I write the day after military action was launched. What happens in the days and weeks ahead nobody knows, and any speculation would be dated by the time you read this. So there is no point in that. What can be known now, and is very much worth trying to understand, is how the several religious communities have attempted to influence the decisions leading up to war. The following is an annotated summary of positions, arguments, admonitions, and agitations that reflect the ways in which religious leadership tried—for better and worse—to bring moral judgment to bear in a time of war.
“How does it feel to be all alone, or almost all alone?” The reporter’s question suggested that I was the only person in a Roman collar defending American policy in the media. He was not quite right about that, but it is true that there weren’t many of us. And I did not think of myself as defending American policy so much as trying to contribute a measure of moral clarity in a time of great confusion. Of course, I readily admit that those who disagree thought they were the ones providing moral clarity. Perhaps the best way to begin is to offer a précis of the arguments I’ve been making, with special reference to Catholic positions, and then come back to some alternative accounts of moral duty in a time of war. We will want to attend also to the sounds of oldline and evangelical Protestants, as well as Jews, in the public square.
Up until the first rocket hit Baghdad, the Pope was urging us to pray that Iraq would be disarmed without resort to military force. For months he tirelessly repeated that war is always a defeat for humanity, a failure to maintain the peace of right order. St. Augustine called the peace of right order tranquillitas ordinis. In addition, the Pope urgently reminded us that in history nothing is inevitable, and that with God all things are possible. In every statement I have made, I have underscored my unqualified agreement with that message of the Holy Father.
That message is entirely consistent with the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas and others in the just war tradition that, in the absence of tranquillitas ordinis, war may sometimes be a moral duty in order to overturn injustice and protect the innocent. The cause must be just, and the just cause in this case is the disarmament of Iraq. That just cause was explicitly and consistently affirmed by the Pope, also in his messages to both Saddam Hussein and President Bush. And it was affirmed by multiple resolutions of the UN Security Council.
The question was whether that just cause could be vindicated without resort to military force. France—despite having voted for the unanimously approved Resolution 1441 that presumably gave Saddam one last chance to disarm—was in the lead of those contending that it would be wiser to wait and see what Iraq might do over a period of months or even years, during which time it could be safely contained without war. How best to vindicate the just cause, I insisted, is a matter of practical wisdom, of what is called prudential judgment. In just war doctrine, the Church’s competence and responsibility is to set forth the pertinent moral principles. As No. 2309 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear, the application of those principles to specific cases is the responsibility of political leaders. It is true that religious leaders can claim that the principles are being ignored or misapplied, but in the latter case they do so at the considerable risk of exceeding their competence and undermining their credibility. The questions raised to religious spokesmen are inescapable: On the basis of what expert knowledge do you advocate policy x against policy y? By what authority or by whose authority do you speak?
The Criminal Intelligence
It was pointed out that for twelve years Saddam Hussein had successfully defied the Security Council, beginning with his refusal to disarm as required by the terms that ended the first Gulf War. He had been responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands (some authorities say over a million) people in aggressive war, and had used weapons of mass destruction to slaughter thousands of his own people. He possessed and was bent upon further developing more horrible weapons; he had publicly stated his support for the attack of September 11, and was in contact and declared sympathy with terrorists devoted to multiplying such attacks. None of these facts were in dispute.
In the judgment of the U.S. and many other governments, Saddam posed a grave and imminent threat to America, to world peace, and to the lives of innumerable innocents. If that judgment is correct, I argued, the use of military force to remove that threat is, in the absence of plausible alternatives, both justified and necessary. Then I always added this: heads of government who are convinced of the correctness of that judgment would be criminally negligent and in violation of their solemn oath to protect their people if they did not act to remove such a threat.
I emphasized that, as a theologian and moralist, I had no special competence to assess the threat posed by Iraq. On the basis of available evidence and my considered confidence in those responsible for making the relevant decisions, I was inclined to believe and I earnestly prayed that they would do the right thing. I was impressed by the degree to which opposing contentions turned on this question of confidence, or, rather, widespread lack of confidence in—indeed contempt for—George W. Bush. In the slogans of street demonstrators, but also in statements by churchmen, the opposition positions advanced frequently came down to little more than defamation of presidential character. It was not an edifying spectacle.
Discussions and debates sometimes turned on the meaning of preventive or preemptive war. Those terms were also used by the Administration, and I argued that they should not be. Some even spoke approvingly of “wars of choice.” War, if it is just, is not an option chosen but a duty imposed. Just war is in response to aggression. Iraq’s aggression was first against Kuwait, then in defiance of the terms of surrender, then in support of, if not direct participation in, acts of terrorism. Joined to that was the brutal aggression against its own citizens, and the possession of weapons of mass destruction which it could use or permit others to use for further aggression. Q: But how could we know what Saddam would do? A: We couldn’t know for sure. Q: Wouldn’t it be better to wait and see? A: To wait until he did what it was reasonable to believe he had the means and intention of doing would be to wait too long. Leaders guilty of such negligence would rightly be held morally accountable.
And so the arguments went back and forth. As it happens, there is in the Catholic tradition a considerable literature on prudential moral action in the face of aggressive threats and great injustice. Augustine, Aquinas, Francisco de Vitoria, and Francisco Suarez, for example, all addressed these questions. The almost total absence of reference to such recognized authorities in statements by Catholics, including bishops and curial officials in Rome, was impressive. Of course there are novel elements in any historical circumstance, but it is particularly unseemly for Catholics to talk like neophiliacs, so enamored of the new that they forget the centuries of reflection that is the Catholic moral tradition.
The Locus of Moral Authority
A curiously prominent novelty in the discussion was the claim that the United Nations is the exclusive locus of moral authority in international affairs. As it happens, since 1945 only two wars—the Korean and the 1991 Gulf War—have been endorsed by the Security Council. And the Korean War was approved only by the happenstance that the Soviet Union was on one of its “walkouts” and therefore could not exercise its veto. Depending on the definition of what constitutes a war, there have been between 100 to 180 wars in the world since 1945. As it also happens, Resolution 1441, unanimously approved in November, demanded that Iraq disarm immediately or face the consequences. Nobody claimed that Iraq had complied, and proposals for “extended timelines” and the like appeared to invite no more than continuing defiance of the past twelve years. I agreed with those who said that no further UN “authorization” was required, if it was morally required in the first place.
The day after military action began, the evening news headlined, “Vatican condemns both sides for war.” Spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the Pope received news of the war with “deep pain.” The official statement explained: “On the one hand, it is to be regretted that the Iraqi government did not accept the resolutions of the United Nations and the appeal of the Pope himself, as both asked that the country disarm. On the other hand, it is to be deplored that the path of negotiations, according to international law, for a peaceful solution of the Iraqi drama has been interrupted.” On the one hand, on the other hand. What Saddam did was regretted; what Bush did was deplored. Some pounced on this as an instance of precisely that false evenhandedness of “moral equivalence” that John Paul so sharply opposed during the Cold War. Others deplored that in none of the statements issuing from the Holy See was there any reference to the totalitarian oppression and massive violation of human rights by the Saddam regime. The suggestion seemed to be that there were two heads of state, Saddam and Bush, who disagreed about how to implement UN resolutions, and the latter was guilty of abandoning the search for a peaceful solution by resorting to war. Moreover, there was no mention of the fact that in the 1991 Gulf War the U.S. had the backing of the Security Council and therefore had presumably satisfied the requirements of “international law,” and yet in 1991 the Pope condemned military action against Iraq in what George Weigel, author of the monumental biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, calls “apocalyptic” terms.
It is not easy to counter the complaint of those who say that the Holy See seriously confused the question of moral legitimacy in international affairs, sometimes leaving the impression that questions of war and peace, right and wrong, come down to how the Pope feels about things. I do not accept that complaint, but it is most particularly puzzling that, with respect to moral credibilty and authority, some in the Curia seem bent upon hitching the wagon of the Catholic Church to the dubiously constructed institution that is the UN. The life and mission of the Catholic Church will continue long after the UN is a historical footnote along with, say, the Congress of Vienna. The experience of the last quarter century seems to have been forgotten by some. When, for instance, the Pope was playing a crucial role in bringing about the end of the evil empire of the Soviet Union, the UN was more than simply useless. Why now is it the bearer of moral authority in international authorities? If indeed that is, as some contend, the position of the Catholic Church.
In Pacem et Terris
The claim that the UN is the exclusive locus of legitimate authority in international affairs was over the past three months frequently asserted by leading churchmen, but it was not argued, and certainly it was not argued in terms of Catholic doctrine regarding legitimate authority. The week before the military action began, I was invited to give a lecture at the UN to the Pacem in Terris Society. The encyclical Pacem in Terris was issued by Pope John XXIII forty years ago this Holy Week. In working through it again, I was impressed by how judicious it is in its discussion of the UN, affirming it chiefly as a defender of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nowhere in the encyclical, or in John Paul II’s discussion of it in his world peace message this January, is there a suggestion that the UN has supplanted the nation-state. In fact, to the consternation of many world government proponents of the past and present, the UN is constituted on the premise of national sovereignty. Further, the Security Council—with its permanent members possessing the right to veto—very deliberately reflects the realities of politics among great powers. (At least what were thought to be the realities back in 1945 when it was envisioned that France might again be a great power.) The U.S. and others who wrote the UN Charter understood the Charter. Can anyone imagine a President of the United States declaring that, as a matter of principle, any use of American military power is subject to the veto of Russia, China, and France? Any President who said so would soon be out of office. Yet in the recent debate, that was precisely the interpretation of the Charter espoused by many, including prominent Catholic leaders.
The UN officials and leaders of nongovernmental organizations at the Pacem in Terris meeting were keenly aware that these were probably the most critical days for the UN since its founding. Some of them had over the years worked closely with the Holy See in countering UN policies with respect to abortion, family policy, population, and related questions. They were deeply troubled, as was I, by prelates associated with the Holy See now bent on so inflating the moral authority of the UN. It was strange to hear bishops seeming to suggest that the UN had also supplanted the Holy See, claiming for it a moral authority that many had previously associated with the Catholic Church.
And all present at the lecture were grimly aware of the possibility that the UN will go the way of the League of Nations if it is not prepared to support the enforcement of its own resolutions. That would seem to be the almost inevitable consequence if the UN persists in rejecting support such as that of the coalition led by the U.S. in Iraq. Contra the proponents of a world government, the UN is constituted by a recognition that there is a necessary connection between power and moral responsibility. Nations do and should act in their own interests, in the hope that interests can be coordinated to serve the common good. The UN has sometimes been useful toward that end, and many would understandably regret its self-inflicted diminishment or demise.
For the first time since the founding of the UN, opinion makers in the mainstream of American political discourse are advocating a formal or de facto withdrawal from the organization by the U.S. It is said by others that, if there were no UN, we would have to invent it, and there is something to that. I expect the UN will be significantly modified, but not before its present apparat puts up a vigorous fight to make it what it never was and was never meant to be. Or it will be replaced by new institutions more attuned to the nexus of power and responsibility and aimed at coordinating national interests in the service of peace, never forgetting that peace as tranquillitas ordinis will always be sadly deficient short of Our Lord’s return in glory.
Elevating the Public Discourse
In the debate leading up to military action, there was much understandable talk about the terrible consequences of war. The question of consequences bears strongly, of course, on the just war criterion of proportionality. One was struck by the ways in which the Bush Administration addressed the Iraq crisis with explicit reference to just war doctrine, including proportionality. Protests in Europe—more precisely, in what is now called Old Europe—frequently alluded to American inexperience and “cowboy” impetuosity. Such statements would be insulting were they not so demeaning of those who make them, including prelates associated with the Holy See. As it is, we must exercise a measure of patience with societies that have run out of steam and resent the vibrancy of America. A cardinal tells me that I must understand that his brethren in the Curia reflect the dominant views of their own countries, which are usually of the Old Europe. No doubt, but the Church is supposed to be universal, as in “catholic.”
On the putative dangers posed by American immaturity and inexperience, one might consult the history of, say, the last hundred years. I pointed out that the record of the U.S. in combating tyranny, defending freedom, providing humanitarian aid, motoring economic development, and securing a modicum of world order compares very favorably with the record of, for instance, Germany, France, Russia, or Italy. Yes, it was said in response, but you can’t expect Europeans to be grateful forever for what the U.S. did in two World Wars and the Cold War. In effect: What have you done for us lately? After all, the end of the Cold War was more than a decade ago. This seemed odd coming from bishops. It used to be said that Rome thinks in terms of centuries.
Ranking ecclesiastics took up the time of U.S. decision makers, badgering them about whether they had thought of this possible consequence or that. What about Muslim reaction? What about civilian casualties? The simple answer is that such consequences are unknowable and therefore unknown, except to God. I know that possible consequences have been considered, day and night for many months, by competent parties. I know there is a determination to minimize damage to innocents, and a reasoned expectation that successful action will weaken Islamist enemies of civilization and strengthen the Muslim forces of decency and freedom. The U.S. plans for changing the politics and culture of the Middle East, including Palestinian-Israeli relations, are indeed ambitious. Nobody can know for sure what will happen, but religious leaders should bring more to the discussion than their fears. Nervous hand-wringing is not a moral argument.
I had said that we should, with the Holy Father, be on our knees in prayer that Iraq will disarm without military action. If war comes, I said, we must pray that a just cause prevails—swiftly, surely, with minimal damage to innocents and with a clear determination to help the Iraqi people then freed from a brutal tyranny. Nobody asked or expected that the Catholic Church bless military action as though it were a Christian crusade. After the war, the Church, and the Holy Father in particular, will be indispensable as an interlocutor in moving Islam away from the most ominously destructive possibilities of a “clash of civilizations.” In sum, the position that some of us tried to advance during these weeks and months was this: Military action in order to disarm Iraq can be morally justified in terms of just war doctrine. Whether, in the retrospect of history, it will be viewed as a prudent course of action, nobody can know. If such action is undertaken, however, we have no moral alternative but to pray that a just cause will prevail justly.
And now war has come. By the time you read this, a great deal more will likely be known about consequences. At present, I’m afraid it must be said that the public witness of the Catholic Church, severely battered by the sex abuse scandals of the past year, has been further confused and weakened. Compared to, for instance, the leadership of oldline Protestantism, the Catholic bishops in the U.S. have been generally careful in their public statements, mainly confining themselves to raising questions. When military action commenced, Bishop Wilton Gregory of the U.S. episcopal conference issued a carefully crafted statement, noting that faithful Catholics and people of good will can disagree about the wisdom of the policy, and that the Church spiritually supports both those who conscientiously support and those who conscientiously oppose the war. The same carefulness did not characterize the statements by officials of the Holy See, some of whom have come unconscionably close to suggesting that Catholic Americans must choose between loyalty to their country and fidelity to the Church. If, as one curial archbishop has declared, the coalition led by the U.S. is engaged in a “crime against peace,” it would seem to follow that our soldiers are engaged in a criminal activity.
As you might imagine, I have received many messages taking issue with what I have said. A surprising number attribute to the Pope things he has not said. Don’t I know that the Pope has declared the war to be “illegal,” “immoral,” “in violation of the Church’s teaching,” and “a crime against humanity”? No, I don’t, and I don’t know that because he has never said what many are claiming he said. The “crime against humanity” line was cited even by the Wall Street Journal, which, to its credit, promptly retracted when the error was pointed out. There are times when Catholics, and all Christians, must choose between complicity in great injustice and fidelity to moral truth. That choice has over the centuries produced martyrs beyond numbering. For a curial official even to imply that coalition soldiers and others are facing such a choice is a reckless abuse of ecclesiastical office. Unless, of course, he really thinks that his view of the war is binding upon consciences. Were that the position of the Church, one would expect the Pope to say so, and the Pope has not said anything even remotely like that. It is to be feared that some churchmen are more enamored of being players in world politics than devoted to being shepherds of souls.
At the same time, and somewhat contradictorily, curial officials have said that they are not arguing moral theology but are making prudential judgments, drawing on “the Church’s vast experience in international affairs.” People may be forgiven if, faced with the choice between the geopolitical expertise of the Curia and that of the people surrounding George W. Bush and Tony Blair, they choose the latter. A crucial question is this: In the past three months, has the Holy See elevated the level of moral discourse or added to the discussion considerations that would otherwise have been neglected? It is not easy to answer that question in the affirmative.
His most devoted admirers acknowledge that the Pope bears a measure of responsibility for this unhappy circumstance. And it is a mildly amusing nuisance to hear chronic dissenters from firm magisterial teaching on faith and morals proclaim that, on war and peace, they are loyal to the Pope, while the champions of magisterial teaching are, in fact, dissenters. Well, let them have their little fun while they can. With respect to providing moral clarity about war and peace, it must candidly be admitted that this has not been this pontificate’s finest hour. But nobody should be shaken too severely. Flannery O’Connor said that we sometimes suffer more from the Church than for the Church. And it is really not suffering so much as it is a matter of disappointment, and more than a little embarrassment.
The Religious Influence
Within hours of the military action, the Pew Research Center did a national survey to find out how statements by religious leaders affect views of the war. It turned out that “only ten percent” said statements of religious leaders were more determinative than—in order of influence—the opinions of family and friends, political commentators, elected leaders, and entertainment celebrities. (In terms of influence, celebrities were a distant last.) I’m surprised that the determinative influence of religious leaders was as high as ten percent. Apart from pacifists who are opposed in principle to all military actions, thoughtful people take their cues on such matters from those who they assume are most knowledgeable, which usually does not include priests, pastors, and rabbis. According to one news story on the survey, it showed that Catholic priests were “overwhelmingly” opposed to the war. This is based on the finding that 14 percent of Mass-goers said their priest spoke against the war and none said their priest spoke in favor of the war. Again, given the widespread pacifism among Catholic clergy, I am surprised that the number outspokenly opposed is so low. And what would it mean to preach what the reporter calls a “pro-war” homily? I doubt if any priest unfurled a flag in the pulpit and called for death to the infidels. And a good thing, too. Whoever paid for the Pew survey should ask for their money back.
Not, of course, that many religious leaders did not do their utmost to influence public opinion. There is, for instance, the moribund National Council of Churches (NCC), which is not much heard from in recent years, except when it gets an influx of outside funding to tout a favored issue. The NCC has been reduced to hiring itself out as a rent-a-blessing agency for leftist causes. The last time it got some national attention was its 2000 campaign to return little Élian Gonzalez to the dictatorship of Fidel Castro. The Rev. Robert Edgar, a former Democratic Congressman, is the general secretary of the NCC, and a while back he led a group that took out a full page ad in the New York Times and other papers (costing well over $100,000) addressed to President Bush: “Jesus Changed Your Heart. Now Let Him Change Your Mind.” The ad said, “You’ve proclaimed the crucial role of your faith in your life, and you’ve said that people of faith are often ‘our nation’s voice of conscience.’ Listen to our voices now.” I expect that Mr. Bush had different voices in mind.
After protesting America’s “unprovoked” attack on “a nation which is not threatening the United States,” and predicting that “it will bring death and destruction to Baghdad, a huge city filled with innocent civilians,” Mr. Edgar and his colleagues declared: “It is inconceivable that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior and the Prince of Peace, would support this proposed attack.” After delivering themselves of Our Lord’s opinion on U.S. policy, the leaders concluded by casting doubt on George W. Bush’s faith: “If Jesus Christ truly ‘changed your heart’ as you have said, let him change your mind.” In other words, the authenticity of your faith is being tested by whether you agree with us who agree with Jesus. Call it arrogance or call it blasphemy or call it just plain dumb, the leadership of the Protestant liberal oldline has once again reacted in a manner utterly predictable and utterly shameless. Edgar led a “peace delegation” that was well received in France, Germany, and Iraq. He and his fellow delegates have complained loudly and persistently that Bush refuses to meet with them. I expect the President has heard their message that he is a usurper, a moron, and a war criminal, and really does not feel a pressing need to hear it again.
Frank Griswold, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, has an additional and somewhat more personal complaint. In the circles in which he moves in Europe and America, he says, the animosity toward Bush and his policies is so strong that “I am embarrassed to be an American.” I may be wrong, but I don’t think the President is inclined to give a great deal of weight to the social embarrassments of Bishop Griswold when pondering questions of national interest and the securing of world peace. Bishop Griswold’s complaint was voiced in connection with his delivering himself of moral reflections on the war. Not only is Bush’s policy immoral and illegal, but, among Bishop Griswold’s kind of people, it is thought to be in very bad taste. One counts on the Episcopalians to make the clinching argument against the war.
Evangelicals and Others
For the first time in years, the media have not been going on about the dangerous “religious right.” Perhaps because the assumption is that Bush embodies the danger. Newsweek ran a long cover story on his faith, revealing, inter alia, his creepy habit of getting up early in the morning to pray and read the Bible. The story was accompanied by a column that condescendingly chided Bush for his “God talk” and helpfully reminded him that “self-examination and repentant action are critical components of any faith.” (Albeit, one might note, not a conspicuous component in contemporary Islam.) Among many protesting U.S. policy, including the religiously credentialed, the theme that Bush is a religious fanatic who thinks he has a monopoly on knowing God’s purposes vied with the warning that he is a Texas cowboy set upon proving his manhood, regardless of the consequences for others.
The leaders of “the religious right,” and evangelical Protestants more generally, have not been notably vocal during these weeks and months. Several explanations are offered. Most evangelicals strongly support the Administration, it is said, and they assume the Administration knows that. Plus, most evangelicals do not belong to tightly organized denominations with national bureaucracies issuing pronouncements on public affairs. Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention has been outspokenly supportive, as have some leaders of “parachurch” organizations. And I imagine that in many local evangelical congregations there have been a good many sermons that the aforementioned reporter might call “pro-war.” But evangelical Protestant leaders have not been prominent in the public discussion. I suppose they figured they didn’t have to be.
If there were such a thing as a Ramsey Award and I was in charge of it, I might give it to the president of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). The late Paul Ramsey, a Methodist ethicist who taught for many years at Princeton, urged upon religious leaders certain “self-denying ordinances.” One such ordinance is the Wittgensteinian-sounding rule that, on those things on which one cannot speak with authority, one should remain silent. Put differently: when it is not necessary to speak, it is necessary not to speak. This came to mind as I was reading another roundup of religious pronouncements on the war. Last on the list was Gerald B. Kieschnick of the LCMS. He said, “We hold up the biblical principles of just war for our people’s consideration. But our people have the freedom to form their own conclusions.” I expect my friend Paul Ramsey would approve of Dr. Kieschnick’s getting the Ramsey Award.
The idea is not that religious leaders should remain silent in a time of war. Far from it. Precisely as religious leaders, they should have a great deal to say that needs saying: about conflict and reconciliation in a sinful world, about the relationship between peace and justice, about the virtues of courage and self-sacrifice, about the formation of conscience under conflicting pressures, about the source of the peace in which we ultimately trust. My point, in agreement with Paul Ramsey, is that the trouble begins when religious leaders abandon their presumed competence as theological and moral teachers in favor of political punditry and policy prescriptions. As individuals, they may of course express political opinions, which others may take for what they are worth. But any political statement that begins with “As religious leaders, we . . . ” should be accompanied by a warning label indicating the probable abuse of religion.
Then there is the Jewish community. Jews and Jewish organizations have been generally supportive of the action against Iraq. This has not escaped the attention of hard core anti-Semites who detect a Bush-Sharon conspiracy behind the entire war on terrorism, including September 11. Overt anti-Semitism is prominent in European protests, notably in France, but there are whiffs of it here as well, from both the left and the right. Pat Buchanan’s new magazine, the American Conservative, rails against Jews in high places who are promoting American “imperialism.” Buchanan rightly says that the charge of anti-Semitism is sometimes used to silence legitimate criticism, but then he tauntingly employs language that makes the charge almost irresistible. He says that the cabal of Jews in high office and influential publications who are driving Bush policy have loyalties divided between the U.S. and Israel. Or maybe not so divided after all. For them, he writes, it is a matter of “one nation, one leader, one party. Israel, Sharon, Likud.” Get it? Ein Volk, Ein Führer, Ein Partie. This is vile, and it morally discredits Mr. Buchanan’s potentially useful role in cautioning against those, both Jews and non-Jews, who sometimes appear to be beating the drums for perpetual warfare as the prescription for American vitality and leadership in the world.
Short of the City of God
Peace is a very great good. The statement is commonly attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Peace is not merely the absence of warfare but the presence of justice.” St. Augustine said it first in speaking of peace as tranquillitas ordinis. Right order is always in short supply. And there will always be disagreement over when the use of force is required to put to right grave disorder. Setting aside the principled pacifists, the inveterate Bush-haters, and those who are always on the side that is against America, there are millions of thoughtful people both here and abroad who are profoundly uneasy about, or strongly opposed to, the war in Iraq. I believe the war is just. Whether it turns out to have been wise depends upon contingencies that are known to none but God. There are great risks in such actions. There are, it can be reasonably argued, greater risks in inaction. The decision against military action is as much a morally fraught decision as the decision for military action.
As people have tried to make their decision over the past weeks and months, the sounds of religion in the public square have, with few exceptions, not been helpful. More often than not, religious leaders have sown confusion, inflamed passions, and demeaned the traditions they are called to represent by appending them to partisan political positions. As of this writing, our nation is at war. The sound of religion that is now required is the sound of urgent prayer that our cause may be just; that, if just, it may prevail swiftly and surely and with minimal damage to innocents; and that, if it prevails, it may secure a greater measure of the tranquillitas ordinis that, in the City of Man so far from the final triumph of the City of God, is never more than approximate and always provisional.
When America Was Christian
I do not take issue with those who say that Mark Noll is today’s premier historian of religion in America. His influence is all the more impressive in that he is not at Yale, Chicago, or Harvard but is Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, the evangelical Protestant school in Illinois. We treasure him as a contributor to these pages. His productivity is daunting, and more so because his writing is always substantive and never facile. Among his major books, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada is a standard reference, and The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind started a debate the end of which is nowhere in sight.
Now he comes out with a very big and important book, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford University Press, 656 pages,, $35). The book helps clarify for me what has been a difference in perspective between us over the years. As longtime readers know, I have devoted a good deal of attention to the ways in which this country still is—culturally, sociologically, morally, and spiritually—“Christian America,” albeit very confusedly so. A difference is that Mark Noll lives and breathes the history of an earlier time when America really was Christian America, and unambiguously so. It was a Protestant America and an evangelical America, for up until the modernist-fundamentalist battles of the early twentieth century almost all Protestants called themselves evangelicals. In the tradition that Noll mentally inhabits, the consciousness is that of a religious and cultural empire lost. For Noll, Christian America is not about contemporary cultural or sociological analysis, or not chiefly. Christian America is what America was. In this view, and despite wan and sometimes wild efforts to restore what was, we now live in post-Protestant and, it is commonly said, post-Christian America.
With respect to American beginnings, the Protestantism described by Noll was, to borrow a phrase from Dean Acheson, present at the creation. Its people were the proprietors of the American experiment. The world in which I was formed was, by way of sharpest contrast, the world made by nineteenth-century German Lutheran immigrants. Viewed from that world, the Protestant empire of which Noll writes was the empire of “them.” Moreover, my world was that of Missouri Synod Lutheranism, which was constituted and driven by the determination not to become like them. Still in the 1950s, many thought that determination had been vindicated. Books were published then with titles such as Zion on the Mississippi and The Triumph of Conservative Lutheranism. It was thought that the conservative forces (theologically called “confessional,” referring to the sixteenth-century Lutheran confessions) had prevailed against the “Americanizers” who wanted Lutheranism to attain a denominational place at the imperial table of Protestant America. All that is now dramatically changed, notably with the formation of the ELCA, which has joined what is now “oldline” Protestantism, only to discover slim pickings at a table that is anything but imperial.
The Arguments and the Tune
And of course there are powerful parallels between the Lutheran and the Catholic immigrant experiences. For the Irish, Italian, German, and Polish Catholics who came to this country, Mark Noll’s Christian America was at least equally a world of “them.” This touches on what is called a nontheological factor that I might have discussed more fully in my article “How I Became the Catholic I Was” (FT, April 2002). Those of us whose “people” were not present at the American creation can try to appropriate and even revitalize that moment. That was the monumental effort of Father John Courtney Murray who in his 1960 book We Hold These Truths suggested that it is the historic mission of Catholics to breathe new life into the genius of the American founding, a genius that Protestant America had largely forgotten or repudiated. In his recent book On Two Wings and in other writings, Michael Novak, a Catholic with strong Slavic roots, does a fine job of telling the creation story in a way attuned to the sensibilities of those who were not there, including the heirs of the Jewish immigrant experience. And, of course, I’ve done my share—some would say more than my share—of writing about how to get the American experiment right. Long before Murray, there was Orestes Brownson, whom we featured in our December 2002 issue. But he and a few other Catholics like him were different in that they came out of the Protestant Christian America that they called upon Catholics to reshape, and maybe to save.
We heirs of the great unwashed of nineteenth-century immigration can get the words and the arguments right, but we have trouble with the tune. At least we don’t, and perhaps can’t, sing it the way it was once sung by the proprietors. In our frustration, we propose a different tune, and sometimes different words and arguments too. We speak about America as “a nation of immigrants,” or contend that it is a “universal nation” bound together only by principles, not by the identity of people or tribe. The Puritans who came from England were immigrants, in a way of speaking, but not in a way anything like the immigrant experience of German Lutherans, Irish Catholics, or Polish Jews. The people whose story Mark Noll tells were here before us, and there is no reason why we should dispute that or pretend it is not important. Yes, in the beginning there were a few Catholics in Maryland, Lutherans in Pennsylvania, and Jews in New Amsterdam, but that is to quibble. And yes, Catholic Spain was here before the Puritans, but that is marginal to the beginnings of the religious, cultural, and political experiment called America. (Although today’s pattern of immigration ensures that Hispanic Catholics will not be marginal to America’s future.)
Lurching into Modernity
Viewed from the perspective of the people who undertook what Perry Miller called “the errand into the wilderness,” the historical sequence of Christian America/attenuatedly Christian America/post-Christian America makes a good deal of sense. Indeed it is almost unavoidable. Here is the magnificent conclusion to Noll’s America’s God:
With tradition, hierarchy, and deference to historical precedent discredited by the ideology of the Revolution, religious thinkers in the national period made do with what was left in their efforts to preserve Christian doctrine and inspire Christian practice. The materials at hand were commonsense moral reasoning, narratives of republican liberation, and the Bible. With all thought of a Christian establishment washed away by the republican tide, believers knew it depended upon themselves and the direct ministrations of the Holy Spirit to do what had to be done. An extraordinary mobilization of the churches was the result. The substantial contribution of this religious mobilization to the construction of a national culture—inadvertently from the Methodists, with more forethought from the older formalist churches—was, in nearly literal terms, a gift of grace.
Yet because the churches could make that gift only because they had themselves absorbed the national ideologies so thoroughly, the gift came at a high price. Uniquely in modern Western history, recognizably orthodox theology flourished in the construction of a liberal society. Yet profoundly as that theology flourished and as vitally as it helped build the nation, its inability to grasp as high as it reached was evident by the century’s middle decades. As for so much else in American history, so too for theology was the Civil War a grand climax and transition.
Theological debates on the issues that led to the war drew American religious thinking deeper into the intellectual patterns that had been established between the founding of the republic and the outbreak of armed conflict. The cultural influence of those theological habits had been extraordinary, in fact so extraordinary that even the cataclysm of total war would not completely overwhelm them. Yet if these patterns—the merger of Reformed biblicism with principles of American freedom expounded by the canons of commonsense moral philosophy—were too strong to be destroyed, they were nonetheless permanently damaged.
It was thus neither farce nor irony when the religious habits of mind that had built a Protestant Christian America divided and eventually petered out after the war. It was rather a tragedy of worthy thinkers striving faithfully for noble goals who were brought down by the very synthesis of Christian theology and American ideology that had transformed their society and made them its intellectual leaders. As a result of these deeply entrenched patterns of thought, and also because of the way that theological debates over issues like the Bible and slavery were settled by armies instead of arguments, American theology lurched, rather than self-consciously thought, its way into the modern world.
Reviving and Remembering
What was left after the petering out were the habits of mind of the WASP—the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. It was not a precise designation, but it worked reasonably well in identifying those who were “them” and those who were “us.” In the last half century there has been a great deal of writing about the decline of the WASP, a genre almost invented by the sociologist Digby Baltzell. I daresay that many bright high school students today have never heard the term WASP. Our society is awash in ethnic-religio-cultural identities, but it would seem that the WASP has simply disappeared. The children of the errand into the wilderness once constituted what was indubitably the Establishment, but they pushed their genes one generation too far and in the last half century accommodatingly abdicated to the cultural forces bent upon their overthrow, or, perhaps as often, joined the revolution.
That accommodation is evident, for instance, in the comatose state of the National Council of Churches. It is hard to remember that fifty years ago the NCC was an American institution comparable in status and influence to Harvard and the AMA. To cite another instance, when William Buckley published God and Man at Yale in 1951, an outraged Yale insisted that it was keeping faith with its founding and emphatically Christian mission. It is impossible to imagine Yale saying anything like that today. As impressive as the Protestant Christian disestablishment of the last half century has been, Mark Noll would remind us that the more consequential disestablishment, largely self-administered, happened almost a century earlier. Christian America before the Civil War was in many ways two Christian Americas, the North and the South, and the tragic fact is that the great question of slavery was not resolved by Christian theology or moral argument but by an unspeakably bloody resort to arms, thereby discrediting, in the eyes of many, the idea of Christian America.
But not all the heirs of the original errand have disappeared. Some are to be found on the other side of the family, the somewhat disreputable side of the family. The side that never stopped believing that “America’s God” really is the God of the Bible. That is the side that lost the fundamentalist-modernist war in the early part of the twentieth century. The memory of Protestant Christian America is very much alive, for instance, in the Southern Baptist Convention. In an odd twist, some who cleave to that memory, and think it may be again, are today viewed as un-American. But among them are the children of the pilgrims who are now, in the phrase of historian Martin Marty, strangers in their own land. They are still on an errand into the wilderness, but now it is seen as a wilderness not of native savagery but of culturally regnant apostasy and secularism.
Most of them, to be sure, are not of the original stock of the proprietors. Their story of Christian American is largely that of the second Christian America, the one that lost in the Civil War. Their hope for restoration is invested in a revivalism that is native to the South, although now spread nationwide. The efforts of revivalism are typically fervent, fragmented, and lacking in intellectual coherence. If the heirs of the first Christian America—grounded in the New England story of Congregationalism and Presbyterianism, of principled argument and confident tradition—are largely missing from action today, their work is being done, to the extent it is being done, by Catholics and Reformed Protestants, pretty much as Fr. Murray foresaw (although he missed the Reformed Protestant part).
These things must be kept in mind when you hear some of us contending that America is, however ambiguously and complicatedly, a Christian society. It is a great contribution of Mark Noll’s work, and especially of America’s God, that it alerts us to the fact that there are others who, when they hear the mention of Christian America, respond, “Ah yes, I remember it well.”
While We’re At It
• I recently noted the full court press that the Society of Jesus is applying in support of homosexuality and gay priests. The campaign continues with the March issue of Theological Studies, the academic journal published by the Jesuits. Three articles frontally attack the Church’s teaching on sexuality and marriage. In “The Open Debate: Moral Theology and the Lives of Gay and Lesbian Persons,” Father James F. Keenan, professor of moral theology at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Massachusetts, leaves no doubt that he thinks it is a legitimate debate and it is wide open. He cites numerous gay and gay-friendly Catholic thinkers who agree with him. “[I]n comparison to the other Christian churches, the Vatican’s position has changed only a little even though a lively debate exists within the Church at every other level. The Vatican’s teaching remains so because its contemporary exponents privilege as a condition of truthfulness a teaching’s unchanged status.” Put differently, the “contemporary exponents,” including John Paul II and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, impermissibly “privilege” their view on the odd assumption that two millennia of consistent Christian teaching has something to do with truth. The authors whom Keenan favorably cites challenge the reluctance of the late moral theologian, Richard McCormick, to affirm that the homosexual condition and homogenital acts are “good and normal.” McCormick has been outdated by developments that, writes Xavier Seubert, “initially appear threatening and disruptive” but lead to a recognition that “homosexuality can be a new name for its own embodying manifestation of Godlife.” John Paul’s extensive writings on nuptial sexuality are criticized for “privileging gender complementarity and providing grounds for excluding the moral validity of expressed same-sex love.” Homosexuality was once viewed in terms of inversion, and Keenan is taken with the suggestion that we should find consolation “in God’s revolutionary movements of inverting all things.” He concludes his reflection with this: “The open debate is an extensive one, occurring throughout the Catholic world. As they engage in this debate, moral theologians do not superficially validate personal lifestyles but rather propose a variety of criteria for assessing the morality of the way ordinary gay and lesbian persons live their lives. The debate helps us to see, then, that the Catholic tradition is rich, human, and capable of being relevant to help gay and lesbian persons find moral ways of living out their lives and the ways they are called to love. Gay and lesbian persons respond offering, from their experience, a variety of ways of imagining not only their own self-understanding, but the way we are called to be Church. Like other groups of people who have been oppressed by, among others, the Church, they help us to see that by silencing and marginalizing them, we do harm to them, ourselves, the Church, and the gospel.” Now if only the current exponents of “the Vatican’s teaching” could get over their habit of privileging Scripture and tradition in order to overdetermine the “truth” about human sexuality.
• Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Dvesti let Vmeste (1795-1995) (Two Hundred Years Together) has yet to appear in English, but Daniel J. Mahoney has a splendid review essay on the first volume in Society. The “together” in the title refers to Russians and Jews, and Mahoney convincingly rebuts the slander that Solzhenitsyn’s Russian patriotism entails a form of anti-Semitism. At the same time, Solzhenitsyn does not evade questions that some will not touch for fear of being charged with anti-Semitism. Mahoney writes: “Any adequate treatment of the Russian ‘Jewish question’ must sooner or later confront the difficult question of Jewish involvement in the various revolutionary movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Solzhenitsyn rightly insists that this question cannot remain ‘taboo’ for the serious historian of Russia and the modern world. But it is necessary for the historian to read carefully, displaying scrupulous respect for the facts and doing nothing to inflame already overheated passions. Solzhenitsyn condemns those extremist elements on the right who have irresponsibly blamed the Jews for the Bolshevik plague-even as he cannot ignore the fact that a disproportionate number of Jews participated in various leftist revolutionary movements. Solzhenitsyn confronts this delicate issue equitably and forthrightly. . . . [H]e praises the Jewish people for their positive contributions to capitalist economic development and democratic politics. He praises the commitment of many responsible Jewish leaders to the path of political moderation. But he also laments the ‘unreasonable’ choice of some de-Judaized Jews for totalitarian and revolutionary politics. This choice for revolution was unreasonable but understandable: the revolutionary intelligentsia welcomed educated Jews to their ranks and offered an easy path to assimilation for those Jews who had broken with the traditional Jewish community. The old regime, in contrast, vacillated between enlightened efforts at accommodation between Russians and Jews and imposing humiliating restrictions that could only feed revolutionary discontent. The revolutionaries not only welcomed Jews to their ranks but provided a messianic secular religion—a universalist political mission—to those who rejected the seemingly provincial and antiquated traditions of their fathers.” As he has written before, notably in August 1914, Solzhenitsyn laments the assassination of Pyotr Stolypin, the Russian prime minister from 1906 to 1911, who he believes was the one man who could have conserved what was good in the old regime by making necessary adaptations, not least in granting full rights to Jews. Mahoney concludes, “This very Russian book does not draw any grandiose theoretical conclusions about ‘the Jewish question.’ But it reminds its readers of those universal traits of soul that are essential in every time and place: moderation, repentance, courage, balanced judgment, and statesmanlike dedication to the public good.” If only such traits were more universal.
• Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State reflects in Books & Culture on two new books on American religion, The Religious History of America by Edwin S. Gaustad and Leigh E. Schmidt (HarperSanFrancisco), and Religion in American Life by Jon Butler, Grant Wacker, and Randall Balmer (Oxford University Press). Jenkins is generally favorable toward both, although he is doubtful about the distinction made by Butler et al. between religious and “secular” history, since America’s “secular” history is inseparable from religion. He also marvels at the ephemeral nature of what is taken to be important. “In the 1970s, everyone knew that the most important fact in American religious life was the growth of the New Age and the ‘culting of America’-a perspective that now looks incredibly dated.” And he wonders why Randall Balmer devotes so much attention to Promise Keepers while ignoring the pro-life movement. But his chief disappointment with the books is that neither addresses the remarkable difference between the vitality of religion in America and its dismal decline in Western Europe. Jenkins writes: “Even for America’s most supposedly secular social movements, the most potent rhetoric still draws on underlying religious assumptions and frames problems in the language of martyrdom and crucifixion, of righteous victims and evil Pharisees. Witness the crucifixion imagery in media accounts of the death of gay martyr Matthew Shepard, or the powerful themes of martyrdom and vindication running consistently through black political rhetoric. One reason that Bill Clinton retained the presidency for eight years was that he was such a master of the pseudo-evangelical oratory that clearly resonates with large sections of the American public, at the same time that it appalls secular Europeans. Why, though, should such similar economic, cultural, and demographic trends seem on the face of it to have produced such radically different consequences on either side of the Atlantic? I don’t have an answer, and I am little the wiser for reading these books. But perhaps this transnational approach represents yet another kind of ‘diversity’ that will reshape a future generation of American religious history.”
• Eamon Duffy, professor of history at Cambridge, came to favorable and well-deserved attention with his 1994 book, The Stripping of the Altars, a convincing revisionist history of the English Reformation. Support for Henry VIII and the expropriation of the Church in England, he demonstrated in great detail, was found among a relatively small number of dissenters centered in London, while the great majority of the population was devoutly Catholic and wanted to remain so. The reviews of his 1998 book, Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes, were decidedly more mixed. In these pages and elsewhere, puzzlement was expressed about his palpable hostility toward Paul VI and, most particularly, John Paul II. The puzzlement appears to be resolved by the transcript of a long interview Duffy gave to PBS’s Frontline in connection with its production, “John Paul II: The Millennial Pope.” The Pope, he says, is something of a mystic but “[he] misses the opportunity of discovering that the mystery of life is even more beautiful than the beauty of the Church. That life as such is beautiful and warm, and that we don’t need any mediator . . . like Jesus Christ, dying for our sins on the cross. Life doesn’t need that. But life doesn’t claim as much because life is over when you die.” Duffy, it seems, is no longer a Catholic or a Christian, and he rather resents the fact that the Pope is. “You can’t claim that Jesus rose from the dead if he didn’t, historically speaking,” says Duffy. “You cannot develop the world of dreams. You have to go back to reality. . . .That’s what I call the mystery of life. And I think saying that there will be no resurrection for us makes life richer, gets all our power back from heaven to this earth. . . . I’m glad that I have found a way, or a way has been given to me, to get out of that building of the Church and move on to a universe which may be cold, but which has an enormous reach and is endless and has enormous promise.” Duffy complains about the Pope’s position on the ordination of women and his insistence upon priestly celibacy, but his deeper complaint is that he is “sticking to old doctrine” and, by his enormous popularity, encouraging others to do likewise. “I have taken a long journey from a devout believer to a skeptic,” he says. He describes himself as a theologian who, “having given up all the promises of the Christian faith, having given up resurrection and eternal life,” is now a man “who’s proud to be on this earth and who sees the beauty of this earth.” The interview makes for very sad reading. Eamon Duffy is a historian of great talents, with a gift for illuminating unsuspected aspects of the past. One cannot help but wonder at how fragile must have been the props of a faith that collapsed into such banalities. Pray for him.
• The 223 Catholic colleges and universities in the country are, like most colleges and universities, constantly examining themselves, comparing themselves with other (mostly elite) institutions, and devising and revising “mission statements.” As odd as it may seem, the one question that usually doesn’t get asked is how they’re doing in proposing to their students the challenge of Catholic faith and life. In 1998, Father James Burtchaell published his invaluable The Dying of the Light, showing the ways in which Catholic and other religious colleges have—bit by bit and sometimes at a gallop—abandoned their constituting purpose. A decade ago, John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church), laying out a course of renewal for Catholic colleges that are serious about being Catholic. Now the Cardinal Newman Society and Catholic World Report have commissioned a study of thirty-eight fairly representative Catholic colleges and universities, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. The findings make for grim reading. On moral teachings (abortion, homosexuality, casual sex) and in sacramental observance, entering freshmen are dramatically less Catholic by the time they are seniors. (The sobering details are laid out in the March issue of CWR.) The study was widely reported in newspapers and elicited some unsurprising reactions. Monika Hellwig, for instance, is president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities and a strong opponent of what she views as Ex Corde’s threat to academic freedom. There isn’t all that much that Catholic schools can do, she suggests. “Students look at movies, at their friends, at their families, at everything around them, and that doesn’t mean Catholic colleges are failing.” I’m not sure what she is saying. That students would be more Catholic if they didn’t look at movies, friends, families, and everything else? Maybe Ms. Hellwig does think that, for her view of what it means to be Catholic seems terribly constricting. She says, “The question is whether the task of higher education in our pluralistic, changing society is to lock students into rules—even rules I agree with—or to teach them critical thinking.” To be Catholic, one is given to understand, means being locked into rules. The problem is, it would seem, that colleges have all these freshmen coming in with their rigid indoctrination, victims of authoritarian catechesis, mindless ciphers locked into traditional rules, and the college’s task is to liberate them by teaching them “critical thinking.” And what should they think critically about if not the Catholicism by which they are, whether they know it or not, oppressed? Never mind that most entering freshmen today are thoroughgoing relativists who have but the slightest acquaintance with Catholic teaching. Never mind that the Christian, and specifically Catholic, intellectual tradition is the richest and most adventuresome known to man. By comparison with that tradition, modernity’s notion of “critical thinking” is pretty thin gruel. For Ms. Hellwig and others who think in conformity to the stereotype of the ghettoized Catholic mind of fifty years ago, however, Catholicism is the problem from which higher education is the escape. The alternative to that way of thinking is the daunting challenge proposed by Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Some astute observers believe that, of the 223 nominally Catholic colleges and universities in the country, perhaps as many as a third are so alienated from their constituting purpose that they are safely beyond the reach of the sparks of renewal. Some will go out of business, others will drop all pretense of being Catholic or even of being, as many say today, “in the Catholic tradition” (or, in some cases, “in the Jesuit tradition”). Many others, however, are engaged in earnest conversation about strengthening their “Catholic identity,” and are edging up to the conclusion that Catholic identity involves being identifiably Catholic. Especially in theology and philosophy departments, there is powerful resistance by tenured refugees from what they call “the pre-Vatican II Church.” They view Ex Corde Ecclesiae as an attempt to reverse the putative liberation that is the story of their lives. They are the entrenched defenders of the status quo. Arrayed against their hold on so much Catholic higher education are the sure but painfully slow remedies of retirement and mortality. And efforts such as the Cardinal Newman Society with its students who have learned to think critically about the “critical thinking” that stands between them and the high intellectual and spiritual adventure of a Catholic education.
• Newdow II is the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals not to reconsider Newdow I, which declared the public school voluntary recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, with its reference to a nation “under God,” to be an unconstitutional establishment of religion. This led to a predictable, and perfectly understandable, public outcry, and it is expected that the first decision by a two-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit will be reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the latest round, Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain, joined by five other judges, wrote a forceful dissent. After reviewing the convoluted precedents of the courts on church-state questions, he writes: “But Newdow II goes further, and confers a favored status on atheism in our public life. In a society with a pervasive public sector, our public schools are a most important means for transmitting ideas and values to future generations. The silence the majority commands is not neutral—it itself conveys a powerful message, and creates a distorted impression about the place of religion in our national life. The absolute prohibition on any mention of God in our schools creates a bias against religion. The panel majority cannot credibly advance the notion that Newdow II is neutral with respect to belief versus nonbelief; it affirmatively favors the latter to the former. One wonders, does atheism become the default religion protected by the Establishment Clause?” William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, says strong action is called for: “It is up to the teachers in the nine western states affected by this decision to break the law: they should instruct their students on the meaning of civil disobedience and then practice it. All they need to do is call the cops and local TV reporters and then recite the Pledge of Allegiance in their presence. It needs to be shown on television all over the world that as the U.S. prepares to go to war to maintain the liberties symbolized in the Pledge, there are brave men, women, and children at home who are prepared to fight tyranny on our own soil.” Civil disobedience is serious business, and I’m not sure students should be encouraged to break the law in protest against lawless courts. Newdow probably would not reach a purely student-initiated and student-led recitation of the Pledge, however, and that might be the best response until the Supreme Court gets around to overruling the secularist fanatics on the Ninth Circuit.
• Always of interest are the views of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. After the Pope, he is the most important guardian of the Church’s teaching. In a recent interview he addressed the Christian foundation of European culture, how the pontificate of John Paul II might be viewed by history, and the Church’s relationship with other religions. On the meaning of Europe: “I am convinced that Europe must not just be something economic [or] political; rather, it is in need of spiritual foundations. It is a historical fact that Europe is Christian, and that it has grown on the foundation of the Christian faith, which continues to be the foundation of the values for this continent, which in turn has influenced other continents. It is imperative to have a foundation of values and, if we ask ourselves what that foundation is, we realize that, beyond the confessions, there are no others outside the great values of the Christian faith. And this is why it is imperative that in the future Constitution of Europe mention is made of the Christian foundations of Europe. I do not wish to fall into the error of constructing a political Catholicism. The faith does not provide political recipes, but indicates the foundations. On one hand, politics has its autonomy, but on the other there is no total separation between politics and faith. There are foundations of the faith that later allow for political reasoning. The question, therefore, is what are these foundations that will enable politics to function? What are the aspects that must be left free? In the first place, it is critical to have an anthropological moral vision, and here faith enlightens us. Is the person of God necessary to have this anthropological vision, which guarantees the freedom of political reasoning? A morality that dispenses with God [will] fragment. . . . Moreover [to mention God] is not an act of violence against anyone; it does not destroy anyone’s freedom, but opens to all the free space to be able to construct a truly human, moral life.” On the pontificate of John Paul II: “I am not a prophet; that is why I do not dare say what they will say in fifty years, but I think the fact that the Holy Father has been present in all areas of the Church will be extremely important. In this way, he has created an extremely dynamic experience of catholicity and of the unity of the Church. The synthesis between catholicity and unity is a symphony-it is not uniformity. The Church Fathers said it. Babylon was uniformity, and technology creates uniformity. The faith, as seen at Pentecost where the apostles spoke all languages, is symphony: it is plurality in unity. This is manifested with great clarity in the Holy Father’s pontificate, with his pastoral visits, his meetings. I think some documents will be important forever: I want to mention the encyclicals Redemptoris Missio, Veritatis Splendor, Evangelium Vitae, and also Fides et Ratio. These are four documents that will really be monuments for the future. Lastly, I think he will be remembered for his openness to the other Christian communities, to the other religions of the world, to the secular world, to the sciences, to the political world. In these areas he has always made reference to the faith and its values, but at the same time he has also shown that the faith is able to enter into dialogue with everyone.” On world religions: “The Holy Father sees his own mission as a mission of conciliation in the world, a mission of peace. Whereas in the past, unfortunately, there were religious wars, the Holy Father wishes to show that the right relation between religions is not war, nor violence; it is dialogue, and the attempt to understand the elements of truth that are found in the other religions. The Holy Father does not want to relativize the uniqueness of Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life, but he wants to show that this truth about Christ cannot be proclaimed with violence or with human power, but only with the force of truth. And for this, a human contact of dialogue and love is necessary, as the apostles showed in the great mission of the early Church: without making use of worldly power, using the force of conviction. The testimony of suffering, of charity, and of dialogue convinced the ancient world. The Holy Father simply tries to nurture this force of dialogue and love of the first centuries in the relation with the religions.” To which I have nothing to add, except that I would have included the encyclicals Centesimus Annus and Ut Unum Sint. The former evidences an historic development in the Church’s teaching on what constitutes a free and just society, and the latter lays out the theology undergirding an irrevocable commitment to Christian unity that is much more than “openness to the other Christian communities.”
• “An eighty-two-year-old brand faces a dilemma: How to keep the aging baby boomer guard happy and yet reach for a younger, more diverse demographic?” reports Brandweek, an advertising magazine. The American Civil Liberties Union is launching its first “branding campaign,” a three to four million dollar effort, this spring. An ACLU officer says, “A pressing concern is the success that people who oppose some of our issues have had in portraying us as an organization on the fringe. This branding campaign will enable us to define ourselves.” Michael Dukakis proclaimed himself “a card carrying member,” but it seems now the test of true commitment is to get yourself branded. More seriously, there was a time, a long time ago, when the ACLU played a useful role in protecting free speech and association rights for unpopular minorities. Those were the days when most of its members—who are now, according to the story, typically retired—signed up. In the last several decades, however, the ACLU has become a radical partisan in the culture wars, devoting most of its energies to an uncompromising defense of the unlimited abortion license, agitation for gay “marriage” and other putative rights, and an extreme interpretation of church-state relations that restricts the free exercise of religion. The sad story is well told in William Donohue’s 1994 book, Twilight of Liberty (Transaction). If “fringe” means dramatically out of step with mainstream discourse, no branding campaign will change the fact that the ACLU is “an organization on the fringe.”
• Things are getting awfully complicated. The Sunday bulletin of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Springfield, Virginia, notes that at communion people have the choice of individual cup or chalice, real wine or nonalcoholic wine. Then there is this: “On the pulpit side a male communion assistant will serve the common cup; a female communion assistant will serve the individual cups. On the baptism side, the procedure will be reversed.” In my Lutheran boyhood we were told that form and philosophical explanations such as “transubstantiation” didn’t matter. “The only thing that matters,” it was said, “is that you are receiving the Body and Blood of Christ.” Now so many things seem to matter.
• “Jesus Plus Nothing: Undercover among America’s Secret Theocrats.” That’s the title of a big heavy-breathing story in Lewis Lapham’s Harper’s. The author, a Jeffrey Sharlet, sneaked himself into a Christian fellowship in Washington, D.C., that aims at evangelizing influentials both foreign and domestic. The group’s leader, Doug Coe, is also involved in organizing the annual National Prayer Breakfast, at which Presidents since Eisenhower have made an appearance. Mr. Sharlet, pretending sympathy, lived and worked with members of the group for several weeks at their house near Washington. His long article swings between cheap sneers at the group’s evangelical piety and warnings against their sinister “theocratic” belief that Jesus is Lord of the whole world. Jesus is everything, they say, hence the “Jesus plus nothing” of the article’s title. We are informed that one young man in the group has a laugh “that made him sound like a donkey,” and another has “a chin like a plow, and he sang in a choir.” Harper’s has got real class. I have indicated before my reservations about the theologically dubious religious boosterism of events such as the National Prayer Breakfast, and there are no doubt valid criticisms to be made of Mr. Coe’s enterprise. This article, however, is no more than a juvenile rant. The responsibility for the publication of this distasteful exercise rests with Mr. Lapham, who once again leaves no doubt that he wants his readers to despise conservative Christians, maybe all who are more than nominally Christian. And he wants his readers to be afraid. Those Christians don’t believe in democracy. How could they? They believe that Jesus is Lord. And they really don’t like liberals. Be very afraid.
• Canadian and overseas subscribers complain that their issues sometimes arrive weeks later than those delivered in the U.S. The problem was with the U.S. Postal Service. I say “was” because we’ve switched to an independent carrier that promises to get issues to the postal service in your country more quickly. No complaint goes unanswered. Which does not mean that every problem gets resolved. But we work at it.
• Every once in a while, it seems maybe twice a year, an article appears in the left-liberal world of opinion suggesting that it may be a strategic mistake to depict religion as the enemy. And, in fact, some organizations make a point of highlighting from time to time their religious support, usually drawn from oldline Protestant churches. Pro-abortion groups, for instance, sponsor ancillary units of clergy endorsing “reproductive rights.” But the antireligious animus runs deep. A friend visits the website of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and finds these bumper stickers for sale: “Against Abortion? Wear a Condom, Dude!” “Born Again Pagan,” “Back Off—I’m a Goddess,” “Don’t Pray in My School and I Won’t Think in Your Church,” and “Doing My Part to P*** Off the Radical Right” (asterisks added). As the last indicates, poking a finger in the eye of the opposition is just too much fun to resist. It is true that almost all advocacy organizations rabble their natural constituencies by pillorying the opposition. But is there any other public cause that exults in ranting against the sensibilities and beliefs of the great majority of Americans? None comes to mind. I expect those cautionary left-liberal articles will continue to appear from time to time, but to little effect. NOW and cognate organizations will continue to attack religion as the enemy of their cause. In largest part because it is.
• There was a time when this would have been much more than a footnote. The U.S. Education Department has issued a four-page document, “Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools.” Beginning in the 1940s, the Supreme Court began imposing its interpretation of the religion clause of the First Amendment on the states. There were enormous uproars about “taking God out of the public schools.” Finally, in 1984, the Congress passed the Equal Access Act, making clear that the government classroom is not a religion-free space, and it was upheld by the Court. In 1995, the Clinton Education Department issued “guidelines” very similar to the new document, except that the latter includes penalties for schools that don’t follow the guidelines. While making clear that schools cannot formally sponsor prayer, the regulations are now religion-friendly and respect free exercise. When one considers that this settlement involves a major change in constitutional interpretation and practice on an issue that for decades generated the most intense public debate, there is reason for gratitude that sometimes—more often than we might be inclined to think—the system works. Lest one get carried away by encouragement, it should be noted that legal groups protecting religious freedom will continue to have plenty of work to do in seeing that local school districts abide by the rules.
• I see that the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., held a conference titled “Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Politics in America.” They had some fine speakers and I expect it was a worthwhile event, but I was a bit puzzled by this in the announcement: “Despite talk of a ‘naked public square,’ religion has never really lost its place in American public life.” That is a truism that nobody—certainly not I—has denied. But, if in some important ways religion has not been absent, why was the conference called “Religion Returns to the Public Square”? Just asking.
• Another spat in a long-running quarrel. In the New York Review of Books, Istvan Deak takes apart David Kertzer’s The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism. Kertzer responds with a long and angry letter, concluding with this: “The Church never called for the murder of the Jews as a solution to the Jewish problem, much less their mass extermination. Yet the Church’s vilification of the Jews in the decades preceding the Holocaust—accusing them of the most diabolical treachery and representing them as a danger to Christian society and Christian people—played an undeniable role in allowing the Nazis’ more lethal brand of anti-Semitism to gain popularity. This is the historical truth that the Vatican continues to deny, and that Deak’s misrepresentation of my work should not obscure.” That is some distance from the argument indicated in Kertzer’s subtitle and running throughout his book. Anti-Judaism—religious, cultural, and political—was common, not just for decades but for centuries, and undoubtedly created a climate that could be and was exploited by the new and lethal thing that became race-based modern anti-Semitism. Nobody, including the Vatican, denies that. As Deak points out in his response, however, the Church was emphatically opposed to a racist anti-Jewish prejudice, strongly encouraging the conversion of Jews and Christian intermarriage with Jews. He writes, “There were many popes, bishops, and ordinary clergymen who hated the Jews with passion, but the Church as an institution has never embraced racist doctrines. This is what makes the task of the critics of the Church so difficult.” He offers no evidence in support of his “many popes,” but nobody should be surprised if there were some popes who did hate Jews. There is hardly a sin of which some popes were not guilty. Kertzer is not as wildly out of control as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (A Moral Reckoning), but his shoddy scholarship and reckless accusations fully deserve the sharp critiques provided by Istvan Deak and others. (For FT’s review of Kertzer, see William D. Rubinstein’s “Case for the Prosecution,” February 2002; see also comments by Russell Hittinger in While We’re At It, Public Square, March 2002. A comprehensive debunking of charges against Pius XII in particular is Ronald Rychlak’s “Goldhagen vs. Pius XII,” FT, June/July 2002.) Culture, religion, politics, economics, nationalism, popular prejudices-everything is connected to everything else. But, in pinning the blame for the Holocaust where it most importantly, albeit not exclusively, belongs, nobody has gotten beyond the classic Commentary essay by Milton Himmelfarb, “No Hitler, No Holocaust.”
• This is unusual television fare. Promoting an upcoming segment on Dateline, Jane Pauley said, “Still ahead, the latest round of bloodshed and violence at abortion clinics.” At last they are going to show what really happens at abortuaries: cutting bodies of babies in pieces, plucking out the bloody limbs one by one, puncturing the heads of infants and sucking out the brains. At last, one thought, at least one network has the nerve to tell the truth about abortion. Then Ms. Pauley completed her message: “The anti-abortion movement has been creeping to the edge of bloody fanaticism for a decade.”
• Apologetics—as in explaining, not apologizing for—has made a big comeback in recent years. Sara Maitland evaluates the twentieth-anniversary edition of Rosemary Radford Ruether’s Sexism and God-Talk, which, she says, is an exercise in apologetics that has enabled many feminists, especially in the academy, to remain within a Christian framework, broadly defined. Along the way she describes how some folks, such as Ruether, do apologetics: “Take the bits of the faith you like, denounce the rest as ‘cultural accretions,’ apply some syncretic glue, and carry on regardless.” Perfect.
• Bernard Bailyn and Gordon S. Wood. In the writing of America’s history these two are contemporary giants. Bailyn’s new book, To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders (Knopf), is currently receiving a good deal of attention, mostly favorable. Wood’s critique in the New York Review of Books begins with several thousand words of high praise for Bailyn’s achievements and influence in the guild of historians. Only toward the end do we get to their fundamental disagreement. The success of the American experiment, says Wood contra Bailyn, is not attributable to the alleged genius of the Founders. He writes, “Ultimately our system works because we continue to respect the laws and conventions that we have collectively created over the past two hundred years, including some things that many of the Founders strenuously opposed, such as judicial review and political parties. . . . The most important fact about the Founders may not have been the creativity of their imaginations but their Englishness. The English had worked out a respect for the law and a semblance of popular self-government, however flawed by modern standards, long before the Americans. Whatever innovations Americans made to their English heritage, and they were undeniably considerable, their ultimate success in governing themselves and protecting individual freedom owed more to their colonial experience as Englishmen than it did to their constitutional inventions in 1787. From decades of experience they had acquired an instinctive knowledge of English liberty and the English common law, and this inherited and inherent knowledge, this long experience with English political culture, was what ultimately enabled them to succeed as well as they did in establishing new governments. If the Founders’ success were due simply to the new political institutions and divisions of power they created in 1787 and 1788, then presumably these inventions could be transplanted anywhere, but we know from experience that this is not possible. It’s time that we realize that our so-called Founding is not the source of our political and constitutional achievement. We owe our success to the common sense of the American people throughout our entire history, and our continued success will depend upon that common sense and not upon the creative movement of the Founding.” So who is right, Bailyn or Wood? As is not my wonted way, I say both. The importance of England, Englishness, and American common sense cannot be discounted. At the same time, the genius of the Founders in, for instance, denying the state control over public deliberation about its own moral legitimacy, a denial secured in the First Amendment, was an innovation far beyond anything ventured by any known polity. This aspect of the American experiment—and “experiment” continues to be the right word—is powerfully illuminated by Michael Novak’s recent On Two Wings. Whether that self-denying ordinance was a product of genius or political necessity may be debated, but it was a novum. That it has, for the most part, been respected in practice is a tribute to the common sense of Americans, just as Gordon Wood says.
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While We’re At It: Open Jesuits, Theological Studies, March 2003. Daniel J. Mahoney on Solzhenitsyn, Society, November/December 2002. Philip Jenkins on American religion, Books & Culture, January/February 2003. Interview with Eamon Duffy, www.pbs.org. Interview with Cardinal Ratzinger, ZENIT, December 3, 2002. The ACLU’s branding campaign, Brandweek, October 14, 2002. Complicated communion, Forum Letter, March 2003. “Jesus Plus Nothing,” Harper’s, March 2003. Istvan Deak on David Kertzer, New York Review of Books, March 13, 2003. Jane Pauley on bloodshed at abortion clinics, Media Research Center press release, February 20, 2003. Sara Maitland on apologetics, Times Literary Supplement, February 7, 2002. Gordon Wood on Bernard Bailyn, New York Review of Books, February 13, 2003.