It is a curious formula, that phrase “American exceptionalism.” As commonly used, the phrase suggets that the United States somehow escaped the typical patterns of history—the patterns that seemed almost inviolable and iron-clad historical laws, precisely because they appeared in one European country after another. The socialist revolutions of 1848, and the intense nationalism that escalated into the First World War, and the cultural malaise that followed the war, and the subsequent rise of fascistic movements—all of these had their American forms, to be sure. But in the United States they were always echoes, rather than originals, and they were never, in a certain sense, serious.
It takes a fantasist—determined to read American history solely by European lights—to think that the nation was ever at much real risk of having a socialist revolt in the nineteenth century or rule by homegrown fascists in the twentieth century. Philip Roth’s 2004 what-if, alternate-history novel, The Plot Against America, had elements of this fantasy, imagining a 1940s America in which Charles Lindbergh becomes president and the United States resembles Hitler’s Germany. The most interesting element of the book, however, may be its final recognition of something like American exceptionalism: Even if, by some unlikely historical contrivance, a native Nazism had gained power, the resilient nation would have managed to shrug it off fairly quickly. The whole thing is just too European, just too alien, and just too weird.
Most often, however, the notion of American exceptionalism involves talk of religion in the United States. It was sometimes heard as a boast of America’s mainline Protestants about the enduring character of the nation’s faith, but, most often, it was used as an escape hatch for historians and social scientists.
The Secularization Thesis, the idea that the rise of modernity necessitated the decline of religion, remained a fundamental postulate of European intellectual life and, in truth, of its American imitation from early in the nineteenth century through the entire twentieth century. Indeed, so fundamental was the Secularization Thesis that its failure to account for the United States could not be understood as any real indictment of the postulate. And so an exemption was carved out: American exceptionalism.
The proffered explanations were not always flattering. “God looks out for children, drunkards, and the United States,” ran the famous line often attributed (apparently mistakenly) to Otto von Bismarck. But whether by providence, or luck, or intellectual backwardness, or sheer failure to pay attention, the United States, through most of its religious history, seemed to escape the European fate.
There are many ways to understand the fact of American exceptionalism, and thus many ways to argue whether the United States does, or does not, still warrant it. Curiously, even as, in many ways, the United States becomes more like a European nation, few sociologists continue to defend the Secularization Thesis in its purest form. We’ve witnessed the manifest failure of Islam to fade away in the face of modernity—to say nothing of the great Christianizing of Africa in the twentieth century, and the extraordinary conversions in Asia. (Some reports suggest there are now eighty million Christians in India, forming up to 20 percent of the population of some of the largest states, with a real chance that Christianity will surpass Islam as India’s second-largest religion).
All of this suggests that the real violation of established historical patterns, the real exceptionalism, was the secularizing of Western Europe. Still, if the question is narrowed to its traditional form—Why isn’t America like Europe?—a simple fact needs to be grasped: American exceptionalism did not create the strange world of American religion. It was instead, the wildness and the wackiness of American religion that created the historical oddity of American exceptionalism.
There’s a poetic mood one finds often enough, about how the Sea of Faith used to be so beautiful, but now, alas, we hear only “its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.” You can find it at the end of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” for instance, and even the utterly indifferent Philip Larkin indulges the mood at the conclusion of “Church Going.”
Curiously, many of the thinkers whose work informed what came to be called the Secularization Thesis—William James, for instance, and Max Weber and Emile Durkheim—would, upon occasion, express the same mood, even while they described what they believed was the displacement of religion by a universalizing “scientific worldview.” Weber actually called the process of secularization, which he believed had gotten underway in sixteenth-century Europe, “the disenchantment of the world.”
Of course, certain theologians have been more enthusiastic, beginning with some social-gospel Protestants of the nineteenth century. More recently, theologians such as Harvey Cox, in The Secular City, have relied on the Secularization Theory, with the result that a Death-of-God theology had a brief vogue during the 1960s and 1970s. But the fashion for godless religion has finally passed, even among the most intransigent of theologians. (The delay was due mostly to the fact that, in American universities, the theology department is typically where bad sociology goes to die).
That an increasing number of Americans call themselves “spiritual but not religious” seems to imply that the nation lacks anything clearly recognizable as religion. But the current rage for spirituality without fixed creedal content gives little aid to secularists. All it seems to signify is a greater individualism in people’s religiosity—something historically unusual only if measured against the church membership reached in the 1950s.
The evidence suggests that the majority of the unchurched, both past and present, hold some recognizably religious beliefs; they are merely unwilling to identify with any particular religious body or tradition. That is fully in keeping with what Harold Bloom famously called the characteristic “gnosticism” of American religion. The label was absurd, to anyone who knew the actual history of Gnosticism—Americans have never really been strict followers of Valentinus and Marcion—but the phenomenon itself is well-known to historians of religion. The United States remains religious, in the conveniently diffuse and riotously specific ways in which it has always been religious.
Once we grasp the root of America’s odd exceptionalism in America’s strange religion, there are really two questions to consider: Is there is a common enough denominator in American religious belief to permit the inference that Americans as a whole believe religion necessary to sustain our form of government? And, if so, are they correct to believe it? Three kinds of arguments suggest the answer is yes: the historical, the sociological, and the philosophical.
The first of these, the historical argument, is well-worn ground. Rebelling against a mid-twentieth-century academic consensus that religion—and, especially, religious thinking—played no role in the American Founding, innumerable scholars over the last thirty years have compiled anthologies of the Founders on religion, always beginning with the famous lines from George Washington’s Farewell Address: “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
The relation ran in both directions, as religious believers quickly turned to embrace the new nation. As Mark Noll observes in his excellent 2002 study, America’s God, “Deists and Unitarians were joined in embracing republicanism by Protestant theological conservatives representing the older British churches, by rambunctious promoters of new-breed evangelicalism, by spokesmen for traditional Protestant faiths from the Continent, by Roman Catholics, and even by representatives of what was then the tiny community of American Jews.”
Of course, the peculiarly American tension between faith and reason neither came about nor persisted because citizens wanted to preserve American exceptionalism—any more than biblical religion persisted because citizens believed, however rightly, that it fosters the virtues needed to form and sustain a republic.
Even today, Americans as a whole have not dissolved the tension in favor of either pole and, still more to the point, see no compelling reason to do so. And why should they? Philosophical rationales for morality make few men moral, even though the moral sense of Protestant America once insisted on citing such a rationale, if only as a way of transcending denominational quarrels and uniting for liberty’s sake. Morality may not require religion, as a matter of sheer logic, but it certainly does as a matter of mass psychology.
At the time of the Founding, that much was evident even to such emblematically unbelieving figures as David Hume, who conceded, “Those who tried to disabuse the people of that belief [in God and immortality] may, for aught I know, be good reasoners, but I cannot allow them to be good citizens and politicians.” Closer to home, as Gertrude Himmelfarb observes in her 2004 book, The Roads to Modernity, “it was Franklin, surprisingly, the least religious of the Founders, who wanted some mention to be made of God in the Constitution and who proposed that the proceedings of the Convention begin with a daily prayer.”
Of course, such French writers as Montesquieu were also influential; his book The Spirit of the Laws was among the most widely read by the Founders, especially Jefferson. But even Montesquieu drew heavily on British sources, and the American Enlightenment was all the more British, as well as Christian, for declining to imagine Reason as the unique and supreme criterion of moral judgment. Individual liberty of conscience was one thing; a purely rational answer to all political questions was quite another, and seen to be so.
Americans today retain that instinct, even if the public discourse no longer articulates a coherent philosophical rationale for it. That is because Americans are essentially, if paradoxically, conservative about the American experiment. That not only is the case; it ought to be the case—and the sociology of American religion helps show why.
Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, and many others have seen the ways in which religion helps ease the cultural contradictions of capitalism. The fact remains that democratic capitalism, which in no way guarantees personal virtue or even the health of civil society, relies on both for its continued success. As Novak, for example, once wrote, “From one point of view, the institutions of democratic capitalism are designed to function with minimal dependence upon virtuous motives. From another, they cannot function at all without certain moral strengths, rooted in institutions like the family. The moral-cultural institutions of the system, including churches and neighborhoods, are vital to the threefold system. The system is far from heartless; the family is far more than a haven. The family is a dynamic, progressive force. If it is ignored or penalized, its weakening weakens the whole.”
The sociological evidence for that is overwhelming—and most Americans don’t need sociology to know it. There is a large body of evidence linking religiosity to several key indicators of social health in America. E. Bradford Wilcox retailed much of that evidence in his 2004 Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands, and there has been more since. Religiosity correlates negatively with crime and delinquency (as Guenter Lewy showed in his 1996 Why America Needs Religion), and positively with charitable giving and volunteer work (as Arthur C. Brooks demonstrated in his 2006 Who Really Cares), and with civic engagement generally (as Robert D. Putnam wrote in his 2000 Bowling Alone).
Most obvious, however, is the link between religious belief and practice, on the one hand, and the stability of family, on the other. One study held that the rate of divorce and separation is 2.4 times higher among nonbelievers than churchgoers. Another major study found that those who “frequently attend religious services are only about half as likely to separate.” Couples who share the same denomination are 42 percent more likely to be very happy than couples who do not; moreover, higher rates of attendance and theological conservatism are also associated with greater marital happiness, especially when spouses have similar beliefs and attendance patterns.
Such facts, of literally vital importance, are explicable along the lines Novak suggests. When people are well formed by family, church, and all the other institutions of civil society that mediate between the individual and the state, they naturally resist the politicization of life and the encroachments of the state even as many are motivated to become and remain civically engaged. But atomized, self-defining individuals need a Leviathan to direct and protect them, as the only alternative to anarchy. And under today’s social conditions, there are more and more such people.
Nevertheless, the sociological data cannot suffice to show that Americans should remain religious in broadly the sort of way they have been religious—any more than the historical fact of American religion by itself demonstrates the necessity for religion in the American experiment.
Some have argued so. Stephen L. Carter, for instance, in his 2000 God’s Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics, insists that “in the absence of the religious voice, American politics itself becomes unimaginable. . . . Religion is what we profess and morality is what it moves us to do. Politics needs morality, which means that politics needs religion. In a nation grown increasingly materialistic and increasingly involved in urging satisfaction of desire as the proper subject of both the market and politics, the religious voice, at its best, is perhaps the only remaining force that can call us to something higher and better than thinking constantly about our own selves, our own wants, our own rights. Politics without religion must necessarily be, in today’s America, the politics of me.”
That’s right, of course, but the question of why it’s right still remains before us—a problem not just for believers but for the nation itself as an enduring entity.
Contemporary secular liberalism, and the social decomposition it is incapable of addressing, are the almost irresistible outworking of the problematic of modernity: All the beliefs, norms, and prejudices formed by the mediating institutions of civil society, and therefore those institutions themselves, successively come under question as obstacles to the unfettered freedom of the autonomous individual. All that’s left, or would be left, is what happens to remain largely unquestioned: the consumer society, which is about choice, and the nanny state, which forbids and penalizes bad choices.
Neither the consumer society nor the nanny state do anything to form, sustain, or improve the moral character of the citizenry. In the long run, this proves as destructive philosophically as it is socially. Liberalism is based on certain ideas, such as that of human dignity, that are actually predicated on Christianity and biblical religion. Human dignity, at least in the relevant sense, didn’t exist for the Greeks; and as we analyze the waves of modernity, it becomes evident that every attempt to anchor human dignity in something other than biblical religion has failed.
The religion of the West gave the West a belief in a God who is distinct from and above any human, or social structure, or nation. It gave us an understanding of obligations to that God which are also distinct from and above the obligations to society and state. It established both the idea of a strong cultural place for preachers to name those obligations for all, and the idea of an inner conscience that is utterly individual. Most of all, biblical religion gave us an understanding of the world in which each of us—by ourselves, without the support of our nations or our families—will be judged for our thoughts and words, for what we have done and what we have failed to do. Together, these are the beliefs that created, and grounded, the concepts at the core of the American democratic experiment.
Consider, then, the Supreme Court’s famous pronouncement in the 1992 abortion decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey:
These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.
In a certain sense, this is straight from the American experiment’s application of the biblical foundations of democracy. Who defends the state’s trying to coerce belief? Who rejects personal dignity?
But a great shift has occurred. No longer is human personal dignity, and thus our inalienable human rights, thought to derive from “nature’s God” and his laws; rather, negative liberty is seen as so essential to personhood that no concept of a transcendental source and goal of humanity can be embodied in the positive law without violating such dignity and rights. The value of freedom from tyranny is no longer measured in terms of what such freedom is for. It is valued purely for its own sake as “central to personal dignity and autonomy,” with no consistent, philosophical rationale cited for such valuation—and no consistent, philosophical rationale possible for such valuation.
Central to such a worldview, as Robert P. Kraynak noted in his 2001 Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, is the metaphysical belief “that the universe is ordered by scientific laws that are indifferent to man, requiring human beings to assert their own dignity by showing that they are autonomous beings and masters of their fate. In the modern view of human dignity, God and nature may exist as cause of order in the universe but man’s rational constructions and willful creations take precedence as sources of human dignity or worth.”
The logical consequence is that no capaciously religious or philosophical vision of human good can be embodied in our laws without curtailing individual liberty. The nation has lost the collective vocabulary for explaining, in non-sectarian terms, why some restrictions and not others are compatible with a healthy individual liberty. Even educated religious believers seem now to lack the words with which to express a principled defense of American freedom, American religion, and American exceptionalism.
It has more than once been argued that only the special convergence of circumstances in late-colonial America made possible the nation’s distinctive, creative tension between biblical religion and Enlightenment rationalism. That may well be true. But it does not follow that the disappearance of said circumstances precludes America’s remaining exceptional in that fundamental respect.
But the nation will not so remain if it ceases to think of ethical monotheism, in however vague a form, as the conceptual and practical foundation for freedom. What makes America exceptional, and worth preserving, is the tension between reason and faith—where both are rightly valued for themselves and not for their contribution to the tension. Religion actually works to ground the American experiment because we take religion more seriously than the American experiment.
Stephen Carter was quite right when he argued that “religions—though not democracy—will always lose their best, most spiritual selves when they choose to be involved in the partisan, electoral side of American politics.” At the same time, he noted “there is nothing wrong, and much right, with the robust participation of the nation’s many religious voices in debates over matters of public moment.”
What’s right about that is not so much the limp truism that, in a democracy, all voices should be heard; rather, in a republic, religious voices in particular should be heard because only they remind us of a source of moral authority, and human dignity, beyond what the state is able and willing to grant.
A Pony Among Horses
I picked up, recently, a modern anthology of children’s poetry, designed, its British editor declared, “to speak to today’s children.” And, amid much of the verse that must appear in any such anthology for children, I found some less typical work—presumably the poetry uniquely for today’s children.
Thus, for instance, among its standard oldies but goodies, the book contained the famous, well-worn rhythmic gem from Edgar Allan Poe that begins:
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.
And, at the same time, the book contains Delmore Schwartz’s little-known twentieth-century lyrical lullaby entitled “O Child, Do Not Fear the Dark and Sleep’s Dark Possession,” which opens:
O child, when you go down to sleep
and sleep’s secession
You become more and other than you are,
you become the procession
Of bird and beast and tree: you are a chorus,
A pony among horses,
a sapling in a dark forest.
I actually love both these poems; they’re well-constructed and well-found: serious and competent, and they reveal the genuine poetic inspiration of their American authors.
But anyone who tries actually reading these poems aloud to a classroom full of children, or even to a single child propped up in bed with pillows, will quickly find that Poe’s poem is successful as children’s verse while Schwartz’s poem is not. And if we could determine the reasons for this dissimilarity in the reception of the two poems, we would have gone a long way toward discovering what it is that makes good poetry for children—and what it is that we may reasonably hope to gain by teaching children to read it.
One obvious difference is the effect of the form. Although “Eldorado” mixes such masculine rhymes as “long” and “song” with such feminine rhymes as “shadow” and “Eldorado,” the rhymes are all strong, hard couplings and the short, heavily accented, two-foot lines hammer them home. In Schwartz’s lullaby, the extended, lightly accented, six-foot lines force the rhymes off a long distance—and even then those rhymes are feminine and, in the case of “chorus” and “forest,” slant rhymed.
Another obvious difference is the complexity of the writing. There are difficult words in both poems, words that children are unlikely to know—although, I suppose, young children are marginally more likely to know secession than bedight, and, certainly, secession is certainly a more useful word to teach them, for the purposes of contemporary speech: Sometime in life, they’ll have to say secession; never will they genuinely need bedight.
And yet, “Eldorado” still comes off as the easier poem for children, since understanding secession is the key to following Schwartz’s poem—and understanding bedight is not actually necessary for grasping Poe’s poem. So too, with such phrases as “more and other than you are,” Schwartz piles up a grammatical density that is utterly missing in Poe—a density that children would be hard-pressed to sort out at first hearing.
Yet a third obvious difference between the poems is the result of simple historical accident: Regardless of whether or not he is a better poet, the fact remains that Poe wrote a hundred years before Schwartz, and his work’s long tenure in the genre of popular Victorian parlor verse gives nearly everything he wrote a patina of familiarity that Schwartz could never hope to obtain when he wrote in the 1950s. “O Child, Do Not Fear the Dark and Sleep’s Dark Possession” does not rank among Schwartz’s best works, but even a universally admired poem like his “Ballad of the Children of the Czar” will never awaken the resonances effortlessly maintained by Poe in “The Raven,” “Annabel Lee,” “The Bells,” and “To Helen.” Indeed, even the word “Eldorado” has permanently entered the English language thanks to Poe.
Form, complexity, and familiarity—on all these counts, when read to children, Poe’s “Eldorado” is going to beat Schwartz’s poem. And beat it by a mile.
Yes, there has been some marvelous children’s verse written in more recent decades. Almost anything by David McCord, for instance, and plenty by X.J. Kennedu, and even Jack Prelutsky’s 1990 “Mother Goblin’s Lullaby,” which begins:
Go to sleep, my baby goblin,
hushaby, my dear of dears,
if you disobey your mother,
she will twist your pointed ears.
And, yes, there was a great deal of truly horrible parlor verse produced for children in the nineteenth century, as for instance such work by the late-Victorian newspaper versifier Ella Wheeler Wilcox as:
Have you heard of the Valley of Babyland,
The realms where the dear little darlings stay
Till the kind storks go, as all men know,
And oh! so tenderly bring them away?
But the fact remains that a greater effect in education is obtained by reading to a child a well-known poem than a little-known poem.
Part of the reason for this is the simple fact of the knowledge being shared. The vision held by Matthew Arnold in the nineteenth century—that universal knowledge of poetry would take the place of the universal knowledge of the Bible he could already feel fading in England—has certainly not come about. But there is some knowledge of poetry shared in America, and if the metaphorical resources of the language are not to be reduced entirely to references to 1960s television programs, that shared knowledge needs to be preserved.
But there is another and better reason to read William Blake’s “The Tyger” to a child, and Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” and Eugene Field’s “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses—and all of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear and Edgar Allan Poe.
And that reason has to do with handing on a language as rich as the language we received. We need to read poetry to children to maintain the deposit of word and phrase—to keep alive prior generations’ investment in the language. There is a purpose in putting young Lochinvar is come out of the West and The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees in children’s anthologies—and ’Twas the night before Christmas and what is so rare as a day in June? and I hear America singing and Under a spreading chestnut tree and all the rest of the Victorian parlor classics. The person who is not given these references as a child is finally deprived as an adult, for the language will never thicken and clot around old memories.
For that matter, this kind of poetry serves yet another function for children. Something there is, in poetry, that children appreciate, that captures the titanic waves of emotion in a child’s life: either a sort of wild excitement, a mad glint in the poem’s eye, or an oceanic sadness swelling underneath the lines.
Look at it this way: Lewis Carroll’s verse would be mostly bad puns and logic games were it not that he, more than any other poet, conveys childhood’s madness. And the rightness of sorrow in verse is something that Poe knew when he wrote “Annabel Lee” and that Stevenson knew in nearly all his poems.
Isn’t this your experience? Children want mad nonsense in their poetry, and they want rolling raves of sorrow and loss in their verse, and they just don’t seem to want much of the more delicate stuff between. Nor, for that matter, should they.
While We’re At It
• Driving around outside Los Angeles last month, Susan McWilliams, a professor of politics at Pomona College, sighted something truly Californian: a solar-powered tanning salon. According to the salon’s website, “Sunlounge Tanning Studio & Spa has taken the first step to reducing its energy demand with the use of solar power. I guess you can say that this is the closest you’ll get to tanning outdoors when you’re actually tanning indoors. In a sense, we’re the sun’s middle man.” There’s something odd in that, isn’t there? I mean, the sun usually sells direct. And we often get it wholesale.
• During an October 2009 panel discussion on “Covering Climate: What’s Population Got to Do with It?,” the New York Times’ environmental reporter Andrew Revkin tossed out the following idea: “Probably the single-most concrete and substantive thing an American . . . could do to lower our carbon footprint is not turning off the lights or driving a Prius, it’s having fewer kids. So should there be, . . . should you get credit—If we’re going to become carbon-centric—for having a one-child family when you could have had two or three? And obviously it’s just a thought experiment, but it raises some interesting questions about all this.”
It certainly does raise some interesting questions. For instance, what would the carbon-credit value of a child be in this cash-for-kids program? And, if reducing carbon emissions is perceived as more essential to the common good than nurturing families, might not a voluntary carbon-credit policy eventually (and justifiably) become a mandatory one-child policy? And where have we heard that term before?
• The city council of Watford, outside London, has banned parents from playing with their children in its “adventure areas,” thereby taking the term nanny state to a whole new level. Only vetted “play rangers” are allowed on the playgrounds; parents must watch from the other side of a perimeter fence. Mother-of-five Marcella Bergin was understandably upset: “It’s like they are branding all parents potential pedophiles, which is disgraceful—99 percent of people are great parents and certainly not child abusers. The whole thing is just a joke and I will certainly not be adhering to the new rules, which, frankly, are crazy.” According to the Telegraph, “councilors in Watford claim they are only following Government guidelines and cannot allow adults to walk around playgrounds ‘unchecked,’ for fear of pedophiles.” Somehow, we don’t think the “just following orders” line is going to do much to calm Mrs. Bergin down.
Meanwhile, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, has ruled that the government of Italy must remove crucifixes from public school classrooms throughout that country. According to the decision of the court, “The presence of the crucifix . . . could easily be interpreted by pupils of all ages as a religious sign.” This, the court said, could be “disturbing for pupils who practiced other religions or were atheists.” The ruling stated that the display of crucifixes restricted not only the right of parents to educate their children “in conformity with their convictions,” but also “the right of children to believe or not to believe.”
The Italian government and the Church responded at once. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini termed the ruling a “mortal blow to a Europe of values and rights.” The Italian Bishops’ Conference said that the crucifix is “not only a religious symbol but also a cultural sign” and noted that its display in public buildings is “part of the historic heritage of the Italian people.” On November 6 Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced that the crucifixes would stay in place as Italy appeals the ruling. “Nobody,” said Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini, “much less a European court that is steeped in ideology, will be allowed to strip our identity away.” If, however, the seventeen-member Grand Chamber of the Strasbourg court rejects the appeal, the court will order the stripping of the crucifixes from Italian classrooms.
As Minister Gelmini commented, “It is not by eliminating the traditions of individual countries that a united Europe is built.” Did the individual countries of Europe envision such sweeping decisions when they joined the EU? And how much power, exactly, does the EU have to compel its member states to abandon long-held traditions? Italy—and the rest of Europe—may find out soon.
• The College Bound Sisters program in Greensboro, North Carolina, sets three goals for its young participants: Avoid pregnancy, graduate from high school, and enroll in college. And it pays them to do it. The program offers teenage girls “at risk for unplanned pregnancy”—girls who have older sisters who were themselves teen mothers—$7 a week for staying “pregnancy-free” and attending weekly meetings. At the meetings the girls learn self-defense, college-preparation skills, and pregnancy-prevention techniques such as abstinence and contraceptives. (That the girls remain pregnancy-free seems far more important to the program than how.) The girls cannot collect their accumulated pay until they have graduated from high school and enrolled in college. The reward, says program coordinator Hazel Brown, is “incentive for [the girls] to change their life trajectory.”
The College Bound Sisters’ intention to help young women break out of the pattern of life that they see all around them is admirable, but the program’s method seems questionable. Consider any other example of moral responsibility, and the absurdity is clear: We do not pay people not to steal or murder; we expect it of them. Putting a price tag on virtue seems to miss the value of virtue altogether. Moreover, were we to appraise virtue, $1 a day seems a bit low.
• Debra Bazarsky, the director of Princeton’s LGBT Center, applauded the University’s decision to make provisions for coed housing during the 2009–2010 academic year. “I am glad to hear that Princeton has moved in the direction to offer a pilot program for gender-free housing for undergraduate students,” she wrote to the Daily Princetonian. Um, gender-free? “This will have positive outcomes for transgender and genderqueer students as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual and heterosexual students.” But if the targeted students already are gender-free, how do they go about choosing between coed and single-sex dorm options? If students find themselves in a gender-free dormitory, how can they be transgendered?
• When Reza Vossough, a plastic surgeon in Berlin, married his thirty-three-year-old wife Cany, he knew he had a lot of work to do—not on their relationship, but on her body. “When I first met Cany, she had physical deficiencies, but I could see there was something there. She had big hips and big thighs, so we made corrections, then did a little bit more.” Eight surgeries later, Vossough is satisfied with the results and convinced that they are “better than nature could do.” The arrogance and insanity here is enough to make one gag—this guy belongs on the cover of Mad Scientists Weekly. But, meanwhile, surely one journalist could have come up with a “male chauvinist Pig-malion” headline?
• In Indonesia, Catholics, Muslims, Protestants, Buddhists and Hindus joined together to protest the liberalizing of Indonesia’s abortion laws, according to the Catholic News Agency. It seems extraordinary that, in an overwhelmingly religious country dominated by Muslims, an attempt to legalize abortion would have gotten even this far. But the interreligious coalition opposing it serves as one more counterexample to the canard that pro-life advocacy is necessarily sectarian—or even monotheistic.
• It’s hard to keep up the illusion of abortion as a positive good when the ugly reality of it is always lurking just behind the abstract idea. The wall of illusion came crashing down for Abby Johnson when, after working for Planned Parenthood in Texas for eight years, she witnessed an actual abortion on ultrasound. In a television interview, she explained, “It was actually an ultrasound-guided abortion procedure. . . . And my job was to hold the ultrasound probe on this woman’s abdomen so that the physician could actually see the uterus on the ultrasound screen. And when I looked at the screen, I saw a baby. . . . I saw a full side profile. So I saw face to feet. . . . I saw the probe going into the woman’s uterus. And at that moment, I saw the baby moving and trying to get away from the probe. . . . And I thought, “It’s fighting for its life. . . . It’s life, I mean, it’s alive.”
After some additional questions, Johnson went on to say: “And then, all of a sudden, I mean, it was just over. . . . And I just saw the, I just saw the baby just literally, just crumble, and it was over. . . . I was thinking about my daughter, who’s three, and I was thinking about the ultrasound I had of her, and I was thinking of just how perfect that ultrasound was when she was twelve weeks in the womb. And I was just thinking, ‘What am I doing?’ . . . I had one hand on this woman’s belly, and I was thinking, ‘There was life in here, and now there’s not.’”
And that was it. Any illusion Johnson had about what abortion really is was over. She quit her job and began working with the pro-life organization that protested at her former clinic.
• In stark and sad contrast to the story of Abby Johnson is the story of a doctor in the Midwest who wrote about her own moment of disillusionment. It came as she performed an abortion on a woman eighteen weeks pregnant while she herself was eighteen weeks pregnant. “I felt a kick—a fluttery ‘thump, thump’ in my own uterus. It was one of the first times I felt fetal movement. There was a leg and foot in my forceps, and a ‘thump, thump’ in my abdomen. Instantly, tears were streaming from my eyes—without me—meaning my conscious brain—even being aware of what was going on. I felt as if my response had come entirely from my body, bypassing my usual cognitive processing completely. A message seemed to travel from my hand and my uterus to my tear ducts. It was an overwhelming feeling—a brutally visceral response—heartfelt and unmediated by my training or my feminist pro-choice politics.”
Horrifyingly, for this woman, unlike Abby Johnson, that was not the end of it. Her illusion was gone, but she continued to perform abortions. “Doing second trimester abortions did not get easier after my pregnancy,” she said. “In fact, dealing with little infant parts of my born baby only made dealing with dismembered fetal parts sadder.”
• And the strange moral disconnect goes on: Having resigned from her post at Planned Parenthood and declared herself pro-life after viewing an abortion on ultrasound, Abby Johnson now faces rejection at the Episcopal Church where she and her husband worship. “Whereas clergy and parishioners welcomed her as a Planned Parenthood employee, now they are buttonholing her after Sunday services,” says the Washington Times, which also quotes her: “Now that I have taken this stand, some of the people there are not accepting of that. People have told me they disagree with my choice. One of the things I’ve been told is that as Episcopalians, we embrace our differences and disagreements. While I agree with that, I am not sure I can go to a place where I don’t feel I am welcome.” People who publicly acknowledge that abortion is homicide will have a hard time in the Church of Tolerance, at least if they act accordingly.
• A notice to writers: Just because a metaphor is consistent through a passage, that doesn’t make it good. Take a look at “Biblical Passions, Ringing in Church,” a review in the New York Times of Stile Antico, a young British early music ensemble, that made its New York debut singing sixteenth-century settings of texts from the Song of Songs. Reviewer Steve Smith explains, “The passion was palpable in Francisco Guerrero’s ‘Trahe me post te,’ a Marian devotional that more than verged on eroticism. You could almost smell the perfume wafting through a ravishing account of Victoria’s ‘Vidi speciosam,’ which closed the program. After those selections, the encore—a stately ‘Miserere mihi, Domine’ by William Byrd—was a much-needed cold shower.”
Well, then, it’s good thing Stile Antico offered that encore, or the Times’ Smith would have been a menace on the streets walking home.
• Zeal consumes the members of Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, North Carolina—or, at least, consumes books. The church sponsored a Halloween book-burning at which the works of such heretics as Billy Graham and Mother Teresa were fed to the flames. Perhaps most disturbing was the fact that Scripture itself underwent a trial by fire: Many modern translations of the Bible were deliberately destroyed. For worshipers at Amazing Grace, only the King James Bible will do. According to the church’s website, “We believe that the King James Bible is the word of God. We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the verbally and plenary inspired Word of God. We believe that the KJV is inspired by God.”
Despite the Bible translations used in Catholic service in the United States, we haven’t been able to bring ourselves to recommend mass burnings. Just mass replacement.
• the teaser on the back cover of a copy of Pride and Prejudice purchased at an Indian bazaar for 80 rupees: “Scatterbrained, social climbing Mrs. Bennet makes one demand of her five daughters: Marry. Marry well. Marry RICH. But sweet Jane is hopelessly in love with Mr. Bingley, who doesn’t seem to notice. Flighty Lydia wants a man—any man—preferably one in uniform. Kitty just wants to have fun. Shy Mary has her nose in a book. And Elizabeth—brilliant, stubborn, independent Lizzy—refuses the advances of the most ‘marriageable’ man in town—haughty, handsome, wealthy Mr. Darcy. Mrs. Bennet’s in hysterics, Mr. Bennet’s in his study, Lydia’s eloped with a soldier and Jane’s heart may well be broken. Will any of the Bennet girls find true love and fortune?”
Um, kind of, I guess.
• Economist Robert Barro and his wife, researcher Elizabeth Cleary, examined twenty years of data from fifty-nine countries that measured, according to the Boston Globe, “levels of belief in God, afterlife beliefs, and worship attendance—through statistical models.” Their study showed correlations between economic growth and religious beliefs and demonstrated that, “most strikingly, if belief in hell jumps up sharply while actual church attendance stays flat, it correlates with economic growth. Belief in heaven also has a similar effect, though less pronounced.”
“What you want,” McCleary told the Globe “is to have people have their children grow up in a faith, but then they should become productive members of society. They shouldn’t be spending all their time in religious services.”
Because, you see, we want the fruits of religion without, like, actually the religion.
• On November 17, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the release of the movie Ben Hur with an article titled “Hollywood in Rome for a Christian Story.” The piece notes the epic film’s ability to balance its expansiveness with more personal scenes, such as those that show Judah Ben Hur’s conversion to Christianity.
This is not, in fact, the first time the Vatican has spoken out in praise of this film. In 1995 Ben Hur made the Vatican’s list of forty-five “great films,” appearing as number three—if only because the list was in alphabetical order. The complete list can be found on the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, where the description of Ben Hur states that “the narrative’s conventional melodrama is transformed by the grand scale of its spectacle . . . and by the stirring performance of its principals who manage to overcome the story’s clichés and stereotypes.”
The story’s clichés and stereotypes? So now we’re getting criticism of the original book? Poor Lew Wallace—the Civil War general, governor of New Mexico, target of Billy the Kid, and author of Ben Hur, the 1880 book that was, for a long time, the bestselling novel ever published. It seems a little over-stern to dismiss the book so cavalierly, but, then, the Vatican never did think much of American art before movies came along.
• Times are tough for magazines and newspapers, and necessity still seems to be the mother of invention. The New York Times, in an apparent effort to increase readership and influence, has begun marketing aggressively to college students. This means we can expect to see more free copies of the Times handed out on college campuses, right? Well, no. It’s actually a bit more aggressive than that. An email sent from the Times to college professors informs them that they are entitled to a complimentary subscription if they include the Times as required reading for one of their courses. That’s right, required. There is also a free gift in store for the professor who evangelizes so convincingly for the Times that he prevails on fifteen of his students to subscribe. Scott Stein, a professor at Drexel University and a recipient of the Times’ solicitation, says that making the Times mandatory reading “is an invitation to accusations of bias and indoctrination. Professors should not be trying to get their students to think like the Times.” Nor, it must be said, should the Times’ financial interests be involved in whether or not college students are required to read it for credit. In its email to professors, the Times describes itself as “the nation’s most honored newspaper.” One can only hope that this appeal to the young is an effort aimed at the survival of print media, not an attempt to inculcate a new generation with the thinking of an old-line publication with an ever-more-leftist bent.