In a December 30 posting in this space, I commented on some intemperate and inaccurate remarks by Jeffrey Hart of Dartmouth. Referring to the F IRST T HINGS symposium, “The End of Democracy?”, he described me as a “Jacobinical priest” and “easy chair revolutionary.” He has now added that the symposium reflects “the spirit of Che Guevara.” My friend Jeff, be it noted, is a great proponent of civility in public discourse. The exchanges over his Wall Street Journal essay on the state of conservatism continue on the New Criterion weblog, which can be found here .
Jeff’s attack on F IRST T HINGS and on me personally came in the course of his response to Father Gerry Murray’s very persuasive critique of what he had written about the “radicalism” of trying to overturn Roe . Now Roger Kimball, co-editor of New Criterion , has weighed in with a civil but devastating examination of Hart’s misreading of Edmund Burke on political prudence. The unlimited abortion license, Hart claimed, is an entrenched social fact and, in addition to invoking Burke, he invoked Lenin to the effect that facts are stubborn things.
Now Jeff has returned with further comment. He writes, “Richard Neuhaus understates what actually happened in his magazine First Things in 1999.” (At the risk of appearing to quibble, the symposium was in November, 1996.) The symposium was titled “The End of Democracy?” and Jeff writes, “[Neuhaus] now says that some people thought the question mark unjustified—that is, they thought democracy in fact had ended with Roe vs. Wade!” No, Jeff, that is not what I said. Check out the December 30 posting here and you will see that I said this: “Many excitable critics at the time tended to ignore the question mark. ” It would seem that Jeff Hart is among the excitable critics of the symposium who are determined to ignore the question mark.
Jeff writes: “Robert Bork objected to Neuhaus’s observation that we ‘have reached the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.’” Stubborn fact: I never said that, and I rather doubt that Robert Bork ever said that I said that. I said that, if the judicial usurpation of politics, as exemplified by Roe , continued unabated, we could reach a point at which the American polity would become an illegitimate regime. The manifest purpose of the symposium was to contribute to abating the judicial usurpation of politics. Those with a greater respect for facts than Jeffrey Hart has exhibited in these exchanges are invited to press the “Search” button above and read the entire symposium in order to find out who said what.
In support of his claim that Roe is socially, legally, and politically entrenched, Jeff concludes his latest volley with this: “A CNN/USA Today poll has shown that 65 percent of the American people now oppose repeal of Roe while only 29 percent support repeal, more than 2-1.” This, too, is deeply misleading. Those who have been following the pertinent survey research over the years have frequently pointed out that polling questions which depict Roe as permitting abortion in “some cases” or in “the first three months of pregnancy” typically result in a majority opposed to overturning Roe . Most people still do not understand the reach of the abortion regime imposed by Roe . When asked, if they favor limitations on the abortion license—e.g. waiting periods, parental notification, only in the first three months or in instances of rape, incest, or direct threat to the life of the mother, etc.—it typically turns out that approximately 75 percent of the people think abortion should not be legal for the reasons that 95 percent of abortions are procured. The defenders of women’s “reproductive rights” (a phrase adopted by Jeff Hart) are rightly anxious about the future of the unlimited abortion license imposed by Roe .
I am afraid that Jeffrey Hart has not distinguished himself in his WSJ essay or in his responses to critics. The rejoinders by Father Murray and Roger Kimball, however, are very much worth reading.
The book by Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over?, continues to generate interesting discussions. Carl Trueman, who teaches church history at the conservative Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, reviews the book on a website called Reformation21. He writes:
The major problem with the book, and one which significantly skews some of the analysis, is the central place it accords to the relationship between Catholicism and evangelicalism. Thus, at the outset, we have an institutional church, with clearly defined authority structures, creeds, and an identifiable history ¯ in other words, a self-conscious identity ¯ being discussed in relation to a movement which lacks all of these things and is really only unified by a somewhat nebulous and ill-defined field of family resemblances ¯ and family resemblances which have, over the years, become increasingly vague. This is at its most obvious, and acute, in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) discussions. In these, while both groups of participants were arguably self-appointed, the Catholics did at least stand as representatives of a church and knew for whom and for what they stood; whom exactly were the evangelicals representing? From their very inception, therefore, the ECT discussions were built upon an important category mistake: Catholics came to the table committed by church affiliation to a clear set of doctrinal principles; that commitment gave them a place to stand from which they could engage. The evangelicals had no such thing, no place to stand, nowhere from which to engage. This probably goes a long way to explaining the fact that, in terms of doctrinal agreement, the discussions appeared to achieve so much but actually did little more than demonstrate the "mere Christianity" perspective to which an eclectic, parachurch movement like evangelicalism inevitably tends; and thus they exposed the inability of such a movement to be truly distinctive when faced with a coherent, comprehensive, and self-conscious church body. . . .
Trueman has a point and makes it well. There is what might be called an “ecclesial assymetry” in ECT. But the evangelical participants in ECT do have a place to stand, and take their stand on the more creedal forms of the Protestant tradition. (See, for instance, Timothy George’s ” The Pattern of Christian Truth ” in the June/July issue of F IRST T HINGS .) But it is undoubtedly the case that, while that tradition is embodied in evangelical participants, it is not secured in any ecclesial reality comparable to the Catholic Church. Trueman continues:
Is the Reformation over? Maybe a better question we evangelicals should ask ourselves is, Why we do not possess such a thorough, clear, and God-centered account of our faith as the Catechism offers to Roman Catholics? The answer, I would suggest, is very simple and straightforward: one cannot abandon elaborate theology as a point of principle in order to build a transdenominational movement and then hope to produce something akin to the Catholic Catechism which, by definition, requires an elaborate theology to express; it simply cannot be done. And that takes us back to the problem at the heart of the discussion as set up in this book: we are comparing apples and oranges¯a self-conscious church body, which feels no shame over its history and its clear doctrinal positions, and a transdenominational movement which cannot agree on more than the merest of Christianity.
In addition to which :
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