• As the editor—sorry, The Editor, esteemed and revered be he—mentioned in the last item in “The Public Square,” I am now writing this part of the journal under a byline. Our splitting the founder’s duties reminds me of the line you hear in old movies, when the indignant older man says to the earnest or smug young man, often while shaking his finger, “If you’re half the man your father was. . . .”
• Writing under your own name presents, for those of you who care about such things, the problem of in what person to speak. The corporate “we” I inherited a year and something ago has the advantage of letting one write personally and informally without sounding egotistical, and the disadvantage of offering a persona oddly without the normal commitments, like a church and a family. It imposes the discipline of saying only what your colleagues would accept and the burden of not being able to say things you want to say. It has the advantage that comments don’t sound so snarky when “we” make them and the disadvantage that you can’t always speak so sharply as you’d like.
All in all, from the writer’s point of view, it’s easier to say “we” than “I.” Yet saying “we”’ when your byline identifies you looks weird. So I will be using “we” when possible and “I” otherwise.
• In the lead “Comment” (essentially the editorial) of the latest issue of the New Yorker, the magazine’s legal correspondent Jeffrey Toobin waxes indignant about Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s claim that “under the Constitution, the President may decline to enforce a statute that regulates private individuals when the President deems the statute unconstitutional, even if a court has held or would hold the statute constitutional.” Toobin insists that Kavanaugh, who serves on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, is rejecting one of the “bedrocks of American constitutional law,” first established by the chief justice in 1803.
Declining to enforce the law certainly seems like a bad idea at first glance. It does undermine the kind of trust crucial to a nation in which legislatures ruled by one party may pass a law the executive of another dislikes, and when one party will succeed the other in power. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem so bad that a president make his own judgment about the constitutionality of a law before it’s settled one way or the other by the Supreme Court, and that he favor his reading of the Constitution to Toobin’s unspecified court. The president might prove to be right. These things work out over time.
In any case, the indignant Jeffrey Toobin himself doesn’t object to a president doing something like this when he (Toobin) dislikes the law. He was certainly happy when the Attorney General declared, with the president’s full support, that he would no longer defend the constitutionality of part of the Defense of Marriage Act, which had been the law of the land for fifteen years and survived judicial challenge.
• Toobin complains that the “moderate Republicans” who once (he says) dominated the court, like Lewis Powell and Sandra Day O’Connor, have been replaced by justices like John Roberts and Samuel Alito. And a good thing, too, we say. Toobin believes the new supposedly immoderate justices “have already cut a swath through the Court’s precedents on such issues as race, abortion, and campaign finance.”
One man’s swath is another man’s paper cut, and we think Toobin has exaggerated the extent of the majority’s decisions in these matters, but leaving that aside, what does Toobin think justices are to do when they believe the immediate precedents wrongly decided? How do you go right when you’ve gone wrong except by going back to the place you went wrong and heading in the right direction? Isn’t it wiser to do that now rather than put it off in deference to the precedent that sent everyone down the wrong path in the first place?
But that’s extreme, you think, and will upset things too much. A more “moderate” and gradualist approach will be better. Perhaps. But if you want to make a “moderate” change, and go only part of the way back to the place the court went wrong, how can you be sure future justices will take the court all the way back? Wouldn’t it be wiser to go all the way back now, even with the disruption doing so will cause? Halfway lost is still lost, after all.
We don’t remember Toobin being so distressed at the majority’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which tossed out a lot of precedent in finding that the Constitution somehow included—wouldn’t Madison be surprised—a right to certain minority sexual practices. As we say, one man’s paper cut is another man’s swath.
• “I think he picked the wrong town! This is not really home turf for born-again Christians, you know? I just don’t know if that prayer stuff is going to go down as well here as it does in Middle America.” So says novelist Jay McInerney in a New York magazine story titled “Tim Tebow Trade Proves Unimpressive to New York City Cultural Elite.”
“Oh, I hate that he’s coming to the Jets,” says Chuck Close in what the magazine called “a heartwarming display of New York crankiness.” Close, a painter of giant portraits, continues heartwarmingly crankily: “I hate it! He’s going to be in the end zone praying? This is New York. He should go do that in, uh, the Midwest somewhere. I don’t like that at all.”
“Actress Piper Perabo” and “Scotsman Alan Cumming” joined in. It’s good to know what our elites are saying. We know that when pondering the great issues of the day, we frequently ask, “What does actress Piper Perabo think about this?”
• We have occasionally mentioned the place of cats in the spiritual economy (as models of the vices, basically) and our friend and sometime writer Sally Thomas has offered another reflection, in a sonnet called “Stages in the Development of Conscience.”
Dear child whom I’ve just caught
peeling new paint
From the gleaming picket on the
Why seems an obvious question.
For answer you stare
Back through the railings with
the flat, impenitent
Gaze of a cat which has shredded
the damask chair
On which it lounges in splendor
while some human
Oblivious head. Now, really, I like cats,
But if we want a species with moral acumen—
Oh, never mind. Forget my
White paint drifts down like
snow onto the floor.
You fix me with your blankly
Paint’s cheap. The day’s half-
spent already. I
Can’t think why why would
matter any more.
She wrote a sonnet every day during Lent, posting them at midnight, and all of them are good if, she would want us to say, given the finish-by-midnight discipline, a little rough. You can find them on her weblog “Castle in the Sea” (fineoldfamly.blogspot.com). Sally’s husband Ron teaches theology at Belmont Abbey College and is the author of a useful book called Meditations on the Stations of the Cross.
• Readers interested in the internal life of the magazine may be interested to know that for the last couple of weeks we have had in the office two dogs. One, mine, is we think a mix of Border Collie and Rottweiler (we got him from the Humane Society) and a smart, loving, and beautiful mix he is too. The other, our managing editor’s, is a sweet, soulful-eyed black Lab.
• Leonardo da Vinci, declares a biographer quoted approvingly by his New Yorker reviewer, is “every bit as medieval and derivative as he is modern and visionary.” Derivative. Not well-trained, learned, accomplished, a man in command of the sources, a man who knew his field thoroughly, a student of the masters, but derivative. What if he was so visionary because he was so “derivative”?
To be fair, the biographer might have been using the word in a precise sense with no judgment implied, as one who makes use of others’ work. We have our doubts, but he may have done so. But if so, he should have realized what derivative connotes, to all but the tiny percentage of people who use words in their precise senses, especially when paired with the word medieval, to many people a byword for the out-of-date and oppressive and weird to boot.
• Writing in the Daily Beast, the Hoover Institution’s Peter Schweizer points out that the issue in the contraception mandate isn’t condoms and the pill, which women can get free or cheaply, but brand-name drugs and devices some women don’t use because they’re more expensive. The mandate requires insurance companies to cover all methods the FDA approves.
And here’s the point, he writes: “It does not insist on generics. And it does not offer any cost containment. What’s more, the mandate prevents health-insurance companies from having copays or deductibles for the benefit.” And someone benefits big time:
This is the perfect set up for Big Pharma. Since the drugs will be paid for by a third party (insurance companies, who will pass the cost on to employers and the rest of us), the consumer won’t worry about the price. Expensive brand names will no doubt see demand rise. Ask more health-care analysts why the cost of medical services continues to rise so rapidly and near the top of the list is the fact that a third-party payment system won’t contain costs.
The drug industry, he points out, quoting Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner, has spent $635 million on lobbying since the Obama administration began, which is more than Wall Street and the oil and gas industries, industries with powerful enemies in Washington, combined. And which is a lot more money than conscience has to offer.
• In his article, Carney notes that “Once again, Obama, who pretends to be battling the special interests, is rewarding powerful lobbies that support him,” and that Kathleen Sebelius has benefitted much from the industry’s largesse to its friends. Schweizer notes that Rick Perry was financially entangled with Merck, the maker of Gardisil, when in 2007 he signed an executive order requiring teenage girls be vaccinated with it, at $360 a girl.
The Obama administration does not act alone, and this is not purely a social or cultural issue, and not solely a conflict of differing visions of sexuality and religious freedom. There are powerful interests supporting the contraceptive mandate. As Schweizer says, “Welcome to the world of crony contraceptives, which means good times for both the bedroom and the corporate boardroom.” That will be even harder to change than the minds of the lifestyle left.
• Mark Bauerlein, whose story of his movement into and out of atheism appears this month, tells us about a dinner party in which another academic complained bitterly and continually about a “get right with Jesus” billboard she’d seen on the drive down. Mark writes: “It offended her because it addressed her—her character, her life and fate. A billboard for a motel or a TV show she wouldn’t even notice, but this one she couldn’t ignore. It touched her personally, intrusively. An ad for Coke markets a product, but an ad for faith makes a case for reality.”
At least she took the call seriously enough to denounce it, he notes. He told her that Christians had as much right to speak as companies to market their product and politicians to campaign, but she wasn’t buying it. She didn’t believe in God and so thought the billboard pressured her to accept an unreality. It had to be a sham or a power play.
“This inability to take faith seriously isn’t a sign of arrogance. It marks a mental limit,” Mark writes. People without faith can only understand the motive for religious expressions like the billboard’s as subjective or ideological—or consciously deceptive. Atheists, he writes, speaking from his own experience, cannot imagine what faith looks and feels like.
With a little exposure, the poor can imagine being rich, youths can imagine being old, but an atheist can sit in church every Sunday for a year and “get” the experience of people beside him not one bit. And so when someone urges the atheist to seek Jesus, it strikes him not as a misguided inquiry but a senseless, endless game with an invasive morality attached. Our dinner guest’s tone bore the actual message: “This is contemptible.”
• Thomas Oden, who wrote in the April issue on the challenges facing conservative Methodists, is a professor emeritus at Drew. We left off the “emeritus” in his author biography because (cough cough) his university left it off his page on its web site. He is also the director of the Center for Early African Christianity at Eastern University (earlyafricanchristianity.com), a very worthy and interesting enterprise.
Readers may want to see Tom’s three books on the subject, all published by InterVarsity Press: How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, Early Libyan Christianity, and The African Memory of Mark. Written with his customary clarity and learning, they tell us much about an important subject otherwise very much the realm of specialists.
• Faithful reader Joe Bingham writes with consternation, or maybe regret, that in his article in the March issue (“Things Not Caesar’s”) Richard Garnett referred to the Constitution’s religion clauses, and not to its single religion clause. He invokes Richard John Neuhaus, who declared, and on our own website too, “There is but one religion clause. The stipulation is the ‘Congress shall make no law,’ and the rest of the clause consists of participial modifiers explaining what kind of law Congress shall not make. . . . To point out that there is only one clause containing two provisions may seem like a small grammatical point, but it has far-reaching significance.”
Neuhaus argued that the condition that Congress establish no religion was the means by which the free exercise of religion would be protected, and that it made no sense as a separate clause. “No-establishment is required to protect the rights of those who might dissent from whatever religion is established.” Many Constitutional scholars separate the parts so that they can argue that the means (no-establishment) overrules the end (free exercise). Some even insist that the latter is a “nuisance” (his word) because it inhibits fully implementing the first.
He quotes Lawrence Tribe, who writes in his major textbook American Constitutional Law of a zone which “the free exercise clause carves out of the establishment clause for permissible accommodation of religious interests.” This, Neuhaus insisted, was to get things exactly backward, and the method by which they were reversed was the assertion that there are two clauses rather than one.
As it happens, to get back to the original point, the professor was quoting Justice Clarence Thomas. We wouldn’t dream of taking sides in the Garnett/Thomas v. Neuhaus/Bingham debate. Rick himself believes there is only one clause, but that the one-clausers have lost the fight, and hopes RJN will forgive him. We don’t think the one-clausers have lost the fight, or at least we don’t care, and we’ve noted in our stylebook that “religion clause” should be singular. Thanks, Joe Bingham.
• The convener of the Denver chapter of ROFTERs (Readers of First Things) reported that our mentioning the chapter brought several new members and suggested we do the same for other chapters. Which we will. First up, chosen at random, is the Cambridge, Massachusetts chapter now in formation (contact David Zizik at email@example.com).
You can find the locations and conveners of chapters around the country at firstthings.com/rofters.
• “I am increasingly disappointed with your content, to the point of disgust,” writes a subscriber, clearly not pleased. “Have the First Things editors decided that you need to include Mormons and Muslims in some sort of broad ‘public square’ discussion? If so, I am done subscribing, and I hope many others will be too. I thought this journal existed to present an orthodox Christian contribution to public thought, not a generic ‘faith’ perspective.”
The magazine’s vocation or calling continues to be what Fr. Neuhaus described in the editorial in the first issue. There he wrote:
We fully expect that among our writers and readers will be believing Jews and Christians, agnostics, atheists, the politically liberal and conservative (with all the sub categories attending both), and people with wildly divergent views of the civilization of which we are part. One thing we expect they will have in common, however. They are people who are persuaded, or are open to being persuaded, of the importance of religion to public life, and of public life to religion.
The group of people persuaded of the importance of religion to public life have come to include in a more public way Mormons, whose involvement in the magazine and its general project Fr. Neuhaus himself encouraged, and some Muslims. The magazine is, of course, written predominantly by Christians, being founded by a Catholic priest and being read by a mostly Christian readership. And the Christian voices are firmly orthodox ones.
But it is still a magazine that tries to gather a wide diversity of people to speak about first things in the public square. That gathering doesn’t produce a generic faith perspective, which we dislike as much as our disgruntled reader, but a chorus (or cacophony) of faith perspectives that find they have something to say to each other and together to say to the world. Which we think not only important but fun.
And as part of that work, we try to help these people understand each other better, including an article on the website, to which our subscriber objected, in which a Mormon explained the Mormon teaching on baptisms for the dead. We don’t present such things to promote a particular group or religion, but it is helpful to know what others with whom we work on matters of common concern actually think, especially about doctrines or practices the rest of us may think very odd.
• And if this is the kind of magazine you like, and we assume it is, please help get it into the hands of others who might as well. Send their names and mailing addresses to firstname.lastname@example.org or 35 East 21st Street, Sixth Floor, New York, NY 10010, and we’ll send them a copy.
while we’re at it sources: Toobin’s Constitution: The New Yorker, February 24, 2011 and March 26, 2012. Tebow’s elite critics: nymag.com, March 22, 2012. Derivative Leonardo: The New Yorker, March 26, 2012. Crony contraceptives: thedailybeast.com, March 2, 2012. Neuhaus’ clause: firstthings.com, September 26, 2008. Disappointing First Things: First Things, March 1990.
wwai tips: Mark Barrett and Gregory Laughlin.