The Public Square
When asked what he most misses since becoming a Roman Catholic, Father George Rutler, a former Anglican, routinely responds, The liturgy in English. I feel his pain. Most Catholics apparently don’t, having never known the King James Bible or liturgy in the tradition of the Book of Common Prayer. Or, if they do, they exercise heroic patience with a Mass that is linguistically pockmarked with banalities and barbarities. In deciding on the lectionary, the book that contains the biblical lessons, what a shame that after the Second Vatican Council the English-speaking bishops were not ecumenical enough to choose the first Revised Standard Version. The New International Version, now most widely used by Protestants, is also immeasurably superior to the New American Bible now used in the Mass. The Catholic story of Bible translation, it sometimes seems, is from the Vulgate to the vulgar. When challenged by the literate, the biblical and liturgical establishment defends the accuracy of the current translation. Accuracy is very important, but it need not be the enemy of felicity, memorability, and clarity.
Now a committee of American bishops has returned from Rome with permission to introduce what may or may not be new mischief, moderately inclusive horizontal language. We are assured there will be no meddling with vertical language that refers to God, which is heretical, but references to human beings will be gender-nonspecific, which is only philistine. Apart from the liturgical establishment and a relative handful of neophyliacs who persist in confusing progress with change, there is no popular demand for inclusive language. On the contrary, the evidence is that a great majority of Catholics”and an even greater majority of Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week”do not favor this innovation. Never mind. As the bishop who until recently headed the U.S. committee on liturgy declared in his valedictory, the People of God will just have to get used to perpetual change.
A very different perspective is offered by the new Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schönborn, who is one of the most respected theologians in the Catholic world and was chosen by John Paul II to be chief editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church . In a recent interview with Our Sunday Visitor , Schönborn said: To put it in a very blunt way”and I hope I do not sin against charity”I think the whole debate on inclusive language is a short period in a certain phase of modern history which will pass very rapidly. In a few years we will ask ourselves, What was the problem?’ Equal dignity and the difference between male and female”both are revealed truth and both are essential. Of course, man and woman have the same dignity as creatures, as persons. Nevertheless, to banish gender from language means to banish it from revelation. This is simply nonsense. Schönborn adds that language is not an arbitrary vestment that you can take or leave. It’s not as if the fashion has changed, so we do not wear a certain type of blue jeans any longer. Language, in the biblical understanding, reveals reality.
The adoption of moderate horizontal inclusive fashions in the lectionary is not the end of the world. The bishops who worked this out with Rome feel they have successfully rebuffed zealots here who pressed for more radical changes, and perhaps they have.
But one wonders why the zealots should be setting the agenda in the first place. The bigger question is whether the Catholic Church can regain a sense of worshipping God in the beauty of holiness. This requires a careful reexamination of almost everything done in the last three decades in putting the liturgy into English. There was a time when converts to Catholicism were suspected of succumbing to aestheticism, which is worshipping the holiness of beauty. No more. While there is a dramatic upsurge in the number of adult converts”estimates are 200,000 per year in the U.S. alone”it seems likely that many take the step despite the general liturgical and linguistic slovenliness. Apostolic continuity, doctrinal confidence, and sacramental substance cover a multitude of aesthetic sins.
Archbishop Schönborn again: In a world full of so much ugliness, liturgy should be a rest for the soul, a repose where the soul can breathe. Beauty is not aestheticism. It is not an aim in itself. It is a glimpse of God’s glory. We shouldn’t stay with the glimpse. I come from Austria where, you know, we have some not-so-bad musicians. On the great feast days, we have a Mass of Mozart or Schubert or Bruckner, and the liturgy is celebrated in our great gothic cathedral, a marvelous space, shining radiantly in morning light. This is really a glimpse of heaven’s glory. This Easter Sunday the cathedral was full as I have never seen it. Thousands of people standing, packed, crowded. Why? Because people are thirsting for beauty and for what they rightly feel is behind beauty: the glory of God revealed to us. Heaven opens in liturgy. Beauty in liturgy costs time, love, care, commitment. We must take time for preparing the liturgy, looking for the beauty of the flowers, the songs, the space, incense, candles. All this has nothing to do with pure aestheticism, but is an expression of love. The faithful feel whether in a church there is a love of God. My experience is that, wherever you have a beautiful liturgy, people come. People are attracted, and rightly. We should not say that this is only a superficial attraction. Beauty is one way to God. It should never be separated from goodness and truth. Beauty without goodness is not beauty; so love for the poor has to be cultivated together with love for beauty”and, of course, with love for truth.
The Two Religions of American Jews
Most American Jews have two religions, Judaism and Americanism, and you can’t have two religions any more than you can have two hearts or two heads. So writes Adam Garfinkle, executive editor of the National Interest , in the Winter 1996 issue of Conservative Judaism . The American civic religion, says Garfinkle, is based upon contract and has equality as its central dogma, while Judaism is based on revelation and necessary inequalities, not least the difference between Jews and others. Moreover”and this is the key”contrary to common comfortable assumptions, the demands that both Judaism and Americanism place upon our loyalties are nearly all-encompassing to the extent that their spirits are taken seriously. Both ways of thinking about society are religious in that they depend on belief in certain values, and both generate universalist social visions from those values. Judaism is less concerned with abstract theology than with deeds, and the power of American values is not limited to the public realm but inhabits the heart as well. Name any consequential public policy issue, and both Judaism and Americanism speak to it with passion and fervor.
Those Jews fool themselves who think that America is innocently secular. Secularity is not neutral but creates a vacuum that is filled with the belief system of civic religion. Most American Jews have two religions the way some men have one wife and one mistress, or some women one husband and one lover. It is a condition that can be managed, learned from, even enjoyed, sometimes for long periods. But it can never be brought to true conciliation. Those who observe Jewish law, or halakhah, have a view of authority that might be described as distinctly un-American. In traditional Jewish thought, social and political authority lies in the hierarchical organization of society, which forms an interpretive funnel backwards through time to make God’s will knowable and applicable on earth. Individuals are born into a people, and into God’s covenant with that people. They are not free political agents, free to interpret the Torah on ill-defined or ambiguous issues. It is within such a paradigm that the Sanhedrin found its basic meaning centuries ago and that the authority of Talmud and post-talmudic responsa finds its binding force today. In addition, being the chosen people makes a real difference. The Jews do not merge with the nations or convert them. They are, said Balaam in Numbers 23:9, a people destined to live alone. Although Jewish ideas are universalist, traditional Jews see themselves in exclusivist terms, a self-perception that has caused endless confusion and resentment among non-Jews. Jewish apologists like to emphasize the special burdens of this role and point to the costs it has exacted on the Jewish people in history”no doubt all true. But that does not change the basic fact, as even a casual reading of central Jewish texts shows, that Jews have believed themselves special, closer to the Divine than other peoples.
Pluralism Is No Answer
While some Jews think pluralism has solved the problem of being both fully Jewish and fully American, the contrary is indicated in ways both large and small. They are correct in the sense that the enthronement of cultural pluralism in America gives everyone the right to be different, and the right to feel proud of it. Moreover, we have extended the right to be different from individuals to groups; hence affirmative action and class-action suits. As a result, thanks to various court decisions, it is now much easier for Jews to be Sabbath-observant in a secular environment than it was twenty-five years ago. Nevertheless, any group of Americans that does not eat hot dogs at baseball games, whose athletically precocious children do not play Little League on Saturday mornings, whose kids cannot sleep over at most neighbors’ houses because of concern with kashrut , and who feel strange when sent a Christmas card by oblivious coworkers, is not fully American in the cultural sense that most Americans understand the term.
Jewish difference should make a difference, says Garfinkle. Does the fact that halakhic Jews”as well as the Amish, Mennonites, and others”choose not to partake in the potential universalism of America make them less culturally American? Yes, it does. Does the primacy of group identity among halakhic Jews clash with the individualist ethos of the American ideal? Yes. And no placing of Holocaust Museums in Washington”at base an attempt to turn a Jewish experience into an American one so that American Jews can pretend that the Jewish parochialism they love and cling to and the American universalism they admire and need do not conflict”can change that.
Among non-halakhic Jews, there are arguments between conservatives, neoconservatives, and liberals, but at bottom they are agreed about their ultimate allegiance to Americanism. Not all non-halakhic Jews hear the same things from the oracles of American democracy, of course; some are conservative or neoconservative and they argue incessantly. When they do, they sometimes raise the question of who is politically correct in Jewish terms. The real ground of these arguments, however, has little to do with Judaism; at best, it has to do with Jews and Jewish parochial interests (like Israel). Thus, Judaism’ is frequently impressed into the service of the contending sides, but in fact it is the passion of American politics, ideology, and foreign policy that really animates debate. Those both pro and con are engaged with religious energies in a discourse over religious principles, except that the god for whose sake all this is done is not the Holy One, blessed be He, but rather the Republic for which it, the American flag, stands.
Three Ways of Being Jewish
To make aliyah , or return to Israel, is important also to secular Jews who are Zionists. Garfinkle writes, The Jewish people today is divided into three groups, a phenomenon unique to post-Emancipation times. First are those who define their Jewish peoplehood in halakhic terms, the traditional formula. Second are those Israeli Jews who define their Jewishness in modern and avowedly secular national terms, in secular Zionism. The second group will last at least as long as Israel survives and maybe beyond, and the first group as long as halakhah survives. Third are non-halakhic Jews in the Diaspora, including America. What of those who reject both halakhah and aliyah ? On what basis can their Jewishness endure? If one asks them, they will say that one need not make aliyah to be a Zionist and one need not follow halakhah to be a Jew. Despite its popularity among American Jews, this answer makes no sense.
Garfinkle risks treading on some very sensitive toes: One hates to admit that people like Gore Vidal or Patrick Buchanan are ever right, but those (admittedly few) American Jews who emphasize secular Zionism to define their Jewishness do raise the problem of dual loyalty. It is impossible for people who define their Jewishness solely in modern national terms to explain not emigrating to Israel. As for being a Jew by religion without halakhah, this has been attempted before and the eventual result, with precious few exceptions, has always been the same: failure and assimilation. Taken together, they form a veritable travesty of bad faith. Acknowledging the optimists who come up with occasionally hopeful indicators of Judaism’s flourishing in the future, Garfinkle is skeptical. Jews have the lowest birthrate of any American group, and assimilation through intermarriage now exceeds 45 percent. As a result, Jews now constitute 2.7 percent of the American population whereas thirty years ago they constituted 3.7 percent. According to the June 1991 survey done by the Council of Jewish Federations, 87.5 percent of Jews surveyed said that they would accept the marriage of their child to a non-Jew.
A Grim Prognosis
The only promising and believable future for Judaism is for Jews to be Jews. Withal, ask any serious historian of Jewish life if Jews would have survived as Jews throughout the centuries of exile without halakhah, and you will be told, probably not.’ Thus, only by assuming that America is not exile ( galut ) for Jews, but more neutrally Diaspora,’ can we say that dispensing with halakhah carries no danger of cultural extinction. But this assumption, common as it is, is almost certainly mistaken. The American civil religion and the surrounding social ethos have virtually destroyed the power of the Jewish worldview for most American Jews. The prognosis is grim: It has been nearly two centuries since the Emancipation. In another two, there will probably be no significant non-halakhic Diaspora Jewry in America. Only one thing is delaying this process, and only two things might reverse it. The delaying factor is the State of Israel, which constitutes a focus of Jewish identification outside the normal American cultural context. But the positive association with Israel in the hearts and minds of American Jewry is eroding over time.
The gravamen of Adam Garfinkle’s article is that Jews, especially religious leaders, should stop fooling themselves about what they are doing. We must speak truthfully about what we find before us. When Reform rabbis choose late-twentieth-American or Western cultural standards over halakhic ones to render judgment about ordaining homosexuals or women as clergy, or when they officiate at mixed marriages, they are choosing to affirm contemporary American concepts of equality and authority and to reject Jewish ones. They are not reformulating Jewish tradition within a Jewish framework; they are trying to change Jewish tradition and law by substituting an Americanism whose basic principles are antithetical to Jewish ones.
What Garfinkle says about Jews and Judaism can, mutatis mutandis, be applied to the Christian circumstance in America. From a Christian perspective, however, I would make the argument that Christianity is not antithetical to the basic principles of Americanism. See, for instance, my recent article The Liberalism of John Paul II (May), in which I contend that we can and should reappropriate and revitalize the American liberal tradition. My strong intuition is that such a reappropriation and revitalization is also possible from an authentically Jewish standpoint. As with the arguments of Christians such as Methodist Stanley Hauerwas and Catholic David Schindler, I think Garfinkle’s stark antithesis between Americanism and authentic religion is strategically dead-ended and, in the final analysis, wrong. But of course it is for Jewish thinkers to explain why Garfinkle is wrong. The great contribution of his argument is to underscore that there is a very big problem, which, if not addressed effectively, may well result in the death of Judaism in America.
China: Not By Bread Alone
From time to time, I find myself caught betwixt friends who are strongly disagreeing in public. In this case it is Mr. Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council and Father Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute, and the subject is U.S. policy toward China. Bauer has been leading the forces to deny China most favored nation (MFN) status, and Sirico is the champion of free trade. Writing in the Wall Street Journal , Fr. Sirico accuses Bauer of ignoring the difference between urging certain moral ends and using government coercion to bring them about. That is not quite right. Both of them are exercising their prudential judgment regarding which U.S. policy will more likely move China toward democracy and respect for human rights, especially for religious freedom.
Fr. Sirico protests that Bauer is in bed with labor unions and protectionists, but surely it is in the nature of coalitions that you join with people who might be doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Fr. Sirico asserts, Economic prosperity through free trade is the most effective distributor of wealth and power, and trade with China is the surest way to break the grip of centralized political power. Well, maybe. The day before the Sirico piece appeared, the WSJ carried an article by its editor, Robert Bartley, that more modestly asserted that we should accept the gamble that free trade would lead to an alleviation of China’s atrocious record on religious and other freedoms. I confess to more than a little skepticism about the dogmatic assurance of economic conservatives that free trade = democracy = peace. Many years ago I worked at the Council on Religion and International Affairs and kept on my wall a letter from its founder, Andrew Carnegie, confidently declaring that the bonds of sacred commerce between the U.S., Great Britain, and Germany precluded the possibility of war. The letter was written in the summer of 1914.
In any event, when fellow Christians are being persecuted we have an obligation to speak out as effectively as possible, and it is obvious that one effective way of getting China’s attention is to challenge its trade privileges. So I think I’ll stay with Gary Bauer and the Catholic bishops of the U.S. in opposing MFN. Against that position, Fr. Sirico says that the Holy See is moving toward an official recognition of the Catholic Church on the mainland, presumably meaning the regime-approved patriotic church. Perhaps. Rome has its own fish to fry in international diplomacy. I am not privy to the details of that. I am persuaded that Christians in America have the obligation to make as clear as they can their concern for those who are persecuted, and especially those who are persecuted for the faith.
During the late unlamented cold war, we were told to mute our protest because the question of religious persecution in the Soviet Union and elsewhere was being addressed through quiet diplomacy. Some of us rejected that argument then, and should reject now the not entirely dissimilar argument that the only effective response to political tyranny is the promotion of economic prosperity. As I am sure Fr. Sirico agrees, fat tyrants are no great improvement, especially when they can persuade or force their subjects to live by bread alone.
Stemming the Epidemic Is Not Enough
The New Republic goes after us again in an editorial called Obstruction of Justice. The current wave of judicial bashing, the editors complain, began in November, when First Things . . . published The End of Democracy?,’ a symposium decrying judicial activism. And now the editors think it has gone far enough; in fact it has gone much too far. Congress is holding up confirmation of appointees to federal judgeships and thus obstructing justice. It is disgraceful, we are told, that the usual voices of responsible conservatism have not found the courage to say publicly what they must know privately: there is no epidemic of liberal judicial activism. In truth, the editors claim, judges have been pulling in their horns, and they cite the upholding of Proposition 209 in California and the (then expected) Supreme Court refusal to find a constitutional right to assisted suicide.
Regrettably, TNR continues to miss the point. The argument is not simply about judicial activism but about the judicial usurpation of politics. It is about government that is not derived from the consent of the governed. Because they are, as presently constituted, political institutions, the courts take fright when challenged and, here and there, temporarily restrain their propensity for making laws. At the moment, the challenge has concentrated the minds of some judges and there may be no epidemic of judicial usurpation, but the disease is widespread and entrenched. The search for remedies has hardly begun. The editors of TNR say, Robert Bork, having recently abandoned his proposal for legislative override of judicial decisions as insufficiently radical, now says he wants to end judicial review entirely. As I understand it, that is not an entirely accurate representation of Bork’s position, but the questions he is pressing are precisely what is needed if we are to hope for anything better than periodic declines in the epidemic of judicial usurpation.
Coming from a different angle, Ernest van den Haag attacks us in National Review . Where does First Things §) find the higher law’ it wishes to be adhered to by the Supreme Court? There is only one answer. We need a theocracy as in Iran or Afghanistan. With all its imperfections, I prefer our current system, a secular republic. The editors of National Review , who have been supportive of the First Things initiative, respond by citing the position of constitutional scholar Harry Jaffa that the Constitution tacitly incorporates the postulates of the Declaration of Independence. It was not deemed necessary, when the Bill of Rights was argued, to make a case for the fetus or for heterosexual marriage. Dr. van den Haag’s position, though seductive, must be approached with caution. It is, after all, mutatis mutandis, a Nuremberg defense.
I would put it somewhat differently. Van den Haag charged that First Things advocates a moral reading that finds moral principles in the Constitution which are not in the document. I, too, have moral principles. The first one is: Don’t read into the Constitution things that aren’t there. Although it is certainly not the first of my moral principles, and I hope it is not that for van den Haag, I wholeheartedly agree. The job of judges is to interpret the Constitution accurately, which means to do so in an originalist reading that respects what those who wrote and ratified it actually meant. A judge has no business invoking higher law or his own political preferences to make the Constitution say what he thinks it should have said. That is making law, and making law is the legislative prerogative of those who represent the people, who also have the right to amend the Constitution when they deem it necessary. It is not a Nuremberg defense for a judge to limit himself to what the Constitution says. A faithful reading of what the Constitution says, however, must of necessity attend to the moral principles embraced by its authors, including the Declaration’s We hold these truths . . .
These debates go on and on, as I was reminded in writing the extended essay, The Anatomy of a Controversy, for The End of Democracy ?, the book. At first I thought to write a relatively brief piece of about twenty-five pages, until it became obvious that everybody (or so it seems) was getting in on the act. It turns out that the question of judicial usurpation has produced in many quarters a reconsideration of the basics of democratic government, which is all to the good. Even better would be evidence that those in public office are determined to find ways to check an out-of-control judiciary, such evidence being at present in short supply.
The Academic Guild and the Church’s Faith
Meeting in Minneapolis-St Paul, the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) overwhelmingly approved”by a vote of 216 to 22”report on Tradition and the Ordination of Women. The week before the vote, Archbishop Charles Chaput wrote: For members of the CTSA to revisit this teaching at such a late date, when so many other urgent issues face the Church, is more than just disappointing. It will not solve the vocations problem. It creates unnecessary and belated confusion. And it raises questions about the CTSA’s continuing usefulness for the life of the Church. As a bishop, it is certainly my counsel and hope that the CTSA will retire this document as briskly as possible. But of course his counsel and the urgent counsel of others was not heeded.
The CTSA report was couched in terms both academic and deferential to the Church’s teaching authority. Tonalities aside, however, the substantive reality is a rejection of the authority of the Church’s magisterium. Pope John Paul II solemnly declared that the Church is not authorized to ordain women to the presbyterate. In response to an inquiry, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the express approval of the Pope, said that teaching is infallible. The CTSA disagrees. Rhetorical cautions notwithstanding, it has invited a wide-open debate of the question, and it is no secret that many, perhaps most, of its members strongly favor the ordination of women.
There are many pieces to this development, and it will receive more thorough attention in a forthcoming issue. Suffice it for the moment that the CTSA action will exacerbate confusions, but it does not create a crisis, except for the future of CTSA and the academic guild that it represents. In the words of Archbishop Chaput, It raises questions about the CTSA’s continuing usefulness for the life of the Church. And it raises questions for the Catholic colleges and universities in which the several hundred members of CTSA teach.
There is considerable disagreement about the criteria to be met for a papal declaration to be infallible. The only undisputed exercise of infallible teaching authority as specified by the First Vatican Council was the definition of the Assumption of Mary in 1950. There can be no disagreement, however, that in deciding what teachings of the Church are infallible, the members of CTSA have substituted their own judgment for the judgment of the Pope and those authorized to speak in his name. In making that substitution, it would seem that CTSA has abdicated any claim to being an ecclesial body with some role, however ill-defined, in the Church’s teaching ministry. The upshot of the CTSA action is that it is now on record that two hundred-plus Catholic teachers of theology in colleges and universities do not agree with what the Pope, the bishops, and unbroken tradition say the Church teaches. At this late date, that will hardly come as news to anybody. The news is that the CTSA as an organization has”its claims to the contrary notwithstanding”withdrawn from the community of ecclesial reflection devoted to ever more clearly expressing and transmitting the Catholic faith, which is perhaps just as well.
President Clinton and the White Race
E Pluribus Unum. Out of the one, many, as Vice President Gore translated it. That received some derisive comment, but nothing as compared with Dan Quayle’s adding an e to the spelling of potato. Maybe that is because Gore’s blooper was not a blooper. It accurately reflects the policy of this Administration. The term for that policy is multiculturalism”as in David Dinkins’ gorgeous mosaic, as in the comment of the White House aide who cheerfully announced that by the year 2050 there would be fifty million Muslims in the United States. As, most notably, in President Clinton’s San Diego commencement speech on race relations.
Can we become one America in the twenty-first century? Clinton asked. In answer, he lifted up the state of Hawaii, which has no majority racial or ethnic group. It is a wonderful place of exuberance and friendship and patriotism. Lest anyone miss the point, he declared more flatly, A half century from now, when your own grandchildren are in college, there will be no majority race in America. There are several assumptions here. First, that immigration will continue at well over a million per year, and involving mainly nonwhite populations. Second, that the birth rate of immigrants will far exceed that of the native born. Third, that this is inevitable, the American people having no say about it or else having agreed that this would be a good thing. Fourth and most troubling, that the current majority consists of a race called white people.
The polite term for this is racialism. The more common term is racism. Apart from Aryan militia circles, few nonblack, non-Asian, non-Hispanic Americans think of themselves as belonging to the white race. Clinton was criticized by many for not backing up his words in San Diego with an announcement of new policy initiatives. The alarming thing about the speech, however, was the resurrection of the idea of a white race, an idea from the era of Bull Connor that most of us hoped was definitively past. Pitting the majority race against nonwhite claimants to justice is a sure formula for exacerbating the tensions that Clinton says he wants to heal. It necessarily involves, among other things, the discredited and profoundly unjust policies of affirmative action and quotas that, not surprisingly, Clinton strongly defended in San Diego.
We have agreed in these pages with those who say we must regain control over immigration policies that are manifestly out of control. We have strongly disagreed when they say that race should be a factor in shaping immigration policies. No good can come from asking the American people, as some say they should be asked, whether they think it is a good idea that fifty years from now a majority of the population should be nonwhite. That is a racialist, if not racist, way of posing the question. Regrettably, albeit from the other side of the immigration debate, that is the way President Clinton has posed the question.
Multiculturalists and the champions of a white majority have in common the aim of raising race-consciousness, and in this they powerfully reinforce one another. To tell the majority of Americans, as Clinton did, that they should celebrate the prospect that in fifty years most Americans will not be like them is politically stupid and morally wrong. It is politically stupid because most people think that being like them is a pretty good thing. It is morally wrong because it invites the majority of people to identify themselves by race. The most long-standing and divisive struggle in American history”from abolition through the civil war to the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr.”has been to overcome the racial mindset endorsed, however inadvertently, by Bill Clinton. Good arguments can be made for continuing to welcome a large number of immigrants to this country. But does the President really want to frame the public debate in terms of the proposal that a half century from now there will be no majority race in America? One earnestly hopes not.
While We’re At It
Do we have a subscription agent? We would like to think we have about thirty thousand of them. They are subscribers like you who give gift subscriptions to others”and who send us lists of family members, friends, and associates to whom we can send a sample issue of FT. Think of how grateful they’ll be. You win, we win, they win. If that sounds like a very good deal, it is.
It has been observed that when you come across an article titled Whither Incest? you somehow know it’s not going to be a vigorous defense of the prohibition against incest. Something similar obtains with the title of a San Diego conference sponsored by the Association of Adventist Forums, What is a Person? How to Decide Which Human Lives are Precious. The forums are sponsored by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, a generally conservative body with about eight million members worldwide. The featured speaker at the San Diego meeting is Dr. Jim Walters of Loma Linda University, an Adventist institution. By way of contrast to what are called the physicalist and personalist positions, Dr. Walters proposes his own answer to the question, What is a Person?: I advance a middle, common-sense approach, Proximate Personhood , arguing that the greater the proximity or nearness of the individual to that of undisputed personhood”such as the reader of this [article]”the greater the individual’s moral status. I see this approach reflecting E. G. White’s view that human nature is distinct in that it resembles a divine ability to think and to do . Proximate personhood. Very interesting. One hopes that the recommended bibliography for the conference will include some excellent works in that vein written by German scholars in the 1920s and 30s.
You can’t please everybody. Professor Richard Stith of Valparaiso University Law School tells me there are folk who think this journal does not take a strong enough stand against abortion. They are starting a new publication” First People, Then Things . He’s kidding of course. I think.
Shortly before his death, the French writer André Malraux said, The twenty-first century will be religious or it will not be at all. Many might take that as unqualifiedly good news, but I think that is a mistake. Religion is as riddled through and through with the capacity for evil as any other dimension of human life. For many reasons, Christianity is more favorably situated at the edge of the third millennium than its chief culture-forming rival, Islam. Recently, Vatican officials, among others, have noted an increasingly violent encounter between Islam and Christianity. Last year a Catholic bishop was slain in the Philippines, and so far this year there have been new Muslim attacks against Christians in Uganda, Pakistan, Egypt, and Indonesia. Jesuit Father Thomas Michel, a student of Islam, observes, Previously, I think we had this unexamined idea of [Muslim-Christian] dialogue that ties in with a historical optimism that things were going to continue to get better. Now I think we understand that dialogue has got to be carried on in the worst of situations, at all times. Bat Ye’or, a French scholar born in Egypt, has published a sobering account of Christian”Muslim relations through the centuries, The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press). (See notice in Briefly Noted.) In the foreword, noted French Protestant scholar Jacques Ellul writes, The world, as Bat Ye’or brilliantly shows, is divided into two regions: the dar al-Islam and the dar al-harb ; in other words, the domain of Islam’ and the domain of war.’ Jihad and dhimmitude (the subjection of non-Muslims) is, he writes, a permanent institution of Islam, and the West is all too slow in awakening to the fact that the current phase of Muslim aggression has been going on for some years. The dialogue that Fr. Michel rightly sees as an undeniable imperative for Christians must be conducted within the context of conflict depicted with such stark realism by Bat Ye’or and other scholars.
Postmodernism is a bad thing. That is the received wisdom among almost all stripes of conservatives. There is another view, however, that has been popping up from time to time over the last ten years or so in which postmodernism has been a hot topic. It is represented by, among many others, Thomas A. Howard of the University of Virginia, who is writing in the National Interest on the Swiss-German historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897): Finally, Burckhardt’s anti-modernism is relevant to our postmodern condition.’ While one does well to eschew the extreme relativism and irony of postmodernism, we must also recognize that the current moment, for all its shortcomings, has fostered a healthy recognition of the limits and indeterminacy of human thought, action, and language. It is no accident that Burckhardt’s Augustinian sensibilities are mistaken as proto-postmodern ones by theologically unsophisticated contemporary critics. This case of mistaken identity suggests that certain aspects of postmodernism may hold much in common with a more traditional, religion-based anthropology and epistemology. While orthodox religiosity and postmodernism are certainly far from soulmates, the current tendency toward wholesale dismissal of postmodernism among both pious and nonpious conservatives may not, in the final analysis, reflect judicious insight. Rather, perhaps it only represents a conditioned negative response to novelty. Yet as St. Augustine reminds us in his famous reply to Tertullian, one often must take from the spoils of Egypt, yet put them to better use. Many religious thinkers are attracted by postmodernism’s accent on the limitations of reason, against the hubris of Enlightenment rationalism. But the Christian tradition cannot survive unmutilated postmodernism’s abolition of reason. Howard is right to caution against a conditioned negative response to novelty. I continue to think that postmodernism in its several forms is much more enemy than ally. On the other hand, there is indeed venerable precedent for turning the spoils of Egypt to the service of truth and this may happen in the years ahead with postmodernism, although by then it will likely be called something else.
Our Midge Decter, reviewing Barbara Dafoe Whitehead’s The Divorce Culture in the Public Interest : The truth is, the divorce culture has come upon us not as the result of our selfishness”people have always been selfish”and not as the result of the tension between the sexes”that tension has been a permanent fixture of human existence”and not out of any unconcern for our children”children have seldom in history been so much attended to and so kindly treated as ours. The disarray, so well described in The Divorce Culture , is brought about by the fact that the lives we lead are in respect of ease and comfort and confidence and good health simply unprecedented. Never have so many, even the poor among us, had so much. We are disoriented. We do not know whether to laugh or to cry; we do not know whom or what to thank; and we cannot think of what there might be to want next. And so we giggle and preen and complain and forget our debts and keep on seeking for things (and sometimes finding them). In short, there is no merely social cure for what ails us. But Barbara Dafoe Whitehead has at least helped us to stop kidding ourselves about one aspect of our lives, and that is a help. The rest”who knows?”may require the power of God himself.
The former treasurer of the Episcopal Church is currently serving five years for embezzling $2.2 million, and in the wake of that disaster questions are being raised about the use of $22
0 million in trust funds for which the treasurer was responsible. The Washington Times reports, for instance, that one $2.3 million trust has been used to advocate support for the abortion license even though it was established for support of parishes and churches to directly or indirectly, through educational enterprise or otherwise, contribute toward the preservation of the republican form of government in the United States. Alas, that is no doubt the mandate that Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice would claim they are fulfilling in promoting abortion on demand. The story of philanthropy in America is that it makes very little difference what the original donors had in mind.
Barry Lynn is one of those fellows I’ve been bumping into for years on the lecture circuit. Having served briefly as a United Church of Christ minister, Lynn went to work for the ACLU, and since 1992 has headed up Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Under his leadership, AU has grown to fifty thousand members, with assets of $6.5 million, twenty-two employees in a handsome Washington townhouse, and an annual budget of $2 million. In the words of the Wall Street Journal , Mr. Lynn and his followers are pioneers in the growing field of self-appointed IRS snitches”tax-code vigilantes attempting to help the government police the porous border between tax-exempt organizations and the election campaign activity from which they are legally barred. The Journal has been tracking the sharp increase in IRS audits of mainly conservative tax-exempt organizations, including the Institute on Religion and Public Life. Lynn and his colleagues have focused their attention chiefly on local churches associated with conservative politics. Americans United lost its exempt status in the 1960s and then regained it in 1980, after which, according to Lynn, it has had no problems with IRS. A larger question that Congress should address is the way in which IRS criteria of nonpartisanship can impinge seriously on the constitutionally guaranteed free exercise of religion. Viewed from its partisan perspective, the vigilantism of AU is not surprising. What is a little surprising is that the agitation over tax-exemption is prompting some people, also on the conservative side of the line, to urge that churches should, for the sake of moral purity and freedom of action, give up their tax-exempt status. The most persuasive argument against that position is still Dean Kelley’s book of some years ago with the straightforward title, Why Churches Should Not Pay Taxes .
So proud were we of our avoidance of any mention of the O. J. Simpson case when everybody else seemed to be going berserk over it. But now we are provoked by Dennis Prager’s newsletter, the Prager Perspective . He quotes Henry Louis Gates, Jr., head of African American studies at Harvard: People are saying it’s a black verdict and a white verdict. But I prefer to think of it as a wrong verdict and a right verdict. The editors of the New York Times went so far as to say, The facts justified two trials and two verdicts. We’ve been cautioned against using the word intriguing, but that’s intriguing. Justice required that he be found both innocent and guilty of murdering his ex-wife and her boyfriend. Prager: The New York Times editorial not only defended the first verdict, it also took a swipe at whites while omitting any criticism of blacks. The Simpson case, the Times editorialized, led to stereotyping by bigoted whites and distrust of the legal system among many blacks.’ Yet the truth was quite the opposite. The O. J. Simpson case gave impetus to bigoted blacks and led to a distrust of the legal system among many whites. Prager suggests that most blacks saw Simpson as a black man accused of murder, while most whites saw Simpson as a man accused of murder who happened to be black. He writes: Many members of minorities, especially those that have been persecuted, walk around thinking that when people see them, all they see is their minority identity. Thus, to most blacks, a black man, again, was on trial for a terrible crime. But what made this black man different was that his crime was the most publicized crime of this generation. To most blacks, it is almost inconceivable that most whites saw O. J. Simpson, not a black man. Blacks and whites, contra the general media line, do not have two different views of the criminal justice system that led blacks to think O. J. innocent and whites to think him guilty. Blacks, too, thought he was guilty, but also enjoyed seeing a black man beat the system. Prager again: Most whites were furious at Simpson’s acquittal. They saw Simpson as a murderer, not as a black, just as they saw the Menendez brothers as murderers, not as Hispanics. Most whites simply saw a murderer get away with murder. So, ironically, thanks to Johnny Cochran, to the race obsession of many blacks, and to the media which fed on the race aspect of a case that never began as one, white anger at a murderer acquitted was imagined by most blacks as white anger over a black man acquitted.
What kind of bias is it when Human Rights Watch 1997 lists fully staffed projects aimed at protecting the human rights of alleged victims of multinational corporations, journalists, academics, drug users, gays and lesbians, and prisoners, but nothing on religious believers who are subjected to worldwide persecution? The publication is put out by Human Rights Watch, based in New York and chaired by Roland L. Bernstein. Antireligious bias, perhaps. Class bias, certainly, in the case of journalists, academics, or gays and lesbians, who are, in the view of the human rights establishment, our kind of people. Anticorporate bias, possibly. Prisoners, on the other hand, are in the certified victims category. Of course everybody should have their human rights protected, but it is manifestly very difficult for the knowledge class in this country to gin up sympathy for religious believers who do not belong to exotic groups, and especially for Christians who, everybody knows, are not victims but victimizers. Never mind that, as evidenced in China, Vietnam, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, Christians are far and away the largest group targeted for brutal persecution in the world today.
Mr. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, gets in deeper and deeper. He has been critical of Nina Shea of Freedom House and others for raising the alarm about religious persecution in China. This is an instance of special pleading, says Mr. Roth in an interview with New York magazine. Anyway, he says, victims of religious persecution have been a core concern of Human Rights Watch. Unlike drug users, children, women, prisoners, journalists, academics, gays and lesbians, and alleged victims of multinational corporations, victims of religious persecution never suffered much neglect. Then Mr. Roth did an interview with the Toronto Star in which he challenged claims by Shea and others that there has been a dramatic increase in anti-Christian persecution. How does she know? he asks. I have a hard time understanding that when no one has been keeping track until now. So it seems that religious persecution is a long-standing core concern of Human Rights Watch but nobody, including Human Rights Watch, has been paying attention to it until now.
The Interfaith Alliance styles itself as a mainline alternative to extremist groups such as the Christian Coalition, and it recently enlisted Walter Cronkite to sign a promotional letter on its behalf. The Alliance is funded in significant part by the Democratic Party, but the letter declares that its national board includes some of America’s most distinguished religious leaders, who are as diverse as America. Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy comments: The Interfaith Alliance’s board is about as diverse as a Soviet politburo during the empire’s final, geriatric years. Yes, some were bald, others had bushy eyebrows. Some came from Leningrad, others from Minsk. Some were septuagenarians, others were octogenarians. Soviet leadership diversity ended there. So too for the Interfaith Alliance, whose board is comprised almost entirely of the tired voices of 1960s church activism, the last era of glory for the Religious Left. There are the usual suspects from the reliably anachronistic National Council of Churches. There are two Catholic bishops from the church’s left-fringe. Three liberal rabbis. And several black denominational leaders who shun the social conservatism typical of most black churches. Tooley then offers a person-by-person profile of the most distinguished religious leaders on the Alliance board. It is a trip down memory lane for those who were there during the radicalisms of the sixties, but it may be instructive for young people who have not reached the half-mark. For the complete text, write Mr. Tooley at IRD, 1521 16th Street, NW, Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20036.
By their fruits ye shall know them is subject to sundry interpretations. An interpretation of more than usual interest is offered by Episcopal bishop Walter C. Righter, who ordained actively gay Barry Stopfel and was subsequently tried for heresy and acquitted. According to the Sunday News Journal of Wilmington, Delaware, Righter said Stopfel’s ministry proves he merited ordination. He had a Christmas offering this year of $26,000. That’s the highest offering of any church on the East Coast. What’s that to be afraid of?’ Cash box and case closed.
Elizabeth Kastor of the Washington Post extolling a priest who died of AIDS: A man who had taken a vow of celibacy he privately repudiated, a man who loved being a priest so much he was willing to accommodate himself to a life of irreconcilable contradiction. This in a culture where the word hypocrisy is otherwise so readily employed.
I have been glad to play a little part in brokering some meetings between members of the Bruderhof and Catholic prelates. For Catholics, such meetings may seem like no big deal, since Catholics are ready to talk with everybody. But those in the Anabaptist tradition of the Bruderhof have a better memory of the bloody history of religious warfare in which Catholics and other Christians did terrible things to their forebears. For them, these encounters are historic events without precedent in the past four hundred years. My own bishop, John Cardinal O’Connor, has in this, as is in so many other instances, extended himself very generously. This is also an occasion to give some notice to the work of the Plough Publishing House, run by the Spring Valley Bruderhof (RD 2, Box 446, Farmington, PA 15437). They have brought out some disarmingly simple and engaging books by Johann Christoph Arnold, including Hopeful Parenting in a Confused World and, a particular useful work, A Plea for Purity: Sex, Marriage, and God . The latter carries a foreword by Mother Teresa. For more information, write to Plough at the above address. (In April, Dan Rather and CBS did a scurrilous profile of the Bruderhof, depicting it as an authoritarian, sexist cult, among the usual hokum. More on that, space willing, next month.)
I reviewed Father Thomas Reese’s Inside the Vatican (Harvard University Press) for the New York Times Book Review (March 2, 1997) and will not repeat what I said there. Suffice it that the book is a generally reliable guide to the inner workings of the Holy See, although seriously marred by Fr. Reese’s exaggeration of theological dissent and his view that the papacy should be a kind of clearing house for the Church restructured as a confederation of national churches. There is another point that should be on the record, however. We pray it will be a long time off, but at some time there will be an election of a new pope. Fr. Reese believes that the new rules for electing a pope issued by John Paul II ( Universi Dominici Gregis , succeeding Romano Pontifici Eligendo ) make it easier for the conclave of cardinals, most of whom have been appointed by the present pope, to elect a conservative in his image. Leaving aside the peculiar use of conservative/liberal categories with regard to a pope, the change in the rules is that if, after thirty inconclusive ballots and many pauses for reconsideration, the conclave is still deadlocked, it can be decided by two-thirds of the cardinals that a pope can be elected by an absolute majority rather than by two-thirds plus one of the ballots cast. Before, such a change in the event of a deadlock required unanimous agreement by all the electors. Such a deadlock after thirty ballots is exceedingly unlikely, and the new rules simply intend to avoid the remote possibility of a conclave dragging on interminably without being able to reach a decision. When, we pray many years from now, the conclave is held, it will be worth keeping this note in mind, for you can be sure that there will be mischievous commentators who will exploit Fr. Reese’s concern in order to suggest that the new pope was not elected fair and square. Of course conspiracy buffs have had a heyday with papal elections for centuries, and no set of rules is likely to change that.
Among the more reflective comments on the disaster in Rancho Santa Fe is offered by David Gelernter of Yale. The lethal course chosen by the followers of Heaven’s Gate reflects, he says, a naked public square in which authentic religion has been marginalized. Evidently, the cult’s goal in recent years was to overcome’ any attachment to money, sex, and family life, and to live in a strictly authoritarian community”a re-creation of the poverty, chastity, and obedience of Christian holy orders. Its members seemed to reach repeatedly for traditional Christian ideas and come up bare”their souls needed religion but their minds were stocked only with Hollywood junk. We should, writes Gelernter, recognize the desperation behind these suicides. The idea that suppressing religion in the public square could actually mean anything or have consequences is, for the average sophisticate, a proposition to snort at. Yet here we are as a nation starved for religion, and the hunger is fiercest at upper social levels, where people set up shop as Web-page designers. The fundamentalist churches are doing fine, but they don’t do much business among the technological elite. When the old religions are reeling, people cobble together new ones. In spiritually ignorant times like ours the new ones won’t be much good, generally speaking, but people need something . Environmentalism is a favorite religion nowadays; its leaders are explicit about its spiritual side. You can’t display the Ten Commandments in public schools these days, but teachers are encouraged to peddle recycling dogma. Environmentalism is not for everyone, though, and it seems likely that the tragedy of Heaven’s Gate is the story of spiritually famished people whipping up a religion like island castaways piecing together, in their dire need, a semblance of civilization out of driftwood and spit. As air pollution is worse in some places than others but finally touches all of us, so it is also with the cultural pollution produced by the banishment of religion. Today’s crusade against religion has done the same sort of thing. Most of us shrug it off. The crusaders keep hitting us, but we can take it. The stronger among us remain Christians and Jews in the old sense, or find satisfaction in America’s new secular religions. The weaker join cults. The weakest die.
David Foster of the Associated Press is partly right. He notes that there is a connection between Christianity and the suicides in Rancho Santa Fe. The connection is that Heaven’s Gate is a current and especially bizarre version of an ancient Christian heresy called gnosticism. The lesson to be drawn is that it is very important to get Christian teaching right. The lesson drawn by Mr. Foster is that there is something dangerously crazy about Christianity. But thoughts of death and resurrection are hardly confined to California cults, especially around Easter. The story of Jesus’ dying on the cross and rising from his tomb lies at the core of Christianity . . . . A few would blame Christianity itself for the route [Marshall] Applewhite and his followers followed. The Bible is filled with absurdities, said Ann Gaylor, president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist group based in Madison, Wisconsin. Although commentators warned of cybercults’ recruiting followers on their Web sites, most failed to note that the Vatican has a Web site, too. How could they have missed such an obvious connection with the thirty-nine suicides in California?
Among the more acute commentators on the collective suicides at Rancho Santa Fe is Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic . The ascetic hackers in Rancho Santa Fe busied themselves with speculation about the fate of the soul, about the relation of the soul to the body, about the consequences for the inner world of traffic with the outer world. These are old and good and hard subjects, and I cannot say that pondering them is in any way less important that pondering, say, the iron law of stardom,’ or what makes Miramax tick. Those who dwell on the religious themes always run the risk of seeming unsophisticated; and if they are really lucky, they will not only seem unsophisticated, they will also be unsophisticated. A great writer said to me many years ago that the truth, whatever it is, is strange.’ I felt castigated by his remark. We were sitting on a summer lawn in Vermont and speaking about the gullibility of intellectuals, and he counted gullibility among the sins of his own life; and what struck me was the humility of his tone. Think strictly, he was saying, and expect an unexpected result. The important thing, in the analysis of existence, is never to care about embarrassment. Wieseltier is certainly not approving of what the Santa Fe group did, but he is rightly contemptuous of the cult experts and others who treat them as weirdos beyond the pale of sanity. So they got out, spaceship or no spaceship. I hope it was good, though I can’t see how. I can see that the wrong answers to the right questions are preferable to the right answers to the wrong questions.
So the Department of Defense issued this directive forbidding chaplains to urge folk to write Congress on the partial-birth abortion ban. This did not sit at all well with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, headed by the formidable attorney Seamus Hasson. They took it to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, which forcefully reminded the Pentagon that we still have the free exercise provision of the First Amendment, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to boot. One imagines some desk general asking, Who will free us from this turbulent Becket Fund?
Just one year ago, says a publication of Focus on the Family, it appeared that the Christian church in America was on the way out”out of people’s hearts, out of their schedules, and out of their lives. But now the Barna Research Group has done another annual survey, and things are looking up. To premise one’s view of the state of Christianity in America on an annual poll is worthy of Dick Morris and his former employer in the White House. Nonetheless, the rest of the story is not without interest. Barna’s research for 1995 and 1996 showed that 39 percent of Americans adults were born again.’ This year’s study, released last Friday, shows the portion of born-again adults has increased to 43 percent. In Barna Research surveys, born-again Christians’ are those who have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their lives today’ and who believe they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and have accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.’ People who call themselves Christian,’ but do not fit the born-again’ criteria are classified as not Christian.’ So, where are these new Christians, when so many churches in America are showing membership declines or zero growth? According to Barna, the increase is largely due to the rapid expansion of born-again Christians within the Catholic Church.’ In 1995, only one-fifth of all Catholic adults (22 percent) were born again. Today, almost one-third (31 percent) fit the classification”a 41 percent increase in two years! Catholics now constitute 16 percent of the adult born-again population”one of every six born-again Christians”trailing only those associated with Baptist churches (31 percent). The increase in the number of Catholics who fit Barna’s definition of born again is striking, and a number of possible explanations suggest themselves, but it is a truncated and non-Catholic view of Christian faith that counts as not Christian those who decline to jump through the formulaic hoops of an opinion poll.
In Etowah County, Alabama, Judge Roy S. Moore has refused to obey a higher court order to remove the Ten Commandments from his courtroom wall. In April, thousands of citizens, organized by groups such as the Christian Coalition and the American Family Association