The current round of controversies has everything to do with the political shock of November 8, 1994, and alarums over the perceived ascendancy of the Religious Right. As a result, some Jews have ratcheted up to an almost painful degree their antennae for the detection of anti-Semitism. A few months ago, one of our local newspapers, the Times , went ballistic when the London Spectator ran a little article on the self-described dominance of Jews in Hollywood. The somewhat naive Spectator author thought he was doing nothing more than reporting an interesting circumstance and, as it turns out, was in large part relying on what Jewish writers had said about Jews and Hollywood. The young man did not understand that, according to the rules of the more extreme members of the anti-Semitism patrol, non-Jews are not supposed to notice when Jews publicly celebrate Jewish influence and success. As Ann Douglas has recently described in her acclaimed account of New York in the 1920s, Terrible Honesty (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), the central role of Jews in American popular entertainment goes back to the nineteenth century and, far from being a secret, has been frequently extolled in film and song. With weeks of letters and commentary in the Spectator , our British cousins had great fun with this little squall, chalking it up as yet another instance of American hypocrisy about our professed devotion to free speech.
After A Theory of Justice , it seemed that John Rawls was established as the oracle of political philosophy among English-speaking, or at least American, intellectuals. Remarkable in that light is the relatively cool reception given his 1993 book, Political Liberalism . Of course there is the fact that people enjoy taking down a few pegs those who have been elevated to such heights, but in the years between the two books there were significant changes in the American intellectual culture. The ahistorical and individualistic reasoning of A Theory of Justice no doubt played a part in provoking a rash of books that lifted up the importance of community, of “thick descriptions,” and of reasons of the heart alien to the reason of Rawls. Then too, while we do not embrace the notion that timing is everything, Political Liberalism came at a time when the irrepressible force of religion in public life and public discourse was making itself newly felt. Although A Theory had occasional intimations of something that might be called transcendent, Rawls’ project was self-consciously secular, and this became even more evident in Political Liberalism .
Michael McConnell of the University of Chicago and an FT contributor, makes this point in an article in the Michigan Law Review . He notes that there is a “surge of new writing about the role of religion in public life,” and reflects on how this might provide something like a “middle ground” in the abortion debate. McConnell has this to say about Rawls: “In the most serious entry in the field, John Rawls maintains that a society may justly base its laws only on a reasonable’ political conception of justice, meaning a conception that is, or can be, shared by citizens regarded as free and equal’ and that does not presuppose any particular comprehensive doctrine,’ of which religious doctrine is a prime example. Applying this idea to the abortion issue, Rawls concludes (without much discussion) that any comprehensive doctrine that leads to a balance of political values excluding’ the right to an abortion by a mature adult’ woman in the first trimester is to that extent unreasonable,’ because the political value of the equality of women is overriding.’ This means, apparently, that the contrary balance-treating the life of the unborn as the overriding value’-is not just wrong but beyond the boundaries of reasonable argument, in part because it rests on a comprehensive doctrine’ (though why respect for unborn life rests on a comprehensive doctrine while respect for the equality of women does not is something of a mystery).”
McConnell is actually reviewing a new book by Elizabeth Mensch and Alan Freeman, The Politics of Virtue: Is Abortion Debatable? (Duke University Press). Mensch is a liberal Protestant and Freeman is Jewish, and their purpose is to explore whether in fact “comprehensive doctrines” offered by religion might not open the abortion controversy to the possibility of a sustainable accommodation. They survey different religious approaches, including natural law doctrine associated with Catholicism, and end up being most impressed with the Protestant thought of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Of those two worthies McConnell says, “Their position might be described as anti-choice,’ though not pro-life.’“
He notes that that is his characterization, not that of Mensch and Freeman, but it is a remarkable characterization. Both Barth and Bonhoeffer left no doubt about the evil of abortion. In his Ethics , for example, Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor killed by Hitler in the last days of the war, wrote that abortion is “nothing but murder,” for a “nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life.” McConnell thinks it significant that Bonhoeffer adds, “A great many different motives may lead to an action of this kind; indeed in cases where it is an act of despair, performed in circumstances of extreme human or economic destitution and misery, the guilt may often lie rather with the community than with the individual.” That is significant, but it addresses only the culpability of the woman involved, not the wrongness of the act. In any event, McConnell seems to confuse theological and pastoral judgment with public policy prescription, almost as though Barth and Bonhoeffer were addressing the American abortion conflict in 1995. Were they part of the present debate, it seems very unlikely that they would not support the goal of the pro-life movement that every unborn child be protected in law and welcomed in life.
Returning to Mensch and Freeman, McConnell is skeptical of a Protestant proposal for a “compromise” that will end up with the law paying lip service to the sanctity of life while doing nothing about the practice of abortion. His words are sobering: “This is essentially the West European solution (coupled with some more serious protection for fetal life in the later stages of pregnancy than we have here), and it seems to satisfy most people. Let us abolish the right’ of abortion discovered in Roe , declare that all life is deserving of protection, and then do nothing about it. Under this approach, the protesters, I predict, would diminish greatly in number; the Supreme Court’s docket would be cleared of these contentious cases; politicians would be off the hook; but the number of abortions would stay the same. If there is a principled middle-ground position, it must lie in a noncoercive pro-life policy that works .”
Reflecting on the subtitle of the book, Is Abortion Debatable ?, McConnell ends with this: “By debatable,’ the authors presumably mean that abortion is an issue about which debate is both possible and useful. I do not think that anyone will come away from this book persuaded of any particular thesis or program regarding abortion. I do think, though, that readers will be in a better position to see why even persons who share the authors’ liberal-left, feminist worldview should understand the abortion issue as a question of justice-not simply of privacy or oppression-and even those of a secular orientation will be able to see how theological voices can contribute to the debate. Perhaps the first step toward having a productive debate-and hence toward finding a peaceful democratic solution-is to listen to one another’s arguments and to stop attempting to rule out-of-bounds’ those whose presuppositions are grounded in religious faith.”
John Rawls’ exclusion of “comprehensive doctrines,” notably religious doctrines, from public discourse is, in our judgment, a not very well disguised argument against democracy. Democratic discourse is more about people than doctrine; people locked in civil discourse can bring whatever doctrines they want to that discourse, although admittedly some doctrines will be more politically effective than others, and the intrusion of some doctrines could make the discourse a good deal less civil. In this connection, McConnell’s treatment of natural law is disappointing. McConnell, an evangelical Protestant, wonders whether natural law is religious at all, since it makes no appeal to revelation. “Perhaps God has nothing to do with it,” he writes. But, as he notes in the same essay, natural law is divine law as much as is the positive law revealed in Scripture. The natural law claim is that God has so created the world that there are moral truths accessible to human reason (even fallen human reason) that makes moral deliberation possible among those who do and those who do not recognize the revealed truths of salvation. God has everything to do with it. It is the way He made the world and us in it. In trying to discern and obey the moral truth, one is doing one’s religious duty. One does not need to be doing something identifiably religious in order to be religious. But that’s an argument for another day.
Brace yourself for a piece of good news. When, last year, Oregon legalized doctor-assisted suicide “jubilant activists and sober critics predicted that right-to-die laws would spread like wildfire. Four months later, Measure 16 appears to be more of a brushfire that could fizzle, at least this year.” That’s from Oregon’s largest newspaper, the Oregonian . This year, suicide bills have been introduced in at least eleven states; several have already been defeated, and none appears to be headed for passage. In addition, state and federal courts have been ruling against a constitutional right to die. Especially important is the Ninth Circuit Court that, in a decision written by John Noonan, overruled the May 1994 decision of Judge Barbara Rothstein in Compassion in Dying v. Washington State .
There have been complaints that media reports on the decision have made a point of noting that Noonan is a Catholic who has written extensively on the protection of life. We do not agree with the complaint. If reports on a decision to the opposite effect noted that the decision was written by a Methodist who has written extensively in favor of the right to die, that would seem to be fair enough. The unfairness lies in the fact that the media did, predictably, report Noonan’s religion and moral views, and almost certainly would not in the second instance. If a judge decides in favor of protecting life, he decides as a Catholic; if a judge decides in the opposite direction, he or she decides as a judge. So you are still expecting fairness in journalism? In fact, we would like to think that Noonan’s Catholic morality does have a bearing on the decision-not because of his position on the issue but because he understands that judges have a moral duty not to make up constitutional rights.
In any event, herewith excerpts from the majority opinion of the Ninth Circuit: “The conclusion of the district court that the statute deprived the plaintiffs of a liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment and denied them the equal protection of the laws cannot be sustained . . . . In the 205 years of our existence no constitutional right to aid in killing oneself has ever been asserted and upheld by a court of final jurisdiction. Unless the federal judiciary is to be a floating constitutional convention, a federal court should not invent a constitutional right unknown to the past and antithetical to the defense of human life that has been a chief responsibility of our constitutional government . . . . The district court declared the statute unconstitutional on its face without adequate consideration of Washington’s interests that, individually and convergently, outweigh any alleged liberty of suicide . . . . 1. The interest in not having physicians in the role of killers of their patients . . . . Not only would the self-understanding of physicians be affected by removal of the state’s support for their professional stance; the physician’s constant search for ways to combat disease would be affected, if killing were as acceptable an option for the physician as curing . . . . 2. The interest in not subjecting the elderly and even the not-elderly but infirm to psychological pressure to consent to their own deaths . . . . 3. The interest in protecting the poor and minorities from exploitation . . . . Pain is a significant factor in creating a desire for assisted suicide, and the poor and minorities are notoriously less provided for in the alleviation of pain . . . . The desire to reduce the cost of public assistance by quickly terminating a prolonged illness cannot be ignored. 4. The interest in protecting all of the handicapped from societal indifference and antipathy . . . . An insidious bias against the handicapped-again coupled with a cost-saving mentality-makes them especially in need of Washington’s statutory protection . . . . 5. An interest in preventing abuse similar to what has occurred in the Netherlands . . . . The physician’s medical expertness is not a license to inflict medical procedures against your will . . . . You can be left alone if you want . . . . Tort law and criminal law have never recognized a right to let others enslave you, mutilate you, or kill you. When you assert a claim that another-and especially another licensed by the state-should help you bring about your death, you ask for more than being let alone; you ask that the state, in protecting its own interest, not prevent its licensee from killing. The difference is not of degree but of kind. You no longer seek the end of unwanted medical attention. You seek the right to have a second person collaborate in your death.”
As welcome as the Ninth Circuit decision is, and as encouraged as we should be by the resistance to “right to die” measures in various states, complacency is entirely out of order. There are other legal ploys to be tried, and other courts more hospitable to the euthanasia cause. Euthanasia advocates were so buoyed by Oregon that in other states their bills dropped Oregon’s “safeguards” and came out for what they really want: e.g., doctors allowed to give lethal injections, a broadened definition of “terminal” illness, and terminations of patients who have not given their consent. Having overreached in several states, the Hemlock Society and its allies will perhaps be more cautious in the future. Certainly they still think the future is theirs, and maybe they are right. The most recent encyclical of John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae , makes a convincing case that “the culture of death” is on the move. But for the moment there are also hopeful signs that, halfway down the abyss, some political and judicial fences are being repaired.
A very long time ago Albert Schweitzer was thought to have nailed down the coffin lid on “the quest for the historical Jesus.” Most scholars thought Paul Tillich had it right when he wrote: “Seen in the light of its basic intention, the attempt of historical criticism to find the empirical truth about Jesus of Nazareth was a failure. The historical Jesus, namely, the Jesus behind the symbols of his reception as the Christ, not only did not appear but receded farther and farther with every new step.” In the decade following World War II, however, there emerged a “new quest of the historical Jesus,” this time with the quite different purpose of grounding the Christian proclamation in the preaching and activity of Jesus, lest Christian faith drift off into some kind of ahistorical gnostic myth or mystery. That quest, too, was generally considered a failure, but none of this has prevented another batch of scholars, mainly American, from launching a “new new quest” or “third quest.” Writing about the earlier questings, Schweitzer said ninety years ago: “Each individual created Jesus in accordance with his own character. There is no historical task which so reveals a man’s true self as the writing of a life of Jesus.” As Schweitzer well understood, the traditional Christological dogmas of the Church had to be shattered before scholars could be free to proceed on the presuppositions that they bring to the task of discovering “the real Jesus.”
Carl Braaten, writing in the ecumenical journal Pro Ecclesia , invites us to cultivate a robust skepticism regarding this new new quest. “The answer to the question, Which Jesus? Whose Jesus?’ cannot be given without coming clean on the matter of presuppositions. There were certain presuppositions at work in the formation of the Gospel traditions in the life of the early church. Easter and Pentecost were the crucial ones. We know what we know about Jesus only in the light of Easter and Pentecost. If we ignore them as functioning presuppositions in our scholarly approach to the historical Jesus, we will end up with a Jesus who looks very different from the picture of Jesus the Christ that we find in the New Testament and the Christian liturgy.
“The pictures of Jesus in the Third Quest’ tell us more about their authors than they do about the real’ Jesus of history. They are all very different; there is no consensus at all. For S. G. F. Brandon Jesus was a political revolutionary, for Hugh Schonfield a messianic schemer, for Morton Smith the founder of a secret society, for Geza Vermes a Galilean holy man, for Burton Mack a wandering Cynic preacher, for John Dominic Crosson a Mediterranean Jewish peasant, for Marcus Borg a countercultural charismatic trying to make the world a better place, for Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza a first-century feminist who called his disciples into an egalitarian community of equals, for Barbara Thiering a member of the Qumran community who married Mary Magdalene, had two sons and a daughter, divorced Mary, married someone else, and died in his sixties. For Bishop John Spong Jesus was born of a woman who had been raped, and all the stuff about Jesus’ resurrection in the Gospels is nothing but later Christian midrash.’
“Usually I’m not so fond of the hermeneutics of suspicion, but here, with Schweitzer’s verdict ringing in my ears, I cannot help but apply it. These Jesus-scholars have found a reflection of their own values and ideals in Jesus, painting his picture in accordance with their own character, or lack of it. Meanwhile, many believing Christians will respond to the plethora of exotic concoctions and novelistic fantasies about the historical Jesus much like Mary Magdalene lamented to the two angels at the tomb: They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him’ (John 20:13).”
It’s in the nature of conversations that they go back and forth, sometimes tediously and sometimes engagingly so. In the latter category is the discussion of whether a Christian understanding of the truth protects the rights of secular humanists better than a secular humanist understanding of the truth protects the rights of Christians. That was the claim made in this space some months ago, to which secular humanist William Sierichs, Jr. wrote an intelligently amusing rejoinder in the January 1995 issue. Sierichs, you may recall, turned the standard charges of Christian intolerance on their head, producing a tongue-in-cheek historical account of how secular humanists have persecuted Christians over the centuries. He ended with the plea, “Please don’t be paranoid. Our past does not predict our future.” Francis Brislawn of Laramie, Wyoming, was amused but not taken in. Along with his letter he sends us a copy of a letter he wrote to Free Inquiry , the magazine of the Council for Democratic/Secular Humanism, Dr. Paul Kurtz, bishop and founder. Mr. Brislawn wrote:
“In the Fall 1994 issue of Free Inquiry , on the Notes from the Editor page, the question is raised: What right do parents have to impose their own narrow and chauvinistic ideas on their offspring? (Referring to religious ideas.) Further down in this article a principle of the Secular Humanist Declaration is quoted: We do not think it is moral to baptize infants, to confirm adolescents, or to impose a religious creed on young people before they are able to consent. Although children should learn about the history of religious/moral practices, these minds should not be indoctrinated in the faith before they are mature enough to evaluate the merits for themselves.’
“I don’t know, maybe immature minds should not be indoctrinated. But it seems here that humanists are trying to deny to others the freedom they claim for themselves-they themselves want to indoctrinate young minds. There seems to be a double standard. Is this freethought? (Using freethought in a descriptive sense and not in a technical sense.) Why do humanists have the right to impose a humanist creed on young people before they are able to consent?
“A couple of letters to the editor in that issue, one from Sidney Kash and another from John S. Dearing, provide further examples of this mindset. Sidney Kash describes how he would indoctrinate children: If they do not get religious training, they should be provided with a basis in science and skepticism . . . . To introduce science, I suggest reading about biology (including the evolutionary progression of animals) and astronomy. Children ages three to five are not too young. Taking a lead from religion, it is important to expose children early to modern scientific views of the world around us . . . .
“John Dearing states, Children need to be protected from religion . . . . One way to teach our children is by reading and discussing humanist freethought books with them.’ This sounds like a Sunday School or Bible study for humanists.
“How can humanists claim the right to indoctrinate their children while denying that freedom to religionists? Is it because humanism, evolution, etc. are objectively true while religion is not? But religionists believe their ideas to be objectively true. Paul Kurtz asks: What right do they have to impose their own narrow chauvinistic ideas on their offspring? Children are not the possessions of parents, but autonomous beings.’ Religionists will ask, What right do atheists have to impose their own narrow and chauvinistic ideas on their offspring? The kids do not belong to them.’
“If parents shouldn’t impose their narrow ideas on their children, how do we prevent it? Thought police? It’s scary. Some parents will be allowed to pass their values on but others will not. This whole thing has the flavor of an in-house quarrel between competing faiths-religious faiths have always sought ways to prevent rival religions from teaching their ideas.”
After all the demonstrations and all the rallies, after the endless promotions of “safe sex” and the billions of dollars spent seeking a cure, a fatalistic attitude seems to have settled on the AIDS community, researchers and activists alike. The disease has become the leading killer of Americans between twenty-five and forty, according to Craig Horowitz in New York magazine, and half the homosexual men in New York City are HIV-positive. The virus-with its ability to mutate rapidly-has defeated all medical efforts to combat it.
Fatalism, however, as the ancient Roman Stoics discovered, is one of the most peculiar of possible moral attitudes to the universe, for it leads simultaneously toward two apparently opposed results: toward irresponsible activity and toward hopeless inactivity. Fatalism both sets one free and loads one down, because nothing that one does makes any difference. And both of these results have begun to surface in the worlds of homosexual activism.
“This change in attitude is clearly visible,” Horowitz observes. “The return of vintage seventies promiscuity has sparked a small boom in theaters, dance clubs, bars, and a variety of other venues that have back rooms and private cubicles for sex . . . . There is a new generation of men under twenty-five that simply hasn’t had enough experience with the disease to really be afraid of it . . . . It’s made them very susceptible to the mythmaking side of AIDS,’ says Martin Delaney [a San Francisco AIDS activist]. That HIV isn’t the cause of AIDS, that it’s all a government plot, the whole area that I call the conspiracy-theory side.’“
Meanwhile, the older leaders of ACT-UP, after their first successes in focusing attention upon AIDS, have gradually despaired of victory. “I know that no matter how many meetings I go to, we’re not going to walk out with a cure in my lifetime,” one tired activist admitted. “Everybody’s burned out,” added Delaney, “I am; we all are.”
The failure to find a medical cure has led to some of the homosexuals’ fatalism. “No viral disease in history has ever had so much money thrown at it,” the Nobel-laureate David Baltimore reported. The NIH alone spends $1.3 billion on AIDS research-though some critics, writes Horowitz, charge that the NIH is “an oversize, byzantine, bureaucratized black hole that sucks in federal dollars and delivers little in the way of results.” But researchers have managed to do considerable research, and their “early success followed by disappointment and heavily politicized disputes over strategy” has finally succeeded in destroying the older activists’ dream that they could get a cure simply by demanding one loudly and outrageously enough. “Though activists still argue that AIDS is being ignored and underfunded, that has become a harder case to make.”
The only available way to prevent the spread of AIDS, as even homosexuals admit, is by a change in behavior. But the change they have promoted, the “safe sex” ostensibly offered by the use of condoms, has proven ineffective. The physical and psychological awkwardness of condoms has lessened their use, and the increasingly fatalistic attitude of homosexuals has lead to a recent rise in reports of unprotected sex-and to a rise in the rates of HIV infection. Even the activists themselves contributed to the rise. “Whatever else you want to say about it,” ACT-UP founder Larry Kramer said, “ACT-UP was an incredible place to meet people . . . . It became the best cruising ground in New York. All the hot young men were there. Ask some of them how many guys they [had sex with] in the cloakroom. That’s a part of ACT-UP people don’t talk about.”
As we remarked some months ago, the all-stops-pulled gay and lesbian campaign of 1993-marches, protests, and cover stories in almost all the major magazines-came a cropper. It was the revolution that wasn’t. The disillusionment of yesterday’s activists is poignant but, considering what their victory might have meant, one’s sympathy is contained.
The title After MacIntyre takes off from Alasdair MacIntyre’s celebrated After Virtue . After MacIntyre, published by University of Notre Dame Press, has seventeen philosophers criticizing MacIntyre’s project from various viewpoints and with varying degrees of substantive disagreement. Then MacIntyre, as is the way with such books, offers an extended response to his critics. The whole thing is great fun, although most readers will undoubtedly think it an insiders’ quarrel among philosophers. In the course of his response, MacIntyre indicates the ways in which he has become much more of a Thomist over the years. He also gets off some sprightly observations about one of his favorite bugbears, the movement that today goes by the name “communitarianism.” “Contemporary communitarians, from whom I have strongly dissociated myself whenever I have had an opportunity to do so, advance their proposals as a contribution to the politics of the nation-state. Where liberals have characteristically insisted that government within a nation-state should remain neutral between rival conceptions of the human good, contemporary communitarians have urged that such government should give expression to some shared vision of the human good, a vision defining some type of community. Where liberals have characteristically urged that it is in the activities of subordinate voluntary associations, such as those constituted by religious groups, that shared visions of the good should be articulated, communitarians have insisted that the nation itself through the institutions of the nation-state ought to be constituted to some significant degree as a community. In the United States this has become a debate within the Democratic Party, a debate in which from my own point of view communitarians have attacked liberals on one issue on which liberals have been consistently in the right.”
Philosophical liberals are right in seeing the collectivist, even totalitarian, danger in the notion of the nation as a “strong community.” What they do not see is that the problem is with the modern nation-state. “Liberals, however, mistakenly suppose that those evils arise from any form of political community which embodies substantive practical agreement upon some strong conception of the human good. I by contrast take them to arise from the specific character of the modern nation-state, thus agreeing with liberals in this at least, that modern nation-states which masquerade as embodiments of community are always to be resisted. The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf. As I have remarked elsewhere, it is like being asked to die for the telephone company. Sometimes of course there are evils only to be resisted by ad hoc participation in some particular enterprises of some nation-state: in resisting Hitler and Stalin, most notably. And it is prudent to pay one’s taxes and always just to accept obligations which one has incurred to the state and to its agencies. But to empower even the liberal state as a bearer of values always imperils those values . . . . In any case the liberal critique of those nation-states which pretend to embody the values of community has little to say to those Aristotelians, such as myself, for whom the nation-state is not and cannot be the locus of community.” So is Alasdair MacIntyre a liberal or conservative or what? Stay tuned. He says he is working on a big new book that may, or may not, answer questions such as that. In any event, After MacIntyre demonstrates that it is ridiculously premature to title a book After MacIntyre .
Oh, what a lovely fuss it has raised. United Methodist hierarchs harrumph at Abingdon’s publishing something so inappropriate, his colleagues in academic theology rail against its incorrectness, and the acolytes of Sophia claim that it is more than outrageous. They have gone so far as to call it conservative, which in some circles is about as far as you can go. The occasion of this ruckus is Thomas C. Oden’s new book, Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements (176 pages, $16.95
). Oden, a United Methodist teaching at Drew University, has more than three decades of experience with seminaries and divinity schools, and he offers good reason for being worried about what is going on. Herewith my foreword to the book, offered in the hope that it will whet the appetite of readers-and not only Methodist or Protestant readers-to accept an invitation to a requiem that, God willing, is prelude to resurrection.