Well, now, here’s something. In Holland, the federal orthographers¯and contemplate for a moment what it means to a nation to have official spell-checkers, employed by the government and armed with police powers; maybe they say "Just the vowels, ma’am," or "My name is Hans Brinker. I carry a dictionary," or "To Correct and Serve," or "Car Vierenvijftig, where are you?" or . . . um, where was I? Oh, yes, the official Dutch orthography commission has recently ordered that the word "Christ" no longer begin with a capital letter in any public appearance, lest people think the Dutch language endorses Christianity. Jesus christus huilde , as the Netherlanders will have to say.
Scooter Libby is due in court today . I reviewed his novel, The Apprentice , back when the Weekly Standard had just started as a magazine¯an astonishingly delicate book set in Japan in the early twentieth century, first published by the serious literary publisher Graywolf¯and we became friends, meeting in Washington for lunch every so often to talk about books and baseball. I’ve been too depressed about the whole roiling mess of the Plame Game to read everything about it. Has the New York Times been denounced as much as it deserves for deciding that the chance to get a scalp from the Bush administration is worth betraying its own reporter? Probably not. But someone should be on record saying that it is extremely doubtful a lawyer as smart as Lewis I. Libby would commit perjury in such a visible setting. And somebody should also be on record saying Scooter Libby is a good man who didn’t deserve this.
So, if confirmed, Judge Alito will become the fifth Catholic on the Supreme Court. There are two ways to run with that fact. One suggests that Catholics have finally been melted down into ordinary Americans. The other suggests that Americans have finally been melted down into Catholics.
The weight of the published evidence is on the side of assimilation. Over the last fifty years, innumerable books have documented the decline of Catholic identity. Oh, a few volumes dissented here and there. Remember Michael Novak’s Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics ? But the great sociological tracts of the 1950s set in place a vision of America as a great social and economic process that was certain to reduce every citizen to a common denominator¯and Catholics have always been the prime exhibit. From the crabgrass frontier of suburbia to the bobo-izing of the middle class, the notion seems to be that religious differences don’t have much chance against the American melting pot.
But think for a minute about the other possibility. Catholicism is playing a very peculiar role in American public discourse these days. The Catholic Church is, too, but that’s a different question. Catholicism, taken purely as a public philosophy, seems to have become the mark of the serious¯for good or for ill, depending on your view of the various issues on which it impinges, but always the symbol of seriousness about a topic.
So President Bush, reeling from the rejection by his base of somebody perceived as a lightweight, throws aside all the diversity qualifications that had been claimed for Harriet Miers, and picks yet another Catholic. And the reason is that Catholicism is taken by the nation as a sign of moral seriousness in any intellectual field such as the law.
Notice that qualifier: "in any intellectual field." Catholics are not perceived as particularly moral in their personal behavior, and with the fallout from the priest scandals, they won’t be for a long, long time. But Catholics in public life come with the credential of a certain intellectual coherence. It’s falsifiable, of course, and not determinative¯as the existence of pro-abortion Catholic senators demonstrates¯but the American public seems nonetheless to take it as an immediate sign of moral seriousness about the life of the mind.