• It must be tough being an atheist in the military, what with having no God to rely on in dangerous times. The least we could do, some are now proposing, is provide atheists their own chaplain. Atheism serves the same role in their lives as theism does in others’, and so they should be considered a religious community and led by a chaplain.
Okay, but what would an atheist chaplain actually do? Comfort soldiers on the eve of battle with the knowledge that whether they fall with courage or cowardice, their bodies will rot in the ground and they will be forgotten? Assure dying soldiers that no one can hear their feeble prayers? Hand out condoms and safe-sex brochures? Drink beers with the other chaplains, lamenting his flock’s tendency to backslide (into Christianity) when times get tough?
The atheist chaplaincy is just a maudlin imitation of Christian life: weekly meetings, text studies, tithes, and even rallies (revivals?) with inspiring speakers like Richard Dawkins. But if an atheist’s answers are less than comforting under the looming threat of death, covering them with sham religious ornamentation will not make them more comforting, although it might make them less honest. Wouldn’t it be truer to atheism to let atheists face the void without the crutches of religion?
• We have very clever readers. Here is something from the poet David Middleton, apparently dashed off after reading a column on our website:
History of an Idea
—after J. V. Cunningham
“I Am That I Am” God said to
But nowadays all anyone knows is
“I gotta be me,”
as Me proposes.
• Whatever one thinks about the war in Libya, one has to be dismayed by the thoughtlessness of the sweeping humanitarian declarations to which our politicians are prone. Apparently, according to the Secretary of State, anyone who opposes the war supports Col. Qadhafi and wants to stick it to the Libyan rebels. “The bottom line,” she said, speaking recently in Jamaica, “is, whose side are you on? Are you on Qadhafi’s side or are you on the side of the aspirations of the Libyan people and the international coalition that has been created to support them? For the Obama administration, the answer to that question is very easy.”
That’s not, of course, the only question. We have to ask what we can actually do with the resources we have and all the demands on our attention. The president claims to be an admirer of Reinhold Niebuhr’s political thinking. But he and Madame Secretary seem to have missed one of Niebuhr’s crucial lessons: that in this world we cannot do everything we would like, and by trying to do more than we can, we wind up doing much less than we should.
• This reminds us of something Pope Benedict has written: “It is of course always difficult to adopt a sober approach that does what is possible and does not cry enthusiastically after the impossible,” he told the Bundestag in 1981 (it’s published in his Church, Ecumenism and Politics).
[T]he voice of reason is not as loud as the voice of unreason. The cry for the large-scale has the whiff of morality; in contrast limiting oneself to what is possible seems to be renouncing the passions of morality and adopting the pragmatism of the faint-hearted. But, in truth, political morality consists precisely in resisting the seductive temptation of the big words by which humanity and its opportunities are gambled away.”
• “Food Inflation Kept Hidden in Tinier Bags,” reports the New York Times. When the economy gets bad, the authors explain, companies
[reduce] the size of some products, disguising price increases and avoiding comparisons on same-size packages, before and after an increase. Each time, the marketing campaigns are coy; this time, the smaller versions are “greener” (packages good for the environment) or more “portable” (little carry bags for the takeout lifestyle) or “healthier” (fewer calories).
Consumers, says a marketing professor at Harvard Business School, notice changes in price more than they notice changes in quantity. Companies try to hide the changes, “maybe keeping the height and width the same, but changing the depth so the silhouette of the package on the shelf looks the same. Or sometimes they add more air to the chips bag or a scoop in the bottom of the peanut butter jar so it looks the same size.”
Ah. Of course these companies need to account for the rise in their costs, which means that consumers will have to pay more for their products. But tricking people into thinking they’re getting what they used to get for the old price is tricksy, as Gollum would put it. You don’t deceive people just because they’re responsible for catching you when you do.
• Traditional liberals, writes our friend Robert P. George, have promoted their views as a way that people holding conflicting comprehensive doctrines—“an integrated set of beliefs about the human good, human dignity, and human destiny”—can live together. Now, as many of them argue for forcing others to do what they want, like forcing doctors to refer women to abortionists or even participate in abortions themselves, the traditional goal “has been thrown over in favor of a crusade to establish what might be called . . . ‘comprehensive liberalism’ as the official pseudo-religion of the state.”
Look at the suit recently brought by a George Washington University law professor against the Catholic University of America for, of all things, choosing to go back to single-sex dorms. That, the university believes, will help students become better students. That, this law professor insists, would be “discrimination” based on “sexual stereotypes,” and would violate Washington, D.C.’s anti-discrimination law.
You might think the living arrangements of students who willingly attend the school is no business of the city’s nor of a law professor from another institution. It is, as the expression goes, no skin off their noses.
And you would be right, but as Robby notes, “The impulse to crush the rights of conscience . . . to ensure conformity with what have become key tenets of the liberal faith (abortion, ‘sexual freedom,’ ‘same-sex marriage’) is the authoritarian impulse” at work. He thinks the CUA case a test case for true liberalism, and is waiting to see how many liberals, including Catholic liberals in academia, protest publicly.
So are we, but though we always remain hopeful, we are not in this case optimistic.
• A French sociologist (who else?) has just written a book about the Smurfs, calling the blue creatures racist, sexist, Stalinist Nazis. He insists he’s just having fun—as a kid he enjoyed the Smurfs by watching them, and as an adult he enjoys them by deconstructing them.
But we’re not so sure he put away childish things when he became a man, or at least a sociologist. Most of us learned as children not to tear apart other people’s toys, even if we have fun doing it. Ken and Barbie were, for example, common subjects for deconstruction.
Would a wise French kindergarten accept this thirty-something professor? He sounds like the kind of man who’d tell the kids as school let out for Christmas break that there is no Santa Claus.
• “The road from Stonewall, June 1969, to Stonewall, June 2011, was a trajectory of greater social acceptance of difference and nonconformity,” writes National Review’s deputy managing editor on the magazine’s website, describing the scene the night New York approved homosexual “marriage” at the famous gay bar where the riot that started the homosexual rights movement began. Mike Potemra points out how normal everyone is, including the “sweet young couple”—two men, one “a gorgeous platinum-blonde in a stunning 1950s Seven Year Itch-style dress”—being interviewed by the Associated Press.
The story doesn’t say much, but the general idea is that the change is no big deal. In a follow-up post, just as vaguely written, he suggested that the nature of marriage is a mystery.
A couple of months ago, the magazine’s managing editor, Jason Steorts, argued more overtly against the “traditionalist” understanding of marriage as between a man and a woman. He insisted that it be abandoned in favor of a “revisionist” view based on the state’s interest in increasing “maximal experiential union” and therefore in approving homosexual unions.
This is not, we would have thought, a conservative position. But, we are told, conservatism is a big tent, ranging from libertarians who are morally as well as economically libertarian to social conservatives who hold the market in some suspicion, united by opposition to the advance of leftist institutions. As an alliance, very good, but some of us would assert that the term “conservative” has no useful meaning if what National Review has segregated out as “social conservatism” is not an intrinsic and necessary part of it.
The segregation of social conservatism as merely one alternative among several is itself is a bad sign. We don’t look to an overtly conservative journal to represent a diversity of conservatisms. We look to it to assert a principled conservatism that may have various expressions on prudential questions, and one of those principles ought to be the moral order as conservatism’s founding fathers (Russell Kirk, for example) understood conservatism.
We suspect you would not find someone writing for National Review on economics straying as far from belief in the good of free markets as Potemra and especially Steorts have strayed from belief in marriage. This would suggest the editors do have a definition of principled conservatism. Their principles seems to us more libertarian rather than conservative.
• Speaking on a panel at the Catholic Press Association convention this past June, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Ann Rogers suggested a new reason the Catholic bishops’ public influence has declined. It’s not just the sex abuse scandal, and not just the average American Catholic’s disregard of Church teaching on contraception and divorce, though these don’t help. “The bishops themselves,” she says, “chose to be far less ambitious about their public policy statements.”
Remember The Challenge of Peace, their statement on nuclear weapons in 1983. The press didn’t bother to cover other religious bodies’ declarations, but covered this one because the bishops “held hearings around the country that sought the advice of top experts with a variety of perspectives on the nuclear arms race. The research itself was a big news story. It was clear that their paper was substantial and reflected far more than how they felt about nuclear war after eating breakfast one morning. It was a pastoral letter, not just a ‘statement.’”
Who knew? If you want people to pay attention, do your homework (and do it in public), speak as a body, and say something definitive. And say it with the ecclesiastical equivalent of a megaphone. We have some suggested topics.
• 163,000,000 is a big number. It’s more, for example, than the entire female population of the United States. It’s also the number of girls in Asia who have been aborted over the last three decades. The result is a dangerously imbalanced population. Normally, about 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. The ratio in India is 112 to 100, in China 121 to 100, with some Chinese cities reaching 150 to 100. Thanks to them, the whole world’s ratio is 107 to 100, which doesn’t happen naturally.
In Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, Mara Hvistendahl quantifies the disastrous effects for girls—and for civilization—of the combination of ultrasound and abortion in countries where boys are more highly valued (or less expensive) than girls. As Jonathan Last noted in his review of Unnatural Selection, “Ms. Hvistendahl identifies a ban on abortion—and not the killing of tens of millions of unborn girls—as the ‘worst nightmare’ of feminism.”
Even so, she has produced “one of the most consequential books ever written in the campaign against abortion.” Her book is aimed, though she did not aim it,
like a heat-seeking missile, against the entire intellectual framework of “choice.” For if “choice” is the moral imperative guiding abortion, then there is no way to take a stand against “gendercide.” Aborting a baby because she is a girl is no different from aborting a baby because she has Down syndrome or because the mother’s “mental health” requires it. Choice is choice.
• A judge recently ruled that the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance has the right to limit the number of heterosexual members, after three members were disciplined for not being “gay enough.” We had naively thought that this was an easy distinction to make, but apparently not. Different gay-rights groups are arguing about how many and what kinds of sex acts a man must have done to play softball in a homosexual league.
In any case, far be it from us to dictate whom nagaaa should play ball with.
• Remarking on the sordid affair of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, our friend Theo Hobson referred to Henry Steele Commager’s distinction between the religion and morals of the Old World and the New Philosophes. The American Philosophe, Commager wrote in Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment, did not think himself “exempted from the standards of conventional morality.” Even Jefferson was shocked “at the wide-ranging amours of his French and English friends: That was the chief reason to be advised against sending young men abroad for an education. The connection between Enlightenment and libertinage, so familiar in France was, if not wholly unknown, then unacknowledged in America.”
Our elites have, as far as we can tell, caught up to Europe in this. Or maybe not. Perhaps that old respect for conventional morality expresses itself in our elites’ need to justify their arrangements—they’re dealing with stress or have psychological needs— rather than simply enjoy them. We wish they’d just shut up and sin boldly.
• Euro politicos are up in arms about the new Hungarian constitution, set to take effect on January 1, 2012. Members of the European Parliament fretted that the constitution “constrains pluralism,” discriminates “on the basis of sexual orientation,” and the like. The most sweeping criticism came from the United Kingdom’s Timothy Kirkhope (deputy chairman of the Parliament’s conservatives), who declared, “We should not tolerate intolerance itself.” We would like to report that he promptly condemned himself for being intolerably intolerant, but we can’t.
• The new Hungarian constitution has taken heat both for what it includes (reference to Hungary’s Christian past) and what it doesn’t (explicit mention of homosexuals as a protected group). Others have criticized the constitution simply because it was written mostly on iPads. We like it. Here are a few striking passages that explain the wringing hands at the European Parliament:
From the first paragraph, part of a section called the “National Avowal of Faith” (you can hear the gasps of horror already): “At the dawn of a new millennium, we members of the Hungarian nation declare the following, with a bond of duty to all Hungarians: We are proud that one thousand years ago our king, Saint Stephen, based the Hungarian State on solid foundations, and made our country a part of Christian Europe.”
From the same section: “We acknowledge the role Christianity has played in preserving our nation. We respect all our country’s religious traditions. We solemnly promise to preserve the intellectual and spiritual unity of our nation, torn apart by the storms of the past century.” (You can hear the sounds of strong drink being poured.)
It gets better. Article K of the section titled “Fundamentals” promises that “(1) Hungary shall protect the institution of marriage, understood to be the conjugal union of a man and a woman based on their voluntary decision; Hungary shall also protect the institution of the family, which it recognizes as the basis for survival of the nation. (2) Hungary shall promote the commitment to have and raise children.” (Here grown men faint.)
And finally, the constitution declares in its section on “Freedoms and Responsibilities”: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. Everyone shall have the right to life and human dignity; the life of the foetus shall be protected from the moment of conception.”
Hungary, like, rocks.
• One more thing about that constitution. It recognizes that a nation can be religiously serious and pluralistic at the same time—a point secularists here and in western Europe, like its dyspeptic critics in the European Parliament, still have not grasped.
These allegedly intolerant bigots declare that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. . . . Hungary shall guarantee the fundamental rights to everyone without any discrimination as to race, color, sex, disability, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, wealth, birth, or on any other circumstance whatsoever.”
We admit this could be the kind of false promise with which the old Soviet constitution was filled, but we don’t think so. We do insist that the burden of proof is on those who assume commitments to religion and tolerance intrinsically contradictory.
• Many women still can’t break the “glass ceiling” in at least one political profession. Writing in the most recent issue of Gender Issues, two scholars observe that some organizations of the right have fewer female members than their counterparts on the left. They blame this disparity on the focus these groups place on “the traditional child-bearing role of women,” but note that the situation is not much better on the left.
Admittedly, we can’t think of any women on the right with the prominence of Bernardine Dohrn or Ulrike Meinhof, but it turns out that women are represented in the world of left-wing terrorism at only slightly higher rates (22 percent) than they are in the (exceedingly small) world of anti-abortion terrorism (19 percent). But you know, somehow we don’t think this is really a problem to worry about.
• The Not-So-Selfish Gene theory holds that genes, individuals, and social groups that cooperate with others do better in the struggle for survival. Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson is trying to use “prosociality” to restore the dilapidated post-industrial town of Binghamton, New York, by pushing the city to renovate itself with dog parks, playgrounds, and schools.
He’s interested in religion, too, for the same reason. He classifies Christian churches as either “open” (free-form or elective in faith and morals) or “closed” (Bible-based or “conservative”). Although he claims scientific objectivity as an atheist, he can’t figure out why these “closed” churches are growing while the “open” ones are dying. Maybe, he says, economic uncertainty leads people to seek authoritarian solidity in their churches rather than mind-liberating tolerance.
Or maybe, we’d argue, even the most syncretistic religion has to give its adherents a reason to profess its brand of anything goes and the “open” churches can’t do this. If being a Christian is indistinguishable from being a New York Times columnist except that Christians get up early on Sundays, why not just sleep in and get the Times delivered to your door? When the entire culture is “open,” it’s small wonder “open” churches don’t get many bodies walking through their open doors.
We can’t help but think of an accidentally ironic reader board we saw in front of a particularly empty church: “We welcome you with open pews.”
• The young men on the Staten Island Ferry were making the obvious jokes about the just-resigned Congressman Weiner. Truth is not necessarily stranger than fiction, but sometimes things happen in real life no writer would dare put into a story, like a congressman named Weiner who . . . as you know.
• The Weiner affair raises again the question of the necessity of character to political office. The “realists” insist that the politician’s ability matters most, and that we should prefer the effective rogue to the incompetent saint. Put that way, this is probably true—but only, we suggest, for certain times and certain needs, when the goals are clear and the ways to reach them matters of skill. In war, we want a leader who understands strategy, even if he gives orders from his mistress’s bed.
At other times, character matters at least as much as skill. Character, after all, determines the ends to which that skill is exercised. We hold to the old view that a man who will cheat on his wife will cheat on his district.
• The effects of secondhand smoke have been cited as the reason for banishing tobacco from restaurants, bars, and clubs, but whatever we may have gained in public health, we have lost something culturally. The subtle courtesies of offering a light or asking for a smoke, the camaraderie of bumming a cigarette, are gone, as are the more prayerful aspects of inhaling and exhaling tobacco that have been described by the likes of Italo Svevo.
What is less frequently acknowledged is the concrete and quite measurable public benefit that resulted from that now-reviled secondhand smoke. Before the widespread adoption of air-conditioning and now-basic hygienic practices, secondhand smoke masked the scents that would otherwise dominate a crowded dance floor or busy office.
Indeed, a forthcoming article in Chemosensory Perception reports that adding odor-masking scents like a hint of mint, spray of seawater, or squeeze of citrus to the air in dance clubs encouraged dancing and increased enjoyment of the music. Yet another reminder of the hard-headed practicality our grandparents displayed even in their more ill-advised choices.
• The 2010 issue of VII: An Anglo-American Literary Review arrived recently, a little late, but worth reading, and anyway the 2011 issue is promised for October. Published by the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, the 2010 issue includes an analysis of Lewis’ ill-fated attempt to write a book with Tolkien on the meaning of language; a study of genre in Lewis’ fiction; and a review essay by Ralph Woods (a contributor to this journal) summarizing recent writing on Chesterton. Coming in the next issue is a study of an unfinished Lewis manuscript of a realistic novel set in Belfast, an article on Chesterton’s view of MacDonald, and another on sorrow as a component of beauty in Tolkien’s creation story.
We commend it, of course. See wheaton.edu/wadecenter or write to email@example.com for more information.
• At the Catholic Press Association last month, one speaker described the tablet computer as renewing the reading of long articles, which, she said, both the computer and the smartphone discouraged. We were pleased to hear it, since we publish articles a bit longer than the norm and are developing applications for the iPad and other tablets, as well as for the Kindle and other e-readers.
While we are expanding the media by which you can read First Things, we still publish on paper and will continue to do so, since doing so supplies the material we can offer in these new media. To do that, we need new readers. Please think about giving gift subscriptions, direct your friends to the subscription cards, and send us the addresses of anyone you think would enjoy a copy. Just write firstname.lastname@example.org.
while we’re at it sources: Atheists: New York Times (April 26, 2011). Libya: First Thoughts blog at firstthings.com (June 24, 2011). Food: New York Times (March 28, 2011). Liberals: mirrorofjustice.blogs.com (June 23, 2011). Smurfs: online.wsj.com/video (June 1, 2011). National Review: National Review Online (June 25, 2011). Bishops: David Mills’ Notes. Aborted Asian women: Wall Street Journal (June 24, 2011). Gay softball: Seattle Times (June 2, 2011). DSK: spectator.co.uk/faithbased (June 28, 2011). Hungarian constitution: scribd.com (the text) and europolitics.info (June 9, 2011). Women terrorists: Gender Issues (June 2011). Prosocial churches: nature.com (June 8, 2011). Smoking: Chemosensory Perception (forthcoming).
wwai tips: Joe Carter, Meghan Duke, Matthew Schmitz, Kevin Staley-Joyce, and Gabriel Torretta, O.P.