The Public Square
That America is guided by Providence is a belief deeply entrenched in the seventeenth-century beginnings, the constitutional period, Lincoln’s ponderings on our greatest war, and Woodrow Wilson’s convictions about the inseparable connections between freedom and American destiny. The belief has never been absent from American public life and discourse, although in the last half century many, and not least religious thinkers, have tried to discredit or marginalize it. In recent years, however, the idea of a providentially guided America has been making a comeback. One thinks, for instance, of Michael Novak’s On Two Wings, which makes a strong case for the Founders’ Hebraic understanding of history, as well as providing a marvelous florilegium of their statements about providential purpose (see review, FT May 2002). More recently, Steven Webb has provided an incisive and nuanced account of the history of the idea in American Providence: A Nation with a Mission (see review, FT February). Then there was and is the attention aroused by the controversy over “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, a phrase suggestive of both divine direction and judgment. Of greatest influence perhaps has been the harsh criticism of George W. Bush’s employment of the idea of Providence in relation to the course of freedom in the world, even though his statements have generally been carefully honed and are unexceptionable in the context of presidential history.
Another important contributor to the new discussion is David Gelernter of Yale. I have earlier raised questions about his near-identification of Puritanism with Judaism in American history (see Public Square, FT February). Now he has gone considerably farther with an essay in Commentary, “Americanism—and Its Enemies.” Gelernter writes, “By Americanism I mean the set of beliefs that are thought to constitute America’s essence and to set it apart; the beliefs that make Americans positive that their nation is superior to all others—morally superior, closer to God.” He goes farther still: “Americanism is in fact a Judeo-Christian religion; a millenarian religion; a biblical religion. Unlike England’s ‘official’ religion, embodied in the Anglican church, America’s has been incorporated into all the Judeo-Christian religions in the nation.” America is a religion that has been incorporated into other religions? The suggestion of syncretism is pronounced—or, as one reads on, the suspicion arises that Americanism has in some way displaced the other religions. One wonders if this is a new version of “supersessionism,” an idea excoriated in Jewish-Christian dialogue.
Gelernter writes: “I believe that Puritanism did not drop out of history. It transformed itself into Americanism. This new religion was the end-stage of Puritanism: Puritanism realized among God’s self-proclaimed ‘new’ chosen people—or, in Abraham Lincoln’s remarkable phrase, God’s ‘almost chosen people.’” Lincoln’s is indeed a remarkable phrase, but the “almost” seems to get lost in Gelernter’s account. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Reform Jews who rejected the Zionist idea of a Jewish state declared that “America is our Zion.” Gelernter appears to have moved beyond that. “We can go further. To sum up Americanism’s creed as freedom, equality, and democracy for all is to state only half the case. The other half deals with a promised land, a chosen people, and a universal, divinely ordained mission. This part of Americanism is the American version of biblical Zionism: in short, American Zionism.” He says he is working on a “Thanksgiving Haggadah” that will recite the providential story of America including the “repeated reenactments of the Exodus that make up America’s history.” The Haggadah is, of course, the Passover retelling of God’s liberation of the children of Israel, similar to the Anamnesis in the Eucharist that recites the saving deeds of God in Christ.
“And so,” writes Gelernter, “we circle back to the beginnings of Protestantism, which begot Puritanism, which begot Americanism.” There is no room for Catholicism in this telling of the story. “Papism” and Anglicanism’s compromise with papism are the Pharaoh from which God delivered his Puritans who begot Americanism. That aspect of Gelernter’s American religion is troubling, to put it delicately, but many will be even more troubled by the hubris of Americans being “positive that their nation is superior to all others—morally superior, closer to God,” that America is “a promised land, a chosen people, and [has] a universal, divinely ordained mission.” The promised land? The chosen people? More than all others? Presumably Gelernter, being a Jew, would not say so, although I am not sure.
Certainly, Christians must not say so. Christ and his body the Church is our first community, prior in time and prior in allegiance. Jews can speak to the Haggadah, but an American Anamnesis is, not to put too fine a point on it, idolatry. It is a welcome development of great importance that thinking about America and Providence is receiving renewed attention. The direction pointed by David Gelernter, however, ends up in conclusions that contributed to discrediting such thinking in the past. For a far more promising way of exploring these questions, I recommend Steven Webb’s American Providence.
Interests, Ideals, and World War IV
What to make of Andrew Bacevich’s long article in the Winter 2005 issue of The Wilson Quarterly, “The Real World War IV”? The editor of the WQ, Steven Lagerfeld, seems a bit nervous about publishing it, concluding his introductory note with this: “It’s a provocative argument, from a writer whose thinking never fails to command our interest.” I have no problem with that. Bacevich, who teaches at Boston University, has published in these pages, but in the last couple of years has taken an isolationist turn and seems more at home publishing in Pat Buchanan’s American Conservative. He has been a vigorous, some would say strident, opponent of the Bush doctrine following September 11, and his WQ article aims to counter the arguments of Norman Podhoretz and others who have promoted the idea that we are engaged in World War IV and must win it.
A lot of thoughtful people are uneasy about U.S. policy in Iraq. In January, William F. Buckley reported on a dinner conversation in which conservatives were sharply divided over whether, if they knew then what they know now, they would have supported military action in Iraq. Buckley ended his column with the suggestion that people should be demanding an early withdrawal from Iraq, but only if President Bush “beckoned” them to do so. A few days later, however, a Buckley column favorably reviewed Podhoretz’s most recent and very hawkish manifesto. What does Bacevich’s article contribute to this unsettled state of the question among people who have in common that they understand themselves to be conservatives?
First, Bacevich underscores that U.S. policy in the Middle East was significantly set by FDR when in 1945 he promised military protection to the Saudis if they would guarantee an unlimited flow of oil under U.S. control. So there is something to the “blood for oil” slogan after all. He makes the interesting argument that our current circumstance began with, of all people, Jimmy Carter. In 1979, Carter made his “American malaise” speech (called that even though he never used the word “malaise”) in which he asked Americans to sacrifice in order to cut back on our reliance on Mideast oil. When it quickly became apparent that Americans were in no mood for such sacrifice, Carter took direct, and miserably failed, military action in Iran. This, says Bacevich, was a departure from decades of policy in which the U.S. tried to control the Mideast through military surrogates. In Bacevich’s telling, Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton expanded fitfully but incrementally the policy of asserting direct U.S. control in the Mideast, a policy that reached what he describes as its disastrous fullness under Bush II after September 11.
Bacevich accuses this and prior administrations of disguising geopolitical designs under the language of promoting freedom and democracy in the world. There are other parts to his argument, all folding into his chief gravamen, The New American Militarism, the title of the book from which the WQ article is drawn. Of course Bacevich is right that current U.S. policy has a history, and that history is closely related to our dependence on oil. Although he very seriously downplays the importance of the establishment of the state of Israel in this drama. He is surely right in saying that American presidents, when appealing for support for military action, typically accent ideological and idealistic reasons rather than geopolitical factors. One may be permitted to suggest that that is rather obvious. Bacevich takes it as an indictment of U.S. foreign policy over recent decades. His realpolitik perspective leads him to belittle the degree to which a concern for freedom drove, for instance, U.S. support for Western Europe’s resistance to the Soviet Union during the Cold War (i.e., World War III). The Cold War was not about freedom, he comes close to saying, but about geopolitical rivalry between the superpowers. The editor of WQ is right in saying that Bacevich is provocative.
Finally, however, it is not clear what difference the argument makes. One may agree that deep geopolitical and economic interests have contributed to shaping U.S. policy in the Middle East, and that many mistakes have been made since FDR struck his deal with King Ibn Saud, even as one believes that Bacevich has overlooked other important factors. Yet, after his all-stops-pulled polemic against America’s misbegotten “crusade,” Bacevich ends up writing, “God forbid that the United States should fail, allowing the likes of Osama bin Laden and his henchmen to decide the future of the Islamic world.” Precisely.
It is useful to point out that U.S. policy is also self-serving (an older phrase for self-serving is “the national interest”), as well as serving the interests of many others. But that hardly precludes other motivations, such as a desire to promote freedom and democracy, which is also in our interest and the interest of the world. Might all these interests have been better served by different policies over the last sixty years? Quite possibly. That, however, is to engage in counterfactual historical revisionism that is but an interesting thought experiment. Andrew Bacevich is a conservative. Wishing for a history other than the one we have been given is not ordinarily the kind of thing that conservatives do.
“Crackpot realism” is a phrase not much used since the Vietnam era, but it comes to mind in reading Bacevich’s account of our present circumstance. One need not ignore economic and geopolitical factors to be more impressed by the explanatory narratives provided by scholars such as Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington who accent the cultural and religious sources of the current conflict. For instance, the murderous vision of Sayyid Qutb of Egypt (born 1906, executed 1966), founding father of the Muslim Brotherhood and the radical Islamism that gave birth to such as al-Qaeda, cannot be reduced to geopolitical or economic rivalries. Noam Chomsky may believe it, but I doubt whether Andrew Bacevich really thinks that George W. Bush’s impassioned declarations about the universal quest for freedom are but a guise for maintaining American hegemony over the world’s oil resources. To the extent that Bacevich tells uncomfortable truths about the ambiguities, including moral ambiguities, that brought us to our present circumstance in the Middle East, his argument is to be welcomed. Even as one recognizes the logic of his conclusion that, however we got to where we are, we must hope that U.S. policy, shaped by both interests and ideals, will not fail.
Stifling Intellectual Inquiry
“In fact, the breadth and extent of the anti-evolutionary movement that has spread almost unnoticed across the country should force American politicians to think twice about how their public expressions of religious belief are beginning to affect education and science. The deeply religious nature of the United States should not be allowed to stand in the way of the thirst for knowledge or the pursuit of science. Once it does, it won’t be long before the American scientific community—which already has trouble finding enough young Americans to fill its graduate schools—ceases to lead the world.” That is the editorial voice of the Washington Post which, on this subject as well as most others, is temperate compared with many others in the liberal establishment.
The alarm is prompted, of course, by the efforts of school districts to teach students that evolution is a theory. That evolution is a theory is a fact, unless somebody has changed the definition of theory without notifying the makers of dictionaries. The “search for knowledge” and “the pursuit of science,” one might suggest, will suffer grievously if we no longer respect the distinction between theory and fact. To argue that skepticism about the theory of evolution is inadmissible if it is motivated by religion is simply a form of antireligious bigotry. It is a fact that many devout Christians, many of whom are engaged in the relevant sciences, subscribe to the theory of evolution. It is also a fact that some scientists who reject religion also reject evolution, or think the theory highly dubious. That is the way it is with theories.
Theories are proposed principles or narratives that are both arrived at and tested by their explanatory force relative to what are taken to be known facts. To simply equate evolutionary theory with science is a form of dogmatism that has no place in the pursuit of truth. The problems with that approach are multiplied by the fact that there are such starkly conflicting versions of what is meant by evolution. The resistance to the theory is almost inevitable when it is propounded, as it often is, in an atheistic and materialistic form. Atheism and materialism are not science but ideologies that most people of all times and places, not just “red state” Americans, deem to be false. Proponents of “intelligent design” and other approaches, who are frequently well-certified scientists, contend that their theories possess greater explanatory power.
If someone claims the theory of evolution is false because it contradicts their understanding of what the Bible says, that is not a scientific argument in the ordinary meaning of science. It is an argument from the authority of the Bible, or at least from a certain interpretation of the Bible. One may make that argument in an eminently rational way, although in a way that will not be convincing to many people. Just as the theory of evolution is not convincing to many people. That is the way it is with arguments. The proponents of intelligent design, however, are not making their argument from the authority of the Bible but from what they are persuaded is the scientific evidence. Their opponents contend that their argument is discredited because most of them are Christian believers. Turnaround being fair play, one might answer that the more aggressive proponents of evolution are discredited because they are typically ideological atheists and materialists. These are religio-philosophical disputations of a low and ad hominem sort and have no place in what is, or should be, scientific methodology.
The great question of the origin and development of life in the cosmos is endlessly fascinating. Intellectual freedom and integrity require that all pertinent evidence and lines of reasoning be taken into account in forming speculations, hypotheses, and theories regarding that great question. It is a historical fact that evolutionary theory, variously construed, has achieved a status as “the truth” among most scientists in the century past. It has also had its very eloquent dissenters, such as David Berlinski whose work has received frequent attention in these pages (see Public Square, FT May 2004). For the past decade, we have had the scientific proponents of “intelligent design” sometimes frontally challenging and at other times offering significant modifications of the theory of evolution. The defenders of evolutionary orthodoxy raise the alarm at any suggestion of intelligent design or purpose, thereby implicitly endorsing a narrowly dogmatic version of evolutionary theory.
Some school boards have very modestly suggested that students should know that evolution is not the only theory about the origin and development of life. What they want students to know is an indisputable fact. There are other theories supported by very reputable scientists, including theories of evolution other than the established version to which students are now bullied into giving their assent. On any question, the rational and scientific course is to take into account all pertinent evidence and explanatory proposals. We can know that the quasi-religious establishment of a narrow evolutionary theory as dogma is in deep trouble when its defenders demand that alternative ideas must not be discussed or even mentioned in the classroom. Students, school boards, and thoughtful citizens are in fully justified rebellion against this attempted stifling of intellectual inquiry.
While We’re At It
• Asked to summarize his conservative philosophy, former editor Jim Nuechterlein would respond, “Change is bad.” In fact, his philosophy is considerably more interesting than that, but you have to begin somewhere. As it happens, there are a number of changes in our shop and I am confident the result will be very good. Although we will very much miss Damon Linker. He joined us as associate editor in 2001 and succeeded Jim as editor in 2004. He is resigning to write a book about the people involved with FT and their effort to advance a vibrant religious presence in the public square. Damon has been a conscientious, loyal, and exceedingly competent colleague, and I will miss him. Returning to FT as editor is Joseph Bottum, who was our associate editor from 1995-97 before he left to preside brilliantly over the back of the book at the Weekly Standard. Joseph, Lorena, and their daughter Faith are settling back into New York, and I am eagerly looking forward to what I trust will be our long-term collaboration. A real loss is John Gray, who was associate editor only one year. He was, in addition to other virtues, a great deal of fun to have around. Family responsibilities compelled him to decide, most reluctantly, that he needed to return to California. Succeeding him is Matthew Boudway, who has been our managing editor and who, as associate editor, will also have primary responsibility for books. Replacing (if that is possible) Matthew as managing editor is Erik Ross who has been an exceedingly efficient editorial assistant. Taking over from Joseph Bottum as poetry editor is Anthony Lombardy, a widely published poet who has served as coeditor of the Tennessee Quarterly and divides his time between Belmont University and the family farm in Florida, where they grow fern and citrus fruit. Kristen Linton, daughter of Michael Linton who writes for us on music and culture, is currently serving as editorial assistant, and she will be succeeded in May by John Rose, the younger brother of Matthew Rose, who was with us for two years as editorial assistant. John and Matthew Rose, as well as former editorial assistant Vincent Druding (who is now studying for the priesthood), are all from Wabash College, Indiana. It seems that staff from Wabash is becoming something like a tradition. Jim Nuechterlein is wrong about change being bad. Although I suppose the above changes are marked more by continuity than by discontinuity. I count it a great blessing that, since launching FT in 1990, there has been remarkable cooperation and cordiality among the staff, and I have every reason to believe that will continue to be the case. If not. . . . Well, I don’t even want to think about it.
• Jewish and Christian “progressive faith leaders,” as they are called by the newsletter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, met for a two-day session in Washington to evaluate the wreckage of their cause. The “moral values” factor in last November’s election, they recognized, was a disaster. The meeting was sponsored by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, and resulted, it says here, in a major shift of strategy. The faith leaders are going to stop calling themselves progressives. From now on they are prophets. “‘Progressive’ sounds like it’s an ideological position with values attached,” said the Rev. James Forbes of New York’s Riverside Church. Said Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, “We sound like secularists when we need to sound like the prophetic religious leaders we are.” In the biblical tradition, it will be remembered, prophets do not presume to appoint themselves but are called by God and speak on His behalf. The conclusion of the Washington strategy meeting, it would seem, is that progressives need to be more morally presumptuous.
• The end of the Pius wars? The book of that title by Joseph Bottum and David Dalin gives us reason to hope so (see While We’re At It, FT February), but that doesn’t mean some folk won’t keep trying. Here is a New York Times story giving credence to the claim that Pius XII sent a letter to Angelo Roncalli, papal nuncio in France and later Pope John XXIII, instructing him to raise obstacles to Jewish children being returned to their parents. These were children whom Catholics had rescued from the Holocaust. The letter is unsigned, not on papal stationery, and is written in French, although the Holy See’s communications with Roncalli are all in Italian. There is no mention of such a communication in Roncalli’s exhaustive journals and diaries. Plus, as the Times admits, nobody knows who “discovered” the document. And there are on record explicit and undisputed instructions by Pius XII that such children should be returned to their Jewish parents. In short, the document is almost certainly a fraud. That will not stop the inveterate enemies of Pius XII from citing it. Perhaps they will employ the locution of the Times with respect to Dan Rather’s notorious use of fake documents in attacking George W. Bush’s national guard service. As the Times memorably said, the documents were “fake but accurate.” In this case, accurate means useful in advancing your purposes.
• “Oh, not that old line again.” Such is the frequent response when the claim is made that the demolition of the marriage-based family really began with the widespread acceptance of artificial contraception and its separation of sex from procreation. Now, however, “that old line” is getting new and more respectful attention. Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands has been receiving well-deserved praise (see review, FT March). The author is W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, and he connects his argument to the question of contraception in an article in the ecumenical magazine Touchstone, “The Facts of Life and Marriage: Social Science and the Vindication of Christian Moral Teaching.” He notes the well-orchestrated opposition to Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on human sexuality, Humanae Vitae, and contends that current scholarship debunks the opponents and underscores the prescience of the Pope in foreseeing the consequences of contraception. From the Bible through the Didache and the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers, Christians were unanimous in affirming the integral relationship between love, sex, and openness to new life. The first break in the tradition came with the approval of contraception by the Church of England in 1930. All these years later, Wilcox is encouraged by a changing scholarly consensus on marriage and family, but also by a rethinking of contraception among Christians. “There is a new openness among Evangelical Protestant scholars and leaders to the truth and wisdom of the ancient Christian teaching against contraception. Among others, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary professor Harold O. J. Brown, and Evangelical theologian J. I. Packer have raised serious concerns about the moral permissibility and social consequences of contraception.” He quotes Mohler who wrote in these pages: “Thirty years of sad experience demonstrate that Humanae Vitae [correctly] sounded the alarm, warning of a contraceptive mentality that would set loose immeasurable evil as modern birth control methods allowed seemingly risk-free sex outside the integrity of the marital bond. At the same time, it allowed married couples to completely sever the sex act from procreation, and God’s design for the marital bond. . . . Standing against the spirit of the age, evangelicals and Roman Catholics must affirm that children are God’s good gift and blessings to the marital bond. Further, we must affirm that marriage falls short of God’s design when husband and wife are not open to the gift and stewardship of children.” The radical destabilizing of sexual morality in recent decades, Wilcox notes, has had devastating consequences for the poor, for whom all of life, including family life, is precarious. This, he says, is the moment for Christian scholars and leaders of all kinds to take the lead in proposing a better way. “We must make it crystal clear that the church’s commitment to the poor requires nothing less than a vigorous proclamation of the church’s true and beautiful teaching about sex and marriage. In other words, we must make it clear that the preferential option for the poor begins in the home.”
• Yes, I saw the Time magazine cover story on “The Twenty-Five Most Influential Evangelicals in America.” Along with Senator Rick Santorum, another Catholic, I’m not sure what we were doing in that impressive company. (The story did note that we are Catholics.) It is not even a flirtation with false modesty to say that the story greatly exaggerates my influence. When The Naked Public Square appeared, Clare Boothe Luce, the widow of Henry Luce, sent multiple copies to friends and told me that, “if only Harry were alive,” she would have arranged for me to be on the cover of Time the way she had arranged it for Father John Courtney Murray. Malcolm Muggeridge once remarked that the cover of Time is “the most coveted stained glass window of the modern world.” That was a very long time ago. But it’s nice to have made it at last, even if I did have to share space with twenty-four others. Some while back U.S. News and World Report did a survey in which I was listed as one of “the thirty-two most influential intellectuals in America.” The number thirty-two gave the judgment a tone of careful deliberation. Not twenty-five, not fifty, but thirty-two. That survey is sometimes mentioned when I am introduced on public occasions. To which I usually respond, “How would they know?” Popular magazines are given to pieces on the “top” figures in this, that, or another connection. FT doesn’t do that sort of thing, which is maybe one reason it is not so very popular. Although we did publish that book, The Second One Thousand Years, in which we proposed representative figures for each of the centuries of the millennium past. That at least has the merit of historical perspective not generally available to newsweeklies.
• In that Time magazine cover story it was said, “Conservative churches mobilized as never before and helped reelect a president they see as one of their own. Now they expect him to deliver for them.” Charles Colson, no stranger to the game of politics, dissents. He asks whether President Bush “owes us,” and answers with a ringing No. Colson writes, “Almost every time the Church has achieved earthly power, it has managed to shoot itself in the foot.” And there are deeper considerations: “And remember, Christians are just as susceptible to the seduction of worldly power as anyone else. The editors of Time may think religious voters ought to be lining up for our share of the spoils, but Christians know we should instead be falling on our knees, asking God to keep us humble. We ought to remember that the job of the Church is to bring biblical truth to bear in society, to win people to Christ, and to promote righteousness and justice. We should remember, as well, that throughout history, Christians have made the greatest inroads in society when we traveled, not among the politically powerful, but among the poor and the powerless. Think of the Wesleyan revivals or of Wilberforce and his reformation of morals in England.” The question, says Colson, is not what Bush “owes us” but what we owe God. A jaundiced observer might say that Colson is being coy: in grabbing for power it is wise not to be perceived as grabbing for power. But those who might say that do not know Chuck Colson. I have been with him in meetings when religious leaders started talking about how they could punish uncooperative politicians at the ballot box. Colson immediately and firmly calls them to order, reminding them that the role of Christian leaders is to bear faithful and persuasive witness. His Prison Fellowship, a worldwide ministry to prisoners and their families, exemplifies the concern for “the poor and the powerless.” Moreover—and this is evident also in his several books—Colson has a powerful concern for the integrity of the Church. He well remembers that the corruption of the mainline/oldline liberal churches was intimately connected with their confusion of the gospel of Jesus Christ with their political agendas. The New York Times had a sympathetic story the other day on liberal-left figures such as Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Bob Edgar of the National Council of Churches who, it said, are trying to organize a political counterforce to “the religious right.” The reporter wrote that “liberals have historically been uneasy about mixing religion and politics.” Now that is coy. Unless, of course, the reporter was born yesterday, as Chuck Colson was not.
• Christianity Today, the mainline evangelical magazine, was generally pleased with the Time story on evangelical leaders, noting that “this is a group that’s broader than you think.” It is allowed that CT‘s list of the twenty-five most influential evangelicals “would surely be somewhat different.” Some might question the presence of the two Catholics but Time “offers solid argument for including both.” Evangelicals, on the other hand, might wonder about the inclusion of two or three “evangelicals” who are doubtfully evangelical. There are those who challenge, for instance, the evangelical credentials of Brian McLaren, leader of the “emerging church” movement. But, all in all, the Time portrayal “is the evangelical movement understood in its historical context.” “Let’s be thankful that evangelicalism and its diverse leadership are becoming better known and better understood by the larger culture.” The larger culture? Depending upon how one defines evangelical, evangelicals are one quarter to one third of the American population. After the election of Jimmy Carter, Time magazine did a big story declaring 1976 “The Year of the Evangelical.” It is passing strange how these people called evangelicals keep getting rediscovered and reintroduced to “the larger culture.” One of these times I expect it will be recognized, also by evangelicals, that they are a very large part of the larger culture.
• Here I stand. There you stand. But, hey, it’s no big deal. Some while back I suggested that the ELCA Lutherans will try to avoid splitting the body over gay issues by avoiding a decision and thereby deciding to allow the ordination of gays, the blessing of same-sex unions, and other demands of the inclusiveness agenda. I take no satisfaction in noting that that is what seems to be happening. After three years of intense wrangling, a task force has concluded that disagreements on sexual morality are “deep and pervasive.” The solution being proposed to the ELCA churchwide assembly this summer is that the body keep its formal rules in favor of traditional morality but agree not to discipline those who violate them. Lutherans Concerned, a gay advocacy group, is not entirely happy, since the recommendation falls short of the affirmation they sought, even if it meant splitting the five-million-member body. Dr. Philip Krey, president of the ELCA seminary in Philadelphia, offers an interesting take on the recommendation: “The task force didn’t want legislation. That would have created a win-lose situation. They wanted to legitimize both sides of the issue. This allows each side to be conscientious objectors, allows them to legitimately disagree and act on it and not be disciplined for it.” This may be something new in the long history of strategic thinking about Christian unity. The phrase “unity in diversity” has long been a staple in ecumenical discussions. The ELCA would appear to be moving beyond that to unity in disagreement, indeed unity because of disagreement. When everyone gets to be a conscientious objector, one has to wonder what they are objecting to, other than the toleration of opposing objectors, which is the one thing to which they have agreed not to object. It is a fascinating proposal, which if generally accepted could open the way to instant unity, of a sort, among all Christians. Although woefully wrongheaded, if not idolatrous, there is a refreshing candor in the task force’s recommendation that questions of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, orthodoxy and heresy, be set aside in order to serve the Supreme Good that is preserving the institution that is the ELCA.
• The same day brought the report that the bishops of the Episcopal Church, meeting for two days in Salt Lake City (an unlikely religio-cultural juxtaposition), wrestled with the recent Windsor Report on conflicts in the Anglican communion but were not able to come to a resolution. The Windsor Report wanted the Americans to apologize for installing as bishop a man who had left his wife and children to live with his male lover, countenancing the blessing of same-sex unions, and related offenses. The Utah meeting expressed “sincere regret for the pain, the hurt, and the damage caused to our Anglican bonds by certain actions of our church.” They very notably did not apologize for the certain actions. Said the U.S. presiding bishop Frank Griswold, “We perhaps have not been the most sensitive partners in terms of taking with full seriousness the integrity of other provinces and their struggles.” Perhaps. As Griswold and other Episcopal leaders have suggested on many occasions, the main struggle of Anglicans in Africa and Asia is in growing up and following the example of their American betters in accepting the changed sexual mores of the modern world.
• I still comment from time to time on the strange world of the New York Times. Old habits die hard. The issue that carried the above two reports also has a long puff piece on an Episcopal rector in Connecticut. His conscientious support for “gay rights” has led him to declare that his small parish will perform no marriages at all until the Episcopal Church officially approves same-sex marriages. The parish, it says here, has in the past had as many as five marriages a year. There is yet another story on the same day about a Conservative rabbi who says she is being punished for performing gay marriages, but whose colleagues say she is in trouble only for serving in a non-Conservative synagogue. That is four religion stories in one day; four out of four being about gay advocacy. With respect to what is happening in religion in America, that is “all the news that’s fit to print.” To be accurate, this edition of the Times is not atypical. To be fair, the reports on the ELCA task force and Episcopal bishops are eminently newsworthy, bearing as they do on the future of a sizeable Lutheran communion and the much smaller but more culturally potent Episcopal Church.
• The religion news in that edition of the Times is balanced by a full-page advertisement with the heading “A Call for Peacemaking.” It is sponsored by a new organization called “Tent of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah” and features familiar names such as Sister Joan Chittester, Bob Edgar of the National Council of Churches, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center, and the perhaps not so familiar Sayyid Muhammad Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America. The call is for the U.S. to pull out of Iraq, for the UN to arrange for an elected government in that country, and for a “comprehensive peace conference” including the UN, the European Union, and Russia to put things to rights in the Middle East. So it is not as though the readers of the Times get a one-sided view of what is happening in religion in America. The cutting edge developments include both the promotion of gay rights and opposition to the policies of the Bush administration. For the Times, this way of covering religion is a cozy deal, both ideologically and economically. For a full-page advertisement, I am told the Times charges about $100,000. In addition to the ad being supportive of the paper’s line on the Bush administration, it more than amply pays for the reporting and printing of the day’s stories on the battles between religious progressives pushing for sexual inclusiveness and the reactionaries who oppose them. Of course the Times sometimes carries full-page ads advocating conservative positions. This gives more naïve readers the impression that the Times is more or less balanced. The nice thing is that this burnishing of the paper’s image is handsomely paid for by those who despise the paper. Coming or going, the Times wins. One has to admire the way in which everyone cooperates in upholding the belief that to be is to be in the Times. The Times is in the ontological reassurance business. Here is another full-pager purchased by citizens of the Republic of Iceland (population 279,384 and 96 percent Lutheran) who want us to know that most of them do not agree with their government’s support for U.S. policy in Iraq. It’s good to have that cleared up. And maybe it’s worth every third Icelander kicking in a dollar to the Times to let the world know they’re still there. The 1972 chess match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky was a long time ago. Not for nothing is the Times known as a profit-leader in what is aptly called the news industry.
• Once again on intelligent design (ID). Professor Terry Noel of California State University writes in the Wall Street Journal: “The reason most scientists reject ID is that it fails to add anything to our understanding. Placing any kind of ‘super-intelligence’ in our explanatory chain of the origins of life simply puts the final question off. If one proposes that some kind of intelligence is behind it all, then one must in all fairness inquire into the origins of that intelligence and so on, an infinite regression.” This is a bit of a puzzle. If one concludes that the evidence suggests ID, then it certainly adds to one’s understanding if one previously thought the evidence did not suggest ID. It follows that one would then reject the rejection of ID. Inquiring into the origins and nature of that intelligence may take one into questions usually described as philosophical and theological rather than scientific. In that case, one either accepts a more humble notion of what can be known by scientific methodology or expands the definition of scientific methodology to encompass all considerations pertinent to the inquiry at hand. Both possibilities are repugnant to many scientists, who therefore reject ID. A livelier scientific curiosity, one is inclined to think, might lead not to infinite regress but to progress toward the infinite. But Prof. Noel may be right: most scientists have made up their minds and decline to think seriously about evidence and arguments suggesting that they may be wrong. That, too, may change, albeit very slowly.
• Fifty-three years after Bill Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, one might expect Yalies to be a bit less snooty on some questions. James Kirchick, a columnist for the Yale Daily News, reviews Naomi Schaefer Riley’s God on the Quad in the New York Sun. Ms. Riley offers a generally favorable assessment of the religiously affiliated colleges and universities she has studied. Mr. Kirchick is having none of it. He writes, “How, just to cite one of many examples, does the establishment by Baptist Baylor University of a center to study ‘intelligent design’ (a trendy euphemism for Creationism) point to her contention that the students who attend these schools are not ‘intellectually backward?’” Baylor, we are told, is evidence of religious colleges being “strictly informed by unquestioning and narrow dogma.” Really? Leaving aside the scientific merits of intelligent design theory, it is controversial because it dares to challenge the strictly enforced, unquestioned, and narrow dogma of Darwinian evolutionism. (And what, one wonders, might be a questioning dogma?) “The self-proclaimed values of the modern university,” writes Mr. Kirchick, “are a commitment to a liberal education.” Never mind the grammar, the point is that you wouldn’t find a modern university like Yale tolerating such freedom of inquiry. He says of Ms. Riley that “her positivism is unhindered” by what Mr. Kirchick thinks unattractive about religious colleges. I rather doubt that Ms. Riley is a positivist. I suppose he meant that she is an optimist. In any event, the deficiencies in Mr. Kirchnick’s education are not necessarily representative of Yale. Although I expect the snootiness about that “other America” may be.
• Americans tend to be taken aback by the virulence of Catholic statements in Europe, especially in Italy, about the wickedness of Freemasonry. In Latin countries, the Masons were and are unremittingly hostile to Christianity, meaning Catholicism. The Church reciprocated by forbidding membership in the Masons under pain of excommunication. Some thought they detected a thaw when the 1983 Code of Canon Law prohibited membership in societies that plot against the Church but did not mention Freemasonry by name. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has since indicated that the former sanctions still apply. Masonry in the U.S. has a very different history. Although in the last half-century it has dramatically declined in both numbers and influence, with many of its temples being sold for other uses. In the first volume of a projected trilogy, Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History, 1585–1828, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Walter A. McDougall of the University of Pennsylvania reminds us that Freemasonry was once very much like the establishment religion of the American establishment. It is among the many engaging stories in his fast-paced account of our national experience constructed around the theme of the American “hustler” (a word the author insists is not necessarily a pejorative). “Freemasonry,” McDougall writes, “all but captured the Continental Army’s officer corps thanks to the patronage of Washington, Greene, Knox, Sullivan, and other generals.” And of course the Great Seal of the United States is straight out of Masonic lore. Between 1786 and 1819, ten of Virginia’s thirteen governors and 50 percent of its assemblymen were Masons. Protestant clergy of a certain class rushed to join up, and over these decades the Masons established more organizations to help widows and orphans than did the churches. “What the fraternal order did was offer Americans in leadership and those aspiring to it a republicanism above faction, region, and sect, a civic religion enjoining unity and restraint so citizens might get on with the sacred task of completing that pyramid beneath the Eye [on the Great Seal] and before the eyes of the world.” At the groundbreaking ceremony for the U.S. capitol, the Master from the Alexandria lodge solemnly walked at the rear (like the celebrant at Mass) of a procession of public officials, soldiers, and bedecked Freemasons. McDougall writes: “When the two columns arrived, they turned toward each other, forming a corridor through which strode the Master. His white apron and gloves in place, he lowered a silver plate into a niche in the foundation, eyed the plumb line to ensure the cornerstone was laid with precision, and strewed sacramental elements of corn, oil and wine. The assembly made an ‘awful [awe-filled]’ invocation to the Supreme Architect, the Masons ‘chanted honors,’ and the soldiers fired a salute. Finally, a short address declared the unity of Freemasonry with the republic as symbolized by the silver plate whose inscription read: ‘in the thirteenth year of American independence . . . and the year of Masonry, 5793.’ By the Christian calendar, the ceremony on Capitol Hill occurred September 18, 1793. The Master in apron was George Washington.” That was a very long time ago. Masonry continued to be a force in American public life for another century and a half, but today’s American listening to Europeans talk about the dangers of Freemasonry may be inclined to think the threat as mythological as the fantastical myths on which the movement was founded by the four London lodges in 1717. It is but another of innumerable differences that gave rise to the observation, “Only in America.”
• Imagine a wealthy country that spends hundreds of millions of dollars setting up schools and publishing textbooks and other propaganda urging hatred of the United States and the destruction of the state of Israel. We might be inclined to view such a country as an enemy in the war on terrorism. The country in question is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Freedom House has just published an eighty-nine-page report, “Saudi Publications on Hate Ideology Fill American Mosques.” A year-long research project turned up hundreds of books, pamphlets, and other materials promoted in American mosques and reflecting the bloodcurdling views of the Wahhabi sect of Islam that is officially endorsed and funded by the Saudi government. In the late ‘70s, the Saudis made a bargain with the Wahhabi leadership that, if they overlooked the corruption of the Saudi government and concentrated their attacks on the U.S. and Israel, the Wahhabis would be favored in Saudi Arabia and have generous access to its oil wealth. The normally soft-spoken George Shultz, former U.S. secretary of state, calls it “a grotesque protection racket.” Fifteen of the nineteen terrorists in the September 11 attacks were Saudis. Saudi-sponsored propaganda calls for unlimited jihad against the Crusaders (i.e. Christians) and Jews, and also against other Muslims who do not toe the Wahhabi line. Reading the report, one is struck by the detailed prescriptions (fatwas) laid down for Muslims living in America. They must never forget for a minute that they are living behind the lines in enemy territory; they must never greet the infidels or make any friendly gesture, unless the aim is to convert the infidels to Islam. Particular emphasis is placed on not recognizing the holy days or national observances of the infidels. In the Christmas season, for instance, even “Happy Holidays” is forbidden. Muslims who violate such rules are themselves infidels and permission is granted to “spill their blood and take their money.” The Freedom House report notes that some Muslim religious leaders have been expelled from the country for their ties to terrorism, but many of the most influential mosques in New York, Los Angeles, Houston, and other major cities continue to press the Saudi-Wahhabi line of unremitting hatred for America and Americans. This, one might delicately observe, puts a severe crimp in hopes for the assimilation of several million Muslim immigrants. Freedom House acknowledges that the Saudis say they are “updating” some of the more vicious textbooks and other literature but notes that the people in charge of the updating are the same people who wrote and disseminated the offending material in the first place. Freedom House is understandably skeptical. It is only a very small consolation to know that Muslim immigrants—or at least those adhering to the Saudi-Wahhabi line—will not be contributing to the scourge of “Happy Holidays” during the Christmas season.
• Identity politics, it seems, has now invaded the museum world. At the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of the American Indian, the general public is permitted to view only some of the material in the collection. Other artifacts can be seen only by people from a specific tribe. Marian Kaminitz, head of conservation, says that native peoples should be the curators, “because they know the material best, as it is the material of their culture. We respect their concerns and interpret the material through what they see as appropriate rather than as a dominating voice from outside the culture.” Indians may in some cases be the best authorities on Indian culture, although, as many scholars have pointed out, American Indian culture as currently admired is in large part the product of non-Indian mythmaking, not least of all by Hollywood. The more important point is that the very idea of the modern museum is founded on a distinctly Western belief that knowledge is universal and a distinctly Western eagerness to learn from other cultures. The Smithsonian is in the odd position—although by no means alone in the odd position—of undermining its own rationale for being. Perhaps the magnificent collections of medieval art in our great museums should be entrusted to the exclusive care and interpretation of devout Christ-ians, or maybe just devout Catholics. Extend the logic to Egyptian, Chinese, and other collections. Or maybe all the stuff should be shipped back to their original owners, as the Greeks demand with respect to the Elgin marbles at the British Museum. Then the museums could all go out of business, leaving the future’s understanding of the past in the hands of their ethnic-ideological custodians. Somebody at the Smithsonian needs to get a grip.
• The mind of Hollywood, if one may be permitted the expression, wants to be scrupulously fair and balanced. Much was made of the fact that, when it came to the Academy Awards, Hollywood eschewed giving serious consideration to “controversial” films of both the left and the right, meaning Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Mr. Moore’s film, as he repeatedly and proudly declared, was an unabashed piece of partisan propaganda aimed at discrediting and defeating George W. Bush. As movie critic Michael Medved observes, it has the lasting artistic significance of a faded bumper sticker from a failed election campaign. The Passion, by way of contrast, is totally nonpolitical and will almost certainly be viewed as a classic, watched by appreciative audiences for many years into the future. Contrary to Hollywood bias, it is neither conservative nor right-wing within the meaning of our current political polarizations, having earned $37
0 million in domestic box office sales in 2004 by drawing huge crowds in states both red and blue. By rejecting both Moore and Gibson, the entertainment mandarins were able to pose as centrists, and were thus free to heap awards on films sympathetically depicting “noncontroversial” causes such as abortion (Vera Drake) and mercy killing (Million Dollar Baby, The Sea Inside).
• The late Edward Said of Columbia University popularized and made academically dominant the notion of “Orientalism.” In this view, Western colonialists fabricated an Eastern culture that suited their exploitative purposes. William Dalrymple reviews in the Times Literary Supplement a new book by Michael Fisher, a scholar of the East India Company, Counterflows to Colonialism: Indian Travellers and Settlers in Britain, 1600–1857. Dalrymple writes: “Perhaps the most arresting notion contained in Fisher’s book is the symmetry that it shows between Western accounts of the Orient and Eastern accounts of the Occident. Just as Westerners fantasized about a sensuous East, so Easterners clearly envisaged the West as a place of heightened and blatant sensuality; the easy availability of white women is something that nearly all male Indian authors remarked on, often with feigned shock. Equally, just as the eighteenth-century British sometimes enjoyed exotic Oriental confections in their clothes and buildings, so demonstrating the cosmopolitan nature of their tastes and outlook, so the popularity of the Feringhee style in courts such as Murshidabad, Kotah, or Lucknow reflected a taste for the exotic West. Contrary to the ideas of Edward Said, a taste for Oriental exotica—and indeed for Orientalism as a whole—can therefore be understood less as a colonial Western anomaly and more as one half of a natural human attraction to the strange, the foreign, and the unknown. Given the prominence of Said’s ideas in all modern studies of colonialism, Michael Fisher’s work supplies an intriguing and original element of balance.” Those whom we find strange, fascinating, and perhaps threatening probably view us in the same way. “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us. . . .” On the other hand, given our current circumstance in relation to radical Islam, it is necessary to balance the balance by observing that some strange and fascinating people really are threatening, and lethally so.
• Everybody who has been involved in one way or another in arguments over abortion policy, and that must be just about everybody over the age of reason, can probably recall a moment or moments that decisively shaped their thinking on the matter. The following is from a collection of essays by Richard Selzer, Moral Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery: “In our city, garbage is collected early in the morning. Sometimes the bang of the cans and the grind of the trucks awaken us before our time. We are resentful, mutter into our pillows, then go back to sleep. On the morning of August 6, 1975, the people of 73rd Street near Woodside Avenue do just that. When at last they rise from their beds, dress, eat breakfast, and leave their houses for work, they have forgotten, if they had ever known, that the garbage truck had passed earlier that morning. The event has slipped into unmemory, like a dream. They close their doors and descend to the pavement. It is midsummer. You measure the climate, decide how you feel in relation to the heat and humidity. You walk toward the bus stop. Others, your neighbors, are waiting there. It is all so familiar. All at once you step on something soft. You feel it with your foot. Even through your shoe you have the sense of something unusual, something marked by a special ‘give.’ It is a foreignness upon the pavement. Instinct pulls your foot away in an awkward little movement. You look down, and you see . . . a tiny naked body, its arms and legs flung apart, its head thrown back, its mouth agape, its face serious. A bird, you think, fallen from its nest. But there is no nest here on 73rd Street, no bird so big. It is rubber, then. A model a . . . joke. Yes, that’s it, a joke. And you bend to see. Because you must. And it is no joke. Such a gray softness can be but one thing. It is a baby, and dead. You cover your mouth, your eyes. You are fixed. Horror has found its chink and crawled in, and you will never be the same as you were. Years later you will step from a sidewalk to a lawn, and you will start at its softness, and think of that upon which you have just trod. Now you look about; another man has seen it too. ‘My God,’ he whispers. . . . There is a cry. ‘Here’s another!’ and ‘Another!’ and ‘Another.’ . . . Later, at the police station, the investigation is brisk, conclusive. It is the hospital director speaking. ‘Fetuses accidentally got mixed up with the hospital rubbish . . . were picked up at approximately 8:15 am by a sanitation truck. Somehow, the plastic lab bag, labeled hazardous material, fell off the back of the truck and broke open. No, it is not known how the fetuses got in the orange plastic bag labeled hazardous material. It is a freak accident.’ The hospital director wants you to know that it is not an everyday occurrence. Once in a lifetime, he says. But you have seen it, and what are his words to you now? He grows affable, familiar, tells you that, by mistake, the fetuses got mixed up with the other debris. (Yes, he says other, he says debris.) He has spent the entire day, he says, trying to figure out how it happened. He wants you to know that. Somehow it matters to him. He goes on: aborted fetuses that weigh one pound or less are incinerated. Those weighing over one pound are buried at the city cemetery. He says this. Now you see. It is orderly. It is sensible. The world is not mad. This is still a civilized society. . . . But just this once, you know it isn’t. You saw, and you know.”
• It seems longer than that, but it was the fortieth anniversary of the National Catholic Reporter that brought 150 people together at Georgetown University for a celebration. The press release says that “the speeches and sentiments of the evening spoke of charging into the future.” Chosen as keynoter was the venerable veteran of agitations beyond numbering, Benedictine Sister Joan Chittester. She exhorted, “NCR, stand up, speak out, and speak on. NCR, for the sake of the Galilean, for the sake of the next kid with a gleam in her eye.” The Galilean in question, said an observer, is Our Lord. Attentive to NCR‘s institutional interests, the event honored Bishop Raymond Boland of Kansas City, where the paper is published. He boldly asserted that, while he did not always agree with NCR on everything, he believes in a free press. The chief honoree as NCR charged into the future was Father Robert Drinan, S.J., who was warmly lauded for his half-century of courageous leadership. As a Massachusetts congressman from 1971 to 1981, Fr. Drinan was solidly pro-abortion and, probably more than any other single person, influenced Catholic politicians to claim that support for Roe v. Wade is consistent with the Church’s teaching. A columnist for NCR, Fr. Drinan more recently gained public attention by his vigorous opposition to a ban on partial birth abortion, also known as live birth abortion. In response to the honor, Fr. Drinan said of the Church, “This is the living voice of Christ.” He then added, “We love the invisible Church. We sometimes criticize the visible Church.” Before the Georgetown dinner, the report adds, an editor “demonstrated folding origami peace cranes.” Seemliness suggests that one try to muster congratulations as NCR goes charging back into the future.
• There is the crass materialism that holds that consciousness is but the static emanating from the three pounds of meat that is the brain, and then there is the docetism that holds that consciousness is the essential self to which a body is attached. At the Interface: Theology and Virtual Reality by Mary Timothy Prokes addresses these fascinating differences in a book that reviewer William E. May thinks brilliant. Sister Mary Timothy writes that many think of the body as “the original prosthesis that we all learn to manipulate.” That is very nicely put. This also gives me occasion to note that William E. May does not appreciate being confused with William F. May. They are both Christian ethicists. The former teaches at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C., and the latter at Southern Methodist University. William E. says the views of William F. are frequently attributed to him, which can be bothersome. I don’t know whether William F. has the same problem. I count them both as friends and recommend the obvious solution that they write under their full names. It has for me been the answer to no end of confusions with the other Richard Neuhauses. Of course, one has to start early.
• The reinvention of Christianity, the most traditional of American contributions to religious history, proceeds apace. Publisher’s Weekly is excited. An article, “Pomos Toward Paradise,” breathlessly reports the pomos (postmoderns) of the “emerging church” who are rapidly moving toward the paradise of big commercial success, with many of them having arrived. Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian is a tremendous hit. McLaren “calls the emerging church a ‘conversation’ rather than a movement.” It appears that even “movement” suggests too much of an institutional commitment for “emergents” who want to float unencumbered in their spiritual fancies. Says McLaren, “They’re asking questions about what it means to be a Christian in a postmodern, postcolonial world.” Postcolonial? One waits in vain for the postinanity era in the spiritual hustling of what PW calls the world of “viral networking.” (Viral as in virus, one assumes.) A successful marketer explains, “A lot of people who fit into the postmodern category don’t want to be identified as Christian.” Christ is so much easier to take without the riffraff he has attracted over the centuries. The Relevant Media Group is near the top of the market with a “hip, twenty-something demographic that is the primary core of postmodern thinking.” For Relevant, we are told, “the ‘real world’ is largely an urban one.” “We want to be part of our readers’ world,” says a spokesman, so the company is moving from an affluent suburb to a site closer to the center of Orlando, Florida. You can hardly get more urban than that. Postmodern, postcolonial, emerging, viral networking—it’s mostly the hype and chatter of religious pandering to a neophiliac culture. In addition to cashing in on the newest new thing, I expect most of these authors and perhaps even some of the publishers think they are winning souls for Christ. Christianity Today, the mainline evangelical magazine, pays a lot of attention and is concerned about the theological vacuity and doctrinal deviations of the industry, as well it should be. But the stuff sells, as witness PW‘s list of the top-forty religion bestsellers in the same issue, a list which (except for one book by the estimable C. S. Lewis) runs the gamut from lower to higher kitsch. Of course, such an observation smacks of elitism, as in having a taste for excellence. The higher elitism, however, is not scornful toward the inevitability of the popular always being popular, as in vulgar, and holds on to the hope that those who sell the fake satisfactions of being superior to Christianity as it has been believed and lived through time will, however inadvertently, lead some people to a commitment to Christ, including his mostly quite ordinary friends who are the Church. Seeing through the preening self-importance of “seeker,” “emergent,” “pomo,” and whatever is next month’s hot spiritual pretension, they might even find the courage to call themselves Christians.
• Jan Cardinal Schotte of Belgium has died at age seventy-six. A learned and affable man, he was for years secretary general of the Synod of Bishops. The Pope appointed me as one of the few non-episcopal delegates to the 1997 Synod on the Americas, after which I wrote a little book, Appointment in Rome, which contained some measured criticism of the way these synods are organized. I received a stiff letter from Cardinal Schotte who complained that the book had taken liberties with the secrecy rule applying to such synods. As it happened, a few days earlier I had received a very warm letter from the Pope who had just read the book. He wrote, “I am confident that your keen insights and lively exposition will help many readers gain a better understanding of the great cooperative effort of the Bishops and others like yourself who have subjected the Synod theme to extensive reflection and discussion.” I was in the happy position of responding to Cardinal Schotte’s complaint by including a copy of the Pope’s letter and tweaking him, deferentially of course, with the suggestion that he might be interested in another view of my book. I did not hear back from Cardinal Schotte but I expect he took it in good spirits. Among his many Christian virtues, he enjoyed a good cigar. Jan Cardinal Schotte. Requiescat in pace.
• The enemy of my enemy. . . . That old maxim has something to do with it, but a deeper convergence is at work as some Europeans, ever so slowly, begin to awake to what they are doing to themselves by their relentless rejection of Christianity as integral to the history and future of Europe. These questions came to a head last fall when Rocco Buttiglione, Italy’s representative to the EU, was rejected as its commissioner for justice. Buttiglione is a cherished friend. He was key to the founding of the Tertio Millennio seminar on Catholic social doctrine which we started fourteen years ago in Lichtenstein and then, at the suggestion of the Pope, moved to Krakow, Poland. Buttiglione’s offense in the eyes of the EU is that he is a Catholic who agrees with the Church on disputed questions such as men having sex with men. No matter that at his hearings he made a clear distinction between what is immoral and what should be criminal; the dogma of the EU allows for no deviation, even privately, from the regnant secularism. Among those who have been roused to challenge this determinedly godless regime is none other than the very influential German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who describes himself as a “methodological atheist.” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been invoking Habermas, who recently published “A Time of Transition,” which argues that Christianity, and Christianity alone, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy. “To this day,” he writes, “we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.” On the relationship between theology and philosophy, he writes (keep in mind that he is a German philosopher): “I don’t resent it at all when I am accused of having inherited theological concepts. I am convinced that religious discourse contains within itself potentialities that have not yet been sufficiently explored by philosophy, insofar as they have not yet been translated into the language of public reason, which is presumed to be able to persuade anyone. Naturally, I am not talking about the neopagan project of those who want to ‘build upon mythology.’ Today, in the field of antirational postmodern criticism, these neopagan conceptual figures are back in fashion: a broad anti-Platonism carelessly spread by fashions inspired by the late Heidegger and late Wittgenstein, in the sense of a definitive repudiation of the universalism that characterizes the premises of unconditional truth. I rebel against this regressive tendency of post-metaphysical thought.” Although the EU and its constitution affirm Athens to the exclusion of Jerusalem and Rome, Habermas says this is not possible: “In the dialogical dispute among competing religious visions there is a need for that ‘culture of recognition’ which draws its principles from the secularized world of the universalism of reason and law. In this matter, it is thus the philosophical spirit which provides the concepts instrumental in the political clarification of theology. But the political philosophy capable of making this contribution bears the stamp of the idea of the Covenant no less than that of the Polis. Therefore this philosophy also hearkens back to a biblical heritage.” Habermas is among the “atheists for Christianity” who insist that the Church not compromise its integrity. He writes, “In the general leveling of society by the media everything seems to lose seriousness, even institutionalized Christianity. But theology would lose its identity if it sought to uncouple itself from the dogmatic nucleus of religion, and thus from the religious language in which the community’s practices of prayer, confession, and faith are made concrete.” Of course there are, as there have always been, those who criticize “devout atheists” who are supportive of Christianity, and also Christians who welcome the support. The Catholic sensibility, however, going back to the patristic era and its happy use of “the spoils of Egypt,” is inclined to embracing truth wherever it is found. This is very much the message of John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Jürgen Habermas may seem to be improbable allies. But believing, as Habermas does, that what may not be true is nonetheless socially useful to the point of being indispensable is not strategically incompatible with believing, as Ratzinger does, that what is true is also socially useful and indeed indispensable. And working together keeps open the possibility that people such as Habermas will come to the discovery that, ultimately, utility and truth are one.
• Many years ago, the Order of the Eagles in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, honored those who had saved the city from flooding by erecting a monument with the Ten Commandments in a public park. In due course, the champions of the naked public square brought suit and, in response, the city sold that part of the park, with the monument, back to the Eagles. That was, predictably, challenged by another suit. The Seventh Circuit ruled that, even if the installation of the original monument violated the Constitution, the sale of the land remedied any possible problem. So maybe the solution to the putative constitutional difficulty of religious symbols on government properties is to sell, and thus privatize, them. Of course that probably wouldn’t work in the case of the hundreds of thousands of crosses and stars of David in military cemeteries.
• On the right hand side of the car: “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” That has always struck me as philosophically haunting. Evelyn Waugh’s Love Among the Ruins is, he says, a “romance of the near future.” His hero, Miles Plastic, is pleased to be assigned to socialist Britain’s only thriving industry: euthanasia. His supervisor, Dr. Beamish, is a man “now much embittered, like many of his contemporaries, by the fulfillment of his early hopes.” In a moment of candor, Beamish vents his exasperation to Plastic: “Damned sentimentalists. My father and mother hanged themselves in their own backyard with their own clothesline. Now no one will lift a finger to help himself. There’s something wrong in the system, Plastic. There are still rivers to drown in, trains—every now and then—to put your head under; gas-fires in some of the huts. The country is full of the natural resources of death, but everybody has to come to us.” That was written a long time ago—1953 to be precise—and the story was taken to be satire. But now this report from the Netherlands: “Doctors can help patients who ask for help to die even though they may not be ill but are ‘suffering through living,’ concludes a three-year inquiry commissioned by the Royal Dutch Medical Association. The report argues that no reason can be given to exclude situations of such suffering from a doctor’s area of competence . . . . The new report does not rule on how doctors should respond if a patient without a classifiable condition should approach them for help but says that doctors believe that some cases of ‘suffering through living’ could be judged ‘unbearable and hopeless’ and therefore fall within the boundaries of the existing euthanasia law.” Waugh expected socialist Britain to be in the vanguard of the death industry. He wrote, “Foreigners came in such numbers to take advantage of the service that immigration authorities now turned back the bearers of single tickets.” As it turns out, the lead has been taken by what Mark Steyn calls Eurotopia, the death-‘n’-sex boutique states of Holland and Switzerland. The London Daily Telegraph reports that “the Swiss are planning to crack down on ‘suicide tourists,’ including hundreds of Britons, who want to take their lives at a Zurich euthanasia clinic.” The report says, “Swiss officials are alarmed that most foreign patients spend only twenty-four hours in the country, meaning that there is little time for their cases to be checked fully.” Complains Zurich’s chief prosecutor, “We know nothing about them and we can’t say if it was a long-term desire to end their lives.” New rules will have staff “specially trained in their trade” and certified as “suicide assistants.” Deborah Annets, chief executive of Britain’s Voluntary Euthanasia Society, agrees that it is imperative that suicide “should be properly regulated.” After all, we’re dealing with civilized societies here, and it seems the decent thing to get to know something about the people you are going to kill. “Objects in the mirror. . . .”
• Father Louis Bouyer has died at age ninety-one. Born a Swiss Lutheran, Bouyer became a Catholic as a young man. His scholarship and publications ranged widely over the apostolic, patristic, and Reformation periods. His constant interests were liturgy, spirituality, and Christian unity. In my Lutheran seminary years, Bouyer’s Liturgical Piety made a great impression, as did The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism. The latter argues that philosophical nominalism was at the heart of what was great, and what went wrong, in the Reformation tradition. Ignatius Press has just reissued his little book, The Word, Church, and Sacraments: In Protestantism and Catholicism. I spoke with Fr. Bouyer only once and he had generous things to say about this journal and my efforts. Suddenly I was young again, like a fresh apprentice commended by a legendary master. Father Louis Bouyer. May he be welcomed to the celestial liturgy that he so long anticipated, and taught others to anticipate, from afar.
• Out in Okemos, Michigan, there is a Weyco company that is firing smokers and those who refuse to take a test to see if they’re smoking, on the job or off. The company doesn’t want to pay medical costs presumably increased by smoking. Workers were worried about what other impermissible acts or conditions might get them dismissed. Weyco issued a statement: “Anyone concerned about limiting employers’ rights to specify terms of employment should know that federal law protects people with conditions like obesity, alcoholism, and AIDS.” A cigar is nothing like obesity, alcoholism, or AIDS, but maybe it’s time for some of us smokers to get ourselves federally registered and protected. Along with parachute jumpers and guys over fifty who try to play basketball with the youngsters. “Weyco Warning: taking risks that are not officially registered as disabilities may be dangerous to your employment.”
• The “one little word” discussed in the January issue shows signs of expanding, as expected, into a flood of words as bolder souls among the Democrats urge a reconsideration of that party’s don’t-give-an-inch commitment to Roe v. Wade. The one little word of our earlier discussion was the word “but” in a New York Times editorial swearing everlasting allegiance to reproductive rights but acknowledging that political realities may require a measure of accommodation. Benjamin Wittes is an editorial writer at the Washington Post and takes his turn at urging reconsideration in a long interview in the Atlantic Monthly. “I generally favor permissive abortion laws. And despite my lack of enthusiasm for Roe, I wouldn’t favor overturning the decision as a jurisprudential matter,” he says. But “the liberal commitment to Roe has been deeply unhealthy—for American democracy, for liberalism, and even for the cause of abortion rights itself. All would benefit if abortion rights proponents were forced to make their arguments in the policy arena (rather than during Supreme Court nomination hearings), and if pro-lifers were actually accountable to the electorate for their deeply unpopular policy prescriptions.” While he does not use the phrase “judicial usurpation,” Wittes underscores that the abortion license is not grounded in the Constitution (despite much academic contention to the contrary), was imposed by the judiciary, and is popularly resented for, among other reasons, its continuing offense against the institutions and habits of democratic decision-making. “So, although Roe created the right to choose, that right exists under perpetual threat of obliteration, and depends for its vitality on the composition of the Supreme Court at any given moment.” “In short, Roe puts liberals in the position of defending a lousy opinion that disenfranchised millions of conservatives on an issue about which they care deeply while freeing those conservatives from any obligation to articulate a responsible policy that might command majority support.” Wittes’ argument uncritically assumes that the great majority of Americans are, when it comes down to it, in favor of preserving the abortion license, with some modest restrictions. I think he is wrong about that, but we will not know until the question is, in the several states, returned to the electoral and legislative arena, and that probably will not happen until Roe is out of the way. In Wittes’ view, as a result of a legislative resolution, “the right to abortion would most likely enjoy a measure of security it does not now have.” He has a nicely framed response to the objection that he is submitting a fundamental right to the mercy of the majority: “The right to abortion remains a highly debatable proposition, both jurisprudentially and morally. The mere fact that liberals have to devote so much political energy to pretending that the right exists beyond democratic debate proves that it doesn’t.” Yes, but how would he view the matter if he were a woman? Answer: “I have no idea what losing my Y chromosome would do to my attitude toward this subject, but the costs of defending Roe have grown too high, and I’m just not willing to pay them anymore.” He might have mentioned that, according to recent surveys, the majority of women now identify themselves as pro-life. We are still in the early stages of the Democrats’ reconsideration of the party’s unqualified commitment to the unlimited abortion license. I expect there will be many more public adumbrations on that editorial “but” of the Times. It is possible that at some point we will arrive at a more or less stable political equilibrium on this question of greatest moment in our public life. Whether that political resolution will be closer to the unqualified legal protection of the unborn or to the unqualified right to kill nobody can know. We will not find out until Roe is overturned or effectively shunted aside. That people such as Benjamin Wittes are urging Democrats to abandon Roe and take their pro-abortion argument to the people is, all in all, a promising development.
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America as a Religion, Commentary, January. Stifling Intellectual Inquiry, Washington Post, January 24. “Prophets” not Progressives, Church & State, January. Phony Pius document, New York Times, January 9. Wilcox on sex and marriage, Touchstone, January/February. Christianity Today on Time, Christianity Today weblog, January 31. Religion in the Times, New York Times, January 14. Colson on Christian witness, www.townhall.com, February 2. Terry Noel on intelligent design, Wall Street Journal, February 4. James Kirchick on religious colleges, New York Sun, January 31. Identity politics in museums, Tiffany Jenkins in The Independent (London), January 25. The mind of Hollywood, Wall Street Journal, January 27. Dalrymple on Fisher, Times Literary Supplement, January 7. Fortieth anniversary of National Catholic Reporter, National Catholic Reporter press release, December 10, 2004. Sister Mary Timothy Prokes and William E. May, review of Prokes in Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Winter 2004. The reinvention of Christianity, Publishers Weekly, January 17. Habermas and Ratzinger, Sandro Magister in www.chiesa.com, November 22, 2004. European euthanasia, http://bmj.bmjjournals.com, January 8, and www.telegraph.co.uk, March 14, 2004, with a nod to a gimlet-eyed correspondent in Rome. Weyco smokers, Wall Street Journal, January 28. Wittes on abortion, Atlantic Monthly, January/February.