“Tolerance is not a religious virtue,” a feisty rabbi is fond of declaring in public, gleefully scandalizing the properly liberal in his audience. Truth, not tolerance, he goes on to say, is what religion is about. None of us should want to dispute that religion, at least biblical religion, is about truth. And there may be pedagogical shock value in challenging our liberal culture’s uncritical attachment to tolerance. But in our more serious moments we are compelled to recognize that an awful lot turns on whether we think there is a tradeoff between truth and tolerance. Historically and at present, many (most?) religious folk have assumed that there is such a tradeoff. Forced to make a choice, the militantly orthodox opt for truth at the expense of tolerance, while the flaccidly liberal opt for tolerance at the expense of truth. Dissenting from this view of the matter, some of us have been arguing for a long time that truth and tolerance go together, and necessarily so. Put differently, it is Christian truth that makes tolerance imperative.
These reflections are prompted by a remarkable new book by a young Englishman who teaches theology at the University of Exeter. His name is Ian S. Markham and the book is titled Plurality and Christian Ethics (Cambridge University Press, $30
). Markham’s argument has many parts, and following it requires close attention even by the theologically and philosophically trained, but it richly rewards the effort. In summary form, Markham is making two claims, one philosophical and the other historical. They are admittedly very big claims, which is why he devotes an entire book to defending them. Markham also knows that his claims run counter to conventional wisdoms about tolerance and truth, which is why he attends so carefully to the arguments of his opponents.
The philosophical claim is this:
[T]he contemporary threats to plurality do not come from religion but from secularism. The secularist, who has given up the quest for truth and therefore moral debate and rational dialogue, is the greater danger to tolerance. A religious foundation for tolerance is grounded in the reality of God that ensures the intelligibility of the universe. This foundation is the only effective antidote to secular reason, which cannot avoid the dangers of nihilism. Truth claims depend upon the conviction that the universe is intelligible, and that in turn depends upon belief in God.
And the historical claim is this:
[T]he United States has made a cultural discovery. It has found good religious reasons why we ought to affirm plurality. The British [and European] debate about plurality is still firmly rooted within the confines of premodernity and modernity. However, the nation of immigrants was forced, right from the start, to engage with plurality. And slowly a culture emerged that was both religious and tolerant. This led some to suggest that America had created a new religion”civil religion; but in fact Christians, Jews, and Muslims were discovering the importance of plurality . . . . In this sense, Americans are postmodern.
Do not be distracted by Markham’s use of “plurality.” He avoids “pluralism” because that term is associated with another set of arguments in the United Kingdom. By plurality he means what most of us call pluralism”a society in which people who subscribe to quite different accounts of reality, including moral and religious reality, are thrown together and must decide what to do about it. It is the very considerable achievement of modernity that people decided that the thing to do is to be tolerant. It is the very considerable problem of modernity that tolerance is often purchased at the price of denying the differences, including the differences that make the most difference, such as differences over what people believe to be most importantly true. The Courage of His Conclusions
The Courage of His Conclusions
At this point I must declare interest, as the lawyers say. Plurality and Christian Ethics is in large part a sympathetic analysis of my own writings on questions related to religion and public life, moral legitimacy and democratic governance. With few exceptions, Markham has my argument right, and an author is of course grateful for that. He very usefully pieces that argument together as it has developed over”it hardly seems possible”almost thirty years. The important contribution of the book, however, is that it places the American experience and arguments about that experience into a much larger historical and transcultural context. Unlike so many scholars who timorously trim and equivocate lest they step on toes in their academic guild, Markham typically exhibits the courage of his conclusions. Here he is at his most forthright; some will call it grandiose, others will call it daring; the pertinent question is whether it is true:
It is given to certain cultures at certain times to discover a different way of understanding their religious tradition. Often the discovery is embedded in existing beliefs; sometimes it is a distinctive innovation. More often than not it is a combination of the two. The discovery, if it survives, becomes so “obvious” that people wonder why it was not discovered before. It was given to the eighth century b.c. e. prophets of Israel to discover the high moral standards God expects of his people. It was given to medieval Europe to experience the all-pervasive influence of the Christian narrative, thereby showing the way in which everything we value can be understood. It was given to the Reformers to discover the democratic implications of the gospel. And now I have shown it has been given to the Americans to discover a religious affirmation of plurality.
One may at first be staggered by the suggestion that the “American discovery” is somehow comparable in historical importance to Sinai, the creation of Christendom, and the Reformation. But careful attention to the supporting argument makes it clear that Markham’s claim, while certainly controversial, is not an indulgence in reckless hyperbole. The argument, to paraphrase it all too briefly, runs like this. In the modern era, tolerance has been the trump card in the secularists’ construction of what has been called the naked public square. After the wars of religion in seventeenth-century Europe, sensible thinkers concluded that religion is inherently divisive and destructive of civil society. The antireligious set out to destroy religion; the more devout agreed to confine their religion to the private sphere; many others simply expected that religion would wither away as people became more “enlightened.” Tolerance was necessary to civil peace, and religion was the chief threat to tolerance. In this account, tolerance is a secular achievement won at great cost in a battle against religion. This secular narrative of the history of tolerance, Markham recognizes, has a good deal of truth to it.
But a number of funny things have happened on the way to the end of the twentieth century. For one, secular tolerance has become profoundly intolerant. For another, there is widespread agreement today, also among secular liberals, that secular liberalism cannot provide a convincing philosophical defense of the tolerance that was once the great achievement of secular liberalism. The truth about tolerance is that tolerance requires truth. But, as Markham demonstrates with impressive erudition and panache, from Hume to Kant to Nietzsche to Richard Rorty, modernity has ineluctably corroded intellectual confidence in the possibility of truth. In his extensive and intriguing discussion of Alasdair MacIntyre, John Milbank, Jeffrey Stout, and others, Markham obviously agrees that a historically specifiable tradition of secular rationality has come to an intellectual dead end. With MacIntyre in particular, he champions a rival tradition that draws significantly on Thomas Aquinas, and this alternative Markham typically calls theism.
The discussion of current philosophical disputes constitutes a monograph within this small book of only 225 pages
. But it is a necessary discussion, and one filled with frequent juxtapositions that sharply pose what is at stake. This, for example, on Jeffrey Stout’s insistence that the threat of public religion still makes necessary a dogmatically secular practice of tolerance, even if that practice cannot be philosophically defended: “Stout wants to resist religious solutions because he does not trust religion. He wants to affirm liberalism because he wants to affirm tolerance. Much of his argument would crumble if it could be shown that a religious culture can also be a tolerant culture. Such a demonstration is the object of this book.” At times Markham suggests a stronger form of the argument: not only can a religious culture be tolerant, but only a religious culture can give a convincing reason for being tolerant. Rational Theism
A religious culture is one pervasively influenced by theism understood in rather broad terms, and in terms that, Markham insists, are rationally justified. In this connection he develops his own version of Aquinas’ argument from necessary cause, and sharply distinguishes theism from the deism of rationalists who posit a God who kicks things off and then steps back to watch the world machine work of itself. Against currently popular attitudes, he insists that the question of God’s existence is not an “interesting question” comparable to the “interesting question” of whether there might be a Loch Ness monster. “Religion is a life-transforming world perspective which affects every aspect of life. For the naturalist, the universe is an inanimate entity that through remarkable chance has generated mind and consciousness. All moral values are culture projection. The main theistic claim is the opposite: at the heart of the universe is goodness and love enabling all to be. This is what we mean by God.” In an aside that begs to be developed, he notes that recognition of this goodness and love leads to wonder and worship, and that the nature of worship necessarily tends to monotheism (even in Hinduism where many gods and goddesses are expressions of the one”Brahman). You can reverence many gods and goddesses, but you can only worship one God. Arguments Compared
The more orthodox Christian or Jew might be dissatisfied with Markham’s generalized theism, especially since it seems not entirely consonant with his assertion that it is orthodox or conservative religion that provides the most secure foundation for tolerance. On the other hand, Markham might contend that, if even such a generalized theism provides a basis for a coherent argument in defense of tolerance, religion with a fuller and more specific content provides an even firmer basis. Suffice it that Markham’s theological program, as distinct from his philosophical program, is underdeveloped in this book. God willing, he will have opportunities to develop that. Develop it he must, if he is to be faithful to his own understanding of the task of the Christian ethicist. The modern Christian thinkers whom he admires (Reinhold Niebuhr being the foremost example) are those who are able, as Markham puts it, to work in “three modes of enquiry””the theological, the cultural, and the practical.
In addition to the very effective philosophical polemic against naturalism and in addition to his apology for theism, the reader is struck by the close attention to the cultural and practical. Markham is alert to historical contingency without being historicist. In his view, God is still up to things; the human project is by no means finished; history is susceptible to transformative “discoveries””such as the religious affirmation of pluralism. The “secular narrative” of how tolerance was achieved and pluralism affirmed despite religion and against religion was, Markham recognizes, losing its credibility for some thinkers already in the early part of this century. It does not diminish MacIntyre’s achievement to note that long before he came on the scene there were Christian intellectuals who challenged the secular Enlightenment’s claim that it represents a tradition-transcending rationality. They recognized that Enlightenment rationalism was one tradition among others, and that it was a tradition that had become increasingly oppressive as it became decreasingly plausible.
the 1920s in Great Britain these figures converged in what came to be called the Christendom Group. John Bailey, J. L. Oldham, A. Vidler, and R. H. Tawney were among the more prominent members. V. A. Demant was the group’s most prolific and representative writer, although T. S. Eliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society is perhaps the only book from the movement that is still read today. Markham loosely structures his own book around the comparison between the Christendom Group and “the American discovery.” In Markham’s presentation of the argument, the contemporary representatives of the American discovery are Robert Bellah and the present writer. What all these people have in common, to put it in summary fashion, is the belief that secular rationalism had demonstrated itself to be intellectually unconvincing and culturally destructive. Demant and the Christendom Group tended to the view that modernity itself was a ghastly mistake. They are, says Markham, “premoderns” who wanted to reconstitute a more coherent Christian world. For them, pluralism and tolerance were the problem created by modernity, not the achievement of modernity. In a word, the Christendom Group rejected pluralism in favor of monism. Five Questions
For Bellah and Neuhaus, on the other hand, pluralism and tolerance are achievements of modernity. Even if they were, in specific historical conflicts, achieved against religion, they can be and should be affirmed by religion. The most important difference between Bellah and Neuhaus, as Markham tells it, is that Bellah thinks such an affirmation requires a “civil religion” or national “covenant.” Neuhaus contends that such an affirmation can be produced from the resources of biblical faith, resulting in a religiously informed “public philosophy” that can support a free and democratic social order. Markham has a two-page spread in which he offers a typology of the different theological, cultural, and practical positions of the Christendom Group (Demant), Civil Religion (Bellah), and Public Philosophy (Neuhaus). On the key question of tolerance, for Demant tolerance is a problem of liberalism, for Bellah it is an important social value, and for Neuhaus it is a practice based on a religious insight into how the world really is. Incidentally, in his typology Markham is right, I believe, in noting an important affinity between Bellah and the Christendom Group; both are antimodern in their hostility to democratic capitalism and attraction to various socialist proposals for a more “communitarian” economic and social order.
I cannot speak for the Christendom Group, most of whom are dead, nor for Robert Bellah, who is very much alive, but I have no major complaints about Markham’s depiction of my own argument. I do have some major questions, however. They are friendly questions. Whether or not he has made his case convincingly on every front, I believe that Markham is entirely right about his central thesis. The cultural dominance of secularism depends upon the believability of the claim that religion and religiously grounded moral judgment are inherently intolerant. In the thoroughly secularist regime, this is extended to the claim that it is not possible to give any account of the moral good in public because there is and can be no agreement about moral truth. This, in turn, is extended to the claim that there is no such thing as moral truth, and indeed no such thing as truth”at least not in any publicly pertinent sense of the word.
For many of our contemporaries, that is where the argument has come to rest. In a manner that is deservedly called brilliant, Ian Markham argues that this view of things is both irrational and destructive of civil society. He correctly sees that the linchpin of the secularist worldview is the contention that religion, because of its claims to truth, is inherently intolerant. Remove that linchpin and the dogmas of secularism collapse. That linchpin is removed by demonstrating that it is precisely a truth claim of religion that tolerance is not only possible but imperative. The “American discovery” is such a demonstration. QED.
I mention but five questions that suggest the demonstration is not quite so decisive as Markham indicates. He has good discussions of other Christian thinkers who have wrestled with the problem of truth and tolerance”Augustine and Thomas being the outstanding instances”but I am not sure that he is entirely fair to them. Within their own conceptual framework, given the appropriate cultural and political stimuli, it seems possible that they and other thinkers might have developed the religious case for tolerance. As for the later part of the story, it was the brute contingent fact of the Reformation and the wars of religion that followed it that practically forced militant secularism into being and made possible its successful bid for a monopoly on what counted as public discourse. To Step Gingerly Over the Cliff
If this suggestion has merit, it may be that we are dealing less with an “American discovery” as with a resumption under American circumstances of a doctrinal development deeply rooted in the Christian tradition. On Markham’s own account, even the Christendom Group was frequently ambivalent about tolerance and pluralism, with Demant contending that the achievements of liberalism are better supported by Christian faith than by liberal theory. Conspicuously absent from Markham’s account is Roman Catholic social doctrine, especially the teaching on religious liberty of the Second Vatican Council and major documents of the present pontificate, such as the encyclical Centesimus Annus . On questions of truth and tolerance, Catholic teaching has undoubtedly been influenced by “the American discovery” through figures such as John Courtney Murray, but the development of teaching draws on many other sources as well.
Second, Markham knows that tolerance is often viewed as a weak and wimpish virtue, and he urges upon us a stronger sense of tolerance that entails genuine engagement and argument within the bond of civility. It is hard to disagree, but he offers little help in seeing how we get from wimpish tolerance to the tolerance that vigorously engages differences. The American experience, at least at present, is not terribly encouraging on this score (see below on the status of “truth” in our culture). The reason Markham is not as helpful as one might hope on this score is related to my third question. At the end of the day, the reasons he gives for being tolerant tend to depend upon uncertainty and diffidence. In this respect his reasons for tolerance are not unlike those offered by John Stuart Mill. There is nothing wrong with agreeing with Mill when Mill is right, but Mill’s arguments for tolerance represent a moderate relativism that, experience demonstrates, ends up in radical relativism. If tolerance is to be well grounded religiously, it must be secured not so much in what we don’t know but in what we do know.
In this connection, and without going into detail, Markham does not get quite right what he celebrates as my great contribution to understanding the cognitive implications of Christian eschatology. The fact that history is not yet consummated in the Kingdom, joined to what we know about the diversity of God’s creation and the consequences of the fallenness of human nature (including our reason)”all these induce a certain cognitive humility. And that humility is evidenced in an openness to different accounts of the truth, to pluralism. But all of this is premised not upon our uncertainty or ignorance but upon our sure knowledge of, for instance, creation, fall, redemption, and promised consummation. It is because as a Christian I know for sure how the world really is that I know I must respectfully engage and learn from those who disagree with me about how the world really is. It is precisely the Christian account of reality that explains why I do not know all that is to be known and why I can learn also from those who deny the Christian account of reality. This is more than a rhetorical difference with Markham, although it is perhaps that in part. By resting so much of the case for tolerance on the premise of uncertainty, Markham, against his best instincts and stated intentions, runs the risk of reinforcing the secular liberalism that he wants to counter. That is, he runs the risk of reinforcing the assumption that the foundation of tolerance is skepticism rather than knowledge of the truth.
A closely related and fourth question has to do with Markham’s implicit assumption that religious pluralism is the permanent state of affairs. He disagrees with John Milbank’s claim that Christians speak in order to convert. The main weight of his disagreement, as I understand it, is with Milbank’s rejection of the possibility of reasoned persuasion across the divides of conflicting worldviews, religious and otherwise. But Markham also seems to throw into question whether Christians should engage others in the hope that they will be converted to Christianity. It is very difficult, to say the least, for an orthodox Christian to disown the hope that everybody will become Christian. In that apparently improbable circumstance, however, the arguments in support of tolerance and pluralism would hardly be obsolete. Ideally conceived, in that case everything that is good, true, and beautiful in the experience of non-Christians would be encompassed and fulfilled under the auspices of Christianity. With that would also come much that is evil, false, and ugly in the human condition, as we know too well from our experience with Christians, beginning with ourselves. Pluralism within a nominally all-Christian world may be more difficult than at present (remember that the wars of religion were, after all, fought between Christians). In any event, Markham’s argument will be severely weakened for orthodox Christians if he means to say that true tolerance requires that Christians eschew the hope for conversion.
Fifth and finally, I suspect that Markham makes too much of my own writings on the American religious experience. More precisely, he is in danger of taking my prescription of how tolerance ought to be religiously grounded as a description of how in fact tolerance is religiously grounded in America. I wish he were more right than I think he is about “the American discovery.” Some Americans have made the discovery, I hope many more will, and I do believe that America is singularly situated to demonstrate the truth of the discovery. But we are not at the happy point that Markham sometimes seems to suggest, and there are formidable obstacles in the way of our ever getting there.
For many Christians in America, both Catholic and Protestant, tolerance is simply something to be tolerated. They even feel guilty about being tolerant. If they had the courage of their convictions, they tell themselves, they would be much more aggressively intolerant of those who do not accept the truth that they possess. In addition, there are many more Christians who are indifferent to the question of truth outside the private sphere of “what is true for me.” They would not dream of “imposing” their truth on anyone else. This is the vulgar nihilism that makes the mantra of “choice” so devastatingly effective with respect to abortion and other questions of great moral moment. Compounding these confusing dynamics is a still powerful secularist ideology that dominates the political culture and is strongly supported by the judiciary’s interpretation of the separation of church and state to mean the separation of religion and, increasingly, the separation of moral discourse from public life. Those who advance that secularist ideology do not, of course, acknowledge that they are imposing their own moral judgments upon the society.
The American experiment is not over, or at least we have no way of knowing whether it is or not. America may yet become, God willing, the history-transforming exemplification of how tolerance can be grounded in truth, including religious truth. It may yet overthrow the tyranny of a humanly truncated and withering secularism that atomizes community and reduces politics to demeaning exercises of the will to power. In sum, America may yet become what Ian Markham thinks, or at least hopes, it already is. If and when it does become that, it will be acknowledged in retrospect that what America is now was in process of becoming what Ian Markham says it is. In that happy event, Plurality and Christian Ethics will be acclaimed as prophetically prescient. Meanwhile, I am pleased to recommend it as one of the most intelligently provocative essays on religion and public life to have appeared in a long time.
To Step Gingerly Over the Cliff
Herewith some opinion-surfing on dismal developments (but see below for an exception to the dismal) in the promotion of doctor-assisted suicide and euthanasia. Everyone is familiar by now with the decision of federal judge Barbara Rothstein in Seattle striking down a state law that bans assisted suicide. The law is unconstitutional, she said, because “the suffering of a terminally ill person cannot be deemed any less deserving of protection from unwarranted governmental interference than that of a pregnant woman.” Richard Brookhiser writes in the New York Observer , “The click you heard was the click of an argument completed. For years, opponents of abortion warned that the erosion of vigilance at the beginning of life would lead to erosion of vigilance at the end. Now they have been confirmed by the majesty of the law. Justice Harry Blackmun must be sorry that he left the Supreme Court before he could give the decision the highest imprimatur; maybe Justice David Souter will take up the slack for him.” Strip-Mining the Constitution
Brookhiser was impressed when some years ago Norman Podhoretz of Commentary remarked that this country would not countenance euthanasia. As soon as the baby boomers started turning fifty, he said, they would see to it that this issue stayed off the agenda. “Let us hope he is right,” writes Brookhiser, “because the legal and intellectual spades are turning.” One recalls Chesterton’s observation that the problem with a mad man is not that he is not logical; the problem is that he is only logical. The Rothstein decision exhibits that kind of logic. He who says A must say B. He who says Roe v. Wade must say assisted suicide.
Rothstein quotes Casey v. Planned Parenthood in arguing that deciding to end one’s life, like deciding to have an abortion, “involves the most intimate and personal choices a person can make . . . and constitutes a choice central to personal dignity and autonomy.” The judge says that the state has an interest in discouraging suicide by young people and others “with a significant life span ahead of them.” Brookhiser notes that the judge is not quite prepared to say B. Brookhiser writes, “If intimacy, choice, dignity, and autonomy are the only standards to be invoked, then any potential suicide has a right to seek assistance, just as any woman, under Roe v. Wade , has a right to an abortion. Who is to say that depressives have less dignity than cancer patients, or that nineteen-year-olds should have less choice than ninety-year-olds?”
At least with this Administration, however, Brookhiser thinks there is a political logic to tying the right to be killed to the abortion right. Abortion seems to be the one sure anchor of the Administration. On abortion, President Clinton has been adamant. “In the midst of all the switchbacks and backtracks, in the murk of Haiti, Bosnia, health care, and welfare reform, the Administration has never wavered on one issue, and that is abortion,” Brookhiser observes. In its first day in office, the Clinton team lifted the so-called gag rule, which had prevented federal money from being used to promote abortion. Later, we were treated to the remarkable spectacle of the President of the United States very publicly intervening to get a pill admitted to the country, the infamous RU-486. Clinton supported and signed a law that imposes draconian penalties on those who nonviolently protest at abortion clinics.
This year the administration has put on a full court press to line up the entire U.S. diplomatic apparatus in pushing abortion as an integral part of the United Nations program of population control. In the last instance Clinton has, in a perhaps unprecedented way, brought U.S. policy into direct, explicit, and apparently nonnegotiable conflict with the Vatican. The stakes are very high. Over the next few years the Vatican could become the catalyst for a rebellion of many poor nations against what is accurately described as U.S. cultural imperialism advanced through a compliant UN bureaucracy. The imposition of cultural and moral fashions made in the U.S.A. on poor countries has, so far as we can see, provoked not a chirp of protest from those in this country who a few years ago presented themselves as ardent champions of the “third world” against the oppression of the “first world,” meaning the U.S.
Abortion, embryo experimentation, fetal transplants, RU-486, population control”these are the issues on which an otherwise flaccid and wobbly Administration is unmovable. And, of course, they are all issues that find their warrant and logic in Roe v. Wade and its judicial offspring. In this context, there is not only logic but political astuteness in Judge Rothstein’s anchoring of the right to be killed in the abortion liberty’s right to kill.
Strip-Mining the Constitution
Charles Krauthammer (who subtitles his reflection, “This is not a slippery slope. It’s a cliff.”) is exercised about what the Rothstein decision means for democratic governance. “Less than three years ago,” he notes, “Washington [State] had a referendum on this very issue. After one of the most vigorous public debates ever held on assisted suicide, the people of Washington decided against the brave new world of mercy killing. Judge Rothstein has now decided they had no right to do so. The spirit of the imperial judiciary having trickled down to Seattle, such niceties as 140 years of tradition and a clearly expressed popular will must not stand in the way of one judge’s willful reading of the Constitution.” Rothstein wrote that, where a constitutional right is involved, the court cannot leave matters to the legislature or to the people but must boldly accept responsibility for resolving the issue. Says Krauthammer, “What duty. What courage. What chutzpah.” Not to Worry
As for Rothstein’s invocation of the Casey effusions about intimate, personal, and autonomous choices, Krauthammer wonders why the court does not go further. “Why should the state be allowed to interfere with, say, drug-taking? What decision is more private, more intimate and personal,’ more an expression of personal autonomy than choosing to alter one’s own mood and perceptions through a voluntary act?” And where does the court get off, he wonders, limiting assisted suicide to the terminally ill. There are many people who for various reasons and at various times want to end their lives, and want help in doing so. He cites Michigan law professor Yale Kamisar, who notes that “it is perverse to allow the relief of suicide to the terminally ill whose suffering is about to end shortly, while denying it to the nonterminal who face endless decades of unrelieved anguish.”
Krauthammer’s focus, however, is on what all this does to American democracy. “ Roe is the most spectacular modern example of judicial willfulness. To cite it in a decision that judicially legislates assisted suicide is entirely appropriate. Both decisions strip-mine the Constitution to locate a right never before found and to thereby override the citizenry’s right to decide the issue democratically.” Krauthammer’s conclusion is that of a doleful democrat. “I have no great expectation that over the long run the people and their legislators will firmly hold the line against physician-assisted suicide. But I would rather see the ban overturned by popular will after vigorous debate than by judicial fiat. If the consequences of permitting assisted suicide turn out to be as baleful as I predict, a democratic decision can always be reversed. But with constitutional rights there is no further appeal . . . . As with abortion, all that is left is bitterness, angry demonstrations, and a deep sense of disenfranchisement.”
In fact, Rothstein may have, at least by implication, pushed her logic further than some commentaries noticed. In her decision she quotes the decision of a Michigan state judge, Richard Kaufman, who found a right to “rational suicide” whenever “a person’s quality of life is significantly impaired by a medical condition [that is] extremely unlikely to improve.” “Medical condition” is an exceedingly comprehensive term. Everybody has one. And a condition, whether physical or mental, inevitably impinges upon one’s “quality of life.” In that case, a rational suicide would seem to be a suicide that someone considers rational. Not necessarily, please note, the person being killed or killing himself. Here, as some disability rights advocates have pointed out, comes the really scary part. The Kaufman decision, which Rothstein cites in support of her decision, invokes as authority the notorious Buck v. Bell decision of the Supreme Court in 1927. That decision allowed involuntary sterilization of women who were not ill but “feeble-minded.” (“Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the eighty-sixth year of his quality life.)
Not to Worry
Then there is Ronald Dworkin, a legal scholar who for years has been helping us out with these worrying questions. Having taken up residence at the edge of the cliff, he regularly looks into the abyss and reports that there is nothing to worry about. In a long essay on the op-ed page of the New York Times , he recognizes the anxiety that assisted suicide may lead to people being pressured to die, or even to being killed involuntarily. Not to worry. States, he says, can effectively regulate against abuses so that the new right to assisted suicide does not get out of hand. He draws the analogy with abortion. “It would be wrong to think that those who are more permissive about abortion and euthanasia are indifferent to the value of life. Rather, they disagree about what respecting that value means. They think that in some circumstances”when a fetus is terribly deformed, for example”abortion may show more respect for life than childbirth.” Task Force Taken to Task
Presumably Mr. Dworkin knows that there are 1.6 million abortions per year in the U.S. Presumably he knows that it is not a rare incident in extreme cases, that nearly half of all abortions are performed on women who have had abortions before, sometimes several abortions, that it is in many cases the contraceptive of choice and the counted-upon backstop for sexual promiscuity and male flight from responsibility. Presumably he also knows that, because it is declared a constitutional right, there is no regulation of abortion, or at least no regulation that puts an “undue burden” (Sandra Day O’Connor) on a woman’s obtaining an abortion. Presumably he knows what has happened in the Netherlands where it is now acknowledged by all that thousands of people are involuntarily dispatched each year, the beneficiaries of assisted “suicide.” Ronald Dworkin may be dumb, but he is not stupid. He knows all of the above. Yet he tells us not to worry about the right to doctor-assisted suicide because, as in the case of abortion, government regulation and conscientious citizens will guard against abuse. He obviously thinks the readers of the New York Times are stupid.
As for the intellectual and moral delinquencies of what is risibly called the newspaper of record, please note how many months it has been since we last visited the subject in these pages. We are capable of moderate self-restraint. But the Times is, alas, pertinent to our subject. As on every other question in the culture war, that paper’s partisan rabbling is on the side of putative progress. Name the subject”abortion, school choice, homosexuality, the separation of religion and public life, and did we mention abortion?”the editorial page of the Times is the bellwether of the sectarian hard core. On such issues it is pitted against the views of the majority of Americans, in some cases the overwhelming majority.
There is no reason why a paper that pretends to be national has to be “balanced,” but it is remarkable that there is not even one regular voice in the Times that reflects a sympathetic understanding of opposing judgments. Columnists such as Anna Quindlen and Frank Rich apparently find the abyss to their liking. William Safire is the paper’s “conservative” columnist, but he is of the libertarian persuasion and so of little help with the things that matter most. A. M. Rosenthal bucks the stereotype from time to time, and, in humorous ways of indirection, Russell Baker is occasionally capable of standing back from his colleagues’ fevered orthodoxies. But, with few and rare exceptions, the Times is untouched by bothersome nuances when it comes to what is self-evidently correct. The paper is a daily assault of narrow and simplistic partisanship.
The Times has been a reliable champion of Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the Surgeon General, on everything from capital punishment for smokers (we exaggerate, but only a little), to condom games in kindergarten (we do not exaggerate), to the joys of gay sex. So it is no surprise that the editorial page shares her views on assisted suicide. The day after the Michigan Court of Appeals reinstated murder charges against Dr. Kevorkian for his role in the deaths of two women, Elders commented that “if Dr. Kevorkian is working with his patients and the family and this is their decision, I do not feel I can step in the middle of that decision . . . . I do not view Dr. Kevorkian as a criminal.” She observed that suicide is “a very difficult decision, so we probably need some rules . . . some big global rules. But the decision has to be between the family and that doctor.” The phrase “big global rules” bears the satisfying connotation that government-is-going-to-do-something-about-it, while at the same time the General makes clear that nothing should be done to place an undue burden, so to speak, on people helping their friends and family to die.
Task Force Taken to Task
The Times ’ editors go far beyond the views of General Elders, however, being positively enthusiastic about mercy killing. The enthusiasm is enhanced by the prospect that the practice might be discovered as a constitutional right. The Times has never come across a new constitutional right that it did not love. Editorial zealotry was only slightly dampened by the report of the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law, which came out strongly opposed to doctor-assisted suicide (on which more below). The task force raised “a number of troubling issues,” the editors admit, but they dismiss as “nightmarishly speculative” the fears of the panel that, for instance, some patients might be killed to save the costs of treating them. The editorial, titled “Mercy for the Dying,” confidently asserts that the concerns raised by the panel “can be mitigated by appropriate safeguards.” The 200-page report, says the Times , should be read “as a warning to proceed carefully, not a reason to reject medically assisted suicide.” The editors urge us to “start gingerly down the road of assisted suicide and monitor whether it leads to widespread abuse”or to a new frontier of freedom of choice for the desperately ill.” Always to Care
Reading the task force report “as a warning to proceed carefully” is to willfully misread what the task force says. After nine years of studying the question, the twenty-four members concluded”and concluded unanimously”that it would be “profoundly dangerous” to take even one step in the direction urged by the Times , the Hemlock Society, and others. “Start gingerly down the road,” says the Times , and then see whether assisted suicide leads to “widespread abuse.” What counts as abuse? Presumably, involuntary euthanasia, the denial of appropriate care because of cost, and other practices flagged by the task force. And how long should the monitoring go on, and how widespread must be the abuse before it is allowed to challenge this “new frontier of freedom of choice.” How tolerant does the Times want us to be? How many innocent people should we allow to be killed, and what is the tolerable number of patients refused needed care, in order to explore this enticing new frontier? Behind these questions, of course, is the taken-for-granted assumption of the proponents of mercy killing that suicide is immune to moral censure, being but another pro-choice option.
The New York Task Force was established by Governor Mario Cuomo in 1985 and, while it has no legislative authority, its recommendations in the past have carried great weight with legislators and jurists in New York and elsewhere. The unanimous and unequivocal nature of the new report surprised many, since the panel has in the past supported “liberal” measures such as the patient’s right to refuse intravenous feeding. Task force members include leading advocates of patient rights who were in this case led to the conclusion that assisted suicide would disempower patients, especially those patients already most powerless. Legalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia, the report said, could, among other evils, encourage some doctors to prescribe lethal drugs rather than to treat the pain or depression of severely ill patients. Far from these worries being “nightmarishly speculative,” the report very calmly sets forth why, given the structure of medicine today, effective regulation against such abuses is not possible.
Those who are sanguine about coming up with effective regulation and guidelines typically assume that there is a “friend of the family” relationship with the physician, and that medical decisions are made in a personal, reasonable, and compassionate manner. That is not the medical reality for most Americans. Even for the privileged few, however, the task force notes that a “profound dependence characterizes the doctor-patient relationship,” and says that some patients and families would feel they had no option if doctors recommended assisted suicide or euthanasia. The steps being agitated in this country have been taken in the Netherlands. In the report’s very conservative reading of the Dutch situation, it notes that one percent of all deaths there are by involuntary euthanasia. Extrapolated to the population of the United States, that would mean 16,000 patients per year being put to death who did not ask to be killed. Some students of the Dutch practice suggest that the figures for involuntary euthanasia are more than twice those cited by the New York panel.
“No matter how carefully any guidelines are framed, assisted suicide and euthanasia will be practiced through the prism of social inequality and bias that characterize the delivery of services in all segments of society, including health care,” the task force says. “The risks to already vulnerable members of our society would be extraordinary, especially in light of the growing cost consciousness about health care . . . . The risks would be most severe for those who are elderly, poor, socially disadvantaged or without access to good medical care.” Dr. Mark Chassin, state commissioner of health and chairman of the task force, says, “A humane society owes its citizens something more than a prescription for a quick exit.” Especially, one might add, when patients are not at all interested in exiting just yet.
Always to Care
Some of the key considerations set forth by the New York Task Force on Life and the Law are those advanced in the statement of the Ramsey Colloquium, “Always to Care, Never to Kill” ( First Things , February 1992). Very importantly, the task force report strongly supports a range of specific measures to improve caring, especially in the relief of pain and depression. A good deal of the agitation for assisted suicide and euthanasia exploits the fact that many doctors do not carefully employ palliatives that are readily available. Organizations such as the Hemlock Society and much of the media routinely use scare tactics, dramatically depicting dyings that are prolonged, wild, and wracked with pain, leading many to think, understandably, that, if this is what awaits them, suicide and euthanasia promise blessed relief. From the People in Charge of Creative Excellence
A striking feature of the New York report is that it realistically recognizes that there will be instances in which doctors help patients to commit suicide. Despite the Hippocratic Oath (which is now falling into desuetude), that has probably always happened. Such instances, however, cannot become the basis for public policy, the task force argues. This realistic understanding that there are some things that are, whether we like it or not, beyond the reach of law and regulation is deeply offensive to a certain rationalistic view of public policy. Any gap between what is legally defined and regulated and what is done in the real world is intolerable to some minds. “Hypocritical” is the charge readily launched.
The thought that some people might, on the shady side of the law, have available to them the “benefit” of assisted suicide or euthanasia while other people do not offends the moral sensibilities of the Times editors who harrumph, “What a limp and unsatisfactory solution.” But of course the task force does not claim to have a solution. Arguing from the basis of justice and prudence, the report convincingly makes the case that the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia would be profoundly wrong and dangerous. Only people who have spent too much time staring over the cliff, bemused by the abyss below, are capable of thinking that there is a public policy “solution” for death and dying.
From the People in Charge of Creative Excellence
In Washington $170 million is chicken appetizer, but with that modest budget the National Endowment for the Arts has managed to stir up quite a ruckus from time to time. Most notoriously, there was the late Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographic exhibit with bullwhips and penises stuck into sundry orifices. Against the perfectly understandable protest, newspapers and television screamed censorship while refusing themselves to show their audiences the artistic creations they so assiduously defended and thought worthy of public funding. They did show some of Mapplethorpe’s lovely photos of flower arrangements, which had absolutely nothing to do with the controversy. Then there was the other much-remarked incident in which the NEA established that it is permissible to exhibit a crucifix in public and at taxpayer’s expense, so long as it is immersed in urine. Jews, Christians, and “The Great Fear”
The New York Times recently did a big two-page spread on four performance artists who were refused grants or lost grants during the 1990 brouhaha over NEA. Grants have been restored, with apologies, by the Clinton Administration. One of the artists talks dirty on stage while smearing herself with what looks like the unmentionable, while the other three are homosexual and specialize in assaulting America’s homophobia. John Fleck complains, “I became known as the man who masturbated on stage and urinated on the Bible.” The Times sets things straight: “He simulated masturbation, and he did urinate on stage, but not on a Bible.” Well, that puts things in an entirely different light. The story continues: “My work was constantly misquoted and taken out of context,’ Mr. Fleck says. The aspects of his performances that were most likely to offend some segments of his audience seemed to be the only ones ever mentioned.” That may say something about other aspects of his performance, although masturbating and urinating on stage probably does tend to distract attention from what one is trying to say. Mr. Fleck was very disappointed with his appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” “I was basically introduced as the man who deals with homosexual issues and other skits. I was the sort of avant-garde freak and was made to feel like a disgusting pervert leeching on the taxpayers’ money.” It seems Ms. Winfrey’s show has some educational value after all.
Another of the four, Holly Hughes, writes plays celebrating lesbianism. One play is titled The Well of Horniness , and of her newest work the Times says that “its title includes a slang term for the clitoris,” but the Times isn’t telling us what the term is. The Times isn’t that kind of paper, or maybe they think we’re not ready to know, but there is no doubt that the play is bold and deserving of tax support. Says Ms. Hughes, “My work has always been about publicly representing or revealing a lesbian experience. My desire has been to have it seen outside of a specifically lesbian context”to become visible, to leave the ghetto, to not be marginalized.” In other words, Ms. Hughes would like to be rich and famous. She goes on about how awful Americans are for not properly rewarding her for telling them how awful they are. The story says that her saddest experience of recent years has been her father’s death in Michigan last summer. She complains, “A third of his obituary unfortunately was about me.” Somebody has to pay the price for her becoming “visible.” The story concludes: “Ms. Hughes received a $9,375 NEA grant this year. It is her third grant from the agency since 1990.”
The same week as the Times story on these victims of censorship, the Economist ran a puff piece on Jane Alexander, Clinton’s chairman of the NEA. She takes seriously the criticisms of the NEA, although the Economist is glad to say that she is not neglecting her artistic constituents, noting her defense of a grant to “an HIV-positive artist whose performance involves bloodletting and ritual scarring.” Ms. Alexander says the NEA should be less elitist and should, for instance, encourage art as a way of addressing problems in urban schools. Helen Brunner, head of the National Associaton of Artists Organizations, says that the NEA needs to “create a balance between education and creative excellence.” Ms. Brunner says, “They need to be sure they don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” As for combatting urban turmoil with art, she observes, “You can’t solve all the ills in this country with $170 million.” One can tell from the way they think and talk that these are people who know a lot about creative excellence.
Jews, Christians, and “The Great Fear”
It is a sad thing to see a considerable talent wasted. Joseph Sobran has considerable talent, as was evident for many years in his writings for National Review , the Human Life Review , and in his own syndicated column. We get asked what happened to Joe Sobran. The publicly relevant answer is that in his writing he became ever more abrasively strident about what he views as the sinister influence of Jews in American life, and the alleged captivity of U.S. foreign policy to the “Jewish lobby” working on behalf of Israel. For a long time, friends tried to help Sobran get over this fixation, and nobody tried harder than William F. Buckley of National Review . Sobran took such efforts as evidence that his erstwhile friends, too, were under the spell of what he calls the “invisible” Jewish influence. In the past year Sobran has published vicious attacks against Buckley and others who he claims have succumbed to “The Great Fear,” meaning fear of displeasing the Jews. Persisting Puzzlements
The subject of anti-Semitism is weary and wearying. The dynamics that impel it are sordid and debased, and those who get involved in the discussion of it risk being soiled. A good argument can be made for simply averting one’s eyes, for not lifting the rock to see what is underneath. But Sobran’s writings are not under a rock. They appear in publications that cannot be lightly dismissed as entirely beyond the fringe, and have led even sensible people to observe that, while they do not necessarily agree with him, you have to give Sobran credit for having the “courage” to say things that others are afraid to mention.
Typical is a recent column titled “The Great Fear” in which Sobran observes, “There is little active hostility to Jews in America, which is as it should be. But there is also very little public criticism of Jewish politics, which is another matter.” In politics and the news media, says Sobran, Buckley and others (whom he derisively calls “Judaeo-Christians”) are effectively silenced by the threat of being charged with anti-Semitism, a charge “dreaded like Jove’s thunderbolts.” Thus the media say little or nothing about Jews who committed treason for the Soviet Union or Israel because that would raise “sensitive questions about Jewish loyalties and their consequences for America.” Jews, writes Sobran, can bash the Christian right and Catholic Church to their hearts’ content, while “the organized though amorphous Jewish power” intimidates Christians into a “craven conduct” that he describes as “toadying to Jews.”
Then there is this in parenthesis: “(It is of course important to bear in mind that most Jews aren’t responsible for this, and it is morally and intellectually wrong to blame them indiscriminately; but I assume I am speaking to grownup Christians here.)” He lets off the hook “Jews who were ready to help me when some of my Judaeo-Christian friends were in full flight” after the unpleasantness with Buckley. But the more general Jewish reality is something else, according to Sobran. “Bill in effect warned me that Jewish power would try to wreck my career if I didn’t shut up. I didn’t and it did.” It is this “Jewish power” that Sobran has in mind when he writes, “American public disclosure is being quietly and constantly warped by unseen pressures.” His conclusion: “The older I get, the more I am impressed by this pervasive fear of the Jews”or rather, pervasive in some critical power centers, unfelt in other places. It is a huge factor, invisible and incalculable, in American culture and politics.”
“Amorphous,” “pervasive,” “invisible””it is all very sinister. In defense of Sobran, someone might point out that he is not saying that the influence of Jews is sinister; it is the fear of the influence of Jews that is sinister. But that would be entirely disingenuous. Sobran’s claim is that Jewish power is feared because Jewish power is fearful. Not for nothing do those who know what’s good for them engage in the “craven conduct” of “toadying to Jews.” Few and brave are those who, like Joe Sobran, dare to speak the truth and let the chips fall where they may.
When faced by screeds such as Sobran’s, attention must be paid. Not too much attention, and not too often, but anti-Semitism”although the term has been cheapened by careless use”remains a legitimate and serious concern. All the evidence indicates that anti-Semitism is a small and declining phenomenon in America. Jews are secure in America, not chiefly because of Jewish organizations waging war on anti-Semites, but because of the generously extended good will of the Christian majority. Yet it would be beyond belief were there not problems inherent in a circumstance where only 2 percent of the population is Jewish and close to 90 percent identify themselves as Christian. In the light of historical experience and the balance of communal interests, it is not paranoid for Jews to worry about their security, although there are no doubt Jewish paranoids. At the same time, and despite their good will and firm rejection of anti-Semitism, many Christians are puzzled by aspects of Jewish influence in our public life. That puzzlement provides an opportunity for exploitation by those who really are anti-Semites. Jewish Rethinkings
The puzzlement is not about the remarkable success of Jews in American life. Anti-Semites speak in sinister terms about the disproportionate (they say “inordinate”) number of Jews in high places, as though they were revealing dark secrets. Most Americans are unperturbed by the large number of Jews at the top levels of, for instance, the news and entertainment media, the medical and legal professions, and prestigious centers of higher education. Far from being resentful, most Christians are admiring of Jewish success, attributing it, variously, to superior intelligence, determination, or God’s election of Israel. The puzzlement, and the opportunity for anti-Semitic exploitation, is in the perception of Jews as being militantly secularist and hostile to Christian sensibilities and moral convictions.
This puzzlement is not new, but it is being exacerbated today. Religious Jews are more keenly aware than anyone of the inroads of secularism in American Jewry. Orthodox and Conservative leaders have long worried about the loss of Jewish “identity,” and today they are joined by many Reform leaders, although in the case of the last “identity” would seem to be more a matter of tribe than Torah. Sobran and his like break no new ground when they point out that Jewish organizations frequently feel free to attack Christian groups”especially evangelical Protestant and Catholic”with impunity, while crying “anti-Semitism” in response to any criticism of Jews. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), to take an obvious example, is very largely directed by secular Jews and is committed to a militantly secularizing course in law and public policy. One is quite free, however, to say that the ACLU is grotesquely wrong without indulging in reckless talk about the “invisible and incalculable” influences of “amorphous Jewish power.”
Another recent example is a book published by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith (ADL), The Religious Right: The Assault on Tolerance & Pluralism in America . The book is a vicious attack, a slash-and-burn job, on evangelical Protestants involved in conservative politics. It is a very bad thing for an anti-defamation league to engage in defamation. The book includes some smarmy allowances that, of course, these conservative Christians have a right to participate in the political process, but the message is that their religious fanaticism is aimed at destroying that process. The Religious Right is a shameful book that has no plausible purpose other than advancing the liberal Democratic goal of turning politically conservative Christians into a pariah group and thus forcing the Republican Party to distance itself from a large part of its natural constituency. In short, in this book the ADL is playing political games with religious bigotry.
It is noteworthy that a substantial number of prominent Jews have protested the ADL defamation very strongly and very publicly. These Jewish voices point out that it is ludicrous and self-destructive for an organization representing but a fraction of the fraction of the population that is Jewish to, in effect, declare war on millions of Christians because it disagrees with their political positions. They also note, not so incidentally, that evangelical Protestants have over the years been among the strongest backers of U.S. support for Israel. In addition, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) has protested the ADL smear in no uncertain terms. This, contra the Sobrans, hardly fits a pattern of “toadying to Jews.” Beyond the ADL’s misrepresentation of Christian political activism, the NAE is rightly indignant because it has in recent years cooperated with the ADL in a dialogue aimed at building greater trust and understanding between evangelicals and Jews. In such a dialogue, both sides risk some tension with their own constituencies. With the publication of The Religious Right , ADL seems to leave no doubt that, when it comes to a choice between partisan politics and Christian-Jewish understanding, partisan politics wins hands down.
The Jewish community is hardly monolithic. Indeed, there is considerable ambiguity in the term “community.” Sixty percent of Jews in the U.S. have no connection with any Jewish organization, religious or secular. And among the organizations there are very significant differences. At its annual meeting in Washington this year, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) invited this writer to address a plenary session on the role of Jews in American public life. We presented as candidly and persuasively as we could our by now familiar argument that the naked public square”public life devoid of religion and religiously based moral argument”is a dangerous place for everybod