The Public Square
It is by no means certain, but it is more than just possible, that Pope Benedict’s September 12 lecture at the University of Regensburg and the controversy surrounding it will be referred to, five or twenty years from now, as The Regensburg Moment.
As many commentators, Muslim and other, do not know because they manifestly did not read the lecture, it was not chiefly about Islam. It was a considered reflection on the inseparable linkage of faith and reason in the Christian understanding, an incisive critique of Christian thinkers who press for separating faith and reason in the name of de-Hellenizing Christianity, and a stirring call for Christians to celebrate the achievements of modernity and secure those achievements by grounding them in a more comprehensive and coherent understanding of human rationality.
Benedict was widely criticized for being impolitic, even recklessly provocative, in citing a fourteenth-century colloquy between a Byzantine emperor and a Muslim intellectual in which the emperor drew some distinctly uncomplimentary conclusions about Islam. Perhaps the pope should have chosen a less brusque (his characterization of the emperor’s statement) example from history, but his obvious point was to show that the problem he was addressing is not new. Violence has no place in the advancing of religion. To act against reason is to act against the nature of God. That is Benedict’s argument.
Numerous commentators suggested a sharp contrast between Benedict and John Paul II in their attitude toward Islam. Somewhat amusingly, pundits who had for years deplored John Paul’s rigid and authoritarian pontificate now spoke nostalgically about his wonderfully open and dialogical ways. As usual, any stick will do in beating up on whoever is currently the pope. As a matter of fact, however, there is no substantive difference between the two popes and their understanding of Islam.
In his 1994 worldwide bestseller, Crossing the Threshold of Hope , John Paul expressed respect for the religiosity of the Muslims and their fidelity to prayer. The image of believers in Allah who, without caring about time or place, fall to their knees and immerse themselves in prayer remains a model for all those who invoke the true God, in particular for those Christians who, having deserted their magnificent cathedrals, pray only a little or not at all. That having been said, John Paul continues:
Whoever knows the Old and New Testaments, and then reads the Koran, clearly sees the process by which it completely reduces Divine Revelation. It is impossible not to note the movement away from what God said about himself, first in the Old Testament through the Prophets, and then finally in the New Testament through His Son. In Islam, all the richness of God’s self-revelation, which constitutes the heritage of the Old and New Testaments, has definitely been set aside.
Some of the most beautiful names in the human language are given to the God of the Koran, but He is ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only Majesty, never Emmanuel, God with us. Islam is not a religion of redemption. There is no room for the Cross and the Resurrection. Jesus is mentioned, but only as a prophet who prepares for the last prophet, Muhammad. There is also mention of Mary, His Virgin Mother, but the tragedy of redemption is completely absent. For this reason not only the theology but also the anthropology of Islam is very distant from Christianity.
So the hard questions about Islam raised by Benedict at Regensburg (and elsewhere) are hardly new in papal thought. Benedict has expressed regret about the violent Muslim reaction to what he said; he has continued to meet with Muslim leaders; he has reaffirmed the Church’s continuing dialogue with Islam”but there is no chance whatsoever that he will retract or retreat from the argument he has made. And there is no doubt that he will continue to insist on greater reciprocity in relation to Islam. The Muslims’ religious freedom in the West should be joined to religious freedom for Christians and others in Islamic countries. Benedict very thoroughly aired this question with the Curia in Rome and with the cardinals during the past year, and there is solid agreement that reciprocity must be a central theme in Catholic-Muslim relations in the future.
But as I said, Regensburg was addressed chiefly to intellectuals in the West, and especially to theologians and philosophers: to theologians who try to pit authentically biblical Christianity against the Greek intellectual inheritance, thus abandoning the great achievement of the Church’s synthesis of faith and reason; and to philosophers, Christian and non-Christian, who have accepted a modern understanding of reason that reduces it to what counts as science, with the same result of sundering faith and reason.
A Kantian divorce of reason from religion and morality leaves the intellectual defenders of the West incapable of explaining why, for instance, one should rationally prefer a religion of reasonable persuasion to a religion of violence. There are utilitarian reasons, of course. But who is to say which religion is the more true? If all religion and morality is in the realm of the nonrational or even the irrational and is purely subjective, truth has nothing to do with it. Benedict contrasts this with the great tradition of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. They were intensely concerned with the reasonable exploration of the great questions that Enlightenment rationality dismisses as religious and no part of reasonable discourse.
At Regensburg and elsewhere, Benedict has carefully made the case that modern rationality is itself dependent upon, and inexplicable apart from, the understanding of reason and the rationality of the world produced by Christianity’s appropriation and development of the Hellenic philosophical tradition. This truth is well understood by Lee Harris, author of Civilization and Its Enemies and The Suicide of Reason . Harris is no particular friend of Christianity, but he understands the boldness and crucial importance of the challenge Benedict is raising to intellectuals of the West. Writing in the Weekly Standard , he says:
In his moving and heroic speech, Joseph Ratzinger has chosen to play the part of Socrates, not giving us dogmatic answers, but stinging us with provocative questions. Shall we abandon the lofty and noble conception of reason for which Socrates gave his life? Shall we delude ourselves into thinking that the life of reason can survive without courage and character? Shall we be content with lives we refuse to examine, because such examination requires us to ask questions for which science can give no definite answer? The destiny of reason will be determined by how we in the modern West answer these questions.
Benedict knows that Christian history has had its own experience with the sundering of faith and reason. At Regensburg, he cited the influence of John Duns Scotus (1266“1308) and some of the Protestant Reformers who proposed a Christianity liberated from the philosophical thought that they viewed as alien to Christian faith. In the case of Scotus and others, this leads, he said, to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.
This is the intellectual history that leads to modernity’s view of a clash between faith and reason. Reason is the light of the known and faith is a blind leap into the unknown. Very different is the understanding set forth by John Paul II in the encyclical Fides et Ratio : Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth”in a word, to know himself”so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.
At Regensburg, Benedict underscored that a view of the nature of God as capricious and voluntaristic is fundamentally incompatible with the teaching of the Church. The faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason, there exists a real analogy, in which”as the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 stated”unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language. God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. God and man are not in competition, or should not be. God is divine reason and love, and man is a creature, but also a participant in the mind of God and in the intelligent response of love.
In the world of the news cycles that consume and spit out what is happening now with expert rapidity, Regensburg is a long time ago. But for those who attend to the rational and moral defense of the West, not least in relation to Islam, what was said in that lecture hall and the responses to it will be pondered and debated long into the future. At the height of the violent reactions by Muslims, the dominant note in the Western media”led, predictably, by the New York Times ”was that Benedict had been careless or unnecessarily provocative and should, figuratively speaking, crawl on his knees to Mecca to ask forgiveness. Figuratively speaking, of course, because they don’t allow infidels at Mecca.
In the Vatican and in the Catholic journalistic world, there were voices that joined in the tut-tutting of an uncouth and unlearned pope who had disrupted the dialogue with a religion of peace. The nitpicking pedantry of some Catholic experts on Islam was given prominent display in the world’s press. But, from Catholic and other Christian leaders, along with Jews and some secular intellectuals, there was also an outpouring of support for what the pope had the wisdom and courage to say. They recognized that momentous issues of long-term consequence had at last been joined in a way that made possible and imperative continuing debate.
Regrettably, the official response of the Catholic bishops conference in this country, issued by Bishop William Skylstad, the conference president, was not helpful. The tone was condescending and patronizing, almost apologizing for the pope’s inept disturbance of our wonderfully dialogical relationship with our Muslim brothers and sisters. We are assured that, despite his unfortunate statements, he really does want peaceful dialogue. I paraphrase, of course, but the statement was anything but a firm defense of the pope, never mind an effort to explain what he actually said. It might have been written by a public relations firm engaged in damage control, and possibly was.
But for many others, the words spoken on September 12, 2006, and the responses, both violent and reasonable, to those words may, five or twenty years from now, be referred to as The Regensburg Moment, meaning a moment of truth. As I say, it is by no means certain, but it is more than just possible.
The Empire of Blasted Dreams
Every once in a while, we receive an exceedingly rude reminder why economics is called the dismal science. One reason being, of course, that it fancies itself a science. Raising embarrassing questions at a party celebrating the widely professed concern for the poor of the world is economist William Easterly in The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (Penguin). Four hundred pages of statistics, charts, graphs, and depressing history, all sprinkled with mostly grim anecdotes, elaborate on the subtitle.
There is no doubt that Easterly cares about the poor, who are mainly in the global South. He has spent decades of his life working with the major development organizations and is now professor of economics at New York University and a senior fellow of the Center for Global Development. He previously wrote The Elusive Quest for Growth , which has become a standard reference in development circles. He cares, but he is convinced that most of the money spent on foreign aid (in the trillions in the past half century) has done very little good and a great deal of damage. He is utterly scornful of the utopian proposals to end world poverty that issue with wearied regularity from politicians, rock stars, and international bureaucracies.
Whether the source be Tony Blair, or Bono, or the World Bank, the massive failures of the past are regularly dusted off and, without even changing the language, presented as new, visionary, and requiring only tens of billions in additional funding to end poverty at last. Easterly’s tone is more regretful and even whimsical than angry, although the anger breaks through from time to time. The White Man’s Burden, in which the West is going to solve the problems of the Rest, has produced a huge world of interlocking and frequently self-serving bureaucracies that have only a tenuous relationship to helping poor people.
There is the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the Millennium Development Goals, the United Nations Development Program, the African Development Bank, the United Nations Conference and Trade and Development, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and, of course, the World Trade Organization. Then follow a host of subsidiary bureaucracies, including those of individual rich countries and the EU.
Easterly tells a grim story of the selling of delusions, of catastrophes, cover-ups, and corruption resulting in the bolstering of despotic regimes. The fair-minded reader who is concerned about the poor may well conclude that foreign aid, with all its pomps, pretensions, and ensconced apparatchiks, is a cruel shell game played at the expense of the poor and should be terminated.
That is apparently not Mr. Easterly’s intention, however. He is still very much in the development business. He offers proposals for reform. He writes at length on how current approaches favor Planners over Searchers. Planners sit at desks and conference with one another endlessly in Washington and Brussels, working up grand schemes to be announced with much fanfare at international meetings of the rich before imposing the same old thing they’ve been imposing for decades on poor countries, whether the schemes help the poor or not.
Searchers, by way of contrast, are attentive to what is happening on the ground, encouraging of local initiatives, and determined to hold programs accountable to the bottom line of whether the poor become less poor. Who could possibly disagree with the call for such accountability? The problem is that, by Easterly’s own account, the usual grand designs cooked up by bureaucrats routinely rail against bureaucracy and demand level upon level of accountability. Every grand new global initiative that has been launched in the past decades has been described as a radical break from business as usual as it demands more billions for the funding of business as usual.
A Conceptual Poverty
Easterly concludes with this: Even if you don’t work in the field of helping the poor, you can still, as a citizen, let your voice be heard for the cause of aid delivering the goods to the poor. You citizens don’t have to settle for the grandiose but empty plans to make poverty history. All of you can make known your dissatisfaction with Planners and call for more Searchers. Great. Write your representative or senator saying that you want those billions of dollars to really help poor people. That will shake them up at the World Bank and send tremors through the structure of sinecured paper pushers at the UN Development Fund.
I don’t doubt that Easterly is mostly right about the development establishments being as ineffective, and frequently counterproductive, as he claims they are. He knows the numbers and documents the glaring gap between expenditure and results. The picture he offers is devastating.
One is struck, however, by the conceptual poverty of his critique. He has a commonsensical appreciation of the need for market dynamics, and the distinction between Planners and Searchers is no doubt right. One may hope that”against the entrenched habits and ethos of the development establishment”more Planners will listen to, or even become, Searchers. But Easterly’s analysis is severely limited to the economic ideas and vocabulary of the development world of which he has so long been part.
In a word, Easterly’s understanding of poverty and what can be done about it is strikingly statist. Despite all the talk about being attentive to what is happening to people on the ground, the story he tells is overwhelmingly the story of governments and government policies; of rich governments bearing the White Man’s Burden and poor governments suffering from, or colluding in, the moral imperialism of the delusions of the rich. There is barely a passing mention of thousands of nongovernmental programs, mainly church-related, that are demonstrably effective in countering disease, feeding the hungry, and advancing development by building communities of mutual aid. Culture and religion hardly get a cameo appearance in his account.
Conceptually, the distinction between Planners and Searchers is obvious enough, but there is nothing of the nuance and detail in describing the dynamics of freedom and development explored in, for instance, John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus , on expanding the circle of productivity and exchange. It appears that Mr. Easterly has read and thought very little outside the box of the statist development establishment he so sharply criticizes.
For the sake of the poor of the world, and of our own humanity, we cannot resign ourselves to a third of the world’s population living in abject poverty. We know that most of the big statist solutions are, although often well-intended, a destructive delusion. Aspects of that story, with specific reference to humanitarian interventions in regional conflicts, are very compellingly told by David Rieff in his 2002 book, A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis. We may be on the edge of a widespread turn against programmatic efforts to help the poor”not because people don’t care, but because they become convinced that caring doesn’t make much difference, and often seems to make matters worse.
The White Man’s Burden provides much useful information about failures relative to economic development. If Mr. Easterly had let his imagination range beyond governments and government policies, he might have left his readers with a hope and sense of responsibility that goes beyond writing a letter to Congress demanding that, in exchange for the next ten billion dollars, programs of massive ineffectiveness be made effective.
White Guilt, Black Rage
In The Content of Our Character , Shelby Steele of Stanford University took on the stereotypes that continue to bedevil race relations in America. The book deservedly received a great deal of attention, much of it very critical. Now Steele is back again with White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement (HarperCollins). You are right if you think he is being more than a bit provocative.
The book opens with the observation that President Eisenhower was rumored to have used the N-word from time to time. Steele compares that with President Clinton’s marital infidelities.
President Clinton survived what would certainly have destroyed President Eisenhower, and Eisenhower could easily have survived what would almost certainly have destroyed Clinton. Each man, finally, was no more than indiscreet within the moral landscape of his era. Neither racism in the fifties nor womanizing in the nineties was a profound enough sin to undermine completely the moral authority of the president. So it was the good luck of each president to sin into the moral relativism of his era rather than into its puritanism. And, interestingly, the moral relativism of one era was the puritanism of the other. Race simply replaced sex as the primary focus of America’s moral seriousness.
Steele describes colorfully (if one may be permitted the term) his own epiphany in discovering his black manhood and power in exploiting white guilt. He recognized that the simple recognition by whites of their race’s association with racism created a vacuum of moral authority that opened opportunities for black rage. Whites (and American institutions) must acknowledge historical racism to show themselves redeemed of it, but once they acknowledge it, they lose moral authority over everything having to do with race, equality, social justice, poverty, and so on. They step into a void of vulnerability. The authority they lose transfers to the victims’ of historical racism and becomes their great power in society. This is why white guilt is quite literally the same thing as black power.
Personal morality has given way to social rectitude. The use of the N-word is a fatal indication that one does not have the requisite social attitude. Womanizing in the White House is not socially approved, but it is, after all, only a personal peccadillo. This, says Steele, is the global racism that has radically skewed our moral sensibilities and judgments. Racism is worse than murder. In the O.J. Simpson trial, he notes, the question of whether Detective Mark Fuhrman had ever used the N-word trumped the DNA evidence linking Simpson to the murderers. And the court itself”like most American institutions in this age of white guilt”was so bereft of moral authority in racial matters that it could not restore proportionality to the proceedings . . . . Racism was allowed to become a kind of contaminating ether that wafted through and dispelled even the hardest evidence.
Every institution is in flight from being stigmatized as racist. Steele notes that Texaco paid out $750 million to the corrupt diversity industry, even though a racist executive did nothing more than to repeat a nonracist term that he picked up, ironically enough, in a company-sponsored program on diversity training. Toyota has paid more than $7 billion, and other companies have paid hundreds of millions, to avoid being stigmatized as racist. Steele does not mention that Jesse Jackson each year holds a shakedown festival on Wall Street at which he extorts huge amounts of money in return for not publicly labeling corporations as racist. The race card works, writes Steele, by the mechanism of global racism: even a hint of racism proves the rule of systemic racism. So these corporations never pay to the measure of any actual racism; they pay to the measure of racism’s hyped-up and bloated reputation in the age of white guilt.
Thomas and Dowd
Steele is particularly exercised by the Supreme Court decision in which Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that the victims of white racism would require another twenty-five years of affirmative action in order to compete on an equal basis. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a withering dissent in which he protested that he and others were not to be condescendingly treated as black victims but as individuals possessed of the dignity of being responsible for their successes and failures. Thomas’ dissent outraged Maureen Dowd of the New York Times , who made much of the claim that Thomas himself had benefited by affirmative action. Here is Steele at his most caustic:
Maureen Dowd, thinking herself quite incapable of racism, effectively calls Justice Thomas a nigger who”given his fundamental inferiority”should show gratitude to his white betters. In her rage, this ever so hip baby boomer liberal invokes white supremacy itself to annihilate Thomas”in reaction to her sense of being annihilated by him. So mired in white blindness, so lost in the liberal orthodoxy that counts mere dissociation from racism as virtue, and so addicted to the easy moral esteem that comes to her from dissociation, Dowd plays the oldest race cards of all-I’m white and you’re black, so shut up and be grateful for my magnanimity. It is as though in fighting for her human visibility she is really fighting for her superiority”a superiority that Thomas annihilated and that she now wants back.
Central to Shelby Steele’s argument is that the age of racism is past. The civil rights movement under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. was a great success. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 signaled triumph over a great national evil. Instead of celebrating the achievement, however, the age of racism was almost immediately replaced by the age of white guilt. The identities shaped around black victimhood, black rage, and black power are inexplicable apart from the regime of white guilt. The proponents of affirmative action and other policies supporting the guilt regime care little about real black people, especially those in the black urban underclass. Like Maureen Dowd and Sandra Day O’Connor and Texaco, their interest is in maintaining their position of superiority, including presumed moral superiority, by paying their tithe to be certified as innocent of the guilt borne by an allegedly racist society.
This is heady stuff. There is much to argue with in Steele’s thesis. My copy of the book is littered with question marks in the margins. But Steele makes a convincing case that our society is much more marked by white guilt than by white racism, and that the institutionalizing of white guilt is in the service, however inadvertently, of supporting whatever remains of white racism. To those who are open to exploring a radically different way of understanding racism in America, I recommend White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement.
The Nazi doctrine of Lebensunwertes Leben (life that is not worthy of life) had the widest possible applications, from euthanasia to the elimination of the handicapped to the mass killings at Auschwitz. While the Third Reich opposed the abortion of the genetically superior, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood that the logic of abortion was integral to a regime that presumed to exercise total power over life and death. Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the regime in April of 1945, spoke of four divine mandates in the ordering of human life: family, labor, government, and Church. The following passage from his Ethics occurs in a discussion of the family:
Marriage involves acknowledgment of the right of life that is to come into being, a right which is not subject to the disposal of the married couple. Unless this right is acknowledged as a matter of principle, marriage ceases to be marriage and becomes a mere liaison. Acknowledgment of this right means making way for the free creative power of God which can cause new life to proceed from this marriage according to His will. Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is nothing but murder. A great many different motives may lead to an action of this kind; indeed in cases where it is an act of despair, performed in circumstances of extreme human or economic destitution and misery, the guilt may often lie rather with the community than with the individual. Precisely in this connection money may conceal many a wanton deed, while the poor man’s more reluctant lapse may far more easily be disclosed. All these considerations must no doubt have a quite decisive influence on our personal and pastoral attitude towards the person concerned, but they cannot in any way alter the fact of murder.
While We’re At It:
So what is the name of the enemy? A lot of candidates have been proposed and employed in the last five years: Islamic fundamentalism, Islamofascism, Islamic totalitarianism, Islamism, terrorism, or simply extremism. Islamism, as distinguished from Islam, is used by many scholars, but it is a subtlety that will elude most people. Fundamentalism is an American Christian phenomenon with a very specific history that has nothing to do with Islam. Terrorism is a means employed by the enemy, but it does not name the enemy. And extremism is a generalized pejorative naming nothing in particular. References to fascism and totalitarianism have a fine hawkish ring, and there are indeed some parallels between what we faced in Nazism and communism and what confronts us now, but the dissimilarities are much greater, beginning with the role of religion in the new challenge. So what is the name of the enemy? I suggest that the most accurate term is Jihadism. The definition is not difficult to understand: Jihadism is the religiously inspired ideology that it is the moral obligation of all Muslims to employ whatever means necessary in order to compel the world’s submission to Islam. Those who support that ideology are Jihadists, and that is exactly what they say they believe. They describe themselves as Jihadists, and there is no reason why we should impose upon them a name”fascist, fundamentalist, etc.”from our Western and distinctly non-Islamic history. It will be objected that in the Qur’an, jihad can also mean peaceful spiritual struggle. That is true, as it is true that those Muslims who believe jihad means peaceful spiritual struggle are not the enemy. Jihadism. Say it five times and it comes easily. It has the additional merit of being accurate. It is good to see that this terminology is gaining some traction in our public discussions.
Remember The Da Vinci Code ? The gospel according to Judas? They and whatever comes next are part of a very old story, Philip Jenkins writes in the thirtieth anniversary issue of that fine journal the Chesterton Review . In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was enormous popular enthusiasm over the discovery of new gospels by, inter alia, Thomas, Peter, Mary, and even by Judas Iscariot and Eve. Madame Blavatsky and her Theosophical Society were prominent in debunking the orthodox Christian story that had been imposed by wicked churchmen, and most especially by the Catholic Church. There were also very popular novels along the line of The Da Vinci Code . In a way similar to the appeal of Elaine Pagels’ promotion of Gnosticism today, feminist themes were prominent. Elizabeth Cady Stanton published Woman’s Bible in 1895, and Matilda Gage’s Women, Church and State (1895) launched the mythology of European witches who were the remnant of an ancient matriarchal society that was centered in a fertility cult that had been persecuted into extinction by the patriarchal Church. Jenkins writes: The new discoveries are never as new or as sensational as they are touted to be. Looking at the writings of the early twentieth century”as of the early 21st”our overwhelming impression is that people earnestly wanted to find some particular message in early Christianity, and wished heartily that this claim could be justified by some authentic scripture. And in the absence of such a genuine text, spurious or flimsy texts were vastly exaggerated”in effect, reinvented to become the weighty scriptures that people hoped to find. To adopt Dr. Johnson’s words, the constant emphasis on the unique wisdom and value of the new-old scriptures, all scholarship to the contrary, must be seen as the triumph of hope over experience.’ Jenkins observes, The cyclical nature of claims and discoveries’ suggests that such amazing new gospels’ are rather like London buses: There is no need to worry if you miss one because another will be along within ten minutes. Well yes, but why now? Perhaps there is more than we might think to the claims of some scholars that the turn of a century, and especially of a millennium, generates widespread apocalyptic fantasy. I don’t know. But there is, as Jenkins suggests, something touching in the desire to certify fantasy by reference to Jesus and early Christianity. It is as though, in their determined rejection of historic Christianity, people can’t let go of it. In that, and despite the fabrications and sensationalism, there may be reason for hope.
Increasingly encountered in the product of the commentariat is the observation that left and right are engaged in a battle over who has rightful claim to the religious and philosophical legacy of the American Founders. We should not let partisan intellectual contests distract us from more important historical inquiries. In his book On Two Wings , Michael Novak very helpfully sets out the structure of Christian thought”a structure, he insists, inseparably connected to Jewish and Old Testament understandings of human nature and history”that provided the conceptual matrix for the understandings and aspirations shaping our constitutional order. In a later book, Washington’s God, he and Jana Novak insightfully explore the ways in which the faith and worldview of the first president are situated, sometimes uneasily, within that structure of Christian thought. Gordon Wood of Brown University, the distinguished historian of the American founding, has said of this project: I agree with Michael that it’s been the last 100 years, in fact the last half of the 20th century, that our society has become much more secular and as a consequence we’ve tended to interpret the 18th century in a more secular way. But I think that’s just a mistake. That was a very religious world. In fact, ordinary people were far more religious than the leaders. Washington is, among the founders, I think, probably as religious as any of them. The point of books such as On Two Wings and Washington’s God is not to pass judgment on whether the Founders were true Christians, as true Christianity is variously defined. That judgment has long since been passed by Higher Authority. The point is to understand the national experience of which we are part. The further point is to illumine the ways in which the beliefs of those who crafted this constitutional order are inexplicable without careful attention to the Christian tradition of which they, however variously, were part.
Repeatedly and ever more plaintively, the question is asked, Where is the religious left? Ever eager to serve, Jim Wallis of Sojourners responds, Here am I, send me to repel the threatening armies of the theocrats! Wallis steadfastly deplores the ways in which the religious right equates its politics with the will of God. To counter such religious arrogance, he wrote a popular book explaining his own politics. He called the book God’s Politics. It comes complete with the U.S. federal budget that the prophet Isaiah would have written if he had known more about modern economics. Jim Wallis is not alone in trying to revive, or invent, a religious left. The Network of Spiritual Progressives is a project led by Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun magazine. Tikkun refers to the mending of the world, which all can agree is a good thing to try to do. Recently, he and Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, convened a gathering of the Network in Washington, D.C. Neela Banerjee, writing in the New York Times, reports: They had come to All Souls Unitarian Church, 1,200 of them from 39 states, to wrest the mantle of moral authority from conservative Christians, and they were finally planning how to take their message to those in power. Tony Campolo, the liberal Baptist, told the gathering that they should invoke biblical authority. People in Congress respect the Book, even if they don’t know what it says. If we don’t recognize this, we don’t know squat. A hirsute young man objected: I thought this was a spiritual progressives’ conference. I don’t want to play the game of the Bible says this or that,’ or that we get validation from something other than ourselves. We should be speaking from our hearts. He possibly reads Tikkun. When the conferees deployed their forces on Capitol Hill, Carol Gottesman, a 64-year-old nurse from Hubbard, Ohio, engaged her Democrat congressman, Tim Ryan, who said he had heard of the progressive network. Mr. Ryan asked if the group was pressing specific policies. No, said Ms. Gottesman, it’s more that we want to take caring and generosity and bring it into everything. Mr. Ryan responded, Spread love, not hate. Pretty simple. Do you have a little network back home? Banerjee writes, Ms. Gottesman squared her shoulders proudly and said, I’m it.’ Validation from ourselves indeed. In truth, the 1,200 souls at All Souls Unitarian Church were validating one another in their communal affirmation of their very singular selves. There is a religious left. It is defined by a shared reaction to the religious right. It is not about to change its name to the Network of Spiritual Reactionaries, however. These people understand themselves to be progressive, open-minded, inquiring, and fiercely opposed to the moral arrogance of conservatives who claim that their policy preferences are, as Jim Wallis might put it, God’s politics.
In Lariano, Italy, there was this meeting sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the World Council of Churches. The subject was Conversion”Assessing the Reality. The report from the meeting underscores a number of important truths. Particularly welcome is the ringing affirmation of the right to religious freedom: Freedom of religion is a fundamental, inviolable and non-negotiable right of every human being in every country in the world. Freedom of religion connotes the freedom, without any obstruction, to practice one’s own faith, freedom to propagate the teachings of one’s faith to people of one’s own and other faiths, and also the freedom to embrace another faith out of one’s own free choice. This reflects the Vatican’s increasing insistence upon reciprocity in relation to Islam. While mosques multiply across the landscape of Europe, Christian Bibles and crosses are confiscated at the borders of many Muslim countries where worship and witness by the infidels is prohibited. But then the report from the consultation starts to go wobbly:
We affirm that while everyone has a right to invite others to an understanding of their faith, it should not be exercised by violating other’s [sic] rights and religious sensibilities. At the same time, all should heal themselves from the obsession of converting others.
Freedom of religion enjoins upon all of us the equally non-negotiable responsibility to respect faiths other than our own, and never to denigrate, vilify or misrepresent them for the purpose of affirming superiority of our faith.
What does it mean to violate the religious sensibilities of others? Danish cartoons of Muhammad result in riots and the death of dozens of people because, Muslims explain, their religious sensibilities are violated. Churches are torched, the pope is burned in effigy, and Christians are attacked and killed because Regensburg offended Muslim sensibilities. Of course, we must never misrepresent the religion of others, and in proposing the truth we should accent the positive, but the statement of what is true can tend to denigrate (Webster: to deny the validity of) and may even vilify (to lower in estimation or importance) the denial of what is true. Admittedly, it’s hard to find the right words for saying that we should try to be nice to people, but the report from Lariano is particularly inept in its attempt. More substantive and more troubling, however, is the statement that all should heal themselves from the obsession of converting others. An earnest desire to share the truth with others is a sickness? Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! declared St. Paul. Was he obsessed and in need of therapy? We all know the old saw about horses created by committees, but, even for a camel, the Lariano camel is embarrassingly odd.
Every issue of the magazine elicits a raft of letters, relatively few of which can be published in the correspondence section. Others are sent to authors for their personal response, and I try to respond to everyone addressing what I have written. Sometimes a public clarification is in order. I am alerted to a possible misunderstanding of this passage in the June/July issue: Once again, America is, as it always has been, an incorrigibly, confusedly, and conflictedly Christian society. There are relatively small minorities of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. Of these, only Jews play a large role in our public discourse, although that could change in the future. I am told that this sounds ominous, as though I am suggesting that Jews should not play such a large role. Of course, that is not what was intended. Jews are a declining proportion of the population, while the other minorities are increasing. It therefore seems more than possible that, in the decades ahead, those other voices, too, will have a large role in our public discourse. There is nothing necessarily ominous about that at all.
Interestingly, many who urge more acceptance of religion in the public square want skeptics to keep quiet, and in fact if you actually go after someone’s religious ideas you are quickly accused of anti-religious bias. I find this stance highly problematic. If the faithful are willing to say that we should shut up about their ideas because, after all, they are private, then the faithful should not proclaim the relevance of those ideas to public affairs. That’s historian David Hollinger of the University of California, Berkeley, in a symposium on secularism published by Religion in the News. He’s on to something. But then he goes wrong in thinking that it is only liberal secularists and liberal Christians who have an interest in making religious belief a matter of civil public discussion. In a 2004 article in Harper’s, Hollinger wrote: Religious ideas have become oddly privileged. Since most secularists consider religion a strictly private matter, they generally deem it impolite to express about a believer’s religious ideas the kind of skepticism they might reveal in response to someone’s notions about the economy or race or gender. Of course, there is no excuse for rudeness, yet the more impact on public affairs religious ideas are understood to have, the more troublesome this deference becomes. In an earlier era, freethinkers understood that the society in which they lived depended in part on the basic view of the world accepted by their fellow citizens”hence Robert Ingersoll and Elizabeth Cady Stanton not only defended a clear church-state separation but commented on the merits of specific religious ideas held by their contemporaries. For the last sixty or seventy years, however, secularists have more often supposed that the ideas of religious believers did not matter; that the ideas could be scorned when out of the earshot of the faithful or, in mixed company, could be patronizingly indulged the way one might listen to the words of a child or aged relative before tactfully changing the subject. Right again. He describes the presumption of atheism, or at least methodological atheism, in academic philosophy, and writes: My point is not that philosophers should be more religious than they are”I want only to note that the discipline that once contributed precious analytic rigor to the evaluation of religious ideas rarely treats religion as a respectable rival to secular worldviews. In part, the shift reflects a striking and laudable change in the demographics of American academia after 1945. The integration of Jews into social science and humanities faculties ended the Protestant cultural hegemony of the leading colleges and created an atmosphere in which Christian ideas were no longer privileged; the liberation was a major enrichment of American intellectual life, and the philosophers, historians, literary scholars, and social scientists who participated in it were understandably reticent to turn their analytic powers towards Christian ideas in a society that had, until recently, excluded Jews as agents of de-Christianization.’ Hollinger singles out liberal secularists and liberal Catholics as the people who can bring about a new engagement of philosophy with religion. He has no more solid ally, however, than Pope Benedict XVI. The much-discussed September lecture in Regensburg was precisely an appeal to Western secularists to recognize that philosophy is crippled by its exclusion of the questions addressed by religion, and an appeal to Christians not to repudiate the Christian-Hellenic synthesis with its accent upon the mutual dependence of faith and reason. Hollinger thinks our intellectual culture would be healthier if we had today people such as Robert Ingersoll, a brilliant atheist who in the early twentieth century toured the country lambasting religion. (There is a plaque in honor of Ingersoll in Gramercy Park, around the corner from our office.) One hopes, however, that secularists could come up with people more sophisticated than Ingersoll, and more interested in truth than in scoring points, but Hollinger is right about the need to move beyond the privileging of religion as a purely personal concern grounded in private experience and therefore immune from criticism. Christianity makes public truth claims about reality, and such claims are subject to reasonable challenge, as they are also reasonably proposed. Whether Mr. Hollinger knows it or not, he and the pope are on the same side in contending against both ideological secularism and religious fideism.
Born in Iran and now grateful to be an American, Cyrus Nowrasteh wrote the miniseries aired by ABC, The Road to 9/11 . You will remember that prominent Democrats demanded that the program be canceled because it portrayed President Clinton and his administration in an uncomplimentary light. (It was none too kind to the Bush team either.) But here is another dimension of the brouhaha. Nowrasteh writes: The hysteria engendered by the series found more than one target. In addition to the death threats and hate mail directed at me, and my grotesque portrayal as a maddened right-winger, there developed an impassioned search for incriminating evidence on everyone else connected to the film. And in director David Cunningham, the searchers found paydirt! His father had founded a Christian youth outreach mission. The whiff of the younger Mr. Cunningham’s possible connection to this enterprise was enough to set the hounds of suspicion baying. A religious mission! A New York Times reporter wrote, without irony or explanation, that an issue that raised questions about the director was his involvement in his father’s outreach work. In the era of McCarthyism, the merest hint of a connection to communism sufficed to inspire dark accusations, the certainty that the accused was part of a malign conspiracy. Today, apparently you can get something of that effect by charging a connection with a Christian mission. Another sobering thought for the day.
Paul Marshall is an evangelical and a senior fellow at Freedom House who plays an important part in keeping all of us alert to the realities of the persecution of believers, Christian and other, around the world. In The Problem of the Prophets, published in Christianity Today, he reflects on evangelical political engagement. He says it is not true, as is sometimes claimed, that evangelicals merely march to the drumbeat of Catholic thinkers. There is a very respectable stream of evangelical thought and history that informs, or should inform, Christian political action. But, he writes, currently, evangelical activism hampers responsible political engagement by casually proof-texting the Bible and claiming the authority of Old Testament prophets. Moreover: Evangelical activism has long shown bipolar characteristics. The Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority fit a historical pattern that begins with political passivity. Then, provoked by fear of secular intrusion, evangelicals launch a fervent crusade. Troops rally to a cause whose leaders employ military and salvation metaphors, calling for battles to save’ America from apostasy. The crusade usually runs for several years, until the world’s apparent resistance to reform leads to disappointment, occasionally degenerating into cynicism. Sometimes, evangelical activists even proclaim America’s inevitable moral decline while calling for campaigns to arrest that decline. Then there are those who rather presumptuously present themselves as prophets: A more pervasive”and perhaps pernicious”pattern makes a prophet the key political actor. This view’s advocates implicitly claim the prophet’s mantle for themselves. In his widely noted God’s Politics, Jim Wallis writes, The place to begin to understand the politics of God is with the Prophets.’ Wallis does not bother to justify this unusual contention. The Bible itself does not begin with the Prophets, but with Genesis, as does most Christian reflection on politics throughout history. Nor does Wallis relate the Prophets to the Torah. They challenged rulers on the basis of God’s law, not on their own feelings of injustice . . . . These prophets’ disregard the real, day-to-day problems faced by actual politicians. They present utopian societies to achieve, rather than guidance for governing the varied and brawling people politicians govern. It’s as if parents received advice on rearing their children by hearing someone describe an ideal child. They might respond, I know what kids are supposed to be, but that tells me nothing. What I need is advice on what, today, I should do with the little monsters I have.’ Marshall’s conclusion reflects what used to be called Christian realism until some theologians, disappointed by reality, debunked the term. Marshall writes: This side of eternity there will be no revolution’ that can change the human condition. The world will remain full of hope and sin, success and failure. We will win a few political debates and lose a few. Perhaps one day we’ll lose many, and faithful people will be dragged to their deaths, as they are now around the world. With time, evangelicals will grow wiser about the political arena just as parents do”through lived, practical experience. That experience will deliver a dose of reality about what politics can and cannot accomplish. Political action will not deliver utopia, conquer sin, or change human nature. But it can make a difference between rampant crime and safe neighborhoods, between hungry families and economic security, between victory and defeat in war. And only those who have never been mugged, never been hungry, or never been at war will think these differences trivial.
A new Gallup Poll on attitudes toward ten different religious groups has Jews coming out on top (58 percent positive, 4 percent negative). Mormons are 28 and 29 percent, Muslims 26 and 30 percent, atheists 25 and 44 percent, and at the bottom, perhaps thanks to the efforts of Tom Cruise, Scientologists are 11 percent positive and 53 percent negative. Jews beat out Catholics, Presbyterians, evangelicals, and other much larger groups (they are a little less than two percent of the population). But Michael Medved suggests that Jewish enthusiasm should be tempered. First, people lie to polltakers. Who wants to admit that they’re anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic? Then, too, Jews are uncontroversial, except for being Jews. On the hot-button moral and social issues, Jews are, from Reform to Orthodox, all over the map. Medved writes: And that’s the bad news for Jews behind the superficially flattering numbers in the Gallup Poll: People across the country rate Judaism positively not because the messages of our faith come across with so much strength and influence in our society, but because those teachings seem so confused, uncertain, and obscure. In this context, the nearly invisible negative reactions to Judaism (only 1 percent very negative’ and 3 percent somewhat negative’) provide evidence of our religion’s problems, not our vitality. Any faith community that’s speaking out on the issues of the day in a clear, firm voice, or displaying the sort of dynamism and ambition capable of drawing numerous new adherents, will end up offending some people and inspiring occasional negative responses. For many of us who have tried to revitalize the traditional faith components of American Jewish identity, it would be well worth it to accept a very negative’ rating higher than a mere 1 percent in return for a religious message that was more compelling, competitive, and challenging”enough so to inspire both favorable and unfavorable reactions that counted as more informed and impassioned. One is reminded of the Jew who said, Woe to you when all men speak well of you.
Mark Judge, who has written a provocative book titled God and Man at Georgetown Prep: How I Became a Catholic Despite 20 Years of Catholic Schooling , alerts me to his alma mater’s understanding of Jesuit education, posted on the school’s website: Georgetown Preparatory School is committed to the Jesuit vision of education, which grows from two deeply grounded theological roots. The first is the conviction that God is found in all things. As Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: The world is charged with the grandeur of God.’ Even the secular is sacred, from the Jesuit point of view. Clearly, then, the ardent pursuit of knowledge is not just an intellectual activity, but a supremely sacred process. From this conviction springs the second root of Jesuit education: that learning is a catalyst for conversion. By conversion’ we do not mean joining a particular religion or advocating a certain creed. Conversion in the Jesuit context means a profound change in one’s point of view”coming to see something from a totally different perspective. This is a solidly Christian concept, but it is also a universal one. It was the Buddha who said, when asked if he believed in miracles, A change of heart is a genuine miracle.’ Nothing there about Jesus Christ or the doctrine of the Catholic Church, and I suppose a profound change in one’s point of view from Christianity to another religion counts as a conversion. Why are you not surprised?
Secretary of State of the Holy See does not mean what is often thought. He is indeed in charge of foreign policy, too, but he is the chief administrative officer, under the pope, of the entire Vatican. Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone is the new secretary of state recently appointed by Pope Benedict. He reflects on economic justice and international development in an interview with an Italian newspaper. The experts in institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, he says, are frequently guilty of imposing statist solutions on poor countries that undermine both economic development and cultural freedom. The alternative? Based on the social doctrine of the Church, we need a popular democratic capitalism, as well as a system of economic liberty which does not amount to an oligopoly, which makes room for the greatest number of participants possible, giving them a chance to engage in enterprise and creativity, favoring a healthy competition within a clear legal framework. That’s a splendidly succinct summary of key points in John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical on the free and just society, Centesimus Annus .
It’s a little thing but it pulls together so much. Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), an outfit on the cutting edge of the culture of death, puts on a full-court media press touting its putative discovery of a new way of getting embryonic stem cells without killing embryos. Nature magazine plays it up big. The New York Times bites and runs it as the lead story, written by its chief science editor, on the front page. Knowledgeable critics immediately jump into the fray, pointing out that the technology is not new, that in fact all the embryos used in the experiment were killed, and that the President’s Council on Bioethics had considered the ACT procedure a year earlier and unanimously rejected it as unethical. A few days later, down on a deep inside page, the Times has a story reporting that the Conference of Catholic Bishops brought pressure on the editors of Nature, who then apologized for their error. There is no acknowledgment of the Times’ error in promoting ACT’s fraudulent claims. Out of the paper’s journalistic sloppiness the editors manage to rescue the satisfaction of once again suggesting that the Church is the enemy of scientific progress. What would we do without the nation’s newspaper of record? Don’t ask.
Elie Wiesel’s Night , first published in this country in 1960, has been for innumerable readers their first introduction to Holocaust literature. It is a compelling narrative of human devastation seen through the eyes of a Jewish child in the death camps. Many will recall the account of the Nazis’ hanging of a young boy. The hanging is botched and the boy slowly strangles to death as he dangles by the rope. The question is asked, Where is God? And Wiesel answers, Where is He? This is where”hanging here from this gallows. That scene, and that answer, has had a powerful influence also in Christian thought. Fr. Thomas Weinandy critically evaluates that influence in his splendid article Does God Suffer? in the November 2001 issue of First Things .
Christopher Leighton, a Presbyterian with long experience in Jewish-Christian relations, is worried about the message of Night . Because the action all takes place within the death camps, he fears Christians will not be confronted by the source of evil in the society and the regime, which included many Christians, outside the camps. But mainly Leighton is worried that Christians will appropriate the story, including the death of the young boy, in support of the Christian narrative of redemption. Francois Mauriac, the noted Catholic thinker who wrote the foreword to the French edition of Night , did just that. He wrote: Did I explain to [Wiesel] that what had been a stumbling block for his faith had become the cornerstone for mine? And that the connection between the cross and human suffering remains, in my view, the key to the unfathomable mystery in which the faith of his childhood was lost? This is precisely the wrong Christian response, Leighton contends:
The tortured screams of those children and their parents did not mend the world. Nor was theirs a sacrificial offering that can reestablish the bonds of intimacy between God and humanity. Any effort to squeeze the Jewish community’s pain into a Christian paradigm compounds the original violence with another layer of violation. Indeed, the domestication of Jewish pain by means of comparison with Jesus’ execution indicates a failure on the part of Christians to understand the mystery at the heart of the crucifixion . . . . Differently stated, an encounter with the Holocaust brings Christians face to face with the limits of their own theological prowess, compelling them to reexamine the claim that new life invariably follows in the wake of death. If they decline the challenge, they will read and interpret Weisel’s Night in ways that simply reaffirm what they have always known. They will learn nothing from the encounter either about others or about themselves.
There is considerable merit to Leighton’s argument, which appeared in a recent issue of Commentary . Certainly, it is no part of Christian faith that new life invariably follows in the wake of death. That is rank sentimentalism. And yet, the perception of Mauriac and others that God is the boy dangling at the end of the rope in analogy with God in Christ bearing the weight of all human suffering on the cross is profoundly and irrepressibly Christian. It is not helpful to say that this is a domestication of Jewish suffering, or of the sufferings beyond number borne by others in the course of human history. On the Jewish side, the esteemed Michael Wyschogrod has probed the connections between the travails of the Jews and the Christian understanding of redemptive suffering. Such matters touch on mysteries that surpass our understanding and must be explored with great precision. Leighton is right to caution against a facile incorporation of Jewish suffering into the Christian story. Yet there is a deep sense in which that suffering is also ours and is included in the redemptive suffering of Christ. This question came in for rough headline treatment some years ago in the controversy over the Carmelite monastery at the edge of Auschwitz. Some Jews protested that the Church was trying to Christianize the Holocaust. Yet Christians cannot help but say that the redemptive suffering of Christ is uni