It is amusing to see how alarmed all right-thinking people have become about that menacing phenomenon called “the Religious Right.” They are “extremists,” they are “out of the mainstream.” They are without question a danger to the Republican Party and probably a menace to the republic.
It is doubtful that there is evidence to prove any of these charges; one suspects that all they amount to is that right-thinking people find the Religious Right quite distasteful. Their logic goes something like this: “We are good, true, and beautiful. But we find you repulsive. Therefore there must be something very wrong with you.” This reasoning is impeccable, given its first premise. But one must ask, is the premise correct? Are the right-thinking people really as good, true, and beautiful as they imagine themselves to be?
For the sake of argument, let us imagine that members of the Religious Right are as weird and frightening as their accusers allege. The question then arises: How did they get that way? About this question the right-thinkers have shown an odd lack of curiosity.
One is reminded of a similar lack of curiosity shown from the very first about McCarthyism-a phenomenon that truly was a menace to the Republic, though perhaps only a mild one. The term “McCarthyism,” of course, refers not just to the activities of the Senator from Wisconsin but to the atmosphere of the late forties and early fifties in which many people were ready to find Reds and Pinkos under every liberal bed.
In the periodic retelling of the McCarthyism tale, mention is rarely made of the fact that during the thirties and forties there were great numbers of elite Americans-persons well-connected in Hollywood, in New York literary circles, and even in politics (witness the Henry Wallace campaign of 1948)-who belonged to one of three concentric circles: (a) a relatively small inner circle of Communists; (b) a much larger circle of Communist sympathizers; and (c) an outer circle even larger still, made up of people who, while neither Communists nor fellow travelers themselves, thought it morally respectable to be a fellow-traveler or even a Communist.
In other words, while Stalin was running one of the two worst dictatorships in the history of the human race (the other having been presided over by his sometime ally Hitler), murdering tens of millions of human beings, including many of his former Bolshevik comrades, here in America great numbers of privileged and influential citizens either supported communism or admired it or at least tolerated it in a benevolent and broad-minded manner.
Is it any wonder there was a backlash? And is it any wonder this backlash went too far, finally producing that repulsive creature from the black lagoon, Joe McCarthy?
But whose fault was this excessive backlash? Partly, to be sure, it was the fault of McCarthy and his hysterical supporters. But their culpability was secondary. Far greater was the responsibility of those who created the conditions for a backlash: those sophisticated Americans who understood something the vulgar masses could never hope to understand, namely, that the commandment “Thou shalt not murder” is only intended (as Leona Helmsley said about paying taxes) for the little people, whereas mass murder, though admittedly a nasty business, is virtuous when done by the right people for the right purposes.
The old French witticism-“Cet animal est tres mechant; quand on l’attaque, il se defend” (“This animal is very wicked; when you attack it, it defends itself”)-gives us a clue to the populist anti-Communism of the postwar era. It can also help us understand the rise of the populist Religious Right today.
For the past quarter century vast numbers of elite, privileged, sophisticated, and “right-thinking” Americans have exhibited contempt for certain fundamental values; and they have, if anything, exhibited even greater contempt for those religious traditionalists who hold them. Is it any wonder that after years of abuse the traditionalists have finally struck back?
It never occurs to the right-thinkers that they themselves are to blame for this backlash. Instead they deplore the “tres mechant” nature of the Religious Right. And when charged with having been contemptuous of religious traditionalists and their values, they dismiss the charge as a silly slander.
“How could we-we of all people-be guilty of such a thing?” they ask. “You forget that we are the nonjudgmentalists, the multiculturalists, the virtuosi of diversity. We respect all value systems and all subcultural communities. After all, this is what makes us morally superior to everyone else (especially the Religious Right).
“Of course there are limits even to our great tolerance, since we do not tolerate the intolerant. Thus we have no patience with those who oppose abortion, for we know their secret: they are haters of women and of freedom generally. And we have no patience with those who oppose same-
sex marriage; they are homophobic bigots. Ditto those who oppose distribution of condoms in public schools; not only are they ostriches with heads in the sand, they are bigoted against the poor, against minorities, and generally against anyone who does not conform to their Ozzie-and-Harriet model of sexual propriety. And who could be more repressive and inhumane than the people who oppose euthanasia?
“Our profound respect for all people, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc., has led us to the conclusion that it is dangerous to believe that moral values are anything more than personal or group preferences; and we think it is especially dangerous to operate under the illusion that there exists some sort of absolute and God-given moral law. People who hold such retrograde views are fanatics who ought to be pushed to the margins of American society while we await their gradual extinction.
“As you can plainly see, then, we have no contempt for anyone or for anyone’s values. How preposterous that we should be accused of such a thing. But it is typical of the Religious Right to engage in such misrepresentations.
“So we’re sure you agree with us when we say that the Religious Right is a very wicked animal.”
David R. Carlin, a former Democratic member of the Rhode Island Senate, teaches sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island.
Dear _______ ,
It was a pleasure getting to see you again at the conference a few weeks ago. But something you asked me has been bothering me ever since. I didn’t have the time to answer you properly-there was my plane to catch-but the seriousness, even urgency, in your question has stayed with me. And so, dear colleague, this letter. . . .
You asked me if I didn’t think it absolutely necessary that before people marry, the “power” issues in their marriage should be settled. Your question, clearly meant to relate to real-life experience, came at the end of our session and grew out of the scholarly issues we’d been debating. The panel dealt with eighteenth-century views of marriage, and I had argued in my paper that women in eighteenth-century English novels are not all depicted as victims of hateful marriages, as so many feminist scholars lately have suggested, but that many different kinds of relationships are depicted and that many women-in works by both male and female authors-are shown as happy and functioning human beings. This perspective drew passionate disagreement during the question period. In response to an intense harangue from a woman in the audience, I listed a series of both fictional and real-life instances of delightfully successful marriages in the eighteenth century. I made the point that had all women been as miserable as some contemporary critics claim they were, we should expect to see evidence of widespread suicide and psychosis. We don’t find this ubiquitous dysfunction, of course.
It was this discussion that prompted your question and provided context for it. Your intense concern with issues of “power” in marriage disturbs me because it seems to me that your ideas about what marriage is have been distorted by the rhetoric of your teachers, just as so much recent scholarship has produced distorted readings of the works being studied. And while it is unfortunate that much contemporary scholarship has emerged distorted from the feminist mirror, it seems quite tragic that a generation of young women, who like most students do not bring enough skepticism to the ideas of their teachers, may allow rhetoric to spoil their own real-life relationships with men. Reviewers and other scholars can correct for the biases of a given group of scholars, but the individual life that is changed by biased views presented as fact is more difficult to resurrect. It is unfortunate that so much feminist energy has gone into the building of the Woman as Victim image that contemporary young women feel first and foremost they must defend themselves in relationships.
No, dear colleague, the first thing you need to deal with in relationships with men is not “power issues.” I would worry first about compatibility, shared interests, and love. The two-body problem (you’ll both want jobs within commuting distance of each other) is a concern too. But “power” issues? There are so many kinds of power in any relationship that to insist on “solving” the power question in advance is not only irrelevant but impossible. I remind you that the person who cooks better than the other has “power,” as does the one who can help the other make WordPerfect do its tricks. You take my point.
Feminism has done wonderful things for women-and for men. It is time, however, to challenge some of its manifestations and to do so without fear of being labeled anti-woman.
For one problem with modern academic feminism is that any challenge even to its most bizarre manifestations is met with the accusation that the challenger is simply antifeminist. This is the best case. The worst case-that is, when the challenger is male-is automatically to accuse him of being a misogynist. This pigeonholing happens so often that for the most part male scholars either stay away from questions having to do with feminist criticism or, too often, support feminist work not from conviction but from fear. As with all critical schools, there is a fair amount of bad feminist criticism being published along with the good. And yet there are few reviews of these works that firmly point to their follies. There are some such reviews, of course, but they are virtually all written by women scholars. I have asked a number of male colleagues-
some of them illustrious names in our field-why they are not willing to challenge criticism from the feminist corner. The answer is always the same: “I can’t. You [as a woman] can.” This refusal to challenge-for fear of being condemned as sexist-carries on into the larger academic community. American campuses have taken up male-bashing as the politically correct attitude.
From a male student’s earliest days on campus, and even before, in the orientation materials he receives, the student is told to be very, very careful not only what he does but what he says; “rape,” it would seem, can be verbal as well as physical, and can occur in a multitude of forms. The woman, of course, is told that she is likely to become a victim of all sorts of verbal and physical attacks, and that she may well be a victim even if she doesn’t know it.
If a drunken male attacks a drunken female, for example, his actions are not to be excused on the ground that he is not in control. I agree, of course, that this is absolutely right: drunkenness is no excuse for brutality, violence, and rape. But why does the rhetoric hardly ever allow for the intoxicated woman, except to talk about what should not be done to her when she is unconscious? No woman should be so inebriated that she does not know what she is doing, just as no man should. Women used to be responsible for their own behavior. One wouldn’t remain in a situation that was likely to get out of control. We did not expect others to safeguard us from our own stupidity. There are, to be sure, unfortunate situations that cannot be foreseen. Getting dead drunk in a frat house isn’t one of them.
But in the current academic climate, it is the male as potential attacker who is center stage. Reading freshman orientation materials from university after university, I am led to wonder how any parent in good conscience can send a male child to an institution that labels him as potential attacker before he has ever met his first coed. “No means no,” this literature trumpets-its assumption seems to be that without being intimidated by the school’s administration, the young man probably would not heed a woman’s negative. I think that academic administrators, still largely male, have been intimidated by feminist pressures. Like the scholar who is afraid to criticize a bad book, the administrator is afraid to combat the pressure to make the campus a gender-correct zone. The fury that greeted Katie Roiphe’s recent The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus-a book that in the current climate could not be written by a man-suggests how difficult it is to take a commonsense look at campus trends.
This atmosphere of female-male confrontation is inculcated on the campuses from freshman days on. By graduate school, sometimes out of commitment, sometimes because that’s where the jobs are, many women choose gender-related studies as their academic specializations. These studies are shaped and supervised by feminist scholars who, too often, bring their own biases to the work they are supervising. In our own field, British eighteenth-century studies, there is a growth industry in dissertations and books about women. (Interestingly, but not surprisingly, very few of these dissertations and books are by men.) Under the pressure to produce “feminist” readings, many young scholars distort the authors and works they are writing about.
Fanny Burney, who must be called Frances by the Correct, has become a feminist author. In the last ten years, more than a dozen new books have been devoted to Burney or have major chapters on her. The only problem here is that Burney is a decidedly conservative writer. Not to worry: in a feminist reading, the delightful fairy tale of perfect Lord Orville marrying the charming and innocent heroine in Burney’s Evelina is interpreted as a horror story. The “vill” in Orville really is a sign for “villain,” you see, and Evelina’s nuptial knot ties off her education and her budding life. It’s not the book that Burney wrote, of course, but these critics don’t let that inconvenience stand in their way. (And so, not inconsequentially, do they add to the roster of victims.)
Jane Austen, whose books are just as conservative as Burney’s, comes in for the same kind of (re)reading. Poor Elizabeth Bennet: the heroine of Pride and Prejudice is to be quite destroyed when she marries the hero, Darcy. And what of Emma marrying Mr. Knightley in Emma? In feminist readings these denouements are patriarchal, complicitous-awful. The same complaints are repeated in volume after volume of criticism.
This repetition is one of the problems with feminist criticism: the “truths” about these works are established and then simply repeated. Feminist critics cite each other, but they seem not to read much work of other scholars, so that their criticism has become inbred. Even worse, many of the young scholars seem to read relatively little except for criticism: that is, their familiarity with texts, as opposed to criticism, is often quite thin. Similarly, historical context has little place in their readings. The result of these modes of critical response is the repetition of misreadings; with little depth of knowledge except for thorough acquaintance with “the criticism,” it is difficult to fault a “reading” that has been seen in a series of critical works. And so Burney becomes a great author, and of course a feminist, and Austen becomes (here we have a choice between different feminist readings) either a feminist author or a woman who could not finish her books properly (all those Patriarchally Correct endings).
All of this is germane to the question you asked me about “power” issues between men and women. I think that the constant preoccupation with confrontation and suspicion between men and women that has lately been fostered in and by the academic community is not productive, is, in fact, unhealthy. Rather than being seen as issues between individuals that need to be dealt with by those individuals, all interactions take on cosmic proportions, becoming part of a dialectic that is often simply irrelevant to the issue at hand. I have seen too many female students in my office whose lives seemed to them very unhappy because they saw themselves as victims of constant sexist persecution. The situations they described to me, however, seemed products merely of run-of-the-mill human frictions on the job, at school, in personal relationships. Relieved of “sexist” overtones, the problems often seemed relatively trivial-their sufferers, relieved of the sense of victimization, much happier.
Your question to me, because you raised it in the context of that particular scholarly discussion, seems to imply some good commonsense doubts about the “issues” you have been told are so central to being a contemporary woman. I hope that you will bring those doubts to your scholarship; I hope even more that you will bring them to your relationships. Things in that last realm are complicated enough, after all.
Mona Scheuermann is the author of Social Protest in the Eighteenth-
Century English Novel and, most recently, Her Bread to Earn: Women, Money, and Society from Defoe to Austen. She is Professor of English at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Illinois.
Richard J. Niebanck
American Presbyterians have a new service book. Intended to replace the 1970 Worshipbook, this new liturgical manual bears the more traditional name, Book of Common Worship. It is the outcome of a process begun in 1980 when the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. authorized the preparation of “a new book of services for corporate worship” that would be “an instrument for the renewal of the church at its life-giving center.” The project was joined soon after by the Presbyterian Church in the United States and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. In 1983 the UPCUSA and the “Southern” PCUS were reunited so that the project, and the resulting book, became the joint effort of two, not three, ecclesial bodies.
The new book’s preface contains a forceful elaboration on the authorizing action:
Because of the centrality of worship in the church’s life, the continuing reform of worship is of primary importance in maintaining the integrity of the people of God. In an age dominated by individualism and secularism, it is particularly important to embrace forms of worship that are firmly rooted in the faith and foster a strong communal sense of being united with God and the community of faith in every time and place, and with a broken world in need of God’s healing touch.
So understood, worship is seen as expressing the church’s communion internally and its compassion “with a broken world” externally. In all this, the bottom line is identical with the headline: “[C]oncern for the reform of worship is . . . concern for the renewal of the church.”
What is meant by “reform” and “renewal” becomes evident in even the most casual perusal of the BCW. Clearly, “reform” does not mean “change for the sake of social relevance,” and “renewal” does not equal “novelty.” From beginning to end the BCW bespeaks a commitment to reclaiming the classical tradition of Christian worship and presenting it in a way that is both faithful and accessible. It means to enable a thanksgiving that joins with the people of God of every time and place, including our own. Rather than reconstituting the great tradition into “digestible” terms, the BCW seeks to place our time and culture-specific worship within the context of that tradition.
The BCW is not meant to be a “denominational” book but a churchly one. It understands worship not only as central to but as constitutive of the church. “Constitutive” is understood in terms of both the church’s organic life and its legal form. As the BCW’s preface points out, the “Directory of Worship,” that peculiarly Presbyterian body of canons governing the public worship of God, is “a part of the constitution of the church and has the authority of church law. . . . It sets forth the standards and the norms for the ordering of worship.” One is at once reminded that, of the churches of the Reformation, those of the Reformed tradition were perhaps the most serious about “law and order” in churchly governance, and that such ordered governance extends to the substance and conduct of public worship.
The preface contains a brief but instructive history of directories of worship and worship books, noting the tendencies of divergence and convergence between the two. The above-mentioned reunion of the “Northern” and “Southern” churches in 1983 occasioned the preparation of a new Directory of Worship. Coming as it did during the development of the BCW, the new Directory was able to influence the new liturgy in more ways than earlier directories had influenced worship books. Indeed, the influence was reciprocal, and so the BCW in its final form “is consistent with the provisions of the Directory.”
American Presbyterianism was, the preface reminds us, historically influenced by English Separatism, with its characteristic suspicion of formal liturgies. It is this heritage that underlies the Directory of Worship and the worship book as separate entities. What distinguishes the BCW and the process that brought it into being is a deliberate effort to reestablish continuity with the continental Reformed church orders and their considerably more positive valuation of the formal liturgical agenda.
The BCW is truly an ecumenical-indeed a catholic-book, incorporating the fruit of the liturgical renaissance of the last 150 years, and especially the developments since Vatican II. The BCW celebrates the ecumenical convergence represented by such documents as Faith and Order’s Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry. It declares that “our true unity begins at the baptismal font” and that “unity at the font, pulpit, and table is the true road to healing the brokenness of Christ’s church.” The reinstitution of catholic worship the BCW understands to be both an indication of and an impetus toward greater unity among Christians.
The BCW is intended to order the worship of Almighty God by his covenant people gathered about Word and Sacrament. Yes, Word and Sacrament, for this church order, in both its rationale and its agenda, establishes the Eucharist as the principal service of the Lord’s Day. This may come as a surprise to some non-Presbyterians who are accustomed to viewing the Reformed tradition through a Zwinglian lens. In fact, the BCW expresses a high Calvinism in which the so-
called “Spiritual Presence” of Christ in the Eucharist is a real Presence, the Lord in his fullness, in personal communication, conveying and applying to the believer the full benefits of his saving work. The book is informed throughout by a sacramental understanding of the church and its worship life.
Besides the Eucharist, the BCW contains the full complement of offices one might expect in a church book in the “catholic” tradition. There is a treasury of prayers with which to enrich both public and private worship, prayers representing the widest spectrum of traditions, both ancient and contemporary. A three-year lectionary (from the Consultation on Common Texts) for Sundays and festivals is included, as is a two-year daily lectionary. Several pastoral offices are also included. All in all, this book of 1,107 pages is an invaluable resource to both laity and clergy of all Christian traditions.
Like every worship book, the BCW bears the made of its time, the permanent evidence of the struggles-in both church and world-in the midst of which it was born. The most obvious of these, to this reader at least, is a meticulous avoidance of the use of the masculine pronoun in references to God and, in some instances, to the Son of God. This avoidance is signaled in the preface, where it is stated:
Care was taken . . . that [the BCW’s] language be inclusive, not only with reference to the people of God, but also in language about God and address to God. Guidelines for inclusive language adopted by the General Assembly in 1975, 1979, 1980, and 1985 were implicitly followed.
It is arguable that the BCW’s “inclusive language” is discreet and unobtrusive, avoiding such atrocious locutions as “God’s self” to replace the reflexive pronoun. It is also arguable that, as the BCW is introduced, controversy over the book’s “catholicity” is far more likely than over its “inclusive” language. Finally, it is arguable that, as a book that is likely to be used for a few generations to come, the majority of its users will eventually not notice this linguistic change because they will not remember a time when God was “He.”
Yet, at the risk of appearing impolite at best and insensitive at worst, this reader is constrained to register a certain unease. Does not so thorough a “linguistic cleansing” bespeak an animus inappropriate in the order of divine worship? And what are the credal implications of the avoidance of “he” (for instance at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer) in referring to the Risen and Ascended Christ? If the language of faith is “living tissue”-and, to this reviewer at least, it is-what are the risks involved in even the most careful of manipulations? These questions, and others like them, can only be raised here. Their answers will not soon become clear, if indeed they ever will in this world where finite words must be bearers of the infinite.
Even the greatest of liturgical orders is but an earthen vessel, soon to be superseded, corrected, improved upon. The Book of Common Worship, the fifth Presbyterian worship book in this century, is truly an exemplary work. Yet it remains one more earthen vessel. Like the rest of them, it points forward to that perfect, heavenly liturgy that shall have no end.
Richard J. Niebanck is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Delhi, New York.
Peter L. Berger
The August/September issue of First Things contained a column of mine entitled “The Other Face of Gaia.” It purported to be part of an address by one Aglaia Holt, Professor of Wymyn’s Studies at California State University at Poco, and was intended to satirize the currently fashionable inanities of eco-feminism. I understand that the editorial offices of First Things received calls and letters from a number of readers who took the piece at face value. Some were apparently upset that the journal should publish such radical stuff. One caller, though, was greatly taken by Professor Holt’s views and wanted to obtain the full text of her address.
Many things could be said about this. I might consider it a compliment. Or the editors might commission another profile of the journal’s readership. But I’m moved to a more disturbing question: Has this society reached the point of grotesquerie where satire is no longer possible? This is of course not a new question, but it demands to be considered again. Jonathan Swift, perhaps one of the most savage satirists in the English language, suggested in his “A Modest Proposal” that the problem of overpopulation in Ireland be solved by shipping off Irish babies to be eaten. What would Swift have done if he had learned, as he was sitting down to write his essay, that Parliament had just passed a law enacting this cannibalism?
Kweisi Mfume (who began life in Baltimore as Frizell Gray and was then nicknamed Pee-Wee) is chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. (His adopted name, by the way, is supposed to mean “Conquering Son of Kings” in some African language.) For some time, Congressman Mfume has had two major items on his agenda: the first, now achieved, is an occupation of Haiti; the second is legislating a “racial justice provision” that would allow individuals sentenced to death to appeal on the basis of statistics showing racial imbalance in the imposition of capital punishment. Leave aside the issue of Haiti (it, too, strains the imagination of any would-be satirist). Focus instead on the death penalty legislation. As with other laws intended to secure “racial justice,” the only way in which this one is likely to be applied is by means of quotas. I was trying to imagine a judge or a jury justifying a death sentence on, say, an Asian-American who under other circumstances would have received a lesser sentence-because the number of executed Asians was way under the statistically indicated allotment. My imagination failed me.
A federal court has recently decided that The Citadel, a South Carolina military academy that had long been a model for all the manly virtues of the Old South, must admit a woman (I’ve forgotten her name and am afraid to look it up as I might discover her nickname). At the time of writing, the court still has to decide three grave issues-whether the new cadet must be housed in the barracks, whether her uniform may or may not include a skirt, and whether her head is to be shaved in accordance with the institution’s protocol for incoming students. I try to put myself into the mind of a federal judge as he ponders his decision on these matters. Again, I give up.
But let us get back to crime, the foremost national issue in the opinion of most Americans if the polls are to be believed. Legislators of both parties, liberals and conservatives in rare harmony, are engaged in passing laws of such severity as to remind one of the Black Codes of eighteenth-century England (a paradise of civic tranquility, as any historian will tell you). One of the most popular provisions of this enlightened legislation is the one known as “Three Strikes and You’re Out”-anyone convicted of three violent felonies is to receive a life sentence with no parole. Set aside the small matter that our prisons, already filled to capacity (in large part as a result of the fabulously successful War Against Drugs), will be turned into geriatric wards for individuals who had decades earlier held up a couple of liquor stores and punched a policeman in the nose. It is also interesting to explore just what some of these felonies are. In Massachusetts, the great state in which I happen to live, there is, of course, a statute that defines as a felony an assault with a deadly weapon. It may come as a surprise that the “shod foot”-that is, a foot that has a shoe on it-is defined as such a “weapon.” Boston, despite the ubiquity of the New Class in its public life, still contains some vigorous working-class neighborhoods where there are taverns with a healthy tradition of Saturday-night brawls. I’m trying to imagine Jimmy O’Malley, the amiable though volatile neighborhood tough, carefully taking off his shoes before he kicks that so-and-so cousin of his in the butt for the third time. . . . Ah, but our streets will be safe again!
I must give the future contents of this column some additional thought. Perhaps I will have to give it up. Or, alternatively, I should fill it with sociological analyses, or with dirges, or with elaborate maledictions. In the meantime, I’m off to Poco, California. I have a double date with Aglaia Holt and Chelsea Rabinowitz-Hakamoto. I will not tell the readers of First Things what the four of us (Chelsea is bringing a friend) intend to do.
Peter L. Berger is a member of the Editorial Board of First Things and is Senior Advisor to the Institute on Religion and Public Life.