Has American liberalism lost its capacity to govern? I’m afraid so. Liberals can still win elections and propose realistic policies. But as a culture, liberalism has become insular and narrow-minded. It lacks the capacity for the generous appreciation of other points of view needed in a pluralistic society. That capacity is more likely to be found today among conservatives, particularly religious conservatives.
The parochial tendency of liberalism was evident to me at a nearby Ivy League institution during a consultation on the common good. Participants in our small group made intelligent comments about the details of the health-care legislation and the political process as well as finer points of political philosophy. Yet, for all their evident intelligence and goodwill, the group found it very difficult to conceive of the possibility that someone might object to the recent health-care legislation and do so on the basis of a commitment to the common good. They could not get their minds around the notion that a reasonable, morally serious person could worry about an expansion of the role of government in medicine.
I pointed out that congressmen tend to use the federal purse as a bank account from which to draw rewards for their constituents and supporters. I drew attention to potential budget-busting consequences and observed that, even if experts can introduce new efficiencies (a very big “if”), most of us don’t want our health-care decisions to be made by bureaucrats. I worried about the likelihood of rationing and the danger of federal funding of abortion.
Perhaps these concerns were wrongheaded. Conservative principles and intuitions don’t guarantee good judgments about public policies. But that’s not the point. When I ventured the criticisms, the good-hearted liberals fell back on stock phrases. Resistance to the bill is based on “special interests.” Critics are motivated by an irrational “fear” and a “blind” commitment to “free-market ideology.” They are “self-interested” and do not care about those who cannot afford insurance.
We’ve all experienced the liberal default to denunciation. Reservations about radical feminism? “Patriarchal.” Criticize multicultural lunacy? “Cultural imperialist.” Question affirmative action? “Racist.” Opposed to same-sex marriage? “Homophobic” or “heterosexist.” Worried that increased taxation will stifle economic growth? “Protecting the rich” and “indifferent to the poor.” The message is that anyone who questions liberal policies is either a bigot or out for himself, and probably both.
The decline of religiosity among liberal elites in recent decades has accentuated this parochialism. During the debates leading up to the revision of the general-education requirements at Harvard, some genuinely liberal faculty members proposed a required course on reason and faith, observing that students need to understand the religious ways in which the vast majority of human beings have and still think about First Things.
But it was not to be. Secular jihadist Steven Pinker insisted that faith “has no place in anything but a religious institution.” Concern for faith and its influential role in society “is an American anachronism,” and “the rest of the West is moving beyond it.” In other words, the Smart People who run the world needn’t waste their time with the beliefs that govern the lives of most of the folks who actually live in the world.
We’re all parochial to one degree or another, but few religious conservatives match Steven Pinker. One must go into the realm of extreme fundamentalism to find someone with his dismissive smugness. Conservatives who pronounce the study of Newton and Darwin to be a waste of time wield no influence at Hillsdale or Wheaton. Thomas Aquinas College is conservative by any measure, and its Great Books program includes the serious reading of Rousseau, Marx, Feuerbach, and Nietzsche, as well as many other modern critics of traditional moral and religious beliefs.
Liberals I know dismiss my observations by pointing to Michael Savage and other conservative provocateurs. But I’m interested in comparing professors with professors, not professors with rabble-rousers, and there the difference is clear: Liberal elites tend toward parochial narrowness, while conservative elites often manifest a cosmopolitan capacity to engage and appreciate, and even to be changed by, a variety of viewpoints. They exhibit the mentality necessary for exercising civic responsibility in a pluralistic society.
At least in part, this cosmopolitanism stems from the historical experience of modernity. Religious convictions no longer seem obvious or normal and are often regarded as eccentric, irrelevant, and even dangerous. Moral standards once thought obligatory have become optional, or are denounced as puritanical, Victorian, oppressive, hetero-normative, and so forth.
Although liberals like to think that those who remain conservative have somehow evaded or insulated themselves from these challenges, the reality is that conservatives have participated in modernity just as fully. Traditional social and religious views have often (though not always) been criticized for good reasons. We don’t want our daughters’ futures to be limited in the way roles for women were at the beginning of the modern era, nor do we mourn the passing of racial segregation and the indignities of Jim Crow.
As a consequence, sophisticated social and religious conservatives today are aware of the contingent and contested nature of their convictions. I can’t take my faith for granted, which is why, however certain I may be, I also don’t presume that others share my faith. The conservative, especially the religious conservative, recognizes that well-meaning, intelligent people have different beliefs, and they have to be taken seriously.
There is an agony in this awareness of contingency and pluralism. Religious faith binds our souls with profound and particular loyalties—to Christ, to the Torah, or to a body of teaching. The same holds for moral convictions that brook no compromise. It is natural that we try to convince and convert. It is an act of love, not aggression, to bring another to see and affirm deep truths about God and human destiny. But we also seek points of agreement in order to establish a modest, ad hoc commonwealth of conviction, a practical consensus able to meet the challenges of providing a free, just, and humane public life. These experiences—both the ardent efforts to convert and the cooler strategies for cooperation—teach lessons in solidarity, for one can neither convert nor cooperate at a distance.
Ideally, the liberal seeks a cosmopolitanism of impartiality, one that calls for “public reasons” that everyone can agree on. It’s a classical ideal of cosmopolitanism based on a vision of universal reason safely above the particular religious and moral beliefs that often serve as the source of discord and division. A laudable goal, perhaps, but in point of fact this ideal tends to undermine rather than promote solidarity. Those who imagine themselves to have attained the universality of reason preside at a distance, casting themselves in the roles of referee and judge responsible for determining whose reasons are “public” or indeed “reasonable.”
Or worse, they become cultural therapists, anointed experts in the supposed pathologies of conviction and cultural conflict. The therapeutic ethos receives support in present-day liberalism from a widespread skepticism that seems the opposite of older beliefs in universal reason but turns out to lead to the same governing mentality. We can’t know moral or religious truths, we are told, and to know that we can’t know creates the paradoxical imperative to denounce moral imperatives so that we can manage our differences in an “inclusive” and “nonjudgmental” fashion.
Judge or referee, therapist or manager, the liberal governs from above. This distance—the conviction that liberalism has somehow transcended the nitty-gritty of substantive debate and attained a higher outlook—is what allows the old-fashioned rationalists like Steven Pinker to ally themselves with postmodern skeptics in the liberal establishment. The liberal maintains his distance, exempting himself (or imagining himself exempted) from the agonies of the always morally, metaphysically, and religiously fraught content of important human interactions. It’s this insulating distance, along with a therapeutic understanding of those below them, that encourages unwarranted feelings of superiority. The liberal does not see the conservative as a man or woman with ideas and convictions to be engaged but as a person with prejudices and interests to be diagnosed and treated.
My convictions won’t let me remain at a distance. I want the whole world to confess Christ as Lord. I want everyone to believe in the sanctity of life. It’s the nature of robust religious and moral convictions to motivate us to plant our flags in order to claim territory. But to plant my flag I must come ashore. I must engage my fellow human beings face-to-face, for they are also trying to plant their flags. It’s a fraught encounter, of course, and a dangerous one, as history teaches us. But it’s also one that takes others with the utmost seriousness.
By my reckoning, this humanism of encounter, this cosmopolitanism of engagement, flourishes best within many of the achievements of modern liberalism—democratic accountability, rule of law, and rigorously protected civil rights—for they keep the encounters and engagements within proper bounds. Yet, important as those past achievements may be, as a mentality and climate of opinion liberalism today suffers from a self-insulating parochialism animating a governing elite that not only refuses to engage those who disagree but also is quick to turn to denunciation and caricature in order to silence challengers.
Hardly appropriate for a democratic society. Conservatives, especially religious conservatives, understand and accept the obligation to participate in the agonies of disagreement that will always divide a pluralistic society. Much more fitting as part of a governing mentality in a democratic society.
The Changing of the Guard
Good for Commonweal magazine. In a recent issue they published a balanced discussion of the Catholic theological scene, one that makes quite evident the changing of the guard from the surreal intransigence of a now passing generation of liberal Catholic theologians to new voices that are more obedient and sensible.
The occasion was a dustup in the Catholic theological world in the wake of what (to my mind) was a straightforward and appropriately critical analysis, put out by the Committee on Doctrine of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, of Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, by the feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson. Johnson is one of those theologians who transform classical Christian affirmations of the ultimate mystery of God into a metaphor-minting license. The times they are a’changing, and we need, she says, a “revolution” in theology that gives us new, inclusive, and “non-authoritarian” images for God, etc., etc., etc.
The Catholic Theological Society of America—an organization that has transformed itself from a staid academic forum into a union for liberal Catholic theologians who are perpetually at war with the Catholic magisterium—immediately issued a defiant response. They are, however, “open to further conversation with the Committee on Doctrine regarding the understanding of our theological task.” Very magnanimous of them.
This is all very typical of the scene in American Catholic theology in recent decades: a tentative and even diffident effort by the bishops to exercise some oversight of academic theology followed immediately by a “how dare you” response from the academic theologians. So the editors of Commonweal asked a couple of theologians to weigh in on this now ritualized dispute.
Luke Timothy Johnson, New Testament professor at Emory University, fixed on the “tone” of the committee’s statement. Its critical approach “is anything but collegial and makes clear that the last thing the committee wanted to do was to hear from Johnson, much less learn from her.” On the contrary, what the committee “wanted above all was that she be silenced.” Silenced? The statement struck me as measured. In any event, it called for no book burnings, no inquisitions, no ecclesiastical trials—nothing that even remotely suggests “silencing.”
Apparently Johnson and his theological allies have very thin skins. “The statement,” he continues, “represents another stage in the progressive stifling of theological creativity in the church, and it presents to the world the spectacle of a once-glorious intellectual tradition committing self-strangulation in public.” Come again? A plainly written document pointing out the ways in which Elizabeth Johnson caricatures traditional theologies, misrepresents the Catholic view of divine mystery, and comes to conclusions at odds with the official teaching of the Catholic Church amounts to the “stifling of theological creativity” and “self-strangulation in public”?
Luke Timothy Johnson accuses the committee of imposing the narrow “formulas of nineteenth-century systematic theology” and juxtaposes this supposed narrowness to the fact that Elizabeth Johnson’s theological assumptions have been shared “by virtually all reputable Catholic theologians before recent efforts to return the church to a Tridentine form.” Translation: All the intelligent, progressive people I know agree with Elizabeth Johnson, and whoever doesn’t is a mindless reactionary.
Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt, professor of theology at Loyola University in Baltimore, takes a more sober view. He points out that the committee’s statement “focuses more on critique than on censure.” That’s not surprising, he notes, because, aside from seminary professors and those who teach at pontifical faculties, Catholic theologians aren’t subject to Church discipline. In fact, those who criticize the Church tend to flourish. Elizabeth Johnson has received more than a dozen honorary degrees.
Academic accolades notwithstanding, nearly all Catholic theologians, including the liberal, revisionist ones, care about what the Church has to say about their work, as Bauerschmidt points out. He agrees with the committee’s criticisms, finding the book “an intellectually confused and confusing work.” But he recognizes that Johnson clearly writes for the Church and her members, hoping to enrich rather than diminish their faith. Having the chief pastors of the Church tell you that you’ve failed surely stings, which is why, he observes, an official critique from the Committee on Doctrine cannot help but feel like a censure.
Quite true. I know some dissenting theologians whose academic tenure insulates them from anything remotely like real censure. Yet, however misguided their theologies, their desire to serve the Church makes them vulnerable to official criticism and decisions by the hierarchy that treat dissent as dissent. They often develop the bitter view that the Church is ganging up on them—and this even as they are promoted in academic rank and accorded honors in theological societies.
It’s understandable, and better than an insouciant mentality that cares not a whit what the bishops say. But nonetheless, it should not be an occasion for self-pity. Dissent can be dignified, but not when it results in hyperbolic claims of oppression, along with caricatures of those allegedly doing the oppressing. And dissent is especially puerile when it suggests that the ephemeral consensus of your like-minded friends (“virtually all reputable Catholic theologians”) outweighs the chief pastors of the Church.
Exile and Homecoming
Yale professor Carlos Eire is a fine scholar of late-medieval and Reformation history, and a superb memoirist as well. Born in pre-Castro Cuba and a young refugee to America in the early 1960s, he sat down more than a decade ago to write about his childhood. The result: Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, a dreamlike narrative of his experiences in the lost world of wealthy Cuban society. The book won a National Book Award.
Eire has carried his story forward, and his new book, Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy, recounts more nightmares than dreams. In 1962, he and his brother left Cuba as part of Operation Peter Pan, a program that allowed parents who opposed the Castro government to expatriate their children to Miami in advance of their own departure to America. But the Bay of Pigs intervened.
Thrown into an English-speaking world without parents, Eire and his brother land in warm American foster homes. Soon, however, they are transferred to a desperate group home with other Cuban boys. After a long and hard year, they are suddenly liberated, sent to live with their uncle in Bloomington, Illinois. Somehow their mother manages to leave Cuba—but not their father, who prefers to stay. They move to Chicago, and as a teenager Eire lives with his brother and mother in a hardscrabble basement apartment far from the antique-filled home of his childhood in Havana.
The Spanish-speaking world recedes and an English-speaking world takes its place. Wealth is replaced by poverty. An already mysterious father becomes a disembodied, ghostly memory. Eire experiments with names: Carlos becomes Charles, Charlie, and then Chuck. Each loss is a kind of death: the death of a Cuban, of a son, of a child whose world was once secure. As the trajectory of memory reaches toward the present, we read about his brother spiraling downward in self-destructive decay and his mother’s exile from her retirement home. By the end of the memoir death swallows them both.
Waiting for Snow is a beautiful book, full of magical memories only vaguely overshadowed by the impending catastrophe of Castro, and I remember reading it with great pleasure. Learning to Die is darker. It recounts suffering that cannot be transformed into amusing tales by Eire’s natural gifts as a storyteller, and I found myself disappointed at first. But the life of an adolescent exile, impoverished and abandoned on the streets of Miami and Chicago, provides few memories suited for the magical style of his first volume, and I came to realize that as a writer Eire is more spiritually ambitious in Learning to Die.
We rightly love our homeland, our native language, our dreams of success, and countless other goods of this world, including our families. Indeed, it is the fittingness of these finite loves, so many of which are broken, that makes Learning to Die painful to read. Yet, in the many-layered world of Eire’s memory, The Imitation of Christ, the late-medieval spiritual classic by Thomas Kempis, and the sole book his parents put in his small suitcase when he left Cuba with his brother, comes to the fore. His many exiles and losses are crucifixions of sorts, teaching him to die to himself and making room for the presence of God. Learning to die turns out to be a way, a crucial way, we learn to live.
Notes from the Editor’s Desk
After three years as managing editor of First Things, Mary Rose Somarriba is leaving us. She’s moving to a certain provincial city in the South where the government of the United States is located. We’ll miss her smile, enthusiasm, and dedication. And we also appreciate the talents of Meghan Duke, our new managing editor. Graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and veteran of the publication arm of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Meghan has been with the magazine for two years, first as a junior fellow and then as an assistant editor. This is her first issue at the helm, and I have the distinct impression that she not only is extraordinarily capable but also enjoys the prospect of giving everyone deadlines.
Our letters section in this issue is particularly full and lively. It’s a testimony to the intelligence—and feisty character—of First Things readers. We welcome your interventions into the public debate. Rapier thrusts are to be preferred to broadsword strokes, though we’re certainly not averse to sharp criticisms. Do write when roused, and send your letters (up to 400 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org, or, if you relish the more deliberate pace of the mail, to our address in New York.
On the evening of May 18, Cardinal Francis George came to the First Things office as part of our series of public readings, lectures, and discussion. He presented some of the main themes of his new and timely book, God in Action. His talk was true to form: intellectually precise and spiritually hard-hitting. If you live in the New York area and would like to be invited to our public events this fall, please write to email@example.com. Next up: New York University law professor Joseph Weiler on September 6th lecturing on the question of whether we have a right to freedom from religion.
The month of May also saw the annual meeting in New York of the magazine’s advisory council. This group serves as the intellectual conscience for the magazine, and I’d like to thank them all for their unreserved commitment to the future of First Things and for their frank and helpful advice. Their names are on our masthead, and, if you know any of them, please add your thanks as well.
The meeting culminated in a dinner at the residence of Archbishop Timothy Dolan, chief pastor of the Catholic Church in New York. The archbishop’s hospitality, which is as formidable as it is warm, was a grand way to end our deliberations. Many thanks.