The Public Square
The idea that religion is the heart of culture and culture is the form of religion has been proposed in various ways by Christian thinkers over the years, and there is, I believe, a great deal to it. The danger, of course, is that it can lead to a smooth synthesis of religion and culture that typically ends up making religion superfluous. This was the case with the cultural Protestantism in Germany against which Karl Barth so magnificently posited his theological Nein ! And it is, mutatis mutandis, the case with mainline/oldline Protestantism in this country today. It is a phenomenon that has been with us for a long time, as I was reminded upon having occasion to go back to George Henry Lewes’ The Life of Goethe , a book first published in 1855 that has gone through many editions.
Lewes, who was the common-law husband of novelist George Eliot for many years, is justly criticized for being too preoccupied with the young Goethe of Werther and the Sturm und Drang period, but his biography reveals, however inadvertently, a cultural optimism that could safely accommodate such melodramatics. The world was finally a good and solid place. As a child, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s doubts about conventional religion were raised when, during a terrible thunderstorm, he and his sister were dragged into a dark passage where the whole household, distracted with fear, tried to conciliate the angry Deity by frightful groans and prayers. Lewes writes: Many children are thus made skeptics; but in a deeply reflective mind such thoughts never long abide, at least not under the influences of modern culture, which teaches that Evil is essentially a narrow finite thing, thrown into obscurity on any comprehensive view of the Universe; and that the amount of evil massed together from every quarter must be held as small compared with the broad beneficence of Nature. Such complacence may be harder to maintain a century and a half later, but it is hardly rare today, even among those who are thought to have deeply reflective minds.
The month of Goethe’s birth, August 1749, Lewes writes, was a momentous month to Germany, if only because it gave birth to the man whose influence on his nation has been greater than that of any man since Luther . . . . It was the middle of the eighteenth century: a period when the movement which had culminated in Luther was passing from religion to politics, and freedom of thought was translating itself into liberty of action. From theology the movement had communicated itself to philosophy, morals, and politics. The agitation was still mainly in the higher classes, but it was gradually descending to the lower. A period of deep unrest: big with events which would expand the conceptions of all men, and bewilder some of the wisest. Lewes’ view of history in 1855 is at one with the standard account still to be found in many textbooks. And was not the struggle of the whole eighteenth century a struggle for the recognition of individual worth, of Rights against Privileges, of Liberty against Tradition? Such also was the struggle of the sixteenth century. The Reformation was to Religion what the [French] Revolution was to Politics: a stand against the tyranny of Tradition”a battle for the rights of individual liberty of thought and action, against the absolute prescriptions of privileged classes.
In this understanding, Luther’s legendary quest for a gracious God is turned on its head. It is possible to unite even Luther and Spinoza in the cause of individual liberation. Of Spinoza, Goethe wrote that he seemed to unveil a clear, broad view over the material and moral world. But what especially riveted me to him was the boundless disinterestedness which shone forth in every sentence. That wonderful sentiment, He who truly loves God must not require God to love him in return . . . filled my mind. Goethe was, says Lewes, boundlessly indifferent to this sect or that but nothing could rob him of his love for the Holy Scriptures and for the Founder of Christianity. He therefore wrought out for his own private use a Christianity of his own. How very modern; or, as moderns are given to saying today, how very postmodern.
The old faith, writes Lewes, which for so long had made European life an organic unity, and which in its tottering weakness had received a mortal blow from Luther, was no longer universal, living, active, dominant; its place of universal directing power was vacant; a new faith had not arisen. But a new faith was waiting to be born. Of the Weimar of his own day, Lewes writes: The theologic fire has long burnt itself out in Thuringia. In Weimar, where Luther preached, another preacher came, whom we know as Goethe. In the old church there is one portrait of Luther, painted by his friend Lucas Kranach, greatly prized, as well it may be; but for this one portrait of Luther, there are a hundred of Goethe. It is not Luther, but Goethe, they think of here; poetry, not theology, is the glory of Weimar. And, corresponding with this, we find the dominant characteristic of the place to be no magnificent church, no picturesque ancient buildings, no visible image of the earlier ages, but the sweet serenity of a lovely park. Lewes goes on to describe in detail Weimar’s park, designed by Goethe, as the metaphor of modernity’s achievement of sweet serenity.
References to Weimar today conjure very different images, images of anything but sweet serenity. The telling of the history of progress from Luther’s rebellion to Goethe’s well-designed park appears ludicrous today and rests, not incidentally, upon a caricature of Luther. The cultural nihilism associated with a later Weimar prepared the way for unspeakable horror. As John Paul II memorably said at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem: How could man have such utter contempt for man? Because he had reached the point of contempt for God. Only a godless ideology could plan and carry out the extermination of a whole people.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the tottering weakness of the old faith (which Luther intended to serve, in his way) has become, to the surprise of many, the only confident, coherent, comprehensive, and compelling proposal for the future of the human project. Yet there are many others”in the academy, the arts, and not least in our churches”who, lost in the park’s ingenious labyrinth, continue the tradition of telling themselves the same old story of their liberation from the tyranny of tradition.
Singing the Lord’s Songs
Dissatisfaction with the state of contemporary church music is now very widespread, which may or may not mean that some remedy is at hand. There are many tellings of the story of what went wrong, and the other day I stumbled upon this telling by music critic Michael Howard. It is from his notes on the sleeve of an old 1974 Decca LP of Dvorak’s Mass in D Major. (For younger readers, LP means long-playing record.)
Anton Dvorak died in Prague on May 1, 1904 at the age of sixty-three. It had only been one year previously that Pope Pius X had issued his famous motu proprio which was to have such a devastating and impoverishing effect, albeit unintentionally, upon the music of the Roman Church. Pius X rightly wished to rid the Church of the rancid musical excesses with which it had become besotted in the latter part of the nineteenth century. But unfortunately, then as now, reforming zeal overexcited all too many ill-informed Princes of the Church, prelates, parish priests, and lay committees with monetary and other axes to grind”choral traditions were terminated, choirs disbanded; and all this not in honest terms of economy, or boredom, or time-saving but (in the guise of a spurious lip service to the Holy Father) on the grounds that glorious music, gloriously sung in a glorious building, was in some way a corruption of the true worship of Almighty God. Thus it came about that not only was the meretricious expelled from universal usage, but with it went virtually all the great music of Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven and Hummel, Liszt and Bruckner, and of course Dvorak for good measure. These meddling pietists had not the wit to see that they were transparently flouting the true intentions of the 1903 encyclical, let alone that their witlessness prevented them from discriminating between some of the admittedly more shallow early Salzburg masses by Mozart and the penitent on his knees which we both hear and experience in the same composer’s Munich Kyrie.
The result, of course, was that religious music together with all other religious art found itself wearing the appalling clothing of mediocrity. T. S. Eliot, a propos Religion and Literature, said For the great majority of people who love poetry, religious poetry’ is a variety of minor poetry: the religious poet is not a poet who is treating the whole subject of poetry in a religious spirit, but . . . is leaving out what men consider their major passions, and thereby confessing his ignorance of them. By the time, in 1948, Stravinsky offered his Latin Mass to the Church, Rome would have none of it. Even the music of Palestrina has suffered something of an eclipse, and it is interesting to note that earlier in the century because of public disregard for Elgar, Jaeger was able to write to Dorabella that nevertheless were there to be a dull new oratorio by Mascagni or Perosi, the papers would have had columns of gossip and gush about those two frauds. Now Perosi was appointed Musical Director of the Sistine Chapel in 1898, when he was barely twenty-six years old, and he was a principal adviser to Pope Pius X on the dicta of the 1903 encyclical. By 1905 he was constituted Perpetual Master of the Pontifical Chapel”and in spite of a mental breakdown in 1922, he returned to office within twelve months and remained there for many years to come.
It is painful to continue in too great detail on the history of music in church in the twentieth century. As always, church music spurned has taken its revenge and confounded the Church with the concert hall, the theatre, the opera house, and the gramophone record. Pitiful it is that we may study it, we may cherish it, and we may listen to it, but all too rarely may we use it in its proper context. Anyone who has been to High Mass in one of the fantastic churches in Prague will appreciate the depth of this tragedy.
Surely Michael Howard is right about the appalling clothing of mediocrity. It is not just the neglect of Mozart, Haydn, and Dvorak, or even Gregorian chant. And few of our local places of worship can or should try to match the fantastic churches of Prague. Among Protestants and Catholics, the last several decades have witnessed a wholesale debauch of musical sensibilities and the squandering of magnificent traditions. A price I pay for hanging out so much with evangelical Protestants and speaking at pro-life events is that I am exposed to the most barbarous of musical kitsch in both Catholic and Protestant camps. Why do such good people indulge such bad music? At a recent pro-life rally in the midwest there was no less than ten minutes of a group of young people with high decibel electronic guitars screaming over and over again, I love you Jeeesus! That was it. And the mainly middle-aged crowd went wild. A rock concert without talent or imagination.
It is not simply a matter of doing what is popular. In the traditions that have been squandered, there is much that is popular, in the best sense of that term. I was recently given a CD, Sing Lustily and With Good Courage , which includes gallery hymns of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band (CD-SDL-383). Here are magnificent renderings of Who would true valour see (John Bunyan), Lo, He comes with clouds descending (Charles Wesley), The God of Abraham praise (Thomas Olivers), and a dozen others that stir and form the souls of the gathered faithful glorifying God. The debased noises of unbridled subjectivism that are typical of what today is called entertainment worship are spiritual poison. We’re not talking mere aesthetics here. There is nothing mere about the beautiful. The three transcendentals”the good, the true, and the beautiful”are inextricably entangled. The degradation of one degrades the others.
I love you Jeeesus! Or at another meeting, an orgy of self-praise, We Are Here and We are Ali-i-i-i-ve! Well, good for you. Such junk is an embarrassment to Christianity. One wonders what a sensible outsider stumbling into such a gathering might think. He would likely beat a hasty exit, and I wouldn’t blame him. I would have, too, except I was scheduled to speak after the noise subsided. I saw in Christianity Today where one such group of sentimental bedlam was described as having a joy that is contagious. Contagious as in smallpox. The joy is painfully forced. Look how joyful we are! If this is joy, give me melancholy. Don’t tell me these people are sincere. The praise of God has nothing to do with being drenched by the agitated effusions of their sincerity. Sincerity is no excuse for tackiness. The world would be more beautiful and the Church more inviting were half the music directors in Christendom fired tomorrow. At least half. Christianity has over the centuries produced a musical heritage without parallel in human history. It is a great pity, for which some are criminally responsible, that most Christians are unaware of it. The circumstance described by Michael Howard in 1974 has dramatically deteriorated since then, and there is no end in sight.
There now, I feel better having got that off my chest. And please don’t tell me that this comment is too negative, that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. It is not I who extinguished the candles of our musical legacy. Anyway, as I have had occasion to say before, sometimes it’s helpful to curse the darkness. It keeps us from getting used to it.
Crisis of the House Divided
Of the making of lists there is no end. I am guilty, for instance, of having participated from time to time in the compiling of lists of the greatest books, or the most influential thinkers, or the most crucial turning points in history. For journals of opinion and academic groups, it’s a little like playing Scrabble. The formerly Lutheran and now Orthodox church historian Jaroslav Pelikan tells me that he’s always irritated by these beauty contests to elect the most important books”but not as irritated as he is when his books are not included. It should be noted that the selection in our books symposium of March 2000, marking the tenth anniversary of First Things , did not purport to be a list of the best of anything. Contributors were invited to discuss any book they wished, and for whatever reason; whether because it was the best or the worst or simply because it caught their fancy.
The subject of lists comes to mind because the University of Chicago has recently reprinted in a handsome paperback Harry V. Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided. Were I to succumb to an invitation to nominate the most important books ever written on the American experiment, there is no doubt that I would include this classic, which first appeared in 1959. The centerpiece of the book is the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, but it is more than a historical study. Jaffa believes”correctly, in my judgment”that in those debates were joined the great questions of the American founding, and the later working out of that founding. His vindication of Lincoln is the more persuasive because he does his utmost to be fair to Douglas and his argument for popular sovereignty. Douglas contended that the question of slavery in the new territories should be left to popular vote and was no business of the federal government. Lincoln insisted that the Founders, while they compromised the question in order to form the Union, intended that slavery should be on a course to ultimate extinction.
To leave slavery to popular sentiment, he said, would result in the extension of slavery, and imperil the freedom of all. His fear was made the more urgent and immediate by the Dred Scott decision of 1857, which declared that the Constitution expressly affirmed a right to hold slaves as property. Jaffa convincingly depicts Lincoln not only as an astute politician and statesman but also as a moral philosopher of no little achievement. Crisis of the House Divided has a sharp polemical edge, for at the time there were numerous revisionist historians”including both Southern apologists and Northern liberals”who were taking the side of Douglas and casting Lincoln as either a knave or fool who was prepared to risk war in order to advance his own political ambitions. In the course of his telling of the story, Jaffa offers striking observations on what was at stake. For instance, on how Lincoln and his legacy contributed to a development of doctrine from the Declaration of Independence, Jaffa has this to say:
Lincoln’s morality then extends the full length of Jefferson’s, but it also goes further. Jefferson’s horizon, with its grounding in Locke, saw all commands to respect the rights of others as fundamentally hypothetical imperatives: if you do not wish to be a slave, then refrain from being a master. Lincoln agreed, but he also said in substance: he who wills freedom for himself must simultaneously will freedom for others. Lincoln’s imperative was not only hypothetical; it was categorical as well. Because all men by nature have an equal right to justice, all men have an equal duty to do justice, wholly irrespective of calculations as to self-interest. Or, to put it a little differently, our own happiness, our own welfare, cannot be conceived apart from our well-doing, or just action, and this well-doing is not merely the adding to our own security but the benefiting of others. Civil society for Lincoln, as for Aristotle and Burke, is a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. And, while our duties to friends and fellow citizens take precedence over duties to those who are not friends or fellow citizens, the possibility of justice, and of injustice, exists in every relationship with every other human being. Indeed, if it was not possible to do justice to non-fellow citizens, the possibility of justice and friendship with fellow citizens would not exist. For civil society is the realization of a potentiality which must exist whenever man encounters his fellow, or it is not a potentiality anywhere. And that potentiality, for Lincoln, found its supreme expression in the proposition that all men are created equal.
These questions are of much more than historical interest. Today, among both Protestant and Catholic writers, there are those who claim that the American founding was thoroughly secularist, and even atheistic, in its presuppositions, and is therefore incompatible with Christian truth”whether that truth be described as Bible law (Protestant) or St. Augustine’s City of God (Catholic). I believe Jaffa, too, tends to exaggerate the role of Jefferson in the founding, and therefore the degree to which the philosophy of Hobbes and Locke dominated the ideas that informed the Revolution, as well as the writing and ratification of the Constitution. Be that as it may, Jaffa is surely correct in describing the development that Lincoln forced to explicit expression:
And we cannot help noticing that the Lockean interpretation of unalienable rights, which we have sketched, ultimately views such rights as reducible to passions. For the right to life and liberty is held to be indefeasible in Locke just because the passion for life, and for the necessary means thereto, is held to be indefeasible. But when Lincoln said, as he repeatedly did say in the debates, that Douglas’ Don’t care policy with respect to slavery was an absurdity, because it tolerated the notion that there was such a thing as a right to do wrong, he superimposed upon the Lockean doctrine of the unalienable right to liberty a very different conception of right. The Lockean idea of a right to liberty meant that no one can consistently appeal to my sense of right to give up my liberty, but it does not mean that a man who enslaves another violates the enslaver’s sense of what is right. Lincoln confounds the meaning of a right, meaning an indefeasible desire or passion, with what is right, meaning an objective state or condition in which justice is done.
It is perhaps obvious to note that the issues joined in the Lincoln-Douglas debates have the most direct relevance to the contemporary clash over abortion, just as the words and logic of Dred Scott strikingly parallel the words and logic of Roe v. Wade and its judicial progeny. As Lincoln said of slavery, so it must today be said of abortion, that the only morally coherent course is the course toward its ultimate extinction. As he declared that judicial efforts to outlaw that course were null and void, so today we must make clear that we are neither obliged nor intimidated by courts that arrogantly substitute their judgment for that of the elected representatives of the people and make a mockery of the indefeasible right to life, without which our constitutional order is built on sand. We have today many political leaders who are committed to the goal of every unborn child protected in law and welcomed in life. But we have very few who are willing or able to make the case for the essential connection between right and what is right as Lincoln did in his debates with Douglas. For understanding the nature of the moral and political conflict in which we are engaged, there are few better places to start than with a careful reading of Harry V. Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided .
To Choose and Be Chosen
There are Christians who are convinced that they believe and preach an old time gospel that is unchanged from the time of the New Testament, and there is merit in that if one understands the gospel to be Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). But in fact the old time gospel”which is a new time phrase invented by American revivalism”was given form by the ponderings, disputes, and decisions of Church fathers, councils, theologians, reformers, and popes over the centuries. There is a striking similarity between religious fundamentalists who deny the development of doctrine and theorists of secularization who claim that any accommodation by religion to its surrounding culture is a deviation from its earlier orthodoxy. Both are fundamentalists; both subscribe to an idea of religion frozen in time. Orthodoxy, however, is a living tradition in both conversation and conflict with its surrounding worlds. In a fine formulation usually attributed to church historian Jaroslav Pelikan”although he says he got it from he knows not where”such tradition is the living faith of the dead, as distinct from traditionalism, which is the dead faith of the living. Orthodoxy is a work in progress under the sign of eschatological promise.
The prophets of secularization, however, have still other objections to what I have been describing in this space as the incorrigible nature of Christian America. It is said, for instance, that the quality of religious commitment is radically changed in a secular and pluralistic society. Faith and commitment, according to this view, were more secure and certain when people lived under a sacred canopy in societies where religion was a matter of ascription rather than choice . It used to be that your religion was, so to speak, part of the core curriculum of your life; now everything, including religion, is an elective. Where religion is ascribed, it comes as a package of more or less arbitrary factors assigned by virtue of one’s birth or family; in a world of choice everything is up for grabs. Upon closer examination, however, it may be that the replacement of ascription by choice works more to the advantage of religion than of secularization.
Sociologist Christian Smith of the University of North Carolina writes: For moderns”perhaps especially modern Americans”the ultimate criterion of identity and lifestyle validity is individual choice. It is by choosing a product, a mate, a lifestyle, or an identity that one makes it one’s very own, personal, special, and meaningful”not merely’ something one inherits or assumes. By choice, it is thought, I make something truly my own. The literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote in scathing terms about the modern cult of sincerity and authenticity. In a similar vein, Alasdair MacIntyre critiques modern emotivism, by which he means a disposition that reduces morality to a matter of individual values. Values, in turn, are created by whatever I happen to choose to value, with the result that the only truth that is discussible is what is true for me or true for you. Christian Smith, who wants to make the case that the modern ascendancy of choice strengthens religion, offers the piquant proposal that, in the absence of a sacred canopy, believers get along quite well with their sacred umbrellas. That is a suggestive image, but it tends to reinforce the idea of religion as something individualistic, private, and subcultural. The arbitrariness of a traditional religion of ascription is replaced by what appears to be the equal arbitrariness of individual choice.
Not Under My Control
In the biblical tradition, one might argue, it is not a matter of choosing but of being chosen. Clearly, God takes the initiative in choosing Abraham and his descendants, and keeps on choosing them even when they do not choose to be chosen. So also Jesus tells the disciples, You have not chosen me but I have chosen you (John 15:16). Yet the choice, so to speak, between choosing and being chosen is not so stark as it might seem. While the initiative lies with God, faith responds by choosing to be chosen. Such a response is not MacIntyre’s emotivism; it is not simply an assertion of individual preference. It is the acknowledgment of a decision having been made that is not under my control.
Thus the relationship between the traditional role of ascription and the modern role of choice is seen to be considerably more subtle than some have suggested. The believer is not just putting up his little sacred umbrella but is acknowledging his part in a world that is indeed under a sacred canopy of divine purpose. While the commitment to that purpose is intensely personal, it is not individualistic but communal. To choose to be chosen is to accept one’s part in the community of the chosen; for Jews, that means the children of Israel, and for Christians the Church. The common and deserved polemic against individual ism must not be permitted to obscure biblical religion’s insistence upon the importance of the individual, understood as the dignity of the human person. Modernity’s stress upon choice can be debased in a way that turns everything, including religion, into a consumer product that meets my needs. It can also, however, accentuate my responsibility for choosing to be chosen, for deciding which community claims my allegiance. The subtlety of the relationship between ascription and choice is caught in the aphorism of Goethe: What you have as heritage, / Take now as task; / For thus you will make it your own.
Rather than pitting ascription against choice, my ascription is my choice. The German word for gift, Gabe , is closely related to the word for task, Aufgabe. Whether choice is understood as individualistic preference or as communal allegiance, the modern accent on choice would seem to work more in favor of religion than of secularization. Certainly the forms of Christianity available to contemporary Americans appeal to both individualistic and communal sensibilities, along lines that are commonly, if somewhat too simply, demarcated as Protestant or Catholic. Whether one chooses to be part of an association of people holding up their sacred umbrellas (Protestant) or part of an ecclesial community that presents itself as the sacred canopy encompassing all of reality (Catholic), the act of choice is not antithetical to, but is an essential component of, religious adherence.
An Age of Transition
The vitality of religion in America invites the questioning of many conventions in the way people have thought about modernity and secularization. Two terms that have played a large part in these discussions over the years are Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft . Briefly stated, Gemeinschaft is the solidarity of traditional community, religious and otherwise, where people belong at the deepest level of their being, where the answers to the big questions are a given transmitted from generation to generation, and where personal identity is bestowed. Gesellschaft , on the other hand, is the modern circumstance in which human relations are rational, instrumental, and directed to specific ends. It is the world of bureaucracy, rules, and impersonal interactions aimed at maximizing individual advantage. In this view, Gemeinschaft is religion-friendly, while Gesellschaft is the companion and agent of a world disenchanted and desacralized.
We should be skeptical, however, about whether things have changed as much as some theorists suggest, or whether they have changed in the ways they suggest. Recall again Adam’s remark to Eve on the way out of the garden, My dear, we live in an age of transition. Of course life is change and many things are different, but are the basic bonds of family, friendship, common origins, and kinship that much weaker today? Surely the society of Gesellschaft is much more complex, and there are layers upon layers of structures that were not there before, but one may suggest that they are erected upon a substratum of fundamental relationships that we associate with Gemeinschaft . For instance, the intensified threat of depersonalized and disenchanted structures may actually drive people to religion rather than away from it. Precisely as the surrounding world becomes more disenchanted and deprived of sacred meaning, the felt need increases to form communities that make sense of individual and corporate life.
A limited analogy (all analogies are limited) may be drawn with marriage. Is marriage stronger or weaker today than it was, say, a hundred years ago? One answer is given by citing the divorce rates. When more than a third of first marriages end in divorce, it would seem obvious that marriage is weaker today. At the same time, the argument can be made that marriage is stronger today in the sense that people expect more of it. Because they have unreasonably high expectations of marriage, they are disappointed and end up divorcing. But they end up divorcing only to marry again, and usually more successfully. The dynamic here is both paradoxical and perverse; because people invest so much in marriage, they demand so much from it; indeed they demand more than many marriages can deliver. A few people go on from marriage to marriage in search of their ideal of marriage. Many more decide to play it safe by being married without the formality of marriage”what used to be called, and is still sometimes called, common-law marriage. Yet others come to recognize that marriage is an institution and not an emotion; that the commitment to the relationship cannot be calculatingly contingent upon the satisfactions derived from it. At that point, as innumerable married couples testify, the satisfactions greatly increase.
As I say, the analogy is limited, but nonetheless instructive. From what we might call the megaperspective of modern rationalized explanation, the world is disenchanted and desacralized. In response to such a world, human beings flee to institutions of marriage and the family that are, in the phrase of the late Christopher Lasch, a haven in a heartless world. So also does the attraction of communities of religious meaning increase. We can view these, too, as sheltered enclaves or as little sacred umbrellas with which we desperately ward off the threat of the real world. But, once again, when the religion in question is Christianity something very different may be happening. Christianity provides an alternative definition of what constitutes the real world. It is, in the mind of many of its adherents, a much more reasonable and convincing definition of reality than those provided by secularism’s reductive rationality, materialism, or embrace of absurdity. But is it not also for many Christians a haven in a heartless world, a sheltered enclave, or a sacred umbrella held in the trembling hands of those seeking protection from what they suspect really is the real world? Yes, certainly. But the point is that the modern circumstance may be more conducive to religion than to secularism, whether that religion is escapist or is a boldly asserted redefinition of the real world.
We frequently hear it said that ours is a pluralistic society, and therefore inhospitable to religious commitment. In fact, in textbooks from grade school through graduate school, the two terms are often combined: We live in an increasingly pluralistic and secular society. The implication, often made explicit, is that society must be secular because it is pluralistic. Sometimes the point is that the social fact of pluralism requires giving up differences that make too much of a difference, especially religious differences. If they are not given up, they must be confined to the private sphere where they have no social consequence. This is one understanding of pluralism: the ignoring or denying of the differences that make the deepest difference. Another understanding of pluralism is that of a lively interaction of differences in tension, sometimes in conflict, and always in the hope of mutual enrichment.
That second understanding of pluralism has in recent decades achieved a certain cachet in liberal thought and practice. The once mayor of New York David Dinkins spoke of the gorgeous mosaic that has presumably replaced the earlier image of the American melting pot. Vice President Al Gore’s gaffe has been much remarked, when he translated e pluribus unum as out of the one, many. The acknowledgment of difference, indeed the celebration of difference, is most importantly evident in race relations, where the earlier ideal of black and white integration is replaced by the identity politics of African-Americanism. The celebration of pluralism in the general media and in policies aimed at inclusiveness typically extends to race, gender, class, and sexual orientation, but not to religion. Yet the reality of pluralism”the fact of people living in different worlds of moral and spiritual meaning”is also conducive to the strengthening of religious identities.
Such pluralism is most intensively experienced in cities. Just as earlier theories assumed that there is a connection between pluralism and secularization, so it was commonly claimed that urbanization undermines religious adherence and is therefore a major force in secularization. But precisely the opposite argument can also be made. New York City, for example, is a world of many worlds. It is a veritable hothouse of alternative lifestyles, subcultures, belief systems, and structures of communal cohesion. The stereotypical story line is the person coming from a small town to the big city in search of liberation from the confining mores and conformity of his past. In the great metropolis, it is said, we are free to be ourselves. Alternatively, it is said that in the city we enter into the freedom of a kind of universal existence that is unconstricted by the particularities from which we escaped.
At the same time, however, the experienced reality of the city is not that of a universalism but of a flourishing of parochialisms”from the mandatory liberalism of the Upper West Side, to the gay subculture of the West Village, to the ethnic familialism of Bensonhurst, to the wondrous potpourri of immigrant Elmhurst in Queens. In short, a world of many worlds, including worlds of religious belief, practice, and communal cohesion. The escape from the small town to the city is not from parochialism to cosmopolitanism but from the parochialism that oppresses to the parochialism that fits. Parochial, one notes, is related to parish, and the attraction of urban life is that you get to choose your parish.
How is it, then, that America can, at the same time, be so modern and so religious? That is the question we have been considering. We have looked briefly at some of the theories of the last century that assumed a necessary connection between modernity and secularization, and have discovered that the connection can work in exactly the opposite direction from that assumed by secularization theorists. Yes, some may object, but what about all those people who are not religious? Whether in the suburb or small town or urban center, one need not go far to find a large number of people who seem to all appearances not to be religious at all. Moreover, they describe themselves as nonreligious. Isn’t this evidence of secularization? Maybe, and maybe not.
We have already referred to the work of sociologist Christian Smith. In a recent national survey whose findings are consistent with much other survey research, he discovered that 9 percent of Americans describe themselves as nonreligious, meaning that they were raised to be but are not now religious. Upon closer examination, however, Smith discovered that 80 percent of these people did not mean that they had rejected religious beliefs, or even all religious practices. Certainly they had not suffered a collapse of religious plausibility structures (early Peter Berger) and, as a consequence, adopted naturalistic or secular worldviews. Rather, what they mean by saying that they are nonreligious is that they do not go to church, and in many cases have developed negative attitudes toward churches and clergy.
Yet 60 percent emphatically say that they believe in God and pray to Him often, and that the God to whom they pray is the same God in whom they were taught to believe in childhood. Less than 20 percent of that nonreligious 9 percent say they do not believe in God at all. Some of the nonreligious expressed gratitude to the researchers for bringing the matter to their attention, and resolved to put their religious life in order. Smith writes: The vast majority of our religious defectors,’ in other words, had not forsaken their religious worldviews and belief commitments and become secularized unbelievers. These [respondents] who identified themselves as not religious’ are not literally not-religious. They simply had stopped participating in the worship services of organized religion, which is quite a different matter.
Smith’s conclusion deserves to be read in full. The survey research, he says, suggests three things
First, very few nonreligious Americans are truly nonreligious”most in fact insist they are religious, but simply in a rather individualistic, disaffiliated way. Second, the primary basis of most people’s distance from organized religion typically has little to do with cognitive belief implausibility, per se; rather, distance from religion appears to be generated more by relational disruptions and the absence of strong relational ties to religion. Third, modernity itself does not appear to be the driving force at work undermining strong religious faith and practice; the primary reasons why religious defectors in contemporary America do not participate in organized religion are probably not very different from the kinds of reasons that would have estranged people from organized religion throughout human history (emphasis added).
Faith and Credulity
Smith’s last point brings us back to Andrew Greeley’s thought experiment in Unsecular Man . It may be that the on-the-ground social reality is that our time warrants the appellation the age of faith as much as, say, the thirteenth century. The later Peter Berger published A Distant Glory with the subtitle, the quest for faith in an age of credulity. The suggested distinction is between authentic faith and unreflective credulity, which is a distinction that all of us would want to maintain, while recognizing that our faith and what we view as our neighbor’s credulity are equally religious. The fact is that relatively few people are trained philosophers or social theorists. They do not fit the intellectual’s model of the modern who operates by the hermeneutics of suspicion. Were they sociologists of religion, they might be keenly aware of the cognitive dissonance between their religious beliefs and their secular pursuits, but they are not.
This is not to say that the mental framework of their religious beliefs is unproblematic. Rather, they adhere to religion because it provides identity, fellowship, meaning, order, and a promise of purpose. A philosopher friend tells me, I am a Christian because Christianity makes more sense of more facts than any other way of construing reality that I know of. Since they are not philosophers, most people would not put it quite that way, but that would seem to be the gist of the matter. People experience problems, dissonances, puzzles, and confusions in what they believe, but these do not undermine what they believe. More often than not, it seems, such problems prompt them to explore more carefully, and adhere more closely to, their faith.
If religion is conceived as a product to be marketed, America historically has been, is now, and will likely be even more so in the future a bull market. The sociologists of religion who operate by the model of the competitive market have very impressively made their case against older theories of secularization. Religion as a consumer product is not necessarily an edifying phenomenon, nor is it an adequate way of understanding Christian America Confused and Christian America Conflicted. The modern, pluralistic, market-driven society is conducive to the flourishing of religion as a subculture”or, better, as a maddening array of subcultures. But the phrase Christian America suggests not a subculture but a culture. It is not uncommon today to read that we should abandon the notion that there is an American culture. America, it is said, is now a nation of subcultures. We all live now not in a culture but in a subculture, or in several subcultures. To the extent that is true, the amalgam of subcultures that we call American is in fact the culture of Christian America”incorrigible, confused, and conflicted.
While We’re At It
I have no idea who or what Joanne Rowling had in mind when in her Harry Potter books she called the ordinary and non-magical world the Muggle world, but she surely could not have been thinking of the Muggletonians, who appear to have been anything but ordinary. Here is the dustjacket description from a new book from Oxford University Press, edited by T. L. Underwood, The Acts of the Witnesses: The Autobiography of Lodowick Muggleton and Other Early Muggletonian Writings : The middle decades of the seventeenth century in England were marked by political and religious turmoil that included civil war, the execution of the king, the abolition of monarchy and episcopacy, and the establishment of a republican government with increased, yet limited, religious toleration. Over the past quarter century, scholars have developed particular interest in the more radical religious movements that arose in this tumultuous period, including Quakers, Seekers, Ranters, and Muggletonians. Drawing on material from a newly discovered archive, this book presents writings produced by the last group, an unusual sect founded in 1652 by John Reeve and Lodowick Muggleton. The Muggletonians are of special interest because they differ so dramatically from other religious groups of this time. Claiming that they were the last two witnesses of Revelation 11:3, Reeve and Muggleton acted as ultimate religious authorities on earth, blessing some people to eternal happiness and cursing others to everlasting damnation. Following Reeve’s death in 1658, Muggleton became sole leader of the movement that eventually took his name. Muggletonians were noted for their emphasis on Reeve and Muggleton’s authority (Muggleton claimed to stand in God’s place’), their conception of God as a man between five and six feet tall who reigned in heaven some six miles above the earth, and the fact that their religious services consisted not of prayers and preachings, but of eating, drinking, singing, and discussing religious views in a local alehouse or home. Partly because they were not evangelistic, their numbers were never large, and by the twentieth century they were thought to be extinct. In the 1970s, however, Philip Noakes of Kent was identified as the last Muggletonian’ and keeper of the group’s archive, which was acquired subsequently by the British Library. One thought is that if Harry Potter and his friends finally take over, there may one day be a book based on papers supplied by the last Muggle. My second thought, however, is that that would be a pity. There is a great deal to be said for a Muggle world that produces such as the Muggletonians. Give me theological bull sessions in an alehouse and I’ll forgo the magic.
According to a nationwide survey, almost nine out of ten (85 percent) of black Americans describe themselves as happy, three out of four (72 percent) think of themselves as successful, and half (50 percent) say they are financially comfortable. Blacks are also much more ostensibly religious than the general population. The top-rated (94 percent) goal in life is to have a close, personal relationship with God. That goal is rated above, for instance, good health or living comfortably. Ninety-two percent say they are absolutely certain that in times of crisis they can count on God answering their prayers. They are also substantially more likely to believe that the Bible is totally accurate in all that it says. George Barna, head of the organization that conducted the research, says, Placing the profile of whites and blacks side by side is like looking at people from different sides of the planet. While whites tend to be self-reliant, blacks are more likely to rely on God. Whites persevere on the basis of their drive to achieve, blacks on the basis of their faith. These differences explain, says Barna, why efforts at black-white reconciliation so often fail. Whites are trying to bring about reconciliation based on a white view of reality and within the context of white lifestyles and goals. The data are not uninteresting, although the generalizations drawn may be dubious. A sense of personal responsibility, one might argue, can be grounded in reliance on God, and the drive to achieve can be sustained and informed by faith. But that’s an argument for another day.
Pictures in Charisma , a magazine of pentecostal enthusiasms, show people pulling back their cheeks to expose teeth that the Holy Spirit allegedly fixed with gold fillings. Martin E. Marty reminds us that when televangelist Jimmy Swaggart was starting out he reacted memorably to such claims. He asked why God would use gold. Wouldn’t he fill teeth with teeth?
Counterintuitive may be the word for the contention of Krishan Kumar, an English sociologist visiting at the University of Virginia, that Americans have what the English lack”a sense of national identity. With the Welsh and the Scots breaking away, and the Irish never included, plus the European Union making noises like a nation, it is becoming more of a problem. Kumar says, I think the clue to the English is their imperial past. I’m finding increasingly interesting the comparisons between England and Russia. Both the Russians and the English have had huge empires, and they buried themselves in their empires without having to think very much about who they were separately from the empires. Further, the English and the Russians have had strong state traditions and their identities have come as often as not from the state-the monarchy, the Tsar”and usually in tandem with a state church”the Church of England, the Russian Orthodox church. There hasn’t really been a stress on the people or the nation.’ In the United States, by contrast, the society has been much more closely identified with the people’ (not in an ethnic sense, but in a civic one). This has meant that the same kinds of questions that were asked in classic nationalist movements: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? have already been asked in America, but far less so in England and Russia, until relatively recently, anyway. Kumar does not say, but I expect he would agree, that the identity question for Russians was also postponed for seventy years by a Soviet empire with a quasi-religious ideology that answered, at least for many, the anxiety, Who are we?
In Central Florida there is this billboard campaign that has, so to speak, God speaking to motorists. We need to talk, says one. Another, in a mode more stern, Don’t make me come down there. Yet another, Do you think it’s hot here ? Then there is the downright threatening, Keep using my name in vain, I’ll make rush hour longer. Our old friend, the Nicotine Theological Journal , is not amused, noting that taking God’s name in vain entails, among other sins, the perversion of God’s Word in profane jesting . . . . When the wages of sin is, well, a traffic jam, haven’t we lowered the stakes just a tad below hellfire and brimstone? That may be a bit too heavy. While the line between kitsch and blasphemy may be hard to draw, the cutesy billboard messages undoubtedly trivialize the biblical understanding of God, pandering to the man upstairs mentality that makes near impossible an awareness either of divine judgment or of divine mercy. I expect there are some perfectly sincere folk in Florida who earnestly believe that they are recruiting contemporary advertising techniques to the service of God’s word. They should think again.
So you want to be a millionaire? One way might be to become a Christian Scientist, if the Church of Christ, Scientist, divvied up its mega-endowments among its handful of members. But they don’t, and are not about to. The leadership does use the church’s considerable resources to sponsor lurches increasingly leftward on the political spectrum. Here, for instance, is an article on human rights and divine law in the Christian Science Journal . The author, Elise L. Moore, is explaining why divine law requires affirmative action and quota systems, allowing that what seems logical from one perspective is onerous and unjust from another. Her example is the Pharaoh ordering that all male babies of the Hebrews be killed. What to the Egyptians seemed a social and political necessity was to the Hebrews the epitome of racial, religious, and gender prejudice. Go down Moses, said the Lord, for they are committing racial, religious, and gender prejudice. I am sure Ms. Moore does not mean to suggest that the last offense might have been remedied by killing all the female babies as well. (This may be a first. I don’t think I’ve ever commented on the Church of Christ, Scientist, in this space. I promise not to make a habit of it.)
The cultural corrosiveness of capitalism is a perennial subject, and sensibly so. Although it is not always addressed sensibly. Henry A. Giroux offers a distinctly leftist take on the subject in The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (Rowman and Littlefield). Kenneth Anderson of American University reviews the book in the Times Literary Supplement , observing that it is hard to resist the conclusion that Disney and predominant corporate America stand for a certain corporatist form of liberal politics and moderately progressive cultural views. Corporate America, especially those companies which produce consumer goods that depend upon culture, fashion, and advertising to sell them, is plainly not culturally conservative, as least not as that term is understood by American cultural conservatives; the American corporation freely inculcates progressive views, particularly in the matter of identity politics of race and gender, and tolerance and diversity, at the box office. How could corporate America be culturally conservative, when the only ironclad law of marketing is, and always will be, that sex sells? Giroux wants to say that, merely because it is not culturally conservative, it is not thereby progressive’ in Giroux’s sense, and that that , finally, is its real failing. Still, it seems somewhat churlish of Giroux to go on insisting, on behalf of leftist cultural politics, that its efforts are merely a sop and do not go far enough; a more clear-sighted observer, coming perhaps from the cultural right, might have thought, rather, that Disney had offered to do a great deal of Giroux’s work for him and that he might be more properly grateful. That having been said, Anderson is far from persuaded that matters would be improved by further fetters on the market. He concludes: But if the alternative is for Giroux’s”or Pat Buchanan’s or Al Gore’s or George W. Bush’s”State to instruct us on what else to fill [public space] with, which is the strong if dangling implication of The MouseThat Roared , then we are better off as we are. One arrives at certain forms of libertarianism without enthusiasm, but as merely the least bad alternative.
Charles Murray, author, with Richard Herrnstein, of The Bell Curve , says he is still puzzled by the outrage of the left against their claim that there are inherent differences between the races in IQ and other factors bearing on one’s chances in life. After all, such a claim can be employed to advocate an expanded government role in equalizing life outcomes. Now Murray writes in Deeper into the Brain that we are facing a neurogenetic revolution in which biological factors will be discovered and made manipulatable not only relative to race and sex but also to many other group differences, such as those distinguishing the English from the French, employed Swedes from unemployed Swedes, observant Christians from lapsed ones, and people who collect stamps from people who backpack. Eugenics, he says, is in disrepute because of Nazism, but an older left”such as that of the Fabians and, he might have added, the Rockefeller Foundation”made no bones about the need for government policies that would encourage the lower classes to have fewer children and the better classes more. The only difference, he writes, will be that the old eugenicists had to rely on a rough statement (the lower classes’) whereas eugenicists of the future will be able to be more precise (people with the following genetic profiles’). In response to Mr. Murray’s puzzlement about the left, it might be noted that the utopian left must assume a literal and inherent equality among people if unhappy inequalities are to be blamed upon the system, thereby justifying the ambition to revolutionize the system. But, as Murray notes, there has been another stream of the left”abetted by many who think of themselves as conservatives”that despairs of the inferior and defective and believes they must be contained, reduced in number, or eliminated. This touches on what Murray has elsewhere called the growth of custodial democracy, and on the much-discussed question of whether Nazism was a phenomenon of the left or the right. I confess to a certain optimism, says Murray, about the neurogenetic revolution and the prospect of our deciding to redesign Homo sapiens. One of the main reasons that couples have babies is to produce their baby, the product of their combined genes . . . . The popular voluntary uses of gene manipulation are likely to be ones that avoid birth defects and ones that lead to improved overall physical and mental abilities. I find it hard to get upset about that prospect. That may well be true of the popular and voluntary aspects of the revolution, but Murray wisely acknowledges that his thoughts are the ruminations of a twentieth-century man, destined to look as myopic a century from now as the predictions of nineteenth-century men about the twentieth. Some who have thought about these matters in the past were not so very myopic. See, for instance, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World , as discussed by Leon Kass in the March issue.
The journal Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity reports that researchers from Stanford and Duquesne universities have concluded that at least 200,000 Americans are cyber-sex compulsives. Compulsivity, as it is called, is defined as visiting pornographic web sites for eleven or more hours per week. Why eleven? Presumably ten hours per week can be excused as curiosity or occasional indulgence. Eleven is over the top. As Chesterton said, morality finally comes down to drawing a line somewhere.
Bill Mahan of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, sent this item along and says it represents the decline from Christian granite to social service gravel. That’s not a bad way of putting it. The item is the newsletter of the YWCA of Greater Harrisburg. On the back page it carries the organization’s mission statement of 1900 under the heading THAT WAS THEN (in old English type). The statement reads: We, the Young Women’s Christian Association of Harrisburg, a member of the Young Women’s Christian Association of the United States of America, declare our purpose to be: To build a fellowship of women and girls devoted to the task of realizing in our common life those ideals of personal and social living to which we are committed by our faith as Christians. In this endeavor we seek to understand Jesus, to share his love for all people, and to grow in the knowledge and love of God. Then, under the heading THIS IS NOW (modern sans serif) there is the mission statement of 2000: The YWCA of Greater Harrisburg emphasizes the empowerment of women and children by providing quality services designed to maximize their spiritual, emotional, educational, and physical development. It is committed to eliminating racism, sexism, and any other barrier or prejudice that impedes personal growth. It actively serves as an advocate and a resource to the community on issues that impact women and children. The poignant fact is that the people who write such stuff are almost certainly sincere in believing that it represents progress.
The freedom of the Church, meaning the ability of the Catholic Church to govern its own affairs, is hard-won. Only in the past century did Rome disentangle itself from sundry compromises with earthly states that claimed, for instance, the right to appoint or veto Rome’s appointment of bishops. Such conflicts go way back, for example to the great Investiture Controversy between Pope Gregory VII and King Henry IV of Germany, featuring the latter’s standing in the snow at Canossa begging for absolution in 1077. Today the Chinese regime defies the authority of Rome by appointing bishops to the Patriotic Church, and there is no Canossa in sight. On June 29, 1996, at the Jesuit house in Oxford, John Quinn, retired archbishop of San Francisco, delivered a lecture much celebrated by progressive Catholics. He called for the devolution of ecclesial authority away from Rome and to local and national churches. Now the lecture has become a book, The Reform of the Papacy (Crossroad). (See FT review by Avery Dulles, June/July.) Veteran Catholic observer Russell Shaw notes that many of the subjects of reform included in the original lecture”priestly celibacy, divorce, remarriage, the ordination of women, etc.”are missing from the book. The idea of devolution (or subsidiarity in the Church) is still central, however. In fact, in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May be One), John Paul II asked for reflection, especially from Orthodox and Protestant churches, on how the exercise of the papal office might better serve Christian unity. Of course, Archbishop Quinn and others have every right to join the discussion. Shaw writes: As the discussion proceeds, however, we need to keep in view the threats to Church unity that now exist not only in China but in the West. Progressive Catholics urging devolution don’t mean to damage ecclesial communion, but since when did people anticipate and intend all the consequences of what they do? There is a legitimate and necessary place . . . for discussion of what is prudent at a given time in history,’ Archbishop Quinn said at Oxford. About that, he couldn’t be more right.
Although there are likely still homes where his picture hangs beside that of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, John F. Kennedy, to put it gently, turned out to be a severe disappointment to Catholics who were so excited about having one of their own