The Public Square
The Connecticut state legislature recently considered a bill to wrest property away from the Catholic—and only the Catholic—Church, giving ownership of Catholic parishes to boards of local parishioners. The bill never had much chance of enactment: Nearly every available law professor declared it wildly unconstitutional, and a quick bout of agitation from the state's Catholics sent the leaders of the legislature backpedaling in panic.
Still, the sheer fact of the bill revealed something about the character of our present moment. It had about it a mildewed, musty scent, as though we were witnessing the return of, say, 1979—as though thirty years had rolled back without a trace. The effort to strip the public square of all religious content may have sat in angry abeyance for a while, but it now feels bold enough to overreach, and who's to say that what appears overreaching today won't seem the norm tomorrow? The exercise carried a revenant, graveyard odor: the stench of ideas we had long thought buried, clawing their way up to confront us once again.
American elections have their natural tides, of course, as an out-of-power political party flows to power once again and revives its old plans. Back in 1984, for instance, the Republican president Ronald Reagan approved the Mexico City Policy, which prohibits American funding of international abortion agencies. The Democratic president Bill Clinton rescinded it immediately on taking office in 1993. The Republican George W. Bush promptly restored it in 2001, and the Democratic Barack Obama abolished it again in 2009.
President Obama did wait a little before undoing the policy: almost three full days, in fact, after he took office on January 20—a slightly less than seventy-two-hour postponement for which he was praised by such religious cheerleaders as the indefatigable Protestant activist Jim Wallis. "The symbolism of the delay" was proof, according to the Washington Post's Catholic columnist E.J. Dionne, that the new president seeks a "consensual tone on this divisive issue."
The news of praiseworthy delay and consensual tone did not travel far in Obama's own administration. At a meeting of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in March, Meryl Frank, the U.S. representative, proudly announced to the world's delegates that, "by moving swiftly" to repeal "the so-called Mexico City Policy," President Obama "has empowered women" around the world. Even in its perversity, there was something refreshing about Frank's honest lack of spin—just as there was when, in January, Obama dismissed Republican senator Jon Kyl's complaints about the lack of bipartisanship with the terse and accurate line: "I won." Whatever the attempts of their enthusiasts to explain the partisan fact away, Republicans tend to do Republican things, while Democrats tend to do Democratic things. Be angry at the sun for setting / If these things anger you.
The Unserious and the Undead
And yet, those who worry about the American scene may be forgiven for their disquieted sense that something more is afoot than simply the normal two-step, forward and back, of electoral politics. That "Let's Use State Law to Force Catholics to Have the Church Organization of Methodists" proposal in Connecticut: Was this merely the high spirits of newly dominant partisans taking their turn at leading the well-established American political dance? It seemed, instead, the sudden lurching to life of ideas that we had hoped not just temporarily defeated but genuinely dead—as though zombies had decided to smash through the leaded windows to interrupt the formal quadrilles and cotillions of a Jane Austen ballroom.
We must consider a grim prospect. It is possible that all the work since First Things was founded in 1990—all the work since Richard John Neuhaus published his seminal book The Naked Public Square in 1984—will be dismissed as though it never existed. Church–state relations, and constitutional interpretation, and the clothing of the body politic from the wardrobe of the moral imagination, as Jane Austen's older contemporary, Edmund Burke, once put it: All the careful public distinctions and theological definitions, the foundations that religious intellectuals have built up over decades, might well be brushed aside.
It's not just an obviously unconstitutional proposal in Connecticut that gives one the uncanny sense of dealing with the undead. The triumphalistic rhetoric with which President Obama recently announced his administration's commitment to embryonic stem-cell research—and the hosannas with which it was greeted by the likes of the New York Times—heralded something more than just an adjustment in policy by a newly empowered political party.
This has not proven to be the case with all issues. In treating the American military presence in Iraq, for example, Obama's Democratic administration has appeared at least partially willing to accept the changed facts of recent years: not doing what a Republican administration would have done, by any means, but also not acting as though the situation in Iraq remains exactly what it was before the troop surge began in 2007. In treating stem cells, however, we have been transported back to where we were years ago—despite the changes that brought us such scientific breakthroughs as the reprogramming of ordinary cells to create induced pluripotent stem cells.
What distinguishes the present attitude toward the life issues is not merely that one side in a broad public debate has now gained power and wants to apply its own proposals to the current situation. The problem is rather a systematic campaign, among some on both the left and right, to ignore years of careful work at defining the issues—and a pretense that the issues never existed to begin with. The seriousness of the efforts of, for example, Leon Kass and the President's Council on Bioethics seems to have left hardly an imprint.
Indeed, the word seriousness may be the key. When a party that generally upholds the nonhuman status of embryos takes control of the government, no one expects its policies to be identical to those of the previous party. "I won," as Obama rightly if impoliticly boasted. But we are witnessing more than a change in policy. From too many of the nation's politicians and commentators—liberal and conservative alike—there came a great sigh of relief, as though they were pleased most by their release from the burden of pretending to be serious about the moral and intellectual distinctions involved in our national argument about the beginning of life.
How comforting it is, they seemed to say, that we no longer owe even lip service to such things.
Economics, New and Old
And then there is the economic crisis. Future scholars will invest great energy in apportioning blame for the mess, no doubt. The Republicans' 70 percent to the Democrats' 30 percent? 50 to 50? 70 to 30 the other way? Regardless of the answer at which the future arrives, the question is unhelpful for the present, and maybe here in the present financial crisis we have a genuine instance where we do not want—and cannot use—the routine back-and-forth of policies that alternating administrations bring. Maybe here is a place where we genuinely need something radical and new.
Whatever that might be, we do not seem to be getting it. Oh, plenty of extreme economic proposals are pouring out of the White House and the Congress, but they are radical and new mostly in the sense of being monstrous inflations of old ideas: familiar ghouls fed on our economic panic and bloated almost beyond recognition. The trillion-dollar stimulus bill rushed through Congress proved a container for nearly every old partisan proposal anyone could remember. It was like one of those shopping contests that supermarkets used to host: Any item you can fit in your shopping cart and rush to the checkout counter within five minutes, you get to take home for free—$20
billion for expanding food-stamp welfare, $335 million for condom promotion and prevention of sexually transmitted infections, $40
0 million for global-warming research, $750 million for worthy nonprofits whose worthiness shall be decided by partisan officials.
On and on the tally runs. Shortly after Obama was elected in November, his newly chosen chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, explained on a Sunday morning talk show that "rule one" is "never allow a crisis to go to waste. . . . They are opportunities to do big things." Speaking to the European Parliament in March, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made much the same point in much the same words: "Never waste a good crisis," she insisted while asking the Europeans to join the United States in using the economic situation to advance an environmentalist agenda. Squandering a partisan political opportunity is not a charge anyone will level against the current Congress and White House. Make hay while the sun shines, the old maxim urges, and so they have.
It would all seem frivolous, were it not so deadly. Over the last two decades, our public debates about economic matters have suffered from a fundamental unseriousness. The Democrats are hardly to blame: If anything has been truly bipartisan in our politics, this surely qualifies. Many conservative commentators excoriated President Bush and the Republicans who controlled Congress through 2006 for their steady expansion of government while mouthing the platitudes of small government, but the political will to discuss what the shrinking of government would actually mean was usually absent—even among the complaining conservatives. Reduced spending was rarely questioned as good in a general way, and expanded spending was rarely doubted as good for achieving some particular result, and on the Republicans went for years in happy hypocrisy.
No one denies that there exist real questions we should be asking. Perhaps we have reached the final limits of the great decades-long burst of wealth bought us by the Reagan tax cuts and deregulations. Perhaps, in other words, the patient has developed a resistance to supply-side medicine.
Or perhaps we are to learn a different lesson, taught to us by the persistence of the recession despite such extraordinary measures as the Fed's March 18 announcement that it would buy up to $30
0 billion of treasury bonds and expand its purchase of mortgage-related securities by $850 billion—a $1.15 trillion intervention in the market atop previous commitments of $2 trillion. Perhaps we have found the final limitations of John Maynard Keynes' sort of economic tools.
We haven't had this kind of discussion of economic fundamentals in public for decades, which is, in itself, a deeply depressing thought: Back again we go to 1979, with little to show for the intervening thirty years.
It's worth remembering where that discussion began. The neoconservative writers who made the cultural and economic arguments back in those days— neoconservative, in the old 1970s and 1980s sense of the word—were morally, and often theologically, committed. Neither the heartless Victorian industrialists of legend nor the adolescent admirers of Ayn Rand's libertarian novels, the neoconservatives demanded a preferential option for the poor, which they argued was far better fulfilled by the wealth created in the creative freedom of capitalism than by the collectivist governmental monopolies of socialism.
They may have been wrong—and, then again, they may have been right: Given the worries expressed in the background paper the World Bank prepared for the March meeting of G20 finance ministers, there is a plausible case to be made that the huge expansion of the U.S. government is about to suck the globe dry of available credit, leaving the Third World stalled for years in the murderous effects of the current financial situation. "Preliminary analysis shows that . . . infant deaths in developing countries may be 200,000 to 400,000 per year higher on average between 2009 and . . . 2015 than they would have been in the absence of the crisis," the World Bank reported. "Unless reversed, this corresponds to a total of 1.4 to 2.8 million excess infant deaths during the period." Whatever the critique of neoconservative economics, it is hard to understand how freshly unearthed Keynesianism can claim the moral high ground.
Simple technocratic application of the economic preferences of one political party or the other will no longer suffice. We need a serious public discussion of the direction that economics should go, for we stand, once again, at a midnight crossroads, where deals are made with the devil, and money and morality meet.
The Modest Dignity of the Penultimate
Unfortunately, seriousness remains in short supply. We could dwell here, if we had to, on the political response to bonuses for executives at the insurance giant AIG, paid for with bailout funds from the government's stimulus bill. From all sides, it seems an astonishing display of fecklessness and demagoguery; must everyone with a bully pulpit play the bully? But the point would remain the same: A great deal of the seriousness in American public discourse has fled.
The task of First Things is to call it back. With the death of our founding editor Richard John Neuhaus on January 8, those of us associated with the magazine have had to stop and consider exactly what we want First Things to be—the principles it must represent and the topics it must cover.
Certain matters remain at the heart of what the magazine exists to do. The struggle to halt the slaughter of the unborn and the ill, for instance—the need to defend the weakest among us, constantly threatened by a culture that accepts abortion and euthanasia as easy devices with which to solve personal and social difficulties. We believe the United States to be a grand historical experiment, worth defending in its own right and inherently interesting to study. We work for the advancement of Jewish–Christian relations. We feel the divisions of Christianity—Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic—as a scandal that shames all believers, even while we know that true ecumenism must begin with each tradition's theological integrity. We demand a society that feeds the hungry and cares for the poor. We know that the political effort to strip religion from the public square is an attempt to undermine the American experiment, and it will bring only disaster in its wake. On all this, we will not be silent, and we will be heard.
First Things is not a political magazine. It deals with religion, culture, and the moral structures of public life, and it does so in the politically indifferent light of philosophy, theology, literary theory, and historical study. We live, however, in strange days: a time in which the doing of such things—the very attempt to be serious—is itself a political act, with political consequences and political costs.
Politics is a secondary activity, of course. Even theology, philosophy, and poetry are secondary, in a sense: They may be first in the order of language—and thus first in the range of what a magazine can actually publish—but they come second to faith and prayer in the order of existential truth. Still, both politics and intellectual pursuits have a genuine importance and dignity precisely because, in their proper secondary places, they require neither false inflation to the all-encompassing nor false deflation to the insignificant. "The first thing to be said about public life is that public life is not the first thing," Richard John Neuhaus declared when he launched First Things in 1990, and he added:
By religion and public life we mean something like what Saint Augustine meant by the City of God and the City of Man. The twain inevitably do meet, but they must never be confused or conflated. Whether at the beginning of the fifth century or at the end of the twentieth, the particulars of their meeting are always ambiguous. At the deepest level the two cities are in conflict but, along the way toward history's end, they can be mutually helpful. The polis constituted by faith delineates the horizon, the possibilities and the limits, of the temporal polis. The first city keeps the second in its place, warning it against reaching for the possibilities that do not belong to it. At the same time, it elevates the second city, calling it to the virtue and justice that it is prone to neglect. Thus awareness of the ultimate sustains the modest dignity of the penultimate.
As the dead ideas of previous decades rear again their angry heads, we seem in many ways thrust back to where we were when the magazine began. This is a moment when the modest dignity of the penultimate must be reasserted. This is a day, again, for seriousness. This is a time, once more, for First Things.
The Cast of Characters
You may notice, back on page 2 of this issue, that we have made changes to the masthead—adding some new positions and rearranging some old. As we work out the adjustments necessary to keep First Things on course, other changes will no doubt come along, but we are enormously grateful to all those who have rallied now to the magazine's support.
The first to join us in the office is a new associate editor, David P. Goldman. He was trained in Renaissance history and philosophy, particularly music theory, and he still serves as a governor of the Mannes College of Music. But his career has been spent mostly in finance, holding senior positions at Bank of America, Credit Suisse, and Bear Stearns, and he has written widely on financial topics, including a seven-year stint as a columnist for Forbes.
Along the way, however, he has been writing popular weekly columns for the Asia Times, all published under the pseudonym "Spengler." The name, he explains, began as a joke—the author of Decline of the West as an Asian newspaper columnist—but it had a serious side: to call attention to the impact of the culture of death on the viability of modern nations. After a few years' acquaintance, we convinced him to emerge from his pseudonym and join us full-time at First Things. Deeply involved in Jewish issues, he worships at the Synagogue Or Zarua in New York.
The second to join us is another new associate editor, Russell E. Saltzman, the pastor of Ruskin Heights Lutheran Church in Kansas City, Missouri, who has graciously agreed to work at First Things while on his sabbatical. Readers may recognize him as the longtime editor of the Lutheran Forum Letter, which he took over in 1990 when the previous editor, Richard John Neuhaus, left to start another magazine. Ordained in 1980, Pastor Saltzman has served parishes in Nebraska, Illinois, and South Carolina. Before entering seminary he worked as a newspaper reporter, a press secretary to a U.S. congressman, and deputy secretary of state for legislative affairs in Kansas.
This spring we will be launching a redesigned and much-improved website, and joining us to manage it all is our new web editor, Joe Carter. An adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College, he was a fifteen-year Marine Corps veteran and managing editor of the online magazine Culture11. An evangelical, he has served as the director of research for Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign and as a director of communications for both Family Research Council and the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity.
One of the new things the revamped website will offer is video capabilities, and joining us as new media editor is the actor, director, and writer Tim Kelleher. You may have seen him in such films as Seven Pounds, Malcolm X, The Negotiator, and Thirteen Days (a movie about the Cuban missile crisis in which, for his sins, he played John F. Kennedy's speechwriter and advisor, Ted Sorenson). Having studied at Villanova and the Catholic University of America, he is preparing for ordination in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
Several other friends have agreed to take on new roles and add their names to the masthead. James Nuechterlein, the editor of First Things from 1990 to 2004, assumes the new title of senior editor, for instance. And seven of the most interesting and talented authors in America have joined us as contributing writers: the biblical scholar Gary A. Anderson, the essayist Mary Eberstadt, the Orthodox theologian David B. Hart, the literary critic Alan Jacobs, the bioethicist Yuval Levin, the Catholic blogger Elizabeth Scalia, and the poet Sally Thomas.
Whatever reason once existed for distinguishing two editorial boards on the magazine's masthead seems to have passed, and with this issue, the two have been united into a single Editorial & Advisory Board for First Things. Accepting invitations to join our board are Claudia Anderson, managing editor of the Weekly Standard, and Eric Cohen, editor-at-large of the New Atlantis and executive director of the Tikvah Fund.
We have added as well a new Finance Committee to help us negotiate the shoals of the current economic situation. The members are the longtime newspaperman and retired CEO of the E.W. Scripps Company, William Burleigh, the Californian investor Frederic Clark, and the hedge-fund director Peter Thiel, together with two of First Things' oldest friends, Robert P. George from Princeton University and George Weigel, chairman of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.
You'll notice one other name on the masthead—a name that will always remain with us: Founding Editor: Richard John Neuhaus, 1990–2009.
While We're At It
The circus came to town yesterday. At midnight on March 23, ten elephants walked through the Midtown Tunnel and along 34 Street, on their way to Madison Square Garden: the 139th annual Animal Walk of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Circus. The great gray legs of the pachyderms, their swinging trunks, that strangely rapid shuffle that they do: a simple pleasure to see. Except that the animal-rights activists were out in protest at the entrance to the tunnel. There are no simple pleasures remaining in our puritanical times; each human pleasure is run through the great fires of human guilt, where it must be consumed. Or perhaps I mean each small and innocent joy must be consumed. What strange days: The complex pleasures of human sexuality are declared simple and guilt-free, while the simple pleasures of a circus parade are rendered complex and guilty.
Robert Benne, professor emeritus at the Lutheran Roanoke College in Virginia and director of the Center for Religion and Society, is by most accounts one of the best minds contributing to public theology with a Lutheran spin. Which makes it entirely appropriate that he should receive, to mark his seventieth birthday, a festschrift from his friends and admirers: Report from the Front Lines: Conversations on Public Theology, edited by Michael Shahan, book-review editor for the online Journal of Lutheran Ethics. The twelve essays in the volume match the seriousness of Benne's work and thought: Shahan, Carl E. Braaten, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Richard John Neuhaus on public theology; James Nuechterlein, Gilbert Meilaender, and Mark A. Noll on Lutheran distinctiveness; and Paul R. Hinlicky, Ronald F. Thiemann, Gerald R. McDermott, Donald D. Schmeltekopf, and Michael D. Beaty, and Joseph A. Swanson on liberalism and the personality of the Christian university. While all the essays are good, we have our favorite: Jim Nuechterlein's winsome tale of growing up Lutheran and finding the Lutheran core that animates the Christian's life in public and in the spirit.
¢ The English theologian Nicholas Lash has a new volume of collected essays, Theology For Pilgrims (Notre Dame), which has received a sympathetic review from Lucy Beckett in the Times Literary Supplement. Beckett singles out for special praise Lash's review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. She writes:
"Only in the English-speaking world do we speak of "science' in the singular," Lash notes. Ludwig Wittgenstein was famous for his dictum that we are all bewitched by language, and Dawkins seems the most besotted of all. When the singular form of the word science is used, says Lash, "to support sweeping assertions to the effect that here, and here alone, is truth to be obtained, then one is in the presence neither of science, nor of history, but ideology. . . . There are no "scientific' facts. There are just facts, what is the case." Dawkins is also, one is not surprised to learn, besotted by his substitute god, that empty demiurge called Progress, which prompts this tart observation from Lash: In the light of the horrors of the twentieth century and the global dangers and injustices of the twenty-first, "[it is] hard to understand how a man as intelligent as Richard Dawkins can sustain such a smug and counterfactual Whiggery."
It's worth the price of admission just for that phrase "smug and counterfactual Whiggery."
¢ The analogy used in the opening portion of this month's Public Square—the image of zombies visiting Jane Austen—was not entirely at random. We note the recent publication of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, "an expanded edition of the beloved Jane Austen novel featuring all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie mayhem." This is, believe it or not, merely one item in what is apparently an entire genre. There's Jane Bites Back, for example, in which Austen is a vampiress who passes the centuries selling used books until she gets her bloody revenge on everyone who has profited from spin-offs of her work. And for those who prefer movie adaptations, there is the forthcoming film Pride and Predator. As the director says: "It felt like a fresh and funny way to blow apart the done-to-death Jane Austen genre by literally dropping this alien into the middle of a costume drama, where he stalks and slashes to horrific effect."
¢ In the second week of March, President Obama made good on his campaign promise to increase federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. His decision will undoubtedly weaken the gains he made with religious groups during the election—even while it endorses scientific procedures whose merits have been surpassed and forces all citizens, via their tax dollars, to participate in unethical research. Nonetheless, after eight years of campaigning against President Bush's compromise policy, the Democrats apparently felt they had to follow through on their talking points.
In his announcement of the new policy, Obama declared: "It is about letting scientists . . . do their jobs, free from manipulation and coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it's inconvenient—especially when it's inconvenient." Bush's policy was "a false choice between sound science and moral values," for "the two are not inconsistent." "As a person of faith," Obama explained, he believes that "we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering."
Put the syllogism together with respect to embryo-destructive stem-cell research, and you arrive at Obama's conclusion: "We have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research—and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly." He never explained the humanity or conscience part.
¢ Then there's our former president, Bill Clinton. Appearing on CNN's Larry King Live, Clinton assured viewers that Obama's policy was the right one and that we could avoid the culture wars so long as proper protections were in place. What sort of protections? "I think that we'll work it through. If, particularly if it's done right. If it's obvious that we're not taking embryos that can—that under any conceivable scenario would be used for a process that would allow them to be fertilized and become little babies, and I think if it's obvious that we're not talking about some science-fiction cloning of human beings, then I think the American people will support this."
Asked if he had any reservations about his own bioethical decisions as president, Clinton responded:
I don't know that I have any reservations, but I was—[Obama] has apparently decided to leave to the relevant professional committees the definition of which frozen embryos are basically going to be discarded, because they're not going to be fertilized. I believe the American people believe it's a pro-life decision to use an embryo that's frozen and never going to be fertilized for embryonic stem-cell research. . . .
But those committees need to be really careful to make sure if they don't want a big storm to be stirred up here, that any of the embryos that are used clearly have been placed beyond the pale of being fertilized before their use. There are a large number of embryos that we know are never going to be fertilized, where the people who are in control of them have made that clear. The research ought to be confined to those [embryos]. . . .
But there are values involved that we all ought to feel free to discuss in all scientific research. And that is the one thing that I think these committees need to make it clear that they're not going to fool with any embryos where there's any possibility, even if it's somewhat remote, that they could be fertilized and become human beings.
For those counting, that's six times Clinton assures us embryos shouldn't be fertilized. The entire interview was premised on the fact that Clinton was "someone who studied this" and "talked a lot about [it] in the early part of [his] presidency." Was he even listening? Has the work of the pro-life intellectual community over the past sixteen years been for naught? It's as if it's 1992 all over again.
¢ On that edition of Larry King Live, Clinton was interviewed by Sanjay Gupta. One expects that Gupta, a medical doctor who was rumored to be Obama's pick for surgeon general, knows full well that an "unfertilized embryo" is a contradiction in terms. Yet he never corrected Clinton, which led some commentators to accuse Gupta of complicity in the deception of his viewers. But there is another possible interpretation. Surely Gupta could have advised Clinton off-camera and then re-filmed or simply edited out the embarrassing portions. He did neither. Perhaps this was Dr. Gupta's way of letting the audience know just how well studied he thinks Clinton and company really are.
¢ Bill Clinton did say that human cloning, at least, is unacceptable. And Barack Obama said the same. Or did he? In the Weekly Standard, our former assistant editor Ryan T. Anderson points out that to get the patient-specific embryonic stem cells necessary for the promised miracle cures, scientists need to use an embryo produced by human cloning. "It is, therefore, critically important to note what Obama did not say," Anderson writes. "He promised that he would make sure that "our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction.' He went on to add that "it is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society.' This is certainly correct. But in pledging only to prevent reproductive cloning, Obama intentionally left the door open for research cloning. The cloning procedure involved, of course, is exactly the same in reproductive and research cloning; the only difference is that in research cloning the developing human is killed before being allowed to be born."
¢ Right on cue, just a few days after Obama announced his decision, the New York Times chimed in with a strong defense of cloning—though they were careful never to use the word. What moral principles should govern biomedical research? The Times argued that they should be defined "as broadly as possible to allow the greatest potential for advances." What will this entail? Whatever the scientists want: "Scientists believe that one way to obtain the matched cells needed to study diseases is to use a cell from an adult afflicted with that disease to create a genetically matched embryo and extract its stem cells. This approach—known as somatic cell nuclear transfer—is difficult, and no one has yet done it."
"Somatic cell nuclear transfer"—otherwise known as cloning. "Extract its stem cells"—otherwise known as killing it. The editorial made clear what we had long supposed: Many in this debate are not morally serious and were not arguing in good faith. Why did they say, for years, that all they wanted were the spare embryos left over from IVF procedures? "This single-minded focus on the surplus embryos—left over after patients' fertility treatments were completed—was mostly because a strong moral argument could be made that these microscopic, days-old embryos were doomed to be discarded anyway," the New York Times now offers in explanation of its old disingenuous editorials. "Why not gain potential medical benefits from studying their stem cells?" When they told us they wanted only one more leap, they meant it was the first baby step.
¢ The last line of the New York Times editorial reads: "When the N.I.H. sets the rules for federally financed research, the main criterion should be whether a proposal has high scientific merit." This, of course, is simply repeating President Obama's embrace of a politics-free science. Yuval Levin is having none of it: "But science policy is not just a matter of science. Like all policy, it calls for a balancing of priorities and concerns, and it requires a judgment of needs and values that in a democracy we trust to our elected officials. In science policy, science informs, but politics governs, and rightly so."
¢ For the final word on all of this, look to Charles Krauthammer's powerful column in the Washington Post, which concludes: "Dr. James Thomson, the pioneer of embryonic stem cells, said "If human embryonic stem-cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough.' Obama clearly has not."
¢ Jewish atheists, it turns out, now have their own rabbinate, yeshivas, and congregations, as well as their own chaplain at Harvard University—a Mecca, as it were, for Jewish atheists. The chaplain is one Greg Epstein, who hopes to organize atheists into congregations with a "God-free model of community," according to a March 18 dispatch from the Associated Press. Epstein was ordained by the Jewish atheists' yeshiva, the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, which trains "non-theistic rabbis." Their website does not reproduce their prayers, but one imagines existing Jewish prayers might serve with minor alterations: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is No One." Secular Humanistic Jews seek, they announce, "the best ethical insights of the Jewish and human tradition"— mitzvoth commanded by no one in particular. And, as an exercise in midrash, perhaps the old Abbott and Costello routine, "Who's on First"?
¢ Our friend Dimitri Cavalli writes to say that the outrage over the pope's claim in Africa that condoms makes things worse brings to mind a story about the late Dr. Theresa Crenshaw. A sex therapist, she attended the 1987 World Congress of Sexology in Heidelberg—and asked the audience of eight hundred professionally trained sexologists, "If you had available the partner of your dreams and knew that that person carried HIV, how many of you would depend on a condom for your protection?" No one raised a hand. She then chided the audience for giving ordinary people advice that none of them would follow for themselves.
¢ "This is the first translation since Dryden's that can be read as a great English poem in itself." Strong praise from Garry Wills, writing on Sarah Ruden's new translation of the Aeneid, a book that received almost no attention when it first appeared.
What makes Ruden's translation remarkable, Wills says, is strict attention to the Aeneid's verse: "She decides to translate one-line-per-one-line, and she uses iambic pentameter. This means not only that she gives herself less space overall . . . but less space in any single line. She has ten or eleven syllables to a verse, where Vergil and Robert Fagles have up to seventeen syllables. . . . The wonder of Vergil's poem is that it has a melancholy melodiousness while retaining a tight aphoristic ring. Fagles often achieved the former, but rarely the latter. Ruden gets both."
Occasionally she sacrifices a word or two of Latin to fit her meter, but the clear, tight language that results gives the reader the feeling of reading a well-crafted poem. Contrast that with Fagles, whose sprawling blank verse drags you in, pulling the reader along line by line until finally the book is finished and he pauses for air. Instead of breathless, Ruden's verse leaves you admiring Virgil's succinct, powerful poetry. She describes a hunted deer, for instance, as running "with the death reed buried in her side."
When Dido, mad with love for Aeneas, offered sacrifices:
Her gifts on incense-burning altars rotted,
Horrible to describe: wine turned to black
And filthy gore the second she poured it.
No one was told. Her sister did not know it.
And in the end, when finally Iris frees Dido's soul to depart for Hades, All living heat / Vanished, and life dissolved into the wind. For these lines, and many others like them, Ruden's Aeneid deserves a space on the shelf next to those of Fitzgerald, Dryden, and the other great translators.
¢ The Jesuit opinion weekly America recently noted its hundredth anniversary, in partial celebration of which the editors are reprinting excerpts from some of its greatest hits. One of the first of these republications was a 1952 article by Jacques Maritain called "The Apostolate of the Pen." Maritain clearly did not care for the title. He explains: "Any expression intended to designate some human activity should be used by those it concerns to mean the kind of task they are doing. Now, if you ask a writer what he is doing, he will probably answer: "I am a novelist'—or a poet, or a philosopher, or a playwright. But I hardly imagine that he will answer: "Me? I am an apostle of the pen.' Supposing he did answer in this way, I would have little confidence in his apostolic virtues."
Those familiar with the work of the Catholic novelist Flannery O'Connor already know how deeply she appreciated Maritain's Art and Scholasticism, where these same views are set out more fully in book form. What his 1952 lecture does is set it out with more direct and blunt concision: "The Christian apostolate is intended to convey to men the good tidings of the gospels and to lead souls to faith in revealed truth. It has its proper ways and means. For a writer to make a novel or a metaphysical treatise an instrument adapted to this purpose, or to any other purpose extraneous to the proper exigencies of his work, would involve some risk for the very quality of the work. . . . [The Catholic writer should be] an artist fully dedicated to the requirements of his art and the beauty of his work, or a thinker fully dedicated to the requirements of knowledge and the progress of the intellect in truth."
Some critics claim that Shakespeare was not a Christian believer because he wrote King Lear, whose view of the world and of human nature is so unrelentingly grim. But others (including, surprisingly, the feminist Germaine Greer) claim King Lear is Shakespeare's most Christian play, precisely because it reproduces human nature so unsparingly. The same might be said of O'Connor's short story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," about a family who are gunned down by an escaped prisoner. Such events are a part of reality, as the headlines are continually reminding us. Either God's providence is at work even here, or the atheists are right. Regardless, it is not the task of the artist, Christian or otherwise, to "defend the ways of God to man" but to show reality as it is. Such is Shakespeare's greatness, and O'Connor's—and Maritain's, for showing us why.
¢ It's not a big thing, but it does make one a little sad—the announcement from Polaroid that it has ceased production of its classic instant self-developing film. And now Fisher-Price has cut yet another thread of cultural continuity by gutting the View-Master. The Economist writes: "The boxy binocular-style viewers remain; but the circular reels that brought three-dimensional images of the world to millions have now been cut back to a handful of children's titles. Long before the Internet, or even before most people had color televisions, View-Masters gave millions a full-color, three-dimensional view of the world." Is it enough consolation to see that Etch-A-Sketch is holding steady?
¢ All persons have the "right to choose a lifestyle," Scottish parliament member Margo MacDonald recently declared, and "their wishes are [to be] respected." She forgets to add that not all lifestyle choices are equally respectable. Witness Cain and Abel, Holmes and Moriarty, Olaf the Good and Sven the homicidal maniac. To be a murderer, one might be so bold as to claim, is not merely an unfortunate lifestyle choice.
Yet MacDonald, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, is planning to introduce the "End of Life Choices (Scotland) Bill," to permit assisted suicide for terminally ill patients, those with degenerative diseases, and even those who, in her words, "unexpectedly become incapacitated to a degree they find intolerable." If such a bill is passed, people will be relieved of the undue burden of traveling all the way to Switzerland to escape what they deem a "second-class existence." MacDonald advocates the legalization of physician-assisted suicide for adults and adolescents as young as age twelve. As she reasoned to Scotland's Herald, "People of that age have the legal right to determine in the case of their parents breaking up which parent they will live with. Arguably, therefore, they are being given a right to choose a lifestyle and their wishes are respected."
Unfortunately, such foggy logic and chilly morals aren't limited to Great Britain. On March 4, Washington's "Death with Dignity" law took affect, making Washington the second state in the nation to legalize physician-assisted suicide. The euphemistically named Compassion & Choices—formerly the Hemlock Society—is promoting similar bills in Hawaii and New Hampshire. And, in a stunning example of judicial activism, a single December ruling by a district court judge enshrined the "right to die" in Montana as well. The state constitution uses the term dignity, noted the judge, and thus Montanans have a constitutional right to "death with dignity." "Words," C.S. Lewis once wrote, "can be "killed with kindness.'" Not unrelated, people can be, too.
¢ Back in February, Dr. Jeff Steinberg, director of Fertility Institutes in Los Angeles, announced that he would help couples choose the eye, hair, and skin color of their children using genetic embryo screening. "Genetic health is the wave of the future," he told the New York Daily News. "It's already happening and it's not going to go away. It's going to expand. So if they've got major problems with it, they need to sit down and really examine their own consciences, because there's nothing that's going to stop it."
As it happens, enough people did sit down, examine their consciences, and then stood right back up again: The public outcry eventually forced Steinberg's clinic to suspend the service. In its news release, the Fertility Institutes admitted that, "though well intended, we remain sensitive to public perception and feel that any benefit the diagnostic studies may offer are far outweighed by the apparent negative societal impacts involved." The clinic hasn't exactly stopped practicing eugenics. They still boast of a "100 percent sex-selection success rate"—meaning, of course, that embryos of the undesired sex are discarded. The clinic also screens embryos for "albinism or other ocular pigmentation disorders" as well as a range of genetic abnormalities such as Down syndrome and hemophilia. Eugenics is fine, as long as you don't alter eye and hair color.
¢ The deep wickedness of sexually exploiting children (like the evil of the Holocaust) is one of those few points on which one expects near-universal agreement. This makes the silence over Barack Obama's nomination of David Ogden as deputy attorney general particularly disturbing. Ogden has distinguished himself as one of the nation's foremost advocates for child pornographers and other dealers of obscenity. In one case, Ogden argued that two videos called "Little Girl Bottoms (Underside)" and "Little Blondes" could not be considered obscene unless "the genitals or pubic area exhibited" were "somewhat visible or discernible through the child's clothing." When Congress proposed a law requiring that pornographers keep documents verifying that their young models were of legal consenting age, Ogden argued that the law would "burden too heavily and infringe too deeply on the right to produce First Amendment–protected material." That the Senate confirmed this man 65 to 28 should be puzzling. Perhaps this happened because social conservatives, reeling from electoral defeat, lacked the will and ability to win a political battle. One hopes it was not because Americans no longer mind "Little Girl Bottoms (Underside)."
¢ Intelligent and entertaining are two adjectives that go together far too rarely, but they belong in company when speaking of our contributing writer Alan Jacobs. He has in this issue a marvelous essay on the publication of The Green Bible, a specialty edition for the environmentally conscious, with the Bible's earth-friendly words printed, naturally, in green.
Specialty Bibles are a successful sideline in the book-publishing trade. The only one absent from the group seems to be a Pastor's Bible, but perhaps we have simply missed it. Announcements of three new ones did catch our attention, however, though the first doesn't seem to be targeted at any particular specialty group, except the overwhelmed. The Expanded Bible New Testament promises to provide study aids and resources "right within the text of the Bible." Readers are relieved of the cumbersome troubles involved in switching between Bible and commentary or Bible and dictionary or Bible and reference work defining ambiguous words or phrases. Now, thanks to the expansion, the cumbersome stuff is on the same page as the text.
Meanwhile, The Outdoor Bible: Sportsman Edition comes with a camouflage-colored cover. The highlighted lettering in the text relates scriptural references to hunting and fishing and the like. The sales blurb tells us that, in 2000, 15 million hunting licenses were purchased, along with 30 million fishing permits. The Outdoor Bible apparently should not be confused with the older Sportsman's Bible, which, though lacking the camouflage cover, gives Christian encouragement to hunters.
Finally, there's The American Patriot's Bible, a book that promises to link passages of Scripture to pivotal moments in the history of the United States. Whether such linkages are intended to reveal prophetic fulfillment, we can't say. But one suspects it is several times more entertaining than The Bible Code and probably far less laborious in decoding.
¢ Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America underwent HIV/AIDS testing early in March. Most of them did, at any rate. Of sixty-five synod bishops, fifty-six showed up for the meeting where they were to be screened using an oral swab. The event was held, we are told, "to encourage other church leaders and lessen the stigma and discrimination that often surrounds HIV and AIDS."
About lessening "the stigma and discrimination that often surrounds," fair enough—but what's that about "other church leaders"? Marie C. Jerge, bishop of the ELCA's Upstate New York Synod, announced her hope that the Lutheran bishops' AIDS testing would motivate bishops of the United Methodist Church to undertake similar testing. One wonders why she thinks the Methodists need it so particularly. But let no one say the ELCA doesn't put its purse where its heart is. The fifty-six bishops also contributed $500 for making screenings available to others. That's almost $8.93 per bishop.
¢ Have an item you think we should use among our While We're At Its? Send it along to [firstname.lastname@example.org->mailto:email@example.com] or by mail to 156 Fifth Avenue, Suite 400, New York, NY, 10010. Those who suggest items we use will receive $25
and have their names listed in the source box at the end of The Public Square. Plus, of course, gain the satisfaction of contributing to the pages of First Things.
Public Square Sources:
Catholic Church bill, Connecticut Post, March 10, 2009. Jim Wallis on Obama's abortion delay, Washington Post, January 24, 2009. E.J. Dionne, Washington Post, January 26, 2009. Meryl Frank on abortion funding, U.S. Mission to the United Nations press release, March 4, 2009. Stimulus figures, CBS News, January 28, 2009. Rahm Emanuel on not wasting a crisis, New York Times, November 9, 2008. Hillary Clinton, New York Times, March 17, 2009. World Bank paper, The (Australian) Age, March 18, 2009.
While We're At It Sources:
Review of Lash on Dawkins, Times Literary Supplement, March 13, 2009. Obama on stem cells, White House press release, March 9, 2009. Clinton interview, RealClearPolitics, March 12, 2009. Ryan T. Anderson, Weekly Standard, March 9, 2009. Editorial on stem cells, New York Times, March 16, 2009. Yuval Levin, Washington Post, March 10, 2009. Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, March 12, 2009. Atheist rabbi, Associated Press, March 18, 2009. Wills on Ruden's translation, New York Review of Books, March 12, 2009. Maritain, America, September 22, 2008. View-Masters, The Economist, March 12, 2009. Dr. Steinberg's genetic shop, New York Daily News, March 2, 2009. Scottish euthanasia, International Task Force on Euthanasia & Assisted Suicide Update, 2009. AIDS testing, ELCA News Service, March 17, 2009.
Ryan T. Anderson, David P. Goldman, Stefan McDaniel, Edward T. Oakes, S.J., Ryan Sayre Patrico, Nathaniel Peters, Russell E. Saltzman, Matthew Schmitz, and Amanda Shaw.