The Public Square
The beginnings of this reflection appeared on the First Things website. Permit me a word on that. A recent survey of our readers indicates that relatively few also check the website on a regular basis. I cannot say that I’m surprised. We’re probably still in the opening chapter of what the digital revolution will produce in the next decade or so, but it already seems evident that, as a general rule, the Internet appeals to a different kind of reader. On the basis of what numerous subscribers to the magazine have told me, I envision readers receiving the new issue, sitting back in their favorite easy chair, adjusting the light, and spending several hours devouring that month’s offerings. We know that our subscribers are voracious readers of books and serious magazines.
It has to be very different with people who spend their time trolling the blogosphere. I usually check out a few sites each day, trying to keep it to no more than half an hour, although there are items of interest that sometimes take longer. (Time is saved by cutting back on attention to our parish newspaper.) One gets the impression that those who spend many hours on the Internet are different. They want to know the latest thing, who is saying what about what and whom. I don’t say this censoriously. Avoid the flood of pornography and YouTube narcissism and surfing the Web can be a relatively innocent activity. But it does seem there are so much better things to do with one’s time, as, for instance, in reading good books and serious magazines.
Yet the cliché is true: The Internet is here to stay. And if you’re in the business of communications, you have to be there. First Things has had an active and very successful website for several years, and we’re planning on expanding our digital presence in the months ahead. The site is visited by many thousands of people each day, and one cannot help but think that that is not without effect. But the heart of our mission is the magazine, and I trust that will be ever the case.
Referring to this section, The Public Square, Andrew Sullivan, a major figure on the Internet, once remarked that I am the original blogger. He meant it as a compliment, I think, but that’s not the way I think of what I do here. To be sure, there is some chitchat, frequently in a humorous vein, but the aim is to provide a survey of developments, ideas, periodicals, and books that I think might be of interest to serious readers. From time to time, I’ll post a shorter item on the website and then address it more fully in this space. That is the case with this reflection, Lives Lived Greatly.
April is the cruellest month, wrote Eliot. I don’t know about that, but this April was a time of remembering, and of gratitude. April 2 was the third anniversary of the death, on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday, of John Paul the Great. On April 4, forty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. This year, that was also the date of the memorial Mass for William F. Buckley Jr. And on April 9, 1945, just days before the end of the war, the martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged on the direct orders of Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s writings and witness were a formative influence in my life, as in the lives of innumerable others. I regularly recommend his Cost of Discipleship to those prepared to consider what Dorothy Day, following Dostoevsky, called the harsh and dreadful love of the Christian way.
On April 2, I celebrated and preached the Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, recalling the death of John Paul II. There was a large congregation of young people, mostly in their twenties. They are often called the John Paul II generation, and here in New York and around the country they are reason for great hope for the future. John Paul’s last words were Let me go to the house of the Father. To live life greatly is to live it as an adventure of faith on the way to the Father.
That Friday, April 4, also at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, I concelebrated the memorial Mass for William F. Buckley Jr. In last month’s issue, I offered my remembrance of my friend Bill Buckley, who, one might argue, was the most influential of forthrightly Catholic laymen in the past half century. Edward Cardinal Egan was scheduled to preside but said he had a meeting. Father George Rutler took things in hand, with his usual liturgical and homiletical aplomb. There were two brief eulogies, one by Bill’s son, Christopher, and the other by Henry Kissinger. Kissinger was manifestly moved in relating his exchanges with Bill about faith and reason, and he concluded by observing that Bill’s was a life touched by the grace of God. To which one sensed the congregation that filled the cathedral to capacity and beyond silently saying amen.
A Prophet, Nonetheless
And then there was the killing of Dr. King on April 4 in that apocalyptic year of 1968. For all the horror and heartbreak of those times, there were sustained moments in which one thought with Wordsworth, Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive / But to be young was very heaven . For those of us who were there, it is not easy to recognize that, had he lived, Dr. King would now be seventy-nine years old. Not to mention that John F. Kennedy, killed in 1963, would be ninety-one, and Robert, also killed in 1968, eighty-three. But the memories still break out of amber and renew the luster of a liberalism that was.
One has no choice but to risk the use of the much-abused term prophetic in describing King’s historic role in addressing what Barack Obama and many others have called, politically speaking, America’s original sin of slavery, along with its aftermath. I am in a distinct minority in believing that the best single book for getting an honest feel for Dr. King and the movement he led is Ralph Abernathy’s When the Walls Came Tumbling Down .
Nobody was closer to Dr. King than Ralph Abernathy, who had recruited the young preacher to lead the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956. His book, published in 1989, was much criticized at the time and has long been out of print. The ostensible reason for the criticism is that he gave a candid account of King’s inveterate womanizing. That was not news. J. Edgar Hoover’s use of tapes of King’s multiple trysts had been given prominent attention in the national media. In 1970, John Williams published The King God Didn’t Save , with sordid depictions of King’s sexual indulgences. I wrote a sharply critical critique of Williams in the New York Review of Books. In retrospect, I am somewhat embarrassed by that review. It was, in part, an exercise in damage control. Also, I didn’t want to believe this seamy side of Dr. King’s life, or at least I didn’t want to believe that it was quite so seamy.
I believe that the real reason for the savaging of Ralph Abernathy’s book was that his account of King and the movement he led was an embarrassment to those who were using that legacy for their own ideological purposes. Numerous books have been written depicting King as an apostle of Gandhian nonviolence or, alternatively, as a quasi-Marxist revolutionary. In these versions, and especially in the latter, the soaring sentiments of the I Have a Dream speech at the 1963 March on Washington are treated as the American soft soap that he employed to sell his cause to the general public and to disguise his more radical purposes. That claim is voiced to this day also on the fringes of certain right-wing circles.
As Abernathy tells it”and I believe he is right”he and King were first of all Christians, then Southerners, and then blacks living under an oppressive segregationist regime. King of course came from the black bourgeoisie of Atlanta, in which his father, Daddy King, had succeeded in establishing himself as a fixture of the establishment. Abernathy came from much more modest circumstances, but he was proud of his heritage and, as he writes, wanted mainly that whites would address his father as Mr. Abernathy. He and Martin loved the South and envisioned its coming into its own once the evil of segregation had been expunged.
Years later, Abernathy writes, after the civil rights movement had peaked and I had taken over [after Martin’s death] as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he met with Governor George Wallace. Governor Wallace, by then restricted to a wheelchair after having been paralyzed by a would-be assassin’s bullet, shook hands with me and welcomed me to the State of Alabama. I smiled, realizing that he had forgotten all about Montgomery and Birmingham, and particularly Selma. This is not my first visit,’ I said. I was born in Alabama”in Marengo County.’ Good,’ said Governor Wallace, then welcome back.’ I really believe he meant it. In his later years he had become one of the greatest friends the blacks had ever had in Montgomery. Where once he had stood in the doorway and barred federal marshals from entering, he now made certain that our people were first in line for jobs, new schools, and other benefits of state government. Abernathy concludes, It was a time for reconciliations.
Others who claimed the mantle of Dr. King were in no mood for reconciliation, and are not to this day. When making his birthday a national holiday was being discussed, a black preacher friend remarked to me, Well, if we can’t have Malcolm or Huey, we might as well settle for Martin. The reference, of course, was to Malcolm X, originally of the Nation of Islam, and Huey Newton, the latter being the founder of the Black Panther Party in 1966 who was killed in a dispute over a cocaine deal in 1989. They were figures much more to the liking of those who construed the civil rights movement not as the rectification of a great injustice but as the precursor to a revolutionary new order.
Then, and still today, there are some for whom Dr. King was not black enough. That note was sounded already in the mid-1960s with the rise of the black power movement. Now-forgotten figures such as Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture) derided King as De Lawd. White radicals, and radicalized liberals of the political class, cheered them on as they declared that King’s day was past. King was accustomed to receiving death threats from whites, but now he was receiving death threats from blacks who accused him of being an Uncle Tom. When Dr. King was killed in 1968, many on the left said privately, and some said publicly, that it was just as well, since he had outlived his time.
A National Dialogue
And now, forty years later, these arguments are being revisited. On March 18, in Philadelphia, Barack Obama delivered his much-discussed speech on race in America. Whether or not he is the Democratic nominee, which is not decided as of this writing, the speech will likely be an important point of reference for a long time. It was an appeal for understanding. To understand all is to forgive all. That is a beguiling French adage, although of doubtful truth. Senator Barack Obama, we are told, has invited America to engage in a national dialogue about race.
Obama’s Philadelphia speech was, of course, in response to the furor generated by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s preaching. Beyond the obvious purpose of damage control, it was a thoughtful reflection on questions that continue to vex our public life. It is said that Obama spent two days in isolation writing the text, and I believe it. Is there any other national politician today capable of offering in public such a candid and personal reflection on an issue of such great moment? None comes readily to mind.
Obama’s critics have not been inhibited in pointing out gaps, inconsistencies, and even contradictions in the speech, and all three are there to be derided. Yet I expect that many, if not most, conservatives experience a measure of ambivalence. They think that, all things being equal, it would be a fine thing to have a black American as president. Not because they want a dialogue on race but because they want to get beyond tedious and rancorous disputes about race, and a black as president would put a stake through the heart of liberal guilt-mongering about this putatively racist society.
Of course, all things are never equal. In the speech, Obama once again invoked the boilerplate leftisms of class warfare and the grievances of what he depicts as a nation, black and white, of seething resentments. Without using the phrase, he calls for a new war on poverty and for massively increased spending on urban public schools, even though such spending has multiplied in recent decades to no discernible effect. In the speech, he did not mention abortion, the single most polarizing question in our public life, but his promise is to move us beyond our divisions by taking a position so extreme that he refuses to support even the born alive legislation that would protect the lives of infants who survive the abortion procedure. His call for reconciliation, however rhetorically appealing, is more believably a call for capitulation by those who disagree.
Watching the Philadelphia speech on C-SPAN, one noticed that the usually exuberant Obama crowd offered only occasional and tepid applause, except at the familiar populist passages excoriating our exploitation by the rich and powerful. The audience seemed uneasy about his decision to put race front-stage center in his campaign. But this is obviously something he thought he had to do, if only to return the subject to the wings. He condemned the incendiary words of his pastor, but other questions went unaddressed, while yet others were skewed in a way that almost guarantees continuing misunderstandings.
The great offense is not in the Rev. Wright’s God damn America. Biblical prophets called down the judgment of God on their people. But they invoked such judgment in order to call the people to repentance. They spoke so harshly because they had such a high and loving estimate of a divine election betrayed. The Rev. Wright”in starkest contrast to, for instance, Martin Luther King Jr.”was not calling for America to live up to its high promise. He was pronouncing God’s judgment on a nation whose original and actual sins of racism are beyond compassion, repentance, or forgiveness. He apparently relishes the prospect of America’s damnation.
And he does so for reasons that are, not to put too fine a point on it, simply crazy. For instance, the claim that the government unleashed the HIV virus in order to exterminate people of color. The question inevitably asked is why Senator Obama, for twenty years, attentively listened to, generously supported, and submitted his children to the ministrations of a man who espoused such odious and bizarre views. To ask the question is not to deny that, as the senator emphasized, the Rev. Wright also did and said many good things. That a peddler of hate and vile slanders is not without virtues is quite beside the point.
Perhaps the single most telling statement in the Philadelphia speech is this: I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. The most reasonable interpretation of that statement, maybe the only reasonable interpretation, is that the Rev. Wright represents the black community. This ignores
the great majority of blacks in America, who are in the working and middle classes and participate fully in the opportunities and responsibilities of the American experience.
A Very High Price
The senator lends his prestige to the claim promoted by sundry race hustlers that Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Clarence Thomas, and Bill Cosby, along with millions of other black Americans, are not black enough to be part of the black community. One can understand why a Harvard Law School graduate born in Hawaii with a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas would, for political and perhaps personal reasons, seek the street credentials of having roots in a militantly black sector of the intensely race-conscious city of Chicago. But complicity in the explicit slander of America and the implicit slander of most blacks in America is a very high price to pay for a ticket of admission to the black community.
In his speech, Obama reminded us that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week in America. He might have done something about that by joining one of the racially integrated churches in his New Hyde Park neighborhood. But of course that would not have given him the black street creds that he needed for political, and perhaps personal, reasons. In saying he could not disown the black community represented by the Rev. Wright and his church, Obama, however inadvertently, invited his supporters to join in giving new respectability to old stereotypes. The message was and is: This is how those black folk are. Get used to it.
John McWhorter of the Manhattan Institute is an uncommonly wise and candid, even courageous, black writer on matters racial. But he, too, succumbed to the spell cast by Senator Obama. Americans, he wrote, must understand that when blacks cheer the Rev. Wright and his like, They hear a stirring articulation of rebellion listenable according to a sense that fealty to one’s race entails at least a gestural nod to sticking a finger in whitey’s eye now and then. The tone, the music of the statements, is more vivid than the content. Sermons like this are Sunday morning’s version of gangsta rap.
Sure, gangsta rap celebrates unbounded violence, drugs, and the raping of young women. But, we are told, black folk love it. And they don’t really mean it, not really. In cheering the outrageous statements of the Rev. Wright and his like, McWhorter writes, they weren’t listening to them as logic, but as atmosphere. He concludes: I, for one, am still ready for a black president. I wonder if the rest of America is. I’m afraid that a very large part of America is all too ready to accept this stereotype of blacks and is therefore not ready for this black American to be president.
Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times takes a similar line. Yes, you may think it’s crazy to say that the AIDS virus is a government plot to kill black people. That may be an absurd view in white circles, writes Kristof, but a 1990 survey found that 30 percent of African Americans believed this was at least plausible. Absurdity and plausibility, we are given to understand, are racially determined. On the AIDS conspiracy, he quotes a black social scientist at Princeton who says: That’s a real standard belief. One of the things fascinating to me watching these responses to Jeremiah Wright is that white Americans find his beliefs so fringe or so extreme. Whether or not the survey is right, one notes that it also indicates that 60 percent of blacks think the AIDS claim is implausible. There are data suggesting that 30 percent of Americans hold strange views on many things. For instance, that the 1969 moon walk was staged in a studio. With respect to white Americans or Americans in general, we do not describe that view as a real standard belief.
Yet Kristof writes: Much of the time, blacks have a pretty good sense of what whites think, but whites are oblivious to common black perspectives . . . . All of this demonstrates that a national dialogue on race is painful, awkward, and essential. He invites us to believe that those oblivious whites are, however lamentably bigoted and dimwitted, teachable. Although it will be painful and awkward, they, too, can be helped to understand that the idea that the government unleashed the AIDS epidemic in order to kill black people is not so absurd after all.
Conceding to him the best of intentions, Senator Obama inadvertently launched, and some of his supporters have backed, an exercise in the demeaning of black America that could have lasting impact. It’s true that white people have spent decades learning the protocols of respect, sensitivity, and fair-mindedness in dealing with race. But you expect black folk to reciprocate by acting white? The argument that people, because they are black, should be given a pass to indulge in what McWhorter calls crazy stuff is an instance of what George W. Bush has called the soft bigotry of lowered expectations.
I don’t know what all this means for the presidential election. Maureen Dowd of the Times wrote some while back that the choice between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama depends on whether Americans feel more guilty about their sexism or their racism. It seems now that Obama will be the Democratic nominee. Most Americans, one is inclined to think, do not feel guilty about either sexism or racism, and are thoroughly tired of being incessantly nattered about both. In any event, Senator Obama’s remarkable reflection on race in America was much on my mind as we observed the fortieth anniversary of Dr. King’s death.
Admittedly, the question of black identity is maddeningly complicated. In an extraordinary new book, The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Harvard), Jonathan Rieder details the different cultures and subcultures to which Dr. King tailored his message with striking success. He could, in turn, be raucous, smooth, erudite, eloquent, vulgar, and even salacious. This does not mean he was a chameleon or a hypocrite. Rather, says Rieder, he had an uncommon ability to glide in and out of black, white, and other idioms and identities in an elaborate dance of empathy. He adds, The constant for King lay beyond language, beyond performance, beyond race. The core of the man was the power of his faith, his love of humanity, and an irrepressible resolve to free black people, and other people too. From his actions on the public stage and from our times together, that is how I remember Dr. King.
Forty years later and the argument is by no means settled whether Martin Luther King Jr. was black enough to be part of the black community. That in no way detracts from his greatness. As long as the American experiment continues, people will listen and be inspired by his I Have a Dream, and will read and be instructed by his Letter from Birmingham Jail , and will once again believe that, black and white together, We shall overcome.
Those were extraordinary April days. John Paul the Great, William F. Buckley, Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They were days of sorrow and gratitude. I count it a gift beyond measure to have known three of them as friends. Each was great, albeit in very different ways. The life of each awakens us to the possibilities of life lived greatly. While We’re At It
As with Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman , attention must be paid. Or maybe not. Not much attention is paid these days to the United Church of Christ (UCC), and so it is understandable that its leaders thought it worth putting out $120,000 for a full-page ad in the New York Times taking advantage of the brou-haha over Senator Obama’s spiritual mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose church is the largest in the denomination. We are a church of open ideas, extravagant welcome and evangelical courage, the ad declares. Claiming the heritage of the Mayflower colonists, the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and the earliest abolitionists, the UCC asserts, Our story is this nation’s story. Well, yes and no. It is true that Congregationalism was a big part of American history, but that was a very long time ago. Unlike the nation’s story, the UCC story is one of precipitous decline by every measure of vitality. As recently as 1967, the UCC claimed 2.1 million members and is down to 1.2 million mainly elderly white ladies today. (Yes, Congregationalist women do tend to be ladies.) It is not surprising that a church that is more than 90 percent white and feeling guilty about it would embrace the Rev. Wright and his flock as evidence of its open ideas and evangelical courage. Denominations that are almost totally white launch from time to time bold programs to increase their minority membership so that it matches the level of blacks and others in the general population. Why there is a moral imperative to mirror the general population is not explained. Nor is it explained why black churches should give up millions of members so that liberal Protestants can feel better about themselves by being inclusive. But, as I say, the UCC has to get what attention as it can. A while back, they ran national television ads about their inclusiveness, contrasting themselves with churches where others are supposedly not welcome. The ad depicted blacks and gays being tossed out by ejection seats attached to the pews in those bad churches. In the UCC, on the other hand, people have for decades been walking away on their own, or, more commonly, carried out in a final farewell. Apparently the ejection-seat ad didn’t work all that well, so the people in marketing decided on a more positive approach: the prophetic ministry of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Willy Loman was always on the edge of finding the winning formula.
The teaching that God became man so that man might participate in the life of God”or, in its more daring form, that man might become God”is associated with Orthodox Christianity, although there are deep and constant variations on the theme in the Catholic tradition. The teaching is referred to as theosis or deification . And yes, Mormons also have what appears to be a version of the idea, but their concept of God is, to put it delicately, quite different to begin with. The interesting thing is that theosis is getting serious attention from evangelical Protestant theologians, as is evident in, for example, the publication by Baker of Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions, edited by Michael Christensen and Jeffery Wittung . It is a scholarly book and includes essays also by Orthodox and Catholic theologians, suggesting that this is a stream of a shared Christian tradition that might have a significant bearing on the quest for Christian unity in the years ahead.
n I have argued on several occasions that it is not helpful to describe radical Islam as Islamofascism. That imposes a Western ideological construct”fascism”on an indigenous, however wrongheaded, Islamic teaching. The more accurate term, I have suggested, is Jihadism , which refers to the doctrine that it is the duty of Muslims to force the world’s submission to Allah by any means necessary. It is gratifying to see that commentators and reporters are increasingly speaking of Jihadism. To those Muslims who object that by jihad they mean peaceful spiritual struggle, one need only assure them that they are not the people who pose a problem. And yet there is one connection in which Islamofascism is the right term. That connection is chillingly detailed in a new book from Random House by David Dalin and John Rothman: Icon of Evil: Hitler’s Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam . The general outline of the story appeared in this magazine in an essay by David Dalin published in the August/September 2005 issue. In 1921, the British appointed Haj Amin al-Husseini the mufti, or judge of Muslim law, in Jerusalem. Forced out in 1937, he went to Germany, where Hitler made him an honorary Aryan, and he conspired to become the Nazi leader of the Middle East. As Dalin and Rothman demonstrate, Al-Husseini’s example and writings are today a source of perverse inspiration for Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and other Jihadists set on the destruction of Israel and America. Icon of Evil makes for an engrossing and instructive read.
In a Christian Century interview, Nicholas Wolterstorff, longtime professor of philosophical theology at Yale, says: I don’t agree, then, with the view of many political theorists that when making up our minds about political issues or debating them in public, we have to appeal to some body of principles that we all accept, or would all accept if we did things right. I don’t believe that there is any such body of principles. It’s not that we Americans disagree about everything. But we don’t agree about enough things to settle our basic political issues by reference to a body of agreed-on principles. He acknowledges that it is prudent when trying to persuade people who do not share your religious principles to use reasons they do find persuasive. Disagreeing with the critics of liberal democracy, he declares, I regard liberal democracy as a pearl of great price. Such an order, he says, is based on a belief in natural rights, and that belief, in turn, has its source in biblical religion. There is also an understanding that the state does not represent a community with a shared vision of God and the good. The American polity is, instead, an association of such communities, and this is at the heart of the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. Each such community pursues its vision of the political virtues of justice and the common good. Limited government, respect for natural rights, and accountability to the people lead him to the conclusion that liberal democracy has a very thick moral basis. One need not agree with Nicholas Wolterstorff’s politics”for instance, his position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict”to welcome his commitment to the liberal-democratic project that makes possible the engagement of disagreements, including disagreements over the merits of the liberal-democratic project.
The taxpayers of California are paying for a multibillion-dollar Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which specializes in embryonic stem cell research and other cutting-edge technology of the brave new world. Alan Trounson heads up the project and says in an interview that he was at first very uncomfortable about dissecting human embryos. But then, on a trip to Naples, he talked with members of a Vatican university [who] persuaded me that if I felt what I was doing was designed to address some problem of human misery, then it was acceptable. He means well, so that’s all right then. Too bad about the very little human beings, but you have to look at the big picture. Says Trounson: In a big-picture sense, I want to be up on the mountain looking down on the Serengeti, watching all the animals move through. You may remember Orson Welles in The Third Man, standing at the top of the ferris wheel, watching all the people moving through the square below, and explaining why this is the perspective in which to judge his dealing in diluted penicillin. When you’re doing bad things to little people, keeping the big picture in mind is a moral comfort.
This is also on stem cells, and is offered with apologies for spoiling your fun if you really like the junk food produced by Robert’s American Gourmet. Robert’s got in trouble when they had to recall Pirate’s Booty, advertised as a low-fat snack until it was pointed out that they had misplaced a few decimal points in the nutritional claims on the package. Then they had to recall Veggie Booty when it was brought to their attention that salmonella is not a health-food ingredient. Robert Ehrlich, founder of the company, says, This is a small brand that will try anything. Apparently so. Now Ehrlich thinks they’ve found their next big thing with 50-Gram Stem Cell Chips, which will come in packaging that educates snackers on the merits of stem cell research. Given the company’s safety record, it might be a public service to make Robert’s the official junk food at Alan Trounson’s institute. Shame on you for even thinking of it.
Although, shortly after his election, Pope Benedict had Father Hans Küng over for dinner, he has been critical of Küng’s work over the years. Not nearly so harshly critical, however, as Küng has been of him and his work. More specifically, Cardinal Ratzinger expressed considered skepticism about Küng’s project aimed at developing a global ethic ( Weltethos ), which strikes Ratzinger as a kind of moral and philosophical syncretism that ignores crucial differences between cultures and religions. Ratzinger is all for working toward a global ethic, however, and shortly before he became pope he asked several Catholic universities to convene meetings toward that end. Catholic University in Washington, D.C., took him up on that and at the end of March hosted a big three-day conference on A Common Morality for the Global Age. Readers will be familiar with some of the star presenters: Stanley Hauerwas, Michael Sandel, Gilbert Meilaender, Robert George, Hadley Arkes, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Robert Louis Wilken, and on and on. It was a high-octane program, and many very good things were said. Participants complained, however, that the presenters were just that, presenters. They reached into their barrels, extracted lectures on themes for which they are famous, did their shticks, and then flew out as quickly as they flew in. Very high-quality shticks, you may be sure, but not the process of serious deliberation”with exchanges between the speakers, as well as with those who came to learn”that Cardinal Ratzinger apparently had in mind. Nor did the thought of Ratzinger-Benedict on the stated subject get more than a few passing references. A Common Morality for the Global Age is a fine title, and perhaps the other universities, if they take it up, will contribute something more enduring to the project.
When it comes to patrolling the borders against heretics, Rome’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is a slacker compared with the inquisitors of contemporary science. Jonathan Hodgkin, an Oxford geneticist, raises the alarm about J. Scott Turner’s The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself (Harvard). Writing in the Times Literary Supplement , Hodgkin accuses Turner of believing that the physiological evidence indicates that there is an element of intentionality in the manner in which feedbacks account for the ways in which developing organs become well matched to the demands that are made on them. Hodgkin declares in tones most ominous: An orthodox Darwinian will have no truck with intentionality, but Turner devotes a whole chapter to it, describing it as the 800-pound gorilla sitting unacknowledged in the corner. He adds, If he wants to write this kind of book, he should be more explicit about his own religious beliefs. There you have it. Hodgkin does not accuse Turner of cooking the evidence or doing bad science. No, the charge is that he has violated the beliefs of orthodox Darwinians. To his credit, in a manner of speaking, Hodgkin is quite explicit about his own religious belief, namely, orthodox Darwinism.
One has to wonder about people who travel the world looking for troubles. Is there not enough heartbreak near to home? But there are such people, and among them is Benjamin Skinner, author of A Crime So Monstrous: Face to Face with Modern-Day Slavery , just published by Free Press. But is slavery the right term for what Skinner reports? If one means by it people who are forced to work under onerous conditions without pay, without rights, and with no prospect of release, the term slavery would seem to fit. If one means people who are, quite literally, bought and sold, as are the children called restaveks in Haiti or women in some Muslim countries, the term slavery is unavoidable. It is estimated that there are twenty-seven million slaves in the world today, give or take a few million. Skinner has met and, in some cases, lived with many of them in Haiti, Sudan, India, and elsewhere. In India, millions work in quarries and other sites of intensive labor and are in debt bondage. A grandfather may have borrowed as little as one dollar sixty years ago, and the accumulated interest, calculated by ruthless masters, keeps succeeding generations in slavery with no end in sight. These are mainly dalits , or untouchables, consigned by Hindu teaching to the lowest caste. Much of the book is given to sex trafficking, especially in postcommunist Eastern Europe and Asia but with the intimate complicity of Western nations, with particular attention to the buying and selling of children for sex. Skinner gives due credit to George W. Bush as the first president to make combating these forms of slavery a matter of American policy and is thoroughly admiring of John Miller, whom Bush appointed to implement the policy. Those indefatigable champions of human rights, Congressmen Chris Smith and Frank Wolf, are also fittingly acknowledged. The author is more ambivalent about Michael Horowitz, a Jewish activist who was instrumental in getting evangelicals involved, first in the cause of persecuted Christians and then in opposition to sex trafficking. Skinner is wary of connections with the religious right, although it is hard to see what other popular constituency can be politically mobilized for the cause about which he cares so passionately. When it comes to what should be done, the book limps toward an ending, with the author recommending, among other things, an end to global poverty and peace among nations. I do not presume to have better answers. It is not nothing that there are many thousands of people, typically in church-related missions, who are heroically trying to help the enslaved millions. And maybe the Indian government can be persuaded to do something about those in debt bondage. And maybe China will pressure Khartoum to cease and desist in Southern Sudan and Darfur. And maybe, and maybe. Can anything be done for and with Haiti? Except, that is, for a few brave people who year after year and one at a time try to help the poorest of the poor. Solutions aside, it is important, it is imperative, that there be books such as Benjamin Skinner’s A Crime So Monstrous . To remind us, lest we forget, of the lacrimae rerum . To give new urgency to our prayers. To generate greater generosity in support of the brave few who are working to alleviate the horror. And, just maybe, to find a few modest answers to the human greed, lust, and cruelty for which there is no final answer short of a new heaven and a new earth.
A fourth-century gravestone from Tharros in Sardinia lists the virtues of a Christian young man and includes a depiction of a sprightly racehorse with a chi-ro monogram”composed of the X and P , the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek”branded on its haunch. In 312, the year of his conversion, the emperor Constantine adopted the chi-ro monogram and put it on the standards and shields of his army. These are among the observations of Peter Brown, that student of antiquity and author of the indispensable Augustine of Hippo who is reviewing Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, an exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Along the way, he notes that the title of the exhibition is not quite right, since there was no agreed upon Bible in the first few centuries, but only scattered texts competing for admission to what would come to be called the scriptural canon. He also notes that, contrary to accepted notions, those texts, especially the gospels, were widely available to ordinary people in the form of the codex, made up of bound pages, which replaced the clumsy scroll. This was the revolution in communications technology of the time, ably described by Anthony Grafton and Megan Williams in their recent Christianity and the Transformation of the Book .
In the early centuries, Christian art was mainly related to gravesites and closely tied to family associations. (Christian and pagan family members were buried in the same sites.) In the fourth century, this changed. Brown writes: But the shift toward a public art is undeniable. In explaining this shift, it is, perhaps, too easy for modern writers to put all the blame on Constantine. Johannes Deckers feels that he must, somehow, apologize to his readers on behalf of the first Christian emperor. He even asks: Why did the unprecedented imperialization of the images of Christ . . . so contrary to the faith’s doctrines of peace and modesty”continue after the reign of Constantine?
Any Early Christian could have answered this question. They did not share our modern sentimentality about Christ as an unassuming teacher of brotherly love and non-violence.’ What was thrilling about Christ was that he was both that and something a lot more. He was God. He was the same God as the God of the Jews, a high God of more than imperial power. He might not yet have gained a face. But his power was there”greater than that of any other being in heaven or on earth. For this reason, we have the Hebrew phrase nessiyat kappayim for the raising of the hands,’ while modern scholars use the Latin orans to refer to the praying pose.’ This pose, which we meet so often in the catacombs, seems so strikingly, so endearingly Early Christian, that we forget the being to whom those hands were raised. They were raised to a God of utter power”to a God who, in His own time, had raised the dead and had more than once in the long history of the Jews destroyed entire empires and might do so again, if provoked. Far from imposing on a humble church an imperial grandiosity that was alien to its true nature, Constantine and his successors enjoyed the full support of Christians in seeking out a visual language for Christ that at last did justice to His imagined stupendous power. In late-Roman conditions, the humility of Christ did not come naturally, as it does to modern persons, nourished as we have been on centuries of tender imagery. It was a humility that had to be worked for, so as to make it stand out, even in an art of majesty. Thus, paradoxically, we find the most touching statements of Christ’s humanity not in the art of the pre-Constantinian church but later, toward the end of the fourth century, when the theological issues raised by the electrifying tension between Christ’s humanity and his divinity had begun to rock the churches. Through the ages the shifting accents on the humanity and divinity, the suffering servant and the Christus Victor have reflected cultural and theological emphases, with each influencing the other. In the fourth century, Christology rocked both the churches and the culture. In our time, multiple and frequently conflicting representations of Christ are on offer in the religious marketplace, to which the establishment culture is blandly indifferent. It is not self-evident that this is progress.
Steven Epstein reviews Helen Epstein (no relation) who has written a book, The Invisible Cure : Africa, the West, and the Fight against AIDS , in which she deplores any emphasis on abstinence. Sex education, condoms, and reproductive rights are the answer. Uganda has strongly emphasized abstinence and has seen a decline of 70 percent in the incidence of HIV. But Epstein”Helen, that is”is sure that has nothing to do with abstinence. Steven Epstein writes: While US law supposedly stands in the way of using Federal funds for evangelizing, Epstein reports that every abstinence event I attended involved much praying and discussion of Jesus.’ Sadly, it is precisely in Uganda, Epstein’s success story, where the tide appears to have turned in recent years, and where Epstein now encounters condom burnings in the name of Jesus. Reversing this alarming trend is now among the most crucial steps in supporting the work of Africans who struggle to solve the wrenching problem of AIDS. Condom burnings. The phrase is used in a way similar to book burnings”the desecration of something sacred. And in the name of Jesus yet! For a lucid and scholarly account of how AIDS is, in fact, effectively combated, see AIDS and the Churches: Getting the Story Right by Edward C. Green and Allison Herling Ruark, in the April issue of First Things .
Some readers complained that our review of Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth by Duke Divinity School’s Richard B. Hays was excessively critical. But Benedict himself invited criticism from readers, stipulating only that it be offered with goodwill, and Hays’ was surely appreciative and respectful. The same cannot be said of Luke Timothy Johnson’s review of the book in Modern Theology . The book does not reflect, writes Johnson, the generous impulses of the young Ratzinger but the anxious preoccupations of the Ratzinger who headed the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith. (He means the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.) The pope’s arguments provide the appearance of scholarship but lack any real substance. His treatment of the gospel writings is disconcerting because of its superficiality. It is, in short, a book that falls between the worlds of scholarship and devotion, contributing little of substance to either and noteworthy primarily because of the office held by its author. Would Doubleday have published and promoted the book as it did, or would hundreds of thousands of people have bought the book, if it were written, per impossible, by a newly minted Ph.D.? Certainly not. Thoughtful Catholics are intensely interested in what the pope thinks. Professor Johnson is utterly dismissive. He has already made public his rejection of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, asserting that, while the teaching is firmly grounded in Scripture and tradition, his own experience trumps such authorities. Professor Johnson teaches at Emory University and has made notable contributions in New Testament studies. His alienation from the teaching office of the Church, increasingly rancorous and spiteful in its expression, is cause for sadness.
When Robert Sloan was president of Baylor University, he tried to lure a distinguished academic by offering him the chance to create and control a magazine that would be an evangelical version of First Things . That didn’t work out, but now Robert Sloan is at Houston Baptist University, and here is volume 1, number 1, of what he apparently had in mind. The magazine is called The City (with a nod to Augustine’s City of God ), and you can get a free subscription at email@example.com. The first issue contains interesting material, including The End of the Stem Cell Wars by our own Ryan Anderson.
With the protests in Tibet raising questions about the international response to the Olympic games in China, new attention is focused on the Dalai Lama. A new book, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama by Iyer Pico, receives an extended review in the New Yorker . Pankaj Mishra writes, It is easy to regard the Dalai Lama as the plaything of movie stars and millionaires. He is in fact, Mishra writes, a formidable force, both politically and culturally and, some would add, religiously. But there is no doubt that he has also become a fashionable item on the global celebrity circuit. It was not always so. For many years, the State Department blocked his visiting the United States for fear that it would ruffle Chinese feathers, but Foggy Bottom finally relented in the summer of 1979. There was in this country a Free Tibet Committee, and it was eagerly making plans for the Dalai Lama’s first visit to America. The committee, composed of a handful of young Tibetans, had few friends here, and, perhaps because I had written sympathetically about the plight of Tibet, they came to see me. In our discussions, the question arose: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he could kick off his American tour with a service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral? I promised to look into the possibility and contacted my friend Monsignor James Rigney, who was then the rector of St. Pat’s. He thought it a great idea and said he would take it up with Terence Cardinal Cook. Within a matter of days the matter was arranged. Then Rome got wind of what was up. A Buddhist-Catholic service in St. Patrick’s? Alarms were raised about religious syncretism. Telegrams flew back and forth between New York and Rome. I was in charge of the order of service, trying to make sure that there would be nothing that violated Catholic doctrine. On the eve of his visit, the Dalai Lama had inconveniently observed that all religions were the same. The text to be delivered by the cardinal emphatically underscored that that is not the case, while allowing that there is common ground between religions. Rome was satisfied, more or less, and the service came off. The cathedral was packed that evening with devotees of Americanized versions of Buddhism and other Eastern spiritualities, as they are euphemistically called. Whiffs of pot floated like incense through the air, and the next morning’s New York Times had a big front-page picture with the Dalai Lama and a very uncomfortable Cardinal Cooke sitting in elegant chairs before the altar and holding hands. Cardinal Cooke was not a great hand-holder. Needless to say, the service was a great media success, and the Tibetans were very pleased with the beginning of what became the Dalai Lama’s celebrity tour of the country. Enter the movie stars and millionaires. Some years later, John Cardinal O’Connor asked me over to his residence to have breakfast with the Dalai Lama. We had a charming conversation for an hour or so, and then the Dalai Lama asked to speak with the cardinal in private. Returning some twenty minutes later, the cardinal told me, as I remember his words, that he was surprised to discover that the Dalai Lama is a very smart political cookie and, he added, speaks very fluent English in private, in sharp contrast to his public stumblings with the language. That was the last time I met the Dalai Lama. In his essay, Mishra suggests that he is trying to demythologize Tibetan Buddhism”by, for instance, denying that he is the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama”and bring it into line with a modern scientific worldview. Perhaps that is the case. In any event, he is now front-stage center in the geopolitical drama of China’s role in the world. And yes, I do have some regrets about having put the very gentle Cardinal Cooke in an awkward situation. But perhaps it was worth it to affirm common ground in the context of a clear articulation of Catholic differences.
Garry Wills got the goods on those right-wing Christians. His latest book is Head and Heart: American Christianities . Not to keep you in suspense: Mr. Wills is confident that he represents just the right mix of head and heart. Andrew Delbanco is professor of humanities at Columbia and reviews the book in the New York Review of Books . He agrees with Wills on the danger posed by the religious right, and then adds: But on the whole, American history is notable for the absence of pogroms and religious wars. Perhaps this is because Americans deflect their worst impulses into racial hatred or xenophobia”but, all things considered, the experiment in religious liberty started by the founders has worked remarkably well. Thank God, so to speak, for their hatred of blacks and foreigners, or there is no telling what those crazy religious types might have done.
How much more difficult it must be when these people start using the beliefs they don’t hold to prosecute the petty political quarrels that are, in fact, their primary passion. That’s Collin Levy in the Wall Street Journal , and it puts the matter nicely, the matter being student and faculty protests against an invitation to Attorney General Michael Mukasey to deliver the commencement address at Boston College. In response to the protests, the college had already decided not to award the Founder’s Medal to Mr. Mukasey, an honor routinely given to commencement speakers. Levy’s reference to the beliefs they don’t hold has to do with the Jesuit and Catholic tradition to which the protestors appeal in opposing Mukasey. They also protested Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s receiving an honorary degree in 2006, declaring that her approach to international affairs is in fundamental conflict with Boston College’s commitment to the values of the Catholic and Jesuit traditions. Mr. Mukasey’s offense is that he has declined to declare that waterboarding is illegal. It may well be that he is personally opposed but believes this is a question of law, not of his personal moral judgment. When it comes to abortion, a question on which Catholic teaching is emphatically clear, there was no protest at BC against personally opposed John Kerry’s speaking, not to mention personally-and-publicly-in-favor speakers such as Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America; Representative Ed Markey; and Senator Ted Kennedy. Mr. Levy is right: The appeal to beliefs that these politically partisan protestors do not hold is transparently dishonest and, well, gross.
I have already mentioned the study of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that indicates, inter alia, that millions of Catholics no longer identify themselves as Catholics. What has gone wrong? A Commonweal editorial suggests possible answers. It is the usual litany: the church’s authoritarian character, contested teachings about sexual morality, the refusal to even discuss ordaining married men or ordaining women to the diaconate, the sexual-abuse scandal, the absence of a role for the laity in selecting bishops, the need for greater institutional transparency, and so forth. The editorial, invoking 1 Peter 3, ends with this: The church in America must give a better account of the hope that is in us. It would be encouraging if it had said, The church in America, beginning with each of us , must give a better account of the hope that is in us (with or without italics). And even more encouraging if it indicated what that hope might be, apart from the usual liberal wish-list of doctrinal and institutional changes.
It has been almost sixty years since H. Richard Niebuhr published Christ and Culture , and of the writing of books about that book there is no end. The typology that Niebuhr proposed (Christ against culture, Christ transforming culture, etc.) is almost inexhaustibly suggestive and has received frequent discussion in these pages. Now D.A. Carson goes at it again in Christ and Culture Revisited (Eerdmans). He provides a fine overview and criticism of contemporary Protestant efforts to get the Christ-culture connections right, and one only wishes he had included modern Catholic social doctrine. But then that would have required at least doubling the 255 pages of his book. As for locating himself in these disputes, Carson identifies with the 1981 founding statement of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. As the author of that statement, I am hardly a disinterested party. It occurred to me that, through all the subsequent permutations of the religion and society discussions, there is nothing in the statement that I would retract and little I would change. Whether one should be heartened or discouraged by that is subject to debate. In any event, here is the crucial passage quoted by D.A. Carson: Jesus Christ is Lord. That is the first and final assertion Christians make about all of reality, including politics. Believers now assert by faith what one day will be manifest to the sight of all: every earthly sovereignty is subordinate to the sovereignty of Jesus Christ. The Church is the bearer of that claim. Because the Church is pledged to the Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus, it must maintain a critical distance from all the kingdoms of the world, whether actual or proposed. Christians betray their Lord if, in theory or practice, they equate the Kingdom of God with any political, social or economic order of this passing time. At best, such orders permit the proclamation of the gospel of the Kingdom and approximate, in small part, the freedom, peace, and justice for which we hope.
Of all the people writing on church-state relations today, few are as influential, and deservedly so, as Douglas Laycock, professor of law at the University of Michigan. Many years ago, he set out the case for understanding the Religion Clause of the First Amendment as prescribing state neutrality toward religion. Now, in a major article in the West Virginia Law Review , Substantive Neutrality Revisited, he surveys the ways in which his argument has been treated, and mistreated, in legal scholarship. Laycock makes a crucial distinction between formal neutrality and substantive neutrality. Formal neutrality means that the government does not take cognizance (James Madison) of religion qua religion, and substantive neutrality means that nobody is rewarded or penalized for their religious adherence or nonadherence. Others have suggested that it would be better to speak of categorical neutrality and incentive neutrality, and Laycock does not object to that amendment. Now, as it happens, I think the neutrality idea is too much influenced by Jefferson’s notion of the wall of separation, an idea thoroughly debunked by Philip Hamburger’s magnificent Separation of Church and State . But that’s an argument for another time. If one does go along with the claim that the First Amendment mandates neutrality, Laycock understands it in a manner that is robust in its defense of the free exercise of religion. For instance, he says this about the 2002 Supreme Court decision Zelman v. Simmons-Harris , which declared Cleveland’s school-voucher program to be constitutional: In terms of minimizing government interference with private religious choices, this is a huge improvement over the traditional public school monopoly. Traditionally, the states have said that here is five, eight, even ten thousand dollars a year that we will spend on your child’s education” if you choose a thoroughly secular education in a public school. You also have a constitutional right to choose a religious education, but if you choose that, you forfeit all this money. That threatened forfeiture vigorously discourages any parent inclined to choose the religious alternative; it creates a huge distortion of the constitutionally protected choice between religious and secular education. A program that offered the same state funding no matter what school a family chooses would be substantively neutral and would protect private choice in religious matters. Exactly right, it seems to me. I would only note in passing that in some places, Washington, D.C., for example, actual spending in government schools is closer to $25
,000 per student. Giving parents a voucher worth that kind of money, or even a substantial part of it, to place their children in a school of their choice would work a real and desperately needed revolution in education, providing incalculable benefits for the urban poor and a real challenge to government school systems, in which half the students drop out before finishing high school and most who do finish can barely read their diplomas.
Multiculturalism has its charms, and its limits. Saul Bellow is reported to have once said in an interview, Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? Bellow later denied that he ever said any such thing, claiming it was a journalistic invention. But others, if not Bellow, have no doubt thought it. Father Andrew Greeley got into trouble a while back when, in answer to a question from the audience about the historic significance of the explosive growth of Christianity in the Global South, he suggested that they got enthusiasm and rhythm but we in the North got the brains. I’m sure he didn’t put it quite that way, but that is how his critics construed it. The subject of multiculturalism is brought to mind by Philip Jenkins’ review of Martin Marty’s new book, The Christian World: A Global History (Modern Library). In these pages and elsewhere, Jenkins has rendered an inestimable service in alerting the world to the new shape of Christianity emerging in the Global South. In his review, he notes that, for most of its history, Christianity was tricontinental, being Europeanized only in the fourteenth century. He commends Marty for giving, along with his treatment of Christianity in Europe and its American extension, equal or more than equal attention to Africa and Asia. Jenkins writes: In a fair and balanced survey of Christian history, would the great revivals of the 18th century Atlantic world deserve more attention than the very comparable movements of 20th century Africa? Or is that a question that can only be answered by historians yet unborn? The answer to the second question is certainly yes. At the risk of being subjected to the criticism endured by Bellow and Greeley, however, I expect the answer to the first question is yes for the same reason. And for the same reason tha