The Public Square
It was rolled out at the National Press Club on May 7 with the usual bells and whistles of the public relations machinery. Whether it will survive its much less than fifteen minutes of the national news cycle is uncertain. Nonetheless, it deserves attention and possibly could become a lasting point of reference in discussions of religion, culture, and public life. It is titled An Evangelical Manifesto: A Declaration of Evangelical Identity and Public Commitment.
Alan Jacobs points out in the Wall Street Journal that it is not much of a manifesto. A genuine manifesto is sharp, punchy, and, ideally, short. This one is a long twenty-page reflection on confusions and ambiguities in what it means to be an evangelical Christian, laced with encomiums to fairness, moderation, and the virtue of civility. Sharp and punchy it is not. On the other hand, fairness and civility need all the friends they can get, and there is much to be said for moderation, although not necessarily with respect to those things about which we should be passionate.
The first half of the document addresses evangelical identity, insisting that evangelicalism should be defined by theology and not by culture or politics. As is utterly predictable, the news stories either put the theological part on the back burner or ignored it altogether. All the attention went to the second half, which deals with politics. Typical headlines for the inside-the-pages reports were: Evangelical leaders say their faith is too politicized (Associated Press), Manifesto aims to make evangelical’ a less political term ( USA Today ), and US evangelicals call for step back from politics (Reuters). More precisely, the manifesto calls for stepping back from the religious right and, more precisely yet, from the single issue politics of abortion and family concerns.
Ronald Sider and Jim Wallis are among the most leftward of prominent evangelicals and were understandably very pleased with the document. Wallis is a major figure in the Democratic party’s program of religious outreach and modestly depicts his own political preferences as God’s Politics in a book by that title. Speaking of what he hopes the manifesto will succeed in doing for evangelicals, Wallis says: Studies show that when you ask people what they think about Jesus, you get answers like compassionate, loving, caring, hung out with sinners and poor people, for peace. We have a serious image problem. People think that we should stand for the same things as Jesus did. So it’s time to change the image. One thing you can be sure Jesus would not stand for is voting Republican.
A few days after the issuing of the manifesto, Jim Wallis wrote on his website: Let me make a prediction. In the future, we will see new alliances and campaigns led by people of faith on a wide range of moral issues”such as poverty, the environment, pandemic diseases, torture, and human rights, and a much wider and deeper focus on the dignity and sanctity of life, including war and peace and even the death penalty along with unborn children”that will involve people of faith across the political spectrum and will shake up politics. The social movements that really change politics are precisely that”public engagement defined by religious and moral commitment that defies normal political categories. In this view, the main category to be defied is that of evangelicals with a priority commitment to the unborn and the integrity of marriage and family.
Alan Wolfe of Boston College, a prolific commentator on the religion-and-public-life scene and an assertively nonreligious partisan of conventional liberalism, puts the matter bluntly: American evangelicalism has been maturing for the past three or four decades. An Evangelical Manifesto enables everyone interested in politics and religion in the United States to see and evaluate the results. And those results tell us what we have been learning throughout the 2008 presidential campaign: the age of Karl Rove truly is over. Thus is a manifesto that, calling for the depoliticizing of religion, is taken politically captive.
Charter signers of the manifesto include about seventy more-and-less-prominent evangelicals, with many more signing on later. No evangelicals prominent in conservative political activity signed, and some of them pointedly noted that they had not been asked to sign. Not that they would have, of course. Of the twenty-five most influential evangelicals featured on that Time magazine cover a while back, only two are among the signers: Mark Noll, a historian at Notre Dame, and Luis Cortes, leader of Esperanza USA, a coalition of Hispanic churches. (Of course, Time is not necessarily the authority on evangelical leaders, since it included two Catholics among the twenty-five”Senator Rick Santorum and your scribe.)
Some evangelicals who did sign insist that they certainly did not intend to endorse the politics of Ronald Sider, never mind Jim Wallis. Rather, they recognize that evangelicalism is too much identified with partisan politics and they wanted to affirm the theological identity of evangelicalism addressed by the document. They point to the manifesto’s statement that the remedy for politicized religion is not to replace right-wing politics with left-wing politics. That seems eminently even-handed, but of course few associate evangelicalism with left-wing politics. With the help of those signers who genuinely want to depoliticize evangelicalism, those who make no secret of their desire to move evangelicalism toward the political left got what they wanted.
There is much to be said for the manifesto’s critique of culture wars and single-issue politics. Unless, of course, the culture really is under attack and the single issue is, for instance, the killing of millions of unborn children. How to address Christian political responsibility in our present circumstance is, to be sure, not a problem only for evangelicals. The Catholic bishops, for instance, regularly speak to the problem, recognizing that many legitimate concerns enter into our decisions about voting and political support.
However inadequate their statements may be on some scores, the bishops do make crucial distinctions between the defense of innocent human life and a laundry list of other causes”economic, environmental, educational, foreign policy, etc., etc. Backed by the unambiguous teaching of the Church, the bishops stress the preeminence of the life issues, affirming that they may well justify single-issue voting, and insist that support for a pro-abortion candidate, despite his being pro-abortion, requires a reason morally proportionate to the aforementioned killing of the unborn. In these respects, An Evangelical Manifesto, with its tone of defensiveness and anxiety about the public image of evangelicalism, is very different and very disappointing.
There is much in the manifesto with which I have every reason to agree. It speaks of the need for a civil public square rather than a sacred or naked public square, of how Christians must sometimes be against the world for the world, and of ways to deal with the deepest differences that make most difference. Indeed, the signature tropes of this magazine and its editor in chief are so prominent that several observers, including Americans United for the Separation of Church and State”no friend of either evangelicals or Catholics”claim to detect the hand of Father Neuhaus in the writing of the manifesto. Be sure that I had nothing to do with it. The chief drafter of the document was Os Guinness, a prominent evangelical writer who has over the years been generous in his appropriation of these phrases and ideas, although sometimes turning them to ends not originally intended.
The theological section of the manifesto should not go unremarked. As Alan Jacobs observes, it largely reiterates the Lausanne Covenant, which emerged from a 1974 meeting of evangelicals in Lausanne, Switzerland, convened by Billy Graham. Jacobs writes, If Lausanne was an international document based on international concerns, the manifesto is a very American document, the product of an election year, and a strong reaction against a quarter-century of evangelical identification with the Republican Party.
Albert Mohler, the very influential president of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, observes that, in its theological statements, the manifesto offers a rather minimal definition of what it means to be an evangelical. These are, he says, wonderful words . . . but they are also words that would be claimed by many who would never claim to be evangelical. In its substantive statements of Christian faith, there is nothing that I, as a Catholic, do not affirm. There are, to be sure, references to the Protestant Reformation and the way in which evangelicals belong to a multiplicity of churches, but these come across as historical accidents rather than as something essential to the faith of evangelical Christians. So the manifesto falls short as a theological statement of evangelical identity.
As an exercise in image management, the manifesto is gravely weakened by its defensive tone. Its pleading to be liked, or at least to be less disliked, is poignant. Consider the statement that the naked public square is even less just and workable because it excludes the overwhelming majority of citizens who are still profoundly religious. That is true, to be sure, but it is the word still that stands out, as though religious Americans are besieged holdouts against the inexorable forces of secularism. In an essay on the manifesto in Christianity Today , the mainstream evangelical magazine, Os Guinness, writing under the title A Gentle Plea for Civility, declares, The answer to these extremes lies in the restoration of a civil and cosmopolitan public square. The extremes, of course, are militant secularism and the religious right, and it is the purpose of the manifesto to distance its signers from the latter.
A Gentle Plea for Civility perhaps, although A Poignant Plea for Acceptance might be more accurate. The posture is that of presumably more-sophisticated evangelicals coming hat in hand to their cultural betters, humbly requesting that they be exempted from the opprobrium heaped on their vulgar and unruly cousins, the religious right and the fundamentalists. To prove that they have earned an exemption, they eagerly join in the heaping of opprobrium on those in the evangelical family from whom they so desperately want to distinguish themselves. This is unseemly. It is also futile. The bid to be accepted as full participants in a civil and cosmopolitan public square on the terms by which their secular betters define civility and cosmopolitanism is precluded by the very fact of being evangelicals.
The document cannot plausibly present itself as evangelical without affirming the belief that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation, that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, that marriage is between a man and woman, that homogenital sex is morally wrong, and a host of other things that Christians traditionally believe and that secularists condemn as narrow, fanatical, and dangerously bigoted. The affirmation of liberal political pieties will not earn the signers an exemption from the disdain in which evangelicals, along with other serious Christians, are held by those whose approval these evangelicals so earnestly seek.
Some thirty years ago, the sociologist John Murray Cuddihy published his brilliant book No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste . In it he argued that prominent Jews, Catholics, and liberal Protestants made their bid to be accepted by an elite culture in which Protestant taste had been stripped of any Christian particularity. The main thing left in the secularized version of Protestant taste was the commandment to give no offense. The yearning of these socially aspiring religious leaders, said Cuddihy, was to be accepted. Among their strategies was to sharply distinguish themselves from the great unwashed of their tribes who were clearly unacceptable and who, truth to tell, didn’t give a fig about being admitted to the parlor. I may be a Jew, but I’m not that kind of Jew. I may be a Catholic, but I’m not that kind of Catholic. I may be an evangelical, but I’m not that kind of evangelical. In the last case, that kind of evangelical refers to fundamentalists and politically conservative activists. In the larger picture of American religion and culture, An Evangelical Manifesto might be viewed as an evangelical bid to be accepted as part of the mainline so brilliantly dissected by Joseph Bottum in this issue.
There are many and complex dynamics involved in the production of something like An Evangelical Manifesto. Its theological affirmations are largely unexceptionable. Its call for cultural engagement and the cultivation of honesty and civility in argument is admirable and is always needed in our typically raucous public life. Whatever the good intentions of many of its signers, however, the manifesto is finally an appeal for the good opinion of the cultural despisers of evangelicalism. It is an election-year invitation for evangelicals to demonstrate, by embracing what is depicted as a more comprehensive and nuanced political agenda, that they are not that kind of evangelical.
I have no doubt that some who signed the statement simply wanted to affirm the important truth that evangelical Christianity is defined by the lordship of Christ and not by political partisanship. Issuing what is inevitably perceived as a politically partisan manifesto is an ill-chosen means for achieving that purpose. Only the naive or disingenuous among the signers will express surprise that the media depicted the manifesto as an election-year effort to drive a wedge between conservatives and what is portrayed as a more authentic evangelicalism. Whatever the good intentions of some signers, the reporters got the story right.
While We’re At It
I have mentioned before Clive James’ book of mini-essays on intellectuals of the past hundred years, Cultural Amnesia . He really does not like Jean-Paul Sartre, who was lionized by so many for so long. James blames Sartre’s prewar period in Berlin, and especially the influence of Heidegger. In Sartre’s style of _argument, German metaphysics met French sophistry in a kind of European Coal and Steel Community producing nothing but rhetorical gas. But wait, he is just warming up. [Sartre] might have known that he was debarred by nature from telling the truth for long about anything that mattered, because telling the truth was something that ordinary men did, and his urge to be extraordinary was, for him, more of a motive force than merely to see the world as it was. Sartre was a fervent communist to the end, denying or belittling the atrocities committed by Stalin, Mao, and their lesser imitators. As odiously, he made his peace with the Vichy regime and then, after the war, claimed to be a hero of the resistance and set himself up as a grand inquisitor, indicting intellectuals whom he thought had been less than heroic. Heidegger and Sartre were only pretending to deal with existence, because each of them was in outright denial of his own experience, and therefore had a vested interest in separating existence from facts . . . . Working by a sure instinct for bogus language, a nonphilosopher like George Orwell could call Sartre’s political writings a heap of beans, but there were few professional thinkers anywhere who found it advisable to dismiss Sartre’s air of intelligence: there was too great a risk of being called unintelligent themselves. Effectivement ”to resurrect a French word that was worked to death at the time”Sartre was called profound because he sounded as if he was either that or nothing, and few cared to say that they thought him nothing. Clive James bids fair to restore the good reputation of polemics.
Two years ago, the Archdiocese of Boston shut down its adoption services rather than comply with the state’s demand that it place children with homosexual couples. While cheering the decision not to compromise on moral principle, some observers complained that the archdiocese gave up without a fight. Now the U.K. is making the same demand of the Catholic Church there, and Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, head of the bishops’ conference of England and Wales, says he is prepared to do battle in court in order to defend the Church’s policy of placing children with married heterosexual couples. Says Neil Addison, an attorney close to the controversy, The Church may not win, but, if Catholic agencies are to be closed and deprived of their right to provide these services, let that be done”and be seen to be done”by the government and not by the Church. Precisely.
The Sabbath commandment of Exodus 20 is quite explicit that, as God rested on the seventh day, so also his people, including their servants, strangers in the land, and even the cattle should have a day of rest. This, writes Rémi Brague, professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne, is the social dimension of the Sabbath, which became the thin wedge whereby ancient societies were opened to the pursuit of liberty. God steps back, as it were, allowing his creatures the freedom of their nature. To be sure, God keeps whatever exists in being, for without his continuous will to maintain them, they would disappear. But he respects the nature of the things he has created . . . . Human freedom expresses in a human key a property that belongs to each creature: the property of existing and acting according to a nature of its own. Interestingly, the Koran, which repeatedly praises God’s creative activity, does not mention the rest of the seventh day. As a consequence, it does not contain any law on sabbatical rest. A verse even discreetly criticizes the idea that God could get tired (L, 38). Mainstream Islamic apologetics (Kalâm) later built a whole worldview in which things, and even time, consist of indivisible units or properties that stick together because God creates them afresh, out of nothing, in every instant. Such properties don’t belong together because they express the nature of a thing, but merely because God is accustomed to combining them. No created thing, not even a human being, has a nature of its own, from which it can, as it were, enter into free relations with its maker. All are forever subject to His will. To be sure, the biblical worldview agrees in putting God above any fatigue (see Isaiah 40:28). Moreover, the New Testament insists that God does not stop working’ (John 5:17). But the world that God works to maintain is composed of things that are endowed with a stable nature and which spontaneously act in accordance with it. Brague’s is a suggestive way of thinking about the difference between a religion of submission (the meaning of the word Islam ) and a religion of freedom, the latter being rightly ordered according to the nature of God’s creation.
That U.S. Religious Landscape Survey issued by the Pew Research Center last February continues to be sliced and diced by various analysts, including Robert Benne, who writes in The Cresset , a magazine published by Valparaiso University. Continuing the list of surprises about Catholicism, Benne writes, ten percent of all Protestants are former Catholics but eight percent of Catholics are former Protestants. That eight percent represents a considerable number, around five million. Converts to Catholicism usually are far more intense about their faith than cradle Catholics, so I suspect that this eight percent injects new vigor into the Church. He also notes that a striking number of Catholic converts are prominent intellectuals. A young man who is active in Catholic ministries at an Ivy League university speaks warmly of their cooperation with evangelical ministries such as Campus Crusade for Christ. Ecumenical cordiality, however, does not preclude an element of evangelistic rivalry. The big difference, he says, is that they aim at the weakest Catholics while we aim at the strongest evangelicals. The claim is that evangelicals who are more theologically versed and religiously committed are more open to Catholicism, while Catholics who become evangelicals were, for whatever reason, alienated from Christianity. Put differently, religiously serious evangelicals are more likely to become Catholic, while religiously lapsed Catholics are more likely to become evangelicals. I have heard this from chaplains and students on other campuses and suspect there might be something to it. But the dynamics of conversion are often elusive. Some while back, I spoke at an Episcopal parish in the Northeast and afterward had dinner with the members of the vestry. Ten of the fourteen members present were former Catholics, and seven of them said they would be Catholics today if it were not for their divorces that prevented them from receiving Holy Communion. The pastor of an evangelical megachurch who says more than half his members are former Catholics tells me, with a smile, I hope you guys don’t change your rules on divorce and remarriage. But back to Robert Benne on the Pew survey. The survey notes that the mainline/oldline churches”Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, ELCA Lutheran”are homogenous, aging, and diminishing. This, Benne adds, even after all the huffing and puffing about diversity’ and inclusivity’ that these churches have put forth. The survey notes that the category of the religiously unaffiliated is growing, but fully one third of the unaffiliated say that religion is important to them. Benne writes: They are adopting the European pattern of believing without belonging.’ And, even with the emergence of a mini-movement of militant atheism among bestselling authors, the atheist and agnostic portion of the population stands at a mere four percent. People are evidently reading but not believing.’ . . . Even with the growth of the unaffiliated (one third of whom are religious!), Christians represent 78.4 percent of the population. Other religions, including Judaism, represent another 4.7 percent, which brings America to 83.1 percent religious. Add the unaffiliated religious’ at 5.8 percent, and the U.S. reaches nearly 89 percent religious. He then provides a cautionary note: There were a lot of religious people in Rome at the beginning of the Christian era. So the fact that 89 percent are religious cuts little ice. Disciplined, informed, Christian faith likely would show up as a much smaller percentage. Likely to the point of certainty.
A history of two millennia of Christianity in 312 pages, and eminently readable pages at that? You might well think it could not be done, but Robert Bruce Mullin has done just that in A Short World History of Christianity (Westminster John Knox). Mullin is professor of history and world mission at the General Theological Seminary (Episcopal) in New York and has distilled prodigious scholarship into a succinct story of what happened from the time when people first encountered Jesus and asked Who is this man? up through an informed speculation about the possible futures of the worldwide Christian movement in the present century. Almost exactly fifty years ago, Martin E. Marty published A Short History of Christianity , and it has been a standard reference ever since. I expect Marty would agree that his book has long needed a successor, and A Short World History of Christianity is it. To be sure, Christians of different allegiances will have more than a quibble about the treatment of this or that aspect of their own tradition. But Mullin’s sympathies, like his knowledge, are comprehensive, his judgments are fair, his generalizations are judicious, and his devotion to the Christian cause is beyond doubt. If you are looking for a brief, reliable, and readable account of Christianity in its sometimes maddening permutations through time, look no further.
Turning Away from Jesus: Gay Rights and the War for the Episcopal Church is a long article in the June issue of Harper’s by a journalist and erstwhile Episcopal clergyman, Garrett Keizer. You might think that the point is that gay rights is a turning away from Jesus. Silly you. The point of the article is quite the opposite: Opposition to gay rights is a turning away from Jesus. Mr. Keizer has a confession to make: A gift I sometimes lacked as a priest, when it was indispensable, now dogs me as a writer, when it can only bring me grief: a disposition to love everyone. How very much like Jesus. His loving disposition does not prevent him from excoriating the self-appointed defenders of orthodoxy who do not appreciate the Episcopal genius for accommodating everyone. Clearly, the proponents of homophobia are not to be accommodated. The article has some nice literary touches but contains nothing that will be new to those who have been following these matters and have concluded that the war for the Episcopal Church has been over for a long time. The question now is whether, or in what form, the global Anglican Communion will survive. Look for Jordan Hylden’s astute examination of that question in the next issue.
Westminster, revered as the mother of parliaments, made some fateful decisions this past May. The Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill passed by a large margin. It makes legal the genetic screening of embryos to select saviour siblings (i.e., suppliers of spare parts), as well as the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos. It also removes the obligation to consider the role of fathers in artificial reproduction. One of the great achievements of Western civilization over the centuries is the establishment of the moral and legal principle that the child is not an object for the use of others but a subject with rights to be respected. Father Raymond de Souza writes in Canada’s National Post : The animating spirit behind the Westminster votes this week was quite different”that new life can be created for the purposes of others, independent of its own interests. The Frankensteinesque practice of manufacturing animal-human hybrids is solely for the purpose of destroying such embryos for medical research purposes. The desire to create saviour siblings’ is flatly utilitarian”the new child is conceived for the explicit purpose of providing tissues and organs for his siblings. The decision to no longer require fertility clinics to consider who might be the father of the child is being hailed as a great advance for lesbian couples and single women, but does anyone pretend that fathers are irrelevant to the best interests of the child? Apparently, the parliamentarians of Westminster pretend just that. So is the passage of the Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill the end of civilization as we know it? The end of civilization is not in the habit of announcing itself as such. Why, it’s been several months since the passage of the bill, and most people haven’t even heard about it. Name what you think to be the greatest atrocities of history. For more recent examples: human slavery, Auschwitz, the gulag archipelago, the Rwanda genocide. The world goes on. And anyway, we are still eminently civilized. Aren’t we?
One of the greatest theologians of the past hundred years is, without doubt, Wolfhart Pannenberg. A German Lutheran, he has played a prominent part in attempts to heal the breach between Rome and the Reformation. I count it a great blessing of my life to have been befriended by Pannenberg when I was a young man, and we have remained close ever since. He is now eighty and in declining health, but he maintains a lively interest in the wide range of issues that have claimed his attention over the years. I am particularly pleased that Templeton Press has just published his The Historicity of Nature: Essays on Science & Theology . Those familiar with Pannenberg’s enterprise will recognize how fraught with meaning is the phrase the historicity of nature. Those who have not read Pannenberg before are in for an intellectual treat. But please remember that I said Pannenberg is not light reading. Like most everything worthwhile, his arguments require effort. And a readiness to be persuaded to think quite differently about questions of great consequence. There will be a full review of the book in a forthcoming issue.
I have written to her again, asking her to respect my previous request and not require from me any additional pastoral actions. That is from a column by Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, writing in the archdiocesan paper. Governor Kathleen Sebelius had vetoed the Comprehensive Abortion Reform Act passed by strong majorities in both chambers of the legislature. She is an outspoken proponent of reproductive rights and an ally of Dr. George Tiller, the notorious late-term abortionist. Last August, after consulting with the other Kansas bishops, Naumann wrote privately to Sebelius requesting that she refrain from receiving the Eucharist. She has ignored the request. What might the archbishop mean by additional pastoral actions? Possibly excommunication, meaning a public notification that Sebelius has separated herself from communion with the Catholic Church. The archbishop puts it correctly when he asks her not to require this of him. Excommunication is not something the Church does to a person but the Church’s formal acknowledgment of what the person has done to himself, or, in this case, herself. It’s the governor’s call.
Very different is the less than straightforward response of Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., to the same question. He says he is not pastorally responsible for public figures who serve in Washington as representatives of other parts of the nation . . . . I have always respected the role of the local church and the ministry of the individual bishop as shepherd of the church entrusted to his care. He should indeed respect the local church, and the local church for most of those representatives who spend most of their time in Washington is, de facto, the Archdiocese of Washington. Is he saying the archdiocese has no pastoral responsibility for these people? And what about a directive by the bishop back home that such a representative not receive communion? Would Wuerl see to it that that is respected in Washington? These are among the questions prompted by the archbishop’s column. He says that he teaches what the Church teaches about abortion, and that the Washington archdiocese sponsors an annual Rally for Life. Then he says, An altogether different yet related issue is how to respond to those in public office who support abortion legislation. One may be permitted to point out that, if it is altogether different, it is not related, and, if it is related, it is not altogether different. In fact, faithfulness to the Church’s teaching and a bishop’s response to Catholics who oppose that teaching would seem to be inseparable. Citing a statement of the bishops’ conference, Catholics in Political Life, Wuerl incorrectly says that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, agreed that it is up to the bishop whether Holy Communion should be denied to some Catholics in political life because of their support for abortion on demand. In a letter to the conference”at the time gravely misrepresented to the bishops’ conference by Wuerl’s predecessor, Theodore Cardinal McCarrick”Ratzinger said that, after due pastoral diligence has been exercised and the politician remains obdurate, Communion must be denied. Unless Archbishop Wuerl has evidence that Ratzinger changed his mind between that letter and the adoption of Catholics in Political Life, which seems most improbable, it is obvious that for Ratzinger/Benedict disciplinary action is not a matter of whether but of how . The archbishop correctly says that our task as pastors of souls is to help form consciences so that out of a rightly formed conscience Catholics will carry out their responsibilities in daily life. But it is hardly helpful in the forming of consciences when he writes: Abortion and support for abortion are wrong. No informed Catholic can claim that either action is free of moral implications, and certainly no one should be led to believe . . . that this teaching about abortion is uncertain. The locution that abortion is not free of moral implications seems very odd. Most pro-abortion advocates agree with that. True, he then goes on to speak of how profoundly and intrinsically evil is the destruction of unborn human life. But it seems that the standard to which Catholic politicians must be held is agreement that abortion is not free of moral implications. The entire column is very confusing, except for the clear declaration that Archbishop Donald Wuerl has no pastoral responsibility for what is done with respect to abortion by Catholic politicians in Washington, his local church. Apparently this is extended to Catholic institutions in Washington whose explicit support for pro-abortion politicians meets with public silence from the archbishop. One thinks, for instance, of the rapturous Catholic celebration of Nancy Pelosi’s ascendancy to the speakership of the House. Speaker Pelosi and Catholic representatives in Washington who organize manifestos declaring that it is possible to be both pro-abortion and faithfully Catholic meet with no public challenge from the person who is, after all, supposed to be the chief teacher of the faith in a local church that is, not incidentally, the nation’s capital. One can sympathize with Archbishop Wuerl’s complaints about the difficulties he encounters. But it was apparently not against his will that he was appointed archbishop. One might suggest that, as archbishop, it is his job to represent Catholic teaching and to counter misrepresentations of Catholic teaching in Washington, his local church.
Christians don’t go to heaven when we die”that’s the dramatic way to summarize N.T. Wright’s book. So writes William Placher, professor of philosophy at Wabash College, in his review of Surprised by Hope in the Christian Century . Readers may remember that Bishop Wright and I exchanged courtesies on this subject in the June/July issue. Placher continues: I had great hopes for this book. We desperately need some reflection on what lies beyond death that falls somewhere between the Left Behind series and the often hopelessly vague thoughts of much theological liberalism, and Wright could have been the man to give it to us . . . . I ended up disappointed. I had said that Surprised by Hope sometimes seems like an exercise in Mormon-like anthropomorphism. Placher puts it this way: Sometimes Wright talks about the transformation of the whole cosmos into a different kind of space and matter. At other points he talks about the transformation of this world as a new home for our resurrected bodies, and he seems to mean that we will inhabit something like the terrestrial ball on which we now live. Which is it? Will Indiana still be Indiana, albeit (we may hope!) in a transformed condition? (Wabash College is in Indiana.) The problem with Surprised by Hope , as I suggested, is its chirpy certitudes about so much we cannot know, and its equally chippy dismissals of so much that the Christian tradition has suggested we do know.
The editorial is titled A Victory for Equality and Justice. The 4-3 decision of the California Supreme Court is described as momentous, historic, a major victory for civil rights, and a scrupulously fair ruling based on law, precedent, and common sense. Same-sex marriage was on the ballot in thirteen states in 2004 and was defeated by margins ranging from 58 to 85 percent. The contrast between the New York Times editorial and the common sense and moral conviction of most Americans might suggest to some that the redefinition of marriage has little chance of carrying the day. That would be a great mistake. What the people think is quite beside the point for courts in many states. Moreover, the evidence grows that, for many younger people, homosexuality, including same-sex marriage, is no big deal. In college they have gay and lesbian friends. It’s not my thing, but if that’s what they want to do, why not? Most colleges work mightily to replace that indifference with mandatory approval. The Church has no choice but to teach firmly and courageously that homosexual desires are disordered, that homogenital acts are sinful, and that those afflicted by disordered desires are to be treated with love and respect. Parents, clergy, teachers, and others responsible for the moral formation of young people need to teach these truths persistently and persuasively. At the same time, the public debate needs to be framed more clearly in terms of what is at stake for the family, with inestimable consequences for children and therefore the future of our society. Which is yet another occasion to recommend the reading of David Blankenhorn’s The Future of Marriage. And, of course, in this dispute and many others, we are returned to the question of the judicial usurpation of politics, a question on which the presidential and other candidates in this election year provide clear choices.
Those Texas polygamists have been much in the news in recent months. It’s a real tragedy on several scores, not least being the forcible separation of some four hundred children from their mothers. And it came just at the time of that California ruling that there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. I’ll get to the connection in due course. Lionel Tiger, an anthropologist at Rutgers, notes that the Texas affair has attracted a phalanx of lawyers, judges, law enforcers, and psychologists. He writes: Those responsible for coping with this astonishing disaster would be well-advised to add a primatologist to the team. The fact is that, despite all the blather about faith and freedom of religion, the men operating the various compounds in question are behaving in virtually the same manner as countless dominant males in countless primate troops observed over the years. The essence of the case is that the men who control the politics of the group (as well as the hapless women and children who live there) have used junk theology about heaven, hell, paradise and salvation to maintain their unquestioned access to all females of reproductive age (or younger). That’s the reproductive fantasy of any adult male primate. I don’t know much about the polygamists’ theology, but he’s right about our animal nature. Tiger writes that the victims of these bizarre arrangements include also young men who are effectively disenfranchised because they pose a threat of competition to the older primates and are therefore forced to leave the communities to become hopeless, ill-schooled, misfits in the towns of normal life. He adds this: One of the triumphs of Western arrangements is the institution of monogamy, which has in principle made it possible for each male and female to enjoy a plausible shot at the reproductive outcome which all the apparatus of nature demands. Even Karl Marx did not fully appreciate the immense radicalism of this form of equity. As for the connection with same-sex marriage, one of the key questions in dispute is whether we should as a society abandon male-female monogamy. To do so is to change marriage from a legally recognized and reinforced social institution into any form of affective relationship. The celebrated academics who signed a while back the statement Beyond Same-Sex Marriage are very explicit in endorsing polyamory, meaning relationships of any number of persons of one or both sexes legally recognized as marriage. The more moderate proponents of same-sex marriage deny that that is what they want but have failed to come up with any convincing reason why that is not what same-sex marriage, in principle and in fact, means. The California and other courts that engage in the usurpation of political decisions about the meaning of marriage are, as Lionel Tiger suggests and whatever their intentions, on the side of the most powerful adult male primates. Too easily forgotten in this dispute is the fact that the triumph of monogamy was chiefly a triumph for women and children.
Oil being the factor it is in world affairs, one is not surprised. But it is more than a little galling to see the president of the United States holding hands and making nice with King Abdullah and the royals of Saudi Arabia. In addition to running an oppressive regime of doubtful legitimacy, the Saudis pour billions into exporting their Wahhabi version of Islam by building mosques, schools, and a vast network of other institutions in countries around the world. Wahhabism is sometimes described as strict”meaning, among other things, that it prescribes murder for heretics, apostates, and infidels. The last category includes you. The regime has also given multiple millions to institutions such as Georgetown, Harvard, and Duke. Georgetown has in gratitude named an institute in its foreign-service school the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. The prince is a nephew of King Abdullah. They’re obviously counting on money buying a lot of Christian understanding. And now there are these full-page ads in major newspapers under the headline, Alwaleed bin Talal Humanitarian Foundation, representing Kingdom Foundation, awarded the Pontifical Medal by Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. Well, not quite. The pontifical medal pictured can be bought at the Vatican bookstore. There is also a picture of Pope Benedict awarding the Pontifical Medal to the prince’s aunt in recognition of her distinguished social and humanitarian work. Again, not quite. An uncropped version of the same picture makes clear that the two are merely shaking hands. Nina Shea comments in the Weekly Standard , This is a bit like portraying an Oval Office photo-op as the awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. One would think the Saudis could afford a competent PR firm. Their billions of barrels of oil notwithstanding, the House of Saud is a passel of cheap nogoodniks. A democratic change in Saudi Arabia is not necessarily a happy prospect. Elections would likely result in an even worse regime. So fill up the tank and get used to the president of the United States, whoever he will be, making nice with King Abdullah.
Myron Magnet of City Journal revisits Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet in order to revisit the New York City that it so powerfully describes. New York in the 1970s, with 2,200 murders per year, one every four hours, most people living behind armored doors with three or more locks, muggers on every corner, and Leonard Bernstein entertaining the Black Panthers in an exhibition of what Tom Wolfe memorably described as radical chic. What happened to turn the city around to its present vitality commonly described as its golden age? Rudy Giuliani is part of the answer, with his broken windows approach to crime. But mainly, says Magnet, people had had enough, especially the unfashionable people from the outer boroughs. They knew there was a better way to live. Magnet: How did they know it? A residue of the old culture, too strong to die? A pragmatic or instinctive understanding that there is a right and a wrong life for man, which some of the old philosophers called Natural Law? From page one of Mr. Sammler’s Planet , Bellow himself insists that, beyond the explanations we construct through Enlightenment reason, the soul has its own natural knowledge.’ We all have a sense of the mystic potency of humankind’ and an inclination to believe in archetypes of goodness. A desire for virtue was no accident.’ We all know that we must try to live with a civil heart. With disinterested charity.’ We must live a life conditioned by other human beings.’ We must try to meet the terms of the contract life sets us, as Sammler says in the astonishing affirmation with which Bellow ends his book. The terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows . . . . As all know. For that is the truth of it”that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.’
It is often said, and it is probably true, that George W. Bush is the most pro-Israel president we’ve ever had. Which is one reason why a great many Jews don’t like him, writes Hillel Halkin in the New York Sun . In his address to the Knesset this past May, Bush spoke of the redemption of an ancient promise given to Abraham and Moses and David”a homeland for the chosen people in Eretz Yisrael. Other presidents have spoken of Israel’s right to security and need for defensible borders and legitimate existence. Halkin writes: We are not used to hearing from an occupant of the White House about God’s promises in the Bible. And we are certainly not used to hearing the Jews referred to by an American president as the chosen people.’ The Orthodox believe that Jews are that, but most Jews have had quite enough of being chosen”which has usually meant chosen to be harassed, despised, and eliminated. And most embarrassing of all, what President Bush believes about the Jews is something that nearly all Jews once believed about themselves. It’s aggravating to be reminded of the you you once were and would like to forget. Bush believes Jews are central to history in a way that most Jews no longer do. The problem is that history shows signs of agreeing with the president, writes Halkin. Most every scenario for global apocalypse somehow has Israel at the center, ranging from that of the most wild-eyed preacher of the gospel to that of the most cool-headed scientist. Jews are tired of it; they want to be an ordinary people. That’s part of the reason why many Jews will be relieved to see him leave office next January. It’s not just stem-cell research, or even the war in Iraq. The man thinks too much of us. That’s something we’re not prepared to put up with.
There were these two boys in Earlville, Illinois, who got caught up in the excitements of what was”and still is”called space opera. You may remember Big Little Books such as Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo , Captain Future , Space Hawk , Outside the Universe , and Buck Rogers and the Planetoid Plot . One of the Earlville boys, Gary Wolf, went on to become a successful writer, best known for creating Roger Rabbit, the basis for the 1988 Disney film Who Framed Roger Rabbit ? The other boy, John J. Myers, went on to become the archbishop of Newark, New Jersey. They never got over their boyhood enthusiasm and have now joined in producing Space Vulture . It definitely belongs to the space-opera genre, says my colleague Joseph Bottum. He tells me this half science fiction and half parody of a certain kind of science fiction is fun to read. I’ve tried it, but science fiction is not my cup of tea. I count Archbishop Myers as a friend, but I’ll take Joseph Bottum’s word on the merits of Space Vulture . I expect some people will wonder what a bishop is doing writing a science fiction novel. Keep in mind that bishops could, and some possibly do, devote their spare hours to less innocent pursuits.
It is a minor tradition here to take note of the names being given to boys and girls. The Social Security Administration has now reported on 2007. The general pattern is that boys get names of gravity, while names for girls are more trendy. That pattern is much more pronounced in New York City, but we haven’t seen the city report for 2007. Nationwide, the top ten names for boys are, in order, Jacob, Michael, Ethan, Joshua, Daniel, Christopher, Anthony, William, Matthew, and Andrew. For girls: Emily, Isabella, Emma, Ava, Madison, Sophia, Olivia, Abigail, Hannah, and Elizabeth. Six of the boys’ names are clearly biblical, Christopher is unambiguously Christian, Anthony is a popular saint, and, while there are several St. Williams, it seems doubtful that most people are aware of that. Ethan is Hebrew for strong, but it is unlikely that is the reason for its popularity. Of the girls’ names, three are biblical (four if you include Sophia), the others are traditionally popular in America, with only Ava and Madison fitting the category of trendy or frivolous. I have no big thesis about all this except to note that it does not fit the depiction of the country as wildly multicultural and socially fissiparous. People do tend to give careful thought to naming their babies, and the 2007 list again suggests religious and cultural continuity much more than discontinuity. For the umpteenth time: Just think of the things you would not know if you did not subscribe to First Things .
You can’t live off debunking. Unless, that is, you teach the humanities or write books aimed at people who want to be excused for not believing in much of anything. Tony Horwitz is in the latter camp, and his latest offering is A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World . The message is that nothing was what you were taught in school to think it was. Unless, of course, you were born after 1975 or so, in which case you were likely taught the debunking of the myths that you were never taught in the first place. Andrew Ferguson reviews Horwitz and thinks the time has come to debunk the debunkers. He writes: Isn’t this getting a bit old by now? We are three generations, maybe more, into an era in which the once-cheeky assertions of historical revisionism”Columbus didn’t discover America, Europeans invented scalping, the founding fathers were real estate sharpies”have become utterly conventional, the refuge of grad-school plodders and boomer journalists alike . . . . Think how refreshing it would be for a writer of Horwitz’s gifts to approach the task of pop history from the opposite direction”not to pick apart a myth but to explain those elements within it that are, after all, true. The myth of the Pilgrims, for example, comes in many shapes and sizes, each containing a different portion of factual accuracy. But underlying them all is what was once understood to be a basic fact: these battered and luckless wanderers carried with them a set of peculiar principles that slowly unfolded into a spectacularly successful experiment in freedom, prosperity, and human dignity, something unforeseen and without parallel in all history. If our best writers delight in attacking the myth, it’s probably because they no longer see this truth as self-evident. Yes, the debunking is getting a bit old by now. And yes, if you insist, complaining about it is also getting a bit old by now. But what is the alternative? Maybe a new generation of grad-school plodders and assistant professors can scratch the itch to be radical by becoming champions of the traditions their teachers debunked. Something like that is happening among many young Christians today, and not least among young Catholics. But, as Joseph Bottum has explained in these pages, new traditionalism is hard to pull off. (See When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano, October 2006.) The thing about tradition is that tradition takes time. As in as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. In relating the story of America, as in relating the story of the Church, the tradition of debunking is now about a half-century old. The next half-century may belong to the debunkers of the debunkers. But it, too, will be a passing fad if it is no more than another of the games that academics and popular writers play. Beyond the push and push-back of intellectual fashions is devotion to truth, whether of the self-evident kind or of the kind learned only with great difficulty.
Media follies are often to blame for gross distortions, but sometimes church leaders seem to be asking for it. You may have seen the news reports a couple of months ago declaring that the Vatican had issued a new list of deadly sins. What happened is that Bishop Gianfranco Girotti of the Apostolic Penitentiary, which is a curial tribunal, gave an interview in which he suggested that there are social sins that do not receive sufficient attention. He mentioned, among others, environmental pollution, genetic manipulation, obscene wealth, and drug trafficking. The bishop was not, contra news reports, coming up with a new list of deadly sins or issuing a new set of commandments. He was simply offering his reflections on the social application of the old deadlies: pride, lust, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and envy. The classic seven have over the centuries proven themselves quite serviceable in understanding our wayward propensities both personal and public, and the bishop was not suggesting anything to the contrary. At other times, however, church leaders seem to be setting themselves up for the media treatment they receive. Renato Cardinal Martino, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, is particularly adept in this connection. He was responsible for the Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road issued last summer, which specified that automobiles can be an occasion of sin when, for example, they are used for reckless passing or prostitution. The document set forth what it billed as ten commandments for drivers, including You shall not kill, Courtesy, uprightness and prudence will help you deal with unforeseen events, Cars shall not be for you an expression of power and domination, and an occasion of sin, and Feel responsible toward others. The guidelines are chock-full of wise counsel. For instance, Good drivers courteously give way to pedestrians, are not offended when overtaken, allow someone who wishes to drive faster to pass, and do not seek revenge. And there is this: The duty to have vehicles serviced should be respected. Taking care of one’s vehicle also means not expecting from it more than it is able to give. One wonders how non-Catholic Christians manage to get along without a teaching magisterium. The cardinal’s exercise in solemnly pronounced fortune-cookie bromides came in for a great deal of media mockery. His Eminence declared himself unamused. The problem, of course, is that news is by definition attuned to what is new. About human nature, sin and forgiveness, and two millennia of Christian teaching there is really not all that much that is news. This can result in what is known as novelty-deprivation syndrome, to which even priests and prelates sometimes succumb. The frequently maladroit search for relief from the syndrome contributes to the flourishing of the aforementioned media follies.
The Obama-Wright affair has not disappeared. Jayson Byassee is assistant editor at Christian Century and an occasional contributor to this magazine. Whatever else you think about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Byassee says in Christianity Today , Jeremiah Wright is a serious Christian. He contrasts Wright with James Cone, the 1960s proponent of black-liberation theology who disparaged a focus on Jesus as Savior as Christofascism, along with others who contend that black folk should find their primary identity in race rather than religion. Wright’s break with America, writes Byassee, is no unforgivable sin”only blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is that. Wright’s recent media tour was so unfortunate, says Byassee. A friend in the Obama campaign told him, They’re freaking out at HQ”Wright’s going on tour, and they can’t do a thing to stop it. Byassee comments, Wright was throwing Obama, a parishioner and former friend, under the bus”and he knew it. Byassee concludes: But coming from a community that’s been told for so long what they’re allowed to say and not say has an impact on you. Precisely when you’re told to shut up, you preach. At the top of your lungs. For you’ve got fire locked up in your bones. Evangelicals, I think, know something about that. There is much to what Jason Byassee says. From what I know from him and others, Jeremiah Wright is a serious, albeit woefully wrongheaded, Christian. We have a lot of other brothers and sisters in Christ who are crazier, and even some who think we’re just a bit tetched. The controversy, however, is not over whether Wright is a Christian but whether he is right in saying, as Senator Obama has also said, that he represents the black church and, by extension, the black community. And over why, for twenty years, Obama submitted himself and his family to the wackier elements of Wright’s ministry.
Commenting on the number of lapsed and collapsed Catholics, Father Andrew Greeley writes in America : What went wrong? What might reverse the decline of the credibility of the Church’s teachers? Whatever happened to the blind obedience that the Vatican always assumed it could count on from the devout laity? Father Greeley has been around for a long time and can remember when the blind obedience myth still had
a modicum of plausibility. He goes on to say, Perhaps the answer is that the Church should have banned higher education for Catholics. Educated Catholics, you see, think for themselves. Greeley concludes: It seems that there is a pedagogical law that the taught will not listen to the teachers unless they believe that the teachers have listened to them. The rhetoric and style of the curia give no evidence that anyone there is listening. There are several problems with this, aside from the fact that, as Father Greeley undoubtedly knows, he has been writing the exact same thing in almost the exact same words for, lo, these forty-plus years. Here are a few things that are wrong in this view of what went wrong: 1) The people, including Father Greeley, who incessantly lament the gap between teaching and the reception of teaching are typically the same people who have for years worked to undermine the credibility of the Church’s teaching office; 2) Their measure of whether the Church is listening is whether teaching is brought into line with their preferences; 3) The curia in Rome coordinates and corrects as necessary, but the teachers of the Church are the bishops, priests, and catechists who too often find it easier to blame Rome than to do their job; 4) Catholic Americans are about 6 percent of the universal Church, and Greeley’s think-for-themselves educated Catholics who are unhappy with church teaching, usually on matters sexual, are a much smaller part of that 6 percent. It is an egregious instance of chauvinistic hubris to think that the Church through the ages, currently composed of 1.2 billion members of every nation and culture, should change its teaching to please the disaffected of the latte class of Americans. There are many answers to Father Greeley’s question What went wrong? Some of the more dubious are to be found in his answer.
You might say it is just in time for the 2008 elections, and you would be right about that. But any time is a timely time for Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life. The author is Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, the publisher is Doubleday, and the price should be no obstacle to a book that offers a fresh analysis of what has gone wrong with the Church in America, a convincing case for encouragement, wise counsel on how to engage the public square, and, not incidentally, restored confidence in the ability of (some) bishops to teach on faith and morals. Of course cloning is morally prohibited, but just imagine the difference it would make if there were, say, two dozen or more Archbishop Chaputs. He addresses the hard questions with candor and clarity. For instance, can a Catholic in good conscience ever vote for a pro-choice candidate? The answer is: I couldn’t. Supporting a right’ to choose abortion simply masks and evades what abortion really is: the deliberate killing of innocent life. I know of nothing that can morally offset that kind of evil. Acknowledging that there are serious Catholics who believe that there can be proportionate reasons for supporting a pro-choice candidate, Chaput writes: One of the pillars of Catholic thought is this: Don’t deliberately kill the innocent, and don’t collude in allowing it. We sin if we support candidates because they support a false right’ to abortion. We sin if we support pro-choice candidates without a truly proportionate reason for doing so”that is, a reason grave enough to outweigh our obligation to end the killing of the unborn. And what would such a proportionate’ reason look like? It would be a reason we could, with an honest heart, expect the unborn victims of abortion to accept when we meet them and need to explain our actions”as we someday will. Render Unto Caesar is about much more than abortion politics. There is hardly a question agitating the Church in America”from higher education and episcopal leadership to the sorry state of catechesis”that is not addressed here with intelligence, courage, and a pastoral heart. Read, mark, learn, inwardly digest his words”and pray for more bishops like Charles Chaput.
This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, launched by Father Paul Watso