So the rabbis came. Or, at least, a thousand of them went to their telephones to listen to a conference call with President Obama about healthcare reform. And they learned, in the fifteen-minute briefing on a Wednesday morning, August 19, that “we are God’s partners in matters of life and death.” “I am going to need your help in accomplishing necessary reform,” Obama told the rabbis—asking them to use their sermons to “tell the stories of healthcare dilemmas to illustrate what is at stake.”
The call was part of the president’s August push for the faltering healthcare plan, which included a webcast address to around 140,000 “religious”—meaning, mostly, Christians—later that same day. “This debate over health care,” he told the audience, “goes to the heart of who we are as a people.” And so, he said, “I need you to knock on doors, talk to neighbors, spread the facts, and speak the truth”—“There are some folks out there who are, frankly, bearing false witness.”
All of this is straightforward enough; the man has a political agenda, which is faltering, and thus he seeks new help. Indeed, the fact that he spent the day courting the people gathered by the self-proclaimed religious left is a sign that the president’s earlier attempts to sell health-care reform on purely economic grounds— Nationalized health care will save money!—has failed to convince enough people. And so he attempts, in the words of the New York Times, “to reframe the healthcare debate as ‘a core ethical and moral obligation.’”
But that line in the morning call to the rabbis, “we are God’s partners in matters of life and death”—it passes beyond the merely pushy and partisan into the deep realms of the disturbing, yes?
The Day for the Religious, as it was probably marked on the White House calendar for the healthcare campaign, had its share of ironies. The first information on the supposedly off-the-record morning phone call came from the Twitter feeds of at least three rabbis— twittering rabbis?—who were providing their friends a blow-by-blow account during the call, apparently forgetting that anyone could then see them online.
The president’s comment about our being God’s partners was Twittered by Rabbi Jack Moline of Virginia, who later erased the notes from the Twitter website, replacing them with the somewhat peculiar message: “My lack of tech literacy results in a huge mistake—apologies to all for my tweets this afternoon. They have been deleted.” My own sense is that no one capable of using the Twitter service—or even of using a noun like “tweets”—gets to plead computer incompetence as an excuse; but, reached by reporters, other participants confirmed the accuracy of Moline’s original notes.
The obvious irony, of course, is the simple, undeniable fact that if this Day for the Religious had been engineered by a conservative, we would have been deafened by the nation’s chattering classes, howling about an illegal—or, at least, unconstitutional, or, at any rate, unethical—violation of the separation of church and state.
As it happens, on Beliefnet.com, the indefatigable separationist Barry Lynn (the “Rev. Barry Lynn,” as he is always quick to note, head of the ban-all-public-religion organization, People for the American Way) was mocked, a little, for the kid gloves with which he handled Obama’s sudden August religiosity. And
he replied that he had, after all, told reporters that the day’s events “crossed the line,” even if he didn’t go full fury after the president. But, really, what Obama did wasn’t all that bad: “The comment about ‘bearing false witness,’” Lynn observed, “was clearly designed as a biblical reference. It wasn’t as sneaky as President Bush’s coded message about ‘power, wonder-working power’ he slipped into his 2003 State of the Union address right from the Baptist hymnal.”
Ah, right. President Obama’s lapse from Barry Lynn’s rhetorical taste wasn’t as bad as President Bush’s, because the new, Democratic president was actually quoting from the Bible, while the old, Republican president was referencing a Baptist hymn. Which is more of a threat to the secular republic, because . . . well, because hymns are more central to Christianity than the Bible? Or because more people will resonate with a line from a hymn than a line from the Bible? Or because only people on the religious right can carry a tune, and Bush was sneakily calling them to rise up singing, hymnals in their cruel, bloody hands, while Obama—ah, sweet Obama—was merely urging the religious left to denounce their fellow citizens in the words of Jesus himself, as found in their gentle Bibles, bound in limp black leather?
Fishing for Disinformation
That word denounce is chosen not entirely at random. On August 4, the White House set up an email box to receive “tips” about those who opposed health-care reform. “There is a lot of disinformation about health-insurance reform out there, spanning from control of personal finances to end-of-life care,” the official governmental website announced. “These rumors often travel just below the surface via chain emails or through casual conversation. Since we can’t keep track of all of them here at the White House, we’re asking for your help. If you get an email or see something on the web about health-insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.”
The quick negative reaction may have been caused by those phrasings about how the government wants to “keep track” of “casual conversation,” with its echoes of “Report Your Neighbors When They Commit Crimes Against the State.” By August 17, the White House had shut down the electronic tip box, citing worries about how the data would be used—which is, really, the second problem with the whole idea. The first is that it didn’t occur to anyone in the president’s office that this was a bad thing to do. Yes, the government gathering information about your conversations is a dangerous precedent, and data like that hungers to be acted on. But even worse is encouraging Americans to report their neighbors’ conversations to the government. We just aren’t like that, and here is something that genuinely does go to “the heart of who we are as a people.”
In God We Trust
And yet, the fact that the wrongness of this tip box didn’t occur to the White House suggests something more about the Obama presidency—something that bears on both the president’s Day for the Religious and the general healthcare debate. Yes, there are easy ironies that can be pointed out in all this, mostly of the outrageous-if-Republicans-do-it-but-allowable-if-Democrats-do-it kind. But those ironies have their root, their origin, in a primal feeling present in this White House—the profound sense that we are trustworthy and they are not.
In other words, it is not hypocrisy, in their minds, to admit that they would have taken to the streets if Bush’s government tried some of the things that Obama’s government is doing. When they set up a government program to encourage people to report the fishy in their midst, they mean to use it merely to combat disinformation—for they know they can be trusted not to use the gathered material for the purposes to which the previous administration would have wanted to use it. And when they quote the Bible, they are simply using a language their audiences will recognize—for they know they can be trusted not to build the theocracy at which they think their opponents aimed.
As far as religious rhetoric goes, one wishes they had shown the same willingness to trust their government during the Bush administration, and the Clinton administration, and the first Bush administration, and the Reagan, and the Carter, and back and back and back. It’s probably too much to ask, say, the Rev. Barry Lynn to understand that Christian rhetoric is woven so completely into the English language that to ban it would leave us with nothing but threadbare conversation. And it’s surely too much to ask him to understand that religious conviction is draped so fully over the American experience that to eradicate it would leave us with nothing but a naked public square, to use a very First Things phrase: a national forum that is stark, brutal, and alien.
Phrases like “bearing false witness” are what we know and how we speak. I confess I was a little creeped out by the request that the rabbis use their sermons to “tell the stories of healthcare dilemmas to illustrate what is a stake.” Not just the content but the structure of sermons is now being scripted from the White House, like some kind of homiletics class: “Use a story to connect with the people in the pews; reach them where they live.” But if Barack Obama wants to speak in religious words to Americans precisely as a religious people, who would say him nay?
The trouble is the particular version of religious language he speaks. Tevi Troy, who was deputy secretary of health and human services in the Bush administration, swiped at the president for using part of the Rosh Hashanah service—“On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die”—as the segue to the comment about how “we are God’s partners in matters of life and death.”
Bad enough, Troy remarked, is the fact that the Jewish New Year doesn’t come till September 18, which makes the president’s greeting, “ shanah tovah [happy new year] to all of you” something like “wishing people Merry Christmas on Thanksgiving.” (Several participants commented on the oddity of having “Deutschland Uber Alles” playing while the rabbis waited on hold, but the company hosting the call was probably providing generic “Classical Background Music” and didn’t recognize that something called, say, Haydn’s Kaiserquartett has had other uses.)
David Saperstein, another rabbi on the conference call, defended Obama’s remarks, writing: “The bottom line is that the president spoke in strong moral terms, referencing Jewish themes and ideas in a manner that showed deep knowledge, respect, interest, and understanding of our tradition and our values. It was a moving experience for me—and I suspect for almost every rabbi on the call.” But to do so, Saperstein had to soften considerably the point: not that we are God’s partners in matters of life and death, but merely “we are God’s partners in preserving life and delaying death.”
Perhaps we are. But only perhaps. The language of partnership with God is a tricky, dangerous one, easy to misunderstand—particularly if it is used by those whose rhetorical style is already messianic, as President Obama’s is. And, besides, he didn’t speak of preserving and delaying. He said flat out that we are “God’s partners in matters of life and death.”
The answer to which is simply no. We’re not. And when we imagine we are, we begin to think we get to decide who is to live and who is to die. We begin to think that a “panel of experts” can inscribe and seal in their book of healthcare rules how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created.
“Death panels,” Sarah Palin called such proposed groups of experts, and she was immediately and widely attacked for the phrase. Even National Review editorialized against her for the comment. But, given the state of likely panelists these days—the profession of medical ethicists evinces nearly uniform support for public-financed abortion and legalized euthanasia, for example—the phrase has some resonance. After all, on August 3, “a group of some of the most distinguished health economists in the country sent a letter to the president and Congress in support of the administration’s proposal for the establishment of an independent board of doctors and health experts to guide Medicare policy,” the White House recently reported.
The signers were “household names to health-policy wonks,” in the chatty boast of Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget and Obama’s point man on health-care reform. And, sure enough, the letter proclaimed the primarily economic purpose of the experts’ role in all this: “A properly structured Independent Medicare Advisory Council, with a congressional mandate and authority to do so, can reduce the rate of growth of health expenditures substantially.”
It may well have been comments such as Palin’s that caused the White House to ask for reports of fishy disinformation—and led Obama to speak of people bearing false witness. The proposed boards obviously aren’t death panels, designed by the pending legislation to ration health care by depriving the ill of services they would like. And yet, couldn’t they become that? Couldn’t they start to act that way, particularly when they’ve been told that their purpose is to save money?
The only real answer we’ve been given is the one that’s rooted in the same conviction from which blossomed the casual-conversation tip box—the belief that the people in the present administration are so uniquely trustworthy that they must be allowed to do what others should not. The finances of health care in this country are a mess and manifestly unfair; it’s hard to be opposed on principle to the idea that we need reform. But I don’t trust the potential administrators of a nationalized health care to be always benevolent. I don’t trust them to refrain from making doctors perform abortions. I don’t trust them not to use the opportunity for legalizing euthanasia. I don’t trust them to keep from using nationalized health care for social engineering.
I especially don’t trust them when they suppose that they are God’s full partners—partners in matters of life and death.
· On the front page of the Wall Street Journal, an article about thefts of hay in Texas, in which we’re told, “Searing summer temperatures and a lack of rain have turned pastures here brown and crunchy, depriving cattle of the green grass they usually live on this time of year. That has made hay, a particular kind of dried grass that is nutritious feed of livestock, a precious commodity.”
Think about that for a moment. The Wall Street Journal now thinks it has to define for its readers what hay is, in case they don’t know. Turns out to be “a particular kind of dried grass.” Often used, as it happens, to feed cows (a particular kind of large domesticated animal) on ranches (a particular kind of property on which nutritious livestock is kept).
· The dangers of email headers automatically generated by truncating the first line of the message: A publicity email I received today announced in its subject-line the news that the “Bishop of Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe Accepts The Gospel.” About time, I thought. But opening the email, I discovered that, in fact, the “Bishop of Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe Accepts The Gospel Tide’s Invitation to Speak at Fall Banquets.” Ah, well. The Gospel Tide is a sixty-three-year-old Mennonite ministry that produces Christian radio broadcasts. And the bishop of Christ Church in Zimbabwe will be speaking this fall at the organization’s banquets.
· In December 2007, when Belmont Abbey College discovered coverage for abortion, contraception, and sterilization tucked away in their employee health-insurance policy, they did what any Catholic college would—well, ought to—do, they had that coverage removed. As William Thierfelder, president of the College, explained, “The teaching of the Catholic Church on this moral issue is clear. The responsibility of the College as a Catholic college sponsored by the monks of Belmont Abbey to follow Church teaching is equally clear. There was no other course of action possible if we were to operate in fidelity to our mission and to our identity as a Catholic college.”
Now, after a complaint was filed by eight faculty members, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled that Belmont Abbey is discriminating against women: “By denying prescription contraception drugs, Respondent is discriminating based on gender because only females take oral prescription contraceptives. By denying coverage, men are not affected, only women.” Should the college and the faculty members who filed the complaint not be able to reach an acceptable settlement, the EEOC can file a lawsuit against the college in federal court.
In its efforts to eradicate discrimination in employment, the EEOC’s ruling tramples North Carolina law. While the state does require that health-insurance plans provide coverage for contraception, there is an exception for religious employers who may request from their insurer a health plan that excludes “coverage for prescription contraceptive drugs or devices that are contrary to the employer’s religious tenets.” In fact, before the eight faculty members at Belmont Abbey filed a complaint with the EEOC, they filed a complaint with the North Carolina Department of Insurance and the Department confirmed the college’s status as a religious institution exempt from the law.
Thierfelder has expressed confidence that the school’s “actions ultimately will be found to be in compliance with all federal and state laws and with the U.S. Constitution,” but even President Bush’s (now rescinded) conscience clause protected only hospitals and healthcare workers. We need, and we need now, a wide-ranging conscience exemption that reaches across the economic spectrum.
· Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Here in an interview is everything you could possibly want to know on the subject of Justice Ginsburg: “feminist legal agendas,” “women of means” with choices, plus “populations that we don’t want to have too many of.”
Q: If you were a lawyer again, what would you want to accomplish as a future feminist legal agenda?
GINSBURG: Reproductive choice has to be straightened out. There will never be a woman of means without choice anymore. That just seems to me so obvious. The states that had changed their abortion laws before Roe [to make abortion legal] are not going to change back. So we have a policy that affects only poor women, and it can never be otherwise, and I don’t know why this hasn’t been said more often.
Q: Are you talking about the distances women have to travel because in parts of the country, abortion is essentially unavailable, because there are so few doctors and clinics that do the procedure? And also, the lack of Medicaid for abortions for poor women?
GINSBURG: Yes, the ruling about that surprised me. [ Harris v. McRae—in 1980 the court upheld the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of Medicaid for abortions.] Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion. Which some people felt would risk coercing women into having abortions when they didn’t really want them. But when the court decided McRae, the case came out the other way. And then I realized that my perception of it had been altogether wrong.
The interview was softball. Which populations—the ones we don’t want to have too many of—might she have had in mind? If abortion proved ineffective in keeping them under control, did she have other methods in mind? What does Medicaid-paid abortions for poor women—when connected to “populations we don’t want too many of”—actually suggest to her? If “women of means” have choices poor women don’t, is it choice she wishes to extend to the poor or population reduction? All these and others went unasked. Ginsburg’s future feminist legal agenda turns out to be nothing more than the old feminist legal agenda: abortion, and abortion, and abortion.
· A story has been running in Dallas about “Baby Bella,” a baby abandoned in an apartment complex hallway moments following her birth. The mother, who had disguised her pregnancy to relatives and to her ex-boyfriend, came forward later to Child Protective Services saying, “I made a mistake.” She is facing child-endangerment charges that carry a possible two- to twenty-year prison sentence and a $10,000 fine.
We cannot help but remark that had the woman demanded a late-term abortion, she wouldn’t be facing any legal troubles at all—which underscores the nutty convolutions of logic that abortion imposes on society. The only factor here that determines what happens to a pregnant woman is where and under what circumstances her baby is discarded. An abortuary is permissible; the hallway of an apartment complex is not. Of course there is a difference, but perhaps it is not the obvious one. The mother at the abortion clinic never has an opportunity to see her child alive when she realizes, “I made a mistake.” Baby Bella was placed in the care of her biological father, and we are minded to remember both him and Baby Bella’s mother in prayer.
· “We’re supposed to be the most multicultural city in the world and it doesn’t seem terribly inclusive,” Denny Alexander explained. It, as it turns out, is ten-year-old playground equipment found in two parks in the west end of Toronto. The offending objects depict the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, complete with cute pictures of animals in male-female pairings. In the most multicultural city in the world, that just won’t do. The equipment won’t be removed immediately, but the city had decided that, when it “wears out,” it won’t be replaced. “Toronto’s motto is Diversity our Strength,” wrote councilman Adam Giambrone. “City policies across the board look to reflect our multicultural city. One way of doing that is not focusing on any specific cultural or religious tradition.” You really can’t better that line about how awful it is for an inclusive city to, um, include something biblical.
· Believe it or not, sodium silicate (“liquid glass” to its friends) is in the news. The federal government gave this unassuming compound a huge boost in popularity by making it the official poison for killing fuel-inefficient cars under its now, alas, bankrupt “Cash-for-Clunkers” program. In a detailed, 136-page manual distributed to dealers, the government mandated that “clunkers” be permanently disabled by running the engine with sodium silicate instead of oil, thereby abrading the engine beyond repair.
Suppliers happily scrambled to meet the sudden demand (the Wall Street Journal reported that one distributor was working “sixteen-hour days”), and across the nation, mechanics were energized by the prospect of a novel thrill: “At dealerships across America, mechanics accustomed to fixing engines are battling for the chance to ruin them. ‘Everybody wants to go first, so I’m probably going to have to make them draw straws,’ says Jim Burton of Randy Curnow Buick Pontiac GMC in Kansas City, Kansas. As service manager, however, he might reserve that thrill for himself. ‘I can’t wait,’ he says.”
By all accounts, the prescribed method is quick, safe, and effective. At one dealership in Kansas, sodium silicate killed a 2002 Ford Windstar and a 1999 Jeep in approximately two minutes. (A 1988 Jeep held out for six minutes. “Sometimes,” observed the dealership president, “those old engines are hardest to kill.”) The simplicity, efficiency, and dispatch with which this debut federal euthanasia program was administered should help quiet fears that the federal government is incompetent to administer health care.
· Fr. Kevin Thew Forrester’s selection as bishop of the Episcopal Church’s diocese of Northern Michigan hit a snag in July when—as announced by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori—a majority of the Episcopal bishops and diocesan committees refused to give their necessary consent to his election. Forrester will not be a bishop, and we can’t think why not. His rejection, we learn, is entirely due to doctrinal worries over his orthodoxy. Forrester reportedly denies the existence of satan, doesn’t believe God sent Christ to die for the sins of the world, accepts universal salvation, received Buddhist “lay ordination” in 2004, and once read the Qur’an in worship declaring it “the Word of God.” Now surely, as more than one Episcopal bishop one time or another has accepted one or more of the propositions at issue, perhaps it is a case of Forrester believing too many of them all at once?
· The United Methodist Church’s conferences are voting on a measure that would open church membership to active homosexuals. Twenty-seven of forty-four regional governing bodies reporting voted no. There are sixty-two conferences in total (not all have reported their votes), and the proposal requires support from two-thirds of the conferences for adoption.
The United Methodists have another seventy-two conferences in Africa, the Philippines, and Europe. Those votes are ongoing, and the results will not be known until the spring of next year. Observers, however, point out that African opposition is a large factor in UMC efforts to revise how Methodists officially regard homosexuality. With American Methodists declining and developing-world Methodists growing, conservative African Christian influence will only increase. Coincidently, or perhaps not so coincidentally, the conferences were also required to wade through some twenty-three constitutional amendments that would have altered relations between American Methodists and other Methodists, permitting national churches—like that of the U.S.—to “contextualize” outreach for homosexuals, among other things. Under the same two-thirds rule for adoption, none passed. The UMC has eight million members in America and another three and half million members outside the United States.
· Rachel’s Tears, Hannah’s Hopes: Liturgies and Prayers for Healing from Loss Related to Childbearing and Childbirth to the Enriching our Worship is a liturgical supplement adopted at the Episcopal Church’s 2009 General Convention specifically addressing women and men experiencing guilt and a sense of sin from abortion. Initiated in 2003 by Georgette Forney, president of Anglicans for Life, it took six years to convince Episcopalians that some women and men may indeed come to suffer for their role in securing an abortion. There is a deep, deep reluctance, previously noted on these pages, to acknowledge that women receiving an abortion may one day come to regret it.
· One opponent to the liturgical resource, the Rev. Nina Churchman in Denver, Colorado, found herself “sickened to discover that the rite for abortion is couched wholly in terms of sin and transgression.” Well it is a service of confession and reconciliation. The rite is expressly intended for those women and men who have come, belatedly, to recognize the sinfulness of aborting their very human unborn babies. One rather presumes there must be something to confess if there is to be reconciliation with God. The Rev. Churchman believes nothing of the sort. She was especially distressed that the order includes such phrases as “I seek God’s forgiveness...” and “God rejoices that you have come seeking God’s merciful forgiveness...”
· In point of fact, says the Rev. Churchman, “women should be able to mourn the loss of an aborted fetus without having to confess anything. God, unlike what the liturgy states, also rejoices that women facing unplanned pregnancies have the freedom to carefully choose the best option—birth, adoption, or abortion—for themselves and their families.” Whether God rejoices over choice is a very much disputed assertion, but we are confident in asserting that among the “best” options among Churchman’s choices, the preferred option of the unborn child is not consulted.
· Possibly you noticed the goofy formulation in that Episcopal rite for abortion: “God rejoices that you have come seeking God’s merciful forgiveness.” We’re told it could have been worse. Initial drafts included invocations of the “Mothering God” and “Daughter Jesus.” By comparison, the God who rejoices in the other God’s merciful forgiveness doesn’t sound too bad.
· Georgette Fortney, Anglicans for Life president, took up the Episcopal confessional rite for abortion and took it up very personally. She obtained an abortion when she was sixteen, and it was not until many years later that the weight of it hit her. She began asking for an Episcopal healing service for women like her. “This is a ministry,” she told us, “that is necessary in the [Episcopal] church. So many people hurt over it and experience a great distance from God. They have come to believe this is the ‘unforgivable sin.’ They need an opportunity to know God can and will forgive and love them.”
· Last month’s issue of First Things was spotted by a reader in the New Age section at the Barnes & Noble in Overland Park, Kansas. We can’t think how it ended up in that part of the bookstore, but perhaps the manager concluded that anything with “apocalypse” on the cover belonged there. Think of it: A customer trying to dope out the real meaning behind 188.8.131.52.0, the last date in the baktun cycle of the Mayan Long Count calendar (December 21, 2012), instead walks out with a copy of René Girard under his arm. It’s the end of the world as we know it.
· Every six months or so another two or three books by Benedict XVI show up from Ignatius Press. Here’s a roundup of the latest.
Faith and the Future is a collection of radio addresses Ratzinger delivered in 1969 that draw heavily on his then recently published Introduction to Christianity. Here he argues that faith is a form of trust required for knowledge, a decision to embark on the adventure of loving God and entrusting our lives to him. Faith, he says, may never rely solely on “a bundle of philosophical certainties,” but instead to “prove its own legitimacy in advance” it must reflect “on its own inner reasonableness and by presenting itself as a reasonable whole” it may “be offered to men as a possible and responsible choice.”
A brief discussion of faith in Christ over manmade progress follows, after which Ratzinger reflects on the Church at the time of the Enlightenment and its similarity to the postconciliar Church, chiefly in the sterility of renewal based exclusively on rationalism in contrast to a more organic reappropriation of tradition. Ratzinger’s calls for fidelity to Christ over the politics and demands of the world stir the heart, and his predictions of a smaller, less influential but more devout Church continue to ring true forty years later.
Next, Saint Paul, a collection of papal audiences that together offers a basic, short introduction to the Apostle’s life and writings. These are not scholarly, but pastoral. Benedict pays special attention to Christology and the doctrine of justification, teaching old truths with interesting historical notes. On justification, for instance, he notes that the wall of legal and cultural distinctions keeping Jews from corruption by pagan religions was no longer necessary because of Christ. Because Christ unites us “ with and in the one God . . . the wall is no longer necessary; our common identity within the diversity of cultures is Christ, and it is he who makes us just. Being just simply means being with Christ and in Christ. And this suffices. Further observances are no longer necessary.”
Finally there’s Credo for Today: What Christians Believe, a “greatest hits” collection of passages from Benedict’s most famous works on topics of basic Christianity. On faith and love, for example, he writes: “For what faith basically means is just that this shortfall that we all have in our love is made up by the surplus of Jesus Christ’s love, acting on our behalf. He simply tells us that God himself has poured out among us a superabundance of his love and has thus made good in advance all our deficiency. Ultimately, faith means nothing other than admitting that we have this kind of shortfall; it means opening our hand and accepting a gift. In its simplest and innermost form, faith is nothing but reaching that point in love at which we recognize that we, too, need to be given something. . . . To that extent, faith is already present in and with true loving; it simply represents that impulse in love which leads to its finding its true self: the openness of someone who does not insist on his own capabilities, but is aware of receiving something as a gift and of standing in need of it.”
· We knew about evangelical romance novels and Mormon vampire fiction, but we didn’t know about Beverly Lewis. The author of The Secret, The Missing, and the forthcoming The Telling, is acclaimed as “the top name in Amish fiction.” What will they think of next?
· The Office of Religious Life at the University of Southern California extends official recognition to some eighty-six campus religious organizations. Sixty of them are Christian, seven Jewish, four interfaith, three each for Buddhists and Muslims, and one group each for nine other organizations with other affiliations. So who should be the next director of Religious Life on a campus that is largely Christian with small but visible minorities of Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim students?
The obvious answer: Varun Soni, glowingly described as “the first Hindu primary spiritual leader at any American university.” “I feel proud,” Soni said. “I feel like I can be a proponent of Hinduism in the public sphere.” And why not? Except, of course, imagine the outcry at the school if a Catholic priest, appointed director, had proudly said that the job made a proponent of Catholicism in the public sphere.
· The headline from a recent Newsweek article by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend reads: “Why Barack Obama represents American Catholics better than the Pope does.” An alternative does suggest itself. “Why Barack Obama represents Kathleen Kennedy Townsend better than the Pope does.”
· My Sister’s Keeper is a film about Anna, an eleven-year-old girl genetically designed by her parents to be her ailing sister’s ready organ bank. Tired of hanging around only for the purpose of sending a steady supply of body parts on to her sister—a kidney this time—Anna initiates a lawsuit against her parents seeking “medical emancipation” so that she never again has to worry about her parents’ harvesting of her organs.
Movie reviewer Roger Ebert, writing a review of the film in the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times, suggests the movie is, really, “a practical parable about the debate between pro-choice and pro-life. If you’re pro-life, you would require Anna to donate her kidney, although there is a chance she could die, and her sister doesn’t have a good prognosis. If you’re pro-choice, you would support Anna’s lawsuit.”
Come again? Ebert’s characterization of pro-life vs. pro-choice views is inept at best, simplistically stupid at worst, and heavy handed in all events. The pro-life segment of the audience would demand Anna’s submission to medical utilitarianism—you exist, therefore you donate? The pro-choice portion would excuse Anna of any familial obligation—it’s your sister, no skin off your nose? Besides, movie parables are rarely practical.
· Researchers have learned that unborn babies at thirty-weeks gestation are forming short-term memories. By the time unborn children reach thirty-four weeks in development, they are “able to store information and retrieve it four weeks later.” Doubtless, this is something to put in the memory bank for later retrieval.
· Periodic suggestions are made to remove “In God We Trust” from U.S. coinage and currency—a motto regarded as a horrible transgression against separation of church and state in some quarters. Conversely, not a few regard removal as a naked assault against religion. We haven’t got a dog in this fight, frankly, but viewing removal as an attack against religion is a doubtful premise. The motto in fact stirred up all sorts of mixed reaction when it first appeared on the now obsolete and short-lived U.S. two-cent piece in 1864, the result of a proposal offered by a Congregationalist minister that such a motto would boost Union morale in the Civil War. President Lincoln passed it on to the treasury department and there you go.
Not everyone was pleased and it has come in for jabs and jibes ever since. President Theodore Roosevelt went so far as to remove it from gold coinage in 1907, but relented following an ensuing uproar. But even before that, the motto was the target of frequent barbs. Even the famous Morgan silver dollar, first minted in 1878, wasn’t spared. The Christian Union at the time suggested instead “Forgive Us Our Debts” might be a better one.
Another critic, noting the silver content was worth about ninety-two cents at the time, offered a footnote: “At About 8 percent Off.” The Hartford Courant would have preferred “One Hundred Cents” but added regretfully, “that would be more of a whopper than the other.”
· Counting money, Time magazine breathlessly the reader informs, increases one’s social happiness and, confirmed by a separate study, also serves as a pain reliever. Just two more reasons, as we count them, for you to count your money when renewing your subscription to First Things.
Public Square Sources: God’s Partners, Ben Smith in Politico, August 19, 2009. Barry W. Lynn, Beliefnet.com, August 24, 2009. Fishy Email Box, New York Times, August 17, 2009. Tevi Troy, National Review Online, August 20, 2009. David Saperstein, Religious Action Center, August 24, 2009. Sarah Palin, ABC News, August 7, 2009. Editorial against Palin, National Review, August 17, 2009. Orszag and IMAC, Office of Management and Budget, August 4, 2009.
While We’re At It Sources: Hay Rustling, Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2009. Ginsberg, New York Times, July 12, 2009. Bishop’s Email, Gospel Tide news release, August 19, 2009. Money’s Motto, Morgan Silver Dollars: A Complete History and Price Guide. Baby Bella, Dallas Morning News, July 21, 2009. Belmont Abbey, LifeSiteNews.com, August 14, 2009. Toronto’s Parks, Toronto Star, May 28, 2009. Killing Cars, Wall Street Journal, August 4, 2009. Not Bishop Forrester, OneNewsNow.com, July 28, 2009. Methodists, UMC News, August 2009. Rite for abortion, Episcopal Life Online, August 2009. Georgette Fortney, FIRST THINGS telephone interview. Fetal Memory, Washington Times July 16, 2009. Amish Fiction, Publisher’s Weekly, July 27, 2009. Hindu Chaplain, Daily Trojan (June 3, 2009). Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Newsweek, July 9, 2009. Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, June 24, 2009. Counting Money, Time, Jul 25, 2009.
WWAI Tips: Lawrence Blume, Lee Cerling, Ken Colston, Meghan Duke, Michael Linton, Stefan McDaniel, Emily Nelson, Stephen R. Ogden, Ryan Sayre Patrico, Nathaniel Peters, Santiago Ramos, Russell E. Saltzman, Gregory Wong-Hing.