The Public Square
We need not speculate about what may be down the slippery slope on which we find ourselves. The truly ominous changes are the stuff of our daily newspapers. These things are happening now. Consider the much discussed case of Nancy Cruzan. On December 15, 1990, the feeding tube was removed, and some expected that she would die in time for Christmas. The statements from the Hemlock Society and sundry death with dignity lobbies made clear that they were in a celebrative mood. They claimed a great victory. But many Americans wondered.
The Cruzan case went to the Supreme Court and back. Every mindless talk show in the country at least once chatted up the pros and cons of letting Nancy die. For eight years, following an automobile accident. Miss Cruzan was given food and fluid through a tube. She was said to be, in the current jargon, in a persistent vegetative state (PVS). An obviously caring family long insisted that It is time to let Nancy go. She was not dead by any current medical measure. She was not brain dead, nor had the vital signs ceased. When she finally died, there were sighs of relief.
Those who had taken care of Nancy Cruzan over the years had a different reaction to the removing of the tube. Nurse Sharon Orr said, The Humane Society won’t let you starve your dog. They don’t starve death row inmates. Another nurse said it would have been easier to handle the situation if Miss Cruzan had been killed with a lethal injection. I’m not saying that that’s a good option, she added, but it would be more humane than the suffering she’ll have to go through. Nurse Orr protested the claim that Miss Cruzan was in a vegetative state. Do carrots cry? Nancy has tears. Another nurse, Debbie Schnake: We had Nancy long enough that she’s almost like a member of our family. She tearfully described a relationship of day-in, day-out touching and loving given daily here by every shift.
Dr. Donald Lamkinds, the director of the Missouri medical center where Nancy died, observed, There’s two kinds of law here: our legal laws”those are society’s laws”and moral law. Moral law is God’s law; it comes from religion. Man’s laws said it’s all right, but that doesn’t change the moral law. Dr. James Davis, the one who actually withdrew the tube, acknowledged that the hospital staff was hurt and angry, feeling that all their caring of Miss Cruzan over the years had been judged senseless and misguided. Davis said he was sure he had done the right thing, but he was not sleeping well at nights. I had a dream last night that I went back into her room and she was sitting up, talking to her mother, he said. He added, But that turns out to be a nightmare.
Breaking with Norms
Who won and who lost in the Cruzan case? Was it a civilized step toward death with dignity, or a brutal turn, cloaked in the rhetoric of compassion, toward ridding ourselves of the burdensome among us? Certainly it was a radical turn from long-established moral principle. The official directives for Catholic health facilities declare: The directly intended termination of any patient’s life, even at his own request, is always morally wrong. There is nothing peculiarly Catholic in that claim. In Western medicine, that principle has been in place since Hippocrates in the fifth century B.C. It has often been violated, also in modern times”massively so under Nazism and Communism”but civilized people have adhered to it in principle. No longer. What the Missouri court ordered and what Dr. Davis did was directly intended to terminate the life of Nancy Cruzan. There is also no blinking the fact that they intended to kill her by starvation and dehydration.
We are told that death by starvation is particularly ugly. Even with heavy sedation, the body commonly goes into terrible spasms and the face becomes grotesquely disfigured. It takes a long time to starve to death. As the nurse said, why not something quick, like a lethal injection? Once we have directly intended to terminate a life, one might argue that there would be no moral difference in doing it neatly and, presumably, painlessly. There would be this difference: we could not conceal from ourselves what we are doing. There could be no more talk about letting people die. With lethal injections, it would be obvious that we are in the business of killing people. By starving Nancy Cruzan to death, however, are we not already in the killing business? We can debate whether we are right or wrong in doing this. We can go around the track once more on all the arguments about right to life and right to death. But nobody should deny that we are, in fact, killing people.
The stark realities are obfuscated, sometimes deliberately, by much talk about prolonging death by the imposition of new medical technologies. Nancy Cruzan was not dying, except in the sense that all of us are daily closer to death. It was unanimously acknowledged that she might have lived another ten years or more. Nor was she heavily burdened with medical technology. Surrounded by caring nurses, she received food and fluid through a tube. It was artificial, to be sure, but far from an extraordinary or high technology treatment. It is artificial to provide food to a helpless person by lifting a spoon to his mouth. That is not the normal way human beings receive sustenance. At what point does something artificial become an extraordinary means? The drift today, encouraged by ever so permissive medical ethicists, is to erase the distinction between ordinary and extraordinary means altogether. Any care, including the provision of food and fluid, is deemed an extraordinary means. At least in cases where it is judged that a life is not worth living.
It is noted that Miss Cruzan might have lived another ten years or more. Lived? comes back the incredulous response. What kind of life would that be? And how cruel to impose the burden of that lingering existence’ upon her loving family! One can understand the concern and compassion in that response. But now we are into the thick of the matter. Adopt a quality of life index by which some lives are determined to be not worth living, and join that to the permission to directly intend to kill. Agree, further, that starving people to death is clumsy, unseemly, and cruel. With those pieces in place, are we not now ready to take our hypodermic needles and lethal doses and get serious about the killing business?
At the risk of entering upon a heavily mined field, we must ask whether we can speak about lives not worth living without remembering the phrase, lebensunwertes Leben ? It means in German, lives unworthy of life. It was used by the Nazis to justify the directly intended killing of the burdensome. Yes, I know that none of us are Nazis, and this is not Germany in the 1930s. This is America, and we are motivated by kindness and compassion. It cannot happen here. We would never do that kind of thing. But leave motivations and our putatively superior virtue aside for a moment. What if, just what if, we are, in fact, doing not only that kind of thing but that very thing? The question is not intentions. The question is the thing itself.
In hospital wards and nursing homes across the country, there are thousands upon thousands of patients who are, by the criteria applied to Nancy Cruzan, lebensunwertes Leben. They are, as her undoubtedly loving family said of her, already dead. We are not really killing them, we tell ourselves. We are simply helping them to be what they already are”dead. But, it is objected, witnesses testified that she herself would not want to live under the circumstances of these last eight years. Perhaps so, although the court testimony was indecisive. We can well imagine a vibrant woman in her twenties saying, If I were ever in a situation where I couldn’t do anything for myself and was a great burden to others, I wouldn’t want to go on living. Such a person might even have gone on to say, If I am ever in that situation, I hope somebody will kill me.
We don’t know for certain that Nancy Cruzan said those things, but she might have. The Supreme Court decision in the Cruzan case indicated that there is a right to refuse medical treatment (food and fluid presumably being defined as medical treatment). The current state of law and medical ethics is redefining choice to include choices made for us by others. Substitute judgments and proxy judgments by the family will be enough. Those who know the patient best can determine that they would not want to live under such circumstances, and therefore it is legally determined that he or she does not want to live. More precisely, it is determined by substituted judgment that he or she has chosen to be killed.
The older ethic did not forbid the withdrawal of feeding tubes under every circumstance. The tube could be removed when death was imminent, or when its presence might be counter-indicated, i.e., when it exacerbated an existing condition or created seriously threatening side effects. What was forbidden is the direct intention to kill. What was forbidden is what was done to Nancy Cruzan and will now, almost certainly, be done to many others. In the past, there were gray areas; that was understood. It was understood that civilization rests in large part upon ambiguities. But now we have it in lethal black and white. License has been given to kill those whom the living consider to be no better than dead.
In response to Nancy Cruzan’s death, the two Americas (which have aptly been called the America of rights and laws vs. the America of rights and wrongs) found expression in two prestige editorial voices. The lead editorial in the New York Times was titled, The Accomplishment of Nancy Cruzan. The point was that her being allowed to die with dignity was her contribution to a more rational approach to death and dying. Albeit expressed in a thoroughly secularized manner, the suggestion was that her death was redemptive. Her suffering and death were not pointless; she has made it possible for other people to end their suffering by death. I am damn proud of her, said Nancy Cruzan’s father. The Times warmly agreed that he should be.
The message of the Wall Street Journal was elegiac rather than celebrative in an editorial titled simply Nancy Cruzan, R.I.P Acknowledging that the plight of the hopelessly ill raises difficult questions of morality and conscience, the editors were uneasy. There was a time when gray areas of ambiguity were respected, when questions about treatment or non-treatment would be resolved by a family, its doctor, and its clergyman. However the matter was resolved, life would go on for that family, as it would for other families as they passed through these periods of seemingly unbearable distress. But no more.
Resorting to the Courts
Among the many troubling aspects of the Cruzan case is precisely that it was so publicized, and the suffering of the family so exploited in order to advance a political and legal change. In America now, the Journal observes, nothing is allowed to be merely personal. Instead, it is a matter of policy’ that simply must be debated’ at great length in public, no matter how grotesque or obscene the spectacle of conducting such business around the bent form of a woman in a vegetative state. People have little tolerance for areas where discretion, prudence, and conscience rule. What they want is a law or a judgment. They want a judge to use his authority to posit a right, and settle’ the debate. When the Cruzan case came before the Supreme Court, Justice Scalia warned that the Court will destroy itself if it continues to take up controversies wherever human irrationality and oppression may theoretically occur. The editors offer this corollary: This society will damage its civil cohesion if it insists on making judges arbiters of disputes that should be matters mainly of morality mediated by conscience. That there are not social institutions that are trusted to be guides for conscientious action is, in the editors’ view, largely the result of the default of the churches and other agencies of religion.
[Religious leaders] essentially decided during the past twenty years that people could fend for themselves on matters of personal morality while the churches joined the struggle’ to establish social rights’ whose imprimatur comes from the courts, America’s unique bishopric. More than three centuries ago, when dealing with death was more a part of everyday life, John Donne asked: What is so intricate, so entangling as death? Who ever got out of a winding sheet? The Journal concludes: Nancy Cruzan, entangled eight years in publicity, is now in peace. As a society we somehow have to rediscover what we already know as individuals and families”that death’s intricacies are beyond the grasp of codes or judges.
It certainly does not hold for all the differences of editorial bias between the Times and the Journal, but, in this instance, the former is the voice of rights and laws, the latter of rights and wrongs. I have not quoted the Times’ editorial at length because the viewpoint is so familiar, clearly dominating in the media. The Journal’s is the countercultural viewpoint”that there are some things on which we should not have clear policy, that there are some issues that simply cannot be settled by law. Expanding on that viewpoint, one might argue that there are many dimensions of life that simply do not lend themselves to policies or court decisions. In these spheres we must rely upon culture and morality”upon principles being in place, and upon habits and institutions that nurture the conscientious observance of such principles. In short, we must rely upon virtues. The objection is raised that, in the absence of virtues, we must rely upon policies and court orders. But what if reliance on policies and court orders actively undermines virtue? What if, as I believe is true in the present case, policies and court orders invite the doing of that which virtue would inhibit, even if it cannot always effectively prohibit?
An Ominous New License
To speak, as we have, about our being in the killing business will strike some readers as altogether too harsh. We are in the business of alleviating suffering, of permitting people to die with dignity. Such are the euphemisms by which we disguise the deed. The old expression, mercy killing, had the merit of appealing to good intention (mercy) while candidly denoting the deed (killing). In the long, complex history of our civilization’s pondering questions of life and death, the law and moral sentiment allowed killing in two circumstances: the waging of a just war, and the retributive justice of capital punishment in the instance of murder.
Now, so suddenly, we are opening up a vast new sphere of license. Note that the two established exceptions against killing did not involve innocent lives. The combatant in war, unlike the noncombatant, is not considered to be an innocent, and those executed are first found guilty of murder. The vegetables in our hospitals and nursing homes are guilty of nothing. They are simply in a very bad way not of their choosing. But the thought insinuates itself that they are guilty of being a burden to others. It is passing strange that the same people who describe ours as a society driven by selfishness and greed are, at the same time, so insouciant about giving people permission to kill others whom they find burdensome. When it comes to terminating the lives of others, the selfish and greedy will presumably act in selfless devotion to the well-being of others.
Underlying this shift is also an obsession with youth and health that doesn’t know what to do with suffering other than to get rid of it. Suffering and fragility that we cannot fix is an affront to our need to be in control. There was once respect for suffering nobly borne. Biblical spirituality inculcated the idea of suffering as redemptive, and invited a response of altruistic caring from others. Such patterns of thought are now utterly alien to the dominant attitudes in our society, including the attitudes of the great majority who profess to be believing Christians and Jews. The idea of redemptive suffering, if indeed it is ever raised, is dismissed as romantic, even a rationalization for cruelty.
There is nothing worse than suffering, it is now believed. Suffering is a surd, a meaningless and threatening intrusion upon the way we choose to order our lives. The only rational response to it is to eliminate it. Far from being romantic, the older attitude toward suffering was relentlessly realistic, recognizing that each of us is radically dependent upon a conspiracy of caring to shelter one another in time of direst need. Now we call it kindness to put others out of their misery, denying even to ourselves that the misery we cannot bear is the burden that they are to us. The us is the living, the healthy, the strong, who want to get on with our lives, who want to live our lives as we want to live our lives before our time comes to die. Maybe, we say in our innermost heart, science will come up with the answers that will delay death indefinitely. What we tell ourselves is a more rational and humane approach to suffering is, as Ernest Becker tried to teach us, driven by the denial of death. Half suspecting that that is the case, people throw themselves more desperately into their private little immortality projects. Unable to bear the reality of death, we refuse to bear with the dying.
It is not likely that the angels of death will anytime soon spread out through our hospitals and nursing homes to go about their mission of mercy on a systematic and massive scale. For one thing, there are too many nurses like Sharon Orr and Debbie Schnake who persist in believing that their patients are persons. For another, doctors do not want the idea to get around that when they come to visit one cannot be sure whether they come to care or to kill. Not systematically and massively but selectively patients will be killed. Patients who have loving families will be first. Nancy Cruzan would be alive today were it not for her family whose love made her such an emotional burden to them. If they had not cared so much, she would not have been killed. She was, as it were, killed by love.
There are many thousands of Americans who love grandma or grandpa or their elderly wives or husbands too much to allow them to go on lingering in their pitiful state. Now that directly intended killing is permitted, a way can be found to do the merciful deed. At present, a court order is required. But judges are compassionate. And, if it is done in the absence of a court, ours is a forgiving society, especially since it has now been determined that there is no wrong to forgive.
Nancy Cruzan failed to die by Christmas Day. The death watch did not end until she was pronounced dead at 3 A.M. on the morning of December 26, 1990. And now, for the rest of us, the death watch begins.
Eastern Europe and the Swedish Model
Under the editorship of Lewis Lapham, Harper’s magazine generally evidences an attitude toward religion that is embarrassingly vulgar in its snootiness. One welcomes, therefore, a recent article there by Leon Wieseltier, who is literary editor of The New Republic. Wieseltier is contemplating the revival of nationalism and religion in the post-Communist world, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. Some of what he says is very wise, and much is woefully wrongheaded.
Anyone with eyes to see is struck by the vibrancy of religion and nationalism in countries where brutally oppressive regimes promoted for decades official atheism and the universalistic myths of Marxism. Wieseltier correctly says that religion and nationalism are by no means unmixed blessings, and that some mixtures of religion and nationalism can be a curse. His concern is about more than anti-Semitism when he writes: I believe that nationalism and religion bring out the worst in each other; that the closer they come to each other, the more dangerous and less defensible they each become; that what is most precious in nationalism is not its resemblance to faith and what is most precious in religion is not its service to the group. The separation of nationalism and religion is not merely an analytical duty. It is also an ethical one.
Yes, but. Wieseltier must surely know that the separation of nationalism and religion is not in the cards. It is the combination of the two, constituting what is called cultural identity, that provoked his reflection in the first place. To wish for their separation is wishful thinking, and it may be a very misguided wish. Wieseltier is right about the great dangers of nationalism becoming a faith, and of religion that is captive to nationalistic passions. The alternative is not separation (which is impossible in any case) but a determinedly modest politics that checks nationalistic propensities, powerfully aided by religion that has the integrity to proclaim that the Lord of the nations transcends every particularity. In this way are nationalistic excesses most effectively restrained.
Wieseltier continues: Both nationalism and religion are expressions of the certainty, historical and spiritual, that we have not created ourselves, that we have sources, and that those sources have something to do with the meaning of our lives. It is one of the most beautiful ironies of the recent emancipations in the East that people have expressed their right to self-determination by insisting that we are, nationally and religiously, already determined. The last sentence is magnificent and bears reading twice. That the drive for self-determination is based upon the knowledge of being determined is a fine irony indeed. Nonetheless, does Mr. Wieseltier really want to say that nationalism, like religion, provides meaning for our lives? Is not that the very nationalism-as-faith that he rightly says must be avoided? Again, it is a matter of getting religion and nationalism in proper priority. Religion provides a transcendent meaning system by which all other meanings, including national identity, are kept in check.
Wieseltier goes on to treat the troubled relationship between religion and democracy, a relationship that he says is more troubled than that between nationalism and democracy. He does not deny that, notably in America, religion has been a friend of democracy. Nor does he want to blame religion for all the nasty things people have done to one another in history. Atrocities have been committed in the name of God and by the godless, by mullahs and by commissars, to defend faiths and to destroy them. That said, however, Wieseltier is especially worried by the religion factor. And yet it is a central feature of every religion based on a revelation that it believes itself to be in the exclusive possession of the truth. No amount of tolerance within a religious tradition can diminish the centrality of this feeling of exclusiveness. And this feeling of exclusiveness is the undemocratic feeling par excellence. The problem with religion, says Wieseltier, is that it deals in absolutes.
What are we to make of this? One wonders what religions Mr. Wieseltier has in mind. Among religions based on a revelation, Christians and Jews are emphatic in saying that they do not have exclusive possession of the truth. (Islam in the modern period has had less occasion to articulate itself in relation to other religions, but the case is made by some learned Muslims that in this respect it does not differ from Judaism and Christianity.) Some ill-informed Jews and Christians might say that they are in exclusive possession of the truth, but it is heresy. For Jews, the Noahide laws apply to everyone, and they are true. For Christians, concepts of reason, natural law, orders of creation, and civil virtues are true for all humankind. Note that the universal truths affirmed by religion are precisely those truths that are most pertinent to the right ordering of the civitas, including the right order of democracy.
Mr. Wieseltier falls into confusion when he stumbles over the word absolute. It is a word that does not sit well with the modern mind. Having a very modern mind, Wieseltier goes on this way: I think that religion should be banished from politics whether or not it is true or false, because a democratic politics is based not on truth but on justice. In a democratic society, the nonbeliever must let belief alone and the believer must inhibit the political dimensions of his belief. The atheist must expand and the theist must contract. Now he has gotten himself into a terrible muddle. Perhaps a few items can be clarified.
Religion, Pluralism, and Democracy
Mr. Wieseltier would seem to believe absolutely in democracy. The faithful Christian or Jew has difficulties with that, if it means that only one kind of regime is compatible with the will of God. But the biblical believer is committed to aspects of what Wieseltier, and perhaps most of us, would call democracy. For instance, pluralism and respect for others of a different religion (never implying, of course, some kind of equal status between conflicting religious truth claims). Religious freedom, including pluralism, is itself grounded in religion. Why, for example, do we not kill one another over our disagreements about the will of God? The answer is that we do not kill one another over our disagreements about the will of God because we know it is the will of God that we not do so. This is a truth. It is a truth grounded in religion. It is an absolute truth that protects us from the dangers of absolutism. To be sure, in the course of history many believers have violated that truth. It is also the case that the understanding of the political, and specifically democratic, implications of that truth has developed slowly.
But that understanding has also developed surely. Consider, for instance, the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) of the Second Vatican Council. This is not a grudging statement of toleration but a declaration”a theologically argued declaration”of the moral imperative of respect for diversity and disagreement. This is not a compromise of Catholic teaching but a hold assertion of Catholic orthodoxy. This document is worth mentioning in particular because it is a statement that is formally authoritative for the 900 million-plus people in the world who are Roman Catholics. Comparable statements have been produced by other churches. This does not mean that Catholics and others have not or will not in the future act against the religious freedom of others. It does mean that, when they do so, they are acting against what they affirm to be true.
Justice as Truth
But Mr. Wieseltier says that democratic politics is based not on truth but on justice. What a truly astonishing statement, especially in view of the fact that he later suggests that he is a Kantian. Kant”like Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas, Calvin, Locke, or Madison”would have been quite astonished by the divorce between truth and justice. Justice is the truth most pertinent to the ordering of public life. Justice divorced from truth becomes a question of whose justice, and invites a Hobbesian war of all against all. Justice is then no more than a pretext for the will to power. In sharpest contrast to Mr. Wieseltier’s divorce of truth and justice, at least some friends of freedom begin with the proposition, We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .
Are we paying too much attention to Mr. Wieseltier? No, not at all. He is an influential and thoughtful person, and his way of thinking about religion and public life holds broad sway among our cultural elites. He has yet other points to make that require attention. It is sometimes argued, he writes, that religion is necessary for politics because religion is the source of morality. This is often a cynical argument, made by people who believe in religion but not in God. Indeed, and such people may well be on their way to hell, which is very sad. But Mr. Wieseltier does not mean to challenge only their bad faith, he means to challenge the premise: In any case, religion is not the source of morality; it is a source of morality. It has often been a source of immorality, too. For the purpose of social peace, Kant will do just fine; and nothing that transpired at Auschwitz or Kolyma makes Kant look bad.
Again, there is truth in that, but it is so confusedly mixed with untruths and half-truths. As we have already noted, any sensible person must stipulate that religion has often been a source of immorality. It must further be stipulated that there are moral people”at least in terms of the virtues appropriate to the temporal realm”who do not draw their morality from sources ostensibly religious in nature. So far the truth in Mr. Wieseltier’s assertion. He rather carelessly overlooks the fact, however, that the overwhelming majority of Americans (from 85 to 95 percent, according to stable data) do say that religion is the source of morality. That is, asked what is the source of morality, they give explicitly or implicitly religious answers”i.e., the Ten Commandments, the Bible, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, Moses, or the teachings of their church.
Whatever one thinks of the cogency of these answers, they have everything to do with the America that represents the kind of democratic pluralism that Wieseltier favors. Equally important, the connection between religion and morality has everything to do with the situation in the newly liberated countries that is the subject of Mr. Wieseltier’s reflection. Again, it seems that he has come upon what he thinks is a problem”the perdurance and pervasiveness of religion”and wants us to join him in trying to wish it away.
And what are we to make of the last sentence quoted? For the purpose of social peace, Kant will do just fine; and nothing that transpired at Auschwitz or Kolyma makes Kant look had. Several responses are in order. First, Mr. Wieseltier has earlier made it clear that he is not a champion simply of social peace. After all, there is a kind of social peace imposed by dictatorships. He is in favor, as we are in favor, of a robustly democratic society. Second, he suggests that Auschwitz and Kolyma are instances of religion as a source of immorality. The case can be made that Nazism and Marxist-Leninism were in fact false religions, but both made it unmistakably clear that they were the declared enemies of biblical religion. Third, while we admittedly have not read Mr. Wieseltier’s philosophical works, we cannot imagine what this has to do with Kant not looking bad.
Mr. Wieseltier seems to believe that liberal democracy”and he appears to have the American experiment in mind”is somehow based upon Kant. (And a Kant who separates truth from justice at that.) In our recent history, the most influential quasi-Kantian effort to establish a moral basis for democracy is John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. Unlike Kant, Rawls dispenses with the question of what we can know for sure, and, unlike Locke, he proposes a social contract that does not require knowledge of nature, of how the world really is. Whatever one thinks of Rawls’ recondite and demanding theory, it is probable that no more than a few thousand people have read it with care, and most of them are not in agreement as to what it means. Indeed Mr. Rawls has been prominent among the revisionists of his theory.
A Kantian Civic Catechism?
Yet Mr. Wieseltier suggests that, with the theists out of the way and the atheists in charge, democracy can he secured on a Kantian foundation. Maybe Rawls is beside the point. Maybe, despite Kant’s devotion to truth, Wieseltier would go hack to the source and make The Critique of Practical Reason the civic catechism from which hundreds of millions of Americans, Poles, Czechs, Slavs, and Russians would derive their understanding of democratic morality. He surely knows that that is highly improbable. What we have here is a proposal that a small handful of learned people, presumably including Mr. Wieseltier, will serve as the custodians of the moral theory and sources of democratic governance. Aside from being implausible, that hardly seems very democratic. It is, however, the kind of confusion into which one falls when one is determined to exclude the actual sources of democratic morality from public life.
Wieseltier and others are properly concerned about the explosive mix of nationalism and religion in Eastern Europe. National and ethnic rivalries, commonly joined to religious rivalries, may well keep that part of the world in turmoil for some time, and the turmoil will likely be violent on occasion. Religion as a tempering force, and as a source of moral legitimation for democratic pluralism, has had little opportunity to develop in these countries. Ethnic, national, and religious grievances go hack centuries. The terrible years of totalitarian rule precluded the nurturing of religious ecumenism as we have known it in the West. For tragically obvious reasons, there has been nothing like our Jewish-Christian dialogue. In short, religion is very much part of the explosive package of pent-up resentments in these countries so long oppressed.
Those of Mr. Wieseltier’s mindset believe, with little benefit from logic or historical evidence, that democracy can he secured on a thoroughly secular foundation. They would simply wish the religion factor away, or at least wish it away from the public arena. That is as realistic as religious sentimentalists who urge that people set aside nationalism and ethnicity in order to practice the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God. Dynamics such as religion, ethnicity, and nationalism cannot be wished away. They can be turned into the paths of peace and democracy. Historical experience and clear thinking indicate that, in that turning, the key dynamic is religion.
But Mr. Wieseltier will not likely be persuaded any time soon. Nor will many others in our cultural elite who are devoted to public secularism. To his credit, Mr. Wieseltier recognizes that the critical questions in Eastern Europe are cultural”how people contrive to articulate the meaning of their lives. As people do not live by bread alone, so democracy will not be created or revived simply by the turn to market economies, as important as that turn undoubtedly is. Nor will it happen, as some fatuously claim, by importing Western notions of the rule of law. Market economies and constitutional schemes for democratic governance are necessary, but, as Wieseltier correctly notes, the critical forces in self-determination are those realities external to the self by which people believe they are determined.
In the economic sphere, Eastern Europeans are emphatically rejecting the semi-socialism of the Swedish model. The Swedish model continues to have a powerful grip on the minds of Western intellectuals. The Swedish model has to do with culture as well as economics. A declining Sweden is also the most thoroughly secularized society in the world. With respect to religion and public life, Leon Wieseltier and his like are proposing to Eastern Europe the Swedish model with respect to religion and public life. That too, we expect, will be emphatically rejected.
The eyes of those who have recently come out from under totalitarian rule are set on another model. That model is an experiment so conceived and so dedicated on the basis of truths held to be self-evidently in accord with Nature and Nature’s God. The American experiment is inseparable from a religiously grounded morality that produced a polity that not only tolerates but requires the vibrant exercise of religion in public life. It has not been easy to sustain that experiment here. It will likely he much more difficult for most of the nations of Eastern Europe. But for those who aspire to democracy, there is no real-world alternative.
Singing the Song of Myself
With this we will likely offend a few readers (a rare occurrence). One can anticipate the letters from people who say how much they have been helped by John E. Bradshaw. Almost every skilled charlatan has a trick or two that the credulous will find helpful. Bradshaw is the psycho-spiritual evangelist of The Inner Child, and one of the hottest properties on the lecture-video-book-television circuit that caters to the masses exercising their discontents on an excess of leisure.
In auditoriums across the country, Bradshaw draws thousands who are eager to he told that they are quite wonderful. PBS recently televised a series of what are declared to be his uplifting and inspirational presentations. Those prepared to pay the fee are also admitted to small therapy groups in which they are induced into discovering the thoroughly admirable selves that they once were, and can be again. Successful sessions end in tear-filled mutual clutchings as participants carry on about how they never knew that they could love themselves so much.
Bradshaw’s message is simple to the point of embarrassment. There is an Inner Child trapped within you. This is the Wonder Child, but also the Wounded Child. He has been wounded by others”usually by parents or other adults many years ago”and that is why you are discontented with your life. All you have to do is go hack in memory and find that child (the most wonderful child you can imagine) and take him in your arms and feel his hurt and work through the anger he has toward all the people who wounded him. Then, with the Wonder Child, you walk away from those people, saying goodbye to them once and for all, thus freeing yourself from the bonds of the past.
This is the going home therapy, designed to help one leave home for good and thus, presumably, become an adult. During the procedure, the audience, with eyes closed, is aided by, of course, the Going Home theme of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Bradshaw announces himself as exceedingly well educated and within a few minutes of his pitch packs in classy references to Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Freud, Kafka, Wordsworth, and other worthies. (Kierkegaard, Bradshaw says, teaches us that I came into this world for ME!) The gospel according to Bradshaw is nothing if not tailored to please. The usual word is pandering. You are wonderful! You are unique! Be you! And, If you have something you call God, give him or her thanks for being you!
John Bradshaw was for ten years a Roman Catholic priest. He talks about it a lot. He stopped being a priest when he realized that he was playing the role of the caretaker and star in people’s lives. People depended on him to take care of their problems, and he was the star at the gathering of the worshiping community. I didn’t want to be an adult child all my life, says Bradshaw. Good luck. It is very difficult to imagine that, as a priest, he was ever the caretaker, indeed master manipulator, of the psyches of the masses that he is now. And as for being a star, no parish could offer the superstar celebritydom that he now so obviously relishes. Not to put too fine a point on it, this man appears to he ego tripping in a manner remarkable chiefly for its unabashed vulgarity. And yet there are thousands upon thousands who say they have been enormously helped by him.
There is no great secret to the marketing success of schlock as gross as this. Get together a group of insecure and frequently troubled people and tell them in a sustained and rhetorically persuasive way that they are creative, unique, loving, gentle, caring, insightful, and all the other things that they, and perhaps others, have told themselves that they are not, and chances are that they will lap it up. The Bradshaw phenomenon is nothing new. He is in a long line of feel-good, self-esteem, positive thinking, possibility thinking spirituality in American life. This is what Christopher Lasch called the culture of narcissism in its most concentrated form. It is feeling good about feeling good about myself, and learning the techniques to systematically exclude from consciousness anything that might disrupt that good feeling.
What makes the phenomenon worthy of comment is that a good deal of popular religion is not that different from what Bradshaw and his like do. Were the truth to be told, there are many clergy who do what Bradshaw does, except they cannot do it so effectively. This does not mean that they are all charlatans or that they are insincere. On the contrary, alas. They somewhere got the idea that self acceptance is the Christian gospel. Many of them got it from Paul Tillich’s classic text, You Are Accepted. One can entertain many questions about Tillich’s theology, but there is no doubt that Tillich’s message was that you are accepted by God. That is the opposite of self acceptance. Tillich’s point was that despite yourself”your inadequacies, insecurities, and, yes, sins”God in Christ has accepted you, and therefore you can accept yourself.
There is no despite in the message of Bradshaw and his like. Rather, he declares, I love me because I am so eminently lovable! There is no need for all that business about sin, forgiveness, and the cross because there is nothing to forgive. It is only those who wounded your Wounded Wonder Child who gave you the false idea that there is anything wrong with your wonderful Self. It isn’t said, but the message is clear: the only thing wrong about yourself is to think there is something wrong about yourself. It takes little imagination to understand the burden of guilt that that lays on people. When they feel bad about feeling bad about themselves, however. Dr. Feelgood has no absolution to offer. He is prepared, however, to sell you a ticket to another session in which you, if you will but submit to the master, can be induced to believe, once again, that you’re wonderful. You can feel as wonderful about yourself as I feel about myself, be exuberantly declares. Father Bradshaw offered God’s forgiveness; Doctor Bradshaw sells the fix of his own ebullient example.
The feelgood phenomenon is important because it is evidence of a deep corruption in popular religion. It alerts us to view with some skepticism the polling data that tell us how religious the American people are. Such data are critically important to understanding American life, but those who care about the integrity of religion should always he asking themselves what religion it is that many Americans are so religious about. The shoddy material peddled by Bradshaw and others is not simply un-Christian, it is anti-Christian. Put differently, it is spiritualized and psychologized atheism. Others might prefer to say that it is idolatry, since the only god recognized is the god of The Self. Again, this is nothing new. It is deeply entrenched in American popular culture. A century ago Walt Whitman declared, I celebrate myself and sing myself,/ And what I assume you shall assume. I did it my way, croons Mr. Sinatra.
Listen to John E. Bradshaw and you hear America singing. Not all of America, to he sure, but a very large part of America. And not just the great unwashed of mass culture. PBS, after all, is educational television. It is controlled by the elite who mint and market the ideas embraced by those of cultivated taste and insight. The John Bradshaw Show is the Masterpiece Theatre of their spiritual lives. Broadcasting it poses no problems about the separation of church and state, for who can raise a legal challenge to the message that the true visible church on earth is You. Compared with the Bradshaw genre, it might he argued that the likes of Pat Robertson and Jimmy Swaggart are intellectually sophisticated. They will not be broadcast by PBS any time soon, however, for, whatever one thinks of their theology, they make cognitive claims that are at least worth arguing about.
With Bradshaw, on the other hand, once you have accepted the proposition that you are the most wonderful thing in the whole wide world, there is nothing to think or argue about. The only problem is when you begin to doubt the proposition. But then you have the videos at hand and can listen and be persuaded all over again. Bradshaw is representative of the vaunted new spiritualities with which American culture is awash. It is the kind of spirituality that assures that religion will he kept at safe remove from public life. It is the radical privatizing, subjectivizing, and infantilizing of the life of the spirit.
There may be something to that business about the Inner Child, after all. It is not the child that He said we must all become in order to enter the kingdom of God. It is, rather, the child to which a confused culture regresses, defiantly declaring that there is nothing to fear or to revere other than Me. Of course it is very sick, and the remedy chosen is the sickness itself. Much worse, it is not true. The even deeper problem of a therapeutic society is the inability to understand that its not being true is much worse than its being sick.
While We’re at It
We’re beginning to like this Herbert Mitgang fellow. He is a daily book reviewer for our local paper, the Times, and he makes no attempt to disguise his prejudices. A while back we mentioned his review of a novel that he readily acknowledged was literary trash. It was about a cabal of anti-abortionists taking over the country and forcing women hack into the hack alleys, and so forth. In sum, it was agitprop, but Mitgang relished it because, he left no doubt, he agrees with the direction of the prop. Now he reviews Culture in an Age of Money, edited by Nicolaus Mills. It is unabashed Reagan-bashing, and Mitgang does not attempt to deny that this too is agitprop. Says he: What makes Culture in an Age of Money’ fun to read”at least for people who were not enamored of Mr. Reagan”is its refreshing candor. Most of the essays are unanimous in their belief that the Reagan era was a triumph of flackery, vulgarity, and mediocrity. The book’s Schadenfreude can bring a consoling pleasure to readers in sympathy with its theme. Most reviewers, no matter how prejudiced, make some effort to appear impartial. There is something refreshing about a reviewer who waxes enthusiastic about what he admits are bad hooks because their prejudices are also his.
The Ford Foundation is looking for someone to direct a program in human rights and democratic governance. The letter of inquiry includes an extensive description of The Ideal Candidate. He/ she should he a good communicator, effective organizer, and so forth. Then this: A person with strong values, but not a fixed point of view or a predetermined agenda. What is needed, it seems, is someone with strong convictions about nothing in particular. Which puts us in mind of a joke (of sorts) heard the other day. Q: What do you get if you cross a Jehovah’s Witness and a Unitarian? A: Somebody who goes around knocking on doors with nothing particular in mind.
Editorials on the Cruzan case: New York Times, December 27, 1990; Wall Street Journal, December 28, 1990. Leon Wieseltier’s Propositions for a Post-communist World in Harper’s, December 1990. Herbert Mitgang in the New York Times, December 5, 1990.