With the enormous attention paid The Bell Curve, the book by
Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray that is inevitably described as "controversial"
(or worse), another book appearing about the same time, and addressing
some of the same questions, went almost unnoticed. It is a shame, because
Thomas Sowell's Race and Culture: A World View (Basic Books) is
an invaluable resource in a time such as ours when very basic questions
are being asked about the limits of human behavior and the ethics of social
policy. Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University,
is a prolific author and columnist. Race and Culture is not merely
another of his always suggestive publications, but a summing up of what
he has learned from many years of examining human behavior in cultural
contexts as various as Los Angeles, Sri Lanka, and remote islands of the
South Pacific. It warrants the subtitle "a worldview" by virtue
of both global scope and the range of questions addressed.
Why is it that some groups "succeed" and others don't? Sowell
is impatient with intellectual complexifiers of what is meant by success.
To succeed, in his view, is to make your way economically, to build a solid
material base on which life is stable and pleasant enough to afford the
luxury of indulging other interesting concerns, including, if one is so
inclined, the question of what it means to succeed. Sowell's argument is
that some cultures do and some cultures do not support the values, dispositions,
and character traits that, everywhere and always, have produced material
success. Backing up the argument with a stunning array of historical illustrations,
he shows that hard work, an ability to organize others, a gift for rational
thinking, and an eagerness to learn from "superior" cultures
are among the characteristics essential to material success.
Sowell is, to say the least, not intimidated by "multiculturalists"
who insist that all cultures are equal-or, more frequently, imply that
all cultures are equal except their own, which is inferior. He writes:
"Plain and obvious as cultural differences in effectiveness in different
fields should be, there has developed in recent times a reluctance or a
squeamishness about discussing it, and some use the concept of 'cultural
relativism' to deny it. After archaeology and anthropology have revealed
the cultural achievements of some groups once dismissed as 'primitive,'
and especially after the ravages of racism shocked the world when the Nazi
death camps were exposed at the end of World War II, there has been an
understandable revulsion at the idea of labeling any peoples or cultures
'superior' or 'inferior.' Yet Arabic numerals are not merely different
from Roman numerals; they are superior to Roman numerals. Their superiority
is evidenced by their worldwide acceptance, even in civilizations that
derive from Rome.
"It is hard to imagine the distances encountered in astronomy,
or the complexities of advanced mathematics, being expressed in Roman numerals,
when even expressing the year of American independence-MDCCLXXVI-takes
up more than twice the space required by Arabic numerals, and offers far
more opportunities for errors, because a compound Roman numeral either
adds or subtracts individual numbers according to their place in the sequence.
The Roman numbering system also lacked a zero, a defect of some importance
to mathematicians. Numbers systems do not exist in a vacuum or as mere
badges of cultural identity. They exist to facilitate mathematical analysis-and
some systems facilitate it better than others."
Some things work, and some things don't. And if one culture facilitates
the doing of things worth doing better than another culture, hurray for
the culture that works, and (sotto voce) too bad for the culture that doesn't.
In the real world of Thomas Sowell, inequality is the name of history's
game, and we should not let sentimentality about "cultural identity,"
"roots," and "self-esteem" obscure that fact. Sowell
does not view it as a brutal fact, since, all in all, the historical contest
between unequal persons and peoples is the stuff of progress. Along the
way, there are indeed brutalities, and we have to live with that. About
some of the great wrongs of the past, there is very little that we can
do, and only great mischief results from trying to redo the consequences
of contests past. The following gives the flavor of Sowell's determinedly
"It is difficult to survey the history of racial or ethnic relations
without being appalled by the inhumanity, brutality, and viciousness of
it all. There is no more humane or moral wish than the wish that this could
all be set right somehow. But there are no more futile or dangerous efforts
than attempts to redress the wrongs of history. These wrongs are not to
be denied. Wrongs in fact constitute a major part of history, in countries
around the world. But while the victims of these wrongs may live on forever
as symbols, most have long ago died as flesh- and-blood human beings. So
have their persecutors, who are as much beyond the reach of our vengeance
as the victims are beyond our help. This may be frustrating and galling,
but that is no justification for taking out those frustrations on living
human beings-or for generating new strife by creating privileges for those
who are contemporary reminders of historical guilt.
"After territorial irredentism has led nations to slaughter each
other's people over land with virtually no value in itself, merely because
it once belonged in a different political jurisdiction at a time before
any living person's memory, what is to be expected from instilling the
idea of social irredentism, growing out of historical wrongs? What can
any society hope to gain by having some babies in that society born into
the world with a priori grievances against other babies born into that
same society on the same day?
"The biological or cultural continuity of a people does not make
guilt inheritable. Nor can the particular economic and social consequences
of particular past actions necessarily be isolated or quantified in the
lives of contemporaries-not when innumerable other influences have intervened
in the meantime. Moreover, no group was a tabula rasa to begin with. Yet
a vast literature in many countries confidently attributes intergroup economic
'gaps' or statistical disparities in occupational 'representation' to particular
historical evils, often with little or no examination of the specifics
of history, or of contemporary demographic, cultural, or other differences.
In keeping with this approach, statistical theories of random events are
often applied to group differences, not only in intellectual speculation
but also in courts of law-as if people were random events, rather than
members of groups with pronounced, enduring, and highly disparate cultural
What Ought To Be
"What can any society hope to gain by having some babies in that
society born into the world with a priori grievances against other babies
born into that same society on the same day?" The question is a forceful
challenge to schemes of affirmative action, quotas, and other policy devices
premised upon "social irredentism." Yet policy might-and most
of us would argue that it should-take into account that one baby has severely
limited life prospects, while others are greatly favored. One baby's deprivation
is not caused by the better fortune of the other babies, and there is therefore
no question of its having a grievance against the others, but there is
surely an obligation to do what can be done to improve its life chances.
This is the other side of Sowell's bracingly realistic critique of efforts
to "redress the wrongs of history." It is the side that tends
to be neglected in Race and Culture.
This is not to fault Mr. Sowell for lacking that great liberal virtue
called compassion, a virtue that no longer covers many sins. But one is
mindful of Eliot's observation that "Human kind cannot bear very much
reality." The realism of Race and Culture, while offering a
convincing description of the world as it really is, shortchanges something
that a more comprehensive realism (dare one say a more realistic realism?)
takes into account: humanity's unstoppable penchant for challenging what
is with what ought to be. Of course that penchant has at times miscarried,
producing utopian projects both sentimental and totalitarian, but it is
also a part of culture, of moral culture, that is slighted in what is meant
by culture in Race and Culture.
Nonetheless, this is a book to be read and read carefully. It is packed
with information and analysis in support of positions incorrect and unfashionable.
Thomas Sowell is a great believer in Dr. Johnson's maxim, "Clear your
mind of cant." He is also a bit of a contrarian, which is perhaps
understandable in one who has for years been berated by establishmentarian
writers, both black and white, as a traitor to his race. "Sowell lacks
soul," as one critic so very cleverly puts it. The truth is that Thomas
Sowell looks unblinkingly at some unbending, and often unpleasant, facts
about the world, and he would not serve us better if his eyes teared up
more often; that would only blur his vision, and ours. Race and Culture
puts one in mind of Edward Banfield's The Unheavenly City (1968),
and that is intended as high praise. Both authors argue forcefully that
our political culture has overdosed on the cant of compassion and equality.
Both rub the reader's nose in powerful evidence that some social problems
may be intractable. In some instances, it may be that the best we can do
is not make them worse. There is much to be said that thinkers such as
Sowell and Banfield do not say. But people who want to be taken seriously
on the subject of changing the world for the better are well advised to
attend closely to what they do say.
Pluralism That Makes a Difference
The still new (and maybe the last) president of the Public Broadcasting
Service, Ervin Duggan, spoke at the fall convocation of his alma mater,
the distinguished Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina. He underscored
the irreplaceable importance of competence, courage, and commitment. The
following is under the rubric of commitment: "When I was at Davidson
in the late 1950s and early 1960s, this institution was already beginning
its flight from what we believed to be the pinching, limiting strictures
of its Calvinist past. Most of us as students, and many bright, promising
faculty members, believed that the old churchy ways of Davidson-its remaining
ties to its Presbyterian heritage, its quaint belief that religious faith
could be a path to Truth-were not only anachronistic, but also incompatible
with free inquiry.
"We wanted Davidson to shed its parochialism, its starchy, teetotaling
Calvinism. We couldn't wait for Davidson to free itself from the embarrassing,
suffocating embrace of its church relationship; to liberate itself from
the antiquated notion that Truth could be validly interpreted through a
lens called Faith. We wanted Davidson to be a national institution; to
hold its head up in the secular and pluralistic world of true higher education,
not kneel with bowed head, mumbling by rote the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
"It was only years later that I came to understand that I had
been wrong, dead wrong, about pluralism. Pluralism does not mean becoming
like everybody else. Pluralism is about differences; pluralism is about
robust assertions of one's distinctive background and beliefs. Genuine
pluralism does not ask people, or institutions, to suppress their individuality
or their convictions so that they blend invisibly into the whole; rather,
it encourages a rich mix of individualities. The old Calvinist Davidson,
however much I might have deplored it, was making a genuine contribution
to pluralism by insisting on being different; by refusing to be all things
to all people.
"It was years later before I understood that Davidson, by asserting
the authenticity of religious Truth-of Christian Truth-was asserting something
profoundly important: the validity of a religious way of knowing. Davidson
College did not reject the scientific way of knowing and interpreting the
material world; that is how Davidson turned out future physicians and scientists.
Davidson accepted, as well, the validity of an aesthetic way of knowing;
that is why it built fine arts buildings and encouraged oboists to practice,
out under the trees. But Davidson also asserted the validity, alongside
these other valid ways of knowing, of a religious way of knowing: a way
to Truth that leads along a lighted path called Faith.
"Only years after leaving this place did I realize that the religious
tradition honored by those starchy old Calvinists was what brought into
being many of the things I cherished most. The teaching that all persons
are created in the image of God, for example: that religious idea gives
the only transcendent depth and meaning to our notions of human rights,
of human beings as sacred. The ancient doctrine of Original Sin, for example:
it led James Madison and John Adams to insist upon limitations on power,
upon a system of checks and balances. The Judeo-Christian idea of covenantal
laws and relationships, for example: this led, in time, to modern democratic
constitutions and Bills of Rights. Indeed, our modern ideas of tolerance
and pluralism owe much to great assertions of human universality like that
of St. Paul: 'I am persuaded that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek.
. . .'
"It was years before I realized that this valid religious way
of knowing-a way of knowing which gave us the Sistine Madonna of Raphael,
the Divine Comedy of Dante, and the St. Matthew Passion of Bach-was not
an embarrassing artifact of small-minded Calvinists. No, it was instead
a kind of glory: a glory worth defending and cherishing; a glory, yes,
worthy of handing down from generation to generation."
The Perfectly Revised Version
The New Revised Standard Version, the New New Revised Standard Version,
The New Revised American Version, and on and on. It started five decades
ago, and it seems, as the Preacher might have said, "Of the multiplication
of Bible translations there is no end." Of course the publishing houses
make a lot of money from this, and there are Bible translation committees
and individual Bible translators who might otherwise have nothing to do
with their time. But what purpose is served? Among others, the unholy purpose
of destroying a common biblical vocabulary. It's a Catholic problem as
much as a Protestant one. The missalettes used in most parishes (missalettes
for Christianettes?) even have different translations for the same passages
used in the same Mass. (For instance, psalm antiphons frequently differ
from the same passage in the psalm itself.) Most Christians under thirty
no longer have in common a reservoir of biblical texts recognized by all,
and are likely unable to recognize the biblical allusions woven throughout
our English literary history. In addition, with few exceptions, the new
translations represent a dismal declension from any understanding of elevated,
even attractive, language. Way on back in the 1950s when J. B. Phillips
was publishing parts of the New Testament in everyday language, it was
exciting stuff, precisely because we had a standard translation with which
to compare it. Now all most folk have is a cacophony of everyday languages
descending into ever deeper everydayness.
You know we wouldn't bring the problem up unless we had a solution.
The solution is simple: For all public purposes, liturgical and catechetical,
only the Revised Standard Version may be used. Now if only we could find
some authority that could effectively implement such a rule. Alas, the
Bible translators you have always with you, and, to make matters worse,
they are now in cahoots with sundry ideologues who are eager to put feminist,
liberationist, or other spins on the text. Where will it all end up? Christopher
Seitz, professor of Old Testament at Yale Divinity School, has sent us
a sampling of what he thinks the future might have in store for us. This
is an excerpt from the Perfectly Revised Version (PRV):
1.Bereshith adam. In the beginning, Humankind. Humankind reflected
on itself and saw that humankind was very good, neither male nor female.
Humankind rested after reflecting.
2.Humankind spoke and marvelled on the word, which showed perfectly
what humankind felt. The word did not last forever, and humankind reflected
on time. Bereshith now meant something, though beginning and ending
were abstractions. All time was one, as adam was one. "Day" two.
3.Seeing the power of the word to be other but to include all, humankind
divided itself into two creatures, "she" and "he,"
"male" and "female." These two joined themselves on
occasion back into the original one, and new life came forth, of one type
or the other. And all three saw that they were good, diverse yet the same.
4.And humankind said, let us make God in our image, in the likeness
of our threeness we will make God. Sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes
Godself, always our creation. And God was formed by the word. And humankind
saw Godself. While not "very good," Godself was "good."
5.And humankind saw the world that had always been, with stars, and
sun, and day and night, and animals, and plants, and now also with God,
and humankind said, We shall launch forth and explore. And laws were formed
so that all would be equitably shared. The God they had made was put in
charge of these laws, so that if they were broken, Godself would be judge.
And humankind saw that this arrangement was good. "Day" five.
6.Humankind was very fruitful and multiplied and covered the earth.
When laws were broken through inequitable sharing, God's justice was called
into question. God sent Godself to rectify the sharing, even to the extent
of becoming adam through perfect obedience. But it was one against many,
and the many knew God was not adam, but the work of humankind's own hands.
7.And humankind said, We are sorry we made God. A void is felt among
us. So God was taken back into humankind from whence God came. And humankind
set about to perfect the system of laws, so that humankind could remain
very good and enjoy life forever and ever. And this just striving was the
word and the word was with humankind and the word was humankind. And the
word became the Perfectly Revised Version, which you are hearing this day.
And humankind rested from all humankind's labors.
Economics in Verse and Prose
Christian thinkers who propose correspondences between Christian morality
and democratic capitalism are frequently challenged by others who contend
that biblical ethics requires a "radical alternative" to the
market economy. More often than not the challenge is from the left, but
things are not always so simple. For instance, among Catholic challengers
are many who are much taken with the ideal of "distributism"
espoused by G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Distributism is favored
by, among others, the New Oxford Review, which prompted James K.
Fitzpatrick to a response in that magazine's letters column: "Whenever
I read Chesterton and Belloc, the imagery captures my imagination: small
villages, self-employed craftsmen, religious schools, social life revolving
around the local parsonage, evenings with a pint of ale in a cheery pub.
And then I come back to earth. The goal of distributists is to use the
state to limit unjust concentrations of wealth; their objective is to use
the law to set the framework for a less materialist society, one where
home and hearth and family count for more than the lounge-lizard life of
the [Donald] Trumps and certain stock market gurus. Well, it sounds great,
but, who is going to be in charge of all this social engineering? Who is
going to define what it means to be 'excessively' materialist?"
Fitzpatrick recounts a conversation with a monsignor who advocated
a system that would assure a "living wage" that enables a man
to support his family "in dignity." When this monsignor of a
suburban parish got to listing the things required for dignity (good house,
reliable car, college education for the kids, retirement savings, and so
forth), it added up to an income of well over $100,000 per year, pretty
much what his parishioners were working for in this despised "capitalistic
system." Fitzpatrick concludes: "Chesterton and Belloc remain
favorites of mine. They are writers of great importance, as are the Southern
Agrarians in our country who viewed society from a similar perspective.
But what they offer on these issues is closer to verse than prose. Their
essays provide an antidote to the preoccupation with money that can overtake
us in capitalist societies. They provide perspective on what monied interests
can do to the political process. All of that is to be commended, without
reservation. But after that? From where I sit, there simply are no position
papers for the candidates for public office to be found in their pages."
Of course our society is riddled with dreadful problems, but it is
a sloppy and widespread habit of mind that blames the failings of this
or any other social order on "capitalism." Some problems can
be ameliorated by political or economic changes, although every proposal
for change is afflicted by the law of unintended consequences. Today it
would seem that there are no alternatives to the market economy. Nor, if
we have a thoughtful appreciation of the productive benefits and the virtues
attending the market economy, need we be urgently seeking alternatives.
What we should be seeking is not an alternative to capitalism but better
ways to include everybody in the benefits and virtues of what the encyclical
Centesimus Annus calls "the circle of productivity and exchange."
Even when that is done better than it is now, however, there will still
be dreadful problems that are endemic to the human condition.
The beginning of wisdom about politics includes agreement with Dr.
Johnson: "How small, of all that human hearts endure,/That part which
laws or kings can cause or cure./Still to ourselves in every place consign'd,/Our
own felicity we make or find." The wisdom applies equally to fiddling
with economic systems or fantasies. Actually, while politics and economics
can do little to cure human misery, they can do a great deal to cause it.
As witness the doleful history of those societies that have been mobilized
to establish "radical alternatives" to freedom.
But To Be Fair . . .
Once again the irresistible penchant to be fair gets the better of us.
The proponents of distributism would understandably cry foul if we left
the description of that ideal to someone who thinks it is but fetching
poesy. So here is Dermot Quinn, Professor of History at Seton Hall University,
on "Distributism, Democratic Capitalism, and the New World Order."
It appears in a special issue of the Chesterton Review that contains
a number of papers given at a conference in Croatia in which American and
English Catholics cautioned formerly Communist societies against adopting
the model of democratic capitalism allegedly espoused by certain American
No one, writes Professor Quinn, has described the distributist ideal
"with greater wit or lucidity" than Chesterton himself. Here
is himself's description of what he wanted: "The truth is this; and
it is extremely, even excruciatingly simple. Either Private Property is
good for Man or it is bad for Man. If it is bad, let us all immediately
become honest and courageous Communists. . . . But if it is good for Man
it is good for Everyman. There is a case for Capitalism; a case for Landlordism;
a case for complete Despotism; . . . there are arguments for Trusts, for
Squires, for big employers. But they are all arguments against Private
Property. They are all more or less philosophical reasons why a man, as
such, should not be an owner, as such; why the tenant should not own his
house; why the workman should not own his workshop; why the farmer should
not own his farm. The moment Private Property becomes a privilege, it ceases
to be private property. . . . But [distributists] are not ashamed of private
property; for we would give it to everyone."
Quinn defends distributism against the charge that it is a form of
cultural fetishism and nostalgia. "According to critics, distributism
was compounded of nostalgia and a sort of sancta simplicitas. It attached
undue moral significance to objects or styles. It was inverted snobbery.
It was a creed of cranks. There is an element of truth here: some distributists
were faddists, pure and simple. What of it? The criticism misses the point.
Distributism was radical, but not egregious. The standard complaint-it
was rural, backward, poujadiste-is caricature. In fact, it was not anti-industrial
or opposed to machines. Rather, it had more to say about ownership itself
than about any particular form of economic activity. 'Even while we remain
industrial,' Chesterton remarked, 'we can work towards industrial distribution
and away from industrial monopoly. . . . Even while we are the workshop
of the world, we can try to own our tools.' Here was no machine-wrecking,
no horrified flight to the land. Monopoly more than industrialism was the
target. Indeed, because distributists celebrated variety and heterogeneity,
they did not envision a world entirely of small farmers or shopkeepers.
The absurdity of 'mathematically equal sub-division of property or the
imposition from above of universal one-man independence' held no charm.
Self-sufficiency-call it economic freedom-was the goal. The form of that
freedom was a matter of choice."
Against the ravages of consumerist capitalism, Quinn posits his vision
of a better world. "Distributism offers more coherent discernment:
a regime of small ownerships and local attachments, a creed of property
but not possessiveness. Central to it is a nation of life in community,
whether in the town or the family farm or the parish or the religious order:
human organizations with a soul. The rootlessness of city or suburb, however
affluent, holds no appeal. And it is precisely modest proprietorship which
permits individual independence while preserving social responsibility.
Owning one's own land, one's shop; practicing a trade or a skill; sharing
profit or loss with one's fellow workers: these were the distributist ideals."
Professor Quinn concludes with this: "'Our business is business,'
claimed [Calvin] Coolidge. 'What,' he seems to demand of the distributist,
'is yours?' Quietly, and with no great claim to originality, the distributist
answers: 'Our business is the business of life itself.'" Quietly,
and with no claim at all to originality (for Mr. Fitzpatrick and many others
have asked it before), one asks, And what policies or platform do you propose
to advance that worthy end?
The conclusion, no matter how fair one strives to be, is that distributism
is poetry and preachment. It is in some respects necessary poetry and preachment,
for in a sinful world people need always to be recalled to community, to
self-reliance, to neighborliness, and all that constitutes what Russell
Kirk called "the permanent things." But until the distributist
"ideal" engages the structures and practices of the world of
economics daily chronicled by, say, the Wall Street Journal, it
cannot help but seem vacuous and naive. It seems particularly imprudent
for Catholic intellectuals to tie the Church's social teaching to the shadow
of an economic idea that, in the view of some thoughtful people, once held
out hope for a "third way" beyond capitalism and socialism. With
the end of socialism, dreams of a third way are irrelevant. As John Paul
II makes explicitly clear in section 42 of Centesimus Annus, the
choice today is between acceptable and unacceptable forms of capitalism.
Another contributor to the special issue of the Chesterton Review,
David Schindler, says he resents the charge that his alternative to capitalism
is "unrealistic." Christians who honor the martyrs, he writes,
do not have "success" as their goal, and he is certainly right
about that. Christian martyrs, however, are prepared to die for Christ,
not for a dispute over an economic theory that is now chiefly of antiquarian
interest. Anyway, nobody to date seems to have suffered much as a consequence
of attacking the neoconservative proponents of democratic capitalism-unless
one counts lost credibility and poetry diminished by self-dramatization.
Chesterton, to his great credit, took himself ever so much less seriously.
Which is one reason why he will be celebrated long after everybody has
forgotten the wan attempt by some of his devoted disciples to rescue his
unfortunate foray into economic theorizing from the past to which it belongs.
Were he around today, one expects he might-with his accustomed wit and
lucidity, and, above all, charity-try to dissuade his disciples from persisting
in that attempt.
Back to the Fifties?
When Nations Die is a book by Jim Nelson Black that is just out
from Tyndale. The subtitle is America on the Brink: Ten Warning Signs
of a Culture in Crisis, so you can sense right off that the author
is not the bearer of unqualifiedly good news. He concludes with a testimony
by Chief Justice Earl Warren at a Washington prayer breakfast in 1954.
Warren said: "I believe no one can read the history of our country
without realizing that the Good Book and the spirit of the Savior have
from the beginning been our guiding geniuses. . . . Whether we look to
the first charter of Virginia . . . or to the Charter of New England .
. . or to the Charter of Massachusetts Bay . . . or to the Fundamental
Orders of Connecticut . . . the same objective is present: a Christian
land governed by Christian principles. . . . I believe the entire Bill
of Rights came into being because of the knowledge our forefathers had
of the Bible and their belief in it: freedom of belief, of expression,
of assembly, of petition, the dignity of the individual, the sanctity of
the home, equal justice under law, and the reservation of powers to the
people. . . . I like to believe we are living today in the spirit of the
Christian religion. I like also to believe that as long as we do so, no
great harm can come to our country."
That got us to thinking about an acquaintance, not an unsophisticated
fellow, who sums up his conservatism in one simple command, "Back
to the Fifties!" For a number of reasons we find that formulation
unpersuasive, not least because of the shoddy mix of religion and Americanism
so common to that era. Admittedly, it may be too much to expect politicians
and jurists to be theologically literate, but the sentimental and smug
conflation of Christianity and the American Way got way out of hand back
then. For everything there is a season. Forty-plus years later, some may
think that talk about "a Christian land governed by Christian principles"
sounds pretty good compared with the anti-American and anti- Christian
rhetoric that has gained ascendancy since the countercultural assault of
the sixties. But, at the risk of repeating ourselves, the choice is not
between a sacred public square and a naked public square. The goal is a
civil public square in which the convictions, including the religiously
grounded convictions, of a democratic people are engaged in deliberating
how we ought to order our life together. In a nation "under God"-which
means, first of all, under judgment-that deliberation is conducted in the
awareness that we must never presume that "we are living today in
the spirit of the Christian religion" or that because of our righteousness
"no great harm can come to our country." Then of course there
is the fact that Chief Justice Earl Warren, together with other justices,
declared it an unconstitutional establishment of religion for the public
schools to teach children what he in 1954 declared to be the foundational
truths of the republic. Warren and his brethren said, in effect, that no
one can read what he says is the history of our country, at least in the
public school, without violating the Constitution. From such incoherence,
great harm has in fact come to our country.
America's Spiritual NORAD
Focus on the Family is but the largest of dozens of national Christian
organizations that have relocated in Colorado Springs. Marc Cooper, who
styles himself a radical reporter, has some cautionary words for the readers
of the very leftward Nation magazine: "But over the last handful
of years, Colorado Springs has become the new capital and staging ground
for America's Christian Right. More than seventy evangelical and para-church
groups-ranging from small oddities like the Fellowship of Christian Cowboys
to midsize operations like Every Home For Christ to the mammoth multinational
of conservative Christian activism, Focus on the Family-have been lured
to set up their headquarters here. The concentration of all these groups
with their 2,500 employees plus family members has given the Christian
right enormous influence in Colorado Springs, and has consequently endowed
the city with disproportionate clout with the national Christian conservative
movement. No wonder Focus on the Family leader Dr. James Dobson declared
Colorado Springs to be the 'Gettysburg' of America's culture war. What's
happening in Colorado Springs is more complicated and more portentous then
just a freakish case of a small minority coalescing in a political critical
mass. For too long now the secular left has mistakenly written off Christian
conservatives as a radical fringe skilled in stealth politics who, when
exposed to the light of scrutiny, shrivel and dissipate. I would argue,
especially in the wake of the November 8 vote, that as nary a populist
can now be found on the left (save Ralph Nader and Jesse Jackson), as the
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s yearning for the 'beloved community' has
been supplanted by liberals calling for boot camps and public executions,
and as the Democrats in general deteriorate into the Republicans' caricature
of a party of lobbyists and lawyers in tasseled loafers, it is the Christian
right that has best taken up the challenge to fill the growing emptiness
in American life, to soothe the fears and uncertainties provoked by the
global market, the darling of both parties. I am not suggesting that the
radical right is any less radical or right than progressives have always
claimed. I'm merely arguing that in the desert landscape of American politics,
the radical right position is increasingly becoming less extremist and
more mainstream. Its success in Colorado Springs is particularly worrisome
because this is a city of the future, not the past. With plentiful high-tech,
nonunion jobs, 'good schools,' and a relatively low crime rate, Colorado
Springs is exactly the sort of midsize, semi-rural city that tops the relocation
list of millions of disaffected blue- and white-collar workers eager to
flee their decaying big cities or suburbs and start a new life."
A local fundamentalist pastor, Pastor Jim, with whom Cooper talks,
is overwhelmed by the growth of his own church and almost everything else
in Colorado Springs that does business under the banner of Bible- believing
Christianity. "God himself," says the pastor, "has raised
Colorado Springs to be a strategic center for our nation. . . . Colorado
Springs is America's spiritual NORAD. By the year 2000 this chapel could
be one of the ten most influential churches in the country." Cooper
concludes his not unsympathetic account with, "It would be silly to
bet against Pastor Jim."
The words and mannerisms of the religiously fervent tend to seem fevered
in the cold print of a magazine article, and it is all too easy to parody
the hype that attends much evangelical entrepreneurship. Mr. Cooper does
not take unfair advantage. Everything about Colorado Springs, not only
its religiousness, is a reproach to the readers of the Nation in
their "decaying big cities or suburbs." Those who live in this
decaying big city-on the Upper West Side, Chelsea, and the Village-tell
themselves that Colorado Springs represents everything that they came to
New York to escape from. As a nearly incorrigible New York chauvinist,
this writer is not untouched by that bias. In reality, however, Colorado
Springs and other places to which "disaffected" Americans are
fleeing to "start a new life" are not what we escaped from. They
are something new. For some of us, they are nice places to visit, briefly.
We have friends and colleagues there. But we wouldn't want to live there.
As historians have pointed out, great spiritual revivals of the past
have mainly been urban phenomena. Can national spiritual renewal come from
gated cities of refuge, connected to the rest of the world chiefly by fiber
optics and satellite dishes? Once in the American story, the big city was
the future; now it seems increasingly consigned to the past. Once it was
the road to success; now it is the holding pen for society's losers. That's
a bleak picture, and we should not accept it too readily. For millions
of Americans, especially immigrants, the city is still the arena of seemingly
unlimited possibility and promise. They, too, are very much part of the
American future. There is nothing wrong with Colorado Springs as a high-tech
center of communications and mass mailing, but the entrepreneurs of spiritual
renewal must, if there is to be something like a national renewal, engage
the decaying worlds that they fled. If they do not, the result is not a
great awakening but a nation of people, from the Upper West Side to Colorado
Springs, congratulating themselves on having escaped from one another.
The Best of Possible Religions
in the Best of Possible Worlds
An acquaintance with the conceits of times past can provide a measure
of immunization against the conceits of our own time. The following is
from the preface to the 1838 reprinting of the Coverdale Bible, first published
in 1535. The author reflects with unqualified satisfaction on the happy
history "to which we gratefully ascribe the establishment of our present
national religion." (Meaning the Church of England.) "Accustomed
in the present day to the highest degree of civil and religious liberty
that man perhaps can ever expect to enjoy, free to express our opinions
without the terrors of the stake or the tortures of the rack to awe us
into silence, or force us into dissimulation, it is with a mixture of curiosity
and indignant surprise that we cast back our glance over a space of centuries,
and see our ancestors struggling in all the mazes of ignorance and the
labyrinths of superstition, alike passive under the mental tyranny of their
monkish rulers and the bodily servitude of their despotic Lords. But every
thing in this world changes, and excessive tyranny only more effectually
prepares the way for perfect freedom. The minds of men in some degree induced
to reason by the measures of Henry the Eighth were no longer to be blinded
by false pretenses or intimidated by impotent threats, and the commencement
of the Reformation dawned steadily and beautifully through the mists of
papistic craft that the mental sloth of ages had permitted to accumulate.
It is difficult for us to imagine the despotic control at that time exercised
over the whole faculties, whether physical or mental, of our ancestors,
and it requires some effort to picture to ourselves the revivifying effect
that must have attended the spreading of the reformed doctrines. Men, who
had seldom exerted their reasoning powers, were at once invited to discuss
theological difficulties, and to solve the deepest mysteries of religion:
and as by the reformed tenets every matter was open for discussion, there
were few bounds set to inquiry; but various tenets and various opinions
were as quickly spread, as eagerly adopted. The light that thus broke through
the mental darkness of the reign of Henry the Eighth, fed as it was by
the Holy Word of God, burnt purely and steadily; and although adverse winds
and hostile gusts shook its flame for a time during the reign of Mary,
they could not extinguish it, but left it to throw its calm and heavenly
rays on our own and future ages." It would perhaps be unkind to mention
that all the elements are there for the making of what the national religion
would become a century and a half later, so we won't mention it.
While We're At It
- We don't make these things up, you know. A history professor in New
York remarked at lunch the other day on how very little he can take for
granted with respect to what his students know. For instance, he accompanied
a class on a tour of French cathedrals and art museums. After a week of
this, one of the brightest young things in the class observed that they
had been viewing all these paintings and statues of mothers with a child,
and in every case the child was a boy. "How can anyone deny that that's
not evidence of sexism?" she wanted to know.
- Here's a big chart published in the San Francisco Chronicle,
"Judeo-Christian Sexual Ethics Through the Ages." A big subject
requires a big chart. According to this chart, there were two important
developments in sexual ethics prior to Christ, seven from the birth of
Christ to the Year 1000, eleven from the beginning of the Second Millennium
to 1900, and fifteen so far in this century. So you can see that history
is really speeding up. Looked at from the truly big perspective of "through
the ages," the first major development in the twentieth century was
in 1939, "Birth of Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority."
Other transformative events were Reform Jews approving ordination of gay
rabbis (1990), a Catholic bishop resigning after an affair with a woman
is exposed (1993), and the 1994 launching of a feminist organization to
promote the goddess worship advocated by the 1993 "RE-Imagining"
conference. In sum, Everything You Wanted to Know About Judeo-Christian
Sexual Ethics for people who only have time to read the newspaper.
- Last summer, the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine
ran an article titled "Regulating Physician-Assisted Death."
Getting implicit support from NEJM was a big score for the pro- euthanasia
side. In a letter to the editor, Daniel Callahan of the Hastings Center,
one of the foremost authorities on ethics related to death and dying, put
the question into perspective: "First, the article fails to acknowledge
the most difficult, indeed insuperable, regulatory problem: How would it
be possible to monitor agreements and conversations between doctors and
patients, given the privacy of the doctor-patient relationship? Are we
to station a police officer at every bedside and in every doctor's office?
The plan advanced in the article is, in effect, nothing other than a self-regulatory
scheme, requiring that physicians voluntarily subject themselves to oversight;
only at that point does the scheme kick into operation. Moreover, if the
practice of physician-assisted suicide is already widespread but currently
carried out with legal impunity, why should we expect doctors who now freely
break the law to pay attention to new regulations any more than they do
to the present one? If they now feel they can violate a long-standing moral
prohibition in medicine to assist a suicide, why should we expect a sudden
new respect for medical morality in the future? Second, the notion of 'independent
and impartial oversight' of an issue as morally and emotionally volatile
as this one would be merely amusing if the authors were not serious. Or
maybe their plan shows that they really do have a sly sense of humor. Presumably,
no physician or lay person opposed to physician-assisted suicide would
be allowed to serve as a palliative-care consultant or be a member of the
palliative- care committee. By definition, such people would lack the requisite
impartiality, as would the many hospice workers who believe that pain and
suffering can be relieved in all but the rarest cases and who claim never
to have seen such cases anyway. In short, only those who passed an initial
ideological test could be certified as independent and impartial. How convenient
that would be. Third, the authors combine a liberal conception of who would
be eligible for assistance with a view that the 'situation and values'
of prospective candidates should be determinative. It is thus hard to see
how any reasonably determined patient could fail to get what he or she
wanted. Indeed, it would take an uncommonly dense patient not to be able
to figure out how to play the game with such a system. The authors of this
article have created a regulatory Potemkin village-all facade with nothing
behind it." Callahan's argument echoes key points in last year's report
by the New York State task force on law and ethics, the key point being
that "regulating" doctor-assisted suicide is a charade, as Oregon's
new law will likely demonstrate in short order, if the courts let it go
- A Christian's Guide to Worry-free Money Management is a book
just out from Zondervan. The suggestion that there is a specifically Christian
way to do what comes naturally always raises a suspicion. The book has
a chapter explaining why "Christians should practice tax avoidance-legally
reducing taxes to the lowest possible amount." Uh huh. Those who need
a Bible passage to justify acting upon God-given common sense will be pleased
that the authors have one readily at hand. Tax avoidance, we are told,
is biblically mandated by "Render unto Caesar . . ." Next:
A Christian's Guide to Coming In Out of the Rain.
- Writing in the Phi Beta Kappa publication, the Key Reporter,
John P. Burgess, Associate for Theology at the headquarters of the Presbyterian
Church (USA), has this to say: "A Society like Phi Beta Kappa can
help remind us of the role of traditions and communities of interpretation
in safeguarding knowledge. At a time in which all traditions are fragile,
we need more than a scholarship that shakes its own foundations. We also
need a scholarship that helps preserve and strengthen its own foundations.
Scholarship, at its best, involves mastering traditions and wrestling with
their methods and claims, in order to free us to new insight. It is like
jazz piano. Those who have a classical training are best able to improvise
and to test musical limits." Burgess concludes: "Scholarship
that shakes its own foundations is not necessarily good or responsible
scholarship. Phi Beta Kappa can be most helpful when it carefully examines
the philosophical and cultural assumptions that inform gender, race, class,
and postcolonial inquiry, and when it engenders a vigorous, sustained debate
across traditions and communities of inquiry, including those that do not
take gender, race, and class to be ultimately determinative of human identity."
In some circles, such homely wisdom is enough to induce an identity crisis.
- You likely won't see the prestige media crying "McCarthyism!"
but that is what it is. Richard Couser of Concord, New Hampshire, sends
along a copy of the "New Hampshire Religious Right Directory,"
a blacklist put out by a Massachusetts outfit calling itself the Institute
for First Amendment Studies (for First Amendment studies but obviously
not for the First Amendment). On the list are the names of some 325 New
Hampshire citizens who have committed un-American acts such as sending
a contribution to the American Family Association or attending a meeting
of the Christian Coalition. While labeled "confidential," the
list was circulated to school boards, employers, and others who might want
to "do something" about these dues-paying members or fellow travellers
of the religious right. When the Manchester Union Leader exposed
these nefarious goings on, the Governor, State Board of Education, and
others appropriately condemned the witchhunt. The blacklist suggests that
tolerance is fine so far as it goes, but it should not be extended to folk
who go to the extreme of opposing liberalism.
- Since the Warren Court, which was greatly bolstered in this way of
thinking by the Brown decision on school desegregation, many constitutional
scholars have advanced the idea that it is the role of the judiciary to
moderate a national dialogue on the values by which we are to live. The
idea was expressed in an extreme form by a majority of the Supreme Court
in the 1992 Casey decision, wherein the Court claimed that citizens were
obliged to follow the lead of the Court now that it had reached a conclusion
on the national debate over abortion. This is a novel and dangerous idea,
writes Gregory C. Sisk, Professor of Law at Drake University in Des Moines,
Iowa. The idea that the judiciary is to be a national forum for moral deliberation
has no basis in the Constitution itself and for 175 years of American history
would have struck jurists as absurd. Writing in the Rutgers Law Review,
Sisk says, "Our foundational charter begins with the words, 'We the
People of the United States,' thereby proclaiming in whose name the Constitution
is written and by whose sufferance the government holds power. We, the
People, still grow up in families, live in neighborhoods, attend local
schools, and belong to churches, synagogues, and voluntary organizations.
It is here, in our local communities, that we must nourish values and a
sense of belonging. It is here, where the moral bonds of voluntary attachment
have not yet been stretched beyond the breaking point, that true dialogue,
especially over the highest things- matters of ultimate truth and value,
can be maintained. It is here that we must seek and realize our aspirations
for the future. The Constitution is an anchor for our ship of state, not
the sail for our voyage to tomorrow. The Framers did ordain certain enduring
principles, which guard us on our journey and keep the passing waves of
tyranny from crashing over us. When the winds of change blast us forward
at dangerous speed or when we tack too hard to port or starboard, we depend
upon judges of fortitude and legal wisdom to cast the anchor overboard
and keep us moored in our traditions of liberty and democratic government.
We have not, however, appointed an oligarchy of judges as our governors
in law or our counselors in morality. The commission to seek a better and
more virtuous society belongs to each of us as individuals and as a collection
of diverse local communities and institutions of voluntary attachment.
We, the living, must work out our own passage to the new millennium."
- We are often asked where to get hard-to-get books. There are a number
of excellent sources around, some of which advertise regularly in these
pages. And others of which should. For instance, Eighth Day Books, 3700
E. Douglas #40, Wichita KS 67208. Their catalogue of classics in religion,
philosophy, history, and literature is very much worth having.
- Our readers include some very fervent proponents of getting the Brits
out of Northern Ireland, to judge by the letters received in response to
a small item on Hollywood's lionizing of Gerry Adams. We quoted British
journalist Simon Jenkins who said the Hollywood celebrities, including
Oliver Stone, were getting a second-hand "thrilling tingle" by
their association with IRA violence. Whatever the merits of the Irish question,
William D. Livingston of Colorado Springs writes to say that Jenkins got
Oliver Stone all wrong. Livingston, himself a veteran of Vietnam, reports
that Stone volunteered for the U.S. Army and served fifteen months in Vietnam,
much of it in the combat that formed the basis for his movie Platoon.
Livingston concludes, "In short, stuff Jenkins and his false assumption."
(I think that's one of those Brit expressions.)
- Karl Keating is President of Catholic Answers in San Diego and he was
displeased by our comment on the criticism of "Evangelicals and Catholics
Together" by one of his colleagues that was published in the organization's
magazine, This Rock. Mr. Keating wants us to know that that was
simply the opinion of one staff member, and that Catholic Answers is favorably
disposed toward the declaration. We are pleased to take note of the fact.
- "Adoption reform" sounds like a dandy idea. Unfortunately,
it is the language frequently employed by those who are adamantly opposed
to adoption. As with so many other questions, adoption is embroiled in
the debate over abortion, with pro-abortion forces claiming that adoption
is a stratagem of pro-lifers aimed at limiting "reproductive rights."
In December, the New Jersey Assembly voted to tear up promises of confidentiality
made to women who had placed their children for adoption. This was after
hearings in which it was repeatedly claimed that adopted kids are sick
and in need of "healing reunions." The anti- adoption groups
turned out people who complained that adoption had ruined their lives.
Of course those whose lives would be ruined by opening the records could
not testify, since to do so would destroy the very privacy they want to
protect. So the Assembly voted to pass out the names of birthparents when
an adopted child turns eighteen. Thousands of women who trusted the promises
of confidentiality when they placed their children for adoption may have
their lives severely disrupted. The next step feared by the National Council
for Adoption is that legislatures will tear up the other half of the adoption
covenant, informing birthparents about adoptive families and giving them
the legal right to make contact with the child at his or her adoptive home,
or even at school. Some birthparents might, for any number of reasons,
want to do that, but the result, says the Council, is tantamount to "co-parenting
without any corresponding responsibility." Millions of American parents
want to adopt children. With sensible laws and public policies, many more
children would be adopted. Confidentiality all around is essential to encouraging
adoption. The New Jersey Assembly-and other states might well follow its
lead-is, in our view, headed in exactly the wrong direction. The key person
to contact is Senator Louis Bassano, 324 Chestnut St., Union, NJ 07083.
- This past Christmas, Barney's, a big men's clothing outfit in New York,
had in its display window a nativity scene with the several figures depicted
as animals, including Mary as a very seductive feline wench. The Catholic
League got on their case and Barney's pulled the display. Not so with Hallmark
and a good many "Christian" book and gift stores around the country.
They carried a "Cherished Teddies Nativity Creche" peddled by
Enesco Imports (P.O. Box 1427, Elk Grove Village, IL 60007). It's part
of the enormously popular "Precious Moments" line. Mrs. Kathleen
Miller of Arlington Heights, Illinois, was not amused by Jesus, Mary, and
Joseph being portrayed as teddy bears. Unlike, for instance, the fairy
tale "The Three Bears," she wrote to Enesco, "The birth
of Jesus Christ is not fictional. It is not 'cute.' . . . The central message
of Christmas is that Jesus Christ became a human being, born of a human
mother, to begin a process that would transform human beings into heirs
of the One Who Cared Enough to Send the Very Best." Enesco responded
that the nativity scene "is only interpretive and not meant as an
act of sacrilege." "While we respect your personal feelings regarding
this representation of the Nativity, we also must take into consideration
the opinions of those other consumers who enjoy and appreciate a particular
artist's artistic interpretation of a familiar Christmas scene." First,
Mrs. Miller is some kind of philistine who fails to appreciate the "art"
of "Precious Moments." Second, Enesco has a moral obligation
to consumers who, like Enesco, do not recognize sacrilege when they see
it. Third, albeit unstated, there is a dollar to be made (if we are correctly
informed on the popularity of these things, very big dollars to be made)
from suggesting to children that God in Christ became a teddy bear. In
sum: You have your idea of Christmas, Mrs. Miller, and we have ours, and
there are sentimental suckers out there who don't know the difference.
So don't try to impose your values in a way that prevents us from imposing
our demand on stores that they take the entire line, including the teddy
bear nativity and other profitable vulgarities, or nothing at all. After
all, as with other forms of pornography, you are free not to buy it. It's
the American Way. (Readers who believe that corporate responsibility is
another facet of the American Way might want to drop a note to Enesco or
have a word with the manager of their local Hallmark store.)
- Leafing through an issue of Reflections, a Yale Divinity School
publication that contained a lecture I had delivered there, I came across
a sermon by Howard Moody, the recently retired head of Judson Memorial
Church in Greenwich Village. The biographical sketch of Mr. Moody included
the fact that he had organized "the Clergy Consultation Services on
Abortion (1967) which championed the rights of women to choose childbearing."
An intriguing formulation, that. The reader might protest that it is simple
nonsense. When did women not have the right to bear children? But that
is to miss the point. The accent is on "choose," and the implication
is that one cannot truly choose one thing unless one is equally free to
choose the opposite thing. One cannot choose to give birth to the child
unless one can choose to kill the child. It is nonsense, to be sure, but
it is deep nonsense-nonsense at the heart of a culture that knows no higher
good than choice.
- Our local paper advertises with billboards depicting someone happily
at work over the legend, "I got my job through the New York Times."
Back in the bad old days of the Cold War, a favorite conservative cartoon
showed such a billboard with Fidel Castro's picture. What kind of church
is it that would boast, "We got our pastor through the New York
Times"? It is the Congregational Church of South Dennis, Massachusetts,
which placed this in the classifieds: "PASTOR F/T Dynamic, exp'd prof'l
sought to lead & aggressively build all phases of 175-yr-old Cape Cod
parish. Goal-oriented emphasis on membership growth, visitation, Christian
Education & financial growth. Incentivised compensation pkg."
The last item presumably means that s/he gets a piece of the take. Church
growth comes to Cape Cod. Where does Lyle Schaller take his vacations?
- Clause Four of the charter of the British Labor Party calls for "the
common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange."
Socialists view Clause Four as the heart of their creed, and were understandably
upset last year when Labor leader Tony Blair, eager to modify the perception
that Labor is stuck in radicalisms past, called for its elimination. "Socialism
is the name of our dream," wrote Irving Howe, and many of his persuasion
agree. It may be that in 1995 socialism is no longer a believable option,
but must we disown the dream? That seems to be the plaint of the Tablet,
a Catholic journal that asks, "If Clause Four must go, what would
replace it?" Blair had declared in a speech that "those who seriously
believe we cannot improve on words written for the world of 1918-when we
are now in 1995-are not learning from our history, but merely living in
it." Yes, responds the Tablet, "But where is that alternative
form of words?" What should Blair do? The editor proposes that he
should clearly commit himself and Labor to renationalizing the British
rail system, which has been denationalized by the Conservatives. This is
public policy serving as a "form of words." Returning to a socialized
railway is a long way from the grand goal of "the common ownership
of the means of production, distribution, and exchange," but at least
it would keep alive the name of the Tablet's dream.
- Animal Theology, published in the UK last year, is authored
by Andrew Linzey, who holds what is described as the world's first post
in theology and animal welfare, at Mansfield College, Oxford. Some issues
back we made a whimsical comment on some observations by Mr. Linzey that
were reported in the Tablet. Mr. Linzey was not amused, as we learned
in an outraged telephone call from Oxford demanding that we publish a piece
by him refuting the position attributed to him. We assured him, in our
most mollifying editorial manner, that we only reported what the Tablet
had quoted him as saying, and we could not commit ourselves to publishing
his statement sight unseen. He was not happy. Now here is Andrew Linzey
once again back in the pages of the Tablet and charging that "Traditional
Roman Catholic teaching puts animals beyond the moral pale-we are seen
to have no direct duties to them." As evidence, he points to the assertion
in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that it is "contrary
to human dignity" to cause animals to suffer needlessly. "The
point being made," says Linzey, "is not that such suffering offends
animals, but that it offends humans." An author of Animal Theology
may perhaps be excused for not knowing, but anyone familiar with Catholic
theology or, for that matter, Christian theology knows that human beings
are uniquely capable of sinning, and every morally wrong act is contrary
to human dignity. Whether or not animals are capable of being offended,
they are certainly subject to being harmed, and it is contrary to human
dignity to inflict harm unnecessarily. Human beings are morally accountable;
animals are not. Any effort to suggest some kind of moral equivalence-whether
in terms of rights or duties-between animals and human beings is, in our
view, quite wrongheaded. The well-being of the nonhuman world, including
animals, is deeply dependent upon our continuing to accent the singularity
of human dignity, a dignity that entails responsibility for all of God's
creation. That is the point being made by the Catechism, and it is a pity
that it seems to be lost on the likes of Mr. Linzey. . . . Excuse me, I'm
told there's an urgent call from Oxford.
- Also in the Tablet, Father Richard McBrien, formerly chair of
theology at Notre Dame, reviews David L. Edwards' What is Catholicism?
An Anglican Responds to the Official Teaching of the Roman Catholic Church
(Mowbray). According to McBrien, the book challenges Catholic teaching
on a host of subjects ranging from papal authority to sexual ethics to
the ordination of women and clerical celibacy. He says the response of
Catholics "who are up to date in their grasp of theology and biblical
studies" will be similar to his own judgment: "good book, good
ideas, but nothing new." The book might achieve its purpose, says
McBrien, "if it prompts one or two Catholic theologians to forsake
their customary inhibitions and write the same kind of honest book from
a Catholic perspective." That would be something new? Father McBrien
is being much too modest in failing to mention that he and a host of others
have already written that book many times over.
- New Yorkers, or at least New Yorkers who live in Manhattan, are inveterate
walkers. It is therefore not surprising that snippets of overheard street
talk are a staple of conversation. For example, the other day two bedraggled
derelicts brown-bagging Thunderbird or perhaps some more choice vintage
while tottering against the fence of Gramercy Park on East 20th Street.
Says the one to the other, "I didn't say it wasn't a good idea. I
said you'd never get it funded." Which perhaps answers the question
of what happens to failed directors of think tanks. It occurred to me that
they might have been failed academics, but failed academics have tenure.
- Part of the charm of Anne Roiphe's style is that one is really not
sure where parody leaves off and where she is unfurling her banner of personal
conviction. Whatever she intends, the following column in the New York
Observer nicely catches the apocalyptic tonalities among those accustomed
to occupying the commanding heights of our political culture. "Boys
and girls, the liberal Tinker Bell lies dying. You can hardly hear her
tiny ding-dong. Clap, clap, if you want her to survive the long Republican
night. There she lies, poisoned by Captain Rush and all the other pirates
of the American Dream. Her voice was never loud, but her wings were once
diaphanous, catching the light of human hope. Lately, they've turned soggy
and ragged in the political rain." Ms. Roiphe goes on and on with
a catalogue of the terrible things in the offing now that conservatives
have presumed to declare themselves the political majority, and she ends
with this: "These days I'm feeling as if the Rosenbergs died in vain,
as if the roar of American Firsters is coming over the mountaintops, as
if the cruelty of politics, me and mine, not you and yours is here again-as
if Sinclair Lewis' Main Street with all its hypocrisy and its sanctimonious
clubbiness has become Pennsylvania Avenue and Fifth Avenue. The Republicans
are not really in power. It's the Dixiecrats in Republican clothing that
are preening on our national stage and they say nice words about equality
but they don't mean it. They will go out and find another Vietnam if they
can. They will toss weapons into space so that God will not be safe in
His house and they will let the trees and the waters of the earth die for
their greed. And all this will go on until the liberals stop choking on
old ideas and old failures and speak out in a voice that will reach the
outer precincts with furious, lusty battle cry. Till then I'll stay in
never-never land, where the New York Times has no home delivery and Mayor
Giuliani never vacations, and even fools don't take bell curves at full
speed. If you believe in fairies, boys and girls, clap as hard as you can,
with both hands, please. The curtain is coming down."
- The school prayer amendment seems to be an on-again off-again thing
with this Congress, and there's no telling where it will be by the time
this sees print. Amid all the usual and weary arguments surrounding that
question, refreshing common sense pops up here and there, sometimes from
unexpected quarters. This, for example, from Jeremy A. Rabkin who teaches
government at Cornell: "It may not always be possible to satisfy everyone.
If a school prayer amendment removes the federal judiciary from its current
role as umpire of cultural etiquette in this area, some families are sure
to find the consequences disturbing to their sensibilities. If the most
insistently liberal or secularist students find their schools to be intolerably
religious or conservative or whatever, they are free to attend private
schools more to their liking-which is exactly the advice given to students
who sought some acknowledgment of religion in their schools over the past
thirty years. Indeed, many and perhaps most conservatives would support
some form of government aid to these private liberal havens-as long as
the courts would also allow aid to private schools operated under religious
auspices. Even if not finally adopted, a prayer amendment would send a
strong signal to the Supreme Court to leave difficult issues such as accommodation
of religion to the good sense of accountable officials at the state and
local levels. Whatever those officials might do, they are unlikely to offend
more people than the federal courts have done."
Sources: James K. Fitzpatrick criticism
of "distributism," New Oxford Review, December 1994. Dermot
Quinn on distributism, Chesterton Review, May-August 1994. Marc
Cooper on the Christian right in Colorado Springs, Nation, January
While We're At It: "Judeo-Christian Sexual Ethics Through
the Ages" in San Francisco Chronicle, November 30, 1994. Daniel
Callahan letter on physician-assisted suicide, New England Journal of
Medicine, December 15, 1994. John P. Burgess on scholarship, Key
Reporter, Autumn 1994. Gregory C. Sisk on Supreme Court rule, Rutgers
Law Review, Summer 1994. On "the rights of women to choose childbearing,"
Reflections, Summer-Fall 1994. Pastor's ad in New York Times classified,
January 15, 1995. On British Labor Party, Tablet, January 14, 1995.
Andrew Linzey on animal rights, Tablet, January 14, 1995. Richard
McBrien review of What Is Catholicism? in Tablet, January
7, 1995. Anne Roiphe on the current liberal mood, New York Observer,
January 23, 1995. Jeremy Rabkin on the proposed school prayer amendment,
American Spectator, February 1995.