The timing, it seems, could not have been worse. In last months issue I offered my considered and heartfelt defense of Father Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, against unfounded charges of sexual abuse. I meant and I mean every word of what I said there. Just after the issue had gone to press, however, scandals involving sexual abuse by priests in Boston exploded, creating a level of public outrage and suspicion that may be unparalleled in recent history. The climate is not conducive to calm or careful thought about priests and sexual molestation. Outrage and suspicion readily lead to excess, but, with respect to developments in Boston, it is not easy to say how much outrage and suspicion is too much.
Professor Philip Jenkins of Penn State University has written extensively on sexual abuse by priests, also in these pages (see The Uses of Clerical Scandal, February 1996). He is an acute student of the ways in which the media, lawyers, and insurance companies-along with angry Catholics, both liberal and conservative-are practiced at exploiting scandal in the service of their several interests. Scholars point out that the incidence of abusing children or minors is no greater, and may be less, among priests than among Protestant clergy, teachers, social workers, and similar professions. But, it is noted, Catholic clergy are more attractive targets for lawsuits because the entire diocese or archdiocese can be sued. That is a legal liability of the Churchs hierarchical structure. Moreover, the expressions of outrage by many in the media are attended by an ulterior agenda, namely, discrediting the Catholic teaching on human sexuality, about which they are genuinely outraged. These and other considerations can and should be taken into account, but the tragic fact remains that great wrongs have been done, and there is no avoiding the conclusion that, in Boston and elsewhere, some bishops bear a heavy burden of responsibility.
Children have been hurt, solemn vows have been betrayed, and a false sense of compassion-joined to a protective clericalism-has apparently permitted some priests to do terrible things again and again. For some Catholics, this is a time that will test their faith in Christ and his Church, as distinct from their faith in the holiness, or even competence, of some of the Churchs leaders. Catholics used to be good at that sort of thing, pointing to figures such as Alexander VI (Pope from 1492 to 1503) whose thorough corruption-he gained the papacy by bribery and used it to benefit his illegitimate children-was thought to prove that the truth of the Church and the validity of her sacraments were not dependent upon the holiness of her leaders. In the fourth century, the Donatist heretics took the opposite position, and Catholics have been exuberant in their condemnation of Donatism. We all have a steep stake in the rightness of that condemnation. At the same time, the orthodoxy of anti-Donatism is not to be confused with moral indifference. All three synoptic gospels report the warning of Jesus about those who corrupt the innocence of children. It would be better for him if a millstone were tied around his neck and he were cast into the depths of the sea.
Conformed to the Culture
The current scandals constitute a painful moment of truth for bishops, heads of religious orders, and others responsible for the moral integrity of the Churchs ministry. More often than not, the priests allegedly involved in these scandals are now in their sixties and seventies or even older. They received their formation and were ordained in the 1960s and 1970s when, in addition to false compassion and clerical protectiveness, there was in sectors of the Church a wink-and-a-nudge attitude toward what were viewed as sexual peccadilloes. Anyone who was around during those years, and had eyes to see, knows that was the case. Ecumenically, and especially among clergy involved in social activism, both Protestant and Catholic, there was frequent confusion and laxity with respect to sexual morality-heterosexual, homosexual, and unspecified. That is deplorable but should not surprise. In this way, too, the institutions of religion are too often conformed to the culture of which they are part.
Among Catholics, the situation is generally very different with todays seminarians and younger priests. It is not unusual to encounter priests who claim they were ordained in, say, the 1970s with the expectation that the celibacy requirement would be abandoned within a few years. Many of them have since left the active priesthood. For others, the acceptance of homosexuality and the rejection of every form of homophobia was clearly the approved attitude. Today, I think it fair to say that seminarians and younger priests know beyond doubt what is expected of them in terms of faithfulness to the Churchs teaching. But the penalty for past laxity and malfeasance is now coming due, and has been coming due since the reality of sexual abuse by priests was brought to public attention more than a decade ago. Of course the Church will survive, and more than survive, but I expect this storm is not going to pass any time soon. I expect we have not yet seen its full fury. I very much wish that I were more confident than I am that every bishop understands that there can now be no returning to business as usual. The word crisis is much overused, but this is a crisis.
Despite all the talk about the pervasive nonjudgmentalism in our culture, about some things judgments are much harsher today. In anything having to do with children, for instance, what some viewed as embarrassing misbehavior in the 1970s was, by the 1990s, viewed as a heinous crime. Psychological theory, law, and public attitudes have all changed dramatically. The very subject of homosexuality was, not so very long ago, pretty much in the closet. Like most people, bishops did not know, or did not want to know, about rude things that men did together, and sometimes did with little boys. Todays scandals notwithstanding, there was something to be said for such reticence and naiveté, even if the naiveté was sometimes feigned. When it comes to priestly adherence to the Churchs teaching, zero tolerance must now be the order of the day. The enforcement of zero tolerance, in this connection and others, can lead to ridiculous extremes and can inhibit natural and healthy interactions, especially in working with young people, but that, too, is probably part of the price to be paid.
There was a similar sense of crisis following the first public revelations of sexual abuse by priests in the mid-eighties, but then the issue receded after CNN notoriously sensationalized charges against the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago in 1993 and the charges turned out to be false. That incident helped remind people that priests, too, are to be deemed innocent until proven guilty. In the current climate of outrage, we need to be reminded of that truth again. Unbridled outrage can too easily become hysteria. One recalls that during the same period, there was a blizzard of criminal charges and lawsuits over alleged abuses, including satanic rituals and other grotesqueries, perpetrated by people working in day care centers. Whole communities around the country were caught up in a frenzy of mutual recriminations, and many people went to jail, until the heroic and almost single-handed work of Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street Journal exposed the madness for what it was.
Among the potential casualties of the present scandal is severe damage to what has historically been called the liberty of the Church to govern her own affairs. Catholics have a distinct tradition of canon law that goes back to the Council of Nicaea in 325 and took lasting form with Gratians Decretum in the twelfth century. This history of ecclesiastical liberty is basic to the various exemptions and immunities in current law and practice that protect religious freedom not just for Catholics but for everyone. The right of religious institutions to govern themselves may be gravely eroded under pressure from lawyers, insurance companies, and the state. The ruthlessness of many in the legal profession should not be underestimated. As Peter Steinfels writes in the New York Times , it has now been discovered that lawyers for plaintiffs could play hardball, too, inflating charges and using the news media to play on public fears and prejudices in hopes of embarrassing the Church into settlements. With respect to self-governance, confidentiality is now commonly translated as secrecy and discretion as evasion. The cultural revolution popularized the slogan that the personal is the political. So also, it now seems, the religious is the political, and the legal. All of life is to be lived on the front pages or in the courtroom, or at least under the threat of the front pages and the courtroom.
News reports claiming that a certain number of priests have been charged with abuse and that the claims were settled out of court must not be interpreted to mean that the priests are guilty. Some of them insisted and insist that they are innocent, but bishops were advised by lawyers and insurance companies that a legal defense against the charges would cost much more than settlement out of court, and could well end up in a guilty verdict entailing even greater financial liability. In some cases, settlements were agreed to with the guarantee that they would remain forever confidential. In Boston, that guarantee has now been broken by court order. This can be seen as an ominous encroachment by the state on the Churchs right to self-governance. It can also be argued that the Church forfeited that right by failing to govern itself, and by surrendering episcopal governance to lawyers and insurance companies.
At least in some cases, there can be no question of the states legitimate interest. To cite the most notorious instance, that of the defrocked John Geoghan, he is already convicted of one criminal act, and is charged with many more. Sin is the business of the Church, and crime is the business of the state. There was once a time, centuries ago, when there were ecclesiastical courts to deal with clerics who committed sins that were also crimes. Although it had no standing in law, that way of handling things continued in a vestigial and informal way up to our day. If the cops suspected Father of criminal activity, it was reported to the bishop in the confidence that he would take care of it. No more.
Another potential casualty is an erosion of confidence in the possibility of repentance and amendment of life. Such confidence is dismissed as naive when it comes to priests being given another chance. But the belief in the power of the grace of God to transform lives is at the heart of Christian faith, and is overwhelmingly supported by Scripture and the experience of innumerable Christians. Belief in the gift of grace, however, is perfectly consistent with knowing that the gift is not always effectively received. When a priest repents after being caught dipping into the collection plate, there is forgiveness. There is even forgiveness, if he is repentant, after he has done it several times, but there are also secure measures for denying him access to the collection plate. Children and the integrity of sacred vows are immeasurably more valuable than the collection plate. It is now evident that it is much easier to keep violators away from collection plates than to keep them away from children.
The Meaning of Episcopos
Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston was already in 1993 thought to be taking a hard line, going through diocesan files to find any cases in which priests had believably been accused of molestation, and trying to make sure they were not assigned to positions involving regular work with minors. It now seems obvious that some priests eluded such scrutiny. In other cases assignments were made on the basis of medical and psychological counsel that at the time was thought to be perfectly sound. There were also experts who warned that simply getting rid of a priest would loose a sexual predator on the society. The beating that Cardinal Law has taken is, in large part, because of his inability to anticipate changes in medical and psychological thinking about sex abuse and sex abusers. At the same time, the medicalizing of gross wrongdoing too often lets ever-changing psychological theory trump commonsense judgments about sin and its consequences. In any event, Cardinal Law has confessed that, in all of this, he has made tragic mistakes. It is not possible to disagree. The word bishop is derived from the Greek episcopos , which means overseer, and there would seem to be no doubt that there have been grave deficiencies in the moral oversight of some of the clergy of Boston.
An outraged reader writes that, if I do not publicly call for Cardinal Laws resignation, I am clearly circling the ecclesiastical wagons in defense of the indefensible. Nonsense. Saying who should be placed or replaced as a bishop is way above my pay grade. Many people, including many devout and orthodox Catholics, are calling for the Cardinals resignation. A wire service story is headed, Boston Cardinal Vows to Stay, Despite Poll Numbers. In the Catholic Church, bishops do not run for election. Nor are they to be viewed, or at least not chiefly, as CEOs of a corporation. In the Catholic Church, a bishop is a successor to the apostles appointed to his see by the Bishop of Rome. The bishops task is to teach, to sanctify, and to govern. Cardinal Law has been an outstanding teacher of the faith, and was instrumental, not incidentally, in producing the Catechism of the Catholic Church . Nobody can complain about his fidelity to his sacramental duties. In the third task, that of governing oversight, he has, as he has confessed, made tragic mistakes. His future as Archbishop of Boston is a matter between him, his conscience, and the Pope. He may conclude that the effectiveness of his ministry in Boston has been crippled beyond repair. I sincerely hope not. His resignation would be a severe loss to the Church in the United States. Nor dare we despair of Gods bringing great good out of these terrible events. There cannot help but be a deeper awareness of sin, its consequences, and our radical dependence upon grace-and such deepened awareness is a precondition for spiritual renewal.
There is an unseemly readiness on the part of many, including some Catholics, to believe the worst. What we know for sure is wretched enough. We would not know what we do know without the reporting of the Boston Globe . It is pointed out that the Globe , like its owner the New York Times , is no friend of the Church. The suggestion is not that we should kill the messenger, but that we should be keenly aware that the messenger has, on issue after issue, points to score against the teaching and claims of the Catholic Church; that the messenger is not a neutral party. All that is true, but it is of limited pertinence. It is also true that Catholics should not be apologetic about wanting to defend the Church. It is their duty. Doing that duty, however, is not incompatible with, but in fact requires, a recognition that, in this case as in so many others through history, leaders of the Church are guilty of giving ammunition to those who would attack her. Throughout his pontificate, John Paul II has been urging such a candid recognition, which is at the heart of our understanding that the Church is a community of sinners called to be saints.
That having been said, what has happened in Boston is inexcusable. Those responsible can be forgiven, but what they did cannot be excused. And again, Boston is not an isolated instance. Catholics and others who wish the Church well should be braced for the probability that the storm of scandal is by no means past. It will only be magnified if bishops and heads of religious orders have not learned from what happened in Boston. They must take the governance of the Church back from lawyers, insurance companies, spin doctors, blackmailers, and priests who are misguidedly protective of colleagues engaged in great evil. Meanwhile, these pages will continue to address this crisis-closely, candidly, and with a wrenching sadness tempered by, I pray, the virtues of faith, hope, and charity.
The New Criterion and Mark Steyn are well matched. The former, edited by Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball, delivers each month a sophisticated thumb in the eye to the several cultural elites who exuberantly undermine culture in the cause of anti-elitism. Steyn, who, in addition to his contributions to the New Criterion , appears regularly in the London Spectator , Canadas National Post , and almost everywhere else worth reading, wields what may be the most humorously devastating pen in todays culture wars. Kramer and Kimball invited him to be part of their series on the survival of culture, and in the course of his contribution on multicultural madnesses Mr. Steyn illustrates his argument by reference to a strange development that has been discussed from time to time in these pages. Steyn notes that shortly after September 11, a resolution came before Congress to observe Native American Month. The resolution contained the usual platitudes, and then this: Native American governments developed the fundamental principles of freedom of speech and separation of powers in government, and these principles form the foundation of the United States Government today. The reference is to the Iroquois Confederation, which, multiculturalists would have us believe, served as the blueprint for the U.S. Constitution. Mr. Steyn then makes the connection to the aforementioned strange development:
Until relatively recently in Canada, many natives went to residential schools run by the Christian churches on behalf of the federal government. They learned the same things children learned in other schools: there was a map on the wall showing a quarter of the globe colored red for the Queen-Empress realms; there was Shakespeare and Robert Louis Stevenson, and Dr. Livingstone, I presume; there was not a lot about the Iroquois Confederation. No doubt, as in any other school system, there were a number of randy teachers and sadistic brutes.
In the Nineties, a few middle-aged alumni came forward to claim theyd been abused while at the residential schools. How did the churches react? Here is Archbishop Michael Peers, the Anglican Primate of Canada, making his first public statement on the matter in 1993: I am sorry, more sorry that I can say, he said, that in our schools so many were abused physically, sexually, culturally, emotionally.
At that point, there was not one whit of evidence that there was any widespread, systemic physical or sexual abuse in the residential schools. There is still none. But His Grace had lapsed reflexively into a tone that will be all too familiar to anybody whos attended an Anglican service anywhere outside of Africa or the Pacific isles in the last thirty years. In the Sixties, Peter Simple, the great satirist whose work appears in the Daily Telegraph , invented a character called Dr. Spacely Trellis, the go-ahead Bishop of Bevindon, whose every sermon on the social issues of the day reached a climax with the words, We are all guilty! Riddled with self-doubt and an enthusiastic pioneer of the peculiar masochism that now afflicts the West, the Anglican Church has for years enjoyed the strange frisson of moral superiority that comes from blanket advertising of ones own failures. It was surely only a matter of time before some litigious types took them at their own estimation.
So, in the wake of Archbishop Peers sweeping declaration of his own guilt, more victims spoke up-dozens, hundreds, totaling eventually some fifteen thousand survivors with some five thousand claims of damages. Though none has yet been tested in a court of law, by 1999 the costs of merely responding to the charges were threatening to bankrupt not just the several Protestant and Catholic dioceses but the entirety of both churches throughout Canada. Yet still the clergymen felt it would be bad form to defend themselves. A United Church of Canada employee, John Siebert, spent six years researching the history of residential schools and their impact on native culture and pointed out several helpful facts:
Native children were not forced to abandon their own beliefs and become Christians; in 1871, before the first residential school ever opened, 96 percent of Canadas Indians identified themselves as either Anglican or Catholic.
When, over the years, the Federal Government and the churches wanted to close residential schools, it was the Indian bands (the tribal councils) that wanted to keep them open.
. . . ah, but theres no point even going on. The defendants werent looking for a defense, only a way to plea-bargain themselves into oblivion.
So Mr. Seiberts former employers at the UCC wrote to the papers, indignantly dissociating themselves from his position, facts notwithstanding: It is the position of the United Church that the national residential schools system was an integral part of a national policy intended to assimilate First Nations people into the dominant Euro-Canadian culture, they said. There are simply too many stories of the pain and cultural loss experienced by survivors of the residential schools system to conclude that this policy and its expression in the residential schools system represents anything but a profound failure in the history of the relationship between First Nations and non-First Nations peoples. With defendants like this, who needs plaintiffs? The Canadian Government, a codefendant, prepared for an optimistically priced out-of-court settlement of some $2 billion, split between fifteen thousand survivors of crimes never recognized by any court.
Nonetheless, pain and cultural loss are categories worth separating. Is it possible even the horniest vicars could sodomize fifteen thousand kids? Well, no. Ninety percent of the claims are for the vaguer offense of cultural genocide, a crime well be hearing a lot more of in the future. Cultural genocide is similar to traditional forms of genocide-such as being herded into ovens or hacked to pieces with machetes-but with the happy benefit, from the plaintiffs point of view, that you personally wont have to be killed in order to have a case. All you need are blurry accusations, historical resentments, and a hefty dose of false-memory syndrome. Against craven clerics like the Anglican Church, thats more than enough.
Craven clerics may seem somewhat harsh. They understand themselves to be practicing the virtue of sensitivity, which, if it is a virtue worth practicing, is worth practicing to excess, even to excruciating excess. There must be a better word than craven.
I remember many years ago being taken aback when at a dinner party a friend concluded her vigorous defense of Israeli policy with the seemingly off-hand remark, But of course, in the long run, Israel wont survive. When I pressed her, she explained that the Arabs, with such overwhelming numbers, will never be reconciled to the existence of Israel on their land. In other words, demography is destiny. It is true that the twenty-two nations of the Arab League have a fast-growing population of 300 million, compared with less than six million in Israel, with more than a million of those being Arabs. The population imbalance will become ever more dramatic, and Israel is such a small sliver of territory in such a vast region. I am no longer surprised when I hear people, including some in positions of considerable influence, say, usually sotto voce, that Israel will not survive in the long run.
In this connection, I took note of a Commentary article by Norman Podhoretz-a more hawkish hawk on Israel than whom is not to be found-in which he argues that there is, in fact, no peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Responding to Podhoretz, Ron Unz, the prominent California businessman and political activist, wrote: As someone whose grandparents helped found Israel, I felt immense sadness after reading Norman Podhoretzs powerful analysis. There appear to be only two possible outcomes to this conflict. Israel may eventually choose to . . . exterminate or expel Palestinians from Israel and the West Bank. Or the endless bloodshed will produce an accelerating exodus of Israeli Jews to America and other more peaceful and affluent places, eventually leading to a collapse of the Jewish state. Since I doubt that Israel will ever develop a consensus for killing or expelling millions of Palestinians, I expect the countrys trajectory to follow that of the Crusader kingdoms, surviving for seventy or eighty years after its establishment in 1948 and then collapsing under continual Muslim pressure and flagging ideological commitment.
I was even more impressed by Podhoretzs response to Unz: I do not accept that Israel will wind up as another Crusader kingdom . . . . It would be foolish to dismiss this possibility altogether . . . . But I am still convinced that, if the Israelis can hold on tight against the forces [Unz] specifies, the day may yet come when the Arab world will call off the war it has been waging against the Jewish state since 1948. He agrees that killing or expelling millions of Palestinians is simply not an option. He then goes on to say that much depends on whether the U.S., in its current war against terrorism, treats Israel as a partner rather than an obstacle to its purposes in the Middle East. But there is a wan note to Podhoretzs response to Unzs prognosis: I do not accept . . . I am still convinced . . . if the Israelis can . . . the day may yet come. And this from the archenemy of any hint of defeatism. I do not say this in criticism of Podhoretz. But it does seem to me that, for the first time in a very long time, there is now an explicitness about-and in some quarters an openness to-the possibility that Israel will not make it, and I find this profoundly troubling.
In Patrick Buchanans new book, The Death of the West , he reports a conversation with former President Richard Nixon, known as a strong supporter of Israel. Buchanans wife Shelley asked Nixon if Israel will survive. In the long run? he responded. He then turned his hand and put his thumb down. The answer was No.
What would it mean for the future of Judaism and world Jewry (the two are not separable) were the state of Israel to disappear? Of course I do not know. Nobody does. I dont mean what would happen if Israel was obliterated by an Arab atomic bomb, as some Arabs contemplate with relish. I mean, rather, the prospect of Israel being abandoned by Jews as a noble but failed Zionist dream. I suppose it is possible that five million Jews could go elsewhere, mainly to America, and flourish in security. It seems more than possible that a substantial number would, remembering Masada, be determined to die with the dream.
These are grim and unwelcome thoughts. As too many people are eager to remind us, Israel is doing bad things to the Palestinians. And, as too many fail to say, Palestinians are doing bad things to Israelis, and it is not always easy to sort out which is action and which reaction, which is aggression and which defense. There should be no difficulty, however, in sorting out the difference between the one party that has the declared purpose of destroying or expelling the other party, and the other party that wants only to live in security and peace. This, I think, we know for sure: there could be a real peace process and a real peace if the Arabs believably accepted a sovereign Jewish state in their midst. This, sadly, does not seem to be in the offing. So maybe the present conflict will go on for another five years. Ten years? Sixty years? How long is the long run? I may be wrong, but it seems to me that more supporters of Israel are asking that question, and asking it out loud. Im not sure what should be made of that, but I am sure it is not unimportant.
Mainlining in the Basement
Winston Churchill once observed of Clement Attlee: He is a modest man, with a great deal to be modest about. There is the appearance of considerable modesty in Charles T. Matthewes essay in Theology Today , Reconsidering the Role of Mainline Churches in Public Life. Do not be misled by the snappy title. The essay is a low-key reflection on what has happened to oldline Protestantism since the days when the church and society bureaucracies of the United Methodists, Presbyterians (USA), United Church of Christ, et al. made public waves with their perpetually prophetic pronouncements styled as speaking truth to power. Although much reduced, those bureaucracies are still in place, but they are not even mentioned by Mr. Matthewes, who appears to be skirting the embarrassment of their failure by turning it into a virtue.
Matthewes, who teaches religious studies at the University of Virginia, takes as his text a new study by Robert Wuthnow of Princeton, The Quiet Voice of God: Faith-Based Activism and Mainline Protestantism. The study finds that the mainlines typical forms of involvement in civic life and public discourse are multitudinous and subterranean, of the kind that often go unnoticed. The mainline is not noisy like the religious right but is quietly influential. A chief source of its influence is in providing space for numerous civic activities, many of them not Christianly indexed (i.e., they are not specifically Christian). By providing space, Mr. Matthewes means, quite literally, providing space, as in letting all kinds of groups meet in their otherwise empty church facilities. To place these findings in conversation with Robert Putnams work on social capital, Matthewes writes, mainline Protestant church basements may save us from bowling alone. He continues, Whether or not the public square is naked, as Richard Neuhaus suggested, might depend on whether or not one thinks that church meeting halls are part of the public square.
Church basements are multitudinous and subterranean, and yes, they can be seen as part of the public square, but that is not what I chiefly meant by the public square, nor what oldline Protestantism meant by the public square back in its noisy days before it was forced to take refuge in the conclusion that Gods voice is very quiet. The noteworthy item in the Wuthnow-Matthewes view, however, is the suggestion that, whether publicly prominent or publicly ignored, the voice of mainline Protestantism is the voice of God.
Matthewes does not assume that all is well, and he calls for some changes. For instance, for mainliners there needs to be a stronger connection between what happens on Sunday mornings and what happens during the rest of the week. Connecting Sunday morning with real life: it may not be thinking outside the box, but its hard to argue with it. Matthewes approves of the idea that the civic order has its own integrity quite apart from any specifically Christian reference, and he cites Martin Luthers famous maxim, Better to be ruled by a wise Turk than a stupid Christian. (The evidence from exhaustive research is that Luther never said that, but it is certainly what he might have said, if he had thought to say it.) But, Matthewes writes, wise Christians should also participate in politics, and to do so they need a better theological grounding. In that connection he recommends a reappropriation of the thought of the brothers Niebuhr, Reinhold and H. Richard. Back to the future, as it were.
Another suggested source of proposed mainline renewal is identification with the salvific experience of African-Americans. What if, Matthewes asks, white people began talking about white people as already burdened (just by being white) with a special original sin of racial privilege? What if, indeed. I suppose it could have the perverse effect of making white people feel even more special. And mainline white people must already feel very special, what with bearing the burden of being the quiet voice of God in public life and all that. But it appears the mainline has no choice; there is nobody else to take on these burdens. The two largest alternatives, evangelical Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, Matthewes writes, cannot replace the mainline churches historically beneficial effects on civic life.
The evangelicals cant do it because they are too well integrated in the society to provide much new social capital, and because they are too political in what he calls the narrow sense. With that I am simply at a loss. Does he mean that members of the Assemblies of God are more socially established or more at home in American society than, say, Presbyterians? That seems unlikely. As for political action, we have a number of studies showing that evangelicals and their churches tend not to be activist, but when they do act they tend to get noticed, especially by liberals who assume that liberals have a copyright on speaking truth to power.
Nor are Catholics up to replacing the indispensable mainline. Matthewes writes that, while Catholics provide much of the intellectual impetus for public action, their stronger hierarchical inheritance will be a stumbling block for cultivating the necessary sort of republican civic spirit. Alas, it seems that Alexis de Tocqueville and John Courtney Murray, who argued that Catholicism is particularly well suited to cultivate republican virtue, have lived in vain. Paul Blanshard, thou hast conquered! Mr. Matthewes does allow that Catholics may have a larger role to play in the public square if they become less Catholic and more like mainline Protestants. The author winds down with this: The mainline civic style, then, remains the most viable form for religious groups to influence American society today and in the foreseeable future, and thus to have some say in the culture that so profoundly affects their lives.
The Mainline Deserves Better
Among many commentaries on the dispiriting spectacle of establishment Protestantisms decline from the mainline to the oldline to the sideline, Mr. Matthewes is notably depressing. There is a continuity in the story, however, and it is to be found in the mainlines abiding smugness. The appearance of modesty is misleading, even though there is today so very much for the mainline to be modest about. From the late-nineteenth-century social gospel crusade aimed at Christianizing America and Americanizing Christianity, through the modernist triumph over fundamentalism in the 1920s, through the faux-prophetic radicalisms of the 1960s and consequent marginalization, mainline Protestantism has never doubted that it speaks for God. Its only that now God is speaking very quietly. In the church basement. Through voices that are not necessarily Christianly indexed.
Joshing aside, oldline Protestantism and its place in our public life is an important subject. And it is true, as the prophet Elijah learned, that God sometimes does speak in a still, small voice. There are many voices in American Christianity, and none should assume that it is the voice of God. The most theologically confident and publicly effective voices today are evangelical Protestant and Catholic. The cultural and political hegemony of the old mainline has long since collapsed. This does not mean that the mainline has collapsed. While national and regional structures may be largely ignored, while church and society bureaucracies may be discredited, and while cooperative efforts such as the National Council of Churches are only waiting for a date to be set for their funeral, it is worth remembering that approximately one-third of the Christians in this country still belong to local churches associated with the old mainline. And across the country one can find oldline congregations that are vibrantly alive in their very specifically Christian faith and mission.
Reconsidering the Role of Mainline Churches in Public Life is a good thing to do. But it is not helpful when done as a nostalgic exercise in the afterglow of a hegemony long lost, or as a desperate grasp for moral legitimacy in identification with black victimhood, or by the smug equation of its voice with the voice of God, or on the anti-ecumenical and thoroughly sectarian premise that its identity is derived from invidious comparison with evangelicals and Catholics. The churches that are heirs to what was once the mainline are deserving of better than that.
Plain Talk About Muslim Rage
We are told by President Bush that the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan is just the beginning of the war on terrorism. Yet I am struck by how many pundits and news reports give the impression that that was an isolated action; all that is left is a clean-up operation and then its back to the world as usual. Our December 2001 editorial, In a Time of War, asserted that, whatever happens next, power relationships in the world have already been dramatically reconfigured by September 11. At the center of that reconfiguration is Islam, as a religion and a culture. In that editorial, we cited Bernard Lewis, doyen of Western students of Islam, on how the resentment and rage of most of the billion Muslims in the world came to be targeted on the United States. Many Middle East experts and those who teach in Islamic studies departments in this country have been telling us for a long time, and continue to tell us, that the Muslim problem is really the American problem; that terrorism is, if not excusable, at least understandable in view of the nasty things we have done to Muslims, and especially to Arab Muslims.
Of course, it is always imperative to work at better understanding, to clear up misunderstandings, to build bridges, and even, if possible, replace conflict with peaceful dialogue. Such were the aims of Pope John Paul II with his January 24 gathering of world religious leaders at Assisi. Such efforts, no matter how futile they may sometimes seem, are to be wholeheartedly and prayerfully supported. It is absolutely necessary that de-politicized space be created for conversation about, and mutual recognition of, our common humanity and our accountability to a judgment that transcends our animosities and clashes. In no way should such efforts be dismissed as soft, idealistic, or utopian. How many divisions does the pope have? Stalin cynically asked. Those who did not know the answer before were amply instructed by the fall of Soviet communism. In politics among nations, as everywhere else, it is a crackpot realism that derides the importance of culture and ideas, and especially the commanding ideas associated with religion.
It is precisely in order to achieve peaceful understanding that we need plain talk about what stands in the way of such understanding. Victor Davis Hanson, a military historian and foreign policy analyst, provides such plain talk in Why the Muslims Misjudged Us ( City Journal , Winter 2002). The catastrophe of the Muslim world, he writes, is that its leadership recognizes the failure of their societies but then seeks to fault others for its own self-created fiasco. Government spokesmen in the Middle East should ignore the nonsense of the cultural relativists and discredited Marxists and have the courage to say that they are poor because their populations are nearly half illiterate, that their governments are not free, that their economies are not open, and that their fundamentalists impede scientific inquiry, unpopular expression, and cultural exchange. Chances for better understanding are now much reduced. Tragically, the immediate prospects for improvement are dismal, inasmuch as the war against terrorism has further isolated the Middle East. Travel, foreign education, and academic exchanges, the only sources of future hope for the Arab world, have screeched to a halt. All the conferences in Cairo about Western bias and media distortion cannot hide this self-inflicted catastrophe and the growing ostracism and suspicion of Middle Easterners in the West.
Muslim autocrats make threatening noises about the dire consequences for the West if they are provoked. Hanson writes: There is an abyss between such rhetoric and the world we actually live in, an abyss called power. Out of politeness, we neednt crow over the relative military capability of one billion Muslims and 300 million Americans; but we should remember that the lethal 2,500-year Western way of war is the reflection of very different ideas about personal freedom, civic militarism, individuality on the battlefield, military technology, logistics, decisive battle, group discipline, civilian audit, and the dissemination and proliferation of knowledge. Hanson is undoubtedly right about that, although the potential destructive power of terrorism is, by definition, in its indifference to the Western way of war.
Here is how he depicts the larger picture: Values and traditions”not guns, germs, and steel”explain why a tiny Greece of fifty thousand square miles crushed a Persia twenty times larger; why Rome, not Carthage, created world government; why Cortes was in Tenochtitlán, and Montezuma not in Barcelona; why gunpowder in its home in China was a pastime for the elite while, when stolen and brought to Europe, it became a deadly and ever evolving weapon of the masses. Even at the nadir of Western power in the medieval ages, a Europe divided by religion and fragmented into feudal states could still send thousands of thugs into the Holy Land, while a supposedly ascendant Islam had neither the ships nor the skill nor the logistics to wage jihad in Scotland or Brittany. Much is made of five hundred years of Ottoman dominance over a feuding Orthodox, Christian, and Protestant West; but the sultans were powerful largely to the degree that they crafted alliances with a distrustful France and the warring Italian city-states, copied the Arsenal at Venice, turned out replicas of Italian and German cannon, and moved their capital to European Constantinople. Moreover, their dominance amounted only to a rough naval parity with the West on the old Roman Mediterranean; they never came close to the conquest of the heart of Western Europe. That rings true, except for their never coming close. At least at the time, both Christians and Muslims thought the confrontation leading up to Vienna 1683 was a very close-run thing.
Today, however, it is a matter, above all, of culture. We are militarily strong, and the Arab world abjectly weak, not because of greater courage, superior numbers, higher IQs, more ores, or better weather, but because of our culture. When it comes to war, one billion people and the worlds oil are not nearly as valuable military assets as MIT, West Point, the U.S. House of Representatives, C-Span, Bill OReilly, and the GI Bill. Between Xerxes on his peacock throne overlooking Salamis and Saddam on his balcony reviewing his troops, between the Greeks arguing and debating before they rowed out with Themistocles and the Americans haranguing one another on the eve of the Gulf War, lies a 2,500-year tradition that explains why the rest of the world copies its weapons, uniforms, and military organization from us, not vice versa.
If Israel Did Not Exist . . .
Also in this country, there are many who claim that Israel is at the heart of this confrontation. Much more is that the claim in the Middle East. Millions in the Middle East are obsessed with Israel, whether they live in sight of Tel Aviv or thousands of miles away. Their fury doesnt spring solely from genuine dismay over the hundreds of Muslims Israel has killed on the West Bank; after all, Saddam Hussein butchered hundreds of thousands of Shiites, Kurds, and Iranians, while few in Cairo or Damascus said a word. Syrias Assad liquidated perhaps twenty thousand in sight of Israel, without a single demonstration in any Arab capital. The murder of some 100,000 Muslims in Algeria and 40,000 in Chechnya in the last decade provoked few intellectuals in the Middle East to call for a pan-Islamic protest. Clearly, the anger derives not from the tragic tally of the fallen but from Islamic rage that Israelis have defeated Muslims on the battlefield repeatedly, decisively, at will, and without modesty. If Israel were not so successful, free, and haughty, if it were beleaguered and tottering on the verge of ruin, perhaps it would be tolerated. But in a sea of totalitarianism and government-induced poverty, a relatively successful economy and a stable culture arising out of scrub and desert clearly irks its less successful neighbors. Envy, as the historian Thucydides reminds us, is a powerful emotion and has caused not a few wars.
If Israel did not exist, the Arab world, in its current fit of denial, would have to invent something like it to vent its frustrations. That is not to say there may not be legitimate concerns in the struggle over Palestine, but merely that for millions of Muslims the fight over such small real estate stems from a deep psychological wound. It isnt about lebensraum or some actual physical threat. Israel is a constant reminder that it is a nations culture”not its geography or size or magnitude of its oil reserves”that determines its wealth or freedom. For the Middle East to make peace with Israel would be to declare war on itself, to admit that its own fundamental way of doing business”not the Jews”makes it poor, sick, and weak.
As for the U.S., its financial aid to Israel has to be weighed against the many billions of dollars that go to the Palestinians, Egypt, Jordan, and other Muslim countries. In addition, there is this: Far from egging on Israel, the United States actually restrains the Israeli military, whose organization and discipline, along with the sophisticated Israeli arms industry, make it quite capable of annihilating nearly all its bellicose neighbors without American aid. Should the United States withdraw from active participation in the Middle East and let the contestants settle their differences on the battlefield, Israel, not the Arab world, would win. The military record of four previous conflicts does not lie. Arafat should remember who saved him in Lebanon; it was no power in the Middle East that brokered his exodus and parted the waves of Israeli planes and tanks for his safe passage to the desert.
Loving What They Hate
We will remember what too many Muslims forget, writes Hanson. The Muslim world suffers from political amnesia, we now have learned, and so has forgotten not only Arafats resurrection but also American help to beleaguered Afghanis, terrified Kuwaitis, helpless Kurds and Shiites, starving Somalis, and defenseless Bosnians”direct intervention that has cost the United States much more treasure and lives than mere economic aid for Israel ever did. They forget; but we remember the Palestinians cheering in Nablus hours after thousands of our innocents were incinerated in New York and the hagiographic posters of a mass murderer in the streets of Muslim capitals.
Even in the crucible of war, Hanson writes, we have discovered that our worst critics love us in the concrete as much as they hate us in the abstract. The concrete evidence of their love, if that is what it is, is that they want to come here and to send their children here. Hanson asks, Why do so many of these anti-Americans, who profess hatred of the West and reverence for the purity of an energized Islam or a fiery Palestine, enroll in Chico State or UCLA instead of madrassas in Pakistan or military academies in Iraq? The embarrassing answer would explain nearly everything, from bin Laden to the intifada. Dads and moms who watch Al-Jazeera and scream in the street at the Great Satan really would prefer that their children have dollars, an annual CAT scan, a good lawyer, air conditioning, and Levis in American hell than be without toilet paper, suffer from intestinal parasites, deal with the secret police, and squint with uncorrected vision in the Islamic paradise of Cairo, Teheran, and Gaza. Such a fundamental and intolerable paradox in the very core of a mans heart”multiplied millions of times over”is not a healthy thing either for them or for us.
Hanson ends on the note of friendly counsel: So a neighborly bit of advice for our Islamic friends and their spokesmen abroad: topple your pillars of ignorance and the edifice of your anti-Americanism. Try to seek difficult answers from within to even more difficult questions without. Do not blame others for problems that are largely self-created or seek solutions over here when your answers are mostly at home. Please, think hard about what you are saying and writing about the deaths of thousands of Americans and your relationship with the United States. America has been a friend more often than not to you. But now you are on the verge of turning its people”who create, not follow, government”into an enemy: a very angry and powerful enemy that may be yours for a long, long time to come.
Im sure that some might complain that Hansons critique of Muslim venting is but another form of venting. I dont think so. I am reminded, rather, of Dr. Johnsons observation that clear thinking begins with clearing the mind of cant. The reconfiguration of world politics since September 11 offers nought for our comfort. Almost unbelievable has been the obtuseness and mendacity of Muslim organizations in this country. They continue to act as though nothing fundamental has changed; they are just another poor minority being picked on by a prejudiced majority. Because of the incorrigible niceness of Americans, they can get away with that most of the time. But continued denials and evasions about the evils perpetrated in the name of Islam and of Muslims seem almost suicidal. Again and again, one wants to cry out, Please, please do not say that. They keep digging themselves into an ever deeper hole. We must continue to hope that voices of candor and correction will emerge from the Muslim world, both here and abroad. Meanwhile, I think Hanson got it about right in explaining why they misjudge us, and why we must brace ourselves for the duration, which is likely to be very, very long.
The Uses of Confrontation
I first met the late Saul Alinsky when I was a very young pastor in black Brooklyn. It was at the Urban Institute in Chicago, which in the 1960s was at the center of honing young clergy, Protestant and Catholic, for urban ministries. Alinsky was already then a fabled veteran of confrontational activism, an amiably rough man who was loquaciously exultant in communicating his discovery that the Catholic Church was the lever with which to move the world, or, as it was put then, to radically change The System. The Catholics had the resources and the people, while Protestant clergy, with usually dwindling city parishes, had the time and energy for agitation. In that first meeting, there were perhaps thirty younger clergy and seminarians in the room. Alinsky began with this: If theres anybody here who has any ideas about becoming a bishop some day, he should leave right now. I was impressed.
Alinskys books Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals were hot items in their time. His lasting contribution is the Industrial Areas Foundation, which is still going strong today. IAF recruits local churches to challenge the power structure on behalf of radical change by pitting power against power. Power is, as IAF organizers unabashedly proclaim, the only game in town. (A good introduction to IAF goals and tactics, written from an admiring perspective, is Jim Rooneys Organizing the South Bronx , available in paperback from State University of New York Press.) IAF is reported to have more than sixty-five affiliated organizations around the country, and claims to represent, through its affiliates, millions of people. In its boot camps for organizers, IAF prides itself on taking an unsentimental and brutally realistic approach to the power struggle. The purpose is to wean church people off the conventional religious expectation that their role is to achieve dialogue and cooperation. The goal is to win, and the means is confrontation and conflict. The tactic, as Rooney explains, is to unambiguously target a vulnerable public official or an institution as the enemy, to very publicly defeat the enemy, and then build on the momentum to attack the next vulnerable target.
The IAF approach is very political and unapologetically partisan. IAF as an organization usually keeps a low profile. It has, for instance, no website, although it is the directing force behind coalitions such as BUILD in Baltimore, WIN in Washington, D.C., and numerous similar campaigns. South Bronx Churches (SBC) is among affiliates that have an impressive record in marshaling public and private resources for low-income housing, although not without stepping on the toes of a Catholic urban coalition that it upstaged. Stepping on toes, indeed stomping on toes, is the ordinary operating procedure for IAF and its affiliates. Critics of IAF say it is divisive and has the unhappy effect of politicizing churches, to which IAF leaders happily plead guilty. Readers of Tom Wolfes Bonfire of the Vanities will remember his account of the riotous mass mugging of New Yorks mayor (a stand-in for Ed Koch), a classic IAF-style confrontation. At the same time, and I have some ambivalence about this, IAF leaders have said they are promoting the mediating institutions approach to public policy advocated by Peter Berger and me in our To Empower People .
Over the years, readers have asked about IAF, usually occasioned by the involvement or proposed involvement of their local churches. My standard response has been that I have known IAF leaders, on and off, over many years, that they do have a heart for creating leaders for sometimes necessary social change, but that intention is joined to a manipulative methodology and a tendency to use religion for narrowly partisan purposes. In short: look very carefully at what you may be getting into. One reader, Edward H. Sisson, a Washington lawyer, has looked very carefully indeed and does not at all like what he has found. He was a member of the vestry of St. Johns Episcopal Church in Bethesda, Maryland, when that parish was invited to join an IAF affiliate known as Action in Montgomery (AIM). After his investigation of IAFs history and methods, he strongly opposed joining. He is willing to make the very substantial file he accumulated on IAF available to readers who send him $20 (for duplication and mailing costs) at 555 Twelfth Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20004. In my judgment, the material raises substantial questions that should be considered by any church thinking about signing up with an IAF project.
Saul Alinsky died many years ago. In the 1960s he was viewed as part of a mainly Jewish world of the Old Left dating from the 1930s. Some leftists committed to a Marxist version of class struggle condemned him as a dangerous revisionist. Then and now, IAF cannot always be easily slotted on the left-right spectrum. The problems, including moral problems, arise in connection with recruiting religion to a methodology of unremitting confrontation, deliberate polarization, targeting of enemies, and obsession with power. But, it is said, it is all in a good cause. Maybe so. A Lutheran pastor who is a friend of long standing has worked with IAF for decades. Sure we use tough street talk to rouse the people and get the attention of the establishment, he says, but the most effective and most devout Christian leaders I know have come out of this program. Such testimonies are not hard to come by, and they, too, should be weighed by churches thinking about joining up with IAF.
While Were At It
Playing fast and loose with fasting would seem to be another instance of what is aptly described as the destabilizing of the Catholic ethos. The bar has been so lowered that what officially counts as fasting today is tantamount to a moderate and well-balanced diet. That is not what the Scriptures or the fathers meant by fasting: a rigorous self-discipline whereby appetites are brought under control in order to sharpen prayerful adhesion to God. But here is a Lenten reflection from the bishops Secretariat for Liturgy announcing that Lenten fasting can encompass fasting from food, sin, ignorance, violence, and apathy. Really? Fasting from ignorance? We read, Lent is a time to fast from violence and to witness the peace the world cannot give. We are encouraged to ask, Do I avoid not just the violence of hands, but also the cruel words born of angry hearts, the thoughtless gossip, etc., etc. So if one does not commit adultery, is he fasting from adultery? This is impossibly muddled. Fasting is not refusing to do bad things but the spiritually purposeful giving up of good things. Like food. Once upon a time, everybody knew that. Many still do. Little thanks to the professional destabilizers.
The professor from Nowhere strikes again. More than two billion dollars have been raised for victims of September 11. Private gifts, combined with various government programs, will result in some families getting more than a million dollars. Peter Singer of Princeton writes in Slate , Questions of justice immediately arise. Ah ha! One would expect no less from the gimlet-eyed professor whom some call the most influential living philosopher in the world. He goes on to offer a typically utilitarian consideration: It makes sense for the community to reward the families of those who die while bravely trying to save others, for doing so both recognizes and encourages acts of great benefit to the community. But then he gets to his main complaint: that more people in the world die of hunger every day than died on September 11, and the U.S. is, compared to other nations, a piker when it comes to the percentage of wealth given to world organizations dealing with economic development. Singer ends with this: Americans are fond of talking of their belief in human equality, but it seems that their circle of concern drops off sharply once it gets to the boundary of their own nation. The sums donated to the victims of Sept. 11 show this once again. We would be a better nation if our generosity was more closely related to need and less closely tied to whether someone is a fellow citizen, or a victim of terrorism, or even a hero. Well, yes, in the utilitarian Nowhere where each counts as one and none counts as more than one, that makes a kind of sense. Perhaps there are people who would say, I see where three thousand people died in New York because of a terrorist attack. But twenty-seven thousand children died of hunger in poor countries the same day. So Ill give five dollars to a fund for the New York victims and fifty dollars to UNICEF. On second thought, since the victims in New York are already dead and not much can be done for them, and since others will give generously to their survivors, Ill give all my money to hungry children who might still be helped. Singer himself, in a brief touch-down in Somewhere, offered the thin utilitarian justification of rewarding and thus encouraging acts that benefit the community. He seems impervious, however, to the fact that most Americans, with good reason, do not share his naive confidence in international organizations that claim to help the poor, and he is only slightly more appreciative of the fact that billions of dollars and thousands of American lives are devoted to helping the poor in other countries, usually under religious auspices. Most drearily predictable, however, is Singers almost total lack of understanding or sympathy for the very human phenomenon of a great outburst of generosity in response to the unprecedented attack of September 11. Such a response is not logical, it does not conform to a utilitarian calculus of distributive judgment. And of course he is right. I have noted before Chestertons observation that the problem with madmen (including mad ethicists) is not that they are not logical but that they are only logical. Extending peoples concerns for others in need is a very good thing to do, but it is not likely to be accomplished by churlish complaints about uncalculated generosity or by the guiltmongering to which Prof. Singer is prone. Much wiser is the celebration of the generous response to September 11, in the hope that generosity breeds generosity all around.
The His-and-Hers Bible is Emily Nussbaums response to the brouhaha over Todays New International Version of the Bible. Writing in the New York Times Magazine , Nussbaum concludes: To translate the Bible this way is understandably tempting, but its also a lie. Im reminded of a modern Orthodox coworker I once had, who said, Look, being Jewish is a game with a set of rules: go ahead and move the pieces anyplace you want, but dont call it chess. A truly gender-neutral interpretation of the Bible would quickly begin to fall apart at the seams”laws about rape or slavery rising up like invisible ink from ancient parchment. One solution, of course, is to reject the Bible entirely. Another is to regard it merely as a parable whose historical foundation can be ignored. But for anyone who wants to take religion ser