The "Christmas wars" of the last several months--When does the season, whatever it is called, begin?--occasioned commentaries beyond numbering. Some wise things were said, but among the dumbest of the dumb things said, and said repeatedly, was that the whole thing was made up by hyper-sensitive Christians. For a listing of a few of the hundreds of instances in which any reference to Christmas was expunged from the season, frequently with the threat of government force, click here. You might want to keep the list handy when, sigh, the wars start up again come November and someone says, "Christmas wars? What Christmas wars?"
"If you win, then white supremacist organizations and the Ku Klux Klan can have license plates. There's be a lot of road rage following that." So said a judge hearing a case brought by the Children First Foundation (CFF), headed by Elizabeth Rex. CFF encourages desperate women to choose adoption rather than abortion, and wants New York State to allow license plates with the motto "Choose Life." Many states do allow them, and part of the proceeds from the higher-priced plates goes to the sponsoring organization. It has been a successful fundraising instrument for pro-life organizations. Some states also allow pro-abortion plates, but apparently there are few takers. New York has special plates for more than two hundred organizations, including the AFL-CIO and other labor unions, environmental groups, and Masonic lodges. The "Choose Life" plate is the only one that has ever been rejected. The state's worry that such a plate would provoke road rage is a risibly thin disguise of animus toward the cause advanced by CFF. Perhaps the state should ban provocative bumper stickers. And I expect there are people who intensely dislike the AFL-CIO. Free speech for one is free speech for all, unless it involves incitement to illegal actions. Adoption is not illegal in New York State, at least not yet. Some readers might want to drop a note to Governor George Pataki and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.
"Children and adults must know the difference between having a HEALTHY SUSPICION and BEING AFRAID OF EVERYONE." (Emphasis in original.) That's from "Protecting God's Children: Teaching Touching Safely," a program that most bishops are mandating for Catholic schools and other programs involving children. There is no doubt that the program aims at sowing suspicion in young children and, while not encouraging them to be afraid of everyone, does teach them to be afraid of everyone except those who are specifically certified as "safe adults."
The head of a widely respected Catholic school writes me: "The Archbishop's point in his letter, as I understand it, is fourfold: 1) you parents are the primary educators of your children; 2) I want you to teach them what's in this booklet; 3) your parishes and schools will keep tabs on you, and will report to me on your compliance; 4) next year your parishes and schools will 'reinforce' what you are teaching through an as-yet-undisclosed program."
The letter continues: "I cannot in good conscience distribute these materials, for reasons articulated by the courageous Bishop Robert Vasa [of Baker, Oregon], taught by FAMILIARIS CONSORTIO and other magisterial documents, and many others. I would not teach these materials to my own 4th grade son, let alone to Kindergartners and even pre-Kindergartners, as requested."
Bishops are putting pastors and principals between a rock and a hard place. Some faithful leaders do not want to defy their bishop and yet cannot in good conscience obey him on this matter. Especially disedifying is the claim of bishops that their only concern is the safety of children. With due respect, I do not believe that is the case. Without doubting their concern for children, it is no secret that programs such as "Protecting God's Children" are being mandated in order to ward off potential threats by lawyers, insurance companies, and the media.
In order to present themselves as "squeaky clean," U.S. bishops have already sacrificed the vocations and reputations of more than a thousand priests who have been removed from ministry, in many cases with no due process or even a hearing. Now they are prepared to demand a violation of conscience by pastors, principals, teachers, and parents who believe that the mandated programs will gravely harm the children in their charge? Let us pray that a few people with influence in the bishops conference are having long second thoughts about this.
Oh no, not another comment on that Jeffrey Hart essay in the Wall Street Journal! Well, as Joseph Bottum wrote here, every once in a while a statement comes along that, in a wrongheadedly interesting way, makes arguments that were long ago answered but serves the purpose of refreshing our memories of what those answers are. Jeff Hart's was such a statement.
Joseph Knippenberg is professor of politics at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, and, writing on the American Enterprise Online, he picks up on a facet of Hart's argument that has not been sufficiently noted in other comments I have seen:
I note in passing that much of Hart's polemic against Richard John Neuhaus, the "Jacobinical priest," takes as its point of departure a very controversial symposium published some ten years ago by FIRST THINGS, in which some of the authors recurred to natural law against the sober principles of American Constitutionalism, as well as against the actions of the Supreme Court. Hart clearly wants to separate the Constitution and Constitutional government, which depend, he says, "on English tradition and classical theory," from the natural law argumentation invoked in the Declaration of Independence and by contemporary natural law theorists.
While Hart hasn't given us much to go on, there seems to be a tension between his religion, which is universal and metaphysical, and his politics, which is grounded in particularity and concrete social facts. If the former is not supposed to have any influence on the latter, if the sphere of religion is supposed simply to be separate from the sphere of politics, then why mention religion at all in an essay on the conservative movement?
I assume that Hart is not a mere separationist, simple-mindedly insisting upon the privacy of religion and banishing it from the public square. Religion is necessary and important and perhaps even true, capturing something of the human condition, addressing some of our deepest needs. If that is the case, then it will inevitably affect our attitude toward political life, albeit not necessarily in a straightforward or predictable way. It will challenge our subjection to seemingly inexorable material forces. It will call us away from our interests to our principles, to "the better angels of our nature." But if it potentially has this effect, then it might at some point militate against a regime that permits abortion on demand during the first trimester.
Whether it does so "prudently" (by Hart's lights, or anyone else's) is another question. If Hart is saying that repairing "the dome of the sacred" should come first, and that new answers to political questions might follow in its wake, then he and his antagonists might have the basis for an interesting conversation about how religious principles (or metaphysical principles consistent with religion) are to be effectuated in our common life. If, however, he is an (Anthony) Kennedy Catholic, affirming that "the woman knows what a 'child' is and what it is not," against, or indifferent to, the teaching of the Church (and of natural law), then we're left wondering why he invokes religion at all, and regards its restoration as an important conservative project.
In addition to which:
Who are the major figures who have shaped contemporary evangelicalism? Some of the answers--and the reasons for the answers--offered by Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School, may surprise. His article "Evangelicals and Others" is must reading in the February issue of FIRST THINGS. Among many other articles in the issue, is Avery Cardinal Dulles on Benedict XVI's critical relationship with the Second Vatican Council, Stephen Barr summing up recent discussions of design and evolution, and Father Neuhaus on the hostile reactions to the recent Vatican instruction on gays and the priesthood. To subscribe to FIRST THINGS, click here.