The Public Square
Who belongs to the community for which we accept common responsibility? That, I would suggest, is the question that defines the disagreement over abortion law. The history of Christian America can be invoked, and is invoked, by all sides in this dispute. There are religious coalitions, mainly drawn from mainline/oldline Protestantism, strongly in support of the unlimited abortion license. They invoke Christian sensibilities of compassion for women in trouble, and employ with considerable effect the Christian language of freedom and personal responsibility, the latter understood as taking charge of one’s own life. Among the weaknesses of these pro-choice coalitions is that they depend on the dispirited and declining constituencies of the liberal churches. Moreover, they are muted in invoking explicitly religious warrants for their position, since one of their chief accusations is that it is their opponents who are trying to impose their religiously grounded morality on others. Their fallback position is an appeal to tolerance, to agree to disagree. But to agree to disagree, of course, means that people should be able to do what they want with respect to abortion, with the unborn child having no voice in the decision. An irony in this dispute is that pro-life forces reject that appeal to tolerance as an instance of repressive tolerance, much as Herbert Marcuse and others on the radicalized left used that phrase in their scorn of liberalism in the 1960s.
On the other side of the Christian America dynamic as it works its way through the abortion conflict are evangelical Protestants and Catholics who have the distinct advantage of having many more Christians, and more committed Christians, in their support. The commitment variable (as it is called in the jargon of social science) is important here. Research repeatedly confirms that, the more religiously committed people are”the more they go to church, the more they give, the more they rate religion as being very important in their lives”the more they are likely to be pro-life rather than pro-choice. Interestingly, the commitment variable holds also in the case of more liberal churches that are supportive of the pro-choice position. That is to say, the more committed members of these churches tend to disagree with the position of their church leaderships on abortion.
A further advantage of the pro-life forces is that, especially in the Catholic component of their coalition, they are armed with sophisticated arguments from natural law and public reason that require no explicit appeal to religious faith. In order to avoid engaging these arguments, pro-choice opponents contend that the rationality of Catholics is only a facade, that it is the appearance of rational argument in the service of a religious commitment. In taking this line, the opponents run the risk of appearing to be both antirational and anti-Catholic. In fact, the more strident pro-abortion advocates have over the years been overtly anti-Catholic, contending that resistance to what they view as progress is orchestrated by a monolithic Catholic Church, with evangelical Protestants and others being but pawns in a grand strategy to roll back the course of progress.
The connection, then, between the culture wars and what sociologists call the religion factor could hardly be more intense or complicated. On the most fevered question in cultural and political contention, that of abortion, we are witness to a playing out of the idea of Christian America, understood as the Judeo-Christian moral tradition having normative status in our public life. Few historians would dispute that this was the tradition”also in its Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment variations”by which this constitutional order was constituted. The great dispute is about whether it can be reconstituted on that basis, or whether that tradition is now irretrievably fragmented, or whether that tradition has in fact been replaced by a very different morality”perhaps along the lines of the mystery passage of the Casey abortion decision, which declared that our nation has no higher devotion than to the individual’s right to construct his own meaning of the universe. This dispute will not be settled any time soon, and it is probably in the nature of such a dispute that it is never really settled at all. The raucous contention between conflicting (because incompatible) moral traditions may be a permanent feature of a democracy such as ours.
Conservatives are frequently heard to say that the country is on the edge of, or already engaged in, a massive religious revival, something like another Great Awakening. We should nurture a measure of skepticism about that. In his 1992 book The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation , the celebrated critic Harold Bloom argued that no Western nation is as religion-soaked as ours. According to Bloom, however, the religion in this instance is not Christianity but a sub-Christian Gnosticism in which the individual is thought to be endowed with a divine spark that is more primordial than creation itself. The sub-Christian religion that constitutes Bloom’s post-Christian America is practiced in the name of Christianity but is far removed from any belief system that could sustain a normative moral tradition. The prophet of American Gnosticism, according to Bloom, is Ralph Waldo Emerson, and in this respect Bloom is very close to Richard Rorty’s American religion, without the latter’s extravagant patriotism and sense of national destiny.
Bloom’s depiction of American religion is intended to be provocative, but it should not be lightly dismissed. It poses a caution to conservatives who place their hopes in what is vaguely called a religious revival. There is religion and then there is religion. Recall the shelves upon shelves of New Age spiritualities to be found in the bookstores at the mall. Giving credence to Bloom’s claim, such books are bought and read by people who think of themselves as Christians but are either unwilling or unable to recognize Gnostic doctrines quite at odds with elementary Christian teaching. In short, it is far from obvious that a revival of religiosity would reinvigorate the normative status of Judeo-Christian morality in a manner that might be decisive in resolving the conflicts of today’s culture politics, and particularly the conflict over abortion policy. There is great uncertainty about whether the abortion conflict will ever be resolved at all, although a number of possibilities reward consideration.
The founding creed”We hold these truths to be self-evident”affirms truths that have been and are today far from self-evident to the great majority of humankind. The truth that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is a truth that can only be explained as the product of a very particular history. In the eighteenth century, its explication and popular acceptance can only be explained in the context of the taken-for-granted reality of Christian America. This is not to say that the truths affirmed by the Declaration cannot be supported by rigorously secular arguments that are not dependent upon the biblical tradition. There have been many efforts to develop such arguments, from John Dewey’s A Common Faith to, at a more academically rarefied level, John Rawls’ 1971 work, A Theory of Justice . Whatever one may think of the intellectual persuasiveness of such efforts, they are familiar only to a relatively small number of intellectuals who are by no means agreed on their meaning or merits. They cannot secure a popular, which is to say democratic, adherence to the great claims of the Declaration and the constitutional order dependent upon those claims. This is not to say that it is not hypothetically possible to make a rigorously secular case for those claims that is democratically accessible and persuasive. But, in view of the many attempts that have failed, skepticism about that possibility is in order. And there is the inherent difficulty of what to do with the Creator”a reference that in the logic of the Declaration is essential to the claim that human rights are prior to government in the order of both time and authority.
Right from the beginning, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was of course denied to slaves of African descent. The founders did not deny it in principle, but came around to denying it in practice as the price to be paid for achieving the Union, which would turn out to be the undoing of the Union in a terrible civil war. History is not the automated playing out of inevitabilities. Had it not been for specific persons, actions, and circumstances”most particularly, had it not been for Abraham Lincoln”there might have been a peaceful secession of the South, or perhaps the nation might have lived with the peculiar institution of slavery for another century or more. And so it may also be the case that we might continue for a very long time with the unlimited abortion license imposed by Roe v. Wade .
Similarities and Dissimilarities
Despite the chilling similarity in logic and even in the language employed, however, there are significant differences between Roe v. Wade of 1973 and the Dred Scott decision of 1857. The former is in its time deemed by opinion-making elites to be in the cause of progress, while the latter was by the same elites of the nineteenth century condemned as the defense of an intolerable status quo. It is of the utmost importance that in the mid-1960s the liberal flag, signaling the cause of progress, was planted on the pro-abortion side of the divide. That, too, was not inevitable. American liberalism is historically schizophrenic. On the one hand, liberalism is devoted to ever expanding the community of common care and concern, as with the civil rights movement under Dr. King. On the other, it is the cause of the unlimited assertion of individual rights. In the abortion dispute, the second liberalism prevailed, powerfully reinforced as it was by an insurgent feminism defined as liberation from past constraints.
Then too, slavery was a public institution around which an entire economic and social order was constructed, whereas abortion can be construed as a private, even intimate, matter”a regrettable recourse to a quasi-medical solution of a problem that, while it may involve more than one person, is certainly not public business in the usual sense of the term. Most important, even those who had never seen a black slave acknowledged, with very few exceptions, that these were fellow human beings who were denied liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Even then, however, the abolitionists were, up until the Civil War, in a distinct minority. No matter how widespread the recognition of slavery as an evil”even a great evil that fundamentally contradicted the constituting truths of the nation”few were prepared to accept the conflict and massive dislocation required to abolish it. Pro-life activists who compare their cause to that of the nineteenth-century abolitionists can appeal to moral logic and historical symmetry, but the comparison does not engender hope for the prospect of abolishing abortion. Unless one envisions another Civil War. There are a handful of radically alienated Americans on the fringes who apparently do envision that. They are angry about many things, and some of them are also angry about the abortion license. They are, and must of moral necessity remain, a fringe phenomenon.
Most people have a remarkable capacity to live with cognitive dissonance. It is a burden that we become adept at bearing lightly. Yes, said the farmer and shopkeeper of 1857, slavery is grossly incompatible with the founding truths of the country, but it is the Fourth of July and the parade must go on. As mentioned earlier, public opinion on abortion has changed very little in the last quarter century. Somewhat less than 20 percent support the unlimited license now in force, about 20 percent say all abortion should be outlawed, and the remainder say abortion should not be permitted except in certain very limited circumstances. At the very end of the century, in 1999, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that a survey of college freshmen showed that only 51 percent think abortion should be legal, indicating a decline of 14 percent from a few years ago.
At the same time, an abortion-rights organization indicated its distress at the finding of its own survey that an absolute majority (53 percent) of American women believe abortion should be outlawed entirely or allowed only in cases of rape, incest, and direct threat to the life of the mother. A finding of particular interest is that somewhat more than 50 percent of respondents agree that abortion is the same thing as murder. Yet cognitive and moral dissonance continues to be conspicuous. The question is variously phrased in different surveys, but the noteworthy fact is that over half of those who say that abortion is tantamount to murder also say that abortion should be legal in difficult circumstances. One may wonder whether people really intend to say that murder should sometimes be legal.
Of course we do not have comparable survey research from the first part of the nineteenth century. From what we know, it seems likely that a strong majority of people in the North, and a substantial minority in the South, thought slavery was wrong, but also thought it was something they would have to live with, or at least did not see any tolerable way of getting rid of it. Compared with murder, slavery was certainly viewed as a lesser violation of moral right. Although today we tend to forget it, up until the late eighteenth century slavery in various forms was an almost universal institution. Educated people of undoubted moral seriousness vigorously debated the rights and wrongs of it. We today judge any word in defense of slavery to be abhorrent, but we should resist the hubris of presentism that despises those who lived before us, recognizing that we are as culturally conditioned in our views, and not always for the better, as were they. In any society that is deemed civilized, however, there has never been a comparable debate about the rights and wrongs of murder. The novelty of our circumstance is sobering. With respect to abortion, it would seem that a majority of Americans think we are debating the rights and wrongs of murder. The question is, When should the private use of lethal force in taking an innocent human life be legal? The question poses the oxymoron of legal murder. The moral, cultural, political, and legal implications of this should be of concern to everybody, and not only to those opposed to Roe v. Wade and its judicial progeny.
An argument made by the Supreme Court in Casey is that the abortion license is now so deeply ingrained as a taken-for-granted option that limiting it, never mind removing it, would result in intolerable social and political disruption. Further, the Justices claim, it would throw into question not only the legitimacy of the Court but of the rule of law. There are conservatives who, while supporting the Republican Party’s declared opposition to abortion, basically agree with Casey . In this view, we have as a country passed the point of no return. The Republican anti-abortion plank, it is said sotto voce, is similar to the public position of leftist parties in Europe during the Cold War. Their public platforms committed them to state ownership of the means of production and alliance with the Soviet Union. That public position was necessary to hold on to their core leftist constituency, but it was perfectly well understood that they were not going to do anything to implement such commitments. Many in the core constituency also understood that, although they preferred not to admit it even to themselves. So it is, some say, with the Republicans and their social conservative constituency in the matter of abortion. Some call it cognitive dissonance; others, less kindly, speak of hypocrisy. More cynical still is the claim that some ostensibly pro-life politicians have no intention of effectively limiting the abortion license, since it would deprive them of such a useful issue in securing the loyalty of their core constituency.
Not Giving an Inch
It is very different with the partisans of Roe and Casey . After all these years, they are not complacent; they are determined not to give an inch. They are deadly serious in defending any and all abortions, including abortions that even some pro-choice advocates acknowledge are not abortions at all but instances of infanticide. Again we encounter irony in that the pro-choice side is burdened with a victory that it did not expect, and in some ways it did not want. Almost everybody was surprised by the Roe v. Wade decision of January 22, 1973. Planned Parenthood and its allies were pressing for liberalized abortion law, an expansion of those circumstances in which abortion would be legal. The Court responded by abolishing the abortion laws of all fifty states, thus removing with one edict any effective legal protection of unborn children. Defenders of Roe have said that the Court simply speeded up what was already happening in public opinion and politics. In fact, in the years immediately prior to Roe , public opinion as expressed in referendums and other initiatives was moving strongly against liberalized abortion law.
Certainly there can today be no dispute that Roe ”unlike the 1954 Brown decision on school desegregation with which it is often compared”has not been democratically legitimated by the acceptance of the people. It is the single most unsettled and unsettling question in our public life. Being radically dependent upon the judiciary, pro-choice strategists feel compelled to adopt a position of no compromise, even if it means the defense of infanticide. If, as seems quite possible, the Supreme Court in a future decision effectively reverses its narrow 5-4 approval of partial-birth abortion that many states and Congress have tried to ban, pro-choice leaders fear that the entire abortion regime put in place by Roe will begin to unravel. That is a rational fear. What, then, is the alternative?
The leadership of the many organizations that make up the pro-life movement is agreed on the movement’s goal: every unborn child protected in law and welcomed in life. With a few exceptions, it is agreed that that goal must be pursued over time and through incremental steps. In a world radically wounded by original sin, that goal will never be achieved completely. Children protected in law will not always be effectively protected by law. Some fathers will abandon their responsibility, and some mothers, whether in moral anguish or in contraceptive insouciance, will choose against their own children. There will always be some abortions. Before war came, Lincoln argued that the crucial decision was to turn in the direction of the eventual extermination of slavery, and so it is with abortion. In the language of John Paul II, language that has been embraced by the pro-life cause, it is a matter of deciding for the culture of life and against the culture of death. Along the way, political accommodations and compromises will be made, but they are clearly along the way to the goal of every unborn child protected in law and welcomed in life, which cannot be compromised.
The firm consensus of the movement is that the second part of the goal”welcomed in life”cannot be secured by politics or laws alone. Political debate and the enactment of laws have an important pedagogical role, but the goal finally requires a dramatic moral and cultural transformation. Against that happening is a media-driven popular culture that typically celebrates no higher value than the autonomous self. Against that happening are developments in reproductive technology, fetal screening, genetic engineering, cloning, and yet unknown practices that can more deeply entrench the treatment of the developing child as a thing at our disposal. Against that happening is the formidable ability of the pro-choice establishment to depict their opponents as the enemies of freedom”and the propensity of pro-lifers to inadvertently cooperate in that depiction.
Weighing the Advantages
Finally, however, the pro-life side has decided advantages. The pro-choice position depends upon government by the judiciary, and the judiciary, as it is said, also reads the election returns. The advocates of abortion rights are in a position of staking all on an extreme and much disputed reading of Roe , which, in turn, is widely viewed as an aberrant decision of an aberrant moment in American public life. Their pro-life opponents, on the other hand, urge a return to law and practice well established in the history of the nation before Roe . To excited cries about a regression to back alleys and clothes hangers, it is pointed out that current abortion technology will be readily available to outlaw abortionists, making post- Roe abortions as medically safe for the mother as they are today in abortion clinics that are, as is the case at present, almost entirely outside legal oversight.
An immeasurably more important advantage of the pro-life position, however, is its orientation to the future. The ideas of the future and of progress pervade the American experience. The pro-choice party is in the position of defending the status quo of the Roe regime. Pro-choice leaders are heard to complain that young people take the abortion license for granted; they do not remember a world in which it was not there. Could they be politically activated if they perceived that the license is threatened? Perhaps so. But pro-choice leaders have loudly declared for years that abortion rights are gravely threatened, and there has been no such activation. It is a distinct handicap that almost nobody wants to be described as pro-abortion, while many proudly, even defiantly, declare themselves anti-abortion. Today there are many thousands of young people intensely engaged in pro-life activism, also on college campuses. On most campuses they know they are going up against the status quo, a factor not unrelated to the attraction of youthful protest.
More significant still, the future orientation of the pro-life cause has a horizon that is, not to put too fine a point on it, eschatological. The vocabulary of the culture of life is redolent with prophetic promise, crucifixion, resurrection, and the coming Kingdom of God. In sharpest contrast, the pro-choice cause is defined by a time-specific conjunction of a judicial decision with the cultural convulsions emerging from the 1960s. Fashions change. Already there is a widespread reaction against an earlier feminism premised upon the actualization of the autonomous self. The promise that women could have it all has soured as more and more women recognize that the promise excluded what they want most”family, children, and love that is on friendly terms with obligation. Once again, motherhood is chic. Of course, reports about these cultural trends may be wrong. Nobody knows how deep or long-lasting they may be. But that is just the point. They come and go. The liberalized abortion campaign, Roe v. Wade , and the cause to which they gave definition have come, and now appear to be on their way to being gone. It will take a while to get rid of the judicial detritus of that era. Stare decisis, the standing of precedent, carries weight in the law but not in the gyrations of cultural change.
In the biblical view of things, the conflict between the culture of life and the culture of death will continue until the End Time. The historical scenario within which the pro-life movement understands itself is spacious. The pro-life movement of the last quarter century was laying the foundations for the pro-life movement of this century, and the century after this. The context is set by the words of St. Paul: For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12). What all Americans need to understand is that pro-life activists typically do believe that their children or their children’s children will live in a world in which people will look back upon the abortion license with the same abhorrence with which we today look back upon slavery. They will, it is expected, shake their heads in horrified wonder at the fact that it was once legal and socially acceptable to kill children at will.
To be sure, the activists may be disappointed in that expectation. Perhaps the abortion regime now in place really is the infamous slippery slope, the precursor of widespread infanticide, euthanasia, eugenic engineering, and programs for the elimination of the unfit, whether born or unborn, whether old or young. The proposal of such as Princeton’s Peter Singer that we liberate ourselves from traditional ethics may prevail, at least for a time. But again, that is just the point of noting that the contention for the culture of life is set against an eschatological horizon. In principle”and in faith grounded in the cross and resurrection”nothing can falsify the hope that the culture of life will finally prevail. Any reversal is, in the larger scheme of things, but a momentary setback. As mentioned earlier, there are arguments for opposing abortion that are not religion-specific. Some Christians, especially Catholics, are adept at casting pro-life arguments in secular terms that they believe will have more purchase in the public square. There is also an organization called Humanists for Life, and I get occasional mailings from what I assume is a smaller group, Atheists for Life. But the abortion rights advocates are correct in portraying the pro-life cause as an undeniably religious movement. Its numbers, organizational base, and power to endure is in religion. Which is one way of saying that the pro-life movement is a democratic exercise in giving political effect to the deepest convictions of the political sovereign in this constitutional order, the American people.
This analysis, admittedly, assumes that America will continue to be a Christian, not a post-Christian, nation. It further assumes, with Irving Kristol and many other Jewish thinkers, that Christian nation is shorthand for saying that it is a nation in which the Judeo-Christian moral tradition is accorded normative status. As the immigrant Muslim community matures, it seems likely there will be Muslim Irving Kristols who will similarly affirm the shorthand of Christian nation. To say that America is a Christian nation is like saying it’s an English-speaking nation. There are not many people who speak the language well, but when they are speaking a language poorly, it is the English language they are speaking. There is, finally, no alternative to the English language, as there is no alternative to Christian America in a country where nearly 90 percent of the people think they are Christians. Goodness knows, alternative religions have been proposed by some intellectuals, but they have had few takers. Such alternatives purport to be universal, but they are universal in much the same way that Esperanto is a universal language. Like speakers of Esperanto, the adherents of these alternative religio-moral creeds are an elite sect, a cult without a culture.
For different reasons, both those who are not Christians and Christians for whom Christianity is an ideal will continue to have problems with the reality of Christian America. It is an exceedingly problematic reality. But historically and at present, cultures are defined, above all, by cult, by the most binding truths to which people adhere or claim to adhere. In his fine study Gregory the Great and His World , R. A. Markus describes how the identity of a people had changed by the sixth century. Traditionally, the human race was composed of three peoples’ or kinds’ ( genera ), he writes:
In the second and third centuries Christians were seen by their pagan contemporaries as the third race. Jews, long familiar to them, were the second, while they themselves-Romans”were, naturally, the first. This schematization was turned on its head in the course of the Christianization of the Empire. From the Christian point of view, there were still three religions, that of the Christians, of the Jews, and of the pagans. This classification risked creating the illusion that paganism was a religion, like Christianity or Judaism; in fact it was simply the rest, those who were neither Christians nor Jews.
In America today, the rest are sometimes called the pagans. Or we may think about this in a different way. Survey research over the years indicates that India is the most religious society in the world. Every aspect of personal and public life is riddled through and through with religious rituals, symbols, and beliefs. The least religious, the most thoroughly secularized, society is Sweden. Sociologist Peter Berger has suggested, with an admitted touch of hyperbole, that, if we want to understand the cultural conflicts in our society, it is useful to think of America as a society of Indians ruled by an elite of Swedes. The Swedes believe, with some justice, that they control the commanding heights of the culture”the university, the prestige media, the major philanthropies, the world of arts and letters. The problem, which becomes ever more something like a crisis, is that the culture of the commanding heights has become a culture unto itself, disengaged from and increasingly in conflict with the culture of the American social reality.
As has been frequently noted in these pages, the problem began to be critical in America shortly after the Second World War when the courts and educational institutions set out to create the naked public square, meaning public life untouched by the moral and religious allegiance of most Americans. But the form of the problem is hardly that recent. Two centuries earlier, the revolutionaries in France attempted to replace Christianity with the Religion of Reason. In nineteenth-century England, Matthew Arnold proposed what we would call high culture as a substitute for traditional religion. And in this century we have witnessed the rise and the fall (after historically unprecedented suffering and death) of the ersatz religion of sundry political projects associated with Marxism. Compared with the French Revolution and Marxism, it should be noted, America’s secular liberalism seems relatively benign.
These and other attempts to break the link between cult and culture”or to replace an existing cult with another”had in common a high confidence that they were the wave of the future. They were projects of modernity, and modernity was defined, above all, by the assumed demise of traditional religion. This was key to its mythology. For the enlightened elite of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and today, history is producing a nasty surprise. At the beginning of the third millennium, the great and building development is the desecularization of the world. The global significance of this is analyzed by Harvard’s Samuel Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order . As with any bold and comprehensive analysis, parts of that argument are glaringly vulnerable. (For instance, I believe he is wrong about Eastern Orthodoxy constituting a civilization separate from the Christian West.) But Huntington’s thesis is unfairly, if understandably, attacked by those who have a deep stake, perhaps an ultimate stake, in the secularizing mythology of modernity.
Playing the Postmodernity Card
Then there is postmodernity, a term that covers a multitude of insights and sillinesses. Some religious thinkers are enamored of it because it deconstructs the scientistic and secularistic pretensions of Enlightenment rationalism. That is, I believe, a mistake. As John Paul II contends in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), most of what is called postmodern thought reinforces various forms of fideism”the claim that things are true if you believe they’re true”which is the death of reason and universal truth. Yet there is no doubt that the phenomenon of postmodernism has dealt an additional blow to the secularizing myth of modernity, and the blow is the more severe because it occurs at the heart of the culture of the commanding heights, namely, the university. More than any other institution, the university was the shrine of that culture. Its sacred task was the quest for the truth. And now its postmodernist hierophants giddily announce that the truth is a delusion-that they, like everybody else, have been making it up all along.
Humanity’s propensity for utopianism being what it is, this century or the next may produce some new substitute religion”what T. S. Eliot called a positive replacement of Christian culture. A young Marx may be working at this moment on another world-transforming explanation of everything, and we may be in for another dizzying round of political ecstasy and human catastrophe. It seems improbable, but only God knows. Meanwhile, at the beginning of the century, we are faced with the challenge of coming to terms with the desecularization of the world and, closer to home, with the perduring, and perhaps reinvigorated, reality of Christian America. In the case of the latter, the quality of Christianity leaves much to be desired. Much of American Christianity is, as critics rightly point out, fideistic, privatized, and subjectivized”both incapable of and disinclined to make public arguments and exercise public influence. Christian America is, all in all, second-rate Christianity. But then, unless one holds to an implausibly romantic view of the earliest Church, the world has never seen anything but Christianity that is, all things considered, second-rate.
The problem with talk about Christian America, says an academic friend, is that it is not very Christian and it is not very American. He is certainly wrong at one level. Until fairly recently, most Americans talked about Christian America, and most Americans who talked about Christian America were Christians. At another level, one can employ words such as Christian and American qualitatively, and then argue until the cows come home about what is truly Christian and truly American. I don’t mean to disparage such argument, for it is endlessly interesting and important, and we are in very deep trouble if we stop having such arguments. But here I speak of Christian America chiefly in a descriptive, and not a qualitative, manner. I am concerned about the thereness, the thus and so-ness, of the thing”and what it has meant in the past, and means today, and may mean in the century ahead.
My professor friend was, of course, taking a leaf from the great Edward Gibbon, who caustically remarked from the commanding heights of his day that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. A clever fellow, that Gibbon. And he is right that it was not holy in the sense that most of its rulers and people were not outstanding in the holiness of their lives. Almost by definition, the majority of people is never outstanding. It is also true that it was not effectively governed from Rome and most of its subjects were not Romans. As to whether it was an empire, that depends on whatever other regimes that have claimed that title one might compare it to. It was holy, however, in that it formally acknowledged as Lord the Holy One of Israel, and Christianity was the religion that most everybody failed to practice very well. And it was both Roman and an empire in that it more or less held together for a considerable time vast territories and numbers of people in a political order that understood itself to be in continuity with the Roman Empire and in spiritual solidarity with the See of Rome. In short, while it did not meet Mr. Gibbon’s definitions of holy, Roman, and empire, it was the Holy Roman Empire.
And so it is, mutatis mutandis, with Christian America. Some people find talk about Christian America terribly threatening. Some thoughtful Christians find it terribly embarrassing. We can have endlessly interesting conversations about what a Christian society might look like, only to have our speculation rudely interrupted by the reminder that one of the largest and certainly the most influential of Christian societies looks like the United States of America at the beginning of the third millennium. Admittedly, it is not an entirely edifying sight. Christian America signifies a description under the judgment of an aspiration.
What We Learned From Wilder
In The Children of Wilder (Pantheon), Nina Bernstein of the New York Times presents us with a terrible story beautifully told. It is the very personal story of Shirley Wilder, the named plaintiff in the notorious Wilder v. Sugarman lawsuit, her son, her grandson, and generations of the poor and chiefly black children who have been caught up in what is euphemistically called the child care system of New York City. Weaving in and out of that personal narrative is a tale of mainly misguided efforts to reform that system. Ms. Bernstein has assiduously researched the personal dimensions of her story, and provides a refreshingly candid account of the legal and public policy battles that centered in a curious understanding of the separation of church and state and the role of religion in public life. The late John Cardinal O’Connor once remarked to me, with perhaps a bit of hyperbole, Everything that is wrongheaded in this country’s thinking about religion and society is summed up in Wilder v. Sugarman . Ms. Bernstein’s book invites the conclusion that any hyperbole in that statement is readily forgivable. Although she finished writing before President Bush’s proposal for faith-based and community initiatives in social services, her book could hardly be more pertinent to the debates generated by that proposal.
New York has a long history, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, of trying to cope with children who have, in Christopher Lasch’s phrase, no haven in a heartless world. One answer was the orphan trains that carried many thousands of orphans and abandoned or abused street children to small towns and farms in the Midwest. For many, this meant escape from poverty and successful entrance into the world of American opportunity; for many others it was a form of indentured servitude in which they languished before drifting back into the urban underclass. Another, and dominant, answer was the construction of a child care system by Catholic and Jewish leaders who were determined to take care of their own. Both Catholics and Jews saw the orphan trains as yet one more device by which the Protestant establishment was trying to steal their children from what that establishment viewed as the vices of popery and ghettoization. By the middle of the twentieth century, there was a large and flourishing network of Catholic and Jewish homes and schools for children in need of care. Working on a contractual basis with the city, this network was the backbone of child care in New York.
But there was not a comparable Protestant network, and Ms. Bernstein writes insightfully about why that was the case. A century and more ago, the then Protestant establishment understood itself to be the Americanizing party that had the mission of integrating the unwashed immigrant hordes of Catholics (mainly Irish Catholics) and Jews (mainly from Eastern Europe). In education, child care, and most everything else, it was assumed in those days that public meant Protestant. Across the board, Jews (especially Orthodox Jews) and Catholics struggled to maintain institutional control of their own communities. As Protestant meant public and public meant governmental, Protestant efforts were devoted to expanding city-run institutions and were directed against the religious discrimination inherent in the Catholic and Jewish efforts.
Over time, there were two major changes that set the stage for Wilder v. Sugarman in the 1970s (Jule Sugarman was then commissioner of social services). In city government, and especially in social services, Jews had largely displaced the older Protestant establishment. These were, however, thoroughly Americanized and secular Jews who were even more hostile than the earlier Protestants to the discrimination practiced by Catholics and the Orthodox. The second big change is that, by the latter part of the century, most of the children in need of care were black”and, with relatively few exceptions, Protestant. While Catholic and Jewish agencies cared for black children in numbers far out of proportion to the number of black Catholics or Jews, most of the black children were channeled into the less desirable city-run programs.
The Legacy of Leo Pfeffer
In 1973 Wilder began with, and for more than twenty years was pressed by, Marcia Lowry of the New York Civil Liberties Union. As Bernstein makes clear, Lowry and those who supported her came out of the world of what was then known as the Old Left, a world of passionate socialist idealism and militant secularism in which Jews were conspicuously prominent. In that world, religion and, more specifically, the connection between religion and political power was the enemy. The Catholic and Jewish agencies that played so large a part in the city’s child care system were an obvious target. The line of attack in Wilder employed the strict separationist interpretation of the First Amendment then being advanced by Leo Pfeffer of the American Jewish Congress. At that time, the Supreme Court was sympathetic to the Pfefferian interpretation by which the city’s payment for sectarian services in child care was an obvious violation of the no establishment provision of the religion clause.
The year 1973 was also in the afterglow of the high point of the civil rights movement, which made any hint of racial discrimination socially and legally anathema. In addition, Bernstein’s account underscores the importance of the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion, which came down only months before Wilder was launched. The reader is struck by the passionate attachment to, bordering on obsession with, abortion and contraception in the way that the militant secularists pressed their attack. According to the Catholic agencies in particular, the proper response to sexual promiscuity and abuse was better supervision. For their opponents, the answer was contraception and abortion. Wilder was driven, then, by three powerful factors: a doctrine of strict separationism entrenched in the courts; the heightened potency of the charge of racial discrimination; and an ideological commitment to individual autonomy”especially the autonomy of women (including teenage girls)”represented by Roe .
Wilder began when John Lindsay was mayor and came to a whimpering settlement under Rudolph Giuliani. It took a large chunk of twenty-six years out of the lives of many capable people, and consumed millions of dollars in legal fees. Lawyers joked that it was like Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Dickens’ Bleak House . Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on, Dickens wrote. This scarecrow of a suit has, in the course of time, become so complicated, that no man alive knows what it means . . . . Fair wards of the court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; a long procession of chancellors has come in and gone out . . . but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the court, perennially hopeless.
The hopelessness of Wilder became evident when Mayor Ed Koch made it clear that he had no stomach for testing the declared determination of Cardinal O’Connor to shut down the Catholic agencies, on which the city was increasingly dependent, rather than compromise Church teaching on abortion and contraception. (O’Connor promised that the Church would care for the children through some unspecified alternative system.) By the 1990s, other things had changed as well. The courts were drawing back from a dogmatic version of the separation of church and state, giving way to accommodation and cooperation between government and the institutions of civil society, including religion. Further, the question of racial discrimination had been mooted by the fact that now almost all the children being cared for in the system were nonwhite.
Children Left Behind
This brief account cannot do justice to the complex and fascinating story told by Nina Bernstein in The Children of Wilder . She keeps our attention centered on what happened to the children, and that is sad and sometimes wrenching to read. Particularly in the government institutions there were shifting expert theories and fashions in the treatment of problem children, ranging from lobotomy, to electro-shock, to aversive therapy, the last including various forms of physical abuse and putting children into long periods of solitary confinement. In the book one encounters instances of wise and caring nuns in the Catholic institutions, but one is left with the impression that most of the people in charge of child care were kooky, cruel, or, most commonly, burned out and indifferent. One would like to think that there were more who were selflessly doing their best in almost impossible circumstances. Bernstein mentions, but might have paid more attention to, the damage done to the alternative of adoption by black ideologues who condemned interracial adoption as a form of genocide, and by bureaucrats who used the foster care system as an instrument of income redistribution in racial politics.
As a result of Wilder and the agitations it generated, a marginally functioning child care system was almost pushed over the edge. Although Ms. Bernstein does not make a point of saying so, her book powerfully reinforces the truth that there is no adequate”not even anywhere near adequate”substitute for the stable two-parent family. President Bush’s admirable slogan notwithstanding, however, some children will always be left behind. In New York and other urban centers, they are overwhelmingly black children, the victims of the collapse of an older order of marriage and family, including the extended family that once took in the children of irregular liaisons. Among the things to be learned from the misguided ideological campaign of Wilder is that any system of care that works for children will have to build on existing bonds, including religious bonds, of caring. That is the heart of faith-based and community initiatives proposed by the Administration. We have to wish the proposal well. The alternative, as we are reminded by The Children of Wilder, is a fourth and fifth generation of damaged lives further wrecked by government systems of child care disconnected from the institutional bearers of the communal dynamics of caring.
The Imperative And Peril Of Assimilation
Philip Gleason, that distinguished Notre Dame historian, writes in Logos on The Catholic Church in American Public Life. In short compass and admittedly broad strokes, he sketches the ways in which Catholicism creatively assimilated itself in American culture as a consequence of the crises of the two world wars of the twentieth century. Today almost everybody speaks favorably of pluralism and diversity, but Gleason contends that assimilation is the more straightforward term, underscoring the imperative of engaging the culture while avoiding the peril of being dissolved into the culture. Catholicism successfully did that, he contends, until the multifaceted crisis commonly called the sixties. He has words of sharp criticism for progressives, then called Commonweal Catholics, who embraced the imperative while forgetting the peril. In addition to what the sixties meant for other Americans, for Catholics those years meant, above all, the Second Vatican Council. Gleason writes:
On the one hand, the Vatican Council itself, and even more notably the post-conciliar temper, completed the discrediting of tridentine Catholicism that the self-criticism of the 1950s had already begun. The Council shook everything loose. Deep splits among the Council fathers, sensationalized in the press as power struggles between progressives and conservatives, demystified the whole area of doctrine. Beliefs, practices, and institutions long regarded by ordinary Catholics as fundamental to their faith were now called into question, yea, openly derided by the most radical reformers. The Church, it was said, was corrupt; its leaders, bankrupt! Such charges were among the more extreme, to be sure. But even the most moderate observers agreed that the Council left American Catholics in a state of confusion. And what was it they were confused about? Nothing less than their identity as Catholics”their sense of who they were, what they believed, and how those beliefs should shape their lives.
So where does that leave Catholicism now? Gleason writes:
Assimilation became a more serious problem for American Catholics over the course of the twentieth century. To call it a problem does not mean assimilation is a bad thing in itself. Recall the assimilation problematic referred to at the outset; assimilation is necessary if a group is to avoid self-isolation, but unqualified assimilation entails the group’s extinction. While I do not anticipate extinction, it seems to me quite clear that the problem has gotten to be a lot bigger. In the era of World War I, Catholics experienced a striking degree of assimilation, but they also forged a new ideological and institutional basis for Catholic identity. That balance was not maintained at midcentury, when accelerating assimilation found no matching deployment of new internal resources. In the sixties, the old ideological and institutional structures collapsed, and nothing comparable was at hand to replace them. That gave rise to a Catholic identity crisis, which has since modulated into a continuing identity problem.
Gleason concludes by asserting the urgency of strengthening Catholic identity by rehabilitating distinctively Catholic institutions. He does not specifically mention Catholic colleges and universities or the ongoing debate over proposals set forth in Ex Corde Ecclesiae , but one may fairly assume that is not far from his mind. What is so routinely praised as pluralism, he says, is too often simply assimilationism sailing under false colors, and for that reason an all the more insidious danger.
A More Hopeful Note?
Gleason’s is a sober and sobering narrative of the Catholic Church in American public life, and I have no substantive disagreement with the way he tells the story. At the same time, I think there is reason to hope that his moral is gaining wider acceptance today than his article suggests. A few items chosen at random: the fact that the dominant express concern in Catholic higher education today is Catholic identity, not the disengagement from Catholicism espoused by the 1968 Land O’ Lakes manifesto. Another: bold statements such as that by Peter Steinfels, former editor of Commonweal , on the seventy-fifth anniversary of that magazine, detailing the catastrophe of the Catholic liberalism that joined its fortunes to sundry, and usually mindless, leftisms. Another: the launching and growth of vigorously Catholic magazines in the last two decades. Another: the dramatic upsurge of adult converts, including notable academics and cultural leaders. Another: the initiation of new centers of liturgical studies and pastoral formation aimed at remedying the destabilization of the sacramental order that was such a marked feature of recent decades. And Gleason does not even mention the inestimable impact of the pontificate of John Paul II, especially among young people, including younger priests, who are excited by the high adventure of Catholic faith and life, and for whom the seductions of being just like everybody else hold no appeal at all.
Maybe it’s because I hang out with the right crowd, but the Catholics I know best, especially the younger Catholics, are less interested in being American Catholics”meaning that they are Catholics in a distinctively American way-than in being Catholic Americans”meaning that they are Americans in a distinctively Catholic way. The adjective is decisive. In sum, I agree with Gleason’s narrative and diagnosis, and there are many who still need to be persuaded of the truth he sees so clearly, but I would end such a historical survey on a more hopeful note. Today, it seems to me, the energy, the commitment, the sense of venture and possibility are mostly on the side of his concluding prescription”strengthening a distinctively Catholic identity. I should only add that of course I may be wrong about that.
Caught Out And Catching Up
Everybody knows by now Irving Kristol’s definition of a neoconservative: a liberal who has been mugged by reality. Actually, the term neoconservative is not much used now, and I use it almost never. But in some circles the neoconservatives are still a lively topic of conversation, as witness William Dean of Iliff School of Theology, Denver, writing in a symposium in Religion and American Culture . He takes his liberal academic colleagues to task for letting the neoconservatives”meaning mainly the usual suspects, Michael Novak, George Weigel, and your writer”monopolize the field of public theology. Public theology in this context means theology that has something to say about the res publica.
The neoconservatives overtook the academic public intellectuals for three reasons, Dean writes. First, because the neoconservatives were shaken to their foundations, they were forced to rethink their positions, while the academics were unshaken; second, the neoconservatives remained classical, small r’ republicans, and the academics did not; third, the neoconservatives developed a basic cultural, sometimes even theological, interpretation of America, and the academics did not. The liberal and mostly Protestant academics, Dean observes, smugly continued on in the tradition of Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich, failing to appreciate that these figures in their lifetimes underwent a shaking of the foundations comparable to today’s neoconservatives.
From the late 1960s on, he writes, this small band of intellectuals grew strong enough to provide much of the intellectual ballast for the Reagan Administration, to found journals of influence such as Public Interest and First Things , and, in general, to dominate the discussion of religion, ethics, and public life. As they moved from the far left to the right wing of the left and then to the antiliberal wing of the right, they endured the outrage of liberal intellectuals who had once been their friends and colleagues. Dean clearly includes himself among those liberal intellectuals, but he has some pointed advice for his friends: The academic public theologians need to develop a distinct theological interpretation of America, one that gives context and impetus to their particular and often admirable political, economic, gender, racial, and ecological arguments. But to do this, they must get within mugging range of reality.
There are several things that might be said about this, apart from the fact that those of us who are called neoconservatives are, contra Dean, the champions of the liberal tradition. First, William Dean considerably overestimates our influence. Second, the arguments of his liberal friends are, in substance and temperament, generally hostile to the American experiment, both past and present. People will not buy their self-understanding from those who are perceived to be, and often declare themselves to be, their enemies. Third, the liberal academics he has in mind are, with exceptions, Protestant, as is the tradition of Rauschenbusch, Niebuhr, and Tillich to which they adhere. The leading neocons, on the other hand, are Catholic, determined to advance the vision of John Paul II, and energetic in embracing the best in the Protestant tradition of public theology, notably the work of Reinhold Niebuhr. Moreover, they are assiduous in cultivating a close relationship with evangelical Protestants, who are anathema to most of Dean’s oldline liberal academics, not least because evangelicals are favorably disposed toward a theological interpretation of America. (In the same symposium, Mark Noll of Wheaton College suggests, with some justice, that the most influential public theology today is being advanced by evangelicals.) Conclusion: Dean and his friends do need to get within mugging range of reality, and his essay is a sign that this may be happening. But, once sufficiently mugged, it is not evident that they have an alternative vision to propose. But then, who could have predicted that, to cite but one example, the author of the 1969 Theology of Radical Politics (Michael Novak) would have so much to contribute?
While We’re At It
She smoked cigars, had seven children, did the definitive translation of Wittengenstein’s major work, succeeded to his chair at Cambridge, publicly protested Truman’s use of atomic bombs, was arrested as a pro-life activist, possessed one of the great philosophical minds of the century, and was an upfront Christian. How I wish I had known her personally. The tributes to G. E. M. (Elizabeth) Anscombe (including John M. Dolan’s in these pages [May]) have me going back to read her works. Christopher Howse in the London Daily Telegraph observes: Elizabeth Anscombe was no fundamentalist, but nor did she use philosophy to explain away the creed in which she believed. To an essay on the Eucharist, republished in the third volume of her collected philosophical papers (1981), she gave the title On Transubstantiation,’ even though the term substance was not one that her contemporaries or mentors used in their cosmology. The essay begins with the problem of explaining to a child the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament. When one says transubstantiation, one is saying exactly what one teaches the child in teaching it that Christ’s words, by the divine power given to the priest who uses them in his place, have changed the bread so that it isn’t there any more (nor the stuff of which it is made), but instead there is the body of Christ. I knew a child,’ she continues, close upon three years old and only then beginning to talk, but taught as I have described, who was in the free space at the back of the church when the mother went to communion. Is he in you? the child asked when the mother came back. Yes, she said, and to her amazement the child prostrated itself before her. I can testify to this, for I saw it happen. I once told the story to one of those theologians who unhappily (as it seems) strive to alter and water down our faith, and he deplored it.’ The story no doubt shocked, even if that paper was delivered to a Catholic audience. And, of course, Elizabeth Anscombe knew, as she went on to mention, that Christ is not present dimensively’ (nor does transubstantiation imply that he is). She was only exemplifying what Dr. Johnson noted: Sir, there is no idolatry in the Mass. They believe God to be there and they adore him.’ And now Elizabeth Anscombe has moved from the shadows and metaphors of philosophy into Reality, ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem [out of shadows and images into the truth].
There are two forms of nationalism in Russia, writes Geraldine Fagan, the Moscow correspondent of the Oxford-based Keston Institute. The one is Stalinist and the other prerevolutionary, with most nationalists being in the first camp. They couldn’t care less about religion, but they are hostile to the Catholic Church since there is a general perception that it belongs to an organized anti-Russian force, and all Russians were taught in school that Catholics were crusaders from the Baltics repelled by the national hero Alexander Nevsky. The pleading of John Paul II that the Church needs to breathe again with both lungs, East and West, simply makes no sense to the Orthodox, says Fagan. Practicing Orthodox in favor of ecumenical dialogue are indeed very few. In the Soviet era the pro-ecumenical element within the Church gained an artificial influence because of its usefulness to the foreign policy aims of the regime, and precisely for that reason is now frequently viewed with derision by post-revival practicing believers. For most Orthodox, ecumenical dialogue with Catholics (and others) is impossible for a simple reason”they are heretics. To Russian Orthodox, however, this does not necessarily conjure up emotive images of burnings at the stake: one parishioner matter-of-factly explained to me that the word heresy’ merely derives from the