Yesterday in this space my colleague Joseph Bottum reflected on the large number of scholarly books in recent years that underscore the powerful and pervasive role of religion in the American founding. He acknowledges that all this is for the good, and then he asks, "But where does that leave us? The scholarship that won this fight over the last decade has been essentially reactive, fighting to overturn a mistaken view. Apart from infuriating the likes of, say, Arthur Schlesinger, how much does all this actually prove?"
Permit me to suggest that it proves, if "prove" is the right word, that most Americans have been, over the past century, sorely miseducated about the founding principles of their country. That miseducation has played a significant part in the misconstrual of "the separation of church and state" in the service of a naked public square, with all the unhappy consequences that have followed for our politics and public discourse.
It is no little thing for honest scholarship to have reclaimed an understanding of the Puritan-Lockean synthesis that gave birth to the American experiment. Of course the synthesis was never entirely coherent, and disputes will continue over the role of religion and religiously-informed morality in the ordering of our common life, but at least the myth that the founders were on the side of a militantly secular Enlightenment against religion, and Christianity in particular, has been decisively debunked.
Please don't misunderstand. Mr. Bottum and I are not fighting over this. Most writers occasionally over-simplify things when writing under the pressure of a deadline.
Defenders of evolution as the religion that makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist sense that they are on a roll after the Dover, Pennsylvania decision. The new battleground is Ohio where several years ago the state board of education said that, in the teaching of neo-Darwinism, the theory should be subjected to "critical analysis." The scientific establishment and unremitting defenders of free speech and critical thought are outraged that their belief system should be analyzed critically.
As Pope Benedict and many others have pointed out, one of the great achievements of western thought, the clear distinction between the physical and metaphysical, is now under attack. Evolutionary dogmatists insist that all explanations of reality must be subsumed under the physical. As a biologist friend puts it, most of his colleagues don't even know how to spell metaphysical. I thought that was going too far.
But then there is this big story in yesterday's New York Times, including a picture of those protesting critical analysis of scientific theories. A Steve Rissing is shown holding a sign that asks which biological concept is supported by the genetic modification of soybeans. The first and obviously wrong option listed is "Metaphasic interference."
"Metaphase" is a word meaning "the stage of mitosis and meiosis in which the chromosomes become arranged in the equatorial plane of the spindle." It would appear that has nothing to do with the question at hand. One can only suppose that Mr. Rissing meant "metaphysical interference." He is identified as a "university professor" but, mercifully, the university is not named.
There was a big confab this week on liberalism and religion. Held at Columbia University, it involved luminaries such as Michael Kazin, author of the recent biography of William Jennings Bryan, Mark Lilla of the University of Chicago, and Alan Wolfe of Boston College.
Adam Kirsch writes in the New York Sun: "What to do about the hole in the soul was the number one item on the agenda. A group of speakers who unanimously identified themselves as liberals and Democrats addressed the gulf between religion and liberalism not just as an object for study but as a pressing political problem to be solved." Wilfred McClay of the University of Tennessee, a regular FIRST THINGS contributor, also spoke, and I'm not sure whether he quite fits Mr. Kirsch's description.
At the event, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post said that "Two electoral defeats have concentrated the liberal mind on God." It's not the most elevated reason but, if that's what it takes, maybe we shouldn't complain.
Kirsch summarizes the meeting: "All of America's great strengths--our diversity, tolerance, pragmatism--finally depend on our ability to keep public reason and private belief strictly separate. That was the most important lesson learned at Columbia on Friday."
Simply brilliant. The key to the political revival of liberalism is in maintaining a naked public square. For this they needed a gathering of certifiably great minds at Columbia? Never mind. Republicans will be grateful for the counsel given the opposition by their brightest intellectual lights.
I try to do my little bit to encourage our evangelical Protestant friends to take seriously the need for cultural engagement. But it is sometimes an embarrassment when they are so touchingly eager to be taken seriously that they allow themselves to be used in rather egregious ways. This, I'm afraid, is the case with those evangelicals who are urging Christians to go see the forthcoming movie The Da Vinci Code in order to engage in "meaningful dialogue" with Christianity's cultured despisers. Barbara Nicolosi may be a little sharp in her criticism, but I believe she is right on target:
The Da Vinci Code is so ridiculous in its premises, that it is giving it a false gravity to even take it seriously enough so as to argue about it. ("And tomorrow, the Christians will be offering a hermenutical exigesis of moral praxis as can be gleaned from next weeks' episode of WWF Smackdown. Ahem.") Yeah, let's all find a starting point for dialogue in the notion that a secret coterie of albino monks has been mythmaking about Jesus' Divinity for 2,000 years. No, you go first.
Now, Christians being coaxed into writing anti- DVC pieces on a stupid website (like, well, this one) are meekly accepting that they are being given "a seat at the table" in some grand cultural discussion. Duped! There is no seat, folks. There is no discussion. What there is, is a few p.r. folks in Hollywood taking mondo big bucks from Sony Pictures, to deliver legions of well-meaning Christians into subsidizing a movie that makes their own Savior out to be a sham.
In addition to which:
Readers say they have asked for Father Neuhaus' new book, Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth, only to be told that it is not yet available. We're confused, too. Basic Books has finished books in the warehouse and they've been made available for several book signings here in Manhattan. The latest word is that they will be in the stores by March 31. And, of course, they can be ordered in advance from Amazon. We apologize for the confusion.