us believe, but it is necessary to keep trying to determine where it should be drawn. That is why in 1992 Congress directed the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to set up an Office of Alternative Medicine. The office has only $14 million out of an NIH budget of $11 billion, but that doesn’t stop conventional practitioners and scientists from complaining about the competition from “peddlers of snake oil remedies.” For instance, Robert L. Park and Ursula Goodenough, professors of physics and biology respectively, have a rant on the op-ed page of our parish newspaper against the respectability being given to the claims of “amazing health benefits from touch therapy, spiritual healing, and a dozen other remedies that were once the stuff of tabloids.” They allege that health maintenance organizations are willing to pay for alternative treatments “because they are far cheaper than traditional medicines.” They grudgingly admit that many people testify that they have been greatly helped by homeopathic and other techniques, but that is attributable to their gullibility and the well-known “placebo effect.” It is all too obvious, however, that Park and Goodenough, who think medical business as usual is good enough, are offended by the competition. They note that “About $13 billion per year is spent by Americans on alternative treatments, many of which have no scientific basis.” And they are offended by the challenge to their faith commitment: “Biomedical research (much of it financed by NIH) is on a spectacular roll, with important new insights emerging daily. These gains, however, can alienate those who want to believe that events are not determined solely by physical laws. There is nostalgia for a time when things seemed simpler and more natural.” The Parks and Goodenoughs are touchingly devout acolytes of scientistic orthodoxy and seem quite incapable of seeing that they have things exactly backward. What is really hard to believe, what reflects a nostalgia for a simpler time when reality was reduced to the model of laboratory experimentation, is the dogma that events are determined solely by physical laws. That was the little orthodoxy that was for so very long established by government funding, and it is not surprising that its devotees are having difficulties in adjusting to even a very modest measure of disestablishment. I have no doubt there are charlatans out there promoting all sorts of phony cures, some of which may actually be harmful. And I am personally grateful for traditional practitioners who cut a big cancerous tumor out of my gut a few years ago, a problem that I doubt would have been amenable to touch therapy. On the other hand, honest doctors will admit how little they know, how many medical problems are caused or exacerbated by traditional treatments, and how often they are dumbfo